Verbal Behaviour and Free Speech Absolutism

                                           Free Speech Absolutism

In political debates across the internet the issue of free speech has taken on a central role. It is primarily (though not exclusively) people who identify on the centre or right of the political spectrum who are concerned with this issue. The worry they voice is that liberal types in big tech, or other corporate organisations and University admins are sacrificing free speech to appease the PC or so called ‘Woke’ brigade. To address this worry they point to what they think of paradigm as examples of people’s speech being stifled; such as Professors being told they will lose their job if they don’t refer to people by their preferred pronouns, or people being banned from Twitter or YouTube for purported hate speech. The free-speech absolutists take it as a mantra that free-speech is a fundamental right that should not be overrun no matter the cost. Pod-caster Joe Rogan who is a member of a group called the IDW which is obsessed with the notion of free speech, has discussed this issue on many occasions. Rogan holds the view that the solution to hate speech isn’t banning people from public platforms, rather the solution to hate speech is more speech countering it.

Not all theorists who worry about free speech hold the wild view that any speech should be allowed no matter the consequences. Thus, a substantial proportion of the IDW supported Jordan Peterson threatening to sue people who wrote articles critical of his work. Their view was that this wasn’t a free speech issue but rather it was an issue of defamation of character; hence it was legal issue. I won’t get into the issue of whether Peterson’s use of lawyers was justified from a legal perspective, I will just note that those who support Peterson on this issue do agree that there should be some legal constraints on the notion of free speech. Such people presumably wouldn’t support a Rogan type figure who said that the solution to defamation is to simply state why you disagree with what the person said; as opposed to making defamation illegal.

The notion of speech being constrained for legal reasons should not seem overly objectionable to most people. Speech is a form of behaviour, and like all other behaviour, it is constrained in various ways for various reasons. Driving a Car is a form of behaviour. This behaviour is severely constrained for a variety of different reasons. When driving you are only allowed to drive on one side of the road, you cannot drive through a red traffic light, and you can only drive at a certain speed. Walking is a form of behaviour. I cannot just walk anywhere I want. If there is a sign outside a house that says: ‘Private Property: Trespassers will be prosecuted’, then I cannot just walk into the house. My behaviour of walking and driving are subject to many legal constraints. Likewise, my verbal behaviour is subject to many constraints legal and otherwise. A clichéd example is the example of shouting ‘Fire’ in a busy theatre, when there demonstrably no fire and causing a riot. This is a form of verbal behaviour that will result in getting one banned from the theatre. As we discussed above defamation of character is a form of verbal behaviour that will lead to you getting sued if it is proven you engaged in it. Part of living in a complex society means that a lot of your behaviour (whether Verbal or not) is constrained for a variety of different reasons.

Given these obvious facts one wonders why the debate is framed as it is. Why would one side call themselves free speech absolutists? Why would the likes of Rogan argue that the proper response to hate speech is better speech? Is the proper response to people driving on the wrong side of the road to set an example by driving on the right side of the road? All behaviour has consequences and hence there are rules in place that constrain some of our behaviours. So why then do people appear to be more worried about free speech in the case of verbal behaviour than they are with other kinds of behaviour? I think that the reason people have such worries is because of the spectre of Orwell’s 1984.

In Orwell’s 1984 we are told of a totalitarian world where the government has strict rules on the way people think and the aim of the government is to make thoughts critical of their regime unthinkable. This nightmarish world presents a terrifying picture of reality. Few people agree with Orwell that language determines reality to such an extent that governments banning words like ‘Freedom’ from public discourse will stop people from being able to think about freedom. Nonetheless as power gets centralized into massive corporations who hold more power than most world governments do; one can understand why people may be fearful about such people using their power to control the topics we are allowed to speak about. If Twitter or YouTube ban certain topics from even being discussed people some people feel that we are veering towards a state of affairs where a handful of tech billionaires get to decide what people are allowed to say about certain political topics.

The Orwellian worries go even deeper than just worries about whether tech companies are banning people for certain speech acts. The worry is also that these tech billionaires are trying to implement a type of Orwellian thought control where you get people to accept certain patently false statements. In 1984 the party forced Winston to believe that 2 + 2=5 for no other reason than to establish dominance over him and divorce him from any other reality than the reality of big brother. Some free speech absolutists draw a line in the sand, they hold certain truths as immutable facts, or ground works that cannot coherently be questioned.  One such line in the sand free speech absolutists draw is on the issue of biological sex. These Orwellian worries take the form of arguing that tech billionaires, university admins, and corporations of all sorts are trying to force people to deny obvious biological facts. Why are these corporations supposedly trying to control our thoughts? The answer to this question depends on which conspiracy theorist you talk to. One set of conspiracy theorist will argue that the corporations are being forced to do this by ‘woke’ people who are unknowingly in the grip of Neo-Marxist ideology. To another set of conspiracy theorists the aim is to get people to lose grip of any objective reality and give those in power the ability to control what you can speak of and destroy any answerability to the world. In this nightmare world the only thing you are answerable to is those in power.

So called Free Speech Absolutists range from people who think that some of our verbal behaviour may be subject to restrictions for various reasons in the same way that all other behaviour is subject to constraints, to conspiracy theorists who think that attacks on our free speech are part of some Orwellian Plot to control us and divorce us from any concept of reality. In addressing these views, it is important to consider how free is our free speech is in general, independently of the contexts free speech absolutists typically care about. In ordinary conversations does the notion of free speech play much of a role.

                           How Free is Free Speech?

“One fundamental contribution of what we have been calling “Cartesian Linguistics” is the observation that human language, in its normal use, is free from the control of  independently identifiable external stimuli or internal states and it is not restricted to any practical communicative function…The limitless possibilities of thought and imagination are reflected in the creative aspect of language use. Language provides finite means and infinite possibilities of expressions constrained only by rules of concept formation and sentence formation” (Chomsky ‘Cartesian Linguistics’ p. 77)

Linguist Noam Chomsky has noted that Language has some curious properties. These properties should be acknowledged in any discussion of Free-Speech. A key feature of language is linguistic productivity which relies on a basic set of concepts and a grammar with a recursive device (the ability to embed concepts within concepts), by using these tools humans have the capacity to construct a potentially infinite amount of sentences. It is not just that we can construct a potentially infinite number of grammatical sentences, we also manage to construct a potentially infinite number of sentences that are coherent. Chomsky gives a famous grammatical sentence ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ while the sentence is grammatically well formed it has no meaning, and the idea of green ideas sleeping furiously does not seem to be coherent. Most sentences humans speak are coherent. Grammatical but incoherent sentences are very unusual in the normal linguistic community. Aside from sentences typically having combinatorial productivity, and coherence they also typically have appropriateness to the situation. If two people were sitting at a table and one of them proposed to the other. There are many different responses that could be offered. Such as accepting the proposal or saying no I am not ready for the marriage. But if a person responded to the proposal by saying ‘No black scorpions are falling on this table’, most people would judge this a very inappropriate response. Normal human sentences are typically appropriate to the situation in which they are spoken.

            Linguistic productivity, coherence, and appropriateness to the situation are indeed key features of language. However, Chomsky goes even further than just pointing out these three truisms. Chomsky argues that these capacities are un-caused by environmental factors and social reinforcement or by internal factors ( Cartesian Linguistics p. 77). He goes on to further argue that it is a mystery how we manage to use language freely and appropriately.

            Chomsky’s conception of language as an instrument of thought that we can freely use is one that is congenial to so called free speech absolutists. It is also congenial to the individualistic way Western people have been encultured. While there is much in Chomsky’s account that is very persuasive, his emphasis on behaviour being uncaused is very strange. In his ‘Criticism of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour’, Chomsky lambasted Skinner’s use of the notion of stimulus control. Chomsky gave an example of a person viewing a picture in a museum. He noted the absurdity of thinking that every time the person saw the picture they said ‘picture’ or ‘art’ etc. Chomsky was of course correct to note that words aren’t elicited in a crude stimulus response manner. Nonetheless he was incorrect in his belief that Skinner was proposing a stimulus-response account of word learning, and he ignored the fact that Skinner emphasized multiple sources of control of our use of words. I won’t today go into the long complicated debate between Skinner and Chomsky, I will just note that both of them are making contradictory assumptions about role the environment plays in the causation of verbal behaviour and neither really manages to justify their a-priori intuitions[1]. Skinner assumes that our language is under constant environmental control (and control from the environment our ancestors evolved in through genetic constraints), but never demonstrated this fact. Chomsky argues that our ability to coherently an appropriately use language is a mystery which will probably always remain beyond our ken an he even speculates that this ability may not be causally explicable through either internal factors or external factors.

            We won’t solve the debate between Chomsky and Skinner on this topic but I think it is worth just thinking through the notion of verbal behaviour and ways that it may be constrained by environmental and psychological contingencies. Thinking through these different constraints may help us understand whether the notion of free speech absolutism makes sense.

            In ordinary every-day conversation we implicitly police the type of speech we use. People do not speak about the same things or in the same way when conversing with a very young child, as they would when talking to another adult. A plausible reason why we speak in this way to young children is that they prefer that type of speech so give us positive feedback when we engage in it (Fernalt 1985). Furthermore if we spoke to an adult using motherese they would more than likely find it irritating and condescending and a normal human would pick up on cues from the adult that they don’t find the speech tone appropriate. To some degree the way we talk to a person (whether an adult or a child) is constrained by environmental feed back such as how they react to the speech.

            Even in simple conversational things such as slips of the tongue we sometimes indicate a type of implicit policing of our verbal behaviour. A lot of Freud’s theories have been discredited and his reputation has probably never been lower. However, his two books ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’, and his ‘Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis’ offer some plausible speculations as to why we make slips of the tongue. These speculations aren’t scientific but they do offer a mirror into the types of factors that sometimes influence us making slips of the tongue.

            Freud tells a story about him and his children staying with a family friend in a summer resort. The host was anti-Semitic and was ranting a series of horrible things about Jewish people. Freud, who was of course Jewish, wanted to reprimand the woman and correct her false claims about Jewish people. However, he didn’t want to start an argument and have to go find another place for him and his children to stay in. Freud’s discretion won out and he decided not to confront his host. But he decided to get his children out of the way of the hosts anti Semitism by asking the children to go to the garden. He turned to the children and said:

“Go into the garden, “Juden [Jews]”,  quickly correcting it to Jungen [youngsters]” (Psychopathology of Everyday Life p. 134)

A plausible interpretation of the events is that while one part of Freud wanted to admit to being Jewish, this part lost out because of other pragmatic issues. However, the part of him that wanted to admit being Jewish still managed to insert it into the conversation via a slip of the tongue. One doesn’t have to buy into Freudian Psychoanalysis to see that our every day conversations are shot through with our own pragmatic (largely unconscious) verbal behaviour and don’t just act like free speech absolutists. 

            In his Verbal Behaviour Skinner makes a similar point:

       “One of the two possible responses is differentially selected because the other is also to some extent punishing when the speaker uses a “euphemistic” expression. The euphemistic response has fewer aversive effects upon the speaker, either directly or indirectly through the listener.”  (Verbal Behaviour pp 235-336)

In Skinners example we use euphemisms because we have been trained that out right insults typically have punishing consequences. Again, we can see self-policing of verbal behaviour as people try to pragmatically make their way through life.

            This self-policing also occurs in jokes and again Skinner has an interesting quasi scientific take on jokes. I don’t entirely agree with Skinner’s take as I think incongruity resolution theory is a more comprehensive theory of jokes. However, I think that Skinner’s take is accurate to some cases of humour. Skinner makes the following point:

“Freud has emphasized the fact that witty responses are (a) automatically reinforcing to the speaker, (b) punishable by the listener or community. Humour is preoccupied with tabooed subjects, in particular sex, and with having aversive effects upon the listeners or others. Freud argued that wit permits the “release” of repressed responses, but the point can be made by saying that the response receiving supplemental support is weak because of punishment. Both interpretations miss an important point…The aggressive nature of the remark no doubt accounted for much of its strength; the function of the wit was to make an aggressive response unpunishable. But it is not enough to say that the speaker could appeal to the “harmless meaning” in a legalistic extenuation ( I was only adding a rather thoughtless conversational remark) because the “aggressive meaning” ( you may not be on the throne for long) was clear to everyone. Rather we have to appeal to a particular characteristic of the witty verbal community. Just as the literary community tolerates weak determiners of strength, so the witty community exacts a quid pro quo for otherwise offensive behaviour. It is almost as if the community had agreed: you may be aggressive provided you are amusing. (ibid pp.287-288)

Skinner’s account of humour is pretty basic, but it is on the money for a lot of cases. We have all probably used humour to lampoon people knowing full well that if we said the same thing in a serious way we would be punished. It seems reasonably plausible to argue that humour is another type of verbal behaviour that we engage in self-policing for a variety of pragmatic reasons.

            I don’t want to belabour the point too much, but Chomskian worries aside, most people will admit as obvious that our verbal behaviour in ordinary life is caught in a causal sequence where some verbal behaviour is deemed appropriate, and some inappropriate, and this dictates how we typically speak.

                                                    Concluding Thoughts

The purpose of this essay was merely to point out that our verbal behaviour is subject to societal constraints in the same way as all our other behaviour. Some of these constraints are self-imposed for the purposes of pragmatic interaction with each other, and some are legal for the purpose of running an effective and moral society containing a complex network of agents. In pointing out that the idea of Free-Speech absolutism makes little sense in terms of how language is typically used I am not giving censorship a free pass.

            Above I noted that Verbal Behaviour is a form of behaviour like all other behaviour. We have laws for how-to drive-in traffic which help us have a functioning travel system that is safe for citizens. Accepting constraints on driving behaviour doesn’t commit me to accepting absurd constraints on all behaviour; I wouldn’t agree with a constraint which involves imprisoning people without trial for criticizing the government. I look at verbal behaviour the same way. If a person posts details of how to make a deadly poison on Twitter and encourages their followers to make the poison and use it on certain people; then I think that person should be banned. But while I disagree with a lot of what Jordan Peterson says I think trying to ban his books or ban him from Twitter is absurd. I purposely chose Skinner, Freud and Chomsky to make some of my points. All three of them have at various points throughout their career had people try to ban their books as dangerous abominations. I hope it goes without saying that I am not comparing Peterson with Skinner or Chomsky in terms of intellectual achievements. My only point is that with someone like Peterson the proper course of action is to criticise his works on intellectual grounds (and hope he doesn’t sue you 😉 ) banning his books would be absurd.

            There are plenty of intermediary cases which are much more complex than banning people proposing mass murder and banning books with scientific theses you don’t agree with. I don’t have the answer to all of these cases. I would ask people to think of these cases in terms of embodied agents negotiating their way in the world and trying to minimize pain in as pragmatic a manner as possible. Thinking of free speech as some God given right of a disembodied Cartesian intelligence risks us losing touch with the world and the difficulties of negotiating it pragmatically.


[1] Note the issue of causal accounts of verbal behaviour is not a debate about the existence of the language faculty nor is it a debate that rests on accepting Skinner’s behaviourism. Pinker argues for a language instinct, is a critic of behaviourism but would in no way accept the assumption that our linguistic behaviour is uncaused. I just focused on Skinner and Chomsky above because of their very clear and contradictory intuitions.

3 thoughts on “Verbal Behaviour and Free Speech Absolutism

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    Here is the irony. It’s often white males as middle class professionals, like Jordan Peterson (and James Damore), who have historically had the most protected rights to free speech and the most guaranteed opportunity to wield it as self-expression, social influence, and political power. This same demographic has also long been prone to reactionary thought and regressive social views. Middle class white males, not poor or rural white males, was the single largest group of Donald Trump supporters.

    Peterson originally came to public attention because of his complaints about supposed speech restrictions at the universty where he taught. But it turned out that he didn’t understand the issue and no one was actually restricting his speech. He never admitted to being wrong nor apologized and has dominated the public sphere since, drowning out the voices of those who supposedly were censoring and silencing him.

    His being heard was dependent on this false narrative of political correctness oppression and victimhood that he has capitalized upon, both in money and fame. It was a fantasy playing out in his own mind and then in the public sphere, as part of politicized identity politics through which great power was wielded. As a wealthier and well-positioned white male, Peterson’s false complaints were, as expected, publicly acknowledged and widely disseminated across the entire media system of the Western world and beyond.

    It’s similar to how the claim of the mainstream media, mostly corporate media, is accused of having a liberal bias against the political right. Yet this accusation is reported in and promoted by that very same mainstream media. If we go by polls, the majority of Americans are extremely liberal and progressive, sometimes downright leftist, on many major public policy issues. Yet we rarely if ever hear this in the mainstream media.

    If there really was a media bias in this direction, we’d instead be hearing entirely different rhetoric. It’s those who can force their voice to be heard who complain the loudest about not being allowed to have total dominance of public speech, since anyone else being given a platfor is oppressing them. Those who are more fully silenced in the media, politics, and such simply are rarely acknowledged in this loud manner. Most minorities, instead, take their disenfranchisement as the unfortunate norm of our society.

    There are others who are being silenced and censored as well. They are not only not heard but their lack of a public voice in the mainstream is not even acknowledged. Anarchists, for example, can have a hard time finding work in American academia. This was a struggle David Graeber faced, back when he was younger and still alive. Israeli critics and Palestinian supporters can find themselves fired or suppressed in academia. And what about all the people on the political left who have been deplatformed on social media? These cases exist and yet we don’t hear about them in the corporate media nor even among Democratic politicians.

    Also, what about the large number of poor and/or working class whites who are liberals, progressives, and leftists. I’m such a person. And I’ve known many others. Considering that the vast majorit of Americans hold strong positions on the political left, it’s safe to say there are lot of other Americans like me. So, why are we treated as if we don’t exist? We are so silenced that even our complaints about being silenced can’t get heard beyond dark and dusty corners of the web such as blogs.

    Verbal behavior is an interesting thing. Speech is not only about speaking but about hearing. Part of the reason the silenced moral maority doesn’t realize they are a majority is because they never hear themselves within the dominant forums of public speech in the media and politics. So, even as a majority, they feel and act like a minority. They might not even realize how far left they are in their own views because they struggle to even hear themselves when they’ve grown so used to being silenced. The public as a majority does not perceive themselves as they are. Speech is powerful and so is being silenced.

    But if you’re complaints about not being allowed to be heard are being broadcast on every media outlet and trumpeted by powerful politicians, including the president, then, no, you aren’t really a vicitm experiencing worse oppression than everyone else. Verbal behavior is not only about whether one can speak or how they can speak. More importantly, being heard or not shapes personal and collective identity. Such identities are based on narratives and so we should look to why certain narrative framings dominate. The alt-right has come to control the terms of public debate, in a bizarre narrative of being powerless.

    Your analysis in this post, reasonable as it is, won’t be part of the public debate in mainstream media and politics. Jordan Peterson will have his complaints heard and they will be repeated endlessly. But your vews, like my vews, seeking to promote insight and understandng will langush in the obscurity of the blogosphere. It’s not about who is being censored and silenced but who can effectively portray themselves as such by forcing that narrative onto everyone else. This is a particular kind of verbal behavior as rhetorical strategy. Nuanced and informed public debate about free speech is not the real issue, of course.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/fox-news-americans-are-the-left-wing-enemy-threatening-america/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/08/19/alt-right-martyrdom-for-the-cause/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/framing-free-speech/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/03/03/using-free-speech-rhetoric-to-silence-opponents/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/08/25/right-wing-political-correctness-censorship-and-silencing/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/corporate-bias-of-mainstream-media/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2020/10/28/corporate-ruled-msm-dnc-is-left-wing-says-corporatist-right-wingers/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/this-far-left-and-no-further/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/anarchists-not-in-universities/

    Reply
  2. Benjamin David Steele

    I happened to have had Lev Vygotsky on my mind today. So, I was contemplating your post through that lense. I sensed a conection to verbal behavior, but I had to roll it around in my head for a while. This part stood out: “Thinking of free speech as some God given right of a disembodied Cartesian intelligence risks us losing touch with the world and the difficulties of negotiating it pragmatically.” That is a good observation and an entire separate post could be written about it in elaborating what it means.

    Vygotsky was one of the early thinkers to theorize that humans are fundamentally social. He might have been the first social constructivist, in the fullest sense, although there were others before him who pointed in this directiion. He saw language as playing a key role in development of identity and consciousness. This involved the process of internalizing speech. Inner speech is part of having an inner self and, as Julian Jaynes argues, part of an inner space that is inhabited by that inner self. So, the kind of verbal behavior (metaphor, metonymy, etc) used, according to the culture, determines the kind of self that results. You point out that there is a particular experience as “a disembodied Cartesian intelligence” that corresponds with right-wing free speech rhetoric. The debate isn’t really about free speech but the use of verbal behavior to socially construct and maintain that self-identity.

    The focus on ‘free speech’ is a red herring or rather it’s symbolic ideology, what I call symbolic conflation (a proxy issue that maintains rhetorical power over the mind and within society by the real issue being kept unstated). Social science research has shown that symbolic ideology often conflicts with operational ideology. One could see this as hypocrisy, but that would require being fully conscious. So, a right-winger can rant about free speech while showing no concern for the large numbers of others who regularly have their free speech infringed. How many right-wingers complain that conservative colleges and media don’t allow strong liberals, progressives, and left-wingers to be heard? Or that even supposedly liberal and leftist media and the DNC silences most of the political left? Right-wingers are strangly quiet about this, despite the fact that a large number of symbolic conservatives and right-wingers are operational liberals and leftists. Strangely, many who symbolically self-identify as on the political right are part of the operational political left that is the silenced and suppressed moral majority.

    It’s not a small number either and it’s not found equally on both sides. John Snides writes, “Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/06/why-most-conservatives-are-secretly-liberals/). Isn’t that fascinating? That leaves us to wonder what is all this hubbub really about. Obviously, there is a long and complex history of class and racial identity involved. But we might benefit from understanding such identity formation more in terms of social science than in terms of politics. Considering verbal behavior would be important in shifting the focus. It’s not so much about what is said but how it is said and to what end.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/wirthlin-effect-symbolic-conservatism/

    Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier

    “Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/poll-answers-stated-beliefs-ideological-labels/
    https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/12/noisy-poll-results-and-reptilian-muslim-climatologists-from-mars/

    “Some pollsters are starting to consider these sorts of things symptomatic of what they term symbolic belief, which seems to be kind of what the Less Wrong sequences call Professing and Cheering or Belief As Attire. Basically, people are being emotivists rather than realists about belief. “Obama is the Anti-Christ” is another way of just saying “Boo Obama!”, rather than expressing some sort of proposition about the world. And the same is true of “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was not born in America”.”

    http://www.juliansanchez.com/2009/08/03/symbolic-belief/

    “The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.”

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1532673X15624011

    “Over the last several decades, scholars have noted a strengthening link between ideology and party identification among the public, but the causal direction of this phenomenon remains contested. The ideological realignment thesis holds that ideology now strongly influences party identification, but this position conflicts with literature suggesting that party identification remains the primary causal force behind most important political attitudes. This study examines the causal forces at work between ideology and party identification by focusing on the distinction between symbolic and operational ideology. The methodology involves the use of panel data that span several decades, and structural equation modeling. The findings indicate that between 1982 and 1997, symbolic ideology had a strong influence party identification, but operational ideology had little effect on party identification. The results suggest an important revision to the ideological realignment thesis, as the evidence indicates that symbolic ideology has been the primary force driving realignment.”

    https://themoderatevoice.com/are-many-conservatives-really-liberals/

    “This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.”

    Click to access claasen_tucker_smith_spsa.pdf

    “Consistent with findings about mismatches between symbolic ideology and issue positions, we find that mismatches for issue positions and their labels occur more often in the form of labeling liberal positions conservative than in labeling conservative positions liberal. More than 30 percent of labeling responses associated the conservative label with liberal positions, while only about 20 percent associated the liberal label with conservative positions.”

    Reply

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