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?

Best,
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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PeteJ
5 years ago

I’m impressed by this careful answer. This may be my favourite regular column anywhere.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  PeteJ
5 years ago

Speaking of controversial claims…Report

PeteJ
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Aha. Louie – I just belatedly realized what the ‘controversial’ comment may mean. Did my flattery seem insincere? In case it looks unlikely I should add that I don’t read many regular columns, so the competition is low, and that this one is both entertaining and, as I do not earn my living at this, quite fascinating as a window into another world.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  PeteJ
5 years ago

No, only my reflexive tendency to deflect all praise with a joke. When in doubt, assume that I’m just being an awkward individual.

Very interesting that philosophy isn’t your field – out of curiosity, how do you making your living, then? And do you see any parallels between the issues we discuss here and the issues facing folks in your line of work? For example, is the debate over doing controversial work one such overlap, and if so, how has your field responded?Report

PeteJ
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Can I steal your second sentence for a strap-line?

My background is in management and music. Now mostly retired. As soon as you asked whether this problem arose in my area of work I realized that it arises everywhere. I expect it arises particularly for street-gangs and small groups of Neo-cons. Perhaps the problem is not that it arises in professional philosophy, but that this ought to be the one place where it shouldn’t arise.

But then, if you take away this kind of establishment self-censorship the result might be a madhouse of wild opinions and angry shouting matches. Perhaps it is a matter of balance, and getting the balance right is always a lot more difficult than deciding one way or the other.

Would it be fair to say that the problem could only arise where a philosopher is expressing an opinion that is not demonstrably grounded in logic and the facts, in which case they would be straying beyond philosophy and speaking outside their field?Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

I like the answer very much. If I may add to it something I’ve found in my own experience…

It’s very easy to think you’re engaging seriously with one’s opponent when one in fact isn’t. This can be because your notion as what counts as relevant can be skewed in ways that favour your preferred position or standpoint. So, for instance, in writing about trans people, it’s very important to engage not just with philosophers, but with people on Twitter, blogs, etc. The historical injustices of academia mean that people trying to talk about these issues often do so outside of academic institutions (universities, journals, etc.), and with different norms and histories. Utilitarians, to take another example, would do well to look for arguments against their position in art, as academic-philosophy norms can favour Utilitarianism. Again, atheists have to read Christian mysticism and be able to empathise with a certain way of *living* before they can understand even the propositional content of theistic claims.

You might find these examples unconvincing, but they’re just examples to show how various are the ways that one can fail to engage seriously with one’s opponent while thinking that one is doing so. As a rule of thumb: if you think you’re engaging seriously with a position that a lot of people take very seriously, but you find it lacking in some obvious way – you find it stupid, or you find that there’s been surprisingly little written on it, or whatever – that’s very good evidence that you are in fact not engaging seriously.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

This is such a reasonable and well written piece. But very naive. We do not work in a reasonable profession. Here is the real answer: Do not write a paper on a very social or politically controversial topic if it does not *firmly* conclude the *right answer*. Even if you do conclude the “right answer”, know that if you are a man or white, anyone that doesn’t like your arguments can simply label you a sexist, transphobe, whatever label is most relevant on social media (where all philosophers spend their time these days) and you can’t deny it. Look, there are 200-500 applicants competing for every 1 job. Philosophers are highly religiously and politically explicitly and implicitly biased. Even the slightest indication you are out-group could toss your application against so many other people signalling the right things. Call that paranoid if you want. Though they won’t say it, a lot of philosophers are now of the view it’s simply not worth critically engaging with certain areas of philosophy unless you have the right identity, views, or credentials protecting you.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

I’ll call it paranoid. We have religious and non-religious people in my department (and we’ve hired individuals in both categories recently!). We have individual professors in my department who are very much against traditional progressive viewpoints. That didn’t stop them from being hired. Anon, I don’t know what it is that made you so angry but I wanted to respond to you to at least provide one anecdotal data-point against your claims about what will and what will not get you a job in this market. Some general advice: publications will help get you a job; glowing (as in: surface of the sun) teaching evaluations will help get you a job; being personable (as in: are you easy to get along with and have conversations with during interviews) will help you get a job (should you get an interview). It’s a tough market, no doubt about that. But your answer, anon, strikes me as a bad answer (even if I sympathize with it).Report

anon
anon
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

@ejrd I am glad implicit bias did not stop your department from recently hiring a religious person. As you say that is one encouraging anecdotal data-point against my warning this could be risky. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate individual anecdotal data points for evaluating riskiness of behaviour. I honestly wonder how representative your good outcome is. I also wonder if the same would have been true if the candidate published something unpopular on say, critical race theory or feminist philosophy (seemingly what the OP is asking about, rather than himself simply holding a personal religious view). Lastly, you turn to giving general advice about hiring. The idea that publishing something politically unpopular will create bias against you is a risk is precisely that your publications, teaching, and personality will be evaluated lower as a result, the things you indicate improve chances of getting a job. This is long been associated with explicit and implicit bias. Clearly all of this depends on the details of the case, and the kind of argument the OP is considering. However it is not paranoid in today’s philosophy climate to think there are not risks that should be taken seriously, that could involve not publishing work in certain areas of philosophy when the view is a political liability.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

An actual answer to this question turns on details that the OP doesn’t provide. It matters in what sense the claim is controversial (a paper arguing that marital rape isn’t really rape has the potential to do damage to one’s career in a way that a paper on some other issue wouldn’t; and there is, obviously, more potential for damage when you are starting out than if you are established. In some circles, any whiff of religiosity will stigmatize you irreparably no matter how well you argue for your position, and on and on. )

Two general thoughts: First, I find it difficult to do my best work when I let strategic concerns about the profession intrude too deeply. Some people don’t seem to have this problem, but if I write something because it seems professionally prudent for some reason, it is a real drag and this shows in the work.

Second, much philosophy is so mind-numbingly boring and insular that many philosophers will experience such relief to come across a genuinely interesting topic that their gratitude will drive their resistance against your position into submission.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
5 years ago

I agree with both framing strategies listed. Show that you know and understand that the issue is controversial. Lay out clearly what the competing principles are, and acknowledge the intuitive pull of the principle you wind up rejecting. If relevant, draw a line between the metaphysical and moral claims at issue – and also between the basic moral claims and claims about what the related social policies should be.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I agree with anon above and I am completely sympathetic with the original poster. Working on controversial topics is only a good idea if you are established and secure in your professional place in the discipline. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do not want someone to start referring to me as a member of the Taliban on his blog. I do not want someone else to throw a very high-profile social media tantrum about how evil I am. I do not want other well-placed blogs, communal or otherwise, to bend-over backward to give people space to attack me. I do not want to be branded as a bigot of any sort for the rest of my life because I have the wrong stance on affirmative action, birth control, Bush, Chomsky, Derrida, equality, flag-burning, gun control, health care, immigration, Islam, incarceration, Jesus, M. L. King, Ludlow, Leiter, Levin, McGinn, new infantilism, Nietzsche, old white men, PGR report, queer theory, race, Rawls, Rand, refugees, Salita, socialism, Strauss, terrorism, under-representation, voting rights, welding, X-mas, I. M. Yazidis, Zizek, Zionism, etc. (I see your numbered list and raised you a somewhat alphabetical one.)
In reference to an earlier post here, that it why I stick with questions about the metaphysics of tables and other “core” areas. I suspect that even if Kripke knows what a blog is, he will not spend years badmouthing me in public for defending modal anti-realism. I suspect my classes will not be boycotted for simply expressing the thought on facebook that tables might not exist. I will probably not even lose facebook friends if my book is about why numbers can’t be structures.
With all due respect for the members of my profession whom I consider friends, by and large we are not a civil bunch. We are cruel, insensitive, puerile, and highly resistant to civil discourse about anything that matters. Any answer to the original question that does not get this must (I presume) come from a place of relative privilege in the profession that is born from having more or less the right opinions.
[JW: this comment was edited]Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Anon
5 years ago

Anon writes “I suspect my classes will not be boycotted for simply expressing the thought on facebook that tables might not exist.”

I’ve never seen such an open, unapologetic statement of simples-privilege. Those of us who self-identify as mereological sums of particles, or as high-level structures instantiated in lower-level physics, can’t be expected to sit by when confronted with yet one more example of mereological-nihilist bigotry. These people don’t just try to silence or erase us metaphorically; they *literally* claim that we don’t exist. That it’s wrapped in a conditional (“*might* not exist”? seriously, anon, who are you trying to fool) – is no real defence; some views are – or *ought* to be – simply beyond the pale.

In most cases I’m a very strong defender of academic freedom, but in this case, I say to anon’s students: boycott away! A line must be drawn; or, at the very list, particles must be arranged drawn-line-ways.Report

PeteJ
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Maybe such line-drawing is what makes existence incomprehensible to us. Better to actually prove that tables do exist. Good luck with that one…Report

Anonymity now
Anonymity now
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

After reading the last two comments, I no longer feel safe coming to Daily Nous. Great job, Justin, letting it come to this by your lack of moderation and by letting this be an open forum. Free speech does not mean saying whatever you think about things like mereological simples. I don’t want to discuss mereology: I want to talk about my pain. What’s wrong with the world when a blog like this one doesn’t provide me with the kind of platform I want absolutely every forum, everywhere, to be? This is a philosophy blog. Why can’t people who want to defend views other than my own about mereological simples go somewhere else, by which I mean nowhere at all, while the rest of us take it over, I mean restore it to its original purpose as a place to talk about how hurt we are by those who make mereological claims we feel offended by? I demand that Justin Weinberg step down at once and that a fact-finding commission be established to look into how this can have happened. And I want all and only my friends on that fact-finding commission.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
5 years ago

Let’s suppose that both Anons above are right, and that contemporary philosophy actually isn’t a place where controversial work can thrive. This is an important claim, and a serious one. If they’re right, then what can we do to change that? Must we accept that certain topics aren’t to be discussed (or maybe aren’t to be discussed by everyone)? Or are there individual or discipline-wide strategies we can deploy to change the culture of philosophy? Because my conviction is that we should *want* well-intentioned, well-reasoned controversy to have a place in philosophy, and for people to be safe to pursue such work.

If the Anons are right, then what do we do?Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

Simply practice what we preach in every intro class: arguments are what matter, not who makes them or what the conclusions happen to be. Is it a good argument? Then it deserves consideration. If it’s a bad argument, then it deserves criticism.

Of course, this has always been more of a “do as I say not as I do” kind of thing in philosophy; rare are the papers that give an explicit thesis and then spell out the argument as clearly and explicitly as possible.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

What do we do? The only thing people who are concerned about free thought can ever do. We can speak up courageously whenever someone says some view is too offensive to be true. We can speak in defense of people we disagree with. We can encourage people to be sensitive, but remind people that silencing views you disagree with is INSENSITIVE, too.

This all requires a lot of courage.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

This is an important point: We can’t rely simply on institutional safeguards: We also have an obligation to (or are honoured to) look to our moral virtues as well, make each other and our students loving and courageous. It’s never going to be as possible (or it’s never going to feel as possible to every person) to speak unwanted truths, or to go against the status quo, and no institution or culture is ever going to be equally open to every standpoint (or even every legitimate or highly-perceptive standpoint). So there’s always going to be a need to strain oneself against this.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  Louie Generis
5 years ago

I really don’t see the problem with accepting that certain topics “aren’t to be discussed” when by “aren’t to be discussed” we mean “cannot be discussed without being considered a bigot,” which seems to be what the anons are talking about. Clearly, there are some views that are racist and sexist. I don’t really feel a desire to prevent people espousing those views from being considered racist and sexist.

Take a look at Anon II’s list: “I do not want to be branded as a bigot of any sort for the rest of my life because I have the wrong stance on affirmative action, birth control, Bush, Chomsky, Derrida, equality, flag-burning, gun control, health care, immigration, Islam, incarceration, Jesus, M. L. King, Ludlow, Leiter, Levin, McGinn, new infantilism, Nietzsche, old white men, PGR report, queer theory, race, Rawls, Rand, refugees, Salita, socialism, Strauss, terrorism, under-representation, voting rights, welding, X-mas, I. M. Yazidis, Zizek, Zionism, etc.” It seems clear that some “wrong stances” about many of these things are, in fact, extremely bigoted: among the particularly obvious, some “wrong stances” about affirmative action, birth control, equality, immigration, Islam, incarceration, Ludlow, McGinn, queer theory, race, refugees, Salita, voting rights, etc.

Honestly, it’s a huge privilege to be able to treat all disagreements on these lines as academic and no more personal than disagreement about ontology. For many of us, it’s hugely personal. For example: I’m a woman. If you write a paper arguing that there’s nothing wrong with a professor coming on to his students (a view metabloggers often lament not being able to say in public), then no, I don’t want to be one of your students, and yes, I would give a little side eye to a department that put you in a supervisory role. It’s kind of ironic how the same people who think it’s women’s responsibility to avoid harassment also think it’s a great injustice for women to want to avoid men who publicly profess views tolerating it.Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  WP
5 years ago

and here it is, proof by demonstration that anon II is right …

Really, I doubt my views on birth control are significantly threatening to anyone. And if someone *feels* threatened by them, that’s a problem with that person, perhaps our culture.

But, then again, I’m “extremely bigoted”. I’ll be sure to hide in the shadows.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

Can you chill with the intentional misreading? I said: “some “wrong stances” about many of these things are, in fact, extremely bigoted.” I didn’t say anything about you or your particular views on birth control.

Some examples of views about birth control that I think are bigoted: that we need to restrict access to birth control to prevent women from being promiscuous, that married women should not be able to access birth control without their husband’s consent, etc.

I assume you don’t need examples of bigoted views about affirmative action, equality, immigration, Islam, incarceration, Ludlow, McGinn, queer theory, race, refugees, Salita, voting rights, i.e. everything else on my list. You’d think that would be enough to justify the claim that some wrong stances about things on anon II’s are extremely bigoted.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

(Also, of course, thinking that a view or argument is racist/sexist/otherwise bigoted is *itself* a view. Discouraging people from arguing that certain views are bigoted *just is* discouraging one kind of controversial work. It wouldn’t protect philosophy as a place for controversial arguments, it would just privilege one kind of controversial argument over another.)Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

Well, speaking of intentional misreadings, I doubt anon II was referring to views that nearly all reasonable people would describe as absolutely beyond the pale and not rationally defensible; e.g., defending the eugenic forced sterilizations which occurred in the first half of the 20th c, and advocating for more. I would think that when talking about the “wrong views” on a topic, s/he’s referring to fairly widely held views (like that using birth control is morally impermissible, or that polyamory is impermissible, etc.) rejected by, well, most of us. Obviously, there are several recent examples of people being shamed recently for having the “wrong views” on queer theory. There was some engagement with these views and their justifications (e.g. over at feminist philosophers), which was encouraging.

I would actually like to see a list of the views you think are “bigoted” on those issues, I just took one example. Generally, I’m not a fan of calling other people bigots without really knowing their motivations and reasons for holding various views. And, it seems like one could write a well-argued paper defending unpopular views on *all* of these topics, and the proper response would not be to freak out about the conclusions and shame the person for being a “bigot”, but rather to engage with the arguments. It seems the default is often the former, and that’s unfortunate, as it indicates that we are no longer thoughtful individuals, or a thoughtful discipline.Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

ps. If you are defending the somewhat minimalist view that there exist positions which one simply cannot defend without appealing to, e.g., racist premises (“the Nazis were right about the Jews!”), then sure, I take back the things I said in my post, and I tend to agree. But I think the question is more where the line is being drawn, and some of the things you say seem to indicate that it’s not *just* these sorts of views you have in mind. Some things I’m not even sure what you could possibly have in mind: what is an “extremely bigoted view” about Salaita, or affirmative action, for instance? And I think defending dating between students and professors is not one such view, so if I misunderstood you, perhaps that is why.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

I was trying to make a pretty minimal claim about some views being bigoted. My thought is this:

Anon I and II are talking about the risk of being called sexist, bigoted, etc. for having a “wrong stance.” So if we’re looking for “discipline-wide strategies we can deploy to change the culture of philosophy” to avoid that risk, we’re talking about strategies to discourage people from calling other people’s views sexist/racist/bigoted/etc.

But some views *are* sexist/racist/bigoted, notably some views about the specific topics anon II mentioned. These views can still be well intentioned and well reasoned—for example, I think we’d normally say arguments based on empirical falsehoods or misunderstandings of the opposing position can still be well reasoned, and those are two ways bigotry leads us to mistakes. 



No matter how well intentioned and well reasoned, I think it’s important for bigoted views and arguments to be identified as such, so I think it would be quite bad to discourage that. And since what exactly counts as bigoted is itself controversial, it seems like any attempt to limit what is called bigoted (beyond basic norms of evidence) is going to privilege one way of understanding it (presumably a conservative one). That seems like a problem to me.



We should of course have norms against making casual, unconsidered charges of bigotry, but I think we already do, both within the discipline and within the US as a whole. I think the wide majority of cases where people have been controversially accused of bigotry are cases of substantive disagreement and not cases of thoughtlessness on the person making the charge. (One recent case I have in mind is John Drabinski saying Leiter’s portrayal of the Yale protesters is “its own kind of racism.”)

I can provide examples of what I was thinking on the Salaita and affirmative action cases if that would be helpful, but I don’t really want to get bogged down there.

I meant to make a different point with the trying to date students example: asking everyone to read people’s views as purely academic is often a strange and pretty demanding request, because for some people, the view bears directly on how they should be treated.

(I’m not making much of the distinction between saying a view/argument is bigoted and saying a person is. I do think charges of bigotry, outside of extreme cases, should be directed at views rather than people. But I think what normally happens is that the charge *is* directed at the view but it feels completely personal anyway.)Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

Something WP says just above is worth emphasising and briefly expanding upon. The courage philosophy requires is not just the courage to admit that one is almost always wrong in some anaemic technical sense (and of course the related courages of making and facing constructively and openly the criticism that one is wrong in such a way), but, because philosophy is in central part the study of how to live well, the courage to admit that one is phronetically and morally in the wrong, and to make and face such an accusation constructively and openly. But this kind of wrongness is a genus of which bigotry is a species.

In other words: Vices such as bigotry are not found only among politicians and criminals, but among just about everyone, to some extent or other, and philosophy has to be able to admit such language; otherwise it impoverishes itself of a certain sort of moral, that is to say philosophical, criticism. And, to disagree with WP, there is not, in moral matters, a very strong distinction between what sort of views one holds and what sort of person one is. If one believes bigoted things, one is, to a concomitant extent, a bigot.

The inclusion of such language can of course be unphilosophically ‘silencing,’ depending on all sorts of factors (from our metaphilosophy to our culture), but my point here is just to insist that extricating such moral criticism is not the way to prevent such silencing.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

Unless I’m missing something, an accusation of bigotry must always either (a) identify a particular premise that says something BOTH false and bigoted, or (b) engage in a polemic that claims that the author’s stated reasons for holding a view are disingenuous windowdressing for bigoted reasons.

In my experience, it is easy for people to find some premise that is plausibly bigoted (given some conventional understanding of bigotry), but sometimes more difficult to prove that such premise is false. In these cases, one must first demonstrate that the premise is FALSE before claiming it is genuinely bigoted. The truth can never be a bigot.

If you cannot present any bigoted premise, however, the common tactic is to accuse the other person of arguing in bad faith. THAT seems like a completely immoral tactic, from my perspective. It is pure ad hominem, and, worse yet, it is SPECULATIVE ad hominem. Not cool.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
5 years ago

I can only express sympathy. I don’ t work in a core area but I do work in a fairly non-controversial area. I get worried about what the elites will think about my work. I can’t imagine working in an area where you might get blasted on social media and so on for your work. I could write something that most within my field think is terrible and even if it was published, only a small percentage of philosophers who work on hiring committees would vaguely know about it. In other fields, such an article is going to be slammed all over cyberspace so that even philosophers outside those fields will know that the article was poorly received. That alone can be enough to knock your application off of the stack of 5000 that committee members have to sort through. I admire people who are financially vulnerable and still put their ideas out there because they believe in them, because I couldn’t do it.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
Reply to  Anon Adjunct
5 years ago

Can someone cite an example where an *article* (as opposed to: blog post, facebook comment, tweet) in applied ethics, or political philosophy, or whatever, was ‘slammed’ in cyberspace? I can’t think of one. Hence I don’t really worry about this, as I write in these areas, even though my views might occasionally stray from orthodoxy.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
Reply to  Postdoc
5 years ago

Ceci and Williams on discrimination in STEM hiring, Papineau’s book review (if you count that as an article), and Sesardic and de Clercq on discrimination come to mind. I’m not sure why you dismiss blog posts other than to exclude obvious examples that are probably not worth re-igniting in this thread. But congratulations on your fearlessness.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
Reply to  Anon Adjunct
5 years ago

I hasten to add that I’m sure there are examples in the other direction as well, and I’m not endorsing the content of any of those articles.Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
5 years ago

David Benatar’s peer-reviewed article on the Gendered Conference Campaign. One well-known philosopher who works on ethics said on Fb that the paper shows that it would have been better had Benatar never been born (a reference to other work of his). Others gleefully announced that the paper shouldn’t be read and that they should get together to burn it. Louis Generis asked what we can do. Here’s a suggestion. Louis himself/herself can call such people out on Facebook.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Plouffe
5 years ago

Depending on the tone of the Facebook comment, I don’t think Benetar would necessarily be offended by it. It is probably in poor taste, but it does have a certain ironical flair to it. One of the greatest dangers in publicly wishing that one hadn’t been born is the possibility that other people might agree with you.Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
5 years ago

When I uncovered evidence that political pressures of the early Cold War might have importantly affected the subsequent development of American philosophy, I waited to publish until not only I, but my wife had tenure (she is in an entirely different field). None of my experience in the years since has caused me to regret that.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

The Benatar example doesn’t support the position that one ought to exercise great caution and avoid writing on controversial topics; despite his views, he has done pretty well for himself with plenty of prestigious fellowships and invitations. I imagine he has lost out on some opportunities due to his views, but he is also well known, in part, because of these views. My guess is that it is a net gain for him, in terms of professional success.

I have seen blatant examples of discrimination based on perceived religiosity or politically unpopular views, and I understand the concerns raised by the commentators above. But as someone who has been on a number of search committees, I think it is important to stress that there are sigificant risks associated with playing it safe. Many more people are passed over because their projects lack originality than are passed over because they are defending politically unpopular positions. Write about what interests you, and let the chips fall where they may. In most cases, the benefits will outweigh the costs. If you put off writing about what you care about until you have achieved complete professional independence, you probably never will write about those things.

As a profession, we could help to counter the view-based discrimination that does exist by not publicly labeling anyone who disagrees with us in online discussions as a troll or otherwise signaling that dissent is unwelcome or must be repackaged in language that passes some test of respect or civility. Many online conversations seem aimed at marking out the “correct” positions on social issues.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Benatar also wrote that piece as a fully tenured professor and department head at UCT. It’s not like he was a was nobody in 2014. I’m not sure we should expect more vulnerable members of the profession would be treated the same way. Also, how can you purport to assess the effect that article had on his career when it was published online December 2014 and in hard-copy in March 2015? Has he really gotten that many fellowships and invitations in the last 11 months that we can declare this a net gain in terms of professional success? I guess it’s possible that you have detailed information about the invitations he has received in the last year, but I somehow doubt that (unless*GASP* you are secretly him!).Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

@anon adjunct:
Benatar published a book about sexism against men in 2012 and had presumably been giving talks on the topic for some time before that.

I’m not sure why you are using such a hostile tone in response to me; I guess no attempt to be helpful goes unpunished. Junior philosophers will have to make up their own mind about whose advice to take, but I stand by my assertion that it is better (in terms of one’s job prospects) to be interesting but controversial than boring and uncontroversial.

More importantly, given that the hiring process is shot through with luck and social connections, I think it is better to write what you want to write. Philosophical integrity won’t pay the bills, but, as you no doubt know, neither will most adjuncts’ saleries.Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
5 years ago

“Postdoc” asked for an example of a paper that was slammed in cyberspace. Benatar’s paper is such an example. Is the complaint now that it’s not the right kind of author?

Also, Benatar publishes that paper as a tenured, full professor and Plum says this “doesn’t support the position that one ought to exercise great caution and avoid writing on controversial topics.” I suppose, but only if you think that the invectives hurled at him and that paper are not reason for great caution for junior people in the profession a fortiori. As Chris Carter says, “C’mon man.”Report

Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Plum didn’t say that hurled invectives are “not reason for great caution”. They said that having some invectives hurled at one might be all things considered worthwhile. It’s a reason, but an outweighed one.

There were lots of invectives hurled at Kate Manne (an actual junior person if you would rather look at a junior person writing on controversial topics) for her recent public articles. Does that mean it was bad for her career to publish those? Probably not – though as you rightly note, it’s too soon to reach a firm conclusion. (They didn’t increase her chances of getting hired in the Chicago Law School, but they might help elsewhere.)

Plum’s point, which I think is an excellent one, is that in a tight job market, there isn’t a safe option. Being good but kind of boring means you get long-listed for some jobs, but rarely hired. Doing something that makes one much more visible, and even much less liked by most of the profession, can be a good thing for one’s career. All it takes is one job offer, then a conference or edited volume invitation every 18 months or so, and you have the basis of a good career. And taking either side of a controversial debate may be more likely to make that come about than taking neither.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

I think it may be too early to make that conclusion regarding Prof. Manne. I take it the articles you are referring to are her pieces on trigger warnings. These were all published roughly two years after she secured a very good TT job. I guess the question is whether the advice is for junior but secured philosophers or people who are actually on the job market. You seem to conflate the two in your remark about her getting hired at U C law and the comments about the tight job market. Or maybe you do mean to talk about philosophers on the job market but then I’m not sure that Prof. Manne is a good example, since, again, the articles came after she secured a very good position. I think that Plum, who got needlessly salty about my tone, offered a better rejoinder, namely, that the odds of being properly fucked on the market are so high that you might as well write what you like. That is sound advice, it’s just hard to accept because it requires acknowledging the overwhelming likelihood of failure. Persisting despite that acknowledgment is admirable, though perhaps not rational.Report

Anon Adjunct
Anon Adjunct
Reply to  Anon Adjunct
5 years ago

Brian,

I’ll give an example to illustrate my concern. Suppose Jane is on the market and is being interviewed. One of the interviewers asks why there are not more female philosophers on her Intro to Philosophy syllabus. Jane responds by pointing out that the syllabus has a number of female philosophers and the she is hesitant to swap out the other readings because they are, in her opinion, important to understanding debates in contemporary philosophy.

Let’s ignore the issue of whether Jane’s response is correct, but suppose it is sincerely held. Further suppose you have a student going on the market, Sally, who also sincerely holds Jane’s view. Sally hears about Jane’s interview and asks for your advice on how she should answer such questions. Would you advise Sally to respond in the same way as Jane did? Would you advise her to make and even stronger and more controversial response (if she sincerely believed it, of course), e.g. “I don’t think adding more female philosophers to syllabi is laudable”? Or would you advise Sally to say, “Yes, I’d love to her suggestions on other female philosophers whose work I can incorporate.”

If you don’t think Sally should give Jane’s response, then do you think Sally should write an article about how she thinks adding female philosophers to syllabi doesn’t improve the climate for women or is sexist or excludes more important work by men? Won’t such an article have a similar effect as Jane’s answer in the interview? Or do you think Sally should give Jane’s response?Report