The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

Additional Thoughts on "The Etiquette of Equality"


I second Orin's suggestion that it is worth reading The Etiquette of Equality, by Ben Eidelson. I saw the paper presented at a workshop last year and have thought about it regularly since then. A couple of additional thoughts:

The fact that there is an etiquette norm (or contested etiquette norm) against using particular words or making particular analogies is for me not the end of the inquiry. Sometimes there are etiquette norms that we can be justified in violating—indeed, we might even think it important to violate and try to undermine them if they are too nefarious. Maybe we refuse to bow to a foreign prince, or refuse to obey gendered clothing norms.

Or maybe we insist on exercising our right to free speech, even in cases where it is offensive, precisely because of the importance of that right to free speech. Or maybe not. The etiquette analysis helps us see why exercising that right is costly, and helps us process a negative reaction, but it doesn't tell us which etiquette norms we should have or when we are morally justified in violating them.

The analysis also reminds me of a related analysis from Scott Alexander, Give Up Seventy Percent Of The Way Through The Hyperstitious Slur Cascade (which, to be clear, I don't understand Eidelson, Orin, or even me to endorse). Alexander notes that norms that a particular word is a slur, or other such norms against using particular words and phrases, have a "hyperstitious" structure:

A hyperstition is a belief which becomes true if people believe it's true. For example, "Dogecoin is a great short-term investment and you need to buy it right now!" is true if everyone believes it is true; lots of people will buy Dogecoin and it will go way up. "The bank is collapsing and you need to get your money out right away" is likewise true; if everyone believes it, there will be a run on the bank. . . .

[various examples ensue]

As Alexander argues, after a certain point, most people will comply with social norms not to use particular words and phrases and symbols unless they are unusually insensitive to those norms, and then after a certain further point, will comply unless they are actively hostile to those norms. At that point the norm is strongly self-reinforcing. But on the way there, there can be a lot of conflict and confusion.

Alexander concludes:

So one thing I think about a lot is: when do I join the cascade?

I can't never join the cascade. I'm not going to refer to the Japanese as "Japs" out of some kind of never-joining-hyperstitious-slur-cascade principle. This would be the dumbest possible hill to die on. I would lose all my social credibility and maybe even actually sadden one or two real Japanese people.

And if I'm the last person to join a hyperstitious slur cascade, then I'll probably do pretty badly. I don't think we've reached 100% fixation on nobody-uses-Confederate-flags-innocently. A relative of mine who lives in the South and has no known political opinions still has a Confederate flag sticker in his room. But I wouldn't want to emulate him, even if I had some good reason to like Southernness.

On the other hand, the people who want to be the first person in a new cascade, like USC's social work department, are contemptible. And the people who join when it's only reached 1% or 5%, out of enthusiastic conformity or pre-emptive fear, are pathetic.

(none of this applies to things being done for good reasons—banning actually harmful things—I'm just skeptical that this process gets used for that very often)

I think I usually join about 70% of the way through. Realistically, success is already overdetermined by 50%—but I want to make them work for it and make it as annoying for them as possible. This is a compromise between principle and self-preservation, but I don't know a better way to do it. I will fight harder when it's something useful and important instead of just some words, and there might be some things—like the example of being openly gay, used above—where it's worth never giving in to pressure to taboo something, and trying to preserve your right to keep doing it until you can start a virtuous respectability cascade cycle.

I'm writing this post so that the next time someone comments with "did you know that term you used, which was the standard until six months ago and which nobody was ever offended by until then, is now considered offensive, why don't you use term XYZ instead?", I can give my honest answer: "Because it's less than 70% of the way through the hyperstitious slur cascade, and that's the boundary that I've set for myself."

Again, I am not particularly committed to a 70% or any other threshold, but I recommend reading both Eidelson, and Alexander, for those interested in these issues.