How to spot a losing argument a mile off

In this age of endless online discussion it is difficult to avoid encountering holy wars over all manner of subjects, from the truly profound to the profoundly trivial: liberal versus conservative, pro-life versus pro-choice, X-Box versus PlayStation, Emacs versus Vi. When faced with this dizzying array of virtual tavern brawls, how is an interested observer supposed to figure out whom they should be supporting?

The purely logical answer, of course, is to carefully research the subject matter, consider the arguments on both sides, and reach a rational conclusion based on the evidence. While there is a lot to be said for this process, and it should always be the approach taken when making important decisions, it would be prohibitively time-consuming to do this for every online dispute. Fortunately, there are a few red flags that can be used to identify the rotten apples without becoming an expert on every subject imaginable.

Hysteria out of proportion to the subject matter

There are plenty of topics that genuinely deserve outrage, such as genocide or terrorism. But contrary to what one might expect, the most acrimonious campaigns often involve utterly inconsequential subjects, with rabid zealots unleashing tirades of snarling abuse over such trivialities as video game reviews or lingerie adverts. Paradoxically it seems that people become all the more desperate to win an argument when there are no consequences beyond the act of winning itself.

This principle has even been given a name — Sayre’s law — after a political scientist who observed in the mid-twentieth century that “the politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”. It is perhaps unsurprising that the same phenomenon can therefore be observed in the academic institutions of today, where student pressure-groups ignore serious worldwide injustices in order to screech hysterically about Halloween costumes or the lyrics of pop songs.

Why so serious?

In many discussions it quickly becomes obvious that one side considers the issue something of a joke, deploying liberal amounts of satire and ridicule to make its points, while those on the other side are busy getting offended, throwing tantrums and holding their breath until they pass out. In such cases it is best to put your money on the light-hearted camp. Being able to approach a subject with good humour is a sign of confidence, whereas pious outrage suggests a level of emotional investment that is likely to obstruct a considered analysis.

However, take care when employing this guideline to distinguish genuine humour from mere personal attacks phrased in a sarcastic way. Replacing “you are an ass-hat” with “your a fine person lol /sarcasm” does not magically turn the insult into an insightful observation. And, as with the previous section, some consideration of the topic is warranted. Debates over life-and-death subjects such as abortion or euthanasia are unlikely to be won with wisecracks and funny cartoons.

Censorship is the last resort of the incompetent

Remember that time when physicists rioted in the streets and demanded punishment for anyone who criticised Newton’s theory of gravity? Of course not. Sound arguments based on solid evidence are not threatened by disbelief and do not need to be propped up with censorship and coercion, which is why you rarely hear scientists calling for the introduction of blasphemy laws.

But while religions have historically been notorious for attempting to suppress dissent, there are plenty of modern secular movements that are more than happy to resort to the same tactics. The current fashion for banning speakers and demanding “Safe Spaces” on university campuses echoes the religious book-burning of years gone by, and serves exactly the same purpose: to artificially protect weak belief systems that cannot survive open debate. There is no clearer admission that one’s ideas have failed than clumsy and futile attempts to silence those who disagree with them.

Can’t debate, won’t debate

The other side of the censorship coin: people who don’t actively try to silence others, but nevertheless refuse to defend their own position or engage with any counter-arguments. These posers can often be identified by their use of tell-tale phrases such as “it’s obvious”, “you’ll have to figure it out” or “I’m not going to explain why this is stupid”, which they utter in the mistaken belief that it will make them sound like an intriguing and enigmatic sensei, rather than a condescending tool.

Of course there are limits to what any particular person is willing to debate — one does not expect rocket scientists to spend time pointlessly trying to educate the Flat Earth Society. But a rocket scientist certainly should be able to suggest where you might learn the basics of rocket science if you’re interested, rather than smugly declaring that they don’t have time to explain but perhaps you’ll understand when you’re older. Genuine experts usually enjoy sharing their knowledge; those who claim expertise but refuse to demonstrate it should be regarded with suspicion.

The tin-foil hat brigade

The echo chambers of the internet offer a fertile environment for elaborate conspiracy theories, which have the dubious honour of violating not one but two philosophical guidelines: Occam’s Razor, which suggests that one should not assume complex explanations where simple ones will suffice, and Hanlon’s Razor, which advises that untoward events are more often a product of incompetence than malice. In contrast to the religious nutters who protect themselves by discouraging logical analysis, conspiracy kooks employ an entirely different strategy of inventing ever-more-complicated and unlikely explanations while accusing skeptics of being part of the cover-up.

But while most of us would instinctively snort with derision at the more wacky beliefs — chemtrails, for example, or the 9/11 Truth movement — there are numerous ideas that share the characteristics of conspiracy theories without necessarily being considered as such. Vague, shadowy bogeymen such as “Big Oil/Food/Tobacco” or “the patriarchy” are frequently invoked by political campaigners to fulfil much the same role as the Illuminati or the Reptilians: powerful and malicious actors pulling strings behind the scenes, whose influence you would only dispute if you are secretly working for them. And just like with censorship, evading debate with allegations of bad faith and secret plots is an act of desperation and weakness.

The Snooper’s Charter: another tool to control online speech

No matter who wins a UK general election, you can be quite sure that they will spend the rest of their term demanding an ever-expanding arsenal of new powers for law enforcement. Having freed themselves from the influence of those interfering lily-livered Lib Dems, the unencumbered Conservatives are therefore rushing full steam ahead with the intrusive mass surveillance legislation that they have been trying to pass for several years. While US tech companies are busy fighting government demands to make their software more FBI-friendly, authorities in the UK are trying to forestall the issue by granting themselves wide-ranging powers not only to snoop on our communications, but to compel private businesses into doing the snooping on the government’s behalf — secretly, against their will, and possibly at their own expense.

Needless to say, these plans have not proved popular. Internet providers are concerned about the cost of storing their customers’ web history for 12 months, privacy campaigners have noted the potential for abuse by hackers or overzealous authorities, and software developers are worried about the impact on UK businesses whose products will forever be suspected of harbouring government-mandated spyware. The only people who are almost certainly not bothered by the proposed law are actual criminals, who can trivially bypass the measures using freely-available foreign encryption services — but trying to explain to the UK government that they don’t rule the entire world seems to be a losing battle.

Anti-terror laws are not a recent invention, of course; there has been a new one passed every couple of years since the turn of the millennium, along with several previous incarnations of the “Snooper’s Charter” that never made it onto the statute books. What is remarkable about this particular bill, however, is how openly the government are admitting that its primary objectives have nothing to do with terrorism.

Consider the possible uses of so-called “Internet Connection Records” suggested by the National Crime Agency, the organisation tasked with investigating serious crimes such as human trafficking and child abduction. Of the eleven scenarios imagined by the NCA, only one of them even mentions terrorism and it’s purely about speech, not actual violence. The government are selling this law as a vital tool in the fight against terror, yet they can barely manage to come up with a single example of it actually being useful against a terrorist. Perhaps they are less excited about catching dangerous criminals than about the vastly increased possibilities for regulating online speech that this legislation will enable.

Some of the other proposed uses verge on the Orwellian. Locating a missing murder suspect based on his browsing habits might sound clever, until you consider how many false positives will likely be thrown up from a database of over 40 million internet users. Perhaps the most bizarre example, analysed in more detail by ISP director Adrian Kennard, involves a teenager who sends abusive emails to school staff from an anonymising email service, after which the police conduct a search for anybody who has accessed the webmail site in question, refining the results until they identify the household of a pupil at the school. A rude unsolicited email is a nuisance at most, assuming it even makes it past the spam filter. Is this really an issue that requires a police investigation?

That the official agency responsible for tracking down paedophiles and drug smugglers would celebrate the abuse of anti-terror laws to identify teenage trolls is deeply concerning, for two reasons. Firstly, because it reveals the extent to which the machinery of government has been infected by the wacky, hypersensitive politics normally associated with safe-spaced student unions, where unpleasant speech is considered a form of violence, and whining to the authorities an act of bravery. Law enforcement should be the stern voice of common sense, responding to a childish squabble by telling the kids involved to grow up, not by authorising a counter-terrorist surveillance operation.

Secondly, these scenarios give an ominous glimpse of the sort of fishing trips that bulk data collection will encourage. The government are not just seeking to examine the internet records of particular suspects, but to comb through the entire population’s browsing history looking for access to particular websites. Imagine what other dragnets could be conducted with this same technology. Anybody who has visited The Pirate Bay, obviously, because copyright infringement is illegal. Anybody who has visited the EFF or Open Rights Group, because only hackers are interested in that stuff. Anybody who has visited PETA, because they might be a violent extremist. Anybody who has visited Stormfront, EDL or even UKIP, because they are probably a racist. Anybody who has accessed Al Jazeera, maybe? Anybody who has ever read Spiked?

Supporters of this legislation will no doubt dismiss such concerns as fear-mongering, assuring us that the bill will not allow fishing expeditions, only targeted investigations involving illegal content like child pornography. But this offers little comfort given the vast range of other material that could also be considered illegal, from ripped episodes of Game of Thrones to offensive jokes or even racist dog videos. When people can be thrown in jail for posting — or even just reading — online speech, the claim that only “criminals” will be snooped on is practically meaningless. Should we really assume that the same authorities that lock people up for reading text won’t also make use of surveillance technology to identify more of these thought criminals, once they have the ability to do so?

We should bear in mind that the details of this legislation have not been fully worked out; not all of the uses proposed by the NCA may be legally permitted or technically feasible. But the message is clear: speech policing is here to stay, will likely increase in future, and, if backed by intrusive surveillance powers, could become dangerously efficient. Even if certain forms of spying can be justified in the interests of fighting terrorism, unless we see a dramatic reversal in law enforcement priorities — a focus on actual, violent crime, instead of harmless speech — we should be extremely wary of granting the government any more access to our online activities than it already has.

Blaming technology is a comfort blanket for the clueless and terrified

The bodies in the Bataclan Theatre had barely stopped twitching before the authoritarians started their predictable chorus. “It’s Edward Snowden’s fault!”, they thundered. “If that treasonous wretch hadn’t spilled the beans on government snooping, the Paris attackers would have been rotting in jail rather than murdering 130 people!”. It’s a brilliant argument, of course—in a parallel universe where there were no terrorist attacks before June 2013, and the governments of Europe hadn’t already spent over a decade publicly announcing their surveillance powers via an endless stream of legislation. It has since emerged that the French jihadis communicated via unencrypted SMS messages. To say that the Big Brother worshippers are barking up the wrong tree is an insult to the intelligence of dogs.

But even this logic-defying response was no match for the hyperventilation that ensued once it was revealed that one of the attackers had a PlayStation in his home, and might have, perhaps, at some point, possibly used it to communicate with someone, maybe, about the attacks. Or maybe not. Who knows. But he could have done, and that’s more than enough to set off an outbreak of collective panic amongst the technophobic blue-rinse brigade who simply cannot stomach the thought of people being able to interact without the benevolent State watching over them, like an eighteenth-century chaperone, to ensure that their communications are all above board.

This instinctive rush to blame technology for the behaviour of a few deranged individuals has been gaining significant purchase amongst the commentariat in recent years. Almost any device or website that was used by the perpetrator of a serious crime is instantly suspected of aiding and abetting—if not outright causing—the act itself. Curiously this fallacy doesn’t seem to apply to everyday objects such as cars or microwave ovens, perhaps because such inventions have been around long enough that they no longer seem threatening. But God help you if you ever write a smartphone app that the next Jihadi John finds useful, even if just to remember his shopping list. In the eyes of the technology inquisitors, you might as well have carried out the beheadings yourself.

Science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke once remarked that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it seems that where politicians are concerned, “sufficiently advanced” includes anything invented in the last thirty years. Their continued demands for a form of encryption that is secure against hackers and thieves, but magically unlocks in the presence of intelligence services, implies an almost religious view of technology—as if an electronic device crunching numbers can somehow assume the role of Saint Peter, opening the pearly gates to the noble and pure while rejecting the corrupt and sinful. A security system that can divine the moral intentions of its user makes an interesting plot device in Harry Potter, but sadly it cannot exist in reality.

So it is clear that the political elite has almost no understanding of modern technology, and if there is one aspect of society that has remained constant throughout history, it is the tendency for authority figures to fear and loathe what they don’t understand. It happened in the 17th century with Galileo’s dogma-defying model of the Earth’s orbit; it happened in the 1980s with the supposedly “satanic” Dungeons and Dragons; and we see the same thing today as politicians of every colour unite in their dogged belief that censoring the internet is the solution to every problem imaginable. The precise nature of the rhetoric may have changed—overt religiosity is out, vague waffle about security and “hate speech” is in—but the fundamental motivations are the same. If it’s newfangled and complex, it’s probably dangerous and should be monitored, restricted or even banned altogether.

But perhaps this obsession with the tools used by terrorists conceals something even more insidious than simple neophobia. We live in an age when standing up for liberal Enlightenment values is rather unfashionable; instead, guilt-ridden cultural relativism is the norm. Much of the narrative that follows an atrocity is focused on what we—the belligerent, exploitative, racist West—might have done to deserve it. Is it any wonder that in this stifling climate, public figures hardly dare discuss the warped ideologies that turn people into nihilistic murderers? Far safer to retreat into trivial hand-wringing over the web-sites they visit or the words they use, and perhaps pass a bit of symbolic thought-crime legislation just to express our disapproval. It won’t solve anything, of course, but at least it won’t trigger anyone.

It is often said that madness means doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, and nowhere is this more evident than in the government’s response to emotive issues. Ham-fisted attempts to control and censor the internet have had no demonstrable impact on child abuse, racism or even copyright infringement, and yet—like a nervous child who refuses to let go of a tattered, saliva-stained stuffed animal—politicians desperately cling to their favourite golden hammer irrespective of its uselessness. If our leaders cannot grow a collective spine and start addressing the root causes of terrorism rather than sacrificing yet more vital freedoms on the altar of blind optimism and magical thinking, then not only will we continue to suffer at the hands of violent extremists, but we won’t even have a society worth defending from them in the first place.

The sex bot panic is finally here

It seems I was right. Back in 2011 I predicted that the next moral panic would be over sex bots or virtual reality porn, and a mere four years later we see the start of a new campaign to ban “robots designed as sex toys”, which is supposedly an “unnecessary and undesirable” technology.

Take a wild guess as to the gender of the particular idiot spear-heading this pointless moral crusade. Or don’t bother, because the answer is blindingly obvious.

Dr Kathleen Richardson — a “robot ethicist”, whatever that means — claims that such robots will “contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women” (which seems a peculiarly verbose way of saying “everybody”). But this arrogant and condescending attempt to micro-manage other people’s emotional lives, repulsive as it is, actually conceals a far more insidious motive.

In western societies, women are the gatekeepers of sex, and they will fight tooth and manicured nail to retain this position of power. Banning technologies, criminalising entire industries and censoring the internet are all strategies that they will gladly deploy in order to ensure that men (who, let’s face it, will comprise pretty much 100% of the market for sex bots) are not able to escape from the traditional need to grovel and plead with the fairer sex in order to get their rocks off. What these moralising maternalists call “detrimental relationships” are simply those in which the man doesn’t have to beg.

There is absolutely no justification for attempting to restrict technological innovation unless the technology presents a direct threat to the safety or welfare of others. We are not talking about a nuclear missile launch system here. If somebody wants to pay through the nose for what is basically a hi-tech form of masturbation, that’s their decision and nobody else’s business. The law is not a tool for egotistical femiloons to safeguard their own desirability.

UPDATE 2015/09/17: Milo Yiannopoulos has now written about the issue and reached much the same conclusion.

Privilege for dummies

privilege, n — a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed by particular person or group of people.

Indications that you may be privileged:

  • Your sheltered life is so free from any real problems that you have time to whine about words and images that hurt your feelings while other people are dying of Ebola, being gang-raped on buses or watching their families get slaughtered by militia.
  • You can post status updates about your bad day and be immediately lavished with attention and sympathy by a horde of drooling online followers.
  • You never have to experience the meaningless drudgery of a regular job because your entourage of sycophantic luvvies will support your parasitic existence indefinitely at their own expense.
  • Actual violent crime is such an alien concept that you cannot comprehend why the police might have better things to do than track down people who use nasty words on the Internet.
  • You exert such a stranglehold over an institution’s administration that you can impose mandatory political indoctrination sessions under the guise of “diversity training” or “consent workshops”.
  • You are so accustomed to being surrounded by mawkish admirers that the thought of even a single person being unkind to you fills you with horror and outrage.
  • You are able to censor other people’s reading material, shut down debate on any subject you find offensive, and be showered with free money simply by declaring yourself an Victim™.
  • Evidence of genuine discrimination against you is so hard to find that you have to rely on made-up words and misinterpreted statistics to convince the world that you are still an Oppressed Minority in need of “liberation”.
  • If someone upsets you online you can easily call upon a howling mob of nodding conformists to point and scream hysterically until the offender apologises, loses their job and/or commits suicide.
  • You genuinely believe that any disagreement with your political views, no matter how politely expressed, is a violation of your basic human rights.

Power + paranoia: a lethal combination

While recently watching the critically-acclaimed and much parodied German film Downfall, which chronicles the final few months of Hitler’s regime in Berlin, I found the portrayal of Hitler both surprisingly mundane and disturbingly familiar. As he raged about the cowardice of his generals or the weakness of the German people, it became clear that this was not some comic-book villain cackling madly in his tower while he killed people for his own personal amusement, but a paranoid and delusional man who seemed to genuinely believe he was fighting a necessary war against some insidious evil.

Looking at other dictators throughout history we see similar patterns of behaviour. Josef Stalin executed over half a million people whom he suspected were a threat to his authority, while Mao Zedong’s oppressive and reality-denying policies claimed the lives of tens of millions through execution and mass starvation. Like Hitler, both men were unshakeable in their convictions that the only thing standing in the way of their grand schemes was deliberate sabotage by bourgeois counter-revolutionaries. With an outlook that is more psychotic than psychopathic, such tyrants have more in common with cranks than with the gratuitously sadistic monsters they are often painted as.

The crank (or crackpot, or kook) is a creature for whom the free-for-all nature of the Internet offers a fertile breeding ground, and its characteristics are instantly recognisable: a pathological disconnection from reality (although they may have advanced knowledge in a specific domain), an often grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance, and an obsession with the threat posed by some nebulous, conspiratorial enemy — be it the Jews, the bourgeoisie, academia, hackers, Big Pharma, paedophiles, Satanists, The Patriarchy, pornographers, the Far Right, the liberal media or (of course) “terrorists”. The crank, in his own eyes, is the last sane man trying to promote a supreme Truth against the malevolent machinations of a powerful establishment.

Fortunately, most cranks are harmless. It is easy to laugh at the incomprehensible ravings of Time Cube, or the bizarre and logic-defying conspiracy theories about the Moon landings or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But you don’t have to look far beyond the surface to see the same desired for scorched-earth, no-disagreement-allowed eradication of the crank’s opponents that were put into terrifying practice by the likes of Stalin and Mao: “SUPPORT TIMECUBE OR BE CURSED. CUBELESS AMERICANS DESERVE – AND SHALL BE EXTERMINATED”. There is little doubt that if such people were to gain political or military power, the consequences would be disastrous.

But that’s fine, because nobody would ever put a deranged lunatic in a position of responsibility, right? A somewhat less optimistic view might be taken by the victims of the “Satanic panic” of the eighties and nineties, during which dozens of families were torn apart on the basis of ludicrous and totally fabricated allegations by crusading cranks. A more recent example occurred in Libya when six foreign aid workers were convicted — via evidence-free speculation and “confessions” extracted under torture — of conspiring to infect children with HIV as part of a plot to overthrow the state. Such events don’t approach the horrors of the Third Reich, but the underlying mentality is the same: They are out there, They are working against us, They must be exposed and eliminated, and anyone who disputes this is most likely one of Them.

Hitler and Stalin are dead, but the force that drove them is alive and well. If there is ever another Holocaust, it will not be announced with swastikas and Nazi salutes, but with something far more subtle: the language of conspiracy and paranoia, invoked by those with sufficient power to turn their delusional world-view into a catastrophic political reality.