Another Open Letter

 

Dear conservative friends,

My last open letter appears to have aroused the ire of quite a few of you. Not only did you take issue with my characterization of the ALS ice bucket challenge, some of you have suggested that my criticism is ultimately harmful to the conservative cause and humanity generally. So please allow me to expand on my original letter.

First, I think it is wonderful that the ALS Association has been able to raise substantial sums toward research. While I question whether those sums will ultimately come at the expense of other, equally worthy causes, I am inclined to be optimistic that this fundraising campaign has enlarged the pie of total donations. Perhaps it will lead to greater ongoing giving too, which would also be wonderful. And although some participants are spending more on bagged ice than they would have given to ALS research, it’s good to see greater awareness of the disease. I’m inclined to be optimistic here, too: Perhaps this awareness will touch some people more permanently, and be more than a passing fad.

I also salute the marketers who invented this remarkable campaign. If other charities now need to step up their game, that is not in any way a black mark on the ALS Association. The world is changing, and charities need to adapt. The Association’s marketers were quite insightful in their effective use of the socially coercive power of social media.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that such a campaign is, in fact, coercive. Some of you have scoffed at my use of the word, equating coercion with force, but the two concepts are not identical. It’s an understandable mistake; on Ricochet, we commonly discuss the government’s monopoly on force, and the coercive power of its threat. But while physical force is the most blunt and fundamental form of coercion, there are other forms too. Financial pressure, emotional pressure, and social pressure can be applied to get people to do things they don’t otherwise want to. Guilt, shame, the threat of ostracism, and inducements to belong are tools of coercion rather than reason.

Certainly there are worse things to be coerced into than dumping ice water on your head or donating to a charity. And it is certainly an improvement to have such coercion come from society rather than government. At the same time, to favor less government intervention in society and markets is not to automatically endorse the outcomes that they produce. You can favor removing government strictures on prostitution, drug use, gambling, tobacco, profanity on television, or anything else without necessarily endorsing the activities themselves. Mozilla’s decision to fire Brendan Eich was not government coercion—it was the legitimate working of free markets in society. But I would still contend that Mozilla’s decision was bad for society generally. Brendan Eich was ultimately the victim of a social media mob.

Which brings me to the question of whether the conservative cause should embrace these kinds of viral campaigns. Community is a strong element of conservatism; but these campaigns don’t reinforce shared values so much as create bonding through shared adversity (in a sanitized form). Going along with what’s normative is also, historically, a conservative approach; but that’s because conservative thinking has been guided by a preference for the tried and true, not for the conformity of the mob. Independent reasoning and personal autonomy have been central principles of conservative thinking from Aristotle to America’s Founders to Ayn Rand. In the case of the ice bucket challenge, you may agree with the ends, but the means—ill-informed social pressure applied through social media—are the same as what lost Brendan Eich his job. Even if conservatives want to turn viral campaigns to their advantage, I doubt that they can. Using viral conformity to advance conservatism is self-contradictory.

So by all means, have fun making videos, and be generous to the ALS Association. But while you do, be aware that you may be undermining some of the values you cherish. And know that my original offer still stands: If you’d like to persuade me, on the merits, that I should donate to ALS research, I’m all ears.

Sincerely,

Son of Spengler

There are 63 comments.

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  1. Klaatu Inactive
    Klaatu
    @Klaatu

    Sorry Son but you’re all wet on this one.

    The only coercion (if any) present here is the good natured variety among friends.  It is harmless fun with the added benefit of serving a worthy cause.  It violates no conservative principles I am aware of.

    • #1
  2. user_697797 Member
    user_697797
    @

    Klaatu:

    Sorry Son but you’re all wet on this one.

    The only coercion (if any) present here is the good natured variety among friends. It is harmless fun with the added benefit of serving a worthy cause. It violates no conservative principles I am aware of.

     Agreed. There has to be some minimal threshold before a suggestion or nudging of someone to do something qualifies as coercion.  I’m not sure the pressures exerted on the ice bucket deadbeats (myself included) really exceeds that minimum standard.  

    • #2
  3. rico Inactive
    rico
    @rico

    Very well stated, SoS. I would like to adopt your thorough “disclaimer” and then highlight my main takeaway about this entire affair, that being the incredible breadth and speed at which social media can assert its coercive powers. Granted, in this case the coercion is subtle and is directed toward a “good cause,” it demonstrates the potential for serious harm of social media as a tool in the hands of clever manipulators of public opinion. The potential for mobilizing the emotional urges of an increasingly shallow (in terms of social virtue) population through populist appeal strikes me as something that conservatives and libertarians should be concerned about.

    • #3
  4. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Klaatu:

    Sorry Son but you’re all wet on this one.

    The only coercion (if any) present here is the good natured variety among friends. It is harmless fun with the added benefit of serving a worthy cause. It violates no conservative principles I am aware of.

     Maybe among your friends, but not among all.  Have you received insults and accusations of heartlessness for NOT participating?  Some of us have, and that goes to Spengler’s point.

    This campaign is one of social pressure.  Furthermore, though is not often publicly broached, many of us have specific moral complaints about the primary recipient of the funds, a group which endorses fetal stem cell research.  Those of us opposed to abortion, or at least those who wish to keep it legal but rare, may not want to feel pressured into contributing to an organization at odds with their conscience.  To raise such objections, even to good natured friends, further invites accusations or heartlessness.

    • #4
  5. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Coercion involves force or the threat of force. Social pressure is not coercion. Is it emotional manipulation? Sure. Could it involve shaming? Yes. Can it be unpleasant? Absolutely.

    Still not coercion.

    • #5
  6. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    skipsul: This campaign is one of social pressure.  Furthermore, though is not often publicly broached, many of us have specific moral complaints about the primary recipient of the funds, a group which endorses fetal stem cell research.  Those of us opposed to abortion, or at least those who wish to keep it legal but rare, may not want to feel pressured into contributing to an organization at odds with their conscience.  To raise such objections, even to good natured friends, further invites accusations or heartlessness.

     and could be used against you at some later time.  Social pressure can get ugly.  And so can prenatal stem cell research.  

    • #6
  7. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Ed G.:

    Coercion involves force or the threat of force. Social pressure is not coercion. Is it emotional manipulation? Sure. Could it involve shaming? Yes. Can it be unpleasant? Absolutely.

    Still not coercion.

     That very limited definition is not the commonly understood one, and is not the one in the dictionary. Wikipedia gives a good overview of different forms of coercion. Force is one form, but not the only form.

    • #7
  8. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    While I appreciate the softened tone toward the ALS campaign, I still believe you are grossly distorting it’s nature and the value of future such viral efforts. To call a Facebook request from a friend or acquaintance “coercion” is extreme hyperbole, as is the idea that such social interaction constitutes a “mob”.

    You talk of “Independent reasoning and personal autonomy.” But you fail to explain how someone asking you to dump ice water on your head and/or donate to charity negates those things. If your personal, or society’s generally, independent reasoning and personal autonomy can’t resist such meager and benign pressure, you and our society have bigger problems than the ALS challenge.

    Social pressure to conform to beneficial behaviors is the most time honored way of preserving civil society. In fact , one of the most corrosive problems we face today is that we’ve stopped using this type of persuasion. If only there was still social pressure to have children within marriage and for fathers to take care of their kids we would be in a much better place, to name but one place where we’ve overdone the emphasis on “independent reasoning and social autonomy.”

    • #8
  9. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Social pressure applied through social media isn’t necessarily ill-informed. That you and I agree it was wrong to take Eich’s head over a political view doesn’t make it wrong to use pressure generally. The possibility for the misapplication of shame doesn’t mean shame should be avoided as inherently dangerous or wrong.

    • #9
  10. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    Son of Spengler:

    That very limited definition is not the commonly understood one, and is not the one in the dictionary. Wikipedia gives a good overview of different forms of coercion. Force is one form, but not the only form.

    I disagree, I think your idea of coercion is the more novel one. Coercion can be a loaded term and I do think you are using it as such. Coercions definitely implies the use of force and therefore I don’t think it’s really apt to pull it out in a situation where force isn’t at all a real threat.

    But even if I granted your definition of the term, I’d still say that coercion isn’t necessarily wrong. Believing that we all need to persuaded to fight our natural selfishness and baser motivations from time to time, I propose that there is no choice to employ some form of coercion in order to maintain social order and civility.

    The type of hyper autonomy you seem to hold as the ideal and key to a great society doesn’t jive with the type of creatures we actually are.

    • #10
  11. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Son, in my experience on this site, if a Ricochet post doesn’t cause suggestions that your “criticism is ultimately harmful to the conservative cause and humanity generally”, you’re just not hitting a nerve!

    • #11
  12. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Son of Spengler:

    …..

    That very limited definition is not the commonly understood one, and is not the one in the dictionary. Wikipedia gives a good overview of different forms of coercion. Force is one form, but not the only form.

     I differ with you there, both on whether the common understanding is wider and on what the dictionaries say:

    Merriam Webster Online says this:

    1:  to restrain or dominate by force 

    2:  to compel to an act or choice <was coerced into agreeing>

    3:  to achieve by force or threat <coerce compliance>

    Dictionary.com says this:

    1. the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.

    2. force or the power to use force in gaining compliance, as by a government or police force.

    Anyway, how expansive do you want to be? How expansive can we be without diluting this word beyond meaning or usefulness?

    • #12
  13. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Son of Spengler:

    Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that such a campaign is, in fact, coercive. … But while physical force is the most blunt and fundamental form of coercion, there are other forms too. Financial pressure, emotional pressure, and social pressure can be applied to get people to do things they don’t otherwise want to. Guilt, shame, the threat of ostracism, and inducements to belong, are tools of coercion rather than reason.

     Regardless of whether we call this coercion or not, it’s obvious you view it negatively.

    But isn’t this type of coercion – essentially a combination of peer pressure and public shaming – exactly what conservatives think society needs in lieu of an overbearing state?

    How else are we going to keep teenage girls from getting pregnant, or convince people not to drive home from the bar drunk, or not to get that divorce and leave their kids fatherless, if not by ugly peer pressure and public shaming?

    • #13
  14. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Gary McVey: Coercions definitely implies the use of force and therefore I don’t think it’s really apt to pull it out in a situation where force isn’t at all a real threat.

     When I type “coerce” into Google, I get the following news stories:

    • Rick Perry “was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.”
    • A Canadian soldier was acquitted on a charge of sexual assault. His “lawyers said the sex was consensual, while the defence argued that he used his superior rank to coerce Raymond, 30, into sex acts.”
    • “A strong movement is afoot both in the public and private sector to coerce Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name.”

    In none of these cases was physical force threatened. The alleged coercion involved other threats (e.g., losing one’s job). I’m not having a hard time finding corroborating support for this understanding, while so far, I haven’t seen any evidence in favor of a more narrow definition.

    • #14
  15. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    John Wilson: I’d still say that coercion isn’t necessarily wrong. Believing that we all need to persuaded to fight our natural selfishness and baser motivations from time to time, I propose that there is no choice to employ some form of coercion in order to maintain social order and civility.

     Sure, social pressure is important and valuable–for enforcing socially desirable ends. It is right to threaten social ostracism for antisocial behavior. It is not right to use shame or guilt as leverage for tangential behavior, like donating to a particular charity or dumping water on one’s head.

    It is right to appeal to a man’s honor by challenging him to do something honorable (like, say, caring for his family). It is wrong to leverage a man’s honor by challenging him to do something stupid. In this case, dumping water on your head is a mild form of stupidity, but these “challenges” are still designed to exploit honor, courage, and pride to coerce behavior that someone needn’t take pride in.

    • #15
  16. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    The campaign is basically an updated spin on a chain letter (or chain email).  It’s not coercive in a physical sense.  But social pressure is a real phenomenon.

    To you guys who have resisted the ALS campaign, that’s small potatoes.  My wife and I have resisted the pressure to provide snacks for our kid’s sporting events.  That takes courage.

    • #16
  17. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    SoS, that was my post not Gary McVey’s, just to keep things clear. And I agree that force doesn’t only express itself physically. But threatening one’s livelihood is a far cry from the type of social pressure in question with the  ALS challenge. Social shaming, at this level anyway, is not the same or remotely close to using your position of authority over someone to threaten them with the loss of their job or income.

    So sorry, still completely inapt.

    • #17
  18. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Ed G.:

    Social pressure applied through social media isn’t necessarily ill-informed. That you and I agree it was wrong to take Eich’s head over a political view doesn’t make it wrong to use pressure generally. The possibility for the misapplication of shame doesn’t mean shame should be avoided as inherently dangerous or wrong.

     Do you think that most–or even a sizable minority–of those who submit to the ice bucket challenge are well informed? Do you think that challenging people to pour ice water of their heads is an appropriate application of shame? (Understanding, of course, that the stakes are low and the shame is mild.)

    • #18
  19. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Son of Spengler:

    …..

    When I type “coerce” into Google, I get the following news stories:

    • Rick Perry “was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of ….. coercion of a public servant.”
    • A Canadian soldier was acquitted on a charge of sexual assault. His “lawyers said the sex was consensual, while the defence argued that he used his superior rank to coerce ….
    • “A strong movement is afoot both in the public and private sector to coerce Redskins’ owner ….

    In none of these cases was physical force threatened. The alleged coercion involved other threats (e.g., losing one’s job). I’m not having a hard time finding corroborating support for this understanding, while so far, I haven’t seen any evidence in favor of a more narrow definition.

     
    SoS, physical force is indeed looming over all of these examples from your Google search.

    Besides, now it seems you’re using an overly narrow view of “force” to justify your overly broad view of “coerce”. I never said that “force” had to be directly physical in order to qualify as coercion. I’m simply arguing that social pressure to donate does not involve force or the threat of it.

    • #19
  20. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Ed G.:

    Son of Spengler:

    …..

    That very limited definition is not the commonly understood one, and is not the one in the dictionary. Wikipedia gives a good overview of different forms of coercion. Force is one form, but not the only form.

    I differ with you there, both on whether the common understanding is wider and on what the dictionaries say:

    Merriam Webster Online says this:

    1: to restrain or dominate by force

    2: to compel to an act or choice <was coerced into agreeing>

    3: to achieve by force or threat <coerce compliance>

    Dictionary.com says this:

    1. the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.

    2. force or the power to use force in gaining compliance, as by a government or police force.

    Anyway, how expansive do you want to be? How expansive can we be without diluting this word beyond meaning or usefulness?

     I think the bolded sections support my understanding of the term. I’m not denying that force is coercion, just that it’s not the only kind. Dogs have four legs, but not all four-legged animals are dogs.

    • #20
  21. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Son of Spengler:

    Ed G.:

    Social pressure applied through social media isn’t necessarily ill-informed. That you and I agree it was wrong to take Eich’s head over a political view doesn’t make it wrong to use pressure generally. The possibility for the misapplication of shame doesn’t mean shame should be avoided as inherently dangerous or wrong.

    Do you think that most–or even a sizable minority–of those who submit to the ice bucket challenge are well informed? Do you think that challenging people to pour ice water of their heads is an appropriate application of shame? (Understanding, of course, that the stakes are low and the shame is mild.)

     I don’t think there’s much actual shame involved in this at all, SoS. And what do people need to be informed about? That ALS is devastating and that money for research is better than no money for research?

    • #21
  22. Ed G. Inactive
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Son of Spengler:

    Ed G.:

    Son of Spengler:

    …..

    That very limited definition is not the commonly understood one, and is not the one in the dictionary. Wikipedia gives a good overview of different forms of coercion. Force is one form, but not the only form.

    I differ with you there, both on whether the common understanding is wider and on what the dictionaries say:

    Merriam Webster Online says this:

    1: to restrain or dominate by force

    2: to compel to an act or choice <was coerced into agreeing>

    3: to achieve by force or threat <coerce compliance>

    Dictionary.com says this:

    1. the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.

    2. force or the power to use force in gaining compliance, as by a government or police force.

    Anyway, how expansive do you want to be? How expansive can we be without diluting this word beyond meaning or usefulness?

    I think the bolded sections support my understanding of the term. I’m not denying that force is coercion, just that it’s not the only kind. Dogs have four legs, but not all four-legged animals are dogs.

     How else, aside from force, does one compel action?

    • #22
  23. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Ed G.: How else, aside from force, does one compel action?

     By threatening (unrelated) consequences that are perceived as worse than inaction. For example, I can coerce my children to call me from college by threatening to withhold funds. A teenage boy can coerce his girlfriend to have sex with him by threatening to break up with her. Coercion requires a power differential–one person has something valuable that the other wants–but it’s not necessarily force.

    • #23
  24. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    How is there a power differential between friends on Facebook?

    • #24
  25. CuriousJohn Thatcher
    CuriousJohn
    @CuriousJohn

    My mob wife used Facebook to challenge a few of her friends yesterday to do  the ice bucket thingy.   Then went out to the store so buy some wine and went to the mob house to enjoy the a drink with those she challenged and help do the ice bucket thingy.   Yes mob rule is ruining this country.

    • #25
  26. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    CuriousJohn:

    My mob wife used Facebook to challenge a few of her friends yesterday to do the ice bucket thingy. Then went out to the store so buy some wine and went to the mob house to enjoy the a drink with those she challenged and help do the ice bucket thingy. Yes mob rule is ruining this country.

     So you mean you’re “Married to the Mob”?

    • #26
  27. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    John Wilson:

    How is there a power differential between friends on Facebook?

     There can be an implied threat of a rupture to the relationship. Most people don’t want to be thought poorly of, or lose friends, or be left out of the group. “All the popular kids are doing it” is a cliche for a reason.

    From the Wikipedia article I linked earlier:

    In psychological coercion, the threatened injury regards the victim’s relationships with other people. The most obvious example is blackmail, where the threat consists of the dissemination of damaging information. However, many other types are possible e.g. so-called “emotional blackmail“, which typically involves threats of rejection from or disapproval by a peer-group, or creating feelings of guilt/obligation via a display of anger or hurt by someone whom the victim loves or respects.

    • #27
  28. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    If you think that we should have an expectation to be free from someone not liking us then I don’t really know what else to say. That’s just an absurd standard to champion.

    • #28
  29. Klaatu Inactive
    Klaatu
    @Klaatu

    skipsul:

    Klaatu:

    Sorry Son but you’re all wet on this one.

    The only coercion (if any) present here is the good natured variety among friends. It is harmless fun with the added benefit of serving a worthy cause. It violates no conservative principles I am aware of.

    Maybe among your friends, but not among all. Have you received insults and accusations of heartlessness for NOT participating? Some of us have, and that goes to Spengler’s point.

    This campaign is one of social pressure. Furthermore, though is not often publicly broached, many of us have specific moral complaints about the primary recipient of the funds, a group which endorses fetal stem cell research. Those of us opposed to abortion, or at least those who wish to keep it legal but rare, may not want to feel pressured into contributing to an organization at odds with their conscience. To raise such objections, even to good natured friends, further invites accusations or heartlessness.

    My first thought is you need a better class of friends.

    As to the moral objection, there are alternatives.  See here.

    • #29
  30. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    John Wilson:

    If you think that we should have an expectation to be free from someone not liking us then I don’t really know what else to say. That’s just an absurd standard to champion.

     That’s not the standard I’m championing. My view is that it is bad for society when we use social pressure to achieve what should rightly be achieved through persuasion. Rather than the implied threat of social costs (when someone denies a challenge, say), I’d rather see people tell stories like Claire’s to inspire generosity. Tell me why I should give.

    • #30
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