22 Feb 2019

It’s Celebrity Criticism All the Way Down

Humor, Libertarianism 17 Comments

As all right-thinking people recognize, it should be illegal to harshly criticize a celebrity. Now some libertarian theorists try to say, “Well, there’s no rights violation involved, so shouldn’t it be legal to harshly criticize a celebrity?” But that’s not a good argument. I’ll demonstrate with a humorous thought experiment to show the inner contradictions of such a view.

Suppose it were legal to harshly criticize a celebrity, even though most people agree that it’s still wrong to do so. For example, Kathy Griffin poses in a photo with a fake severed head of Trump, and says really nasty things about Melania Trump.

Now that sort of thing is legal, in this thought experiment. But then along comes James Woods, and says, “Wow! That’s really disrespectful and disgusting! She should be fired.”

Do you see the irony? James Woods is himself attacking a celebrity. And we can take it even further, with (say) Stephen Colbert telling James Woods to shut up.

So you can see how internally contradictory this all is, with celebrities viciously attacking each other, for the sin (which should be a crime) of attacking other celebrities!

And so, in addition to the obvious social damage from allowing people to hurl insults at celebrities, you’ve also got this logical problem. This is why it is right for the government to punish people for criticizing celebrities.

P.S. If you like this post, you will also appreciate Scott Sumner’s latest thoughts on blackmail.

17 Responses to “It’s Celebrity Criticism All the Way Down”

  1. Transformer says:

    In your thought experiment there is no internal contradiction – if there is a social norm against criticizing celebrates this applies even in the case where the criticism is that some celebrities have criticized other celebrities. Some people in your post (all celebrities as it happens) have merely violated this norm. There may be irony but no discernible contradictions of logic.

    In Scott’s thought experiment there is a contradiction: if blackmail is useful because it would help endorse societies norms but blackmail is itself against societies norms then blackmail would be useful as a way to undermines blackmail – which is a logical contradiction.

    For the record: I would agree with the libertarians that blackmail is OK purely on the grounds that “there’s no rights violation involved”.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      then blackmail would be useful as a way to undermines blackmail – which is a logical contradiction.

      It’s a logical contradiction to think that there will be less blackmail, if society generally disapproves of it? What if a few brave souls with nothing to lose, threaten to blackmail anybody they catch engaging in blackmail?

      Not only is this not a logical contradiction, I think it actually shows that the fears of someone hiding behind every bush are overblown.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I agree.

        I don’t think we should use the word “blackmail” to describe stopping someone from starting blackmail by [‘blackmailing’] them.

        I think of a case of someone using a gun in self defense to stop someone from murdering another. It should not be called murder when a person [‘kills’] another to stop that person from murdering another. Yes on the superficial surface it looks like the same action, but the intent, the understanding, the ethics, I think demands different words.

        I don’t think I am blackmailing anyone if I were to [‘blackmail’] another to stop them from blackmailing me first. It’s in self-defense. Blackmail commonly defined presupposes an initiation, an introduction, of a threat to disclose in demand for a payment or whatever.

        Just like it’s not a logical contradiction to say “Everyone in self-defense has a right to kill any murderer, because murder is wrong.” It would be vicious to label self-defending people as murderers for killing murderers, for it would presume it is an offense on par with murder to self-defend one’s own life from murder.

        There should be another word for “blackmail in self-defense”.

        For the celebrity example, I don’t think what James Woods said in the example should be called “harshly criticizing a celebrity” if he is calling out another person harshly criticizing a celebrity first. I think it falls under the same overall “self-defense” category of action to stop what is introduced first by another.

  2. Transformer says:

    The logical contradiction is not that there will be less blackmail if society generally disapproves of it (which sounds quite likely) but rather that using blackmail as a way to fight blackmail is as inconsistent as using violence to try and reduce violence.

    Are not the brave souls in your example acting in a logical inconsistent way ? They are apparently against blackmail but use blackmail as a way of fighting it!

    • Transformer says:

      Though I suppose that whether the tactic of “blackmailing the blackmailer” actually reduced the overall level of blackmail or not would be an empirical matter if one leaves aside the logical consistency of anti-blackmailers using blackmail as a way to reduce the level of blackmail.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      I agree with MF’s response to Transformer (above), and it comes out even more strongly here when Transformer writes: “using blackmail as a way to fight blackmail is as inconsistent as using violence to try and reduce violence.”

      Transformer, are you saying that not only is pacifism sensible, but it’s the only logically coherent position?

      • Transformer says:

        OK, I see I’m a bit confused on this topic !

        While it does sound a bit weird to say “I’m against blackmail but think its OK to use blackmail to fight blackmail” or “I’m against violence but think its OK to use violence to fight violence” a bit of thought reveals that there is no logical contradiction involved – in fact as a person who is against violence but not a pacifistic I would have to say that I do think that sometimes it is OK to use violence to fight violence – just as MF points out.

        I can’t really see how blackmailing blackmailers would be the best way to stop them – why not just expose their blackmailing, but I’ll let that go for now ?

        • Harold says:

          “I can’t really see how blackmailing blackmailers would be the best way to stop them – why not just expose their blackmailing,”

          Why let this go when it is the central point? If you want to enforce society’s norms you will not be asking for money to keep something quiet. Quite the opposite, you will be telling everyone about it, with or without a legal blackmail rule.

          In English law the following is required for blackmail.

          A person makes a demand of someone else, which is accompanied or reinforced in some way by some consequence if they don’t comply, which would coerce an unwilling victim to do what is demanded,
          The intent is to make a gain (for themselves or anyone else) or cause a loss (to anyone),
          and either
          (a) The perpetrator did not truly believe that the demand was based on reasonable grounds
          (b) The perpetrator did not truly believe that the menace was a proper way to reinforce the demand.(or both).

          The US says
          “Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

          Asking someone to stop a behavior or simply revealing it is not blackmail.

        • Andrew in MD says:

          I think that if you are trying to be fair to the arguments of the would-be blackmail legalizers then the fees extracted by blackmailers should be viewed as similar to a court of law extracting a fine from someone who had broken a law and then sealing the records to protect them from disproportionate damage to their reputation.

          I’m still against legal blackmail because I don’t believe that blackmailers would be as altruistic as would-be blackmail legalizers suggest. But I think this analogy explains how one could say that blackmail is potentially more fair to the blackmailee than exposure.

  3. Major_Freedom says:

    This reminds me of that paradox about the barber:


  4. Major_Freedom says:

    Best ever speech on #2A?


  5. khodge says:

    Some of us rely on celebrities to tell us what to believe. It would be wrong to deny us that necessary imput.

  6. Andrew in MD says:

    I agree that Scott’s response is quite silly but I don’t get why this argument is focusing on altruistic blackmailers rather than malevolent ones. Certainly they’re the taller hurdle for would-be blackmail legalizers. My comment on the previous blackmail post tried to address this more thoroughly but it appears to be caught in moderation.

    • khodge says:

      if there is money to be made then some one is going to try to make it, social constructs be damned.

      • Andrew in MD says:

        I don’t follow. I’m not even sure whether you’re arguing in favor of or against what I said.

        Either way, I somewhat agree with your statement but I’ll add that social pressure has an impact on the size and shape of markets.

      • Andrew in MD says:

        It’s funny. When I first read this response, I thought it must have been intended as a reply to this comment. But that’s impossible.

  7. Harold says:

    There are some things not quite right with Sumner’s piece. He says “Alas, his pleas are not successful, as the old guy is mean and spiteful.”, but meanness and spite are not required for blackmail. Under current laws, he could try to enforce societies norms by threatening to expose her if she doesn’t stop, or exposing her anyway to provide an example. If he claims money, it actually weakens the position on enforcing norms as she can pay to continue or to for her activities to remain secret. So people who are primarily motivated to enforce society’s norms don’t need blackmail to do it.

    It is clear that enforcing societies norms is a by-product of blackmail, not the primary motivation.

    We need to look at the change that would happen if blackmail were legal.

    In Sumners example, the prof would behave the same as he does with the blackmail law as he is not motivated by money. Legal blackmail only makes a difference if the old prof is motivated by money. He approaches the woman for money, she pays him and nobody else knows about it. Or she doesn’t pay him and he exposes her. There is some pressure on the woman not to engage in the activity which would not have existed in the absence of the blackmail since she knows it is more likely to be exposed by money motivated people who currently don’t give a damn what she gets up to.

    Robin wishes to stop the blackmail but is also not motivated by money. He is always entitled to expose the prof. Blackmail only enters into it if Robin wishes to gain financially or by quid pro quo. In which case the prof feels pressure not to engage in his activity that he would not feel in the absence of blackmail being legal.

    However, we don’t know if she really is engaging in prostitution. All we have is some gossip. The woman may feel pressure to pay even if she is not engaged in prostitution. Currently she is protected to some extent by libel laws.

    Rothbard said:

    “… should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

    “… how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a ‘thief’ even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.”

    It strikes me that legal blackmail and legal libel are a recipe for disaster.

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