Clifford Sosis continues his series at What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher? (previously here, here, and here) with an interview of, uh, me. For the record let it be known that an earlier part of our conversation was omitted from the published version. I include it here:

Sosis: I’m starting an interview series.
Weinberg: Sounds good. Do you have anyone lined up?
Sosis: Not yet, but I think you might be interesting!
Weinberg: Hahaha seriously?

Turns out he was serious.

In the interview you can learn a little about me and my life, mainly as it relates to my development as a philosopher. What might be of broader interest are the parts about criticisms I’ve received in virtue of running Daily Nous, diversity in the profession, and the idea that people need to “toughen up.” There isn’t a comments section at WIILTBAP, so if you want to talk about any of those things feel free to do so in the comments to this post. The interview is here.

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5 years ago

That is a very interesting interview. So Sosis is right (there ought to be a palindrome there). Especially your thoughts on your role with Daily Nous and the need for an even-handed and wide-ranging blog for the profession. If you manage to keep it up (it must be a lot of work!) I am sure that it will become even more successful and influential.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

“Where is this lack of toughness? Consider the restaurant diner who sends back his overcooked steak, the person in line who speaks up when another person tries to cut in front, and the neighbor who threatens to call the cops because a party is too noisy. Do these people need to toughen up? We usually do not think so.”

In all of these cases the people have experienced some sort of material harm (a product they paid for did not meet their specifications, they are forced to spend additional time in line, they can’t sleep, etc.). When people complain about “the New infantilism” they are generally referring to stuff like this: In these cases the victims in question are not harmed materially, but mentally, simply by the content of the ideas expressed by other people. In contrast, Prof. Kipnis faces the prospect of losing her job for writing an article. It seems to me that there is a principled difference between material harm and mental distress. To dissolve this difference implies that people are not responsible for their own mental states. I don’t see how one can do that without also it simultaneously eroding the concept of human agency and responsibility. If people aren’t responsible for their own mental states, how can they be responsible for their actions?

I can see how there might be exceptions for severe cases of PTSD. In these cases, the subject’s psychological functions are so abnormal that it does not really make sense to say that they are responsible for their mental states or actions. But from what I understand, real PTSD is not very predictable. It can just as easily be triggered by the smell of a perfume than by violent images. We can label products that contain nuts to help people with nut allergies, but this is because their allergy is grounded in well-understood and predictable causal relationships. It is easy to help them because it is easy to know what will cause them illness. It is also easy to label foods and it has little-to-no effect on whether other people buy products containing nuts. Moreover, for someone with extreme allergies, inadvertently eating a tiny piece of a peanut can very easily result in death. To be blunt, whatever psychological harm Ovid or Virgil might cause to someone with PTSD, it is not enough to justify censorship of the material. And labeling is always the first stage of censorship. Indeed, it is often the only necessary stage as it inevitably produces self-censorship. The fact of the matter is that people who have real clinically diagnosed PTSD need to be the ones that are proactive in making sure they do not get triggered. Universities should help them by providing them with the proper counseling resources, and they should tell professors about their psychological needs in advance so that special arrangements can be made… the same as anyone else who has a disability.

But for some reason I can’t seem to shake the suspicion that the most adamant and outspoken people in this new movement don’t have PTSD. In fact, I think the term “the New infantilism” is unnecessarily sophisticated. These people are really just part of yet another censorship movement. The only way their movement differs from the movement to ban violent video games is that the people who are pushing it are liberal. In every other respect it is the same. It consists of people who aim to eventually ban or relegate to irrelevance material that they deem offensive, under the thin pretense of the “greater psychological good”. Both movements are backed by the same sort of simplistic and careless use of psychology. Both movements adamantly claim that they don’t want to “ban” anything, but just have it labeled. Both create narratives in which their targets are too callous to care about the defenseless people who are victims of their material, thereby putting the onus of ensuring safe consumption upon those who generate the material, rather than upon those who consume it.

But on a more general note, I agree that the profession can do without petty name-calling. We’re philosophers. Our insults should be witty and irreverent. Strohminger’s recent annihilation of McGinn is an excellent example.Report

Have ptsd
Have ptsd
5 years ago

I have diagnosed ptsd that is pretty bad and am here to clarify some irritating misconceptions.

First of all, I share your suspicion that many of the leaders of this movement do not have ptsd.

That being said, this line that opponents of trigger warnings use–that triggers are so unpredictable that trigger warnings are a laughable response–is missing the point a bit. Yes sometimes things like smells, weather patterns, or a certain string of words can be triggering. No one in their right mind wants accommodation for that. However there are some things that will predictably run the risk of triggering someone with PTSD — if they are an incest survivor, graphic incest accounts; a rape survivor, graphic rape accounts.

Two things need to be made clear. The first is that I and the people I know with PTSD do not generally have problems with the mere mentioning of things related to the cause of our PTSD. What is predictably triggering are long and graphic discussions where there is a feeling of discomfort, for example we are around people we don’t know or the people discussing it are being cavalier. This has nothing to do with sensitivity and everything to do with the way the traumatized brain handles stress — if you are triggered, your brain thinks you are in immediate danger and your brain can read “is cavalier about incest” as “someone who is very dangerous to me.” at one point in the traumatized persons life such over abundance of caution was useful, because things were very high, life and death like stakes. Unfortunately these responses to stress stick around long after the stressors leave. They seem to be hard wired into your system when you have PTSD, such that counseling can help you learn to ignore these feelings of irrational unsafety away but can’t take the feeling itself away.

The second thing to note is that, say, a depiction of incest is more likely to trigger an incest victim if the victim doesn’t know its coming. This I think at one point was the purpose of trigger warnings–to warn, not so that people could opt out but so that people weren’t blindsided. The couple times I have been severely triggered in a classroom were times I wasn’t expecting the triggering material to show up. No one with PTSD is going to complain that violence, sexual and otherwise, is showing up in a class on genocide. They have either steeled themselves to deal with it or opted out of the course. But when rape shows up in a semantics course ( it happened!) it can be blindsided and the brain gets tricked into thinking I am unsafe again. Because I have had no time to prepare, it’s a lot harder for me to take control of that unsafe feeling and get my body to relax. Hence the triggering. It’s really devastating when this happens–I have lost days of my life to sitting in bed unable to go outside because the symptoms are so bad–and it can take four seconds for a professor to at least give a heads up about high percentage risk items. No, professors, you don’t have to give a heads up, but please think of me next time you choose not to: I do everything in my power to lessen my symptoms, but when you bring up a nasty high risk item out of the blue without warning, you are potentially going to make me deblitatingly sick for days. Is it worth it for you to make whatever point you are going to make? Give the warning for Christsake.

Finally let me address the response that I should be the one who let’s the professor know and to ask for accommodation. If it was any other illness , I would agree. But I’m a young woman with PTSD and there’s usually one thought that goes to anyone’s mind when they hear that–that I was raped. I shouldn’t have to put myself in a position where that will be assumed until I say otherwise (that actually wasn’t what gave me PTSD, but no one needs to know what happened to me). People also tend to react really weirdly when you disclose , some can be huge jerks and think I am just a “new infant,” and some don’t get the disclosure and I have to awkwardly explain how this works. I should also note that I am unwilling to disclose to men I don’t know, because there are some exceptionally bad people who will try to take advantage of PTSD symptoms like Blacking out. I know this because it’s happened to me once. So no, I’m not going to disclose to my professors–especially given all the creepy philosophers out there — unless I know them really well. I don’t understand why professors can’t just not be jerks: don’t assign distressingn material unless there is a very good reason; give people a heads up about high percentage likelihood to trigger stuff; and be sensitive.

One addendum: I’m going to get flamed for saying this, but PTSD really is the product of a life or death kind of abuse /violence in a situation from which you often can’t escape. Things like grief, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, panic attacks, or systematic oppression might be complications or causes of PTSD, but PTSD has an extremely distinctive array of symptoms and it annoys me to no end that everyone and her brother are using “trigger” to describe “overwhelming feeling” associated with any of the things listed above. Like I said I want trigger warnings on high risk stuff not because hearing it will make me crying for a few hours; it’s because without a warning I lose days of my life and wander around confused about where I am, what time it is, my perception changes, and my system goes haywire with adrenaline and I have sleep difficulties . Yes I am on medication and in counseling and avoid situations likely to trigger, but there is only so much I can do, especially since I believe that I shouldn’t have to around willy nilly effectively disclosing that I was raped to academics. Give warnings, professors. Activists, stop saying you are triggered unless a doctor diagnosed you with PTSD.

Sorry about the derail , Justin, but I am getting a little fed up with these discussions .Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
5 years ago

“It seems to me that there is a principled difference between material harm and mental distress. To dissolve this difference implies that people are not responsible for their own mental states. I don’t see how one can do that without also it simultaneously eroding the concept of human agency and responsibility. If people aren’t responsible for their own mental states, how can they be responsible for their actions?”

Am I missing something? If someone is racially abused and they feel angry or frustrated or depressed as a result then that is their responsibility? If someone I love dies and I feel grief then this is my responsibility? As with responsibility for actions, people can choose to feel differently? In some cases this is probably true, but as a general rule it seems obviously false (or at least highly counter-intuitive).

I certainly don’t think Kipnis should lose her job, but this part of the argument presented looks very weak.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Have ptsd, it seems to me that the fairly straightforward solution to your problem is to work with the university’s counselling and disability services and have them contact the professor for you while maintaining your anonymity. The professor needs to know exactly what to avoid, which is why disability services should be providing them with resources. What counts as graphic? Apparently Ovid. Though the professor in that circumstance might not have thought it was graphic enough to cause anyone harm. I don’t think issuing a general and vague call for sensitivity will be terribly effective. You have a disability, so the university is obligated to provide you with accommodations and your professor with the resources to accommodate you.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Furry Boots,

Someone is abused by a racial slur. According to you, they are not responsible for the mental states that are caused by this act, but rather the person who did the abusing is. Thus if the racial slur caused them to form the intent to murder the person who said the slur then the person who said the slur is also responsible for this intention, and thus is ultimately responsible for her own murder.

If you think people can ultimately choose their actions, it can only be because you think people can choose their intentions. The intention makes the act. So if you don’t think people have power over what intentions they form, then you can’t think they have power over their actions.

I suspect your response will be something along the following lines: the abuser is responsible for the person’s negative emotions, but is not responsible for her intentions. This response presupposes a hyper-rationalist theory of moral psychology that is–to say the very least–HIGHLY questionable from the standpoint of modern cognitive science. You can’t separate intention and volition from emotion. If I am responsible for someone’s emotions then I am also responsible for her intentions, and thus her actions.Report

5 years ago

What counts as graphic? Apparently Ovid.

I don’t think we should let too much turn on particular examples, not least because they can be easily picked out to distort things, making more plausible cases look implausible. But I was interested in this case, and so went back and read the bit from Ovid, which I hadn’t read in a very long time. Now, there are obviously many different translations, and I don’t know which one was used in this class. (I don’t read Latin, so can’t go look at that easily.) But, the one I have can, I think, hardly count as “graphic”. It reads, in relevant part, as follows:

…So, in one moment,
Or almost one, she was seen and love, and taken
Into Pluto’s rush of love. She called for her mother,
Her comrades, but more often for her mother.
Where he had torn the garment from he shoulder,
The loosened flowers fell, and she, poor darling,
In simple innocence, grived as much for them
As for her other loss. Her ravager
Drove the car fiercely on, shook up the horses,
Calling ach one by name, the reins, dark-dyed,
Sawing the necks and manes….

(There is a bit more later that is relevant, but this is by far the main part.)
Now, when I was a kid and read this stuff for the first time, a rape wouldn’t have even occurred to me. At this point, it’s not so unclear. And, I can imagine how it might be upsetting to someone who has been raped. But, unless the translation used is very, very different from this one (by Rolfe Humphies), to call it “graphic” seems pretty clearly unjustified. At least part of the plausibility of the claim turned on this being a “graphic” rape scene that people were unexpectedly subject to. That seems pretty implausible in this case, at least.Report

Clifford Sosis
5 years ago

Not everybody can be accommodated. That said, the crux of the issue, in my mind at least, is what constitutes ‘reasonable accommodation’. At what point does an institution or individual say “it is no longer my responsibility to change, but yours.” It is difficult to draw that line in a principled way, and I really do think rational, fully informed people–Leiter and Weinberg, for instance–disagree. It’s interesting how hard it is to whip up a principle that doesn’t have have clear counterexamples, cases where the principle is going to say an individual should be accommodated in which accommodation simply doesn’t seem intuitively reasonable to most people familiar with all the relevant details about the case (there are always going to be people with idiosyncratic intuitions). In my estimation, Weinberg and his allies simply seem to think that individuals and institutions should do more work–trigger warnings and whatnot– while Leiter and his allies simply seem to think they don’t need to do as much, and individuals really ought to consider therapy and things like that in more cases (it’s interesting to me how much Leiter and Weinberg agree on, deep down). The cases often involve hot button issues and I think we are going to see further polarization but I am not as sure as Weinberg might be that things, society, is going to go in his direction. There really may be a backlash at some point (and this might not be obvious within the bubble of academia) but who knows? In any case, I have a strong suspicion there isn’t going to be a resolution to these disputes any time soon, if ever. It may be intractable. In other words, it is a good philosophical problem in the making!Report

Confused Anon
Confused Anon
5 years ago

I don’t think I understand what the debate worth having here even is about censorship and graphic material. I thought it has been for a pretty long time now standard practice for a professor, when presenting graphic material or material covering difficult issues, to give a warning to the students, a warning both for those without deeper personal traumas to prepare themselves emotionally and for those (like those with PTSD) who need to avoid the material to be able to do so. If a professor presented such material suddenly without any prior mention, do any of us think this is acceptable pedagogical practice? The point of education is clearly not just to shock (even if shock is sometimes an appropriate, valuable, and unavoidable reaction to a topic.) Even if we set aside the most serious problem that could arise if you did have a student with PTSD in your class, I think the material becomes shocking in a way that is much less conducive to learning for anybody if presented without prior warning. I see no good case against topic warnings built on the idea that we need to be shocked because the point is again obviously not just to be shocked. A class isn’t a horror film. Is the worry that warnings will turn us into stone cold creatures incapable of having the appropriate emotional responses to the material? You can remind me every day and minutes before a presentation or film about the holocaust and it will be no less emotionally difficult and shocking, but if I know I am going to have to face difficult material, I will be shocked in a way in which I can better think about what I’m faced with and appreciate the lessons we need to learn from the atrocities in our past and present. Isn’t this a common experience?

My problem is: what more needs to be said? This has been the practice, as far as I know, hasn’t it? What’s there to debate? It seems to me that anyone that wants more or less than this is engaged in something artificial with respect to what our practices should be. It’s too extreme to forbid the discussion of difficult topics or even the engagement of graphic content for the purposes of learning, in particular for learning important ethical lessons. It’s also too extreme to cover them without respect for the emotionally difficult nature of the topic by failing to provide notice that it will be covered. Anyone stretching things from this center is asking for too much. Am I the only one who feels this way? Even in the case of the Ovid passage, would it be unreasonable for a professor to mention in advance that there is a passage students may feel saddened, disgusted, or angered by that treats the event of a rape? Isn’t having these and other emotional reactions important for getting the most out of a reading of a literary text, and one of the ways by which we can understand it and understand differences in our broader modern ethical attitudes and normalized practices compared to those of the past? Surely this is an important potential gain, even if not appropriate to this particular example but for others. What’s lost by the forewarning? What’s gained by ignoring it? Next to nothing, as far I can see, and, aside from the other pedagogical advantages of some forewarning, we simultaneously gain the ability to accommodate those with PTSD or other more serious personal emotional traumatic histories.Report

have ptsd
have ptsd
5 years ago

@confusedanon, You would think that would be the case, but I have encountered a lot of professors who–because they were young, had a chip on their shoulder, didn’t want to be perceived as being politically correct, wanted to shock their students who they saw as naive and privileged, or were just clueless–did not give a heads up.


it wouldn’t preserve anonymity. The problems always occurred in courses where I wouldn’t have expected distressing material to randomly show up. So I guess you’re telling me I should have had disability services contact every professor who I was studying under, every semester? My courses were small, and there were times when I studied with the same professor more than once. It wouldn’t have taken the profs. I knew well very long to figure out which student was the source of being contacted by disability services. Again, I wouldn’t have wanted half the department to have had their speculations about my sexual history.Report

Clifford L Sosis
3 years ago

Still relevant/Report