Thought Crime Hypocrisy

Philip Tetlock’s new paper on political hypocrisy re thought crimes:

The ability to read minds raises the specter of punishment of thought crimes and preventive incarceration of those who harbor dangerous thoughts. … Our participants were highly educated managers participating in an executive education program who had extensive experience inside large business organizations and held diverse political views. … We asked participants to suppose that scientists had created technologies that can reveal attitudes that people are not aware of possessing but that may influence their actions nonetheless.

In the control condition, the core applications of these technologies (described as a mix of brain-scan technology and the IAT’s reaction-time technology) were left unspecified. In the two treatment conditions, these technologies were to be used … to screen employees for evidence of either unconscious racism (UR) against African Americans or unconscious anti-Americanism (UAA). … Liberals were consistently more open to the technology, and to punishing organizations that rejected its use, when the technology was aimed at detecting UR among company managers; conservatives were consistently more open to the technology, and to punishing organizations that rejected its use, when the technology was aimed at detecting UAA among American Muslims.

Virtually no one was ready to abandon that [harm] principle and endorse punishing individuals for unconscious attitudes per se. … When directly asked, few respondents saw it as defensible to endorse the technology for one type of application but not for the other—even though there were strong signs from our experiment that differential ideological groups would do just that when not directly confronted with this potential hypocrisy. …

Liberal participants were [more] reluctant to raise concerns about researcher bias as a basis for opposition, a reluctance consistent [the] finding that citizens tend to believe that scientists hold liberal rather than conservative political views. …

This experiment confronted the more extreme participants with a choice between defending a double standard (explaining why one application is more acceptable) and acknowledging that they may have erred initially (reconsidering their support for the ideologically agreeable technology). … Those with more extreme views were more disposed to … backtrack from their initial position. (more; ungated)

So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.

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  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.

    The question, to my mind, is about whether anyone (other than you and Tetlock) will notice it. This point is tangential, but we already have disparate answers based on race and sex about when someone counts as an adult; I wrote about this not long ago in a separate blog post:

    As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.

    And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[...] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [....]”

    Who commits a “crime” depends on who the person is and what partisans believe about that person. Evidently, thought crime is going in the same direction.

    • IMASBA

      “And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[...] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [....]” ”

      It has to be noted that this is rather specific to the United States.

    • IMASBA

      P.S. in a society as diverse as that of the US it is possible two different groups came up with the two conflicting laws and that those laws were part of a bigger package neither group could refuse (like attaching an increase in the age of consent by one year to not taking away healthcare from 50 million people). That way no hypocrisy, is required to arrive at conflicting laws (all that’s needed is different groups setting different priorities).

  • IMASBA

    “So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.”

    So if we oppose theocracy in general, but support it when it serves our sect’s purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be theocracy.

    Evidently it doesn’t have to be this way, a constitution can be drafted such that thought crimes are not considered crimes, if only out of some fear that tomorrow “the other guys” could be in charge.

    Ultimately thought crime must fail though, especially if unconscious thoughts are counted because the human mind can’t operate without “wrong” thoughts, if only to learn to understand why they are “wrong” and to be able to adapt to new situations. When eventually every police officer and politician gets busted for “wrong” thoughts the system collapses. So in the end you end up with a law that’s just as unenforcable as a prohibition of laughter. It is my hope that future leaders will recognize this as leaders in the past have done with regards to freedom of the press and freedom of (and from) religion.

    • IMASBA

      I’m ashamed I didn’t think of this right away but thought crime opens up many more cans of worms. For example, what exactly constitutes “anti-Americanism”, can it even be defined in a way that is sensible, logically consistent and without 90% of the American population being guilty of it? Another one: as a black person, would you rather have a white colleague who was aware that he has some unconscious biases against black people, stemming from his upbringing, but is disciplined enough to effectively counteract those biases, or someone who hasn’t ever given the concept of racism much thought and could turn into a racist tomorrow if a black store clerk was rude to him? And another one: could a Muslim appeal against being scanned by his employer by arguing that a prior scan showed his unconscious sometimes doubts the literal truth of the Qu’ran (which in this thought crime legal system could mean he’s not really a Muslim)?

      • Stephen Diamond

        I’m ashamed I didn’t think of this right away

        I think your original point clinched it:

        “So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.”

        “So if we oppose theocracy in general, but support it when it serves our sect’s purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be theocracy.”

  • Stephen Diamond

    So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run.

    It seems frankly absurd to predict far future attitudes toward thought crime by extrapolating present attitudes—as if the development of the technology (and the discussions concerning it) will have no effect on the attitude and as if other factors (both predictable and unpredictable) aren’t also relevant to how the attitude will change.

    (My own extreme anti-thought-crime position is at Worse than college football itself: The oppressive fallout from the Paterno scandal—AGAINST mandatory-reporting lawshttp://tinyurl.com/c6bk3zq . Which is to say, I’m not part of your “we” ["if we oppose..."].

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    People have cognitively limited resources. Did Tetlock give his subjects several days to think over the implications of his thought crime proposal? Or did he ask them for a snap judgement after implanting a specific scenario?

    Also, thought crime for (say) UAA is genuinely a different proposal from thought crime for various things including UAA, and it might take some time to think through the implication that if thought crime exists for UAA it will likely soon exist for other stuff.

    “So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.”

    Want to put a date and probability on this so I can add it to PredictionBook?

  • Igro

    Many foreigners are already surprised at how often thought is penalized in the US, Chinese students especially. They do not say it out loud but wonder why it is so verboten to speak of racial or ethnic differences or to say that some cultures have superior or inferior characteristics without getting destroyed. You only have to look at the recent survey worldwide which shows India and Hong Kong to be among the most “racist” countries to understand why their denizens would find the U.S. attitude towards race — which translates to say nothing bad about minorities while feeling free to denigrate low end white culture and uphold black/hispanic/what have you solidarity. And of course, Chinese are far less likely to think it is immoral to worry about the importance of IQ and genetics.

    • dmytryl

      Well, I think the more intelligent of them are also pleasantly surprised at the lack of racist jokes about themselves and “too many damn chinks” type rhetoric.

    • IMASBA

      “Many foreigners are already surprised at how often THOUGHT is penalized in the US, Chinese students especially. They do not say it out loud but wonder why it is so verboten to SPEAK of racial or ethnic differences”

      I do not know what it is like for the Chinese, but as a European I know from personal experience how alien the American attitude towards race and ethnicity can be for someone who is from a country that never had segregation and hasn’t had slavery since the middle ages (in my country it would be unthinkable to include a “race” box on a form). However, thinking and speaking are not the same thing. I don’t recall Americans being arrested for simply thinking something since the McCarthy era (and they were all released), in fact the United States freedom of speech goes a lot further than in most other countries.

      • dmytryl

        Yeah. Americans have race on a birth certificate… and one other time I had to fill a form for an US based contest, and you guess what, there was a race question (along with “I certify that provided information is full and complete etc etc” statement that they wanted to be notarized). Blew my mind really. Who the hell would still have a race question on a form, I thought it’d be something you’d see in apartheid, or in US in the era of segregated drinking fountains.

        Not to mention entire idiosyncratic so called “race” of “Hispanic”. The only other idiosyncratic “races” defined on a political whim which come to my mind are “Jewish descent” and other “races” in Nazi Germany.

      • IMASBA

        Just write down “Klingon”, it’s the only way to end the race box madness.

  • free_agent

    As far as I know, at every place and time there are ideas one is forbidden to express (“poitical correctness”), but what those ideas are changes from place to place and time to time. In our case, expressing the idea that society should have the power to police what people think and say is verboten, but we have no objection when the policing is in line with making others’ ideas more consistent with our own.

    • IMASBA

      “As far as I know, at every place and time there are ideas one is forbidden to express”

      Thought crimes are about thinking, not expressing, it’s a whole different level (just try not to think of pink elephants).

  • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

    I might prefer living in a dictatorship to living in a democracy as long as I got to be the dictator. However, I don’t expect to become the dictator, so in practice, I support democracy. Similarly, in a society that has several religions, you might prefer that there be a state mandated religion as long as it’s yours, but support freedom of religion because you don’t want to run the risk of being on the receiving end of religious persecution rather than the giving end. I suspect “thoughtcrime” will largely go the same way.

    (Amusing bit of trivia: the story of how the Puritans came to America in search of religious freedom is almost the exact opposite of the truth: they had religious freedom in the Netherlands, and they hated it. They came to America in order to make a society in which THEIR religion was the ONLY religion.)

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