The comment threads here at IEET have changed somewhat over recent days. After what Hank Pellissier has described as “a two-month battle between religious and irreligious commenters”, suddenly peace has broken out, and everything is peace, harmony, love and understanding. The Buddha must be allowing himself a faint, Gioconda-like smile. Or is he?
Over at KurzweilAI, not everyone seems to think so. According to one account, our managing director (Hank) “has turned IEET into a totalitarianism”, and IEET has been “completely overrun by special interests”. Another insists that we “shouldn’t start censoring something because it might be offensive or disagreeable” or because “someone is merely overstating a personal opinion”. Giulio Prisco, a moderator at KurzweilAI, assures commenters there that he will never censor comments “unless you insult others with extreme rudeness or post extremely offensive material”.
So where does the truth lie? Has IEET instituted a policy that is ethic-based and effective in promoting good sense and reason, or are we just thought policing, and giving full rein to our dark, totalitarian urges?
The case for the prosecution
In the same article announcing the new policy, Hank claims that many websites are “filled with venomous invective, aggressive one-upmanship, cruel insults, and disrespectful toxicity”. Not for the faint-hearted, then. But does this matter? Doesn’t the truth emerge from the cut and thrust of vigorous debate, in which we give free rein to our emotions and uncover issues that so-called “polite, civilized discourse” leave festering under the carpet? The Internet is a place where people can hate each other, viciously, but can’t actually harm each other. As Giulio has pointed out, we trade words, not sticks and stones (or WMDs), and we all know that “words can never hurt us”.
Furthermore, freedom of speech is the foundation on which democracy and human rights are built. Without it, we will just slip back into a dark age of oppression and censorship, all the more terrifying now that emerging technologies can spy into our very thought processes. We may not literally be “thought policing” here, but thought policing on a massive scale surely lies in humanity’s near future. And with this new policy, IEET is hastening the demise, it’s alleged “beacon of light” nothing more than an avatar of totalitarian darkness.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with “Buddhist Right Speech”. If you want to hold yourself to a high standard of discourse, that is your right and privilege. Just don’t wield a charming, 2,500-year-old idea as a weapon with which to fulfill your authoritarian desires. How I speak is my choice, and as Peg Tittle recently argued, if you are offended, then you need to own that feeling and deal with it. Perhaps try some mindfulness meditation.
The case for the defense
The problem with all this, though, is that it’s all so thoroughly naïve. Wouldn’t we all love to live in a world where everyone could just say whatever came into their heads, and those for whom our words were uncongenial would have the grace to avert their attention? Unfortunately, that’s not the way we are built. It is true that sticks and stones can break our bones, but it is NOT the case that words can never hurt us. Words do hurt us, all the time. Just listen to the average news broadcast, and tell me how you feel afterwards.
And Hank is right: the Internet is filled with venomous invective, and no, this does not allow the truth to emerge, except perhaps the truth about various people’s pathologies. The commenter Pendula, despairing at the acrimony on display in response to Lawrence Krauss’s article on religious liberty and discrimination [link], points out that what draw her to IEET’s blog is not “to see religion bashed or praised”, but rather “to discuss issues that deal with a forward moving, solution oriented look at the world”. Amen to that.
The truth, of course is that there are valid arguments for and against.
It is true, for example, that any form of censorship, anywhere, will encourage would-be censors everywhere who are not remotely interested in “promoting good sense and reason”, but merely in quashing dissent. It is also true that thought-policing is both a reality and (on a much greater scale) a real risk for the future, and we need to exercise extreme caution before promoting behavioural patterns that might encourage this trend.
On the other hand, as James Hughes pointed out on a comment thread a while back, IEET is not a public square: it is think-tank aiming to promote a specific ideological position. Freedom of speech applies to the public sphere; nobody is obliged to allow free speech in their living room.
Enforcing “Buddhist Right Speech” on IEET’s comment threads is not an irreversible step. It is an experiment, designed in part to deal with a problem that was beginning to cause distress and undermine IEET’s reputation, and in part to turn the crisis into an opportunity and create a commenting culture that coheres with IEET’s mission. Ultimately, whether IEET’s new commenting policy is ethical or not depends on your preferred ethical system, which I have long argued is a matter of choice, not of truth.
As for whether it’s effective…well, that’s why we perform experiments.
Peter Wicks has been employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy.