Medical ethics can tell us why disinviting Steve Bannon was a good idea

Far-right figurehead Steve Bannon has been back in the news recently for being invited to headline the New Yorker’s annual festival, and then promptly disinvited after a liberal outcry that this was giving legitimacy to his xenophobic ideas.  One of the more surprising defenses of Bannon’s invitation came from writer Malcolm Gladwell, who said in a series of tweets that the festival’s audiences should be exposed to competing ideas, and that he hoped Bannon’s views would be discredited by a public debate.

Two tweets from Malcolm Gladwell.  The first says, "Huh.  Call me old fashioned.  But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas.  If you only invite your friends over, it's called a dinner party."  The second says "Joe McCarthy was done in when he was confronted by someone with intelligence and guts, before a live audience.  Sometimes a platform is actually a gallows."

Gladwell has been roundly criticized for the first tweet in particular, with people noting that he’s making an apolitical, process-oriented claim (“we should be able to discuss different ideas”) about a set of ideas which are deeply political (xenophobia and white nationalism).  This discussion sets two valid points in tension with each other.  I certainly think that freedom of expression is important.  But it’s also true that there’s a real cost to saying that racist ideas should be discussed on the same footing as ideas about diversity and social justice.  When it is appropriate to say that an idea is so bad that it shouldn’t be given a platform for debate?  And how can we take a more nuanced approach than simply banning all ideas that don’t agree with our own politics?

Medical ethics has a concept that’s useful in this situation: clinical equipoise.  Equipoise means that the medical community is genuinely uncertain about whether a treatment will be effective.  They have reason to believe that it could help patients, and at minimum won’t harm them, but don’t yet have proof of its benefits.  This is the ethical justification for conducting randomized controlled trials to determine whether the treatment works.  If a researcher knew in advance that a treatment would definitely help a patient, then there would be no ethical justification for randomly withholding the treatment from the control group.  Similarly, if a researcher already knew that a treatment didn’t work, or might even injure patients, there’s no ethical justification for testing it at all.  RCTs are a tool to improve medical quality of care, not an excuse to test out harmful procedures for the ostensibly neutral sake of “scientific progress.”

The ethics of public debates are arguably similar to those of medical trials.  Debates let people try out new concepts and see how others respond to them, and are ideally done with the goal of leaving the world a better place for having had the debate.  Like clinical trials, they’re most productive when they focus on issues with a range of possible solutions, and with genuine uncertainty about which one would be best.  You could pick any number of examples here: how to best reform failing schools, how to manage the opioid crisis, how to balance the gains from free trade with the harm caused to industries exposed to trade, and so forth.  Debates on such topics can bring out useful arguments from various sides, and enrich the overall conversation.

Many of Bannon’s ideas fail the equipoise test because we already know with certainty that they are harmful to people, and don’t bring any commensurate benefits.  Take his desire to ban all immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries.  This is justified with an ostensible concern about terrorism.  However, there’s data showing that right-wing groups in the US carry out significantly more acts of random public violence than Muslim groups, and that Muslim immigrants in particular virtually never participate in this type of violence.  In addition, many studies have shown that immigration is on average good for economic growth in both sending and receiving countries.  Banning immigration on the basis of religious or national identity is thus discriminatory, harmful to the immigrants themselves, and harmful to citizens of their countries of origin and reception.  The only “benefit” of this policy is that it provides comfort to racists, which clearly should not be the goal of an ethical public policy.

Inviting Bannon to headline a prominent festival suggests that his ideas are worthy of discussion and could enrich the overall debate.  It’s an unethical position to take with someone who has a clear interest in causing harm to others and no credible data on the supposed benefits of his ideas.  The New Yorker made the right choice in disinviting him.

6 thoughts on “Medical ethics can tell us why disinviting Steve Bannon was a good idea

  1. Rachel, I like your blog but I don’t see the relevance of this post and your argument leaves me unconvinced or perhaps confused.
    You write: “Debates let people try out new concepts and see how others respond to them, and are ideally done with the goal of leaving the world a better place for having had the debate.”
    Fair enough. I can imagine an outcome where David Remnick interviews Steve Bannon, and helps to expose his bad ideas. He makes the arguments that you do — that banning Muslim immigrants is grossly unfair, that fomenting racism is dangerous, that immigration is net-positive. Bannon’s responses are unpersuasive. The net result is that good ideas have defeated bad ideas, and the world is, arguably, better off. At the very least, people at the event would have come away with a better understanding of the forces that brought us Trump, which is worth understanding.
    What has happened, instead, is that the dis-invitation has made Bannon a victim, has fed (justifiable) fears about de-platforming by the left and has made it harder for magazines, newspapers and college campuses to showcase unpopular ideas of all kinds for fear of being attacked by the mobs on Twitter. Has that left the world a better place?

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    1. Yes, I think having prominent publications take a public stand that racism is wrong does make the world a better place.

      Just think about how this looks from the perspective of a person of color or an immigrant. Seeing a publication like the New Yorker hold up Bannon and say, “we should really think seriously about these ideas,” is saying, “we should really consider if non-white people and non-citizens are actually people.” The harm caused by that statement vastly outweighs the fact that some people will complain on Twitter about this.

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  2. Your article is nothing more than another example of the left’s attempt to stifle open debate and free speech by rationalizing censorship.

    Our history is one of uniqueness. It is a uniqueness that has enabled our society to become strong and intellectually powerful by allowing not just the ideas that we agree with to be proclaimed but also by allowing those that we despise to be considered. This history of intellectual consideration can date back even to Biblical times where Paul expounded upon his beliefs at Mars Hill, a belief I might add that was strange and to many listeners, who lived in the pantheon society, disagreeable. Yet everyone in attendance at Mars Hill allowed Paul to speak.

    Stopping someone from speaking is not the same as having the strength to overcome what is being said. However, at times the idea that is proclaimed that we find so disagreeable is one that actually needs to be considered. For example, you state

    “However, there’s data showing that right-wing groups in the US carry out significantly more acts of random public violence than Muslim groups, and that Muslim immigrants in particular virtually never participate in this type of violence. In addition, many studies have shown that immigration is on average good for economic growth in both sending and receiving countries.”

    I would counter by saying that your argument is faulty as by your own admission Muslim groups do engage in some acts of violence. Regardless if domestic terrorist violence exists, it does not negate the fact that Muslim groups fly planes into buildings. Your argument is the same as saying we already have criminals in the country thus we should allow criminals who live in other countries to enter our country. There is also nothing wrong for a nation to stop immigration in order to set up a system that allows the people entering the country to be vetted more closely. The fact is Muslims on mass interact differently in larger groups than when there are just a few of them within our culture due to the fact the dominant culture, western culture, contains any harmful aspects of their religion/culture. I write this as someone who has traveled and interacted with Muslims and people who have had to deal with large groups of Muslims. Before you disagree, you may want to consider what it would be like for you, as a woman, in a Muslim dominated part of the world.

    In addition, the idea that immigration is good for the economy’s growth is based upon an obsolete way of thinking. Amazon has already shown us that menial jobs are going to be eliminated, as they have already built a store that has zero cashiers. Plus, cooks will be replaced with robotic hands, and even now as you walk into a McDonald’s you don’t even have to deal with a teller in order to pay for a meal. The idea that a nation must offer citizenship in order to obtain the workforce needed to meet the requirements of an aging population is also obsolete. Limited visas and tied to contract work would allow citizens of the nation to have the first choice of employment positions and thus reduce the unemployment rate while still allowing the needs of its population to be met. Productivity would also not be affected as labor would be done with automation and innovation.

    Am I now banned from speaking?

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    1. You seem to be confused about the definition of free speech. The 1st amendment means that the government can’t forbid someone from speaking. It carries no requirement for other people to agree with that speech or give the speaker a platform.

      As to the rest of your points, you’ve failed to engage substantively with my equipoise argument, appear to incorrectly believe that labor and technology are always substitutes and never complements, and are relying on Islamophobia rather than facts to substantiate your arguments.

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