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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Altruism vs. Objective Communication

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The Campaign for Free Speech recently released disturbing poll results (PDF) showing, among other things, that a slim majority of Americans regard the First Amendment as "outdated" and in need of a re-write.

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Image by Miguel Henriques, via Unsplash, license.
Furthermore, about half of respondents thought (undefined) "hate speech" should be illegal and over three quarters regarded the following as true: "The First Amendment allows anyone to say their opinion no matter what, and they are protected by law from any consequences of saying those thoughts or opinions." The report notes "exceptions," such as falsely shouting Fire! in a crowded theater, but oddly fails to also mention libel laws as exemplifying the legal limits to what someone can say.

The article rightly cites ignorance as a major problem. (That's perhaps a post for another day Others have that covered very well.) But another problem occurred to me after I failed to find anything particularly loaded or biased about the poll questions. This problem isn't confined to this poll or even to the question of freedom of speech: It pertains to how we use our speech.

As I read through the questions, they struck me as very ... other-centric. I am not faulting the folks at the Campaign for Free Speech: Practically everyone does this today regarding questions of policy, and it may well be appropriate to ask questions in this way in a poll, in order to find a worst-case scenario. (I would need to think a lot more about this to be sure.)

But back to policy. Many news outlets and political organizations misuse polls to nudge sympathetic politicians or intimidate opponents of proposed laws, such as those against "hate speech" or those in favor of the "Green New Deal" or teaching creationism in government schools. Opponents sometimes do find examples of polling questions blatantly geared towards eliciting a desired answer, and sometimes opponents can discuss the impracticality of a measure.

Both of these are correct, but too often come without use of a much greater opportunity for more effective opposition: Reframing the question -- be it for an opinion poll or an election -- in such a way as to make clear to individual voters in the public what the consequences would be, for them, personally. (Panderers do this by cherry-picking and pitching to a target demographic; but it is a mistake for defenders of our greatest political value, freedom not to personalize our proposals, since reality is on our side and our target demographic is every man and woman of voting age.)

This is not always straightforward (e.g., in the case of targets of pandering), but I'll give a shot here on the "hate speech" question. Here is the poll's version:
The First Amendment, which provides the right of Americans to have free speech, was enacted more than 200 years ago. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? 'The First Amendment goes too far in allowing hate speech in modern America and should be updated to reflect the cultural norms of today.'
And here is my off-the-cuff re-framing:
Do you think the First Amendment should be re-written in such a way as to make it possible for you to be fined or go to jail for expressing your honest opinion, if a government official deems what you said as against current cultural norms?
Notice that the official version of the question causes people to imagine consequences for imagined, despised others, at the expense of cautious self-regard, which should be the primary concern when people are tossing around proposals to change the government -- the sole social institution that can legally coerce anyone.

It would be interesting to consider what the poll results would have shown had every single question been rephrased so that respondents would default to focusing on the nature of the threat represented by unfree speech -- rather than indulging in fantasy about some jerk getting a comeuppance that, richly deserved as it may be, would not be worth the price of gutting government protection of our most precious and important right.

I will close by noting that the widespread nature of altruism in our culture predisposes many, including people who explicitly reject altruism, to frame policy questions this way as a matter of habit. This is a habit we must become aware of and break.

-- CAV

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