Enough with Boycotts & "We don't want your type around here" | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


Local Blogs

By Douglas Moran

Enough with Boycotts & "We don't want your type around here"

Uploaded: Mar 31, 2018

Santa Clara County is planning a ban that I regard as equivalent--morally if not legally--to those states that effectively ban abortions by imposing regulations intended to force clinics to close. Similarly for the County Clerk in Kentucky who illegally refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.(foot#1) This ban would prohibit the possession and sale of guns on County property, with the most prominent target being semi-annual gun shows at the County Fairgrounds.(foot#2) Politically, the USA is first and foremost a ^republic^, and a republic's defining attribute is the ^rule of law^. The founders of the US emphasized the republican aspect because history had repeatedly demonstrated that non-republican democracies were very susceptible to the ^Tyranny of the Majority (Masses)^. Ben Franklin said "A democracy is a sheep and two wolves deciding on what to have for lunch. Freedom is a well-armed sheep contesting the results of the decision.". A republic is intended to provide legal and societal protection for those minorities ("sheep"). The protection is crucial to everyone because you are likely to be in the minority in some important aspect of your life at some time.

My argument is going to take you through multiple steps that build upon earlier ones, and ask you to consider your value judgments.


In moral/ethical reasoning, one of the common means to separate expediency and bias from principle is to make seemingly minor changes. For example, to test whether something is racist, you would switch around the races of the people or groups involved. The very real problem of gun violence is the claimed basis for the legitimacy of the County's planned ban. So, let's switch the focus from the ^Second Amendment^ ("...right to keep and bear arms...") to the ^Fourth Amendment^ (prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures). Since roughly 80% of the non-suicide gun deaths are classified as related to gangs and illegal drugs, suppose a jurisdiction decided to greatly expand the definition of ^reasonable suspicion^ for ^Stop and Frisk (formally a Terry stop)^. Such an expansion might include: presence in a designated "high-crime area", being similar in appearance to a gang member (clothing, hair ...), being in a database of suspected gang members and associates, having been detained, arrested or convicted of a gang- or drug-related crime, behavior when they see a police officer, ... Would you be willing to inflict this on the minority of citizens that would be affected in order to reduce gun deaths? I wouldn't. Notice that this would be a case of tyranny of the majority.

You might take this up a level by introducing a variant of the ^Trolley Problem^, which is an exercise in morality/ethics in which you have to decide which person or group dies and which survives. In this situation, how would you value the lives of those killed? For example, in the case of a drive-by shooting, does the life of the gang member targeted count for less than a child in a nearby house killed by a stray bullet? How about that child versus student in a school shooting? A hold-up? A home invasion? ...

Another variation would be to focus on suicides, rather than homicides, because they are the substantial majority of gun deaths (about two-thirds). Family, friends, doctors and other professionals seem to have limited ability to spot and act upon signs that a person might be suicidal, for example, the signs may be too subtle, ambiguous or gradual to be recognized, or the person may be effectively hiding them. Social media companies have demonstrated, by the ads displayed, that they can detect when a woman is pregnant from her browsing history, often before she has told others. By combining browsing history, email, texting, social media posts, GPS tracking of your smart phone, phone activity (meta-data), medical records, shopping activity (from credit cards ...) ..., the government could build a profile of you to determine if and when you might be suicidal.

Would you be willing to support such a massive reduction in privacy rights--which are implicit in the Fourth Amendment--in order to reduce the number of suicides by gun? Would you be willing to trust that none of this information would be abused, sold or leaked by the government, its contractors and partners? There are many ways the data could be leaked by corporate partners. Part of their business plan might be to use it themselves, make it available to partners or outright sell it (Facebook is the current prominent example). It could be through negligence: Adequate computer security is expensive and cuts into profits. Or it could be by unforeseen circumstances, or accidents. Notice that this variation would involve significant sacrifice of privacy rights by the whole citizenry, not just some minority. Would it be worth it?

Now go back to the question of the County banning guns from County facilities and ask yourself if this is the sort of precedent that you want established, and why. Or is there a more limited version or alternative that you would find acceptable? Recognize that the wording of the Second Amendment is "... the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed;...". Part of the definition of "infringe" is "encroach", which includes "diminish".

There have been arguments that the Bill of Rights, or parts thereof, constrains only the national government, and not the state and local governments. Would such an argument influence what you believe are the rights of citizens? If a right was so important that it needed to be part of the Constitution, how could it have been so unimportant as to allow others to take it away? The admonition "Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do" applies also to limiting the rights of others.

Most actions result in unintended and unforeseen consequence -- "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions". You should always ask if the advocates of that action have done proper due-diligence to minimize such negatives.

The constraints of forums such as this one make it impossible to adequately moderate serious discussions of the magnitude of the questions posed above--they need to occur face-to-face. Appropriate comments on these questions are to point readers to relevant questions or discussions.

----Liberal and conservative personality types----

The 2016 election highlighted the increasing regional self-segregation of liberals and conservatives, as well as social self-segregation within communities. Most of this discussion has focused on the effect on political discourse and action. But there is also significant correlations between those categories and the distribution of ^Big Five Personality Traits^ and the distributions of categories used in Moral Psychology (prominent work by Jonathan Haidt(foot#3) ). Because these distribution and the mixes of these traits are widely found in groups, the inference is that this was important to the survival of groups of humans (evolution, selection, adaptation).

There is an unattributed saying that begins "Liberals have never built a great civilization." Before you react, you should consider the definition of "civilization". I found lots of variation, but the core of all of them was "complex (state) society" which characterized by large urban centers, or at least urban development, and by ^social stratification^ and hierarchy. A desire for order, structure and hierarchy are preponderantly conservative traits. But it isn't just that such a society is the type preferred by conservatives, but that it likely wouldn't come into being and grow unless there were those types of people driving it.

The second part of that saying is that once such societies have reached a certain threshold, liberals don't just thrive, but improve that civilization.

As to the decline of such civilizations, both liberal and conservative tendencies can be responsible. For example, conservatives can be overly cautious about adapting to changing conditions, and they can have too much deference to the hierarchy, especially in succession issues, such as choosing obviously bad leaders based on "It's their turn". Liberals can fail to adapt to changing situations because they are reluctant to make choices that involve tradeoffs. And they are overly willing to let everyone go their own way, in essence creating a "herd of cats" and with no one willing or able to try to herd them.

I learned the danger of too much focus on "fairness" in a course on Computer Operating Systems in my Freshman year (1969). The professor (John J. Donovan) recounted that he had been called in as a consultant for a university computer center because users were complaining that charges were much higher than at similar facilities. What he found was the the accounting/billing system was using roughly half of the computing resources. He said that it was doing micro-accounting on all resources used, such as counting the number of sheets of paper used. His recommendation was to used simplified measures to compute charges. The result? Everyone saw a substantial reduction in costs, although some saw more reduction that others.
Economic Lesson: Worry about overheads, they can kill you.
Philosophical Lesson: The cost of being fair to everyone can be unfair to everyone.
Meta-Lesson for students: Listen to the teachers' asides in class because therein is often wisdom, in contrast to the knowledge in the normal part of the class.(foot#4)(foot#5)

A similar situation occurs in the evolution of startups: At the beginning, an openness to new ideas (liberal trait) is essential, but as the company grows, those traits create counter-productive chaos and leadership shifts to those who knows how to created the necessary structure and order. If interested, there is much discussion of this that was initiated by the book ^The Innovator's Dilemma^, although the book itself is regarded as overly simplistic in its treatment of the issues facing incumbent companies.

A favorite quote comes the European ^Revolutions of 1848^. The chief of the revolutionary police in Paris said of the prominent, highly charismatic anarchist ^Mikhail Bakunin^: "On the first day, he was a treasure. On the second day, he should have been shot."

Aptitudes and interests influence what skills people acquired, and non-trivial groups need a range of people with different personality traits to complement each other. And just as important, a group needs different personality types to counteract the excesses of each other's inclinations.
Note: I don't use the word "diversity" because the current usage by many restricts it to only race, gender, sexual orientation, ..., and excludes other differences such as personality type, the (sub)culture you grew up in, education, ...(foot#6)

As an example (from my experience), consider a software development team. If the team is dominated by liberal personality types, it is likely to overreach, both in what is possible and what can be done within the schedule. And being focused on moving rapidly ahead, they produce buggy code and fail to do proper testing. To keep this in check, the caution and risk-awareness of the conservative personality type are needed. On the other hand, a team dominated by conservative personality types is likely to produce something that is only an incremental improvement.

----"No Irish Need Apply" / "No Dogs or Irish Allowed"----

These sayings (from signs) are the exemplars for reaction to many immigrant groups. I suspect that the racial epithets in the equivalent signs for segregation disqualified them from being the exemplars. The message is that that group is regarded as outsiders--not part of the community. One of the strengths of US has been its population seeing itself as part of the whole nation, and not placing loyalty to smaller groups over the nation.
For example, Afghanistan is a country, not a nation: It is a collection of ethnic groups and tribes. Similarly for the former Yugoslavia: its leaders attempted to create a nation, but the ethnic and religious animosities were too strong. During the break-up, I watched an interview (PBS News Hour) of a Serbian-American and a Kosovar-American. Their talking points included 500-year-old events--such as the ^Battle of Kosovo^ (1389)--as if they were current events.

The most prominent current examples are businesses refusing services related to gay marriage, for example, wedding cakes and photography. Focus on the moral issues, not the legal arguments (there are contrasting court decisions and a case is pending at the US Supreme Court). Supporting the right of bakers to refuse to make cakes for gay weddings, the primary argument is that the baker should be free to choose whom to serve, in this case motivated by religious beliefs. This provides a very one-sided view of the social contract, which involves the combination of rights and obligations. The right of the baker to conduct business in the community comes with the obligation to serve the community.

People who come from large urban areas tend to argue that being denied service is no big deal because there are likely alternatives nearby. I reject this argument because it doesn't apply to many people's situation. For example, I grew up in a semi-rural village and the alternative was often a major trip down the valley. Then there were the pseudo-alternatives: Having two gas stations in town didn't count as alternatives if they were owned by the same family. This provided them with some leverage against the oil companies, but took away choice from the community. Similarly, an extended family might have come to own a substantial portion of the local retail through generational turnover. Similarly, poor inner-city areas are grossly under-served. And what is close-enough for a 25-year-old may not be so for a senior citizen, nor a parent with young children in tow.

My sense is that making a cake for a gay wedding has so little difference from making other wedding cakes that there is no moral or ethical rationale for refusing to do so, and that the baker should put aside moral qualms for the sake of the community functioning as a community. As to legal requirements, I am not a lawyer.

Now add in the case of a person hired to photograph a gay wedding. My sense is that this crosses the threshold to where I would disagree with a refusal, but not condemn it. Why? The photographer's job requires active participation in the event.

----Stereotypes & False Positives----

On a much larger stage, such refusals can have unintended consequences. In 2012, Google decided to not include listings for firearms and related products for searches conducted from the ^Google Shopping tab^. In late February 2018, it was discovered that it was excluding all results for titles containing "gun" and related words. This caused many legitimate vendors to have their listings not appear: "Gunderson" (Colorado tourist area), "Laguna", "Burgundy" (the wine and the region), "glue gun", "Guns N Roses" (musical group), "water pistol", "Sex Pistols" (musical group), ...(foot#7) This seems to have since been fixed, seemingly by turning off the filter. That this happened is a warning of the danger of such filtering: The problem of over-shoot was dramatically illustrated two decades ago with SPAM filters which generated large numbers of false positives, such a messages with the word "specialist" being flagged because they contained "Cialis" (a drug name). Since key Google products depend on minimizing such false positives, it is hard to image how this mistake happened.

With algorithm powered by deep-learning, a certain number of these false positives are inevitable.(foot#8) So, what is the morality, ethics and duties of the developers of such algorithms?

Back in the days of "No Irish Need Apply", there were valid concerns behind those signs: There was lack of impulse control and other causes of serious violence, drunkenness, substantial criminality, ..., as was to be expected from the conditions from which most of them had come and were now in. The legend is that at a New York City Police event, the Commissioner looked out over the room and said "I see that if it weren't for the Irish, New York wouldn't have a police force" and from the back of the room someone responded "If it weren't for the Irish, New York wouldn't need a police force."

Of course there were many who do not fit the stereotypes, that is, they are the false positives of the stereotype. Should false positives from an algorithm be treated differently from stereotypes, and in what ways? Recognize that although there are malicious stereotypes, many stereotypes emerged and evolved from detecting and learning patterns, which is essentially what is going on in computer-based learning. Does that change your thinking about false positives?

----Public boycotts of companies----

After the 2016 election, there was a rash of calls for boycotts of companies because for situation such as them having Trump supporters on their Board of Directors or as prominent employees. Ask yourself if this isn't a variant of "No Irish Need Apply". Aren't the boycotters refusing to compete in the marketplace of ideas and instead trying to use economic power to silence dissenting views?

Other calls for boycotts represent an arrogance, carelessness, recklessness and venom. For example, after the Parkland school shooting, there was call for a boycott of Delta Airlines under the false rationalization that they supported the NRA (National Rifle Association), when what they actually did was offer a discount to NRA members for travel to the convention. Such affinity discounts are common because they benefit the company offering them. First, they are expected to be a more cost-efficient way of obtaining customers, and second, the discounts are often less than what the customer could find elsewhere. The latter is suggested by the fact that only a handful of NRA members used the discount.

Then there are the secondary boycotts, which, if they had been within the realm of labor law, would have been illegal. For example, while some companies do select specific shows for a portion of their advertising, many companies simply want their advertising to reach particular demographics and receive a certain number of viewings, spread over a range of audiences.(foot#9) They don't care about the specifics, such as the particular TV show. So they buy a block of advertising space and let others manage the details. Does it sound reasonable to attack them for where their ads wound up? This question has two levels.
The first is of principles, morality, ethics.
The second is pragmatics. How possible is it to create effective advertising where some group won't manage to find some way to take offense? Plus, the resources spent on such efforts increase the costs of products--higher overheads. How much is this worth to the community?

Many of the targeted companies are in a bind: They don't want to take sides, but simply reach as many potential customers as possible. If they cave in to one group's boycott, they are liable to being targeted for a boycott by opposing groups.

Public boycotts have been an appropriate means to pressure individuals, groups and companies that fall in the grey area between significantly violating public standards and being illegal enough to be prosecuted. However, we are increasingly seeing the calling of boycotts as an exercise of power by one group against the larger community. This can be perceived by other groups as anything from a statement of contempt directed at them to being a "declaration of war".

As I was finishing this article, an example arose. David Hogg, one of the primary media faces for the Parkland school shooting, made public that he had been rejected by four colleges. Laura Ingraham, the host of a show on Fox News, tweeted out a mildly snarky comment on this. Hogg then used social and traditional media to call for a boycott of advertisers on Ingraham's show, first 12 companies, then 100. If Hogg had been a normal student making a public statement on an issue, Ingraham's tweet would have been very wrong, both for the ridicule and for expanding the distribution of the information in Hogg's tweet. However, Hogg has chosen to become a very high profile public figure, which has a very different criteria for how he should expect to be treated. Which criteria should be used, child or public figure? Add to this that Hogg is a ^demagogue (definition 1)^. He has made statements against others that I would regard as slanderous if those targets hadn't been public figures. He routinely derides those that don't agree with him. In an interview, he profanely expressed contempt for his parents and other adults.(foot#10)
What is your judgment: Does his conduct override the default criteria on how he should be treated by others?(foot#11)
Note: Ingraham is highly partisan and could qualify as being demagogic. However, that is irrelevant in considering how Hogg's conduct should be factored into how he should be treated?

----Public boycotts of companies causing them to use stereotypes----

About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal found Disney advertising alongside a controversial video. Pack (of hyenas) journalism took over and reporters found more similar situations, and widely publicized them. Readers of these articles were led to believe that those companies had chosen to support those videos and the groups producing them, rather than the ads being placed there by a Google/YouTube algorithm. Advertisers had long had complaints about how Google/YouTube placed ads. Concerns about boycotts and other damages to their corporate and product reputations caused many of them to pull their YouTube advertising entirely. To get its ad revenue back, YouTube responded in a ham-fisted way, designating as "Not Suitable for Advertising" a wide-range of videos, including many that were current events, educational and how-to.

Many content producers that had relied on ad revenue to support their work saw it dry up (web search term: demonetization). Some creators successfully transitioned to other funding mechanisms, such as contributions from supportive viewers, but others just gave up.

These events are commonly referred to as the "AdPocalypse" (ad + apocalypse). Web search will return an number of pretty-good accounts, but I haven't found one to recommend as really good.

Why is this important? Fear of attacks, boycotts, censorship by Google/YouTube and others has caused creators to increasingly self-censoring, and producing increasing sterilized accounts. YouTube seems to have very different rules for mainstream media and alternative sources. For example, after the Parkland shooting, one independent YouTube journalist questioned the public claims by a White Nationalist in an AP story from the ADL (Anti-defamation League). YouTube deleted the journalist's video, claiming that it constituted "harassment and bullying" (of the White Nationalist who had talked to the press?). The next day, the AP retracted those claims.(foot#12) What are we going to do when the alternative voices who call out established media's inclination to "Don't let fact-checking get in the way of click-bait" (updated version of "Don't let facts/the truth get in the way of a good story") are suppressed, supposedly by algorithms.

This has intentionally been a long journey from the opening concern about the County Board of Supervisor's plan to ban (on the possession and sale of guns on County property). There were two related basic issues. First the tyranny of the majority relative to rights. Second was how power-plays by one group within a community and adversely impact the sense of community.

1. Marriage license for same-sex couple denied:
^Kim Davis^ in Rowan County Kentucky in 2015.

2. "^Gun show ban plan for Santa Clara County fairgrounds advances^" by John Woolfolk - The Mercury News, 2018-03-06.

3. Jonathan Haidt on Moral Psychology:
^My collection of links^ to overlapping talks from the book tour, invited talks and participation on various panels.

4. Wisdom vs Knowledge:
More discussion in my earlier blog "^Wisdom, Skills, Knowledge, Wits: Not the same^", 2015-12-14.

5. More wisdom from asides in class:
There were two other important lessons from my freshman year.
First, in "Introduction to Psychology", the professor told us that the course and the textbook were deceptively named, and should have been "Introduction to the Psychology of Freshman and Sophomores at major research universities", because they were the preponderance of the subjects in the research studies.
Aside: A similar selection bias is so common that it has an acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic.
At that time we didn't have the term "bubble" to describe such a bias, so I internalized it as a caution about unrepresentative samples.
Second was in a programming project: My project partner had a bug in his code arising from a wildly improbable combination of conditions. I could walk him step-by-step through what was happening and he still refused to believe it w possible. Detail for the curious: We were programming in Assembly Language, which is only slightly above writing the machine instructions themselves. His code had a bad go-to that caused the computer to execute some of the data as if it were a sequence of instructions, the last of which was a go-to back to almost exactly where it had come from.

6. Culture you grew up in:
There are many cultures in the US. If you are interest in origins of regional cultures, see: ^Up in Arms^ by Colin Woodward - U of Tufts Magazine, 2013-Fall.
Blurb: "The battle lines of today's debates over gun control, stand-your-ground laws, and other violence-related issues were drawn centuries ago by America's early settlers."
However the title is misleading: The article is instead a good introduction or overview of the author's book ^American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America^ by Colin Woodard, 2011.
Blurb: "An illuminating history of North America's eleven rival cultural regions that explodes the red state-blue state myth. // North America was settled by people with distinct religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics, creating regional cultures that have been at odds with one another ever since. Subsequent immigrants didn't confront or assimilate into an 'American' or 'Canadian' culture, but rather into one of the eleven distinct regional ones that spread over the continent each staking out mutually exclusive territory."
For those interested in more details, I have seen recommendations for the book ^The Nine Nations of North America^ by Joel Garreau, 1981, but with the warning that it is very long and dense.
Blurb: "Redivides North America into nine powers which are seen as the continent's emerging realities, and explains the distinct cultural, ethnic, and geographic identities of each."

7. Google Shopping:
"^Google Shopping bans searches for 'water guns' and 'Guns N Roses' -- but you can still look for 'bombs' and 'poison' ^" - Business Insider, 2018-02-27.

8. Inevitability of false positives:
See the section False positives from classification algorithms in my blog "^Swastikas, censorship, false positives and kittens^, 2017-09-07".

9. "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." ^John Wanamaker^ (1838-1922), a prominent merchant (department stores) and a pioneer in marketing.

10. David Hogg's contempt for his parents and adults:
"^David Hogg: 'Our Parents Don't Know How To Use A F*cking Democracy, So We Have To' ^" by Tim Hains - Real Clear Politics, 2018-03-23.

11. How to treat David Hogg?
This is an evolving discussion. One such article is "^David Hogg's attempt to end Laura Ingraham's career sets dangerous precedent^" by Joe Concha - The Hill, 2018-03-30.

12. AP/ADL fake news:
^Youtube Censored my Video. Was This Political?^ (12:54), cued at 1:33 - Tim Pool, 2018-02-19.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.