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Codes of Conduct: Speech Bans Are Poor Strategy

Published by Slashdot on Wed, 23 Oct 2019


Christine Peterson, a long-time futurist who co-founded the nanotech advocacy group the Foresight Institute in 1986 and coined the term "Open Source software" among other things writes: I am currently cited on the home page of the Ethical Source Movement, home of the Ethical Source Definition: "In the twenty years since Christine Peterson first coined the term 'open source', our community has grown astronomically, all the while learning from its successes and failures." While it is pleasant to be cited, some might interpret this as my 100% endorsement, and this would be incorrect. The Definition calls for a code of conduct, which by itself is not a problem. And a sample of such a code that I examined uses plain, seemingly-clear English words such as reasonable, inappropriate, harassment, etc. As always, the devil is in the details, or in this case, the interpretation. Although I am not a coder, and am only peripherally involved with the Open Source community these days, it has come to my attention that guidelines such as these are being used to, for example, suppress discussion of male/female differences. This would be problematic for me to endorse, since as part of my never-ending quest to help people find their life partner, I routinely discuss such topics at length myself (video online now). This raises the broader question of whether speech bans in general are a good idea and serve effectively to advance positive goals, or not. To explore this issue with less emotion, let's make up a fantasy example. Let's say that a rumor arises that people who are genetically able to taste phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) are better at coding. The rumor goes viral. Job seekers with the supposedly favorable status put it on their LinkedIn page and try to send genetic test results to prospective employers, along with their resumes. Those unable to taste PTC try to suppress the rumor, fail, organize protests, and finally resort to speech bans regarding PTC status. People who brag about their tasting status, point out that someone else is a non-taster, or even just try to discuss the topic itself more generally, lose their positions on open source projects and even in some cases their jobs. Do these punished individuals then realize the error of their ways' By no means: they are now martyrs, drift in a more radical direction, and become leaders of PTC taster groups who feel they are victims of reverse discrimination. They form secret online groups in which genetic data must be submitted to join, and they quietly meet in person to show off tasting abilities in blind tests. They bond and form communities which reinforce their superior identity as tasters. Believing that 'tasters are better coders' is now regarded as Secret Banned Knowledge. Statisticians try to point out that even if the claim is true, such a correlation is not usefully predictive since great coders are found among both tasters and non-tasters. They further point out that this means finding good coders requires testing for those skills regardless of PTC status, so what difference does it really make' Meanwhile the general public looks on, notices the speech ban, and decides that if such extreme action must be taken against the Secret Banned Knowledge, that knowledge must be powerful indeed, and true. Perhaps speech bans worked better in the old days, before the internet enabled outcasts to find each other, but in any case they don't seem to work well now, as we see with racist speech bans in Europe. One can even make the case that this heavy-handed way of trying to solve social problems was one factor (among many) that helped elect Trump president. So if speech bans aren't the answer, what is' How do we persuade people to step away from incorrect biased views and treat others better' Sadly, there are no easy answers, just difficult work. We can divide the world needing persuading into two groups: (A) those who can be persuaded with rational discussion, and (B) the others. For group A, we use rational discussion. For group B, we need to look at why they are in such desperate need of identity and community that they latch onto false stories of their superiority. For those with the stomach for it, we can try to copy the success of Daryl Davis, the African-American musician who has converted over two dozen white supremacists away from their old beliefs -- by befriending them. This is how hearts and minds are changed, one by one.Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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