Stomaching Controversy (Ought Experiment)

Stomaching Controversy (Ought Experiment)


Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week I heap reflexive and excessive scorn on a philosopher who’s worried that their work is taking them in controversial directions, and that contemporary philosophy might not be all that welcoming a place for such work. Oh, wait.

Dear Louie,

One of the papers I’m working on has a significantly controversial (maybe even inflammatory?) thesis, and that’s even before you consider how politicized the conceptual space is to begin with. As a result, working on the paper is sapping my confidence. I find myself periodically wondering whether I’m insane, and what even qualifies me to talk about these issues. I also worry about the damage the paper might do to my reputation – will it brand me as a fringe thinker or ideological hack, and cause subsequent work of mine to be ignored? Will it trigger some more forceful kind of public backlash? Or does it not even have a chance of being published in the first place, and if not, why am I paying such a high opportunity cost in time and effort to pursue a doomed project?

When I consider the actual arguments in my paper, I’m solidly convinced by them. Nor do I think I’m stirring up needless controversy: the debate is worth having, and I’m an earnest participant in it. Yet I can’t shake off the case of impostor syndrome this paper is giving me.

First question: how can you separate out dread-filled thoughts about the likely reaction to a paper long enough to actually write it? Second question: when you look at the culture of contemporary academic philosophy, do you think it’s wise to stray from safe topics?

Powder Craig

Dear Powder Craig,

I’m going to start with your second question, and spend most of my time there, too. Partly because I’m the contrary sort, but mainly because if you don’t think it’s wise to pursue your project, then advice on how to pursue it is going to be a touch moot. I also suspect that if you can convince yourself of the wisdom of its pursuit, then that’s going to lift most of the stress and self-doubt that’s interfering with your writing.

So, is it wise to stray from safe topics? Short answer: hell yes, it’s wise.

There are many different specters you might have had in mind when you invoked “the culture of contemporary academic philosophy” (any one of which can be summoned by repeating “the culture of contemporary academic philosophy” three times in front of a dimly-lit mirror). Maybe you meant that the discipline is slow to embrace new ideas, or that journals prefer publishing epicycles of familiar debates. Maybe your claim wasn’t general at all, but was instead about a particular view no longer being welcome because a certain group is ascendant or a certain ideology is dominant. Maybe you’re worried that it’s easy to spark a week of online outrage in the pounce-happy blogosphere, or that you might be personally attacked in one of its more toxic corners. Maybe you’re referring to rising tensions at many universities about the meaning and scope of ‘free speech’.

Whatever you meant, my answer is going to be the same. If philosophy isn’t a place where informed controversy can thrive, then I’m not sure what we’re all doing here. Our discipline’s mascot is a gadfly, for Plato’s sake!

Of course, not all controversy is equally valuable. Being led to a controversial and unexpected conclusion by the force of one’s arguments? Good. Controversially challenging a sleepy consensus in order to ensure that assumptions are warranted and implications are considered? Good. Courting controversy to get attention, or to signal disdain for your target, or just to see how much bullshit you can get to dance on the head of a pin? Maybe, you know, not so good.

Part of the problem is that people disagree about which controversies are actually worthwhile, and which inquiries are well-intentioned and potentially productive. Sometimes we judge a view inflammatory because it’s likely to offend, or because it’s simply unpopular, or because there are serious interests at stake, or because everyone’s already riled up before you even open your mouth, but none of that’s the same as a view being wrong or poorly argued or inherently out of bounds. Sometimes we forget the difference between peer review and policing views, and in most cases I really don’t think philosophers have any business doing the latter.

That said, we can veer too far in the other direction, and start to confuse controversy with attempted silencing. No, a criticism of your speech isn’t necessarily an assault on free speech by the agents of political correctness and group think run amok. Pro Tip: if you think that substantive objections to your view indicate a desire to be coddled or protected from speech instead of being valuable speech itself, then the problem isn’t just with what you said, but with how you listen. I can’t recommend Audre Lorde’s work on hearing angry criticism highly enough. Silencing actually happens when we cite ‘tone’ as a reason not to engage with people that are growing increasingly frustrated about being ignored, or when we dismiss concerns about inclusion and recognition within institutions as unreasonable attempts to undermine those institutions. A safe space is about fostering debate, not preventing it.

So given all this, well, controversy about the permissibility of controversy, why do I think it’s still wise to pursue your controversial project? Six reasons:

  1. You might assume that charged debate is the norm because high-profile dust-ups get a lot of attention, but my sense is that most philosophers are quite good at giving controversial views a fair shake. We’re reasons-responsive folk who thoroughly scrutinize any argument we hear; controversial arguments aren’t all that different to us.
  1. Relatedly, I’m not sure what a “safe topic” is anyway, or how much the profession really rewards such work when we see it. That controversial theses are somewhat risky doesn’t mean that uncontroversial theses are devoid of risk – in fact, I think they’re far more likely to be dismissed out of hand, and to give authors an undesirable reputation.
  1. Assuming your paper really is well-argued and earnestly motivated, it can serve as a sea-changing example of how to do controversy right. That makes it doubly valuable.
  1. Picking your topics (and your conclusions!) based on what you think people will accept leads to bland, passionless, and unengaging work. Is that really how you want to spend your time? Is that what you fought so hard to have a chance to do?
  1. Letting ‘what people will accept’ guide your research also leads to bad philosophy, because if you’re not following your ideas wherever they take you, then that means you’re either intervening in your own arguments or you’re prioritizing something above the pursuit of truth.
  1. Justin likes it when I use a list format, and five reasons is too short a list.

Now, some ways of framing your controversial inquiry can certainly help ensure a more positive reception. If one simply blunders their way through a subject matter without an appreciation for the delicate considerations in play, then that will contribute to the notion that the research isn’t well-motivated, or that the thinker isn’t taking enough other views into account to have a good chance of progressing the debate in a useful way. That’s true for any topic, I think, but the obligation of the researcher is stronger when there’s a legitimate controversy – partly to show respect to the parties with interests at stake, and partly to show respect for the project itself, and the rigor and care required to successfully defend a potentially inflammatory position.

Two framing strategies immediately come to mind. First, indicate in the paper that you understand why the topic is controversial, and make your methodology and commitments explicit. In other words, why is this inquiry happening, and why is it taking the form it’s taking? Second, acknowledge that those who disagree with you might not only disagree with you in a ‘theoretical camps’ sense, but that they may be angered or offended insofar as the claims are about them or involve them in some way. This, I assure you, isn’t coddling the fragile sensibilities of individuals that can’t stand the heat of debate. Nor is it a merely prudential tactic to ensure that journal referees don’t dismiss your work as being glib, negligent, or self-important. It shows a necessary awareness of how one’s theorizing relates back to the world. More than that, acknowledgement is a way of inviting yourself into a conversation that was already taking place before you arrived, instead of contributing to the marginalization of those that get supplanted whenever someone with a bit of power or influence ‘discovers’ a topic.

Which isn’t to say that it’s just a matter of framing, however. Do more than acknowledge the affected parties in your prefacing remarks. Substantively engage with their work. And if you face backlash, listen. Backlash is evidence. Anger and substance aren’t mutually exclusive. Anger can bring everyone closer to the truth. Anger isn’t automatically a negative reaction to one’s work.

Follow these strategies, and I think that the culture of contemporary academic philosophy will be a welcoming and productive one for you. And there’s actually a way to test my hunch in the comment thread below: it would be great if readers could nominate examples of excellent yet controversial or unpopular ideas that have recently appeared in journals.

Okay, now on to your first question. How can you separate out dread-filled thoughts about the likely reaction to a controversial paper long enough to actually write it? And in the background of that, what can you do when a difficult thesis is giving you a case of imposter syndrome?

To deploy a platitude so obvious everyone will wonder (anew) why I have a regular column: writing is hard. Sometimes it’s hard because we can’t figure out what to say, or how to say it. But that doesn’t seem to be your problem. You know what you want to say, and you’re “solidly convinced” that you’re saying it well. In fact, that conviction probably means that you don’t actually find your thesis all that controversial. Rather, you call it controversial because you’re anticipating a negative reaction, and that anticipation is affecting how you see the work and yourself. Writing this paper is hard because you’re spending a lot of energy entertaining reasons not to write it. Like I said above, I suspect that the stress and self-doubt will fade if you can convince yourself of the wisdom of pursuing this paper. The strongest internal voice is whichever one you feed the most.

The good news for you is that we’re actually pretty bad at anticipating reactions to our work. Talks we expect to be controversial can hit an audience that already agreed with the conclusion before we said a word. Intuitions or assumptions that we assume are widely shared can cause the most controversy. Our favorite papers can bounce from journal rejection to journal rejection like a ricocheting bullet in a Looney Tunes skit, while papers we might not care that much about sneak right on through. And even if you are reasonably certain that this paper will prove controversial, there’s cold comfort in the knowledge that most published papers are ignored, anyway. Glad I could, err, cheer you up.

There’s another source of the controversy-specific imposter syndrome you’re reporting. It’s not just fear of the anticipated response, but your sense that you’re not good enough to successfully execute a controversial topic with the unique rigor and care it requires, or that you might not even be the right person to try. But you’ve already addressed such concerns yourself, in your letter. Why are you good enough to handle this project? Because you don’t doubt yourself on other projects, because defending a controversial conclusion really isn’t so different if sound arguments led you to it, and because you find your arguments solidly convincing. What qualifies you to talk about these issues? You’re an earnest participant in a debate whose worth you can articulate. I don’t see any other relevant criteria. You’re the right person for this project.

Say you already know all that, as I suspect is the case from your letter. Then it becomes a question of how to actually block or work around the doubts that are getting in your way. After all, knowing deep down that you and your work are worthwhile won’t always stop you from feeling otherwise. I think that many of the strategies mentioned in the approach avoidance column can be helpful here, as well. And I’m sure that others will chime in below with additional strategies.

Bottom line: your paper might be controversial, but that doesn’t mean your place in academic philosophy is a matter of controversy. You belong, and your view probably does, too. And I’m not the only one who’ll make that distinction.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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