Ostracism. The non-violent conflict resolution method of choice for libertarians?
In the libertarian’s eternal quest to find nonviolent solutions to problems, ostracism has surely become a favorite. Public shaming, character defamation, boycotts, refusing to be in the same place as a person, refusing to associate with those who associate with your target, blocking people on social networks, banning them from institutions, groups, pages, or websites, and other means of isolating a target, are all forms of ostracism. When done properly, ostracism is a non-violent way of dealing with interpersonal conflicts. When exercised in response to any non-violent problem, ostracism is without dispute, in every way superior to State solutions and other forms of initiatory force.
On the other hand, ostracism can be a non-violent way of doing damage to a person. While that is a perfectly libertarian way of handling something in the context of the non-aggression principle, it should not then be taken lightly. It does not take property by force, but it does have the potential to cost a person money. It does not meet most standards for fraud, but it is in many cases dishonest. When something dishonestly does economic damage to a person, it doesn’t take a master’s degree in sociology to realize this can lead to a rapidly escalating conflict and result in violence.
I am someone who has been on both sides of the ostracism issue. I have been banned from the FSP/PorcFest, the Keene Activist Center, and probably a dozen other groups I’m not even aware of. I’ve been banned from Facebook dozens of times due to false reports by enemies. I’ve publicly humiliated numerous people on this blog, and elsewhere. So I know a thing or two about the subject, and I figured I’d put together this list of the downsides to ostracism.
1. Ostracism (at its best) is harm reduction, not conflict resolution
Ostracism is often pitched as a way of resolving conflicts, but I think this is a non sequitur. Far from being a resolution to a dispute, it rather acknowledges that the problem cannot be resolved, and so the individuals involved are best off separate from one another. It does no more to solve a problem, than a life boat stops a ship from sinking. Ostracism, like violence, results from the failure of communicative dispute resolution, and is generally absent any sort of restorative action, leaving one or more parties feeling unsatisfied.
This is not to say that ostracism in such a case is necessarily a bad thing. In the case of irreconcilable differences, going their separate ways may be the least harmful way for two or more persons or groups to avoid escalation of the conflict. It is however the equivalent of giving methadone to a heroin addict. You cannot cure heroin addiction with methadone, you can only cover up the symptoms of withdrawal. Likewise you cannot resolve conflicts with ostracism, you can only cover up the symptoms (loud arguments, disharmony in a group, violence, etc…).
2. Ostracism (at its worst) is conflict escalation, not harm reduction
Since ostracism does not solve a problem, covering up symptoms is not always desirable. Taking cough syrup to cover up symptoms of lung cancer, will surely lead to the death of the patient. Whereas surgery or chemotherapy may have saved his life.
Ostracism often does not end with people going their separate ways. Over an often trivial difference of opinion, two or more persons or groups may find themselves in perpetual conflict, trying to win over public opinion in an effort to further isolate the other. Should the honesty barrier be broken, and mud slinging become the weapon of choice, the only limit to how ugly that conflict can become is the limits the non aggression principle places on violence. Even that limit is only theoretical, as we should all understand that even in a free society not all people will be non-aggressionists. Even if they were, perpetually teetering on the brink of warfare is only barely preferable to physical violence.
3. Ostracism by itself cannot stop aggressors.
Many have completely unrealistic expectations on the power of ostracism in dealing with violent conflict. Ostracism will do about as much to stop aggression as gun free zones have done to stop school shootings. One cannot simply ostracize murderers, marauders and bandits and expect this to stop them from victimizing others. The benefits of using violence, and taking property without consent can, for many, outweigh the downsides of social ostracism by benevolent actors. If you refuse to sell goods to an armed robber, but refuse to deploy defensive force against him, then he can simply take your goods without your consent. The State and its actors care least of all about ostracism. Shutting down the lines of communication with the IRS for example, has a terrible track record of increasing human liberty.
4. Ostracism cuts both ways.
When you isolate a person or group, you isolate yourself. You can’t burn a bridge for one person, without making said bridge uncrossable for both parties. When one makes an effort to ostracize a group or individual, they cut themselves off from gaining benefit from said target. If one tries to take that ostracism further and isolate themselves from those who associate with the target, creating organized factions and boycotts, this results in larger divisions as people take one side or the other in the conflict.
If you ostracize enough people, you cut yourself off from markets. You form coalitions against yourself. You find yourself more ostracized than your targets.
5. Ostracism can backfire
I’ve lost track of how many people have come after me over the years. This is sort of unfortunate, because I’d like to send them each a thank you card. Dozens of mislead rivals with zero comprehension of public relations have attempted to kick me out of this faction or that one. Either by spreading my message to people who would not otherwise have heard it, or by lying about me to people who know me, and in both cases it only strengthened me.
Sometimes, there’s no such thing as bad press. When you call attention to someone, even if you do so in a negative light, you cause others to find out more about them . Even the dishonest mudslinging campaigns have only lead to hundreds if not thousands of people checking me out for themselves, and coming to enjoy what they found. The more people who complain, the more people search me out, and the higher my profile becomes. I’m not unique in this.
6. Ostracism is a tool of entryists.
Those who seek to infiltrate, take over, or recruit from a movement, will often gain stature within the group and then create some split therein, in order to grow a competing movement and diminish the numbers of the competitor. The tactic was employed by Trotskyites throughout the 30’s and 40’s, joining various left leaning organizations, building factions within it, then splitting off into their own organizations.
If you ask me, this is exactly what we’re seeing when “left libertarians” hurl baseless accusations of racism and bigotry at ancaps, then attempt to make “the libertarian case” for things that are obviously anti libertarian like a basic income guarantee.
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