“You want to tell people what to do!”

I’ve debunked voluntaryism before, but this is more of a general complain which seems to be used against all ideologies which have an ethical component. Any attempt to stop something that is clearly wrong, no matter what it is, will be met with cries of “you’re just a big bully” and “you just want to tell people what they can and cannot do!”

Yet, as I pointed out in my entry debunking voluntaryism, we most definitely do want to tell people what they cannot do. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t kill other people unless it’s self-defense. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t propagate hatred against other people because they have a different race or gender. Obviously we want to tell people that they can’t exploit others for profit. Anyone who denies that it is in our interest to tell people what they can’t do is plainly deluding emself. You don’t need to be a dictatorial personality to realize that there are things you don’t want people to do to you.

The basic principle behind whether we should tell people not to do something or not is this:

When your actions hurt other people, choice goes out the window.

If we are to live in society, then people’s free agency will necessarily come into conflict. In any such conflict, we must necessarily take the side of the person whose free agency is being restricted by the other person’s. We take the side of the murder victim, not the murderer. We take the side of the person discriminated against, not the racist or sexist. We take the side of the exploited, not the exploiter. Again, anyone who disagrees on these points is deluding emself.

Now, we must introduce the concept of causal distance between the action and the hurt. Shooting someone is proximal to the fact that they are in need of medical help. But the act of perpetuating racism is not proximal to a black person getting arrested without justification or not getting a job because of eir race, and the act of perpetuating sexism is not proximal to a woman being raped.

This provides a cognitive gap that voluntaryists and other opponents can exploit (much like natalists try to exploit the gap between conception and birth as an argument against the rights of future people). By separating the act from its context (such as the indoctrination that led to it, the institutions that support it and benefit from it, and the rationalizations used to justify it), they can make the act itself seem innocuous while supporting hierarchies and stratification by the back door.

The cleavage of action from its context, considering actions in a vacuum, is the mark of voluntaryist reasoning. This is why voluntaryists are so good at identifying presently-occuring coercion but so horrible at identifying the coercion embodied in actions and institutions.

Here is an example taken from an anti-abortion questionnaire featured in an upcoming entry of mine:

[I]t is false to say that, in our society, pro-life people are free to live in accordance with their conviction that unborn children are precious and have dignity.

If you grant, then, that, if you were pro-life, you might very well try to stop abortions, say, by sidewalk counseling, or pickets, or even rescues, then you must admit that these activities are part of the pro-life view, and, if you hold, furthermore, that both pro-life and pro-choice views should be allowed, shouldn’t you oppose any restrictions on these sorts of pro-life activities?

The clear implication of this question is that, because some people choose to be anti-abortion, their choice should be respected on the same level as someone who chooses to be pro-choice or pro-abortion, and we should let them perform the perverted acts they wish to perform, such as pickets, sidewalk “counseling” or “rescues” (the latter being, in addition to being wrong, also illegal, from what I understand).

The underlying belief that people should be “free to live in accordance with their conviction” is false. When your “convictions” involve hurting other people, they are wrong and should be suppressed, not encouraged. They are sick in the head. Sidewalk “counseling” and “rescues” are actions which entail harm to the women who are trapped in their rhetoric and physical intimidation, and ultimately entail the creation of massive harm through reproduction. Their actions hurt other people, so choice is no longer an acceptable excuse.

Here is another example from a recent comment on this blog:

[M]aybe you can tell me how [the burqa], distinct from external religious mandate, interferes with the choice of others? If a woman chooses to wear a burqa for her own reasons, how is she interfering with the choices of others? If she’s forced to wear it by religious (or other) authorities, then *her* choice is being interfered with. But if she chooses, then whose choice is being interfered with?

Here we see a person clearly interpreting actions in a vacuum. The burqa exists within a religious mandate and solely because of that mandate, and cannot be discussed as if it is purely the result of choice. Fundamentally, no woman wears a burqa out of choice, and if the religious mandate did not exist, no woman would wear a burqa. The best proof of this is that women who are not raised in the Islamic sexist mentality do not choose to wear burqas. Well, what an incredible coincidence, no?

The fact is that the imposition of the burqa is a sexist act both inherently (because it is explicitly based on profound and offensive sexism) and in practice (because it displays women as objects, in the most literal way). And sexism hurts everyone. No one is spared from it, although women bear the brunt of this harm.

Voluntaryists can try to hide that fact by dissociating the act from its context. The individual woman wearing a burqa, they say, is not aggressing on anyone. That much is true, but the sexism which she is supporting by her actions does aggress on others. For Anarchists to preach the end of racism while ignoring the causes of racism is as deluded as pro-war protestors proposing the State as the solution (given the fact that the State is the root cause) or environmentalists who fight against antinatalism (given the fact that just having one child destroys many times over any good you may do by reducing your carbon footprint). The only way to progress on any problem or issue is to deal with its underlying causes.

Here is another comment from the same person:

Marriage is the same thing. There are statist rules that benefit married couples specifically. Banning marriage (as an expression of pair-bonding which has existed for millenia, in various forms) is telling people what they can or can’t do because you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you know better than they… you’re taking the same basic position as a statist, by declaring you know how people should live and dictating the norms they should conform to.

The “you want to tell people what to do” fallacy is easily paired with the “I know what’s best for people” fallacy, as in this case. Here we are told that attacking stratification is wrong because we’re “dictating the norms [people] should conform to.” But again, this is wrong-headed: if we are against stratification, we must look at its causes. And eliminating an institution which serves the sole purpose of stratifying society can’t be a bad thing. The fact that people choose to participate in this institution (a questionable premise in itself) does not prove that it is right.

A quote from a capitalist this time:

Would you oppose usury if both parties accepted it voluntarily AND had the choice to choose otherwise?

Again, if we take the hypothetical as realistic, this is looking at the act disconnected from context. Usury may be “voluntary,” but we don’t have “the choice to choose otherwise.” If we did, no one would choose usury over fair treatment.

But most importantly, usury is wrong regardless of people’s choices. Whether people support or oppose usury doesn’t change the fact that it is economic parasitism, getting money for no work, solely because one owns capital and others do not. But capitalism is entirely founded on subjectivity, so they must accept subjectivity in ethics as well. Nothing can be done about it. To reject subjectivity in ethics would mean to contradict the very foundation of capitalist thought (the Subjective Theory of Value).

Here’s another capitalist example:

I form a hierarchical organization, YOU come and FORCE me to stop it (even if all those within it entirely agree with me), and I am the one in opposition to freedom? Last I checked, it was you stopping me from making my own decisions that was contrary to freedom. What, you need to stop people from oppressing themselves? That sounds like the motivation of a fascist.

Here the scenario is abstracted by talking about “I” and “you.” In real life, people who form hierarchical organizations and run them are people like CEOs, warlords, cult leaders… hardly the kind of people we’re going to identify with. In all cases, we’re talking about massive exploitation and a certain amount of harm added to the world, from very slight to massive. Now the scenario is completely different. we’re no longer “stop[ping] people from oppressing themselves.” We’re stopping the “I” in this situation (the hierarchy-starter) from exploiting, oppressing and harming other people. We are removing a source of unfreedom from the world. And that is a righteous cause indeed.

To a certain extent, some of these examples of rhetoric rely on abstraction to make them palatable. The anti-abortion example abstracts the actual nature of the acts committed, and their consequences. The marriage example abstracts away the people who are made second-class citizens because they are not married. The last example of course abstracts the nature of the actors involved. The other two examples set up hypotheticals disconnected from reality, such as women who wear burqas of their own free will, and people who participate in usurious transactions even though they could choose otherwise.

Do we tell people what to do? No, not at all. We should aim to tell people what not to do. What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred). When confronted by conflicts of values, we must always side with the victims. We must never take the side of the aggressor.

27 thoughts on ““You want to tell people what to do!”

  1. Gomi September 2, 2011 at 10:24

    Focusing on the burqa example, the target of any anarchist action should be the sexism, not the burqa.

    I think you’re right that a woman wouldn’t wear a burqa of her own choice, but how do we know some woman, somewhere, might choose to? I think it’s making an absolute assumption to say no woman ever would wear a burqa. There’s always the small chance, and should we decide that individual’s life for them?

    If we target the sexism (which uses the burqa as a weapon), then we can allow burqas. Because then, assuming social change is successful, that burqa will be worn for reasons of personal agency, not sexism.

    Like you say about racism, we shouldn’t ignore the causes. In fact, we should focus on root causes. Treat the disease, not get sidetracked on symptoms.

    The burqa, in context, is a symptom of sexism, not the cause. If we remove the cause, we destroy that context. And then, the burqa is just a piece of clothing. And then, should we ban clothing? Ban sexism, not burqas.

    Bringing that back around to voluntaryism, if you’d like, the issue with voluntaryism is the lack of choice, as you point out in the post. When you only have one choice, that’s not a choice at all. But rather than alternately restrict choice, we should focus on the *lack* of choice, I think. Choice should be allowed (the voluntaryism position you’re talking about), and the restriction should be addressed.

    • David Gendron September 2, 2011 at 10:53

      Gomi, even if I disagree with François about the state-ban of burqa, women who wear burqa are almost all married or they’re children or burqa mothers. So your voluntaryist BS is debunked.

  2. David Gendron September 2, 2011 at 10:51

    Gomi, even if I disagree with François about state-ban of burqa, Women who wears burqa are almost all married or they’re children or burqa mothers. So your voluntaryist BS is debunked.

    • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 10:58

      How does that debunk it? Being married means they’re incapable of making their own choices?

      There are two issues, I think: 1) The sexist patriarchy forcing clothing choices on women, and 2) The burqa as the weapon used by that patriarchy. The issue Francois is pointing out about voluntaryism is that allowing burqas, when #1 is still in effect, doesn’t really allow any choice. And I think he’s entirely right.

      However, I think he’s neglecting the idea that, if #1 is addressed, #2 becomes irrelevant (stripping the patriarchy of power eliminates it’s ability to use the burqa as a weapon). And then, without #1, there is choice, and voluntaryism (in that particular instance) isn’t siding with the oppressor.

      Voluntaryism can’t work when a power structure is in place limiting choice (like the patriarchy and burqas). But destroying power structures is the point of anarchism, at which point voluntaryism becomes valid again.

      This is why I was saying that my argument against burqa bans wasn’t voluntaryist. Because I was saying the sexism has to be addressed, instead of just the burqa. I was addressing the necessary precursor that would later *allow* voluntaryism, but I wasn’t arguing *for* voluntaryism before that sexism was addressed.

      • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 11:01

        Those two issues are also one reason I was arguing against supporting state bans on burqas. Because a state ban (problematic in other ways) is only addressing #2. And without fixing #1, #2 doesn’t really matter. Sure, you’ve stripped the patriarchy of this one particular weapon, but it’s still a power structure and it’s capable of using other weapons.

        A clothing ban, besides the other issues with it, doesn’t actually fix the power imbalance.

      • David Gendron September 2, 2011 at 11:24

        “Being married means they’re incapable of making their own choices?”

        In religious marriages, women have no choice at all for this.

        • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 11:36

          Because of the underlying sexism of the same construct that forces burqas.

          This is *exactly* what I’ve been talking about. The underlying sexism is the issue. This doesn’t debunk voluntaryism.

          Is no one reading what I’m writing? You and Francois keep attacking this as if I’m saying the sexism shouldn’t be addressed. Am I not being clear enough about that?

  3. David Gendron September 2, 2011 at 13:27

    A have a real case for you.

    A friend of mine tell my this:

    A married mother living in Montreal, Québec, wears a tchador because of the same kind of sexist religious mandate that we talk about here. Her 18 MONTH GIRL BABY WEARS THE SAME KIND OF FUCKING TCHADOR!

    So, there’s no such thing as a voluntary burqa or tchador wearing because they’re RAISED CRIMINALLY BY PARENTS (parenting an invalid concept) TO WEAR THIS TOMBSTONE (my point against Gomi) so if we banned this crap for children (which I support) and prosecute these retarded parents, the state-ban for adults will be not be necessary, (my point against François)

    • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 13:32

      Yes, yes, yes, I get it, David, under the CURRENT SEXIST PATRIARCHY, these women are forced to wear a chador.

      Now, please explain how, ONCE THAT SEXIST PATRIARCHY IS DISASSEMBLED, those same women wouldn’t be wearing a chador by personal choice, if they chose to wear it?

      Are you not understanding the sequence here? Are you missing the fact that I keep saying, repeatedly, that the aim of anarchism is to destroy power imbalances (like this sexist patriarchy)? Are you missing the fact that I keep saying, repeatedly, that voluntaryism cannot exist *within* power imbalances?

      Your point against me only works if you completely disregard everything I’ve said.

      • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 13:34

        I mean, if you want to argue against a strawman, go for it. I’m sure it’s entertaining for you.

        But if you’re going to argue against me, then you might actually want to address what I’m saying.

      • David Gendron September 2, 2011 at 13:49

        “ONCE THAT SEXIST PATRIARCHY IS DISASSEMBLED, those same women wouldn’t be wearing a chador by personal choice, if they chose to wear it?”

        First, this is not a choice for the 18 month old baby girl, patriarchy or not, and this will never be a choice for her because of their parents (parenting is an invalid concept). Moreover, it’s probably not a choice for the mother, even if we forget temporarily the patriarchy debate, because their own parents did the same thing to her!

        Second, if that patriarchy is disassembled, there will be approximately 10 retarded women (probably less) in all the world who will decide REALLY BY CHOICE (this is not the case right now) to wear this tombstone and the state-ban will be even more irrelevant obviously.

        • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 14:16

          You have a point about the child, though I would say that parenting, as the act of raising and providing for a human temporarily incapable of providing for themselves because of age, isn’t invalid, per se. It’s just easily abused. The bonding between parent and child is a very real biological fact. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who don’t bond to their kids, but that I don’t think parenting is inherently invalid.

          But, if you’re already intervening on behalf of the child (which I agree with), then the argument about the mother having it done to her is irrelevant, because, in this rhetorical instance, she wouldn’t have been forced into a chador as a child either (our rhetorical intervention on behalf of children having also intervened on her behalf as well).

          And yes, there may only be 10 women who would choose, of their own free will, after the destruction of the patriarchy, to wear a burqa or chador. So be it. Those 10 women should be allowed to wear those pieces of clothing, because in that case, their choice truly is their own. And that’s the point.

          Once you eliminate the power imbalances that force people into things (like wearing certain clothing), then any bans become a new power imbalance (forcing them not to wear certain clothing). Not to mention that, even before the power imbalance is corrected, a clothing ban is only addressing the symptom of the imbalance, not the imbalance itself.

      • Francois Tremblay September 2, 2011 at 14:20


        Well there’s the problem. How is that going to be accomplished without attacking actually existing sexism?

        • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 14:27

          I never said sexism shouldn’t be attacked. I’ve said repeatedly that it should be. I just don’t think that banning a particular piece of clothing, no matter how it’s used by the patriarchy, will really address the root causes of that patriarchy.

          Rather, it’s going after the force (real or implied) used to impose that piece of clothing on women (or whoever is the victim).

          For example, here in the US, African-Americans were once forced to ride in the back of the bus, in public transportation. Does passing a law ruling all buses should be half-length, thereby eliminating the “back of the bus,” really address or solve racism? No.

          But passing a law outlawing forcing people to ride in particular seats because of race (or any other qualifier) *does* deal with the issue.

          Don’t ban the burqa. Instead ban the act of forcing someone to wear a burqa. Enforce such actions as forms of domestic abuse (which they are).

          • Francois Tremblay September 2, 2011 at 14:33

            That’s fine. As long as we’re addressing actually existing sexism, not our idealized version of society.

            • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 14:47

              Yes, existing sexism.

              But with an eye towards the creation of our idealized society. We don’t live in anarchies, either, but we work towards them. We live in a sexist society, but we work towards a society in which the patriarchies are gone, and a woman choosing to wear a burqa is making her own choice, in a free society.

              • Francois Tremblay September 2, 2011 at 14:48

                That’s fine, whatever. Some people will always be self-destructive and there’s little we can do about it.

                • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 15:02

                  Exactly my point. Voluntaryism, once cleared past the power imbalances that remove choice, is a position that admits people will be self-destructive sometimes, and the only method of stopping that self-destruction is an unacceptable force.

                  But that point can only be reached once power imbalances are removed. Basically, you need to reach a state of anarchism, before you can achieve voluntaryism. It can’t exist before anarchism.

        • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 14:29

          Frankly, I would ask the same question of you, since I think a clothing ban doesn’t actually attack sexism. How are you going to disassemble the patriarchy without actually attacking sexism, just banning certain pieces of clothing?

          How is a clothing ban really working to redress the power imbalance?

          • Francois Tremblay September 2, 2011 at 14:37

            Banning the burqa IS an attack against actually existing sexism, since it is an expression of actually existing sexism. Sexism is not about a “power imbalance,” it’s about false beliefs. Even if you remove all the sources of power in society immediately, sexism would still exist in the same form it does today. Yes, obviously power magnifies the effects of those false beliefs through the feedback loop of the media and the biases in the actions of institutions, but it’s not necessary for sexism to exist. The best proof of that is that sexism exists even in generally non-stratified societies.

            • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 14:44

              Yes, but we’re talking about a sexism that forces women to wear burqas. If there’s no power imbalance, there’s no way to force someone to wear something. It’s the power imbalance that’s at issue here. It’s that form of sexism that’s the issue.

              And attacking an expression of that sexism, in my opinion, isn’t the same as attacking the power imbalance that forces it on other people. You’d have to pass bans on every little thing that might be used. Seems more to the point to address the sexist root, rather than each individual branch.

              • Francois Tremblay September 2, 2011 at 14:47

                Yes, in that specific case there is a power imbalance. But sexism in general is not directly an issue of power- power magnifies sexism many times over, but doesn’t originate it.

                • Gomi September 2, 2011 at 15:05

                  Well, it’s the cause of the actionable sexism, I would argue.

                  Sexism without power imbalance is a crime of thought. Troublesome and needing to be addressed, but it doesn’t force anything on someone else.

                  Basically, the way I see it, you need to clear the power imbalances first and foremost. Then, once people aren’t forced into things, you can work on getting people to think better.

  4. […] Even if many peopl aren’t fans of Francois Tremblay, I did find this post very interesting and fairly well argued at certain points. Check it out here. […]

  5. […] Francois Tremblay has a post up about what it really means to tell somebody what they can or can’t do. […]

  6. […] What we attack is that corruption, not the individual. This never stops people from claiming that we want to tell them what to do. This is based on the implicit belief that telling people what they shouldn’t do represents a […]

  7. Sherri Jones July 16, 2014 at 09:29

    This is a fascinating discussion that is most probably beyond my reasoning capabilities. Thank you for the blog post.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: