The Khumrah treadmill of outrage

How do you combat bigotry? One way is through debate. You let the bigoted person speak and you counter his views. You point out that those views are morally abhorrent or scientifically incorrect, or both.

This approach has advantages. Very often, hearing the bigot speak is sufficient to convince others that those views are repugnant. If that is not sufficient, your counter to those bigoted views should do the job. In addition, by letting him speak, you avoid getting into ancillary debates about whether those bigoted views are covered under freedom of speech. You also do not give his allies the excuse of ambiguity over whether they are supporting his views or supporting his freedom to express those views.

The approach has disadvantages though. There is no winning the debate. It is not like the bigot will fall to your feet, ask for forgiveness, thank you for opening his eyes and change his views permanently. Bigots, not surprisingly, are irrational and illogical people with a lot of time on their hands, so debating them with the view to winning, whatever that means, is futile. It is important to remember that the point is to convince other people that the bigot is wrong, not to convince the bigot himself. We should walk away once the point has been made, which is not something humans find easy. Bigots will always be among us, and they will always express their views, so even countering their views without debating them is exhausting. Finally and most importantly, bigotry is hurtful to those it is targeted at. It may lead to discrimination and actual violence.

Given these disadvantages, it is tempting to shut down bigotry, either by making bigoted expression illegal, or through social pressure. When we do that, it is the beginning of the Khumrah treadmill, which I have tweeted about.

Bigoted people, finding that they are unable to express their views directly, resort to euphemisms, insinuations and pseudo-scientific jargon to hint at their views. Now, we need to build a wall around the Torah to prevent the original bigoted view from being expressed, so we make the euphemisms and holding of those pseudo-scientific views unacceptable. So you ban the use of “negro” because people who used the original n-word slur have started using it as a slur. Of course, this means that the bigots will find euphemisms to refer to those euphemisms, and they will begin to misrepresent legitimate scientific theories to hint at the second-order bigoted views, so you build another wall, and make even those euphemisms and discussion of those scientific views unacceptable.

This process continues, and more and more walls are added around the Torah. This results in a few things happening.

First, the original bigoted view you want to cancel may be so unacceptable that no one other than the bigot can reasonably hold them. But around the views located around the fourth or fifth wall may be ones that reasonable people may hold them – they could be even be correct views. So, the original idea is that biological sex is distinct from your gender identity, and you should be accepting of people who may be biologically female, but identify with the male gender, or vice versa; and that you should refer to people by their preferred gender. It is bigotry not to be accepting of this. After building multiple walls around this concept, it is apparently unacceptable to even believe that biological sex exists, or that there is a high degree of overlap between gender identity and biological sex, because breaching this wall is the first step that will inevitably breach the next one and the one after that.

Second, you have to start sounding like party apparatchiks to be non-bigoted, and because it is easy to “gum together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” as Orwell famously said, you will attract a lot of humbugs.

Third, because humans are tribal beings, holding the right kind of views become the price of admission to the tribe, and the more absurd the belief, the better it is as an initiation ritual. Condemning anti-Muslim bigotry? That is easy, and lots of people will join in it. Outraging over someone who believes that Aurangzeb was a bad person? That takes commitment, and therefore once supporting Aurangzeb becomes the test of whether you are part of the non-bigoted tribe, you will get only the most committed adherents.

Fourth, when you outlaw reasonable views, only outlaws will have reasonable views. Many reasonable people who hold those cancellable views in private may just step away and do other things rather than express them. The people left to engage in debate will be the unrepentant bigots, and non-bigots who don’t care about political correctness, but who will express reasonable views in the worst possible ways. This will further power the Khumrah treadmill, because if only crazy people express a particular reasonable view, the view in question will sound crazy.

The final stage of the Khumrah treadmill is that someone will realize that if everyone is being cancelled anyway, they might as well express the most bigoted view possible, and outrage at this will be dampened by the fact that everything is outraged at anyway.