Intro. [Recording date: September 11, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: Today we're going to be discussing Internet shaming--the power of groups and related topics, based on a piece that Megan McArdle wrote for Bloomberg View that we'll put a link up to.... As you point out at the beginning of your piece, people have always said and done embarrassing things that live on. And hurt their reputation. The Internet seems to make a difference, though. How?
Megan McArdle: Well, it's the scale. Right? You see this in business all the time, the scaling problem. So, things that work very well at a small level don't work so well when you try to make them bigger. And the example I always give is trying to agree on where to have lunch. Right? Let's say you want to have lunch with three friends. You get an email thread, maybe it takes a little bit of time; but eventually you are going to find somewhere that you agree to meet for lunch--pick a time--and that's going to be easy. Well, if you have 200 friends, that's not a very good way to do it. Once you get a certain number of people, you need someone to pick when the lunch is and arrange it. You don't just say, 'Hey, guys, where are would you like to eat? And when would be good?' because you will never get that problem solved. Internet shaming is a lot like community shaming. Right? It's a lot like--it's a little bit like a small bound. My mother, who grew up in a small town, said, 'You know, you always felt that you could go behind a window, close the shades, and sneeze; and the next day someone would ask you how your cold was.' And, there's always been a lot of prying. There have been people whose lives were wracked because they did something embarrassing in their small town and everyone knew about it, and no one ever forgets. I still remember being with my grandmother, at church with my grandmother, and hearing two women say something like, 'Well, did you see Lillian last night?' and the other one said, 'Well, yeah. We know how her people are. You remember when her grandmother used to-- Right?' So, there's always been these long memories. There's always been these punishments that are handed out to people who kind of defy community norms. But the difference is that, look: If you got a big trouble in your local town or city, at the last resort, you could move. You could go to another city. You could start over. And people did. I mean, you know--it's an old joke in novels is the only thing you could do is change your name, move away, and hope to live it down. But people actually did that. That was a way of getting away of the mistakes of your past. And if you look at the Internet now, first of all, just the number--and also, I should say, the ease. It's not just scale. It's also the kind of transaction cost of shaming and punishing someone. Right? It is really cheap on Twitter, to get on Twitter and say someone should be fired. It takes you 3 seconds of time. It's enjoyable; you show the right moral character for all of your friends who are watching you. And then you go on with your day. Even in a small town, to gossip about someone required standing around and talking to your friends; and then you took the risk that there would be retaliation because those people knew who you were and could get back at you. You knew that there was a risk that it could happen to you. You were kind of embedded in a social network. On the scale that we have now, there's one Internet. There's nowhere to move away from it. You know, where does Justine Sacco, who was the person who tweeted a tasteless joke about AIDS but was obviously the kind of thing that people say in an off moment with friends--they make tasteless jokes. Their friends roll their eyes and give them a look. And they're like, 'Sorry, just kidding.' But, she unfortunately made it on Twitter. Somehow, it escaped--it was a relatively small-follower Twitter account. It went viral. And, she was on a plane when she made it; and so, by the time she landed, she had been fired. Right? She was on a long flight to South Africa, I believe. Where does James Damore, who wrote the Google memo--where does he go to get away? This is going to follow him every time he goes to get a job: employer's going to google him and this is going to come up. Every time he goes on a date, his date is going to google him and this is going to come up. You can't escape it. And it's forever. Right? People used to say, if the New York Times wrote something about you, that maybe it turned out not to be true. The New York Times made a mistake; they identified you as some sort of terrible person. Well, 10 years later, 20 years later, who was going to remember that? Well, now, thanks to Google, everyone remembers it. And so, you have this immense power to wreck lives that didn't exist 20 years ago. Partly because, if you look at the Damore memo, in particular, 20 years ago if you had even wanted to get that story out there in the first place, who was going to write a story about a non-managerial guy at a tech company--
Russ Roberts: Not famous--
Megan McArdle: [?] big company, where he's not famous, had no power over HR [human resources]; he's just a normal engineer. Say, you had gone to a reporter. The reporter would have been like, 'Sorry; I don't really understand what the story is.' Like, [?] 'You seem very mad at him. But, I can't spend the money to print that on paper.' Well, in the Internet era, the cost of printing things is cheap. You have all of these online outlets who have gotten rid of their expensive reporting. They've gotten rid of their expensive layers of editing. And so you have enormous numbers of people who are just desperate for any copies. And someone comes to them and says, 'Look at this thing that is going on, on Google,' there is an economy on the supply side of people just looking for people for being to outraged. I see it. Everyone sees it. Right? It seems to me that in a lot of ways the primary reason to go onto news media or social media right now is to find a reason to be mad. And, so, of course they took it. Of course, they ran with it. The actually cost to them of putting that up there is very little. They got a ton of clicks out of it. They sold out against those clicks. And so, you have this economy that has replicated that small town. But, first of all, without the mercy that those small towns have. Because, yes, they did wreck people's lives. Yes, it could be stultifying. And all the rest of it. But, they also took care of people when they were sick. They also felt bad about seeing the wreckage of someone's life, and would say, 'Yeah, maybe it's time to forgive him.' There's none of that on the Internet. It's all of the bad things we hated about small-town life, and none of the good things that made small town life rewarding. It's a really bad equilibrium, and I really think we need to look at: What do we do about this? Because, no one likes it. Even the people who are in it at the moment, even the people who are calling people out. You know, as the Stalinists found out with the purges: You could be the next person purged. Everyone is afraid. Everyone's worried about the call-out culture, even as they participate in it. And it just seems like it's a really bad and unhealthy way for us to be living; and we need to think about: How do we rein this is? Because, no one likes it. And it's quite destructive.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm very sympathetic to the basic point. And listeners have heard me talk about Twitter. As you say--both you and I are active on it. Anyway. Although, I--
Megan McArdle: I follow you.
Russ Roberts: What?
Megan McArdle: I follow you.
Russ Roberts: And I follow you. So, one could argue: The way to deal with this is the way I deal with it occasionally--I've mentioned--I took Twitter off my phone. Doesn't always last, but I took it off my phone. That's really more for mindless, just sort of scrolling instead of thinking about something more seriously or engaging with human beings. But, some of it is also--I think of it as the corrosive aspect on my soul--or my person, however you want to think about it. Some of the attitudes aren't so good for us. Or, I don't like what they do to me or the way they make me feel. And, you've really got--speaking as the economist of the conversation, you said, 'Outrage is really cheap.' Or you said something like that. I think that's the right way to think about it. But it raises a question--before we get into your essay--it raises the question: 'Why cheaply-expressed outrage has such power?' I hadn't really thought about this. Certainly many of the people we are talking about--there are so many examples, I almost feel like we shouldn't mention them exactly, because they don't need any more publicity than they already have. But, like, EconTalk is going to push the numbers over the top, right? Really make it bad for these people. But, some of these people, they had a hard time. The question one could ask is: Why? Maybe the problem is not so much the Internet as it is that a company would fire someone for making a bad joke. A company would fire someone for a memo that--when I read it, I was shocked at how thoughtful it was. It's not what I expected to be the kind of memo at Google that would get somebody fired. I've talked to some friends of mine at Google. And, they actually described--and I want to bring this up; maybe we'll get back; I think we will get back to this later. But, James Damore has appeared often, sometimes--I don't know how often--but he wears a shirt that says 'Goolag' on the front--G-o-o-l-a-g [evident pun on Gulag--Econlib Ed.] in Google's font and colors. And, in a way there's something obscene about that. To compare Google to a Soviet labor camp where people died regularly just from not having good enough clothing for the weather they were in, or enough food to keep them alive; plus, there was actual murder. So, something obscene about that. And at the same time--and I've never spoken to him directly. But, other Google people have told me that it's like a Soviet re-education system. That there's an intolerance and an authoritarianism, a--and, of course, they won't say this publicly, because they don't want to have the shaming and they don't want to be fired. But, it's an incredible thing, that that's the case. And it raised the question: How did that happen? How is it that--I think of it as just a variation on political correctness--how is it that the perception that something that has been said or written that's inappropriate lead to being fired? As opposed to real malfeasance? Right? Harming other people? Destroying company property? Letting secrets out into the world--being careless with confidential information? Those are the things that used to get you fired. Right? Not doing your job well. Now, expressing an opinion gets you fired? And of course I think that's also a part of the [?] for the Internet. So, why don't you react to that.
Megan McArdle: Well, let me see if I can mount the defense. One of the things that I love about you is that you are always charitable of the other side and try to make an intellectually honest--the case for the people you disagree with. And, let me try to do that with Google: Is, first of all, look: Angering your fellow employees has always been a firing offense.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Megan McArdle: It's always been raised--you know, companies, they are not there to make a big statement about free speech and the values. They are there to do a job. And, if you are making it difficult--if you have angered enough of your fellow employees and made it difficult for them to work with you--well, then, you are probably not going to be working in that company for a long time. And that's fair. Right? That's just--
Russ Roberts: Those are the rules of the game.
Megan McArdle: Those are the rules of the game.
Russ Roberts: That's understood.
Megan McArdle: Right. But, it's also that it doesn't make sense for companies that are--you know, we have universities that are supposed to be the places for free inquiry. Now, we can ask--
Russ Roberts: I like the phrase, 'Supposed to be' in there.
Megan McArdle: We can ask about how they are doing, these days. But that's--that is part of their institutional makeup. It's not Google's institutional makeup, is to just fearless inquiry into the state of the universe. They do a specific thing. They have a specific culture. Add, on top of that, look: Google is under pressure from regulators because they don't employ that many women. And that--and, you know, if there are lawsuits, which I believe there are--that memo was going to be brought up in a lawsuit.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Megan McArdle: Right. And if you knew anything about it, that was going to put them in a weak position with regulators. And, again, Google, first fundamentally has to make sure the company is still running. And, so, yeah: They fired him. But I think that--and so, in making those defenses, they have a right to. You and I are both free market people; and companies can fire you because they don't like the way you cut your hair. I think that would be kind of dumb for a company to do. But, it's within their rights. That said, I think that begs the question a little bit. Right? Which is, that, 'Well, he created a situation where Google had to fire him.' And I think that that's true. But let's look at the environment in which that situation required firing. Right? And that is what I think we are both talking about. Is that, it's not so much that they fired him because they created a problem for them. It's that: Why was he a problem for them? And that, I think is the million-dollar question: How did we get to the point--and I wrote in the essay--you know, you talk about the Googl-lag [Goolag] and the Soviets. I don't want to morally equate this kind of shaming and fear to what happened in Soviet Russia. Because, in Soviet Russia people were actually in fear for their lives, often.
Russ Roberts: Rightfully so.
Megan McArdle: Rightfully so. Maybe. Well, let me take that back. I do not think that the Soviet government was right in making them fear for their lives.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, no, no. I didn't take it that way.
Megan McArdle: They were correctly in fear for their lives, let us say.
Russ Roberts: Their perception was accurate.
Megan McArdle: Yes. Um, I'm having more and more conversations that sound like conversations that I have had with people from former Soviet countries. And, from my readings, I've been reading more about life in the Soviet Union. Where, people say, start by saying, 'Well, of course I would never say this in public.' And, like, you know, 20 years ago, I would never say this in public with maybe, 'I loved The Bell Curve'--Charles Murray's book on IQ [Intelligence Quotients], right?
Russ Roberts: Can't say it.
Megan McArdle: There have always been things that you can't say in public, for whatever reason. Fifty years ago, it was, 'Hey, we should let homosexuals get married,' right?
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Megan McArdle: That was something you couldn't say in public. We changed that. Which is great. But, the number of topics seems to be exploding, on which I hear this. Right? And a lot of them don't seem to be that--you know, it's discussion of abortion; it's discussion of trans-rights; it's discussion of all sorts of things that 5 or 10 years ago you could talk about.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's more, it's so much more than that. I mean, it's discussion of men's and women's roles--differences, if any. I mean, the Google example is a perfect example of that. Of course, Larry Summers was fired for a similar, inappropriate remark.
Megan McArdle: When I was in college. Right? People on the Left, we felt like we had to argue and go do battle and fight all the time. And there's now this feeling that, like, you don't fight. You just say this person is a racist. Or they are a misogynist. Or they are a bigot of some kind. And then the conversation is over and that person's life is ruined--should be ruined. Right? And the ease with which students are now calling for professors to get fired--I mean, I get that they are, like 20, and they don't understand that when you are 50, that calling for someone to get fired is just calling to--how big a thing they are asking. I think that they don't understand that, when they routinely ask for people to get sacked from their jobs. But, at the same time, there is the sense of like, instead of focusing on grievances and how to repair those grievances, a lot of these grievances have to do with the people instead of things that you should do. Or they have to do with destroying the bad person. And, again, I think that is a thing you see a lot in small towns, a lot in certain small, band communities. But again, people in the small band communities, there's also a human connection that kind of mitigates how far they are willing to go to destroy someone. And we've pulled that part of it out. And so I think it is a cultural shift. But, I think that that cultural shift is combined with a, with a technology; and that both of those two things are kind of heterodyning each other into something that feels unhealthy for everyone.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--the part that I find deeply disturbing--and I'm trying to write an essay on this at Medium; and I'll put a link up to it--this story of, I remember--and if I finish the essay. But I feel like--and, again, I'm not sure this is an Internet phenomenon. I think the Internet amplifies it. There's a--people have always been intolerant. People disdain--can be a very attractive emotion, seductive emotion--hate can be, tragically, a seductive emotion. And, the willingness to categorize people who don't see the world the way I do as not just disagreeing with me but worthy of contempt, dishonor, and exile--which is really in a way what we are talking about here. Right? Firing someone is like saying, 'This person belongs in the wilderness. They are not worthy'--it's not just that they are not worthy of a second chance, when someone makes an offhand remark that gets, say, misinterpreted or was a mistake. 'Their worldview is dangerous. And therefore, I am justified in vilifying them and wanting to push them into exile.' And that is what I find--it's not really--it's not the point of your essay, but it's a very related point, for me. It's the ease with which people are willing to dismiss other human beings as unworthy. And that is, I think, really strikes at the fabric of civilization. It certainly strikes at our common, our day-to-day interactions, culturally and socially. And, we have--we are in a moment in American history where there aren't a lot of feedback loops that tamp that down rather than there's a bunch that expand it. And the Internet is one of those, right? Where you can safely gang up on someone as being unworthy.
Megan McArdle: Yeah. You said two words that I think are important, one of which I will tweak and one of which I will just enthusiastically agree with. And the first is, you said 'unworthy.' And I think, actually, the word I would have used is 'worthless.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, even better--
Megan McArdle: Is that these people have no worth at all. That anything can be done to them. This is how people used to talk about criminals. And, thankfully, I think conversation has shifted a little bit. Even conservatives are starting to talk about rehabilitation and the fact that this is a human being, and who may have done something terrible, but who we would not like--every life is a universe. Right? When someone dies, a universe ends. And that, when you--it doesn't matter what that person has done: we should care about the fact that there is a universe between that person's head and we should save that universe if we can for as long as we can. Right? But we've shifted it now, to our political opponents, where there's this sense that, you know, that if they disagree with me on big, fundamental issues, they should just be destroyed.
Russ Roberts: It's not just big ones.
Megan McArdle: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: It's any small ones. I'm serious. It's really--because they all go together, right? You've got this idea that, you know, 'Well, if you don't feel this way about this, then obviously you are going to feel this way about that.' And of course sometimes that's true. 'And therefore, I don't even need to explore the rest of your worldview. You're one of them.' And I think that's despicable. It's a sad, sad thing. And that goes with the other word you said, which is 'exile.' And this is really, I think, where things have shifted. Where there is no longer simply this sense that--now, again, we've always used 'exile' for--journalism has always used 'exile' for example for plagiarists. If you--even plagiarists have gotten away with it. There are still some people, plagiarists, working. The one thing you absolutely never, ever, ever could do was make up a story.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Megan McArdle: That was it. You would never work in journalism again. If you, you know, you can get details wrong. We've all, unfortunately, done that. Or you misspell someone's name. But if there was any evidence that it was malfeasant, that you had just fabricated something--it's over. Right? Every community has these thing. Lawyers have their canon. You cross that line and you're out. But, those offences used to be like a small number of things. And they are growing to be a large number of things.
Russ Roberts: They are also well-delineated. Everybody knows what it means to make up a story. To be a sexist or racist, the expansion of those categories is what I find alarming. And, I don't know why exactly it's happening. Obviously, it's not so interesting to speculate.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk for a minute, though, about how you and I, who write publicly, or talk publicly, as we're doing now, might respond to this. So, one of the things I already learned from our conversation today is the number--it may be right--we realize how many times I say to someone, 'You're the only person I can say this to.' It's--I mean, usually, other than my life. What I mean is, 'in public.' Right? I have a couple of friends who I know will not vilify me, if I concede, I believe, x, y, or z. But, it's weird that I have to say that. And I mean it, too. There are a lot of things that can't be said. So, one reaction to this, which is not my first thought, but it's an interesting one, perhaps, is to say, 'I'm not going to let the Internet shaming mob cow me. I am not going to be--I'm going to bear the price. I'm going to face the consequences'--knowing that they're there, of saying things that are politically incorrect or socially unacceptable if indeed I think they might be true. And I might qualify them. Knowing that of course qualification doesn't help. You know, saying, 'I'm not sure, but,' doesn't really help. You are still going to get attacked. So, that's one response. You recently wrote, for example--I don't know where you wrote it; I saw this on Twitter. You had the temerity and the gall and the courage to say that there might be benefits from climate change, even though it's maybe the case that the costs will massively outweigh and overwhelm the benefits. But, that there could be benefits. Talk about the reaction to that and what you think of this idea of just sort of speaking truth as you see it, even though you are going to bear a cost. Because, you bore a cost for that.
Megan McArdle: I did. Actually, I tweeted this a long time ago, but it's something I've often thought--is, that you need stories on climate change and it's inevitably just a litany of all of the horrific things that are going to happen. Right? And I should put my cards on the table: I believe in anthropogenic global warming; I think that because there are feedback loops that are poorly understood, I don't want to mess with the only climate we have. I don't want to run a one-way experiment we can't take back on a single system that I need to survive. And because of that, I have some sympathy with people like Matt Ridley who are lukewarmists--they call themselves--they think it's happening; they think it's no big deal. There aren't that many kind of true, 'This just isn't happening; this is all a big lie.' In the skeptic community, they are mostly lukewarmists at this point. I have sympathy for them, and I read them. But I also think, I want an insurance policy. And so, I think we should have a carbon tax; I think we should be funding at the government level hog wild research into renewable sources of power and low-carbon sources of power. I feel pretty strongly about this. That said, I'm also kind of not in the full climate camp and I get a lot of pushback from them because I don't simply say, 'Well, therefore I'm just going to do the litany of horrors.' But I do this with [?] the minimum wage, right? Now, I don't think the minimum wage should be $15 an hour. When I read about it, I have to acknowledge there are some people who are getting more money because of this. Maybe they are not the people we are trying to target. Maybe they are affluent teenagers or retirees who are pretty skilled who went back into the workforce because they enjoy getting out of the house. But, that said, those people are going to benefit. And, you don't write a piece about the minimum wage and just say it's all cost, no benefit. I think there's a disemployment effect: I think there are people who lose jobs and those people are usually the most vulnerable, people that we want to help. But that said, there are costs and there are benefits and you kind of have to acknowledge both sides of the ledger. And you don't see that on climate change right now. You just very rarely do. It's in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] Report--you can see they do--it's not that scientists don't try to do the net. It's the way it gets reported is this kind of litany of just terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible. And so, I said I would like to see a good climate, environmental journalist just do a piece on, or mention, even, in another piece: What are the actual net upsides? Which places are going to benefit from this? Because I presume some of them will. Which is not to say we shouldn't do something about climate change any more than it is to say that when I say some people benefit from minimum wage--now I want a $20 minimum wage. I don't; but I acknowledge tradeoffs. And, the reaction to this was just a bunch of people tweeting, 'Haha. Now maybe we should do articles on people drinking bleach. Maybe we should do articles on how great the Holocaust was.' And, like, you know--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. 'The Nazis made the trains run on time and that was good for, whatever. People learned about timetables, about how to run a train system.'
Megan McArdle: Yeah. The Holocaust and global warming are kind of morally not in the same category.
Russ Roberts: Not to me and you. But to some people it is. That's what we're talking about.
Megan McArdle: But everything seems to be in that category. Right?
Russ Roberts: Yep. Correct.
Megan McArdle: So, that's the--there's an increasing number of things where the first go-to is, 'Why don't you talk about how great the Holocaust was, if you are going to say this?' Well, the Holocaust was really a kind of uniquely terrible--it wasn't as large as the Communists' death toll. But it was worse in a lot of ways because it was so organized, and it was organized against a particular group of people. We don't have to get into why the Holocaust was bad. I think we all agree it was. We can take that as written. But it's really like a unique moral horror in the history of humanity. And, to equate everything to that--well, if everything is the Holocaust, we now just don't have any moral language to talk about anything lesser. And also, people don't actually--it worst against your cause in the end. I really do think this.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's the other part of it. It infuriates people and causes them to resent being called Nazis, for example. Or being presumed to be the equivalent of a Nazi. And that pushes those people--not Megan McArdle perhaps, thank goodness--but some people to then say, 'Well, I need to respond with as much vehemence, vitriol, and vituperation as you accused me.
Russ Roberts: But I want to come back to the point of: Did you do that with some trepidation? Or, was that fun for you? And do you think we should do more of that, to try to open some of these topics up for conversation?
Megan McArdle: Yeah. I think 15 years ago when I started doing this, I enjoyed getting a rise out of people more. And now it just makes me tired.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The thrill is gone.
Megan McArdle: In part because it's gotten quite predictable. And I should say it like--that wasn't a dangerous thing for me to say. I never thought, like, 'I can get fired if I write this.' This is not--
Russ Roberts: You could have--
Megan McArdle: You're making fun of me. Which is true. But well, Bloomberg is not going to fire me because I suggested that climate change might occasionally have some upsides and we should know what they are. Bloomberg's a pretty good place about opening query and looking into--this is fundamentally like we do a lot of technocratic stuff, and that's a technocratic question--is, what are the tradeoffs here and what are the policy tradeoffs of doing stuff? I write about that all the time. But, now, it's not fun to engage with people who are so angry. I think about this with my trolls all the time, because I have people who are quite dedicated to trolling me. Mostly I meet them on Twitter.
Russ Roberts: Yep. Me, too.
Megan McArdle: I don't even block them, because blocking them is an engagement where then they know they've been blocked and they get angry. It's like, they're still talking to me; I just don't respond. But, you know, I'm not that interesting. Like, this kind of personal rage at me, this kind of personal hatred for me--you know, you should have something better in your life than that. And I think that a lot, about a lot of things: because you should have something better in your life than hating another human being--
Russ Roberts: Well, who you don't know.
Megan McArdle: Who you don't know; I'm down on hatred in general. I don't think I hate anyone that I've ever known. And, because, you know: we have, what? 70, 80 years? I'm in middle age now, and it's such a pitifully short period of time. And to waste any of it--you know, anger is different. Anger is a natural response to things that are often outrageous. But hate--this wishing someone ill, wishing terrible things for another human being--it's destructive. It plays no good role. And it is chewing up precious seconds of your life that can be better dedicated just for you: forget the person you are hating. Right? Just for you, it can be better dedicated to something else. And I think that that is kind of the other cultural thing, thread, that we are talking here is that we seem to be extraordinarily angry all the time. We seem to hate a whole lot of stuff. And I think about the Trump election, right? And I was pretty critical of Trump--I was pretty critical of Hilary Clinton, too, for what I think were good and sound reasons. And I said--at one point, I got in this debate with my readers, many of whom were Trump voters; and they said all of these things about bad things that they thought the other side had done to them. And I was like, 'Well, look, you know, I agree with a lot of this. There were people--elites kind of abuse their power in a lot of ways. They've been contemptuous of you. All of those things.' That said, here is not a good argument. Right? 'Well, my new fiance steals from me and she's a drug addict and she hates my kids and sometimes she hits me. But, boy, my ex-wife hates her.' Like, that's not a good reason to get married. Right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Or--or--I think the simpler point--and I'm up on a really fragile soapbox here, but I think the idea of responding to contempt with contempt is not a healthy thing. And I think--it's a human thing. I get the desire for it. So, I want to force you back to this topic of, this question: What you should do about it? I agree with you that it's no fun to get hate mail that wishes you ill, or death. And that's really unpleasant. And I think those of us who are[?]--I'm not very much in the public eye, but to the extent I am, I get those and I try not to let them get to me. They usually don't. But they still--sometimes they do. Should I fight back against that urge to hide and say what I feel, even when I know it's going to generate a lot of antagonism and possibly lead to people--becoming a pariah? Which is a phrase you use in the piece; and it's really the right phrase. It's a word that hardly ever gets--you know, it's almost gone out of fashion, to be a pariah. I mean, socially unacceptable. It means, again, unworthy; or worthless. Even a little bit dangerous, perhaps. Or perhaps someone who has to be pushed out of the camp. Do you think we should just be ourselves?
Megan McArdle: I think there are a number of questions there. First is obviously you're kind of--I'm not going to tell anyone they are going to have to stand up and immolate their career for the sake of ending this. I will admire people who do. But, realistically, people have mortgages to pay, and so forth. So, like, I'm fighting against it as best I know how. Which is trying to do it somewhat kindly. And, there's this great quote from a rabbi whose name now escapes me--because I'm in middle age. He said, 'When I was young, I admired people who were clever; and now that I'm old, I admire people who are kind.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Megan McArdle: And I think that that's really true. Clever is easy. Kind is hard. And kind is, I think more effective. I'm teaching a class at Duke this semester on persuasive writing. And, the thing that I am--more than anything I am trying to drum into my students' heads is that the minute you are clever and mean and outrageous, you've lost someone. That's it. They will never listen to you. The minute you are sarcastic to them. And like, it's fun. I get it.
Russ Roberts: It's so fun.
Megan McArdle: I love being sarcastic. Because, I'm good at it. And we all love things we are good at.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Megan McArdle: And I've basically stopped that. I don't always stop. I have the occasional column where I kind of let it all hang out. But I try to really minimize those columns. Because, they are fun to write; and they are fun to read if you already agree with me. And anyone who doesn't just turns off and doesn't listen to a darn thing I say. And, so, I think, you know, the kind of, 'Well, I'm just going to go out and say whatever I think and just shock people, and I'm not going to pay attention to those people'--I think it's understandable because, again, when the categories shift not just to so many but so rapidly--like things that everyone, a majority of the population believed 5 years ago are now things that brand you just a moral horror--
Russ Roberts: Like, being a football fan--is on the verge of that--I have a feeling. Right?
Megan McArdle: Yeah. And, I actually, like, I actually, like, I am one of the people who thinks--I don't have kids, but if I did, I wouldn't let a boy play football [because of the controversy surrounding concussions--Econlib Ed.]. And I think there is something--I enjoy watching it, but I also understand like what's happening inside those guys' brains. Like, they're consenting adults, but I don't have to watch everything consenting adults choose to do to themselves for money. Or for the love of victory or for any other reason. And, I can't watch it. Because it's tragic.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm uneasy about it, now. I'm not sure that the scientific evidence is open and shut. But there is some, clearly. But I'm just raising the question: Things that appear to be totally normal, in short order may turn out to be socially unacceptable soon--
Megan McArdle: Yeah--
Russ Roberts: Which is weird.
Megan McArdle: Yeah. And I think that's not possible to maintain. And again--you know, I talked about the Soviet--that's what it felt like. And not in the early kind of purge-days, although there is a lot of that. I remember having a weird debate with a Russian office mate at a summer internship when I was in business school. And he was--first of all, like, all the Russians I knew in the United States prior to that--I'd known a lot, but they were all Jews. Because they were in this huge exodus of Jewish people from the Soviet Union. Here's the first ethnic Russian that--and it was interesting to me because he had very different attitudes from the previous Russians I'd known. And he said to me--and he was basically defending the idea that we should be able to say, make, racist and sexist jokes. And I was very upset by this. It was late in the night. And he said, 'Look, you've got the wrong idea about the Soviet Union. Under Brezhnev, the risk wasn't that you weren't going to get sent to a camp. The risk was you would lose your job and your apartment. And then no one would go on and talk to you, because they knew it was dangerous to talk to you because they might lose their job and their apartment.' And again, I don't want to draw too much moral equivalence. And I also want to actually stand firm. You should not tell racist jokes. And if people do tell racist jokes, you should tell them that's not okay.
Russ Roberts: And don't laugh at them.
Megan McArdle: And you definitely shouldn't laugh at them. But you should also, just like, there is a good social stigma on racist jokes. And we should maintain that social stigma. I haven't changed my mind about that. But that has stuck with me, as something that I hadn't understood before. And I think that this is the kind of soft fear--right? That--and you said, his example was you told a joke about Brezhnev that--you wouldn't get shot, but you might lose your apartment. And as things, as these categories widened, were pulling in more and more stuff that there's no social consensus that should be banned. Right? And so, it's very similar to that. Is that, there's people who are now feeling afraid because they might way something that isn't just telling a terrible racist joke but suggesting that maybe women and men have different interests, and are not going to be equally represented at tech companies. And that even some of interests might be genetic. And this is something that--I am a woman. I'm in a pretty mel[?]field. I've always done pretty mel[?] jobs. And, it doesn't in any way offend me. If it's true, it's true. The universe isn't going to please me. Right? And--as you pull those things in, you create this climate of everyone feeling like they have to lie, in public. And, what's interesting about reading the Soviet, those Soviet era things, is how many people--Orwell talks about this, lots of [?] talks about this. It's the feeling that making you tell a lie is the point. That, there's no, like, greater point of what you are saying except that they have undermined your character by forcing you to lie for the regime. Is that, they are making you weaker. And that people, under Soviet regimes, really do seem to feel that that is true. I don't know that it is true. But they do seem to feel that that is the case. So, to go, but to go back to--to go back to outraging people--there's a reason that the people who do that are people like Milo. Right? And you get--I don't want to outrage anyone--
Russ Roberts: That's not what I mean. That's not what I meant--
Megan McArdle: No, no, but there's a real thing of that. And that's one of the things that restrains people. Even if you were--you are worried about this and you want to just have a non-confrontational, non-outrageous, non-nasty public conversation about things that matter. Right? It matters whether women have different interests in that there's a genetic component. Because that's going to tell us our company is discriminating. That's how you assess whether a company is discriminating. Right? Is, you can see what the end result is. Well, if there is a plausible end result that isn't discrimination, you've got to take that into a fact, and into account--
Russ Roberts: Well, I--
Megan McArdle: A suspect.
Russ Roberts: I think there is a much more important reason to take that seriously. And that's how we raise our children. And--really, it's ironic. Because, we've been talking about the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was based on an ideology part of which was about the fact that human beings are infinitely malleable, and we just need to make them whatever we want them to be. And I think that's the road to the Gulag--the real Gulag. And I see us taking steps down that road, in mistaking--potentially; I'm open to the possibility that maybe men and women really are the same--I don't think they are--we know they are not physically the same but whether anything beyond that is important, is a legitimate scientific question. And, if it's off the table to treat it as a legitimate scientific question, we will do a bad job raising our children. We will do a bad job creating, making our choices.
Megan McArdle: We'll do a bad job creating a society in which both groups of people will be happy--
Russ Roberts: flourish. Can flourish. That's the issue, for me. And I don't--I think it's hugely important.
Russ Roberts: Before we go on, I want to challenge one thing at the root of your concerns; and then I want to talk about some of what I think we can do about it. And then you can suggest whether you agree or what your own ideas are. But, the thing I want to raise is: Some would argue, perhaps legitimately--I don't agree, but I'm not sure how I feel about this, actually--that shaming is good. That, all of this stuff that you are worried about--yes, people are scared about what they say: Well, they should be scared, goes this argument. Because, words can hurt people. Words are important. And, it's a glorious thing that we have made people sensitized about the harmful effects of their words. And, the things that you are decrying, Megan, are actually good. One extreme version of this would be--and this drives me crazy, but I'll put it forward anyway: 'Well, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing--if you don't say anything bad--there's nothing--you are not going to get hurt.' All this shaming is to punish people who tell disgusting jokes, write grotesque memos that say things at the water cooler that intimidate and harm people. And those people should be shamed.
Megan McArdle: So, I think that that is actually true up to a point. I've made this point before. In fact, the first column I ever wrote on online shaming, which was based on Jon Ronson's excellent book on the topic, which [?] and in which I coined the term 'shame-storming,' which sadly failed to catch on, denying--
Russ Roberts: surprising--I'm surprised. It's a great name--
Megan McArdle: Internet meme, denying immortality. Yeah. Somehow, I try to coin these things periodically, as all writers do. And mine never catch on. Julian Sanchez, on the other hand, like, just tosses them offhand and they are always amazing, you know, apt and meaty. But, yeah. Look. When people tell racist jokes, and their friends turn around and say, 'That's not funny and you shouldn't say that,' right? That's useful. Completely useful.
Russ Roberts: It's how society evolves. Those are the norms--
Megan McArdle: How society has to happen. There is no society--
Russ Roberts: Those are the Smithian norms of judgment. And people's desire to be lovely, and to be respected by their friends. And it constrains behavior. It is great.
Megan McArdle: There is no society that gets along without that. That's not what we're doing at this point, though. Right? We're not just--look, I have been on the Internet 15 years. I have said some things I should not have said, and gotten people screeching at me. Justifiably. And then sometimes not justifiably. I have had pictures of my house even mailed to me with a gun-sight over the house. I have had death threats. I have had all this stuff. You shouldn't send death threats to people; you should not make even photographic even kind of pseudo-death threats. But I get--'I hope you and your family die'; 'I hope etc., etc.' I get that all the time. And, some of it is productive. Some of it is not. But, that's all, to me, kind of all in the game. And it's terrible--I feel terrible for this, that girl at Yale who got filmed saying some really intemperate and unwise things to her professor--screaming profanity at her professor--
Russ Roberts: In a moment of emotion--
Megan McArdle: in a moment when--she should not have screamed profanity at her professor; I will say that. But I will also say that the Internet definitely should not have deluged her with horrible, ugly messages. Right? And I've been through it; and I know, like, the first 10 or 20 times it happens to you it's really terrible. Now, it just rolls off my back. I can't even--this is, [?]--
Russ Roberts: [?] That's because that comes with the territory. And it shouldn't come with being an 18-year-old in college as a freshman, or a junior, or a senior and having to deal with it out of the blue, unexpectedly. It's not right.
Megan McArdle: But, it's also a different thing. However terrible it is, you move on. You kind of huddle for a few days. You feel bad; you tell all your friends how bad you feel. And then, a year later--yeah, it was bad, but you've gotten over it. Right? The difference now is--there's a couple of things. One of them has to go to that tweet that you talked about--the global warming tweet. It's like a year old. And periodically it just comes back to life. And how it comes back to life? Someone finds it; someone retweets it; there's a whole new level of people screaming at you. And again, for me, this is my job. It's all in the game. You want to scream at me, go right ahead. But, that happens to these people who get Internet shamed. But, more than that, there's a lot of economic consequences here. You look at someone like Memories Pizza, the pizza place in Indiana that told people they wouldn't do, cater gay weddings. Like, what are the odds that a pizza place in a small town in Indiana was actually ever going to be asked to cater gay weddings? You--kind of--[?]. But, the Internet went crazy. And these people were just deluged with horrible messages. The ultimately had to close down. Then they got a lot of donations. So, there's two camps; and there can be counter-benefits as well. But, when you are talking about depriving someone of their livelihood--and this goes back to Brezhnev, right? If someone told the Brezhnev joke and all of your friends said, 'That's not funny, and you should not question our fearless leader,' you know, that would be creepy. Maybe you would want to get new friends. But, it would be within the kind of bounds of normal, human, social reaction. The problem is when you are actually afraid they are going to take away the means by which I make my living. That is an enormous amount of power. And that is ultimately what I ended up talking about in this article--is that, classical liberals, and libertarians, of which I think you and I are both one--we normally have two categories: Private power, which is fine, because it's bounded; because there's exit. And then there's Public power, which has guns behind it, and it's not bounded; and is a different animal; and that's the animal that we focus on. Right? And there can be some cases of companies that kind of get so much monopoly power that they start acting like governments. But it's actually pretty rare. This is a third creature, that seems to be in between those two things. Right? Because it's not one company. Someone Google--this guy just got fired from Google. Well, you go work for another company that's--maybe doesn't care so much. Where you haven't made your co-workers angry, or whatever. All companies are probably going to be afraid to hire this guy.
Russ Roberts: I think small companies might take a chance on it, if his skills are such.
Megan McArdle: Sure, but he's never going to get a [?] gig--
Russ Roberts: He's damaged--
Megan McArdle: He's damaged. In a way that was not true 10 years ago when it was just, you said something bad on the Internet and then people screamed at you and felt bad. And sometimes you said, 'Yes, I shouldn't have said that.' And sometimes you earned[?] it back. But either way, it was bounded. When you threaten someone's economic livelihood, you are threatening pretty close to killing them. Right? If you can't make money to survive, then--it's not the same as threatening to kill them, but it's probably the next worst thing a government can do, is after bodily harm and threat or death, what can the state threaten you with? They can take away all of your money. They can take, freeze your bank accounts. They can make it impossible for you to live in society. And that is a thing that this power is starting to approach. And when we talking about freezing[?] [?metcounts?], a Southern Poverty Law Center designated a small, kind of religious values institute--they are quite conservative; the head of the institute seems to be Catholic and quite traditional Catholic. They were rented[?rated?] a hate group and their payment provider cut them off. So, they couldn't take donations. Those kinds of powers, when they are ubiquitous--when it isn't just, this happens and then like it was just, you know, 'My bank didn't want to deal with me because of my views, so I went and got another bank'. Right? That is a fundamentally different thing from 'Now, all the banks don't want to touch me.'
Russ Roberts: So, let me put it in a different framework. Because, I think--this is what I was trying to get at earlier, and I think will help us organize our thinking about it. And I want to come back to your point about whether this is something different that we have to deal with--and this is really the point of your piece, by the way, which I haven't really focused on yet. Which is that: This is a form of coercion. And since, as classical liberals, we should be worried about coercion, we should be worried about this. So, I just want to--I want to rephrase some of the, pull together some of the things we've been saying. So, I think there is a temptation in life to punish things we don't like. And that leads to a--that's not a bad idea, on the surface. The bad idea is to say, 'The bigger the punishment, the better, because then there'll be less of the thing I don't like.' And that forgets the fact that, that will lead to other behavior--and this, to me, is a very Coasean--this is one of the things I have learned from the Coase Theorem, and Coase's article, I should say, on social cost, because I think it's just--this insight is very deep and very unappreciated and very unintuitive. Which is: If you raise the cost of something, you do get less of it. And if it's something you don't like, you'd say, 'Well, that's good.' But you forget the fact that that sets a whole 'nother set of incentives in motion. Which is really, I think, what Coase's point was in externalities and how, if we punish them, we don't just get less of the externality. You get less of other incentives for behavior. And if you do punish the externality, you get different, you get incentives for behavior. And you want to look at the whole picture. And that, I think, is the deepest insight of that article. And I'll take the opportunity here just to mention that it can--the Coase Theorem is not usually what people say it is. Listen to my EconTalk interview with Ronald Coase and his frustration with that. We'll put a link up to it. But, my point is this: If you don't think it's a good thing for airlines to lose bags, lose your luggage--which everybody agrees that's a bad thing--you don't want a fine of a million dollars for a lost bag. Because, what that means is the airline--maybe they'll just stop flying, for starters. But it certainly means they are going to spend a lot more resources to not lose your bag. And you might think, 'Well, that's great!' You forget the fact that someone has to pay for those. That's usually--not usually; it's almost always the customer. And so the customer is now being told, 'I'm not going to lose your bag, but it's going to cost you now the equivalent of an extra $500, say, or $300, or $200 dollars to fly.' In which case, you'd say, 'I think I'd rather take a chance' now that you'll lose the bag and not have to pay a higher price. And when we mandate a million-dollar fine, we are basically saying to the company, 'You have to be at one end of this tradeoff.' And that, I think, is the problem of what we're talking about. The shaming is generally a shaming because, as you said, it's a huge part of civilization. Disapproval, the raised eyebrow, the ending a friendship over, perhaps tragic but may be justified over some horrible misbehavior. That might be the right thing to do in certain situations. But, if the punishment for thinking a bad thought and uttering it is exile--joblessness, no longer part of socially acceptable society--what you get is--what we came talking about before is: 'I better not say much.' And you talk about this in your essay: 'I'll just stick to the weather.' And what that does--and you could say, 'Well, that's okay. That way nobody's feelings get hurt.' And, 'Nothing offensive is said.' But what it means is: Nothing creative is said. Nothing innovative is said. It's better to keep your mouth shut. And you end up with a culture and a society that is--a bunch of sheep. A bunch of people with their nose to the--they are trying to stay under the radar all the time--from these phenomena. So, that, I think, is the true cost of this. It destroys thoughtful discourse. And thoughtful discourse is what makes civilization.
Megan McArdle: I think that's absolutely right. And I think there's also another cost. Scott Alexander, who runs a great blog, Slate Star Codex--
Russ Roberts: Amazing--
Megan McArdle: He had a great post a while back on something called 'motte and bailey' arguments. It's [?] is, the motte is your tower--it is your easily defensible tower--and the bailey is the broad land around it, which is completely indefensible. And so what people would do back in the medieval era is when enemies shows up, they'd all get into the motte; and then as soon as they went away, they'd go back to the bailey and do their farming and so forth. And the idea of this is, you say--and the example he gives is something like privilege--is that you have a kind of bland and unobjectionable definition that no one can disagree with; and then you have a really, really hard-to-defend definition that's more useful. So, think about something like misogyny. If we say, 'Everyone's a little bit sexist'--which I think is true, right? Like, everyone--we grew up in the culture we were in; we have attitudes that we have inherited; human beings tend to stereotype people based on their personal experience. That's how our minds work. Something happens; you categorize all of the categories that were associated with that action and you associate whatever happened with those categories. It's just how we learn--
Russ Roberts: And you leave out a lot of data that makes your narrative too complicated.
Megan McArdle: So, unfortunately, we learn some wrong things that way. So, you have a definition of sexism like, 'Everyone's a little bit sexist. There are persistent attitudes toward women in society that hurt women's advancement.' Okay; yes. I think most people could believe that that is true, at least in some. Then, you get to definitions like, 'Merely saying that women and men might be different is misogyny.' That's really hard to defend. So, what you do is you use these two things interchangeably. Whenever you are challenged, you go back to the motte. And whenever you are not challenged you use the term as if it meant this much broader definition that a lot of people would contest. And so the cost of that is that eventually people notice. And then, one thing I've written about in a variety of contexts is that if you make a punishment for anything too severe, people don't want to apply it. So, if you say, 'Being a sexist is really, really bad and that sort of person needs to be exiled'--okay, we can agree that there are people who should not be managers because there is sexism. Right? If you walk in and you look at a woman and you think, 'That woman couldn't possibly be bright enough to do any job more advanced than typing,' well, you probably shouldn't be a manager. You are going to make bad hiring decisions, and you are not going to be very good with your female subordinates. But there are a lot of those people around. But, if you want to apply the punishment for that--which is, 'No, you can't be a manager in a modern company,' we don't[?] apply the punishment for that to everyone who maybe thinks that there's some differences between men and women, on average, not individual cases. Well, people are going to balk. And so, if you say that sexism is so bad that people who practice it need to be exiled, then people are going to be very, very narrow about the definition they are going to use about what sexism is. And that actually excludes a lot of things that kind of arguably are sexist. Right? It makes it hard to talk about things like structural sexism. Family leave policy. And those sorts of things. Precisely because you've established that the penalty for this is social death. Well, I need a pretty high burden of proof for me to impose social death on someone. And so, David Frum talked in a podcast recently about his son going off to college a liberal, coming back a conservative, because he was so sick of all the PC [Politically Correct] stuff. And him having to say to his son, like, 'No. You shouldn't say those things.' Right? There are some things that shouldn't be said. And the problem is, right, that if you make everything into something that shouldn't be said, people lose the ability to distinguish the things that they shouldn't say. The things that they really shouldn't say. When you over-broaden it, you actually lose support for fighting racism, for fighting sexism, for fighting all sorts of bigotry. Because, you've made it so broad and you've made the penalty so high that people just throw up their hands and say, 'Look, I cannot shun 2/3rds of the population for one thing or the other. I have to--', you know. And that is where I think we are heading. It's this--not just this thing where people are afraid; not just where we are losing a creative, open, expressive society where we can freely discuss ideas, but also that the very goals that the people who are doing this I think genuinely are trying to advance. They are genuinely trying to improve the world. They are actually going to hurt those goals, because they are going to make it harder to convince people. The most effective thing I have ever written, in my personal mind, was a piece that I did comparing academic bias against conservatives to structural racism. And, the academics, as you can imagine, got very upset about this. But what was actually great about that piece was I got a bunch of conservatives who wrote me and said, 'You know what? I always thought this structural racism stuff was nonsense; and now I understand what they were talking about.' Right? And that warms my heart every time I think of it, because I believe structural racism exists. And I believe that it's something that you need attention, and you really need to be thinking about fighting because it will otherwise operate the way human groups do. And the reason that I was effective was precisely because I didn't say, 'Letting these things happen makes you the worst person on the planet.' And, 'If you don't care about this exactly as much as I do, you deserve social death.' I said, 'Look, guys. Here's something you care about. And here's why this thing is like that. And you can see they both operate in the same way. They are not morally the same, but they operate by the same mechanism.' And, put those two things together and you can see how this happens. And suddenly, by talking respectfully to people, by giving them examples that they empathized with--and this goes back to a question you asked me earlier: What do I do? What I try to do, honestly, is be as respectful as I can. Is say, 'Guys, we are all good people who want good things for society. And we shouldn't hate each other. But, here's some stuff we are doing that I think isn't working.' And maybe that's not effective. I don't know. But, that is my best guess at it: What works is not outraging people, but just pointing out all of the ways that this is bad for everyone. Not just bad for the people who get shamed. Bad for the rest of us.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm going to give you my solution. Obviously--I'm putting it in quotes. I'm going to say it differently. I'm going to give you what I'm trying to do personally to try to keep this from spiraling out of control. And, of course, I'm only one person. But, each of us, I think, if we take on these norms, will reduce the odds of it by some amount. And I really don't care, actually, what the--I hope it works. I hope it makes a difference. But, I think even just for one's own sanity and wellbeing, I think this is, I'm hoping this is good advice. So, my strategy--I take your point that there is a--social pressure can be very powerful, and near coercion. I do want to keep it separate from government coercion. In terms, somehow, I think--
Megan McArdle: I do, as well.
Russ Roberts: I think about it. So, I want to start, at least, with some social things we might do as individuals that could become, eventually, more widely viewed as the right thing to do. So, I'm going to suggest two things. And, by the way, before I forget--I'm really glad you mentioned Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex, because I think he's writing some of the most interesting things on this topic. And I think Jordan Peterson is also influenced by thinking on this, because he's suggested that this isn't just unattractive, but maybe threatening to the fabric of civilization. And, I've sort of just been alarmed by it until recently; but reading him made me a little more scared than I've been before. And I think that's probably a good thing. It helps me understand why I don't like to read the newspaper or go to news sites these days. I just find it very depressing. And I don't want to be just depressed. I think it's important to--if it's really alarming, abdication from these issues is not acceptable. So, the two things that--EconTalk listeners will not be surprised--the two things I think we ought to be focusing on are--but I got derailed. I think Scott Alexander's essay on the in-group and the out-group and our ability to, what we can tolerate, is extremely important. It's one of the best essays I've read in a long time. We'll put a link up to it; and we'll also do the one you'd mentioned, motte and bailey. But, what I was going to say, the two things I would recommend are, 1). Humility. I think it's incredibly important in today's world to imagine the possibility that you might not be right. You can think that you are right. You can believe that you are right. You can act as if you are right. But you should, in your heart and in your head realize the possibility that you might not be right. And, the more you think that, the less you are to dehumanize the people who disagree with you. And I think that's the deepest threat to our daily life right now. The second thing I would recommend is not responding in kind to people who troll you, who send you ugly emails, etc. It took me a long, long time. I may have mentioned this before, but I've found it--it's really exhilarating to not come back with that snarky, sarcastic response to the person who says something hateful or negative to you. And when you respond, not in kind but respond kindly, and with compassion, and say, 'Well--' and maybe you just re-state your opinion calmly and make it clear that you feel the way you do--I think that's the right response. And I think it may be naive to think that Twitter culture can be changed. But there could be another Twitter. Someone could start a Twitter that is more civilized. That is maybe curated. Filtered. Maybe it's not a free-for-all. Maybe it's a place where you have to have membership. Where you have to behave by explicit rules, not just the norms that emerge on Twitter that are so--I think not so attractive. And I think--I also want to add--I've gotten an immense amount from Twitter that is incredibly valuable. So, I continue to use it. I continue to go there. You can find me there at EconTalker--E-C-O-N-T-A-L-K-E-R. And you can find Megan there at, I think, Asymmetric Info. Correct?
Megan McArdle: That's correct.
Russ Roberts: And I think it's a wonderful source of information. But, I think the norms that are there, I think I want to urge humility, patience, and kindness. And I know that's [?] and idealistic. But I think every single one of us has control over those things. We don't have to wait for a new President, a new government, a new world order; a policy, a law. Everybody has control over those things, and I encourage everyone to behave that way. Your turn.
Megan McArdle: Uh, yeah. I mean, No. We--I think--kindness, overrated. I think that all of those like--I slip, I am sarcastic; I sometimes respond in kind. But I also have my moments in which I think of myself as the troll-whisperer. Where I try to say--and it sort of depends on the troll. But frequently if someone seems like they are open to argument, I'll say, like, 'Look, I think you misunderstood me. That wasn't quite what I was trying to say. I think we actually have a lot of common ground here; because we do, guys. We agree with each other about more stuff than we don't. We're all basically nice people. I know--this makes me sad, and again, Pollyanna.
Russ Roberts: But, your turn--
Megan McArdle: And again, I think people are basically nice, decent people who want the world to be a better place. And they have all sorts of other, human, less lovely attributes. They can be callous. They can--I can, I admit, this in myself include this in myself--I have all the same flaws as everyone else, right? We can be callous towards others, who would use others are can differ. But it was the Adam Smith line that an earthquake in China interests us less than like a cut we got on our little finger. That, we can be unkind. We get angry. We say things we don't mean. We don't want to hurt people. Those are all normal human things. We enjoy watching other people get hurt--other people, if those other people we perceive as our enemies. Whether those people are opposing football teams or whether those people are on Twitter who are getting dressed down by someone on your side. Those are normal human things. But the fact is, a better life--an actual better life--a better life for you comes from embracing the positive side and not the dark side. And, in fact, also, a better society comes out of that--is that we get a lot farther, yes. The debate should be rigorous. I'm not against the sly joke and all the rest of it. Debate should be absolutely rigorous and vigorous--which was the word I had meant to use; again I plead middle age. But in the end--I wrote a column about the fact that America is like a marriage. It's like a marriage in a country with no divorce. You cannot win a marriage. You can only win something that ends before you do. And so, you can't just beat the other 50% of the population. They are here. You've got to figure out a way to live with them. If we want, we can have a bad marriage. There were lots of them around before divorce was legal. There are still some around now. We can have a terrible marriage where we scream at each other and we are bitter; we say nasty things to each other all the time. But you don't win that. You lose that. You lose that. Because, now you are in a miserable marriage. And the other person has just as much power to hurt you as you have to hurt them. And that is, I think, in a lot of ways the lesson of Trump--is that people--and you know, you can also say the lesson of gay marriage, where social conservatives turned around and said, 'Why is everyone beating me up?' and, like, 'Well, these people felt like you were beating them up for a long time, that's why.'
Russ Roberts: That's the problem--
Megan McArdle: And, we have to recognize that there is--the other population is not going away. And that if you want to live with them without them constantly hurting you, you have to not look to constantly hurt them. No matter how--in a marriage, any marriage, no matter how good, has grievances--[?]. Everyone who has been married before has been in that fight, 'Remember 6 years ago when you--?'
Russ Roberts: You're the only one, Megan.
Guest: I have a good marriage. I love my husband. But, with your siblings, right? Remember when you were 6 and Mom did x? It's not that you don't have real grievances. You do. But, if the grievances dominate everything that you think about the other side, you are making yourself unhappy. Every time you hit them, you are insuring that they will hit back. And that you will be more unhappy. We've got to get beyond this. We never did perfectly. But we lived together more civilly 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. It was not a perfect society. There were many people who were oppressed. I don't want to go back to that period. But, I don't actually--and again, maybe this is Pollyanna--I don't think we have to go back to Jim Crow to go back to a period in which people could recognize that most of their neighbors were decent people regardless of what their politics were, who deserved respect regardless of what their politics were. I don't think that we need to go back--that we need to have all of the bad things of the 1950s to have a certain amount of national unity and national comity.
Russ Roberts: C-o-m-i-t-y. I heard that. I just have to say one thing--that was beautifully said. I just have to say one thing, being the representative of Adam Smith at EconTalk. And it's interesting: you gave this example of the earthquake and the finger: he says--he actually talks about surgery on your finger: If you are going to lose your little finger, you are going to sleep badly; whereas, if you hear that a million people are killed in an earthquake in China, you are going to be--you might be a little bit upset but you are still going to sleep that night. And I think that's true even today with the Internet. The tragedies we are in right now of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, horrible, horrible things happening to human beings, even if you watch them on TV or on the Internet, you probably care more about your own personal wellbeing, because that's the way we're wired. What Smith went on to say--and this is, I think, a nice way to end our conversation--what Smith went on to say is that: So, why is it then, that if you have a chance to save your finger by killing a million people, you wouldn't think about doing that for a second? No one could be that monstrous. Because, you've already revealed that you care more about your little finger in some fundamental sense than you do about the lives of strangers. And yet we don't behave that way. His answer, of course, was that social norms develop that prevent us from being monsters, even though in our heart we have some darkness; we have a minimal--we don't have as much benevolence as we'd like us, perhaps, to have. It just isn't the way the world is. So, while people may be basically nice, benevolence is a higher standard. Somehow, we act, frequently, benevolently, even though our natural impulse is to look out for our finger. And we see this right now--it's a very inspiring thing--that people who have freely chosen, voluntarily, to go save lives, spend money, and help other human beings when they don't have to is one of the glorious things about being a human being. So, I like to think we can develop those social norms at the right level. But, we're struggling right now.
Megan McArdle: Yep. I'm not going to try to top Adam Smith. That's exactly right. Human beings can be monstrous. But we can also be glorious. And, we can choose--we have done--if you look at society, there's stuff wrong with it. But there's a lot right about it. And we have chosen those right things. We have chosen to be decent to each other. We can choose to be decent to each other more often, to assume ignorance rather than malice. And, to assume decency and respect for every person in society, not just the people who you happen to think of as your tribe.
Oct 16 2017 at 9:23am
I am only halfway through (exactly where the transcript ends right now) so I apologize if my comments become superfluous in the last 30 minutes.
So far this is an interesting discussion for what is NOT said: That this is a phenomenon almost entirely of the political left.
People don’t get fired for saying contrary things about ideas that are on the “right”, you get fired and attacked for despoiling concepts on the left: non-hetreosexuality, race, gender, etc. The google guy made employees angry – who got angry? The same people that are always getting angry. People on the left. You can openly mock Mormons in Utah and you are never going to lose your job. Mock perfect outcome equality of gender and you might lose your job in the majority of states in the Union.
So, why is this on the left? Why about these things?
I propose three reasons.
1. Gay marriage forced many on the left to totally abandon any thought and simply cling to identify and the concept of bias. If you opposed gay marriage you “hated people”. A thousand million articles were written by opponents of gay marriage which never mentioned hate or religion but which people on the left remained oblivious about because the collective left decided that only people who hated gays (for God reasons) could oppose gay marriage. That solidified an identify culture that moved on from ideas and could see opponents of their views only in terms of hate or acceptance. Those are concepts for which you shame people and attack them.
2. The loss of religious conviction in American life and among the young. Most people are wired with the concept of purity and holiness. When you no longer apply those innate yearnings toward the divine, you apply them to earthly concepts and relationships. Attacks on the idea that women have different preferences (and maybe, on average different abilities to do some jobs than men) is an attack on a sacred and holy sacrament, not just an idea to explore.
3. The government through lawsuits and regulations solidifies the madness of the mob. It is harder to fire women and minorities than white men because the probability that one group can use the law to punish you is much different. The groups that are “protected” expand and companies take the safe path of firing dissenters and being rarely able to fire even incompetent people from protected classes.
Probably many more reasons, but the fact that a mob is forming on twitter is only a tiny manifestation of a pathology that is growing and becoming much bigger.
Sadly, as the discussion alluded to, such obvious pathologies as these breed backlashes. People may support Trump because in their mind he just doesn’t give a darn about this and says whatever he thinks about anything. If we continue down this path what rises up on the left is going to be uglier (just look at the insane response to Trump’s election) and the response may eventually be equivalent. Mobs on twitter? There are real armed violent mobs assembling at Berkley to fight ideas they don’t like. Unless something changes we are going to wish we could live back in the day when a twitter mob was all that was forming.
Oct 16 2017 at 1:09pm
Your pity is not needed, and your worries overblown, Megan.
Goolag, Fakebook, the other FAANGS++, the fake media, and the establishment are all going down like the USSR.
If you fear your Bloomberg job and apartment so much, doesn’t that mean you’re overpaid? Shouldn’t you be indifferent between employment at x, y, z, and self employment? Here’s a good topic for you, Russ.
Megan, you lost your credibility when you supported Crooked Clinton – should have been neutral. This also damaged libertarians as wimpy leftists. Also, it’s cute that your views are so nicely aligned with those of your employer.
Oct 16 2017 at 5:52pm
What a great and timely conversation. I enjoyed listening a lot.
Russ: just because I don’t always comment doesn’t mean I don’t always listen. Faithful listener since 2006 🙂
I’ve been targeted with death threats by weighing in on…. a particular cultural issue (see? I don’t even want to say it due to a looming fear of retribution), despite being the kind of person the left is always telling people to “listen to.” Lesbians and “women of color” and all of those people supposedly dear to the left have been actually physically assaulted for having opinions on this issue.
My heresy? I don’t believe transwomen are female. This should be incredibly obvious: they’re born with male genitals (by definition — otherwise what are they “transing” to?), they have XY chromosomes, they cannot get pregnant and gestate babies, they do not make ova, etc. No amount of surgeries or drugs can change this — they just aren’t female. And that’s okay! But the distinction between male bodies and female bodies is important!
For example, we see transwomen competing in sports. Sports aren’t segregated by “gender”, they’re segregated by *bodies*. Male humans have stronger grips, have larger lungs, larger skeletons, different muscles, narrower pelvises (a wide pelvis is excellent for carrying babies, not so great for sprinting). Again: neither drugs nor surgery actually change any of this. This is all science. There is no dispute here.
You don’t just let a heavyweight fighter compete in any weight class because you don’t want to hurt his feelings and call him fat. Why is this different?!
The more I think about it, the more I conclude that this is a lie that we are all bullied into repeating for the sake of the lie itself. By lying about this, people are engaging in a submission routine.
There are four lights!! (for all you fellow Star Trek fans 🙂
Oct 16 2017 at 6:37pm
I never thought, like, ‘I can get fired if I write this.’
Why would Mcardle ever think she’d get fired for anything she writes after keeping her business reporting job, then moving on to another one at bloomberg with a book deal in her pocket after this April 30, 2008 post where she writes:
“Outright recession is starting to feel somewhat less likely to me”
a request for elaboration that never came
Pretty sure I posted this the last time Professor Roberts used an hour of his time to chat with Mcardle and I’m sure I’ll post again the next time he does it. Why? Because given her rational belief that she isn’t going to get fired for anything she writes a bit of internet shame is the only slight punishment/corrective a reader or listener can impose for the type of incredibly awful analysis Mcardle is guilty of at the above link.
Oct 16 2017 at 10:19pm
Except that it isn’t.
I’d love to see a conservative write about gun control in a manner that acknowledges the costs associated with the easy access to guns in the US… the vast majority turn a blind eye to those costs.
I’d love to see someone opposed to abortion acknowledge the harm that an abortion ban would cause (or worse, some of the half measures that are proposed).
The infamous Google memo was, at bottom, a poorly reasoned argument that relied implicity on a lot of assumptions and generalizations. (It’s ‘possible’ that his thesis was true, but he failed to prove his case with his weak argument).
Yes, the left does it, but if you don’t see it on the right you aren’t looking hard enough.
Oct 16 2017 at 10:28pm
I think Megan should have specifically owned her “two by four” comment from her warblogger days. I know she has apologized for it and she obliquely referred to it. But I can’t help but think that a lot of America’s current craziness dates from the way Bush (supported by people like Megan and Glen Reynolds) created a twenty first century McCarthyism out of post-9/11 patriotism. So the US went from unprecedented unity right after 9/11 to a deeply divided society in which half the country were being stigmatized as not real Americans, even when their cities were the ones that were threatened. The tribalism from that period had precedents of course but it was also new and deeper and ultimately led to Sanders and Trump. Megan wouldn’t sound so preachy if she acknowledged her role in all this.
To be clear, I think she is an interesting thinker and a lot of the extreme reactions she gets are motivated by sexism and liberal groupthink. And in various parenthetical ways she implied “Regrets, I’ve had a few” but then again too few for her or Russ to mention.
Oct 16 2017 at 10:30pm
Both Megan and Russ seem to believe that the people manning the shame mobs don’t intend for their targets to physically suffer when those mobs call for their jobs. This is wrong. Megan assumed the students calling for professors’ jobs don’t understand how severe a punishment that is. This is wrong. That harsh punishment is precisely what they intend.
The shift is from viewing ideological disagreements as being between opponents to those disagreements being between enemies. The fight is no longer one of arguing ideas, but arguing identities, with the wrong identity or “outgroup” being an enemy. The PC hordes don’t want to persuade you, they want to destroy you–they want you to lose your job, your home, your friends; everything. As evidence witness the widespread conclusion that it’s ok (and praiseworthy!) to “punch a Nazi” where “Nazi” is defined as anyone they strongly disagree with at the moment. Physical violence is well within the acceptable outcomes many now feel are just for the crime of disagreemwnt.
Points off for no one using the appropriate Shakespeare quote (Merchant Of Venice, Shylock speaking): “Nay, take my life and all. Pardon not that. You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house. You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live. ”
Oct 16 2017 at 10:47pm
“The people you disagree with aren’t going away” laughs Megan.
What else is the point of all the articles about the “death of the old white man as a force in American politics,” then? The point is precisely that the Left has no need of compromising with, not bothering to persuade, the non-Left…Since those non-Left people will all die off soon. I believe that partially explains the seemingly over the top reaction to Trump’s election: many on the left, including many professional pundits and pols, really believed that due to demographics their politics were ascendant and would effectively never lose again (just a matter of time). They squared the Republican victories at the state level by assuming gerrymandering everywhere, of course.
The old joke was that politicians unhappy with their voters would simply dissolve the people and select another one. That’s less funny when you have people like Bret Stephens talking about the many ways in which immigrants are better than non immigrant Americans (harder working, etc) and how the country would be a better place if we could just import a new citizenry. Indeed, the push for increased immigration (and amnesty for current illegal immigrants) also has a strong flavor of the Left deciding to “win” by making a demographic, and not democratic (persuasive) appeal.
So, too, does the Long March fixation of the Left of totally controlling The Academy/educational institutions–if the only schools kids can go to have Leftist perspectives why not just wait until those kids can vote and then take over? The seeming extremism of some schools and universities makes more sense if the point is to indoctrinate the idea that the only choices are Left and far Left.
The idea that one must engage with ideological opponents because they’re “not going away” is not universally shared.
Oct 16 2017 at 11:23pm
Keatssycamore and Gareth Morley,
You seem to be examples of what Megan was discussing in this episode. Based on a single mistake, you demand damnation. McArdle suggested that a recession was less likely but instead a recession came and you, keatssycamore, think that’s a firing offense?
In the case of the Iraq war, you, Gareth Morley, present no example of her actual words but you suggest she is complicit in McCarthyism even though she has apologized.
Evidently you both feel that of the hundreds of thousands of words she has written, these examples trump everything else. The ratio of wisdom to output must be 100% or she is to be pilloried forever. And that in every public appearance, a mea culpa is required.
I have said many stupid, ill-considered, and inaccurate things in my writing and speaking. If you judge me only by my mistakes, you will certainly damn me, too, regardless of how many times I apologize (or the times that I say something useful.) That’s a very tough standard and one that no writer can meet.
Oct 17 2017 at 12:17am
Much of Megan McArdle’s lament in this podcast would fall neatly under the category of the, ’Halo Heuristic,’ – where a heuristic is a rule of thumb and the halo hints at the properties of this particular heuristic. Specifically, a person with a single bad idea is ONLY capable of bad ideas or a person with a single good idea is ONLY capable of good ideas. It is, therefore, assuming that all of the iceberg invisible beneath the water is identical to the small portion above the water glimpsed in a rapid, superficial inspection. It’s the same kind of bias that creates racism. The benefits of using heuristics are blazing processing speed and cognitive ease. I learned about the Halo heuristic—and the bias it produces—from Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking Fast and Slow.
The heuristic explanation is supported by nearly everything Megan McArdle says the rest of the interview. For example, the rapid onset of strong emotions like anger she sees commonly in places like twitter, Facebook, and the news, fit the blazing fast, simplistic responses of people exercising the Halo Heuristic based on small quantities of information. Also,—sometimes—trolls demonstrate improved behavior after they are “engaged” in thoughtful dialogue. That is because, presumably, once the hot-heads start thinking, they stop using the Halo Heuristic and the bias it produces disappears.
Another way to consider Megan McArdle’s concerns—described better in Robert Sapolsky’s, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst—is frontal brain vs. amygdala. The amygdala being the hotbed of anger and the frontal lobe the center of reason and suppressor of the amygdala. Megan McArdle rants about the amount of anger she sees on Facebook which is the amygdala running without any censoring from the frontal lobe. When does the frontal lobe allow the amygdala to run without restraint? According to Daniel Kahneman: whenever it can. Frontal lobe activity is energy intensive, requires constant focus, and produces a slightly uncomfortable sensation. Human’s are lazy thinkers, Kahneman says. We’d expect, therefore, anger to be the default emotion and careful, dispassionate reasoning rare. Which is exactly what is described in this podcast.
Megan said two things that are brilliant. The first has to do with memory. The internet is functioning as a superb form of long term memory. That’s great and it is propelling us forward but there are also costs. If I may rephrase her, the cost of never forgetting makes learning from failure prohibitive at times. However, learning from failure is about the only way we learn, so concern over the issue of never forgetting our failure is academic. Perhaps, though, that was not her point. Perhaps she was instead arguing that some failures are overblown first [by a heuristic] then the biased extreme is never forgotten. She noted there are restraints to overblowing criticism in small towns. That restraint exists, in my opinion, because of potential backlash. Remove the possibility of backlash, and people behave with less restraint. To wit, less careful, which is a restatement of a slumbering frontal lobe. Add an inviolate love/hate meter to each person’s Facebook page, and people might take more care who they offend.
Her other brilliant statement came from her assessment of Soviet Russian social norms taking hold in the United States. Ayn Rand predicted it would happen. To the extent that it is happening, the explanation is likely the continued expansion of majority-rule, central decision making over individual, voluntary decision making. A majority-rule, central decision making society would reward collectivist behaviors—like universal norm setting and adoption— since building of a majority is a necessary skill in a society dominated by the majority-rule, central decision mechanism. As a side note, that is the reason so many people believe the opinion of a majority is Moral. If I may: Moral rules are derived from survival. Being in a minority in a country whose military is run by unrestrained majority-rule decision mechanisms, opens the minority members to coercion and violence. Thus, being in a minority is literally, immoral because it decreases survival. Small wonder that people treat others they perceive as holding a minority opinion as evil, foolish, misguided, and dangerous.
Dr. Robert’s proposed solution at the end of the episode: 1) humility, 2) patience, 3) not respond in kind, can also be viewed in light of brain anatomy. Humility, patience, and responding in some way other than impulsive anger is a perfect description of a mind actively engaging the frontal lobe. He’s basically advocating for people to take a moment to stop and think. Good advice, but again, energy intensive, requires focus, and produces a mildly uncomfortable sensation. So, right though it is, it will likely remain the exception, rather than the rule, except in places where engaging the frontal lobe is rewarded—like, perhaps, school and competitive, voluntary markets.
Oct 17 2017 at 10:13am
Excellent and timely discussion. It does seem it is getting worse, the amount indignation on social media and in the real world itself has grown by a significant amount. As a economics student in the early 90s I was exposed to a lot of game theory and must have internalized the simplest optimal solution of tit-for-tat for interaction with strangers. But as I matured I realized its better to use that strategy sparingly. I now follow the strategy Megan and Russ seem to champion of being kind or giving others the benefit of doubt. As I was growing up, my parents and culture instilled in me the gifts of forgiveness and letting by-gone s be by-gones. It seems society has decided to discard those ancient and wise principles.
Oct 17 2017 at 10:38am
I avoided using Megan’s words because she has apologized for them. They are easy to google “Megan-McArdle-two by four”. I think any fair minded person would agree they support violence against anti-war protesters who engage in civil disobedience.
This was 14 years ago and Megan has apologized. But in light of the topic, I think you should have raised these words and Megan should have talked about them. Many of your commenters here think that the left is uniquely guilty of trying to destroy its opponents, right when the President of the Inited States is trying to get professional athletes fired for not being patriotic enough. I don’t see how you understand the current moment, or the left, without acknowledging how scary it was to be anti-war or anti-Bush in 2003 or that the “warblogger ” scene that made Megan famous contributed to this. People were fired then and certainly people were unable to say what they thought if it wasn’t “USA. USA”.
I am not interested in damnation, but in a full account of what happened and how America got so polarized and angry.
Oct 17 2017 at 10:55am
I am not sure I follow your post. My statement was that the type of twitter hounding that leads to real world consequences occurs only from people on the left and in response you reference a series of policy positions you want explored by people on the right. I don’t follow, but are you proposing that if someone on the right explored the statements that you propose they would face a … shame storm… and face real world consequences? We must be talking past each other because I don’t follow you at all and perhaps I was not clear about what I was saying.
I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments. You approach a concept I was thinking about near the end when Meghan says that we have to get along and we have to be respectful. The first is that I only have to have any opinion or interaction with my neighbors ideas because of the coercive power of the state. The most important solution to decreasing the conflicts is that the state shrinks. I care a lot less what my neighbor thinks about how schools should be designed in a free market on schools. People do not assemble to fight about Coke vs Pepsi because the nation doesn’t get together and vote on which one should be our national drink. As the scope of government grows more and more things that used to be private opinions gets transformed into political views and need to be debated in the public square. Kindness is surely a long term and short term answer, but if the power of the state could not force people to bake cakes then a lot of acrimony would die down.
Finally, Meghan says that we need to get along because the marriage will go on. I agree kindness as a virtue is paramount (A soft answer turneth away wrath) but its probably worth acknowledging that many nations fall apart and increasing ethnic and idealogical divisions are one cause. Guess what the US has increasing amounts of?
Oct 17 2017 at 11:06am
On the topic of racist jokes and Russ’ and Megan’s general indignation – where are you drawing the line as to what is acceptable and what deserves chiding? I’ve been watching Don Rickles bits on Carson, as I wasn’t alive for much of his hey-day – acceptable? I think Blazing Saddles is hilarious, and still find Dave Chappelle to be very funny. Are either of these acceptable? Why or why not?
Oct 17 2017 at 11:17am
I really liked this episode, and especially Megan’s point about the buffer of community. I’ve said things that could (I mean, who really knows?) get me in trouble if “said around” (so, “retweeted and read by”) certain people. Except I did say, in the old fashioned way, those things around those certain people, who I consider to be friends, and they didn’t react that way. They corrected me and were patient with me and I’m better for it. But they also knew me. As in most things, the biggest impact you can make is with people you know, and with relative safety from the outrage mobs.
Oct 17 2017 at 11:44am
Fascinating that Mrs Mcardle wonders where did Idea of destruction of person carrying wrong ideology came from? This idea that once you are wrong, you are the enemy you are worthless and should be vilified and eliminated without even a chance rehabilitation.
Well madam you admitted that you come from the left. This idea was crystallized by from Marx 150 years ago and yes he was father of journalism. Marx agitated to shame attack person not an idea. He preached to take moral high ground.
Forgiveness and repentance is uniquely Judeo -Christian. Until we acknowledge that this a an inevitable aspect dark side of atheistic enlightenment these demons will haunt us.
Welcome to post Christian world. Hate and anger will be a new norm. Our hate will be virtue and their hate is the vice.
Oct 17 2017 at 4:17pm
Since you repeat the claim about the Nazis making the trains run on time I would like to challenge that, and to make a possibly related point about dissent. It is clear from Paxton’s “The Anatomy of Fascism” that Fascist totalitarianism did not bring tough-minded efficiency, but disorderly government reflecting constant power struggles within the party, which was also giving party officials the power to overrule professionals who knew far more about the questions at hand than whichever party official had won the relevant power struggle.
At least as far back as Kipling (“We are not built to comprehend a lie”) it has been noted that a successful technology requires clear sighted honesty. It also requires early identification of mistakes, for work that rests on a false assumption is work wasted that will have to be redone. A society or business in which people are deterred from speaking out for fear of the consequences is a society or business that will find it difficult to run large scale technological projects.
Oct 17 2017 at 4:28pm
Megan’s words are easily google-able: https://web.archive.org/web/20030605201104/http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/003959.html.
She said, ” I think some in New York are going to laugh even harder when they [i.e., anti-war protesters] try to unleash some civil disobedience, Lenin style, and some New Yorker who understands the horrors of war all too well picks up a two-by-four and teaches them how very effective violence can be when it’s applied in a firm, pre-emptive manner.”
I can’t actually find an apology online, but I recall that she did at some point.
I am not asking for eternal damnation, and I think I explicitly said that she is a valuable commentator. This was 14 years ago and when we were young and foolish, we were all young and foolish.
But I don’t see how you understand what has happened to American discourse without taking into account the weaponizing of American patriotism by the right. In this very comment box, we have the startling phenomenon of claims that shaming is uniquely a flaw of the left when the President of the United States is trying to get professional athletes and sports commentators fired for not being patriotic enough.
The use of patriotism as a way of stigmatizing urban, young and nonwhite America is an old one, but certainly the 2001-2006 period was an important phase in that, and the “warblogging” milieu was all about doing that, and it was that milieu that got Megan where she is today. These are facts and I have enough respect for her to think Megan would have admitted them if they were put to her. (She obliquely refers to these facts in the interview, but you have to know the story to know what’s going on.)
The US is actually unusual among Western democracies in having a near-absolute protection of freedom of speech against official government action combined with people frequently losing their employment for non-job-related political opinions. That really isn’t happening in France or Australia. Good on Megan for noticing this and noticing the problem it presents for people who libertarians.
Oct 17 2017 at 4:29pm
Russ – In one of the best expositions on humility, our tenth Justice to the Supreme Court – Learned Hand said in Central Park in 1943 –
“What then is the spirit of liberty?
I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith.
The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right;
the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women;
the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias;
the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded;
the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
Oct 17 2017 at 5:46pm
“So far this is an interesting discussion for what is NOT said: That this is a phenomenon almost entirely of the political left.”
This is true but somewhat misleading (Michael Byrnes is living in an alternate universe if he can’t see that progressives are animating the new moral majority). It comes from the left, true, but it also TARGETS the left nearly as much as it does the right. If not more! After all, it’s people in progressive circles increasingly feeling as if they’re walking on eggshells. Here’s an article on precisely this fear: http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/why-ive-started-to-fear-my-fellow-social-justice-activists-20171013
Oct 17 2017 at 5:55pm
“Until we acknowledge that this a an inevitable aspect dark side of atheistic enlightenment these demons will haunt us.”
Silly. The notion of forgiveness and fair-mindedness is embedded as well in the perfectly secular notion of epistemic humility.
Oct 17 2017 at 6:52pm
I didn’t realize that you were talking specifically about twitter hounding. Point taken.
However, Leslie Jones. Gamergate. Those are not left-wing twitter mobs.
Oct 17 2017 at 9:43pm
If I understand you correctly, Megan McArdle should have mentioned something from 14 years ago that she regrets–one paragraph she wrote that was anti-protestors. Sorry, I don’t agree. Here is her apology by the way–I just found it.
Do you want to list some of the things you regret saying in the past? And should you keep doing it every time you comment on one of these issues?
Where I do agree is that both the left and the right are self-righteous to a fault and that it is very bad for our ability to share ideas with one another.
Oct 18 2017 at 10:02am
To what extent is internet shaming and online mobs a problem with
American society rather than a problem with social media platforms in
general? Is there any any study that somehow tries to quantify and
compare this behavior across different countries?
Oct 18 2017 at 1:01pm
I’m a big fan of Megan McArdle and of Russ Roberts and this podcast and really enjoyed this episode. My only problem with Megan’s suggestions for happier living is that her framing of the issue tends to emphasize the group more than the individual as the proper starting point for moral betterment—in particular, when she takes it as a given and declares “we are all good people who want good things for society.” I do not think this is a rational truth but a statement of faith, which is fine as a personal guide, but, to my mind, socially false and, so, does not immediately lead one to the mechanics of what she’s describing. And the mechanics are crucial.
Taking others to task for bigoted, racist remarks is a very good, courageous thing to do, but it belies another, bigger problem: there are no agreed upon meanings for bigoted or racist jokes or remarks, no matter how often these words are tossed at others, much less any nuance in homage to human fallibility. Many many individuals are falsely accused by “we.”
I realize that Megan’s approach has nuance and internal balance, but starting statements like the one above make me wary of the suggestions to come. The growing insistence that people apologize for everything (whether or not the persons doing the insisting are doing the same); the herd response of “me too” hashtags; the immediate firing of someone for writing something that makes people angry (especially in the absence of any meaningful dialogue on the matter)—all of these are terrible omens as well as exemplars of very cheap grace. And, to me, this is due at least in part to the focus by both sides on “we” rather than “I.”
Oct 19 2017 at 1:01am
I loved this podcast. It is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m very much in agreement with what was said. I think that there is a place for social stigma, but as said in the podcast I think outrage has gotten too cheap.
There is an idea that I have been struggling with related to this topic. It is a case where I think shaming is justified, but I fear that logical and justified private actions may lead to results that are bad for society as a whole.
In the wake of the Charlottesville several of the tiki torch protesters were outed, and lost their jobs. Were I an employer, I would definitely not want to hire such a person, or have such a person work for me.
For society as a whole, I think that could have bad effects. I fear that making racists unemployable, and stigmatizing them may have the opposite affect of what we hope. In other words, I think that hating people with deplorable views, may breed even more deplorable behavior, and more people with such views.
Oct 19 2017 at 8:06am
Freddie deBoer wrote about this topic several months ago via Medium. I think many will find it interesting. “Planet of Cops” https://medium.com/@freddiedeboer/planet-of-cops-8917cfc01fc9
Oct 19 2017 at 11:10am
I don’t really agree with this: “People don’t get fired for saying contrary things about ideas that are on the “right””
Just in the NFL world… ESPN was trolled into suspending Jemelle Hill for anti-right twitter comments just a few weeks ago. Colin Kapernik can’t get a job because his anti-right beliefs are too disruptive. The owner of the Cowboys recently said he would fire anyone who kneeled at the wrong time because it would be disrispectful to his “right” values. It’s a problem on both sides.
I agree that the left has a problem with the contradiction: tolerance is so important that we need a zero tolerance policy for intolerance. (side note: libertarians have the same problem in reverse)
I also agree that this tolerance contradiction is a problem at many corporations. But, it’s also true that there’s a very good reason that racial/sexual/national/religious tolerance is a core value in many corporate HR departments… it’s because if you have thousands of employees across 6 continents, you going to have people with very different backgrounds that have to be able to work together. In that context maybe it’s just most efficient to have a zero tolerance policy for intolerance.
Oct 19 2017 at 1:26pm
Oct 19 2017 at 4:05pm
I believe Hill was suspended temporarily (not fired) for encouraging boycotts of NFL sponsors, who also happen to buy advertising on ESPN (i.e. the folks who pay their bills and her paycheck), not for anti-right comments.
CK opted out of his 49er’s contract, though likely would have been released b/c his talent didn’t match what his contract was to pay him.
My guess is that he can’t find work in the NFL b/c his case of ‘look-at-me’-syndrome is significantly out of proportion with his talent and most teams don’t want to entertain that kind of distraction from an average player — though I think they would from a superstar.
I don’t believe Jerry Jones said he would fire anyone. He said they ‘would not play.’ I take that to mean that they would be benched for that game, but I could be wrong.
Do you have any more examples?
Oct 19 2017 at 6:36pm
This is professional sports we are talking about, not the CIA operations directorate. “Look at me syndrome” is not, shall we say, uncommon in professional sports, and it rarely if ever costs a player his job.
Oct 19 2017 at 9:17pm
Love your podcast: listener since you started. In case it is of any interest, after Scott Alexander drew attention to my concept of a Motte and Bailey doctrine I wrote an explanation on the Oxford Practical Ethics blog that is perhaps more readable than the original paper (here and now with further updates here).
Oct 19 2017 at 10:01pm
I think the very recent NFL example is a pretty solid case of people having pressure put on them stop speaking their mind (through threats on their job). If you disagree that’s okay. I don’t really want to argue about Colin Kapernik football skills or the underlying intent of Jerry Jones’ comments… mainly because I think this listing and weighing of grievances is a big part of the problem.
Someone on the left says something thoughtless and they justify it by citing 50 things they’ve heard from people on the right that were worse. A person on the right hears it and responds just as thoughtlessly with the same justification. Lose lose.
Certainly I agree that the NFL situation is not exactly the same as the Google guy firing. And certainly I agree that there are differences between how this happens on the right v. the left. But I feel like I’m storming the motte a bit here.
Oct 19 2017 at 10:24pm
If we’re going to have a healthier separation between work and not-work, there need to be repercussions for politicizing the workplace the way NFL players have. Left-wingers generally get fired for conduct in the workplace. Right-wingers get fired for conduct in or out of the workplace, including their personal lives. James Damore is one exception, although I actually agree his firing was appropriate. The way it was handled with all the science-denialism and virtue signalling was not.
Oct 20 2017 at 8:28am
I’d argue the NFL politicized the work place by requiring employees to stand for the national anthem in public, on television… but maybe you think the NFL is a special case because the whole enterprise is a public display.
I’ll admit that I don’t have a reservoir on knowledge the history and statics around this type employee / employer conflict. But I do think there’s sufficient blame on all sides that it’s not really worth arguing about who’s the real victim.
Oct 20 2017 at 9:53am
@Russ Roberts; @Gareth Morley
My reading of Gareth’s original comment was NOT that he wants Meghan to serve penance for a 14 year old comment.
I think Gareth was saying: (1) you were having a conversation about the role of online mobs in silencing unpopular opinions, (2) arguably one of the most important examples of this is post-9/11 patriotism, and (3) Meghan was involved (to a small degree). So, in that context a discussion of this issue was conspicuously absent.
While you could argue post-9/11 patriotism isn’t that closely related to the more recent twitter wars you were talking about, I don’t think Gareth’s point was unreasonable.
Oct 20 2017 at 12:45pm
I think there are regrettable characteristics of human behavior that the NFL situation is exercising. I think it is natural for people to pick sides, and to act as if allocating people to them by calculating “if that person obtained a windfall, would that be to my benefit or detriment?” An NFL fan has picked a side to support, and feels that they are standing with their team.
People are also prone to act as if they have “picked a side” in politics. An NFL player’s act in support of a political view will be seen as a declaration of allegiance as well as an argument for or against that view. A supporter who finds that a player from “their side” is not on the same political side will feel a sense of loss, and will be less prone to give wholehearted support to their team.
For all my respect for the first amendment, I don’t think it can remove the feeling of surprise and loss in the mind of a fan who has just found out that their hero did not vote for the same political party that they did.
Oct 20 2017 at 8:15pm
Great podcast, thanks.
I’m surprised at some of the issues that people are upset about. You can discuss coldly and rational discussion on drug legalization even though people are being put in jail for drug offences, but you cannot discuss sex differences or health without people getting emotional. Go figure.
I predict this will pass, it’s too extreme to maintain momentum, I hope.
Oct 21 2017 at 9:09pm
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Oct 22 2017 at 12:22am
Justine Sacco was and is employed in the corporate communications field. Her tweets that led to her firing showed shockingly bad judgement for a person in that line of work. And yet after being fired, she landed a new job in the same sector according to her linked in profile. Google may never forget, but evidently some employers are willing to recognize that people learn from their mistakes.
It is too early to say how James Damore’s career will be affected by being fired from Google, but with education and employment history that includes Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Google, I suspect he will be able to find gainful employment. He seems to be getting a lot of support and attention for being a critic of Google’s policies and culture.
At this point, I don’t think Sacco or Damore are examples of people whose lives have been “destroyed” by internet mobs.
That said, I agree with what I see as Roberts’ and McArdle’s broader concern about a dangerous tendency to dismiss the ideas of people with opposing views as unworthy of consideration by labeling the people as racist, sexist, unpatriotic, etc. I have seen this tendency growing for a few decades, with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich providing leadership.
While I appreciate the antidotes suggested in the podcast, I think it may also be helpful to recognize people who have been thoughtful and prominent critics of their own tribe, such as:
Criticisms coming from opposing groups are often dismissed out of hand as untrustworthy and partisan. But cogent criticisms from trusted sources within a group may be more difficult to dismiss out of hand, and thus promote more thoughtful reflection on alternative perspectives.
Oct 25 2017 at 5:47pm
Interesting discussion and comments. Some random thoughts of my own.
On the James Damore (Google memo) excitement, it seems to me that few who were arguing “his side” cared about his welfare, indeed they may have done most harm to his employment prospects. I’m sure the person at the centre of any cause celebre is nothing like the caricatures his attackers attack or his defenders defend. The person himself inevitably suffers at the hands of both tribes. This pre-dates the Web e.g. the Azaria Chamberlain case in Australia; the O.J. Simpson case in the USA.
The new aspect is that it’s more fickle than before. The mobs aren’t fed by the traditional media, but by the seemingly random spotlight of social media.
I am mostly tickled by the hand-wringing about President Trump. I think it was in the ’90s that it became popular to describe the US president as “the leader of the free world”. This grates with me on two scores — firstly (and fatuously): if we’re free, what is the role of this leader; secondly: does the president truly lead. Since President Trump is having bother managing his own government, maybe we can be done with this free world leadership nonsense.
The romanticism with which Americans view their presidents is paradoxically both charming and alarming. The thing is that it’s all very well to wish every president were “Atticus Finch”, but if such an admirable person actually existed, how far up the slippery pole of politics would he make it? No, the nearest you’ll get is a “Gregory Peck” — someone who seems plausible as Atticus Finch, but is merely acting.
The hand-wringing over today’s president is that we’ve gone from “President Hamlet” to “President Richard-III”: the pensive thinker to the hunchbacked monster. Just caricatures again. BTW, it was fun during the Reagan years, when someone would deride him as just a “B-list actor” to ask “Would you think him a better president if he had been on the A-list?”. In light of what I’m saying now, perhaps the answer should be “yes”.
We would all like to think that the wheels of progress are taking us to a better place; ups and downs, yes, but we are getting somewhere. My view is that in politics the ups and downs are all there is. From time to time the focus shifts from one of Arnold Kling’s three axes to another. On one axis we might climb but the others drift.
It has just occurred to me that Arnold Kling’s three axes correspond with the French national motto: liberte, egalite, fraternite — Kling’s libertarian, liberal and conservative axes — each pulling against the others. The wheels of progress have moved science and technology a long way in the two centuries since that motto was coined; politics hasn’t come so far.
Oct 27 2017 at 5:12pm
I found a great article on some of the positive effects of climate change. A brave (and pretty even-handed) scientist indeed.
[url fixed—Econlib Ed.]
Oct 28 2017 at 7:27pm
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Oct 29 2017 at 7:09am
All this talk about Internet shaming and online mobs and the topic of Gamergate and Anita Sarkeesian did not come up once. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit the neat little narrative that mobbing has to come from the left and is about the feigned outrage at some PC issue.
Oct 31 2017 at 9:13am
Just one point regarding the thought experiment of earthquake in China and cutting of one’s own finger.
The reason why people would give up their finger to save a million people is not only social norms. They would probably do the same even if no one knew; reason being this way they are directly responsible for those million lives. In normal circumstances, they couldn’t have done anything to prevent an earthquake, hence the relative apathy. One cannot worry about everything beyond one’s control, it would be too much.
Oct 31 2017 at 11:34pm
Russ, thanks for linking to the apology. I have to say it is worse than I remember. It isn’t a proper apology at all. She advocates and made light of violence, even if we accept that in context she just meant against people who commit property damage. She responded basically by saying she was tired of talking about it, she was young and clearly did not take any kind of broader responsibility.
I do not think the American left and right are equivalent. While I certainly agree that feminism and anti-racism are sometimes weaponized on campuses, patriotism is the first refuge of the identity politician. In the US, weapomized patriotism is really the property of the right. I am afraid I can’t take Ms. Mcardle’s complaints about intemperate global warming activists very seriously when she can’t properly take responsibility for advocating beating anarchists with two by fours.
Nov 1 2017 at 8:52am
Just to correct one prominent point made by Megan. James Damore did not openly walk into the spotlight and arguably didn’t deserve the reaction he got from Google or the public. This was a 12 page memo he posted on an internal Google site that was set up for just such comments and debates. The memo then spread to the rest of Google and evidently did not cause much if any of a ruckus. It was only when someone at Google “leaked” the memo to the outside world that the fun started. Google was reacting more to the public scrutiny than to the memo and the internal debate.
Thus this is not akin to Megan or you making a public controversial statement understanding the possible consequences. James was participating on a Google sanctioned site in an (previously) accepted manner. One can only imagine the chilling effect this has had on the free exchange of ideas within Google.
Nov 4 2017 at 11:32pm
This podcast episode really made me think and rethink my own participation in social media! I am also now more concerned that I used to be about how social networks can potentially be perverted into tools of repression.
However, I think the benefits of networking were undersold here. Think about how GoFundMe and other similar campaigns that have enabled charity, generosity, and compassion in ways that were previously not possible. Rating systems have been transformed into beacons that highlight the best of what services have to offer. Etc…!
Nov 6 2017 at 3:37pm
Anyone that watches The Orville and has seen the Majority Rule episode was probably nodding in agreement with most of the points it made. Virtue signaling has gone way too far and needs to stop.
Nov 7 2017 at 10:51pm
Very timely conversation. Just listened to it this afternoon shortly after reading the Washington Post story that was whining about the woman who flipped off the Trump motorcade getting fired. Thus, Ms. McArdle’s comment about everyone having the opportunity to be targeted is spot on. Of course, I also noticed the Washington Post didn’t remember the random guy at the Charlottesville protest who was A) not in uniform or on the job and B) at a peaceful protest (that night) and was still doxxed by the other side. The other side contacted his employer and got him fired. Of course, no one cared about that, but then folks whine when Trump repeats that kind of call by saying football players should be fired for acting up while in uniform.
I will disagree with Ms. McArdle though on one statement. Part way through the conversation she mentions how she never really hears from global warming skeptics but only from luke-warms as if skeptics do not exist. I would argue that she has fallen for that which she is discussing; isn’t it reasonable to believe that in today’s society, with the experience she faced for merely broaching the possibility of a positive outcome for some, that the skeptics would have already been pushed out of the discussion?
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