Search Results for: gossip

How Gossip Works

Trying to read up on how gossip really works, I found a nice ’79 article: Teasing, Gossip, and Local Names on Rapanui. Sadly, Google scholar says it only ever got three cites. That seems an underestimate of its value to me. The rest of this post is just lots of quotes: Continue reading "How Gossip Works" »

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Gossip Cabals

Four actresses relayed their suspicion that, after rejecting [Harvey] Weinstein’s advances and complaining about him, he had them removed from projects or persuaded others to remove them. A number of Farrow’s sources said Weinstein had referred to his success in planting stories in the media about individuals who had crossed him. … He told them that complying with his demands would help their careers, repeatedly mentioning Paltrow (without the actress’s knowledge) as someone he claimed to have had sex with. … these activities were enabled by employees, associates, and agents who set up these meetings, and lawyers and publicists who suppressed complaints with payments and threats. (more)

Ashley Judd … refused, and says he got revenge by seeking to damage her career. Director Peter Jackson has come forward to say he removed her from a casting list “as a direct result” of what he now thinks was “false information” provided by Weinstein. … Like with Ashley Judd, Peter Jackson said Weinstein warned him off casting [Mira Sorvino]. … Heather Graham … alleges he implied she had to sleep with him to get a film role, telling her that his wife would have been fine with it. … He insisted on listening to [Louisette Geiss] pitch in his hot tub, then asked her to watch him masturbate, she says – and told her he could green-light her script if she did so. … Daryl Hannah … suffered physical repercussions as her flights were cancelled and she was left stranded after she turned him down on one occasion, she adds. … Rosanna Arquette … says she rejected Weinstein’s advances and that she believes her acting career suffered as a result. (more)

What power exactly did Harvey Weinstein possess, to let him harass and rape with impunity for decades? He was an actor’s agent, who negotiated deals between actors and studios, but many agents do that. If one agent makes unreasonable demands, why not switch to another? How hard can it be anyway to evaluate an actor and suggest which projects they might be well suited for?

Well, okay, maybe it takes years to acquire good judgement, and some agents have much better judgment than others. Even so, if many agents are capable of evaluating and matching actors, how can one agent gain so much power over an actor who could easily switch to other agents?

Okay, yes, also, an actor-agent relation might develop slowly over a long time, and as with quitting a on marriage or a family, someone might put up with modest abuse before calling it quits. But Weinstein seems to have had far more power than most partners who increase in value over time.

Some say that wannabe actors are far more irrational and desperate than are most people in most relations. So they’ll do almost anything for a tiny increase of a chance for acting success. Maybe, but I want to explore other explanations, before I’m willing to conclude that.

One scenario is that corrupt agents offer to overestimate an actor’s suitability if they accept agent demands. But if the agent reneged on their promise, how would an actor enforce it? This strategy could result in studios giving them a try, seeing they are subpar, and then realizing that they are getting lower quality advice from that agent, reducing demand for that agent. And if there’s a limit to how much they could plausibly exaggerate quality, an agent could only plausibly use this strategy on the few best actors, as the rest will be rejected in any case.

Another scenario is that corrupt agents threaten to underestimate an actor’s suitability if they reject agent demands. Here enforcement is more reliably handled by the agent. If most actors give in to the threat, then most threats need not be carried out, and so the quality of signals sent to studios will be much less degraded. If the threat is carried out, studios will likely reject, and so not see that they got a bad signal. Also, this threat can be given to all types of actors, good and bad. So underestimation threats seems more effective overall than overestimation promises.

However, if an actor could easily switch to dozens of other agents, even this underestimation threat seems weak. I doubt such a threat would have moved me much when I was working with a book agent. But what if someone like Weinstein could credibly threaten, “If I give the word, you’ll never get another job in this town/industry again?”

This threat might be credible if the major acting powers formed a cabal where they agreed to believe their negative evaluations of others. Then Weinstein could tell other powers, like director Peter Jackson, that you are difficult, and none of them would audition you. If Jackson defied Weinstein and auditioned you anyway, then Weinstein could tell the other powers that Jackson is difficult. So an equilibrium could be formed where all the powers take each others’ strong negative evaluations of others at face value, for fear that otherwise they will become a target. And they could collectively benefit from this equilibrium, as they can each now make stronger credible threats to outsiders.

This sort of equilibrium seems to me very common part of human behavior. For example, academic elites in an area tend to all treat each other’s claims with respect, and endorse any of their dismissals of outsiders. In a social media mob pile on, where a big mob all says person X is bad, someone who speaks up saying X isn’t so bad should reasonably fear the mob would turn on them. And the set of top bosses in a firm typically shares an inclination to jointly reject any lower level person who challenges any one of those bosses. (“We can criticize each other privately, but we are unified in rejecting public criticism by outsiders.”)

In this sort of equilibrium, elites will in public usually say “We are the best people in this area, as proved by the fact that we all say we are best. If we all say someone else is bad, you can take that to the bank.” Sometimes they will say “George used to be good, but we all now agree that George has turned bad.” And in private each elite can say to wannabes, “Unless you do everything I demand, I’ll tell the other elites you are bad, and you’ll be out of this area for good.”

We economists tend to worry about firms colluding on prices, to keep them high, or colluding on entry, where I won’t enter your area if you don’t enter mine. But I suspect that gossip collusion like this is a far bigger problem. It happens not just in business, but in politics, arts, religion, sports, academia, journalism, law, etc.

While it would be hard, I could imagine attempts to more strong regulate and discourage this sort of behavior. But the striking thing is, we hardly even try.

Added 26Sep: Oops, seems Weinstein was a producer, not an agent. But producers serve a related role of evaluating and matching actors. A big part of the demand for him as a producer would be his ability to do those well.

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Gossip Hypocrisy

Classic gossip, … telling it entails several … basic motives. … It enables the gossiper “to do dirt to the person he is gossiping about.” It entails “sheer jolly prurience.” It presents the gossiper as “up to the moment, in the know.” By no means least, it reminds us that “part of the delight of gossip, after all, is, to use an old-fashioned word, its naughtiness.”…

“Talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions,” but let’s be honest about it, such talk quickly palls: “So much easier, so much more entertaining, to talk about the decaying marriage of an acquaintance, the extravagant pretensions of in-laws, the sexual braggadocio of a bachelor friend. Most gossip, or most of the best gossip, is about dubious if not downright reprehensible behavior. The best of it is about people with whom one has a direct acquaintance. Served with a dash of humor it can be awfully fine stuff. (more)

Step back and notice the basic puzzle: We are a very social species, and yet we think it illicit to talk about each other. Even when such talk helps to enforce our social norms. Yes we enjoy gossip, but we also accept that it is “naughty.” Well, not naughty enough to make illegal – that would be going “too far.”

Homo hypocritus pretends to support norms of good behavior, but happily coordinates with allies to evade such norms, just out of view of group enforcement. One standard norm is that our group sticks together, and doesn’t break into fighting subgroups. If you see someone violate a norm, you are supposed to accuse them in front of everyone. How are people supposed to defend themselves from accusations they can’t hear? Some of us shouldn’t conspire to take down others of us. But of course we do. Happily. And we don’t want law to stop us.

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Our Gossip Muddle

Julia Galef wonders if it is ethical to view a leaked sex tape:

A celebrity sex tape … was stolen (or hacked, I’m not sure) and leaked to the public. … I asked my friend if he feels any guilt about watching this tape, knowing that the woman didn’t want other people to see it. … My friend and I are both utilitarians. … We were concerned … with … does watching the tape harm the woman? As my friend emphasized, she’ll never know that he watched it. … Maybe it makes more sense to define “harming someone” to mean, “helping create a world which that person would not want to exist, given the option.” … My friend [said]: “The ‘harm’ is not in people watching the tape but in them thinking worse of her. Which I didn’t, so — no harm done.”… [But] maybe the woman would’ve been embarrassed even if she knew people weren’t judging her poorly for the tape. After all, a lot of people don’t like the idea of someone accidentally seeing them naked.

This is a great example of the modern world’s confused attitude toward gossip and information property. In ancient Rome, and medieval Europe, you could be sued just for saying something bad about someone, even if true. After all, such words hurt, and the law discourages hurt. Today we hold gossip in higher regard, and so often think it both legal and moral to say embarassing things about people.

Yet we call some truths “private,” so that it is illegal or immoral to discover them via certain means (such as hidden cameras). But many see little wrong in passing such private info along to others, as long as they were not the one who did the initial illicit discovery. However, if it is good that others learn of some info, why is it bad for someone to initially discover and spread it? And if it is bad to have people learn of some info, why not ban people from sharing it?

We moderns are stuck with quite conflicting ideals: in general creating and sharing information is a good thing, except not about certain “private” topics. Yet we have only the vaguest notions of how to characterize such best-kept-private info. We could very much use a sharper analysis of what info it is bad for folks to know.

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Blackmail Is Gossip+

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Old saying, that few believe.

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, … (Romans 1:29,30)

Law, first and foremost, keeps the peace. Sometimes people have big complaints about others, complaints so big that they are tempted to do something big about them. In such cases it can be very nice to have a law step in and declare who is right. If many accept the law’s resolution, peace may be preserved.

Gossip is dangerous. This has long been known, as the bible quotes above indicate. People can be greatly harmed by others talking about them, so sometimes gossip leads to very big complaints. Through most of the history of formal law, dangerous gossip was dealt with simply: law banned saying bad things about others. Of course this rule wasn’t always or even usually enforced – it was expensive to make a legal complaint. And there were various conditions and exceptions. But the basic idea was simple: keep people from hurting each other.

Our modern Western world thinks differently. We idealize conversation, and letting people say what they think. So we no longer have law punish people for saying bad things about each other, especially true things. We instead tell folks to tough it, that true mean words don’t excuse violent retaliation. Sometimes we see people hurt others greatly, out of malice, and we refuse to stop them. We sacrifice such victims on the altar of our respect for conversation.

Of course there are good things to say about gossip. By freely sharing info, we might aggregate it, and all learn the sum of what we all know. For example, we might learn to identify people who are mean or uncooperative, helping us to avoid them, and giving them stronger incentives to cooperate. While such social pressure to please aren’t always good, they seem good on average.

Blackmail is basically a threat of gossip; “if you don’t pay, I’ll gossip.” So almost all the things people don’t like about blackmail are things they don’t like about gossip. Someone could, out of selfish motives, say something that hurts someone else. If you don’t like this scenario, it is mainly something you don’t like about a freedom to gossip.

Yes, in addition to harmful gossip, blackmail can also involve money, and a threat. But money-inspired threats happen anytime parties haggle over a price, and few folks get worked up over that. If people are free to buy or not buy, and to sell or not sell, why not let them make threats about the price they’ll accept? Similarly, if people are free to gossip or not gossip as they prefer, why not let them haggle over the price of their gossip?

Yes, some prices are seen by many as unfair or immoral. Many don’t think the price of water or gas should rise in a crisis, and think the cash price of sex, babies, and organs should always be zero. But the arguments folks give for those cases don’t apply well to gossip — why exactly should the cash price of gossip always be zero?

Now a world that allows blackmail about gossip, i.e., haggling over the price of gossip, isn’t exactly the same as a world with only gossip. Legal blackmail should increase the incentives to discover embarrassing info, and thus the expected penalties from embarrassing actions. But these are mostly just stronger versions of the effects of gossip without blackmail, and they are effects we think we mostly like about gossip.

If we don’t want to discourage certain embarrassing actions, then why allow gossip about them? We could extend our privacy laws, and declare some topics off limits to casual conversation. But for topics where we do want conversation, because it is on average good to discourage people from doing embarrassing things, why not also allow blackmail?

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Regulating Gossip

Did you know that people gossip about you? You don’t know who they are, or what they say, and sometimes they say things that (you think) are not true. Important decisions, like whether you get invited to parties, recommended for jobs, or even married, hang on such gossip. Yet there is almost no regulation of it! Government officials don’t track it, or check it for accuracy. There are no standards for what sources people can use in gossip, or how they state their opinions. You aren’t even notified when people gossip about you. Gossip is a virtually impenetrable system in which people, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their welfare. We must have reform!

Sound over the top? Consider:

Information … comes from thousands of everyday transactions that many people do not realize are being tracked: auto warranties, cellphone bills and magazine subscriptions. It includes purchases of prepaid cards and visits to payday lenders and rent-to-own furniture stores. It knows whether your checks have cleared and scours public records for mentions of your name. Pulled together, the data follow the life of your wallet far beyond what exists in the country’s three main credit bureaus. [Firms sell] that information for a profit to lenders, landlords and even health-care providers. …

Who is worthy of credit? The answer increasingly lies in the “fourth bureau” — companies such as L2C that deal in personal data once deemed unreliable. … Federal regulations do not always require companies to disclose when they share your financial history or with whom, and there is no way to opt out when they do. No standard exists for what types of data should be included in the fourth bureau or how it should be used. No one is even tracking the accuracy of these reports. That has created a virtually impenetrable system in which consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their financial futures. (more)

The consequences of ordinary gossip are just as big as with firm gossip on customer finance. And it would be possible to have stronger regulations on ordinary gossip. Yes such regulations couldn’t be perfectly enforced, but then neither can regulations on firm finance gossip. The main reason we don’t have such regulations is that people dislike them. The same people who may well support more regulation on firm gossip on your finances. Why?

It seems to come down to the usual: we are more willing to regulate firms than individuals, and to regulate activity where money is involved than other activity.

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What is Gossip For?

It makes sense to listen to gossip in order to keep track of what folks are up to.  But it seems the main reason we listen to gossip is to prepare to speak gossip, in jockeying for status:

We have consistently found that people are most interested in gossip about individuals of the same sex as themselves who happen to be around their own age. We have also found that information that is socially useful is always of greatest interest to us: we like to know about the scandals and misfortunes of our rivals and of high-status people because this information might be valuable in social competition. Positive information about such people tends to be uninteresting to us. Finding out that someone already higher in status than ourselves has just acquired something that puts that person even further ahead of us does not supply us with ammunition that we can use to gain ground on him. Conversely, positive information about our friends and relatives is very interesting and likely to be used to our advantage whenever possible. 

For example, in studies that my colleagues and I published in 2002 and in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, we consistently found that college students were not much interested in hearing about academic awards or a large inheritance if it involved one of their professors and that they were also not very interested in passing that news along to others. Yet the same information about their friends or romantic partners was rated as being quite interesting and likely to be spread around.

I far prefer talking "big ideas" to gossiping, but I know that I am an outlier here, even relative to most academics. This once made me feel superior, but I now realize it puts me at a serious social disadvantage; when others see you don't gossip to monitor talk about you and to defend yourself and your allies, they feel freer to dis you and less inclined to ally with you. 
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Plot Holes & Blame Holes

We love stories, and the stories we love the most tend to support our cherished norms and morals. But our most popular stories also tend to have many gaping plot holes. These are acts which characters could have done instead of what they did do, to better achieve their goals. Not all such holes undermine the morals of these stories, but many do.

Logically, learning of a plot hole that undermines a story’s key morals should make us like that story less. And for a hole that most everyone actually sees, that would in fact happen. This also tends to happen when we notice plot holes in obscure unpopular stories.

But this happens much less often for widely beloved stories, such as Star Wars, if only a small fraction of fans are aware of the holes. While the popularity of the story should make it easier to tell most fans about holes, fans in fact try not to hear, and punish those who tell them. (I’ve noticed this re my sf reviews; fans are displeased to hear beloved stories don’t make sense.)

So most fans remain ignorant of holes, and even fans who know mostly remain fans. They simply forget about the holes, or tell themselves that there probably exist easy hole fixes – variations on the story that lack the holes yet support the same norms and morals. Of course such fans don’t usually actually search for such fixes, they just presume they exist.

Note how this behavior contrasts with typical reactions to real world plans. Consider when someone points out a flaw in our tentative plan for how to drive from A to B, how to get food for dinner, how to remodel the bathroom, or how to apply for a job. If the flaw seems likely to make our plan fail, we seek alternate plans, and are typically grateful to those who point out the flaw. At least if they point out flaws privately, and we haven’t made a big public commitment to plans.

Yes, we might continue with our basic plan if we had good reasons to think that modest plan variations could fix the found flaws. But we wouldn’t simply presume that such variations exist, regardless of flaws. Yet this is mostly what we do for popular story plot holes. Why the different treatment?

A plausible explanation is that we like to love the same stories as others; loving stories is a coordination game. Which is why 34% of movie budgets were spent on marketing in ’07, compared to 1% for the average product. As long as we don’t expect a plot hole to put off most fans, we don’t let it put us off either. And a plausible partial reason to coordinate to love the same stories is that we use stories to declare our allegiance to shared norms and morals. By loving the same stories, we together reaffirm our shared support for such morals, as well as other shared cultural elements.

Now, another way we show our allegiance to shared norms and morals is when we blame each other. We accuse someone of being blameworthy when their behavior fits a shared blame template. Well, unless that person is so allied to us or prestigious that blaming them would come back to hurt us.

These blame templates tend to correlate with destructive behavior that makes for a worse (local) world overall. For example, we blame murder and murder tends to be destructive. But blame templates are not exactly and precisely targeted at making better outcomes. For example, murderers are blamed even when their act makes a better world overall, and we also fail to blame those who fail to murder in such situations.

These deviations make sense if blame templates must have limited complexity, due to being socially shared. To support shared norms and morals, blame templates must be simple enough so most everyone knows what they are, and can agree on if they match particular cases. If the reality of which behaviors are actually helpful versus destructive is more complex than that, well then good behavior in some detailed “hole” cases must be sacrificed, to allow functioning norms/morals.

These deviations between what blame templates actually target, and what they should target to make a better (local) world, can be seen as “blame holes”. Just as a plot may seem to make sense on a quick first pass, with thought and attention required to notice its holes, blame holes are typically not noticed by most who only work hard enough to try to see if a particular behavior fits a blame template. While many are capable of understanding an explanation of where such holes lie, they are not eager to hear about them, and they still usually apply hole-plagued blame templates even when they see their holes. Just like they don’t like to hear about plot holes in their favorite stories, and don’t let such holes keep them from loving those stories.

For example, a year ago I asked a Twitter poll on the chances that the world would have been better off overall had Nazis won WWII. 44% said that chance was over 10% (the highest category offered). My point was that history is too uncertain to be very sure of the long term aggregate consequences of such big events, even when we are relatively sure about which acts tend to promote good.

Many then said I was evil, apparently seeing me as fitting the blame template of “says something positive about Nazis, or enables/encourages others to do so.” I soon after asked a poll that found only 20% guessing it was more likely than not that the author of such a poll actually wishes Nazis had won WWII. But the other 80% might still feel justified in loudly blaming me, if they saw my behavior as fitting a widely accepted blame template. I could be blamed regardless of the factual truth of what I said or intended.

Recently many called Richard Dawkins evil for apparently fitting the template “says something positive about eugenics” when he said that eugenics on humans would “work in practice” because “it works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses”. To many, he was blameworthy regardless of the factual nature or truth of his statement. Yes, we might do better to instead use the blame template “endorses eugenics”, but perhaps too few are capable in practice of distinguishing “endorses” from “says something positive about”. At least maybe most can’t reliably do that in their usual gossip mode of quickly reading and judging something someone said.

On reflection, I think a great deal of our inefficient behavior and policies can be explained via limited-complexity blame templates. For example, consider the template:

Blame X if X interacts with Y on dimension D, Y suffers on D, no one should suffer on D, and X “could have” interacted so as to reduce that suffering more.

So, blame X who hires Y for a low wage, risky, or unpleasant job. Blame X who rents a high price or peeling paint room to Y. Blame food cart X that sells unsavory or unsafe food to Y. Blame nation X that lets in immigrant Y who stays poor afterward. Blame emergency room X who failed to help arriving penniless sick Y. Blame drug dealer X who sells drugs to poor, sick, or addicted Y. Blame client X who buys sex, an organ, or a child from Y who would not sell it if they were much richer.

So a simple blame template can help explain laws on min wages, max rents, job & room quality regs, food quality rules, hospital care rules, and laws prohibiting drugs, organ sales, and prostitution. Yes, by learning simple economics many are capable of seeing that these rules can actually make targets Y worse off, via limiting their options. But if they don’t expect others to see this, they still tend to apply the usual blame templates. Because blame templates are socially shared, and we each tend to be punished from deviating from them, either by violating them, or failing to disapprove of violators.

In another post soon I hope to say more about the role of, and limits on, simplified blame templates. For this post, I’m content to just note their central causal roles.

Added 8am: Another key blame template happens in hierarchical organizations. When something bad seems to happen to a division, the current leader takes all the blame, even if recently replaced prior leader. Rising stars gain by pushing short term gains at the expense of long term losses, and being promoted fast enough so as not to be blamed for those losses.

Re my deliberate exposure proposal, many endorse a norm that those who propose policies intended to combine good and bad effects should immediately cause themselves to suffer the worst possible bad effects personally, even in the absence of implementing their proposal. Poll majorities, however, don’t support such norms.

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Explainable Governance

My once bumper sticker: “Question Authority, But Raise Your Hand First”.

In families and small groups, we can usually challenge and question our leaders. When they declare an official policy, we can often ask “why?”, and get a moderately coherent response. If we notice inconsistencies between explanations for related policies, we can point them out, and pressure leaders to reduce them. And to a limited extent, we can challenge such explanations, giving counter arguments to official reasons, and offering reasons for alternate policies.

Of course sometimes busy or exasperated parents, and other authorities, retreat to “because I said so”. But if they go there too often or quickly, we think less of them, share that opinion via gossip, and undermine their authority and tenure.

However, as our social systems get larger, we tend to lose this crucial human option, to see and challenge justifications for the policies we live under. Oh sure, some justifications are offered, but such things tend to be more rare, shallow, inconsistent, and unresponsive to criticism.

Today when someone tells you can’t do that, there’s a rule, and you ask why, you mostly get shoulder shugs or vague platitudes. When you hear reasons, there usually seems little point in pointing out contradictions. As a result, you feel disrespected, and these rules feel less legitimate. All of which probably contributes to our living under a less justified and coherent total set of policies.

Can we do better? I can imagine a legal requirement that all laws and agency rules have an explicit justification text, but I doubt that would create substantially better justifications than we see now.

I’ve recently tried to think about how to make our systems of governance better at offering persuasive justifications. To explain my ideas, I will make some simplifying assumptions. Not because I’m sure I need them, but because they seem to make this initial concept exploration easier.

First, let us assume that each policy has a text description, and applies to a subset of the space of policy applications. Each policy also has a text justification, and an author. Assume none of these subsets overlap partially; that is, if there’s any overlap, then one is a strict subset of the other. For each such set, we can (somehow) create a rough dollar estimate of the annual value of good policy in that set. These dollar values add up in the obvious way across sets.

My idea has two levels. The first level just tries to create good policy justifications for fixed policies, while the second allows policies to be changed to get better justifications. Let’s start with the first level.

Let the author of the current justification for a policy be continually paid X% (1%?) of the estimated value of its policy set (minus the values for subset policies). At anytime, anyone can challenge that author in a justification court, by offering an alternate justification, and by paying for a jury trial. At the trial, both sides can make arguments beyond the texts of their justifications. If jurors decide that this is a better justification, then that becomes the official justification, and its author now gets paid for its value.

When policies change, policy makers either offer a justification, or its an empty one that should be easy to beat by a challenger. To allow better targeting of justifications, I’d let challengers offer a justification for a strict subset of an existing policy. If the jury likes it, that would become the official justification for that subset, and its author would be paid the value for that subset. To help deal with inconsistency, I’d also let challengers offer a new justification to replace (the union of) any set of existing justifications. The challenger can argue that these different prior justifications are inconsistent, and that this new justification is overall more coherent, and better.

At least that’s my simple first-cut design. I can imagine doing better via betting markets on who would win if a jury were invoked. I can also imagine starting with a small jury and then moving to larger juries only after small jury wins, and only changing the policy justification after a large enough jury win. But for now these issues seem like distractions from our main ones concerns, so I’ll set them aside for now.

My first level proposal seems to create incentives to make policy justifications that ordinary people would accept. At least to the extent that there’s any reasonable way to justify such policies. But what if the policies are just stupid and incoherent, or at least seem so to ordinary people?

My second level tries to address this by moving further in the direction of governance by jury. Now allow challengers to also specify new policies, as well as new justifications for those new policies. As with my first level proposal, they can do this not only for particular existing policies, but also for sets of such policies, and for strict subsets. Juries are now empowered to approve such new policies along with their justifications.

As before, we might be able to improve on this via betting markets, small then larger juries, etc., but as before it seems premature to go into those details. For now, the main question must be: does this whole approach make sense? Would it be good to make policy more coherent and justified, in the eyes of ordinary citizens, even if this may come at the expense of making it less coherent and justified in the eyes of elites who might otherwise decide such things? To whom exactly should policy seem justified, if anyone?

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Nickname Court

For perhaps a millions years, humans did justice mainly via gossip: the rule was that when you saw a rule violated, you were to tell of it to others, talk together on what to do, and then do it.

Problem was, gossip has long been known to be unreliable. When you hear someone rely an accusation that another person did something terrible, there’s a social “rush to judgment” pressure to immediately agree, to show your disapproval of that terrible thing. Even though you haven’t heard all the relevant evidence, including what that accused person might say in their defense.

Forager bands fixed this vis group discussions. They’d all gather around a campfire, listen listen together to the accusations and any rebuttals, discuss it, and only decide together after everyone had their say. Alas, as social groups got larger this was no longer feasible. So near the dawn of civilization, we invented formal trials: we supported the judgment of a subset of us, who made sure to judge only after hearing all the evidence.

Today we still gossip on a great many topics where there are no formal trials, and on those topics we still suffer big problems with rushes to judgment. So we’d do well to try to find more excuses to make formal trial processes whose judgements we’d be tempted to support.

Note that this isn’t the same as just having some group recommend a judgement. We do that all the time via news editorial boards, expert commissions, interest groups endorsements, etc. The difference is that a formal trial is a public process, airing all relevant evidence, and its judges are not selected to already represent particular sides in familiar debates.

But how? We might declare a new kind of court housing a new kind of trial, but how can we get people to bother to participate as jurors, present evidence as advocates, and to see its ruling as “official” enough to feel pressured to support it?

Here’s my idea: nickname courts. Imagine that people are tempted to use a nickname for a certain person in a particular social context. Such as: the 2nd grade homeroom 3 of public school 117 wants to use the nickname “Stinky Stu” for young member Steward Williams. Perhaps on the basis of recent events wherein young Stu was said to be stinky.

Assume there’s no law against using such a nickname, but that students, parents, and teachers might feel there are relevant social norms against doing something so “rude”. Some of these authorities might even declare their own local rules regulating such nicknames. (Nicknames are going to exist no matter what rules; the best we can do is to better channel that instinct.) I propose that these authorities give substantial deference to a new kind of court, a nickname court.

Someone initiates the process by officially proposing a nickname for a person in a social context, and committing to argue in its favor. That person who is to be given this nickname is notified, and confirms that they will oppose this. Then a “random” jury drawn from this social context is impaneled, which in the example above would be members of this homeroom class. They come together, all present their arguments and evidence, and the jury decides. In the example above, these might all be 2nd grade members of this class, including Stu.

If the jury rules yes, then it becomes more acceptable for members of this community to use this nickname of Stinky Stu for this particular Stu. This ruling may or may not have any legal force, even within the official rules of the school. But people might feel more comfortable knowing that their actions had this “official” support.

If Stu later decided that things had changed enough, he might initiate a new case, arguing that the nickname should no longer apply. Others would be notified, and we’d see if anyone wanted to take the lead to oppose him, starting with whomever initiated that first case. If Stu wins, then it would no longer to be as acceptable to call him Stinky Stu, though it might be okay to call him, “Once-was Stinky Stu”.

This sort of approach could obviously be applied to social media. For example, someone might initiate a case to make it more okay to call Robert Random by the nickname “Racist Rob” on Twitter. As I’ve said before, many of us might prefer a formal process for such labels over the current internet mobs that greatly suffer from rushes to judgment.

I’d bet that kids could really get into nickname courts, and learn a lot about law in the process. And later in life they’d probably think more about how similar processes might apply to other topics. For example, I’d love to have Radical Reform Courts, which evaluate radical proposals for social reform. Today there’s way too much of a rush to judgement, wherein each person who hears of a proposal quickly imagines one potential problem, and then concludes that it can’t work. But I don’t yet know how to make anyone care enough about the ruling of such a court.

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