When To Engage With Harmful Ideas


Are some ideas so harmful or offensive that scholars should not work on them, or even bother to respond to them? And if so, how do we figure out which ones?

University of Virginia professor of philosophy Elizabeth Barnes takes up these questions in “Arguments that Harm—and Why We Need Them,” an essay published yesterday at The Chronicle of Higher Education (possibly paywalled).

Barnes, author of The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, writes:

I think about this issue a lot, in no small part because of the amount of time I’ve spent engaging with the work of the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. If you’re an academic who works on disability, the name “Peter Singer” immediately resonates, and immediately signals contention. Singer thinks that the lives of people like me are (“on average”) less valuable than the lives of nondisabled people. He thinks it would have been permissible for my parents to have had me killed as an infant, and better (“on average”) if they could have replaced me with a nondisabled alternative. I find all this offensive, to say the least. Yet unlike those who think that Singer ought to be treated as a pariah, I engage with him and his work on a regular basis. Yet I struggle to explain why.

She clarifies that her interest is in whether and how academics should respond to such ideas:

When I talk about engaging with ideas, I mean taking ideas seriously—discussing and citing them, having them presented at conferences, responding to them in print or at symposia, and so on. There are separate questions that arise, such as whether academic freedom should protect them (surely it should), or whether they should be taught in the classroom (surely that depends on all sorts of complicated factors, including the size and level of the class, the students enrolled, your pedagogical aims, and your teaching style). And there’s also the issue of how non-academics respond to scholars who defend controversial ideas. (Disability-rights organizations regularly protest Singer’s public lectures, for example.) Here, though, I want to focus specifically on how scholars interact with ideas that many consider harmful or demeaning.

Part of her essay explains why it is reasonable for certain populations to fear the harm that would follow from widespread acceptance of certain ideas, and why even the discussion of such ideas can be difficult:

People who deal with the everyday reality of disability really do have reason to fear the claim—especially when it’s defended by one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world—that disabled lives are less valuable than nondisabled ones. Likewise, queer people really do have reason to fear arguments against marriage equality, and Muslims really do have reason to fear claims that Islam is fundamentally illiberal. To pretend otherwise is to discount the power of ideas… 

When professional norms dictate that you sit quietly and listen while someone says that your life is worth less, or that your child’s life is worth less, that’s hard. It doesn’t make us delicate snowflakes to acknowledge that difficulty and pain. So, contra the liberal ideal, I think we do have things to fear from the open discussion of some ideas. And the things we have to fear aren’t really about “offense”—they’re about harm.

Barnes will grapple with Singer’s arguments but she won’t, she says, take seriously “an argument for the moral goodness of rape,” for example, nor take steps to see that such an argument is engaged with. How should we determine whether to engage with such ideas? Barnes argues for a kind of cost-benefit analysis:

I can’t see how the benefits of discussing [the pro-rape argument] outweigh the harms. Perhaps the argument is clever or original, but let’s be honest—there’s a limited amount of intellectual value in any one argument. If I want to take up a challenging and interesting argument, I can pick one of the thousands of other challenging, interesting arguments out there. So the benefits of engaging with a pro-rape argument are minimal.

The harms, though, are not. Taking seriously an argument that justifies rape has the potential to cause intense pain to victims of rape, not to mention the potential to promote rape. Citing ideas, discussing them, responding to them is a type of scholarly currency. It’s academic signal-boosting. A pro-rape argument isn’t an important “option on the table” in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one. So the only reason to take it seriously would be the pure intellectual interest of the argument. But whatever minor intellectual value there might be in entertaining an argument that justifies rape, it isn’t worth the callous disregard for the real suffering of real people.

Singer’s views are different though, since even when not explicitly endorsed by people, they are, Barnes writes, implicit in speech and behavior that is quite common. Potentially harmful anti-disability views are thus already on the table, and because of Singer’s stature, they are already taken very seriously. The typical costs of engagement are already being borne, so the marginal costs of Barnes’ engagement are negligible. And if she can show how widely accepted potentially harmful ideas are flawed, the benefits of engagement could be significant.

Academics are “people who think hard thoughts and try to change minds and change culture,” she writes. We should be willing to “take on a measure of discomfort,” if we can, to argue for change for the better.

The whole essay is here.

[note: Many university libraries subscribe to The Chronicle. If you are paywalled by the link, consider trying to access The Chronicle as you would any other online journal, through you university library’s website.]

Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing”

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