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Should We Have More Expansive Laws as an Alternative to Cancel Culture?

by FCCC2 min read23rd Sep 20217 comments

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I’ve always thought that in a well-functioning society, before an inmate is released they should be rehabilitated, and upon release they should be welcome back into the community as an equal. They’ve paid debt to society. It’s over.

To me, the cancel culture’s method of ostracizing someone from society indefinitely for things as minor as “misdemeanours” (like making an off-colour joke or having the wrong opinion) is very far from optimal policy. It’s clear that the magnitude of the punishment sometimes far exceeds the level of the offence, even when the offence is quite bad. We don’t punish someone indefinitely for punching someone in the back of the head or killing someone in a drink-driving accident, so why should we do it for offenders whose crimes don’t even warrant a prison sentence? (Especially when their guilt is not proven.)

I think part of the issue is that the targets of these mobs often aren’t punished through traditional means. Someone who says something racist has no legal consequences, so people become vigilantes and form hate mobs to destroy anyone who breaks legally unwritten rules. So cancel culture does have some benefit. But no one is keeping track of the amount that an offender is punished, and this leads to excessive punishment. There’s not even an accepted definition of what the lines are.

One very tentative solution I’ve considered is implementing fines for clear offences (including for the offence of participating in an online pile on). As with most fines, I think there should have no financial incentive to issue them: Revenue from each fine should go to the federal government, rather than fund the department that issues the fine. To be clear, I’m not in favour of imprisoning people for these new laws, except where a grievous oversight in the current laws exists.

I’m a utilitarian who thinks that the non-aggression principle is, surprising often, quite a good policy, especially for how simple it is. But I’d wager that most libertarians are uneasy about social lynchings for minor offences, and that, at their core, libertarians have a “live and let live” mentality. That mindset should oppose things like being fired for jokes made outside of work, even if many libertarians’ current formalization of their morality implies such a firing is morally acceptable.

For these reasons, I think we should consider making laws more expansive. Maybe the unwritten rules of society should be written.

Having said all that, I still don’t like this proposal, in part, because it doesn’t address the lack of compassion on the part of the cancellers towards social offenders. What do you think we should do about online mobs and companies firing people for what they say outside of work? What about more serious offences? What should government do about cancel culture?

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You might be interested in reading Robin Hanson's extended writings on this and similar subjects, for example here:

I’ve said before that it might be better if we had formal laws against the kinds of evil that cancel crowds now seek to punish. Because at least then there’d be a formal trail before punishment, which could exonerate many of the accused. But it doesn’t look like such laws will be passed anytime soon.

I agree with him that this solution is unlikely to satisfy people's desire for cancel culture:

  • People engaging in cancellations enjoy doing so; they would not get this benefit from passively watching a court proceeding.
  • Court proceedings give defendants the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, present their own evidence, be judged by their peers, and so on, which increase their likelihood of being exonerated.
  • Often people are cancelled for activities that either were not a norm violation at the time, or are not in broader society, and hence would not be against the law. 
  • Cancel culture allows a small number of crazy people to exert disproportionate influence because they care more; laws determined by the median voter would be and are much more moderate.
  • Engaging in a cancellation mob allows people to signal how woke they are; passively accepting an institutional process would not.
  • Enforcement through highly random bullying creates a climate of fear, where people aggressively self-censor to avoid falling anywhere near the line. Encoding this in law would allow people to say things that were just on the permitted side of the line without fear.
  • Because there is little logic to cancellation, allies and high status people can be exempted from punishment for the same behaviour which would be cancellably 'creepy' or 'racist' from others.
  • Laws can take many years to pass; cancellation mobs sometimes want to punish people for things that were not forbidden very recently.
  • Passing such laws would require them to be debated, and many of them might seem absurd. By instead only raising these rules in the context of individual transgressors, principled opposition can be dismissed as supporting the bad person.

It's worth noticing that Hanson eventually proceeds to make an alternative suggestion, which is quite different from the suggestion in the OP.


So I seriously propose that some respectable independent groups create non-government non-profit “Cancel Courts”. 

I think that others have made similar suggestions.

Of course, the success on these kinds of informal courts entirely depends on whether they are seen as legitimate by relevant players.

Thanks for the link; I should read Overcoming Bias more. I liked Hanson’s Futarchy idea, specifically the idea of replacing the Fed with financial instruments (which I can no longer seem to find anywhere). (Though I think the idea of tying returns of a policy’s implementation to GDP+ is doomed for several technical reasons, including getting stuck at local maxima and a good policy choice being a losing bet because of unrelated policy failures). I think he probably influenced my prison and immigration idea, and really my whole methodology (along with Alvin ... (read more)

I think your proposed solution is kinda dumb (not meant offensively about you! original thinking will always involve risks, and I appreciate you taking them), but I love the direction you're thinking in! I like this contribution.

Why I think your solution doesn't work: Empirically, I don't think mobs forgive people after they've served their sentences or been fined.

But I think you're so-so right about a need for a proper "path to redemption" in our culture. This is personal for me. I've been a bad person, and I'm racked with guilt about it. In April, I wrote:

I really wish we had a secular religious-like institution for Redemption where people can go and get soundly punished for what they've done wrong (e.g. flogging, torture, confinement, whatever), and then it's publicly announced that this person has *paid* their toll as judged by the institution. If anyone doubts this, you can just show them your scars. And importantly, you can't be punished by this institution against your will. You would go there voluntarily and suggest the severity of your own punishment, and they get to judge whether they see it as adequate. If you're just subjected to your punishment against your will, how's that indicative of regret? It acts as a costly signal that you understand what you've done wrong and that you want to do better. You yourself would get to decide how costly a signal you want to send, and it is not the institution's job to say 'it is too much'.

To be fair, this is also kind of a dumb solution. But the important point is that a path to redemption must be voluntary. Forcing punishment on someone doesn't signal that they've changed their ways.

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My sense is that before we putting even a little political capital into some kind of proposal like this, we need to determine if cancel culture is actually something worth worrying about to this extent. 

Like, I 100% agree that in principle it's objectionable to "cancel" someone, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is manifesting to a degree worth caring about, or that it ever will. My intuition is that many people say and do bad things all the time and only a very, very small number of them are canceled.

This doesn't mean that it couldn't become an issue, but I wonder how much of this is something that EA should keep talking about as a serious issue, or if it's just a "Very Online" kind of thing. I often have heard otherwise brilliant people comparing cancel culture to, like,  the cultural revolution under Mao, and needless to say, that's a pretty big overreaction.

Also, my gut tells me that if cancel culture is becoming a thing, which perhaps it is, then nothing that anyone has proposed so far appears, on the face of it, to have done anything to curb the phenomena. And I have doubts that this proposal would either, for reasons people already have stated. If anything, at least in the United States, there is now a completely asinine culture war over cancellation, which then distracts from more important issues like foreign aid and refugee policy. 

I guess maybe I think that EA doesn't have the tools to "solve" or "fix" cancel culture, it's probably out of our abilities, so maybe let's focus on things we can have an impact on.

Yes. I didn't even read the "we" in the initial post as referring to EA, because this doesn't seem at all like something EA would be involved in, because the issue is small-scale (compared to "hundreds of thousands of people die each year" or "we are at risk of extinction"), and extremely non-neglected (huge amounts of funding and cultural capital on all "sides" of the issue). As you note, the current state of the issue seems to be "asinine and distracting".

I read "we" as "people in the broader culture", and the Forum as a place to ask a question about generic problem-solving (which is fine — over the years, people have asked questions about a variety of cause areas that aren't connected to EA).

That’s a fair question. Culture is extremely important (e.g. certain cultural norms facilitate corruption and cronyism, which leads to slower annual increases in quality of life indices), but whether cancelling, specifically, is a big problem, I’m not sure.

Government demonstrably changes culture. At a minor level, drink-driving laws and advertising campaigns have changed something that was a cultural norm into a serious crime. At a broader level, you have things like communist governments making religion illegal and creating a culture where everyone snitches on everyone else to the police.

If we can influence government policy, which I think we can, we can influence culture. It’s probably much easier when most people aren’t questioning a norm (drink-driving, again, being a good example), but I think you’re right in this case: Since cancelling is fairly common to talk about, it’s probably much harder to change the general discourse (and the laws).