When Is Talk Meddling Okay?

“How dare X meddle in Y’s business on Z?! Yes, X only tried to influence Y people on Z by talking, and said nothing false. But X talked selectively, favoring one position over another!”

Consider some possible triples X,Y,Z:

  • How dare my wife’s friend meddle in my marriage by telling my wife I treat her poorly?
  • How dare John try to tempt my girlfriend away from me by flirting with her?
  • How dare my neighbors tell my kids that they don’t make their kids do as many chores?
  • How dare Sue from another division suggest I ask too much overtime of my employees?
  • How dare V8 try to tempt cola buyers to switch by dissing cola ingredients?
  • How dare economists say that sociologists keep PhD students around too long?
  • How dare New York based media meddle in North Carolina’s transexual bathroom policy?
  • How dare westerners tell North Koreans that their government treats them badly?
  • How dare Russia tell US voters unflattering things about Hillary Clinton?

We do sometimes feel justly indignant at outsiders interfering in our “internal” affairs. In such cases, we prefer equilibria where we each stay out of others’ families, professions, or nations. But in many other contexts we embrace social norms that accept and even encourage criticism from a wide range of sources.

The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources. Yes, it would be even better if each source fairly told everything relevant it knew, or at least didn’t select what it said to favor some views. But we usually think it infeasible to enforce norms against selectivity, and so limit ourselves to more enforceable norms against lying. As we can each adjust our response to sources based on our estimates of their selectivity, reasonable people can be better informed via having more sources to hear from, even when those sources are selective.

So why do we sometimes oppose such free hearing? Paternalism seems one possible explanation – we think many of us are unreasonable. But this fits awkwardly, as most expect themselves to be better informed if able to choose from more sources. More plausibly, we often don’t expect that we can limit retaliation against talk to other talk. For example, if you may respond with violence to someone overtly flirting with your girlfriend, we may prefer a norm against such overt flirting. Similarly, if nations may respond with war to other nations weighing in on their internal elections, we may prefer a norm of nations staying out of other nations’ internal affairs.

Of course the US has for many decades been quite involved in the internal affairs of many nations, including via assassination, funding rebel armies, bribery, academic and media lecturing, and selective information revelation. Some say Putin focused on embarrassing Clinton in retaliation for her previously supporting the anti-Putin side in Russian internal affairs. Thus it is hard to believe we really risk more US-Russian war if these two nations overtly talk about the others’ internal affairs.

Yes, we should consider the possibility that retaliation against talk will be more destructive than talk, and be ready to forgo the potentially large info gains from wider talk and criticism to push a norm against meddling in others’ internal affairs. But the international stage at the moment doesn’t seem close to such a situation. We’ve long since tolerated lots of such meddling, and the world is probably better for it. We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

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  • Lord

    Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge. There can be a lot of unpleasantness short of war, and a lot of actions that are just war by another name.

    • Nothing is more dangerous than a little knowledge.

      An arch-reactionary maxim. Since knowledge always starts small, folks who believe this could never even start a knowledge project.

      • Lord

        I prefer to view it as cautionary in that you need enough knowledge to know how to assess and integrate it, so be prepared to gather considerable knowledge on the subject or don’t bother gathering it at all.

  • ParanoidAltoid

    The Hillary emails were about what you’d expect, and didn’t sway me much. I felt the same way about the Sony hacks. Trump not releasing his tax returns is suspicious, so if they were leaked and we found out that he indeed has less money than he claims, it wouldn’t surprise me much and wouldn’t sway my opinion much.

    But most people don’t think this way. They don’t follow the Bayesian conservation of probability, where if you know a piece of information will contain bad news, you should update your estimates immediately. In this case, I think it has something to do with the fact that we like to think much more highly of people than they actually are, until faced with incontrovertible evidence. I can guess how bad my friend’s internet searches are, but it would be deeply humiliating for them if this information were released.

    This sounds like a pretty lame argument against freedom of information I guess. Who’s to decide what information gets out? Still, I think it shows why privacy is also an important consideration.

  • Trevor

    The main reason this is confusing is because “internal” is a weird metric to decide when meddling is okay. The problem with the emails isn’t “someone said unflattering truths about Hillary Clinton” but “hacking someone’s personal correspondence is bad”. The problem with John isn’t that he’s meddling in your affairs, it’s that if he’s your friend, trying to disrupt your relationship (which will presumably cause you pain) is an unkind thing to do, absent a nobler motive.

  • You are framing this as a question of information, in a quest to seek truth. But surely the reason people object is that these examples are instead about loyalty, and choosing sides in a war. When my wife’s friend meddles in my marriage, she surely doesn’t have the complete picture of what is happening in my marriage, and I may not want to share with her (because the details are embarrassing). So instead I now have someone else (besides my wife) to fight against, during this attempt to resolve the conflict with my wife. Similarly, when John flirts with my girlfriend, the point is not a question of objective truth about who my girlfriend would be happier being with. The point instead is that my girlfriend was supposed to be loyal to me, and to be in a stronger bond than just a connection of temporary convenience, that could be immediately swapped out for another partner if a slightly better one were to ever come along.

    It’s not the new information that is objectionable. It’s the persuasion attempt on one side, clearly against your own interests. It’s the identification of an enemy, a threat to you and your (supposedly) loyal allies. The objection is to a new enemy entering the field of battle, fighting to tear down what you hold valuable. Of course you object to the attack of a new enemy.

  • We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

    The notion that Russia’s (alleged) release of Hillary’s emails is a significant intereference in the U.S. electoral process is too hypocritical for words. (Note, however, that’s it’s not just about information. I recall how the U.S. justified almost starting a nuclear war about missiles in Cuba – at the same time as the U.S. had completely surrounded the Soviet Union with nuclear bases.)

    But the lesson shouldn’t be generalized to conclude that there’s never anything objectionable in foreign propaganda because the more information the better. Let the funds flow to the Colored Revolutions everywhere! That seems to me to be another variant of U.S. chauvinism.

  • smart sincere much?

    As someone who lived under Russian occupation – this naive abstract argument verges on the level of insanity you hear from European left. Reading this and Tyler’s obfuscating post about Putin from yesterday – i think that Taleb stumbled on something profound when he wrote that “Intellectual yet idiot” post.

    • Do you have any actual counterarguments?

      • Sure!

        Actual counterargument is now pinned at the top of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

        Keep enveloping yourselves in smarty-pants abstractions!

  • Dave Lindbergh

    As someone who sees an informed electorate as valuable, I find it hard to sympathize with a complaint that true information about a candidate for election was revealed.

    It’s fine to complain about hacking per se, but it’s not fine to complain about *selective* hacking. All hacking is selective.

    I don’t see what difference it makes whether the hacking is done by a private, US-based, selective hacker vs. a state-sponsored selective hacker.

    The vast majority of hacking is private and not state-sponsored. If we’re upset about it, better to secure our systems than to complain.

    • I find it hard to sympathize with a complaint that true information about a candidate for election was revealed.

      Exactly, which makes the “Russian intereference” argument easy to rebut. But Robin would generalize beyond the single case. In fact, the usual case involves systematic disinformation.

      [Robin’s argument would, for example, justify Citizens United.]

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I’m fine with Citizens United for the same reason – an informed electorate is better than an ignorant one. More speech is better than less.

        What the FBI did is different – not only did they report information, they created it. It was the actions of the FBI itself that the FBI was reporting on.

        That’s not “more information”. That’s creating a cloud of doubt and then pointing at it.

      • It was the actions of the FBI itself that the FBI was reporting on.

        Given that they were taking certain investigatory actions, was it not worse that they announced it?

        [See Pseudo-transparencyhttp://kanbaroo.blogspot.com/2016/11/interlude-30-pseudo-transparency-from.html ]

  • The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources.

    Two arguments against this ideologically appealing position:

    1. Where we care most about truth finding, criminal trials, the jury is not exposed to the maximal number of information sources. Evidence is screened for prejudicial effect.

    2. Listeners may be better informed if the general quality of information is high. The human attention space is limited and actually quite small.