Libidinal Liberalism

Does banning bad behavior just make it worse?
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People should be free to do as they choose, so long as they do not harm anyone else. This is the guiding principle of classical liberalism. But of course, it is really two principles, which are in tension. There is endless debate over where to draw the line between choices that should be freely permitted and choices that do too much harm to be allowed. The trouble is that, while people committed to the liberal order must earnestly pursue this question, its difficulties can also be exploited by people with no liberal inclinations at all — who can avoid being called opponents of freedom by simply calling everything they would restrict harmful. It is not always easy to tell which argument is which, especially in our contemporary debates about that cardinal liberal right, freedom of speech.

Consider cases where “noxious language online is causing real-world violence,” as posed by New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz in a 2019 New York Times opinion piece. What should we do when radicalized online speech leads to spree shootings (like the one in Christchurch, New Zealand) or violent mobs (like the one in Charlottesville)? Or what about “speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism”? These are cases where speech incites harm.

Or consider the case against Charles Murray. In a 2017 Harvard Crimson piece arguing in favor of canceling a campus event featuring the Bell Curve author, a trio of undergraduates wrote that Murray’s work “fundamentally threatens” the “lives and freedoms” of “vulnerable peers of color and other marginalized persons on this campus.” Here, the supposed harm is caused not by the down-the-road effects of speech but by the speech itself. Innovations like “microaggressions” render previously harmless utterances into objects of public scrutiny. And so we see claims by neuroscientists, for example in the New York Times, that certain kinds of insults and critiques can cause the same sorts of harm to people as physical attacks.

For the committed liberal, one obvious strategy is to push back against these views of harm as being overly expansive. But there is a second strategy, and it’s at least as popular. One can oppose laws against “manspreading,” for instance, by claiming that their enforcement will disproportionately target the poor or men of color. Or free speech might be defended against the far left by claiming that speech restrictions will soon be used to crack down on far-leftists themselves.

This second strategy claims that restrictions against harm will actually cause even more harm. There are many variants, such as claiming that some new restriction will further cement the power of large corporations, the wealthy, reactionary groups, or cruel politicians. This is the “this will hurt you more than it hurts me” move — arguing that a restriction will be abused by the powerful in a way that frustrates the broader goals of the would-be restrictor. One problem for liberals who use these arguments is that they imply that what’s really wrong is that the would-be censors don’t have enough influence — not an implication friendly to the liberal spirit.

I want to consider one particularly important variant of this argument. To defend against, say, the charge that pornography causes violence against women, the liberal can argue that pornography actually reduces violence against women by providing a safe outlet for male sexual desire. Similar defenses have been offered against the charge that violent video games or rap lyrics can cause real-world violence. Or consider abortion, where liberals claim that restrictions do not reduce the number of abortions, but rather cause them to be carried out under more dangerous conditions. On drug prohibitions, liberals can argue that restrictions empower criminal organizations that sell substances that are unregulated, and therefore more dangerous. And restrictions can also lead to the stigmatization of drug addicts, which leaves them hopeless and without the social support they need to recover.

In using this tactic, the liberal person claims that certain freedoms actually reduce the very harms they seem to permit. In debates over free speech, particularly online, this tactic runs into various problems. We should think through why it fails, and what alternatives are available for those committed to liberalism.

Libidinal Liberalism

Let’s call this tactic the libidinal argument, and the assumption undergirding it libidinalism, as it has to do with our ostensibly deep-seated desires. Libidinalism, after the Freudian libido, is the idea that many of the behaviors governments try to restrict are driven by basic, urgent, perhaps irrepressible human drives. The specific behaviors that are restricted, on this view, are merely the outlets for these fundamental drives, and the restriction is said to “bottle them up.” The idea of “bottling up” is that the drive is just made more intense by being contained, and that its inevitable expression will be more extreme, dangerous, or violent than it would otherwise have been.

Opposed to libidinalism are views that, say, pornography not only channels but reshapes sexual desire, that violent video games not only relieve but produce violent urges, and so on. We can fairly call this line of thought constructivism, as in its most extreme form it holds that there are no drives that are simply natural, that all drives are to some extent socially constructed. Society influences or perhaps entirely creates drives, and when we restrict bad things, we chip away at the causal forces behind these drives. This is an idea shared by postmodern theorists (who were generally also post-Freudian) such as Michel Foucault, and by many religious traditions.

As a historical matter, libidinal arguments seem to be unstable. They hold that violent video games, cannabis, pornography, sex work, legal abortion, and so on are lesser evils, compared to the more extreme and inevitable outbursts that suppressing them would cause. When these arguments win the day, we should expect that the things they defend will still be seen as evils — harms that, regrettably, must be permitted to avoid our drives leading to even worse harms. Instead, it seems that when libidinal arguments win the day, the things they defend come to be seen as not harmful at all — contrary to what the arguments claim.

My contention here is not that these things are evil, but merely that this is an oddity. Of course, this might be the result of opportunistic argument: Perhaps the liberals never thought these things were evil, but just wanted a line that might convince others. If so, that is bad news for libidinalism: It means that nobody really buys it. And yet the argument is all around us.

Social Media Bans and the Vulnerability of Modernity

Libidinalism fits well with a view expressed sometimes by writers such as Steven Pinker and Andrew Sullivan: that modern liberal society is an enormous accomplishment but also a historical anomaly that is constantly under threat. We might call this the vulnerability of modernity thesis. A crucial threat that these writers have identified is that of “tribalism” in politics.

Tribalism could plausibly be seen as just the sort of drive that libidinal arguments are concerned with. Indeed, libidinalism could explain why it is that modern liberal society is under such threat, by saying that maintaining such a society requires the precise management of precariously poised drives which we have no power to create or destroy. A different kind of libidinal argument holds that things like conspiracy theorizing, belief in astrology, and political extremism are on the rise in America and the rest of the world because of the falling numbers of religious believers. Under this view, the search for meaning is a basic, urgent, irrepressible drive, and organized religions, though many of their claims are contested by liberals, are a less harmful outlet for that drive.

When Donald Trump and Parler were largely banished from the Internet a few months ago, some critics deployed libidinal ideas against the tech companies, offering a society-wide version of the sorts of liberal defenses of pornography and abortion we saw above. Jesse Singal wrote in New York Magazine, “The recent clampdowns have driven countless right- and far-right social-media users to encrypted services…. In these venues, any hint of restraint tends to fall away: And so their language, their rhetoric, just becomes, day after day, more extreme.” Similarly, a Washington Post article argued that “Trump supporters looking for communities of like-minded people will likely find Telegram to be more extreme than the Facebook groups and Twitter feeds they are used to.”

Even some of those in favor of tech censorship seem to buy the libidinal framing to some extent: In a 2018 Vice article titled “Deplatforming Works,” Jason Koebler wrote that “the question is whether it’s more harmful to society to have many millions of people exposed to kinda hateful content or to have a much smaller number of ultra-radicalized true believers.” Although Koebler argues that restriction will ultimately create less harm rather than more, the idea that a smaller, fiercer group of online extremists will remain a necessary evil is exactly the kind of “bottling up” effect that libidinalism assumes.

So the libidinal line of reasoning says that Trump and his fans are bad for America and the world, that they’re probably genuinely evil or even white supremacists, but says further: If you ban them, they’ll have to go somewhere; they can’t be extinguished; they are something we have to control and channel. The more excluded they are from the mainstream, the more they’ll organize in the shadows, and their views will grow ever more disconnected from reality, perhaps through some kind of cult-like atmosphere, or perhaps through more general polarization mechanisms, like Cass Sunstein’s “enclave deliberation.” What you ban will be returned to you tenfold.

The opposing argument is that social media itself generates, through filtering and trending mechanisms, and by exposing people to the wrong kinds of information without the right kinds of context, the awful attitudes and ideas that warrant such bans in the first place. This is the constructivist view, which Zeynep Tufekci offers in a 2018 New York Times piece:

It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.

Yet Tufekci also argues that “what we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look ‘behind the curtain,’ to dig deeper into something that engages us.” Even here, with the idea that radicalization stems in part from a natural human urge, we see a concession to libidinalism.

Where Libidinal Arguments Fail

The libidinal argument might have seemed very natural when applied at the level of individual people, to things like sex drives and drug addictions. But in the case of social media bans, it is applied at the societal level to complex ideological structures. There it is less clear what kinds of drives might be at play that need to be channeled or given outlets, and less clear what sort of evidence would support their existence. Is there something in society, or at least American society, that drives it to have extremists, and necessitates their existence? What would it even mean to say that an entire society has such a drive? And is there a clear analogy between the psychological case of “bottling up” a drive, leading it to explode, and the societal case of repressing a set of viewpoints and failing to give them a platform, leading them to be held by fewer, but more-radicalized, individuals?

Here the constructivist view seems stronger as well — the idea that the strength of extremist groups is not inevitable but depends on other social formations. The Internet itself does seem to generate small communities, bubbles or silos or whatever they might be, which become resistant to engagement with people outside them. This is a theme in books such as Eli Pariser’s 2011 The Filter Bubble; in Cass Sunstein’s discussions of polarization and the Internet, dating back to his 2001 book and his notion of “the Daily Me,” in which “you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree”; and in the work of philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, whose 2018 Aeon essay explains how a bubble differs from an echo chamber.

Further, social media does seem to aid extremist groups in getting their messages out and recruiting new members. Contrary to the libidinal view, it’s hard to see how being banned could actually help such groups. And it’s likewise hard to believe that they would hold their views less strongly if they had more members. Thus, social media bans suggest that there are some cases where libidinal arguments for liberalism fail — because the libidinal theory of these behaviors is wrong.

Liberty Liberalism

If there is one value that liberals and non-liberals share, it is that freedom should be limited to avoid harm. Whatever stock we put in libidinalism as an account of human desire, libidinal arguments are often a strategic concession by liberals to non-liberals: They appeal to this shared value of avoiding harm, rather than the value of freedom itself.

The problem for the committed liberal is that there will always be situations that aren’t libidinal in nature, situations where the “bottling up” concern just doesn’t seem to apply. The committed liberal may need to concede that social media bans really do work — that they actually do reduce extremism, not increase it. If that’s true, the committed liberal will either need to become a bit less liberal and accept some bans, or else find a different argument for opposing them.

The obvious approach for the liberal is to stop trying to defend liberty based on a value the non-liberal shares, and instead focus more on arguing why liberty itself matters. The liberal can counter the idea that free speech has only a secondary value — say, in promoting psychological well-being or aiding democratic deliberation — and argue that we must grant more intrinsic value to open inquiry, debate, and freedom of thought and expression. The liberal can argue not that a restriction will cause more harm than it averts, but that we ought to place more value on liberty itself, that trampling on it is too high a price to pay for averting harm.

Is a direct defense of freedom a promising approach for committed liberals in, say, the case of social media bans and deplatforming? It depends on the particulars. Some commentators seemed to find the banning of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook particularly troubling because it meant that corporations could, on their own, decide to cut one of the most prominent people in the world largely out of public life. I worry less about depriving people like Trump of their liberty, and more about that of, say, a lonely twenty-year-old whose only social success in life has been creating offensive memes, or who genuinely believes that the extremist viewpoint he’s stumbled on is the truth, and has nobody to talk to about it other than his small online community. However much we might worry about the potential harm that could be unleashed when this young person finds his community, there seems to be an inherent wrong in depriving him of this speech and this forum.

This approach is not without problems, of course. Taken to an extreme, it begins to look like simply abandoning the harm principle. If we ratchet up the value of liberty high enough that no other goods can compete with it, then it doesn’t matter whether we take the harms that may come from it into account in some theoretical sense: liberal principles will always win out. Liberals who argue for liberty on its own terms must take care to avoid falling into what is rightly labeled “absolutism” about the scope of liberal principles — to not become so doctrinaire that they ignore even the possibility that drugs, pornography, online radicalization, or whatever else might have unacceptably high social costs.

These arguments for liberty — libidinal ones and intrinsic ones alike — bear truth, and liberals should continue to air them and see how they fare. But we should also take stock of their limits, and ask ourselves whether they are limits merely to the arguments we’ve come up with or to the liberal principles to which we take ourselves to be committed.

Oliver Traldi, “Libidinal Liberalism,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, pp. 45–51.
Header image by Jani Brumat via Unsplash

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