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E-Pluribus | February 6, 2023
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but chill out about words; what hoaxes can tell us about society; and watch out for falling acorns.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Pamela Paul: ‘Hip Hip Hooray!’ Cheering News for Free Speech on Campus
Sorry, no trigger warnings here at Pluribus. Plow ahead at your own risk and read Pamela Paul’s latest for The New York Times.
Is the media addicted to bad news? It’s not a dumb question, nor are you crazy to ask. After all, we follow tragedy like hounds on the chase, whether it’s stories about teenagers who commit suicide, victims of domestic violence or survivors of accidents in which someone winds up quadriplegic, crippled for life or confined to a wheelchair. We report on the hurdles former convicts face after incarceration, hostile attitudes toward immigrants and the plight of prostitutes and the homeless. Given the perilous state of the planet, you might consider this barrage of ill tidings to be tone-deaf.
Well, I’m happy to report good news, for a change. You might call it a corrective, or a sanity check, but whatever you call it (and what you can call things here is crucial), there have been several positive developments on American campuses. The chilling effects of censorship and shaming that have trapped students between the competing diktats of “silence is violence” and “speech is violence” — the Scylla and Charybdis of campus speech — may finally be showing some cracks.
Matters looked especially grim in December, when the internet discovered the 13-page dystopically titled “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” A kind of white paper on contemporary illiberalism, it listed 161 verboten expressions, divided into categories of transgression, including “person-first,” “institutionalized racism” and the blissfully unironic “imprecise language.” The document offered preferred substitutions, many of which required feats of linguistic limbo to avoid simple terms like “insane,” “mentally ill” and — not to beat a dead horse, but I’ll add one more — “rule of thumb.” Naturally, it tore its way across the internet to widespread mockery despite a “content warning” in bold type: “This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.”
Read it all.
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Sarah Haider: Why Hate Crime Hoaxes Are Good
“Good” may be a stretch, but at her Hold That Thought Substack, Sarah Haider makes the case for hate crime hoaxes. Not for the hoaxes themselves, of course, but for the positive signs for society that the ability to provoke outrage with such hoaxes.
[H]ate crimes proliferate in an intolerant society. Hate crime hoaxes proliferate in a society that hates that intolerance.
That sounds counter-intuitive, but it must be true. In order for a hoax to “work”, it must be presented to an audience that would find the act both believable and appalling. There is no use, for example, for a single Jew in Nazi Germany to make up a hate crime—not many would have found the idea objectionable in the first place. But if the single Jew becomes a small community, the incentive for a hoax can exist. Now, at least among a small group, the fraudster can expect both belief and support. The incentives to invent victimization increase as the base of sympathy towards the victimized group increases. We can invert that same scenario to illustrate this as well: There were countless lies made up to defame Jews in Nazi Germany among the mainstream German population, which worked despite clear evidence of Jewish persecution.
There are caveats to this, of course. It is possible, for example, to have a society so divided and fractious that it is both extremely hateful and also brimming with people who hate hate. But as a general rule, hoaxes are one indication of the social power of a group within a larger community. Jussie Smollet could benefit from a victimization story in 2020 America, not in 1950 America (nor, it is worth mentioning, 2020 Saudi Arabia). More interestingly, if there is a “believable perpetrator”, hoaxes may also be evidence of the stigmatization of another group.
Read it all here.
Alex Trembath: White Noise and Climate Anxiety
All these years later, the sky is still falling on Chicken Little. To his credit, Danish librarian Justin Mathias Thiele gave us all a heads up about this (Thiele is credited with popularizing the fairy tale), but as Alex Trembath writes at Discourse Magazine, the climate change issue has produced yet another apocalyptic narrative that is causing unwarranted gloom in its hearers.
[I]t has become difficult to distinguish climate metaphor from climate reality. When media figures and political leaders remind us that natural disasters are becoming radically more frequent and severe—even though the empirical trends tell a different story—it can be all too easy to cast ourselves in their apocalyptic narrative. So even for those of us who sit in the comforts of modern wealth and infrastructure, with a calming scientific summary of our relative climate safety only a few clicks away, when someone says “climate catastrophe,” we fall to the floor and take cover.
This is the uncomfortable truth, the double-edged sword wielded by scientists. Given the relatively flat trendlines in extreme weather over the decades, and the declining body counts, it is entirely thanks to scientists that we are conscious of climate risk in the first place. Without Svante Arrhenius’ discovery of the greenhouse effect in the 1890s, or atmospheric carbon measurements from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, or climate change expert James Hansen’s congressional testimony in 1988, and the amplification of these findings by science communicators and the media, our collective understanding or even awareness of climate change might be greatly reduced.
Like the connection between carcinogens and cancer, or mRNA vaccines and immune response, climate science fills in the gaps between our biological senses and our understanding of reality. Science makes something invisible into something visible, something inscrutable into something comprehensible. It can also make something banal into something terrifying, something metaphorical into something visceral.
Read the whole thing.
Selected excerpts from a Richard Gunderman piece at Heterodox Academy:
Via Wesley Yang, a story that seem unlikely to find its way into mainstream reporting on transgender issues:
Finally, there’s a new video game out based on Harry Potter, and some video game reviewers are nervous. While Andrew Egger’s Tweet is a paraphrase, “whether it’s ethical to play is a separate but still very important question” is actually in there: