A couple weeks back, Microsoft joined Amazon and IBM in placing a one-year moratorium on sales of facial-recognition software to police departments. The companies implicitly admitted the move was largely for show, as they are not key suppliers of this software to police organizations. But it nicely illustrates why policy development by Twitter mob, backlit by burning cities and inchoate rage, cannot work.
Processes of civic engagement and achievement are defeated by racializing policy concerns that need not be driven by racial considerations, conflating of unrelated policy problems and roving demands that anyone deviating from today’s floating consensus about the Lone Acceptable Narrative must be driven from public life.
The central problem with facial recognition software is deeply rooted in race: It appears current technology is much better at successfully identifying lighter faces than darker ones. That flaw would obviously disproportionately harm – by false-positive identifications – black people. And everyone would probably agree technology should not be deployed until it works with reasonably equal accuracy for all skin tones.
But then begins the conflation and the unnecessary racialization.
Dissatisfied with this achievement, activists push further, demanding that no facial recognition software be used until a whole host of other goals are achieved. Some of these goals raise issues not primarily racial, but societal. Do we want to allow police to use facial-recognition software at all? Is that giving up too much in privacy for the security benefits?
People would answer these questions differently at all stops along the political spectrum. Within the questions, there is surely a racial component. We don’t want primarily black communities to be more watched than other communities, surely. But that’s only one component of a set of larger issues.
More broadly, great strides can be made in police, prison and criminal-justice reform that would benefit everyone – especially those most exposed to or most poorly treated by those systems. The problem with racializing these possible reforms from the get-go is that there are tens of millions of white Americans who have never had a “white supremacist” thought in their lives, who want to make things better for everyone, but who are as uninterested in taking a knee – figuratively or literally – for other racial groups as they are in asking anyone to kneel to them.
And because of the Twitter, establishment-media and woke-corporate cancel mobs roving the digital commons, that’s what so many of them feel they are being required to do. Dozens if not hundreds of people are having their livelihoods threatened or destroyed because of past comments now deemed retroactively unconscionable – many mere policy discussions that don’t fit today’s Woke Thesis.
Corporations are refusing to advertise on television shows daring to question whether Black Lives Matters has all the answers and cannot be contradicted, and whether that organization might bear some responsibility for the looting, vandalism and outright seizures of property accompanying too many of the protests.
The goal here appears to be bullying people into embracing whatever ever-more-woke position the purveyors of scorn adopt next. But that won’t work. Silencing people and driving them out of economic and civic life doesn’t make them agree with their persecutors. It makes them – and everyone else who’s watching and, and who has to cede their birthright liberties like free expression to avoid the scythe – angrier and more adverse to the positions touted by the cancelers. We used to know that well.
The only real result of this racialize/conflate/cancel mechanism will be the destruction of American civic society for everyone. If that happens, no measure of contrition will have been enough to save anyone. As Amazon – increasingly a model of a woke organization – is learning, there is no way to negotiate a separate peace
If civic society crumbles, the result will be less freedom and less security for everyone on all sides. The way, at this perilous time, to work toward a better life for all Americans is to address genuinely race-based concerns as such, resist the racialization of problems that can be addressed neutrally, avoid conflating the two categories, and absolutely reject shameful efforts to stamp out speech and disagreement about virtually anything at all, really.
Whatever happened to “I may profoundly disagree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to express yourself?” That was a good system. We need to re-embrace it.
If we don’t, and if our civic life continues to crumble, the relative efficacy of facial-recognition software won’t matter much one way or another.
Scott Shepard is the deputy director of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research and a former law professor.