Abstract ignorance

There's a kind of argument that starts with one person saying something like "social media companies should ban disinformation", and the other saying "but once you start banning speech who knows what it will include". Then the first person says "well I know what it will include: things that aren't true", the second says "ah, but what is true?" and the prophecy is complete.

This looks like a argument about censorship, but really it's an argument about abstraction. Chances are these people both agree that disinformation is bad, that banning speech is bad, that disinformation is untrue, and that truth is not universally-agreed-upon. The points that are raised aren't in conflict, but the people are talking past each other because they can't agree on which level of abstraction is appropriate.

It's easy to see a more abstract concept as more enlightened, or even more virtuous. But really the best way to understand it is that a more abstract concept is more ignorant. The more abstract your point, the less you need to know for it to be true. An abstract point applies in more situations, because it ignores the details that make it specific to any one situation. Ignorance and generality are two sides of the same coin.

When we make an argument like "banning speech is bad", we ignore what specific speech we're talking about. If we know for certain that the speech in question is loud demonic screaming outside your bedroom window at 4am, banning it is just fine. But if we don't know whether it's demonic screaming or criticism of political parties, it's better to risk the occasional 4am exorcism if it allows us a functioning democracy.

This ignorance is sometimes because we genuinely don't know, like when we're trying to find a rule for situations we haven't encountered. But other times it's a deliberate choice to forget. We know that 4am screaming is bad, but we don't trust the people who determine what constitutes 4am screaming. Better to pretend we don't know and find a more general rule.

But abstraction's deliberate ignorance can also be a disingenuous tactic. Yes, we might not be able to universally define misinformation, but it's not hard to define misinformation for less-universal domains like 5g-induced-diseases, cancer cures made from shark bits, or whether vaccines work. Pretending otherwise is just trying to abstract away the truth.

Despite the towering temptations of metaphysics, we do live in an actual physical universe, with actual things we can test and determine to be true or false. We don't need to find arguments that cover the other universes; they can fend for themselves.

And, I mean, they'll have to if they're going to fight off the hordes of autistic 5g corona-sharks.