Sunday, 30 January 2022

Neil Young vs. Rogan/Spotify, Meta Values, and Pluralistic vs. Authoritarian Societies

This will not be a long blog article, as I only wish to make one simple point, and doing so does not require a long exposition. However, I believe the point to be of absolutely vital importance, and is too frequently overlooked in today's tortured political discourse and latest skirmish de jour. And its import extends well beyond the proximate instantiation at hand. 

Neil Young recently made headlines by demanding Spotify remove Joe Rogan's podcast from its platform, on threat of Young pulling his catalog from the service. Young did not want to support and associate with a platform he believed to be actively spreading damaging misinformation - specifically some recent episodes/guests that expressed divergent (and quite possibly false) opinions on vaccines. 

Young's stance has been controversial. Many have condemned it, while many others have congratulated Young for taking what they believe to be a courageous, principled stand for what he believes in. However, what is often overlooked in the debate - particularly from those in the latter camp - is the role/importance of what I will call "meta values" or "meta principles". Indeed, to my way of thinking, how one feels about this issue should have nothing at all to do with how one feels about Rogan and/or the specific episodes/guests in question. I haven't even seen them (though I have seen many second-hand commentaries about them), and consider their content totally irrelevant to this debate.

The much bigger picture is this: In any large and diverse society (and even in smaller and less diverse ones), it is inevitable that there are going to be people that have different views, perspectives, beliefs, values, and priorities. In order to peacefully co-exist, you need to find a way to accommodate these differences without resorting to violence and/or perpetual Balkanization, and you basically have two choices about how you might go about organizing society to achieve that outcome. 

The first is to adopt a pluralistic, traditionally "liberal" society that respects people's differences, and right to differ. You show tolerance towards others having beliefs, values, and priorities that may differ from your own, whether they be religious, ethical, cultural, artistic, political, or otherwise. You grant people basic rights, and allow them to make their own choices about how to live, provided they do not infringe upon the rights of others. This principle of freedom being restricted only insofar as it infringes upon the rights of others is succinctly encapsulated in the famous quote attributed to John Stuart Mill and/or Oliver Wendell Holmes that "your right to swing your fist ends at my nose".

The second alternative is to adopt an authoritarian approach where you force everybody to conform to the same set of beliefs, values, and priorities, and punish/outlaw dissent. The latter is a necessary part of the package, because if you do not represses dissent, it is not possible to enforce a perpetuate orthodoxy. It doesn't have to be done via the means of brutal dictatorship, however - in many traditional societies, conformity was instead enforced through means of social ostracism. In modern day society, it manifests in the form of "cancel culture"; guilt by association; and banishment from the internet. However it is accomplished, the underlying approach is to show *intolerance* towards differences, with the goal of enforcing a general conformity.  

Those are your two options: tolerance and pluralism, or intolerance and conformity. There is no middle ground. And *tolerance* is a broad concept that extends well beyond merely superficial differences in skin colour (which sometimes correlate with different values, beliefs, and cultural preferences), or only involves substantive beliefs when it pertains to religion. It relates to *all* differences in life philosophies and beliefs people may have, and for whatever reason. 

The reason I take exception to people like Young is that what he is doing is fundamentally incompatible with the meta values of a tolerant, pluralistic society. At base, what he is attempting to do is strongarm Spotify into taking down the world's most popular podcast, which would not just deny Rogan a voice (and living), but also the rights of millions of people to listen to it, simply because he doesn't agree with what was said. It reflects authoritarian instincts, and though Young does not have the power to take authoritarian actions, he is setting an extremely poor example through his conduct, and contributing to the attempted normalization of societal values that are fundamentally illiberal in nature. And in the long run, that is a danger to our ability to sustain a tolerant, pluralistic society.

By all means Young, disagree publicly with Rogan - as vehemently as you want. Ridicule him all you like. But recognize that other people are entitled to an opinion too, not just you, and that learning to live with and respect the rights of people you disagree with is part and parcel of living in a free society. In a pluralistic society, you ought to care about and respect the rights of other people, not just your own, and Young cared nothing of the rights of Rogan, Rogan's listeners, Spotify, and even his own fans. And trying to use your own (limited in this case) power to force the world to be more the way you want it to be, other people be damned, is fundamentally authoritarian in its philosophical orientation. 

A liberal, tolerant society has always been difficult to achieve and sustain, and has historically been the exception rather than the rule. One of the reasons why is that human beings are hubristic and are always overconfident they are right, because people "don't know what they don't know" (and can't). Consequently, the world is forever populated by people that are inclined to say "this is what I think, I know I am right, and I therefore insist that everyone else thinks like me. Moreover, if you don't, I know you're a bad person, and that grants me the moral justification to infringe upon your liberties". It is pretty hard to sustain a liberal, tolerant society when people think like that, and especially if they are able to acquire sufficient power to actuate that philosophy. 

It is a myth that authoritarian regimes and all the human suffering and repression they have entailed have mostly been the result of malevolence. For this reason, I am not a huge fan of the quote "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", because it implies that malevolence is the primary danger with authoritarianism. In fact, it is the self-righteous hubris of people that is the primary danger - people think they are in possession of all the answers, and feel entitled to force everybody to conform with their views for the greater good of society. Stalin passionately and wholeheartedly believed communism was a moral good and its success of vital importance to the future of humanity. If you believe that, hiding the fact that central planning had lead to a collapse in agricultural productivity - so as to not discredit communism in the eyes of the world - and allowing 6m people to stave to death instead of requesting international assistance/aid, seems morally justified. After all, in the bigger picture of the future of humanity, 6m deaths is a small price to pay. So is sending dissidents to the Gulags. You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, right?  

The way I see it, how you feel about Young's recent actions should have *absolutely nothing* to do with your view on Rogan or any of his guests, and whether you agree or disagree with them, because this is actually a question of meta values and what sort of society we want to live in: a liberal and tolerant one, or authoritarian one where a small handful of powerful people enforce an ideological orthodoxy on the rest of us? If a liberal, pluralistic society and culture is to be maintained in the long term, short term expediency should *never* be used as the basis for annulling meta values. It is such meta values enshrined into our institutions that leads us to let (who we think is) a murderer go free if due process of law is not used to prove a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. In the long term, it is more important that meta values be respected than justice fail to be served in this one particular instance. 

Indeed, this is what it really means to take a *principled stance*. Contrary to what Young and many of those who have supported his actions believe, taking a principled stance is *not* about advocating for expedient short term outcomes by brute force. That is the antithesis of being principled - it is instead the ad hoc exercise of power for short term ends. What being principled is about is being willing to tolerate a suboptimal short term outcome for the sake of the preservation of long term meta principles. It is saying, we *must* let the said murderer go for the sake of principle, even though we may detest having to do so.  

It is disappointing the degree to which civics education has deteriorated in recent decades, and how basic understanding about the foundational philosophies and meta values that have underpinned the West's historic economic and cultural success have waned. That this is the case has become very evident in our increasingly polluted and bitterly acrimonious political discourse (indeed, it is one of its primary causes). These values are *time tested* - indeed they built the wonderful world in which we currently live. If pluralistic and tolerant society is to be preserved in the long term, they need to be revitalized.