Which Ideas Are Students Protected From? Which Are Faculty Fearful to Defend?
Here are some empirical claims about higher education in the United States. In comparison to 100 years ago:
- There are fewer or weaker institutional, social, and material obstacles to non-white-male people entering academia.
- Academics today regularly and with institutional approval study a greater number of topics, including topics previously thought taboo or unworthy of study.
- Academics today regularly and with institutional approval employ a greater variety of research methods.
- Academics today regularly and with institutional approval teach a greater variety of topics using a greater variety of source material.
- Academics today may, without any kind of formal or informal institutional sanction, entertain and defend a greater variety of theses.
These claims are obviously true. That is: there has been an increase in the kinds of people who have the liberty to become academics, an increase in number and types of areas of inquiry academics are at liberty to investigate, an increase in the kinds of methods academics are at liberty to use in their research, an increase in the topics they are at liberty to teach, and an increase in the diversity of ideas academics are at liberty to defend. Call this collection of claims the Great Academic Absorption.
The Great Academic Absorption might help us put in context the complaints we’ve been hearing so much of lately: complaints about universities being places today in which students aren’t exposed to a range of unfamiliar ideas some of which they might find unsettling, and complaints about universities being places in which faculty with unpopular ideas live in fear.
At the very least, it might lead us to ask this: which ideas? Which ideas has the Great Academic Absorption left unabsorbed, or squeezed out?
Since this is a blog largely for academic philosophers, let’s limit answers to our area of expertise: philosophy (as broadly construed as you’d like). Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas are students not being exposed to but should? Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas do faculty fear being discovered entertaining or believing?
(There is a related issue, not concerning philosophical ideas, but ideas about the philosophy profession, what it is like, and what it should be like, and so on, that faculty might have. For now, let’s leave aside those matters, along with broader political matters. We can turn to them another time.)
Note: Pseudonymous comments are permitted, but must be submitted with an accurate email address. Don’t use “anonymous” or “anon” in your handle.
It’s pretty clear to me based on last observation that discussing in any sort of critical fashion the doctrine of gender identity, or other related issues like the nature, or political significance of transgender ideology, will get you branded a bigot. This will hold true no matter how civil, careful, or disinterested one’s treatment of the matter is.Report
This is demonstrably false. I don’t want to religitate the specific case, but there is definitely a case in which a fairly prominent academic “discussing in any sort of critical fashion the doctrine of gender identity” (specifically, said that trans women were men). That person has not been “branded a bigot” in any meaningful sense. Someone did say something rather critical about them on Twitter, but that person was in turn criticized on Twitter, so it can hardly count as a “branding.”
None of this is to make any judgments on who was right in this case–I have my opinions which you can probably guess, but as I said I don’t want to relitigate them. Only to say that, as a matter of empirical fact, it is possible to claim that transwomen are men without being “branded” as a bigot in any way that appears in the first page of Google results for your name, or your name + transgender, or your name + bigot. Once again, there seems to be some confusion between criticism and suppression here.Report
Thanks for commenting, Zizek. But seriously, your Salon article wasn’t very good.Report
Any serious critique of feminism is also off the table. For example, you can’t question whether it’s moral to prefer women over men in hiring decisions, at least not without paying a high cost for doing so.
There are a whole host of other things that you are not allowed to discuss, which I’m not even going to mention in this pseudo-anonymous forum.
For those who have rather standard beliefs and views, the academy can seem like a fairly free environment; for those who do not, it is abundantly clear how suppressed our speech really is.
In a highly competitive environment no one can afford criticism of their character, and the tool used to keep non-standard voices silent is to attack the person’s character directly.Report
“There are a whole host of other things that you are not allowed to discuss, which I’m not even going to mention in this pseudo-anonymous forum.”
If you are really concerned about revealing your identity to me, create a new email account with a pseudonym. But don’t hold back. Let’s hear what these other things are. The point of this post is to get all of this out into the open. Heck, maybe we’ll take up these topics in their own posts later.Report
This story from Being A Woman In Philosophy suggests that people have questioned whether it’s moral to prefer women over men in hiring decisions without paying a high cost.Report
A simple look at the phil papers pages for “Affirmative Action” and “Sex Discrimination” proves that it is not verboten to question the ethics of preferring to hire (or admit to university) members of historically underrepresented groups.Report
It only proves that some people write about these topics *anyway*, i.e., in *spite* of the stigma they are likely to experience.Report
The OP posited that one “was not allowed to discuss” the ethics of sex discrimination in hiring. It is in fact false. Individuals *are* allowed to discuss it. That doesn’t mean people will believe you’re a peach when you do. There is a difference between something being ‘disallowed’ and something being stigmatized. A wide variety of activities are stigmatized–it does not mean that individuals are not allowed to do them and it doesn’t even mean that individuals rightly ought not be allowed to do them.
This entire debate frequently comes down to some claim like the following: “I want to hold what many believe to be morally repugnant positions and be well liked at the same time.” Often those two things cannot cohere together. One will not be well liked if they believe themself inherently superior to a whole range of people for a variety of reasons. Just because someone is ‘allowed’ to be a white supremacist doesn’t mean people have to enjoy the company of white supremacists (for example).Report
What does ‘allowed’ mean? It’s not illegal to discuss the ethics of sex discrimination. In the US and the UK we largely have free speech. That means that the law doesn’t stop us from speaking freely.
However, there is a system in place in these countries to control speech. Chomsky talks about it all of the time. I won’t get into the details. Go read about, for example, the propaganda model of the media.
One of the ways speech is controlled is to heavily attack and stigmatise those who hold views which power deems to be threatening. We can see this in academia. Here a kind of new left is in power. There are a host of views and positions that define this new left. Speech which questions these views then is seen as an assault on the new left’s power and is stamped out.
I am not saying anything confrontational. And it’s got nothing to do with not liking someone who holds ideas you think are immoral. It’s about attacking that person, making them unemployable, and destroying their career. That’s a whole different level from not inviting them to your dinner parties.Report
You seem to be assuming a rather uncharitable reading of the OP. Here’s what the OP said: “you can’t question whether it’s moral to prefer women over men in hiring decisions, *at least not without paying a high cost for doing so*” (emp. mine). In response to this, you say, in effect, that the OP is wrong to think that the airing of certain views isn’t “allowed,” because people are not forcibly prevented from doing so (after all, just look at the PhilPapers results…). But the OP’s point is obviously not that people are *forcibly prevented* from airing certain views; rather, it’s that airing certain views often *carries a high (perhaps unreasonably high) social and professional cost*. That is a perfectly legitimate sense of “disallowed.” And even if “disallowed” were not the right word, to get mired in semantics is to miss the substance of the OP’s point.Report
Things run in the other direction as well. You can’t talk about white supremacy, white fragility, white privilege, white flight, or anything in general that concerns whiteness without students marching into the Dean’s or President’s office.Report
How can anyone know what students are not being exposed to, apart from where they teac, and even then only that person’s class? In short, how do you prove a negative?
I would bet most students are not exposed to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the like. Question is whether this is bias or loss? Yep, students ought to know of such but it is nit a criticism to say, prof X didn’t expose me to Hitler.Report
While we have some libertarian philosophers and some Christian philosophers, they’re both tiny, unpopular minorities outside of Arizona and Notre Dame. It is dangerous for graduate students and junior faculty to openly defend or publish in defense of either libertarianism or theism. Though if you’re known as a moderate or left-libertarian or a theologically and socially liberal Christian, that can often take the edge off. People like Steiner more than Mack and DeRose more than Plantinga.Report
“Academics today regularly and with institutional approval study a greater number of topics, including topics previously thought taboo or unworthy of study.”
This is, at best, trivially true. When times change, taboos change. So you could say, in 1200 or 1600 or 1800 or 1950, that academics studied many studies previously thought taboo. But that does NOT mean that the range of available topics has expanded, since we are always developing new taboos.
Sure, right now we have broken some taboos on investigation, but we have instituted other taboos. Brain differences between races are taboo to investigate now; they weren’t in 1900. Religious justifications for patriarchy are currently taboo. Discussions about the meaning or value of virginity are taboo. Or compared to 500 B.C., justifications for “natural slavery” or pederasty are now taboo; they weren’t then.
My point is not that we should reconsider our views about these subjects that are currently taboo. Rather, my point is that we are closing down areas for investigation just as fast as we open others. This is no golden age for free inquiry, and — arguably — certain subjects SHOULD be taboo to investigate.Report
David Lewis’s “Divine Evil” (which compares devout Muslims to neo nazis) and Michael Levin’s “why homosexuality is abnormal” are both papers that I have worried about teaching, in part because the speech codes at the University where I was teaching did not clearly protect their instruction (on one reading they forbid them, but the language was vague and spoke of balancing the value of freedom of expression against other values). In both cases, students voiced concerns that the papers were being taught, and instructed me that I ought to keep some other students from agreeing with the arguments.Report
Is there another version of David Lewis’s “Divine Evil”? The version I know of makes a comparison between devout *Christians* and neo-Nazis.Report
It does contain a brief mention of “Christians and Muslims” and “the New Testament (and the Koran)” at the beginning of the paper, such that it would be clear that the argument against orthodox Christians would also apply to orthodox Muslims. But the extended neo-Nazi analogy does focus on Christians.Report
I looked back at it, and you’re right. But, as Matt says, the arguments throughout are clearly intended to apply to both Christians and Muslims, since they both accept “the orthodox story”, and worship “the perpetrator”. Probably, when I taught it in class, I continued to mention both Christianity and Islam throughout. In any case, that was an idea that I was worried about discussing, whether Lewis intended the comparison to apply to Muslims as well (as it seems pretty clear to me that he did).Report
A pattern is already emerging in this thread, unsurprisingly.
A: Here’s a topic that we all know will incite the ire of the authoritarians among us.
B: FALSE!! FALSE!! Look at this one time! A paper has been published!
Give me a break.Report
Hmm, I see the dynamic as more like this:
A: Anyone who expresses view X will pay a horrible cost. [no evidence provided]
B: That’s a universal generalization. Here’s a case of someone expressing view X without paying a horrible, or any, cost, beyond having someone express disagreement with their view.
Once again there seems to be a confusion between “authoritarianism” and “criticizing a view.” At least, if these views are being suppressed by authoritarians, could we at least see some evidence for it?Report
Re A: It is obviously not a strict universal generalization, but an “in general” statement. A small number of “counter-examples” doesn’t defeat the point. (And just giving instances of people stating their views in publication obviously doesn’t at all give us “a case of someone expressing view X without paying a horrible, or any, cost, beyond having someone express disagreement with their view.”)
Re B: As for evidence:
Some of the people here would make it sound like philosophy is just too big to make any reasonable generalizations about, despite the fact that *except for this case* they do it all the time (for instance, about the climate in philosophy for women). Fortunately, the philosophy world being relatively small, it *is* possible to make reasonable generalizations about its “climate.
It is antecedently very likely that there would be strong group bias, as it is a simple fact that academic philosophy departments are *overwhelmingly* left-leaning, in the sense that most members (both faculty and students) are, individually, left-leaning. Unless left-leaning people are particularly special in their not being prone to the general behavior that characterizes human groups formed around identities, it is very likely that there is some pressure for those outside of that group to conform.
Also, the bias in the rest of the (left-leaning-dominated) humanities is well-established. It is very unlikely that philosophy is special here.
Also, I’m sure almost any non-left graduate student you talk to could give anecdotes of pressure and social exclusion. I could. I take this to be good evidence.
I would be very willing to bet that if you went through every top 20 PhD program, found the non-left-leaning graduate students, and asked them whether they’d feel comfortable giving a talk or publishing a controversial stance on a controversial issue (especially issues related to gender and sexuality for instance), most would not feel comfortable. (I base this on the fact that I *do* know some of these people from several of these departments and *have* asked them this question.) Obviously, their suspicions could be entirely unwarranted, and it *would* be fine if they sat in the departmental meeting raising objections to the need for a climate diversity committee, but that is certainly not the simplest explanation.
I’m not complaining about this fact so much as I think the standard being applied here is a bit unfair. Imagine if someone argued, “Clearly women are at a disadvantage in philosophy!” and someone else replied “1. No evidence for that (Gotcha!), and 2. Look at all these women on philpapers!” Do you think people would just let that slide? They wouldn’t (and they shouldn’t).Report
“Re A: It is obviously not a strict universal generalization, but an “in general” statement. A small number of “counter-examples” doesn’t defeat the point.”
No, it was a strict universal generalization. I’ll copy and paste the post
“It’s pretty clear to me based on last [sic] observation that discussing in any sort of critical fashion the doctrine of gender identity, or other related issues like the nature, or political significance of transgender ideology, will get you branded a bigot. This will hold true no matter how civil, careful, or disinterested one’s treatment of the matter is.”
The bolded part brooks no exception–not that the person I’m thinking of was civil or careful, anyway.
“Imagine if someone argued, ‘Clearly women are at a disadvantage in philosophy!’”
If someone said “Being a woman will get you drummed out of the profession, no matter how productive or insightful you are,” then it would be appropriate to point out women in philosophy as a counterexample, and to suggest that the person formulate the claim more carefully.Report
Also, re: Your point about “authoritarianism” and “criticizing a view”:
I agree with you that this is an important distinction. But the distinction is perfectly illustrated by the case of social conservatives vs., say, endorsers of infanticide.
Discussion of infanticide is not “beyond the pale” for many or most philosophers; it is becoming increasingly acceptable (if not fully acceptable already). I could give a talk on infanticide to my department, and though that view would be *criticized*, people’s blood pressure would not, on average, go up all that much, and I would not be ostracized. I would not feel uncomfortable about giving a talk or publishing on infanticide; I might, at best, feel a little “edgy.”
If I gave a talk questioning the morality of homosexual acts or transgender ideology (or, ironically, even abortion probably), I would receive a far more hostile treatment (and my relations with my colleagues would probably be irreparably harmed).
Though I think this situation is incredible, it is a useful illustration.Report
There are several relatively influential (“alt right”?) ideas that I would be very hesitant to cover in an applied ethics class, even critically. For example:
The idea that racial differences in IQ and behavior are very intractable and that social programs should therefore be abolished.
The idea that men and women are innately different (statistically) and will have different preferences and make different choices even when given the same opportunities, and that feminist ideals of “equality” therefore are unattainable or need to be revised.
The idea that very different ethnic groups cannot live peacefully together in the same society in the long run and that segregation is therefore a good idea.
The idea that democracy is a bad idea and that most people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
In addition, there are other totally taboo ideas that I would not want to teach, e.g. the idea that incest or pedophilia should be legal.Report
So, after a quick googling, it seems that East Asian countries have the highest average IQs in the world. Supposing that’s true, what do you make of this fact? Is my race superior to yours? Why are there still more Whites than East Asians in Philosophy? Isn’t that unjust, if we believe in strict meritocracy? Why aren’t we studying more works from East Asian traditions? Or are racial differences only relevant when they support claims of white supremacy?Report
(1) If you Googled more, you would find that the mean white IQ is slightly lower than the East Asian IQ but the variance is greater. Therefore there are more whites at the highest (and lowest) end of the intelligence spectrum.
(2) Intelligence isn’t the only dimension of psychology. There are potentially other psychological traits that could be relevant to philosophical ability and that could vary among races.Report
(1) Seems implausible unless you think that philosophers generally have extremely high IQs. And even taking that into account, East Asians would seem to be massively underrepresented in the profession.
(2) Seems to be a variant of the phenomenon discussed here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/13/white-definitions-merit-and-admissions-change-when-they-think-about-asian-americansReport
Also, wouldn’t (2) undermine your suggestion that group level differences in IQ are innate and at least partially explanatory of disparities in representation in the profession? (Or am I missing something because there is less IQ variance among members of my race than there is in yours?)Report
No, you are missing something–why, I’m not sure.Report
You noted that East Asians have higher average IQs than whites, and you suggested that this makes it surprising that East Asians are under-represented in philosophy. My point in (1) was simply that this is a bad argument. Even if we assume that being a philosopher requires having a high IQ (the premise of your argument–and a reasonable assumption), the fact that East Asians have higher average IQs does not necessarily imply that a greater proportion of their population has a high IQ. This is an elementary statistical fact.
In (2) I claimed that there are presumably psychological traits other than intelligence that are relevant to philosophical ability, and any psychological trait that varies within races could potentially vary between them. What aspect of this claim are you disagreeing with? You yourself said in your reply above that it “seems implausible” that philosophers have very high IQs–so I assume you agree that there are psychological traits other than general intelligence that determine philosophical ability. Are you questioning the possibility that psychological traits can vary among races? If so, then I would suggest you take a look at virtually any issue of any psychometrics journal (e.g., Intelligence or Personality and Individual Differences).Report
Yes, I understand that a group’s mean score doesn’t tell us anything about the distribution within the group. My point was that unless it is the case that the mean IQ of philosophers is extremely high (say > 160, which would place us as a group in the 99.9th percentile of the general population) putative differences in distribution can’t fully explain the extreme lack of representation of East Asians (only 4% of Regular respondents to the Race/Ethnicity question of APA Members Demographics Survey identified as Asian while 86% identified as White; yes, I know that respondents were allowed to select more than one category, even then the disparity is glaring). In any case, you have yet to provide any evidence that philosophers have such high IQs on average. Also, your point about variance cuts both ways, since it may be the case that there is quite a bit of variance within among philosophers, even though we have very high IQs on average. Moreover, it is not clear that you hypothesis about variance within racial groups hold (see: https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/do-asians-have-a-short-bell-curve/).
Anyway, your initial suggestion that racial disparities in representation can be primarily explained by mere disparities in IQ between races is in tension with your subsequent suggestion that there may be other more relevant psychological traits driving philosophical ability. I’m not the one who thinks that IQ explains disparities in representation, that was your claim. Also, my rebuttal to your (2) was a meta point about the documented tendency among whites to start shifting their definitions of merit when confronted with evidence that East Asians do better on the metrics they commonly associate with merit. Again, I’m not the one who thinks that innate racial differences are explanatory w.r.t. racial representation in philosophy. (By the way, the burden of proof is on you, since you’re the one advancing the positive argument here. Funnily enough, you’ve yet to actually cite any actual evidence in favour of your myriad shifting claims.Report
The meta point, to be clear, was that while you began by claiming that “Innate race or sex differences in intelligence and temperament… have far-reaching implications… for the question of why some groups are less represented in the philosophy profession than others,” then hilariously and transparently shifted to the claim that “There are potentially other psychological traits that could be relevant to philosophical ability and that could vary among races” as soon as I pointed out that East Asians have higher average IQs than whites.Report
Innate race or sex differences in intelligence and temperament. If they exist–as most psychologists who study this topic believe–they have far-reaching implications for several areas of philosophy (ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of biology) and for the question of why some groups are less represented in the philosophy profession than others. Most philosophers reject the possibility of innate group differences in psychology for moral reasons and without having any acquaintance with the relevant evidence.Report
Let me take a wild guess that these ‘psychologists’ you speak of are white men. ‘Big news everybody–white men have discovered (empirically! science! evidence! Woohoo!) that white men are the smartest people ever and have the biggest brains, etc!’Report
I complained that philosophers reject the possibility of innate group differences in psychology “without having any acquaintance with the relevant evidence,” and you began your reply with, “Let me take a wild guess…” If you want to express an opinion on this subject–certainly if you want to accuse the men and woman of all races who do serious research on intelligence–you ought to make an effort to become informed. (FYI: Inuit and East Asians have the biggest brains, Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQs.)Report
Some of the more skeptical comments here have appealed to cases in which someone has published an an allegedly verboten view, yet not faced any significant, publicly observable costs for it. I think that we should be careful about how we draw lessons from such cases. The personal costs of holding or expressing a verboten opinion are not always apparent to anyone with an Internet connection. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that Googling my own name next to the relevant controversies will not turn up any results, but it would be mistaken to hold that I haven’t had to bear any significant personal costs for holding and expressing certain unpopular views (or, more accurately, simply maintaining that certain party line dogmas are open to question). The costs here are more subtle: being the subject of negative gossip in my department, getting defriended on social media, no longer finding myself invited to the usual social outings, having one peer (with whom I had previously gotten along fairly well) refuse to speak to me at all, and so on. And I have little doubt that if certain of my peers are ever in a position to influence my being hired or published somewhere, they’ll do everything in their power to make sure I’m not.
In an environment like this, I understand all too well why many are reluctant to entertain any departure from certain orthodoxies within the profession, even if the consequences for doing so don’t always take so obvious a form as being on the receiving end of a Twitter mob.Report
Gray hits the nail. I would invite any skeptic about censorship to ask him/her/zher/… self: how many professional colleagues do I know who (i) have adopted in public a so-called right-wing or conservative view on race, gender, homosexuality, feminism, immigration,… and (ii) have recently received an invitation for a talk/job interview from an institution with a reputation, or for a book chapter from a publisher with a reputation (in the field of philosophy)?Report
But Raf, that is because only *stupid* people could have a different opinion on those issues, and we philosophers are much *less* stupid. (End generalization that will not be scrutinized like the one about liberal bias was.)Report
“Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas are students not being exposed to but should? Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas do faculty fear being discovered entertaining or believing?”
Well, in my department and most analytic-minded philosophy departments, students aren’t getting exposed much to ideas from African traditions, Indian traditions, Native traditions, and basically any tradition other than European traditions and contemporary analytic philosophy (my department does teach Chinese philosophy, which is to say that one of my valued colleagues does, but that is somewhat unusual among this kind of department). That’s an obvious answer to this question, but I think not to the next one, because I at least (as a white guy with tenure, admittedly) wouldn’t be afraid to be discovered entertaining ideas from African traditions, as long as I kept up with my analytic philosophy. It’s not as though these ideas are actively suppressed, so much as they aren’t even entertained, because you’ve got to work on something else if you want a job.
What I think really would get you ridiculed in an analytic department is if you believed that large swathes of the other humanities and social sciences weren’t totally misguided (at least circa the 80s and 90s), and that we should engage with their work. The sort of view expressed in the last sentence of H. Siegel’s review of Boghossian’s “Fear of Knowledge,” about “the contemporary split between ‘academic philosophy,’ which by and large rejects the target views, and the rest of the humanities and social sciences, which, unfortunately in Boghossian’s view as in my own, are far more welcoming of them.” Not to pick on Siegel and Boghossian, because I don’t think the view that they’re expressing is at all unusual in analytic philosophy; it just happens that this is the place I can find it in print, and usually it’s pretty much taken for granted. (And I complained above that people weren’t providing evidence, so I feel like I should.) And as far as I can tell, very few people in analytic philosophy departments have defended the sorts of views held in these other departments, whatever they may be. The split is so severe that papers in philosophy of fiction in general don’t seem to engage with the work done in literature departments.
And again, that’s not to say that I believe that we should be engaging with the work done in those departments–I just don’t know enough about that work to judge (and I didn’t much like the more theoretically oriented English class I took as an undergraduate, not that that means anything). Just to say that it is notable how little these ideas are entertained in analytic philosophy departments.Report
Based on the results of the most recent Leiter poll, the correct answer is “analytic metaphysics,” at least if you want to be respected for having cognitive criteria in your work by certain folks. (Wink)Report
As several commentators have already pointed out, almost anything that’s associated with social conservatism is taboo these days — especially when it comes to sex. Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn found in their recent book “Passing on the Right” (2016) that many conservative academics intentionally avoid doing research on certain politically incorrect topics due to the fallout that may result. Some wait until after tenure, while many just avoid such research competently. The exception is economics, where being, say, a libertarian is tolerated.
Whether these fears are justified or not, there is very much an academic chilling effect on those who wish to research politically incorrect topics.Report
Thanks, Tim. Would you mind being more specific about the philosophical ideas or positions “associated with social conservatism” that you have in mind? I think that would be helpful in getting some more examples in play and helpful in better seeing the nature of the problem.Report
I have in mind research that criticizes abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action, drug legalization, gun control, and environmentalism (among other topics). There are certainly scholars who do publish in these areas, but that’s compatible with the claim that there exists tremendous pressure not to publish in them. Unless one plans on working at a conservative religious institution, it’s not a stretch to say that it would be career suicide for graduate students and early career academics to do work on these topics.
Some fields within the social sciences tolerate this kind of research more than others. If you’re an economist who publishes a critique of gun control, you could probably get by. Not so if you’re a conservative sociologist who wants to publish on race, or an ethicist who wants to criticize environmentalism.Report
It would be really risky to write a paper defending the view that homosexuality is a mental illness. I’m pretty sure that outside right wing religious colleges that such a paper would doom you. You could just give up applying for jobs. haha!
Nevertheless, I have often wondered whether it is a mental illness and if not why. I think if someone had a strong desire to have sex with trees we’d call that a mental illness. Anyway, it’s an interesting philosophical question regardless of the answer (which I honestly don’t know), but not one I have ever felt comfortable asking.Report
“The exception is economics, where being, say, a libertarian is tolerated.”
Which, interestingly enough, is also a field many of whose leading lights have recently made a bunch of terrible mistakes about subjects within their professional competence, without feeling any apparent need to correct themselves. And those mistakes were in the conservative direction.Report
You speak confidently as if it’s obvious that these mistakes were in the conservative direction. But that is by no means clear. Many conservative/libertarian economists have argued the exact opposite (Peter Wallison, for example, has written two very interesting books on the roots of the recent financial crisis).Report
Wallison’s ideas are disputed, to say the least.
But I’m not really talking about things like “What caused the housing crisis?” (my first link probably suggested that I was, for which I apologize). I grant that that is in dispute, and that it would be contentious to suggest that this was a case where people made unambiguous mistakes. I’m talking about things like the doctrine of expansionary austerity, non-zero fiscal multiplier for stimulus (another), that Obama’s policies would lead to inflation. These were concrete predictions, they were wrong, the direction of their error was in favor of generally right-wing policies, and there has been very little soul-searching on the part of the people who made them (aside from Narayana Kocherlakota).
This is not to say that all conservative economists and all conservative predictions are implicated in this.Report
Here’s a list of topics that would destroy any young philosopher’s career (some mentioned before; others not):
1. Holocaust revisionism. (You couldn’t argue for this view or even discuss it. In many countries it’s in fact illegal to discuss it.)
2. Pro-911 truth. (You couldn’t say anything positive about this view.)
3. Anti-Zionism. (You couldn’t condemn Zionism as immoral.)
4. Pro-Eugenics. (You couldn’t argue for Eugenics.)
5. Intrinsic intelligence differences between races. (You couldn’t argue that black people will always be poorer and more repressed than white people, because they are intrinsically less intelligent.)
6. Homosexuality is a mental illness. (Even though this seems prima facie plausible, you can’t say it!)
7. Propaganda model of the media. (I am pretty sure you’d get in trouble for discussing Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media: how the media is designed to serve the elites and keep the people subservient.)
8. That the US and the UK are the most evil countries on earth. (Chomsky agrees with this, and I think in some far left-wing departments you could get away with saying this. But it would be risky if the admin heard about it.)
9. Anything pro terrorism. (You’d in fact probably get arrested! I am not personally condoning terrorism. I do not condone terrorism. My point is just that you couldn’t ever attempt to argue for it.)
10. Anti-multiculturalism. (Try arguing that different cultures cannot live peacefully together and should be kept separated and see what happens to your job prospects. haha!)
11. Anti-immigration. (This is related to 10. Try arguing that we shouldn’t allow immigration but from similar races and cultures and see what happens to your career!)
12. Anti-feminism. (You couldn’t argue that feminism has had an overall negative impact of our society. You couldn’t argue that women shouldn’t work–that division of labor between the sexes is naturally best.)
13. Anti-transgender. (You couldn’t argue that transgender people are mentally ill.)
I could go on. There are a whole host of things that we are not allowed to discuss. Some of them are illegal to discuss in many countries, but most are not. However, although legal to discuss, doing so would destroy your career. Only someone independently wealthy with a private institute could do so relatively safely.Report
“Homosexuality is a mental illness. (Even though this seems prima facie plausible…)”
It is prima facie plausible I think. I don’t actually believe it is a mental illness, but I think it’s an interesting idea that’s not obviously wrong.
The point is that the idea is heavily censored, not that it’s correct.Report
I stand by my reply.Report
Just now coming late to this thread… in truth, I tried to avoid it because I value my sanity. But like a moth to the flame and so on, here I am feeling unsurprisingly astounded.
There are so many bizarre examples being offered to show the stifling (authoritarian? um, what?) efforts of the liberal elite to shut down conservative positions in the classroom and in the literature. As though all positions are equal?
Take the case of “Banned” here wanting to claim that its censorship not to permit discussion of an “interesting idea” that is not “obviously wrong.” First, it is obviously wrong to many people (though apparently not to Banned.) Second, it’s not censorious to say that where there is no substance to a view, it is not worthy of philosophical investigation. This is not so much a question of some things being taboo, it’s more just about the strength of argumentation. So, Banned, if you think there is substance to this view, then you must bring it or your point is lost.
Start here: The Wolfenden Report (which led to the de-criminalization of homosexuality in Great Britain) concluded nearly sixty years ago that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and it is compatible with full mental health in other respects.”
Your Turn: “Homosexuality is a mental illness” (is at least an interesting idea) because…. (?)
Furthermore, I regularly teach the ethical considerations of lots of the things mentioned on the “Banned” list. Like pedophilia, incest, eugenics, genocide, slavery, torture, bestiality, animal cruelty, oppression, colonialism, racism, sexism, anti-homosexuality, gender binarism, affirmative action, anti-democracy, authoritarianism, and so on. So the problem doesn’t seem to be in thinking about or teaching these subjects, or even exploring the arguments that have been offered in favor of them. Rather the problem arises when your philosophical colleagues espouse and support conclusions that quite literally serve to minimize, jeopardize, and even dehumanize you or the other people around you.
To add to this
– Female supremacy. Try arguing that male voting and property rights should be removed.
– The inferiority of whites. You can’t argue in favor of enslaving/purging whites.
– Pro-castration. You can’t argue that 90% of men should be castrated due to their propensity for rape.
I’m not saying I endorse any of these views, just that they are heavily censored.Report
A few more things…
14. Pro-pedophilia. (Try arguing that even if only in special cases that there is nothing wrong with having sex with children and see what happens to your career. You might be arrested actually! LOL)
15. Any attempt to treat Hitler as a human being and trying to understand him as such. (Try arguing that Hitler really wasn’t that bad, or no worse than Obama and see what happens!)
16. Try arguing that female circumcision is morally justifiable. (Note: it’s hard to imagine how that argument could go! Seems rather obviously not justifiable, but still the point is that we’re not allowed to even try.)
17. Try arguing that slavery is morally justifiable. (I can imagine how those arguments could go, but I don’t think anyone would be willing to make them. It would be very dangerous to your career!)
18. I mentioned eugenics before. I think a plausible case could be made that the government should control breeding so as to produce the most intelligent and healthy people. Try publishing that!
19. Anti-democracy. (Try publishing anything on how democracy is a bad form of government!)
20. Voting restrictions. (Try arguing that only naturally born property owners with high IQs should vote.)
It’s really not that hard to think of things once you get on a roll. Just think of all those things you’re not allowed to even think about much less say and start writing them down. Just takes a little creativity!Report
Obviously most of these positions are silly, and even “stupid conservatives” or whatever would recognize that. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this person is a troll.)
But this is just to point out a well-known fact: Some positions are silly, and some are not. We obviously either can let everything be discussed, or we have to make a judgment at some point. I’m sympathetic to the first option to some degree, for the same reason that Mill was: Even the most absurd positions can be discussed, because presumably if they *are* silly then they can easily be demonstrated to be so.
Or we can decide to draw the line somewhere and exclude some topics: But this *obviously* does not imply that every right-wing position we disagree with should be excluded from public discourse.
Obviously we have to come up with some standards for that. One possible standard: If there are a large number of intelligent people who disagree on the topic, or maybe even if a large proportion of the general populations disagrees on the topic, then that is some prima facie evidence it should be discussed.
Maybe that’s not the right standard. But it still seems that people move much too quickly from “We exclude some things (like racism!!!)” to “Therefore, we should exclude all right-wing positions, like questioning transgender ideology.”Report
We’ve been over this in DN countless times in previous posts. Any human culture has a moral system which revolves around certain settled propositions. Debate over those propositions will be taboo precisely because of our conviction that they are settled, and because we worry about the awful effects that such public debate can have. A philosopher is a human being inhabiting just such a moral culture, a person whose beliefs necessarily come along with certain reactive attitudes and dispositions, not a disinterested robot scanning for truth-values. It is absurd ask a community of moral believers, academic or otherwise, to simply suspend their ethical commitments so that someone else can enjoy the privilege of a Marketplace of Ideas.
This is not to argue for a blind dogmatism–there are contexts in which this sort of debate might still proceed, particularly in small groups where there are strong relations of trust and care. But in virtue of my love and respect for my homosexual friends, family members and colleagues, I will *always* deploy social sanctions against someone who wants to debate the proposition that a homosexuality is mentally illness in a class, department meeting, or other public forum. I will not ask any institution to censor you, but you aren’t coming to any of my parties. To ask me to do anything else at all is to ask me to stop having the beliefs that I have, and there is no sense in which anyone has the right to ask that of me. The great irony here is that the opposite position–that I should *not* be permitted to exercise my control over my social/work environment–is itself a terrific attack on my moral autonomy.Report
Obviously *we* do *not* think these propositions are so absurd that they warrant this exclusion, especially from people who refuse to engage our arguments.
Interestingly, I highly doubt that you think infanticide is permissible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you would admit Peter Singer to your parties, department meetings, classes, and so forth. (For myself, I would! Of course, I don’t mean to poke at your views in particular; whether or not *you* would exclude Peter Singer, most philosophers probably would not.) If so, and if you are consistent, then the move from “I believe x is immoral/wrong/deeply mistaken” to “I will exclude people who believe x in such and such ways” is not so immediate.
(But I guess disagreeing with same-sex marriage or homosexual acts is much more ridiculous, and much more evil, than believing infanticide should be permitted, yes?)
But the more important point in this post, I suppose, is not the justification for the exclusion and “beyond the pale”-ity, but rather the denial by some that it even exists. I am glad to see that you admit it does.Report
For what its worth, I’ve charitably (if critically) entertained arguments on 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, & 20 in one class or another over the years. I haven’t lost my job. In fact, I’ve never had a problem! … I can’t say whether my experience is representative. Perhaps there are institutions out there in which I would have a problem.Report
You should be careful with 9. You could be arrested. A student might report you.
Either you’re hopelessly naive or just really courageous. haha!Report
It’s possible that I’m hopelessly naive. It’s also possible that I’m really courageous. But there’s a third possibility: namely that your fears of suppression are misplaced. That strikes me as a real option you’re not willing to consider.Report
In the UK you can be arrested for merely posting a pro ISIS comment on facebook. This has in fact happened to people. So, I’d be careful if you live in the UK. If a student got it into their head that perhaps you were sympathetic to ISIS and notified the authorities, you’d probably be arrested.
This happens in american too btw.
It is illegal to promote terrorism, which is an ironic law for america, but that’s how it is. So, be careful out there. I admire your courage though!Report
In a world where people can be arrested for merely expressing certain thoughts, you have to be careful what you teach. Any attempt to present an argument in favor of terrorism could be seen as promoting terrorism, which is illegal. It is illegally illegal because of something called the first amendment, but who cares about that scrap of paper!Report
For what it’s worth I’ve also discussed many of these issues in various classes, over a number of years, in three different countries (Australia, New Zealand, and the United States), without the slightest trouble from either students, colleagues, or the administration.Report
19. Anti-democracy. (Try publishing anything on how democracy is a bad form of government!)
20. Voting restrictions. (Try arguing that only naturally born property owners with high IQs should vote.)
Jason Brennan to the white courtesy phone please – Dr Brennan, we have a call for you here on the white courtesy phone…
(Brennan doesn’t argue for _these_ voting restrictions, of course, but does for some not too different. It certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt his career.) Similar things could be said for most of the not obviously stupid claims above.Report
The fact that one person has defended these views without obvious backlash proves nothing. In my department and at my PhD program I’d be afraid to defend or articulate these views. Obviously there are going to be differences dependent on region, country, etc. My list is just what I’ve constructed based on things I’d be afraid to discuss or write about.Report
I’ll admit that I’m starting to wonder what _would_ count as evidence for you! Or at least, I’m becoming much more doubtful that your fear is real or rational. (Brennan isn’t the only person to argue that democracy is a bad form of government, after all – just a prominent one.) I think you’re going to need to do better – at this point, it’s now on your to show cases of people who have been harmed for writing such things, as it seems to me that the burden of persuasion has shifted.Report
Eh, I’m not committed to any of the items of my list. They’re things I’d be worried to talk about in class or defend in print, some more so than others. But I don’t have proof that you’d suffer horrible consequences for all of them no matter where you worked or lived.Report
This said, I do suspect that most of the items on my list are plausibly taboo enough in most regions in the US and UK to get you into trouble.Report
“Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas are students not being exposed to but should? Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas do faculty fear being discovered entertaining or believing?”
Pardon me for mounting my hobby-horse again, but the eternal elephant in the room seems to be nondualism, mysticism, the Perennial philosophy, .and the idea that it might be the correct view of the universe. So taboo is this idea that It doesn’t even get mention here for being taboo,. That students are not exposed to this idea, even to refute it, is surely a major issue for educators.Report
I don’t think you’d destroy your career talking about nondualism. In that way it’s different from the things i’ve listed. This said, I agree with you that there are a host of metaphysical views that are not discussed, and you’d probably have a hard time publishing them.
Here’s a view I think is pretty cool and very strange: The world is in fact magic. It is magic that is the fundamental constituent of reality. As such all explanations basically collapse to this: ‘it’s magic.’ Science to the extent it can be successful only provides formula’s for modifying reality using magic, spells so to speak. That’s what fundamentally all the scientific laws are: magic spells. LOL! Crazy sounding view!
It wouldn’t get you fired but you couldn’t publish it. I think it would be worth discussing though.Report
“I don’t think you’d destroy your career talking about nondualism.”
I did know someone who was going out on the job market defending a position that, while not dualism, could be confused with dualism, and who said something to me along the lines of “My interviewers looked me like I was defending belief in spirits!” So that’s some evidence that an expressed belief in nondualism could harm your career prospects. This won’t always and everywhere be true, of course.Report
I don’t exactly understand nondualism, but I am fairly certain it is not the same thing as dualism. Doesn’t your (Matt) example show that *dualism* might be dangerous for a grad student to espouse? (I don’t think it’s a serious worry, but that’s what the example seems to support.)Report
Quite so, Jamie. Dualism is good for career prospects. My impression is that it is necessary. .Report
I think your impression must be mistaken, Peter, since more than half of philosophers are physicalists.Report
I’m using ‘dualism” with a much broader meaning, as contrasted with nondualism. On this useage physicalism is dualism.Report
Oh good heavens, I completely missed that. OK, I don’t know how “nondualism” is being used here such that espousing it would be considered a negative for a philosopher; it seems as though it’s being used as part of another complex of views which I can imagine might be harmful to your career.Report
It seems as though nondualism is a concept from Indian philosophy, and not related in the obvious way to dualism in the sense of mind-body dualism, so I see where PeterJ is coming from now.Report
Banned, you think that the discussion has been prematurely closed on the permissibility of slavery, pedophilia, and forced female genital mutilation? Is this satire, or is something seriously wrong with you?Report
This attack on my character for even mentioning the fact that these views cannot be discussed only serves my point that these views cannot be discussed, at least not without negative consequences.Report
Oh boy. I think this is my cue to leave the thread. Sorry Justin, I admire you for trying, but there really is no point to having this conversation with people like that.Report
A few things:
1. There are indeed some, let’s say, “far out” theses being mentioned in this thread. I know that it is tempting for some readers to substantively take them on, but since the aim of the post is to learn about ideas in philosophy that students are shielded from and that professors are too afraid to consider or defend, I’d urge restraint. I’d like to keep things as welcoming as possible—kind of like a “safe space” for identifying these ideas. There will be a follow-up post about the ideas listed here in a few days, or next week.
2. I remind readers that we’re looking for ideas in philosophy. Now, for the purposes of this post, we can construe philosophy rather broadly. Still, some of these strike me as somewhat beyond the expertise of the philosophers. This is just something to keep in mind as people generate further examples.
3. In coming up with examples, I urge readers to heed the distinction between “criticism” and “suppression” (by various means) that Matthew Weiner drew attention to.Report
Thanks, Justin. The ideas I listed (“alt right” ideas) are not ones I personally promote. But they are ideas that I think are important, influential, and in many cases have some merit. Ideally they should be discussed openly and seriously in our philosophy classes (if not there, then where else?), but they are too taboo.
I would agree that several of the ideas listed so far have factual presuppositions that are beyond the expertise of philosophers. But so do many of the topics that are routinely discussed in applied ethics courses (e.g. implicit bias, income inequality, education, doping).Report
Banned is showing something really important. To see this, consider a series of choices.
1) Should philosophy education aim to instill, or reaffirm, in students some values over others?
2) For those values that philosophy education aims to instill (such as, say, multiculturalism or equality of races, sexes, etc.), is it counter-productive to debate those issues?
If the answer to (1) and (2) is “no’, there should be no problem debating the items on Banned’s list. But if the answer to (2) is “yes”, then some pressing questions are:
A) How does one demarcate which values are so basic that we want to instill them without debate and which values are sufficiently up for grabs that we are open to debate about them?
B) Who is the “we” here? How does a diverse institution, which wants to foster open questioning, determine its own voice as an institution? Does it have a unity, or is it a group of differing factions?
Seems to me the answers to (1) and (2) are obviously yes. That’s why I have no problem not debating most things on Banned’s list. But then it is imperative to address (A) and (B), which strangely is not much discussed in the profession. Often there is resistance to address (A) and (B), for fear that it makes the profession not seem unified.Report
In my opinion, the answers to (1) and (2) are obviously “no”!Report
It would be really strange to see any philosopher respond “yes” to (2).Report
Thank you. I’m flattered.
To be clear, I’m not personally endorsing all of the views on my now list of 20. I’m just listing views that would destroy your career if you seriously attempted to defend them in class or in print.
I think that’s unfortunate. There are many assumptions on which our society is based which you cannot openly question. That means we’re an unreflective society.
If the assumptions on which our society is based are any good, then they can withstand scrutiny. If they aren’t, then they should be replaced. No? Seems rational to me!
Anyway, here’s item 21: Questioning whether any of the items of my list should be openly debated. haha!Report
There are unquestionably some values that a philosophy classroom aims to foster. For example, (i) that students shouldn’t cheat; (ii) that people in the classroom shouldn’t get into physical fight or kill each other as a way to determine who is right; (iii) that it is not ok for people to start having sex in class, etc. One can think up countless values like this.
Nor is it clear how “debating” these values in classes or conferences would work. Suppose we are debating (ii), but then a person punches me and says I am begging the question by talking instead of fighting; that’s the end of the debate.
This is why I think (1) and (2) are obviously yes. The issue is whether the value of, say, fostering multiculturalism is akin to the value of not fighting in class. I think yes. Another way to put the point: which of the thousands of values we chose to bring up for reflection is tied up with many issues of power, and there is no neutral way of deciding that.Report
Those are values that the institution is trying to foster, not the philosophy class itself (except in some sort of instrumental manner). Any class is obviously going to have instrumental values in order to simply have the class itself, but those aren’t necessarily values of “philosophy education”. After all, I’m not sure how debating the ring of Gyges is much different than cheating or anything else.Report
Right, and you can have a debate about whether cheating is right or wrong without allowing cheating in your class. They are different things.Report
If this distinction is allowed, the whole issued is reframed. I am ok with debating if one race if superior to another as long as it is affirmed on the syllabus, clearly and unequivocally, and in the classroom at all times, that this is a mere intellectual exercise. If one is willing to affirm that most things on Banned’s list are not really a live issue (just as actual cheating is not a live issue in debating the ring of Gyges), well, then, that is different. Of course, this is not true; most people who want the issues of Banned’s list discussed want to keep them going as live issues.Report
I think we could kind of go about it like this: “We all know that x is false, but what’s the argument?” But I’d like to see real discussion where we attempted to build the strongest arguments for x and then defeat them.
If we did this, we may might find that we’re not always so sure x is false when everything is said and done.
I guess a case could be made the we should avoid discussing these issues to ensure we don’t mistakenly convince ourselves that something horribly immoral is in fact okay. But then again, if we can’t discuss the issues how are we so certain to begin with?Report
Why should anyone affirm such a thing? Surely what is or isn’t a “live” issue (for philosophers) should be dependent on arguments and not some external, pre-theoretical values.Report
Nothing is going to convince me that white people are superior to blacks or asians, etc. Because it is not a matter of convincing.
The issue is not one of “facts” or “arguments”. It is one of commitment.
Here’s an analogy. Should we bother trying to avoid nuclear war, or is there no point in trying? This debate isn’t settled with facts or argument, though both are helpful. At heart it is a matter of commitment. Like willing something.
Similarly, multiculturalism is a matter of willing or being committed to a state of affairs. Talking about brain sizes or IQ – and trying to turn it into a issues of purported facts – is I think a confusion. There is nothing to debate there. I am certain all races are equal. How do I know that without debating? The same way I know it is worth trying to avoid nuclear way.
There is no neutral standpoint of facts or arguments to settle these issues. The world is becoming more and more multicultural. White supremacy or whether woman should be in kitchens is the equivalent of rehashing whether there is a sun God. It must be awful for people who think white supremacy is still a live issue, that it is being treated like it is no longer a live issue in the mainstream. But that’s the reality. There are more pressing philosophical issues to deal with. People should just be up front about which issues they find pressing, and give up on the idea that there is some neutral, universal way of philosophizing.Report
That’s a very strange philosophy of action you have there.Report
I really can’t follow this. I think there are some pretty good arguments for avoiding nuclear war. There are good argument for multiculturalism too. We believe these things because we have good reasons to believe them, I hope. If we do have good reasons, then we can examine them. Part of doing this is looking at the best arguments to the contrary.Report
Urstoff, Depends on what you find strange. My view is an extension of Anscombe’s view of nonobservational knowledge.
Banned, I agree there are good arguments for avoiding nuclear war, and for multiculturalism. But imagine someone in 1965 saying, “I am all for desegregation, but we should still be debating in classrooms whether segregation is justified.” That would never work, because society at the time clearly hasn’t embraced desegregation enough to have debating the reasons for desegregation as an intellectual exercise.
I agree there are complications here. If there is a terrorist attack; I certainly hope we can debate before deciding whether to respond through war. But this is different: this is deliberation before deciding what to do.
The case of white supremacy or segregation or anti-feminism is not like this: these are done as social situations, just like monarchy and colonialism are done. Before we debate slavery as an intellectual exercise, more actual social change is required.Report
I guess there are some views that are just anti-philosophy like your number ii. I suppose we could think of some others.
But none of the things I listed are incompatible with producing arguments and trying to defend them. Isn’t that what we do as philosophers? They don’t imply that we have to kill each other or stop talking and thinking and writing.
I mean you could be a philosopher and not believe in multiculturalism. I suspect many early modern and ancient philosophers didn’t endorse multiculturalism. You really couldn’t be a philosopher if you thought all debates should be decided by fights to the death. LOLReport
Banned, Yes, some values are anti-philosophy, and they lead to fighting instead of to talking to each other. Many on the things on your list are like that, I would argue. It is just implausible to imagine a class filled with people of different races calmly debating whether the Holocaust happened, or women should get an education, or whether whites are the race with the highest IQ.
The value of not fighting in the classroom is not a different value than the value of not discussing whether whites are intellectually superior to everyone else. The value of not discussing white supremacy is an instance of the value of not fighting in the class. Similarly, in a multicultural society (like America), multiculturalism just is the value of not fighting in the classroom.
Sure, ancient philosophers didn’t endorse multiculturalism in the modern sense. But then again, they lived in ancient times where there wasn’t mass immigration on the modern scale, etc.Report
‘It is just implausible to imagine a class filled with people of different races calmly debating whether the Holocaust happened, or women should get an education, or whether whites are the race with the highest IQ.’
Yes, of course. I recognize this and that’s why those things are on my list.
The question though is whether we should attempt to foster the intellectual control over our emotions necessary to debate such touchy taboo subjects.
There are some views that are logically anti-philosophy and so could never be debated like your number ii. But the views on my list are just taboo and so emotionally hard to have debates about. That’s an important difference.Report
” We should attempt to foster intellectual control over our emotions necessary to debate such touchy taboo subjects.”
Who is the “we” here? Does it take the same level of intellectual control for a white person to debate slavery as it does for a black person to debate slavery? I think the answer is clearly no. That’s the point. Maybe some blacks might be perfectly fine with such a debate, but some blacks will not be. For those blacks who will be uncomfortable, it seems crazy to tell them, “you need more intellectual control over your emotions.” And then it is all the more crazy (I don’t want to use the word “offensive”) to point to some white thinkers like Kant who affirmed racism as exemplars of philosophical reflection, and of what it is to have intellectual control over one’s emotions.Report
Seems like this argument could easily be used to censor talking about the concept of white privilege because it will make some students uncomfortable. And we’ve gone full circle, to where the limits of acceptable discourse is whatever everyone is “comfortable” with (which really just seems like an enormous status quo bias).Report
I am not for censoring. Just that it is perfectly fine for each person to decide what they will talk about and what they won’t. I don’t want to censor people who want to debate among themselves if white supremacy is right. But I am not going to participate in that debate, because for me that is no longer a live issue. Nor if I was a teacher would I want to teach it, or if I was a student, would I want to talk about it. There are more pressing issues as far as I am concerned.
People should just be up front about what is, and is not, a live issue for them. And people who have similar live issues can talk together. I am confident that in the current world most people would choose to not talk about the things on Banned’s list.Report
Well now you’re retreating from talking about philosophy education writ large to whatever happens to be a live issue for some particular person. I don’t think too many people are arguing that instructors or students should have to discuss things that aren’t live issues for them if they aren’t part of the explicit curriculum (after all, we discuss global skepticism quite a bit in philosophy, but it’s not a live issue for most people). I think the general argument is that topics shouldn’t be explicitly tabooed simply because they make others uncomfortable (or aren’t live issues for them).Report
Agree with you there.Report
I’d like to add that plausibly as philosophers discussing the foundations of our society should be part of our curriculum. An unexamined life isn’t worth living. It seems to me that students should be forced to examine many things that aren’t live issues for them and that would even make them uncomfortable. Doing so seems to be part of being an intellectual.
Many of the things on my list probably don’t fit into a philosophy class, but many of them certainly could. Why aren’t dominant views on race, homosexuality, multiculturalism, and so on seriously engaged with in our classes? The purpose of doing so would not be to convince anyone that non-standard views are true but to get people to examine the reasons for what they believe, to get people to examine the best arguments for and against their beliefs.
Maybe this is just too high of a standard to be realistic, but it seems to be that ideally our students would leave being able to articulate clear and rigorously the argument for and against, for example, homosexuality being a mental illness or whites being superior to blacks or [inset taboo subject], and being able to explain what they think through argument and good reasons.
Producing students like this would go a long way to creating an intellectual society which could resolve debates through argument and reason rather than through violence and hate.
Now maybe the concern is that bad ideas might win out in a free market of ideas, so to speak, and students would come out convinced of horrible things. If someone really is concerned that this could happen, then we have to question the foundations of democracy. If people can’t be trusted to discuss a whole range of issues, then we have to give up on the idea of a truly democratic society. We have to accept that we need some kind of censoring system to keep people in line. That’s in fact what we have, but is it a good thing or an evil thing? I endorse the latter position.Report
“The purpose of doing so would not be to convince anyone that non-standard views are true but to get people to examine the reasons for what they believe, to get people to examine the best arguments for and against their beliefs.”
This is a great distinction, and is what I take away from the thread today. As long as it is made very clear that no one is trying to convince of non-standard views, then it is worthwhile to ask and think together about the reasons for the views, and which reasons are better and which are worse.
Agree that this kind of conversation would benefit society, and it is unfortunate if any semblance of such a conversation is denied on the grounds that it is racist, etc. Beyond moral outrage, having these kind of conversations might actually be very healing.Report
You’re really framing the question so that you come out “right”. Philosophy has rarely been the focus of these controversies; it’s usually been political speech or personal speech : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-lukianoff/the-10-worst-colleges-for_b_9243000.html
Trigger warnings and safe spaces are far less important than political speech being suppressed because some students don’t like the viewpoints and universities completely ignoring due process in the firing or dismissal of professors (as well as in cases of alleged sexual assault).Report
I feel significantly more free to write about topics that interest me and share my true perspective on them now that I’ve left academia and only think about philosophy on the side, and my professional life isn’t tethered to what the censorial snake pit of contemporary academia thinks of me or my views. In fact, part of the reason I left philosophy was the openly hostile and openly racial rhetoric employed to discount my views on account of my race, and I knew I would face disadvantages in this discipline on account of my race and gender. The culture in academia now of shame, censorship and identity ideology really makes me sad, if I’m being honest, but it also upsets me that so many people have done nothing to combat such an obvious, powerful and as Leiter has succinctly put it, “vindictive intolerance.” I know many early career academics who wouldn’t dare put their name on mainstream, reasonable views because of the awful climate of fear in professional philosophy.Report
Merely a single case and so likely of little evidential value, but here is a philosopher unafraid to defend many unpopular opinions on pedophilia, affirmative action, torture, immigration, assassination, pornography, hazing, etc.
According to FIRE his university attempted to block his promotion to full professor, though.Report
I probably shouldn’t say this, but… there are lots of things I want to teach but won’t because I’m still on the job market. I would be more willing to take risks to the degree I have job security. Losing a tenured position because you question an orthodox view is not likely to happen, but not getting a job because you question an orthodox view seems very likely to happen.Report
Evidence is a funny thing. There are lots of theses that the university elite are politically committed to, despite the lack of evidence for the relevant view. Some examples: (1) the mental health deficits associated with transgenderism and homosexuality are caused exclusively by cultural influences, (2) the observed disparities in verbal/mathematical intelligence between races are caused exclusively by cultural influences, (3) the harms associated with underage sexual experimentation are less severe than the harms associated with a stigma on non-marital sexuality.
Despite the need for evidence on these points, philosophers do not wait for sociologists and psychologists to do the needed work on the topics. We forge ahead, trusting that the empirical world will eventually give us the necessary data to support our items of faith.
This is not necessary, of course. There are plenty of arguments in favor of transgenderism that are consistent with its being comorbid with depression, plenty of arguments in favor of equal dignity for the races that do not rely on equality of intellect, and plenty of arguments for liberal-leaning sexual codes that are not predicated in claims about harm. But instead of offering these arguments, the average philosopher simply ridicules the person who calls #1, #2, or #3 into question.Report
I might be for idealogical diversity in theory, but someone who defends the permissibility of adult child sex or the viewing of rape porn is absolutely someone I do not want in the office next to me.
I’m not sure what I think about that.Report
It seems to me that discussion about the suppression of ideas sometimes gets sidetracked by an undue focus on those that are the craziest and most extreme. It’s much easier for people not to feel much concern about the suppression of ideas when the go-to examples of the ideas being suppressed are things like white supremacy and Holocaust denial. But an important point here is that the suppression of ideas, at least in academic philosophy, extends well beyond this. It extends to ideas that, even if ultimately false, are by no means crazy or monstrous. Concern about the suppression of ideas carries the most force, I think, when the ideas at issue are those that people could reasonably disagree about. (This is not to suggest that there’s no room for concern when the ideas being suppressed are those that do not admit of reasonable disagreement–just that it’s *more* of a concern when the ideas being suppressed *do* admit of reasonable disagreement.)
With a discussion like this, there’s often a danger of veering off into the facile “Well of course there’s nothing wrong with making pariahs of neo-Nazis”-type response. In the interest of helping keep the discussion headed in a more productive direction, I thought I’d list some ideas that strike me as allowing for reasonable disagreement and that are not indicative of any grotesque moral failure, yet that are still highly taboo in academic philosophy.
-Opposition to abortion
-Opposition to affirmative action, along with skepticism about the value of diversity initiatives more generally
-Questioning whether the badness of the situation for women in philosophy is overblown (N.B.: One need not go so far as denying that sexism and sexual harassment are a problem. Even if one merely suggests that the extent of the problem may not be *as* bad as it’s often made out to be, one is liable to be met with hostility.)
-Whenever a certain (supposedly common) feeling among women or other minority groups is touted as indicative of the bigotry and oppression they face, questioning whether the feeling is reasonable–or, for that matter, even simply suggesting that the reasonableness of the feeling is up for debate–is the spark that can trigger a hostile, moralistic dogpile of a response from one’s peers
-Holding that feminist notions of objectification are often sex-negative, and that they tend to demonize male sexuality in particular
-Arguing that men face sexism comparable in severity to that facing women
I don’t believe all of these ideas. Nor do I consider all of these ideas “conservative” ideas. (For whatever it’s worth, I’m not a conservative.) “Not-far-left-leaning” would generally be a more apt characterization here than “conservative.” Yet they are all, in their own ways, liable to get you ostracized, if not ridiculed and vilified.
A few quick further thoughts:
From what I’ve seen, it appears that those who voice concerns about the suppression of ideas in academic philosophy tend to be those who hold (at least some of) the unpopular views at issue, while those skeptical toward concerns about the suppression of ideas in academic philosophy tend to be those who lack the views at issue. This doesn’t prove anything by itself, of course, but it is suggestive.
For those who don’t have the kind of views at issue and are interested in furthering their empathy for those who do, here’s an exercise that might be worth trying. The next time you’re with a group of philosophers who don’t already know your views on the matter, tell them that you’re, say, a men’s rights activist, and make a genuine effort to defend some MRA views in the ensuing discussion. See what kind of response you get. I suspect that for many or most, this would be an eye-opening exercise.
Of course, such an exercise would involve lying, and I could understand why this would make some reluctant to try it. But one could always follow up the brief discussion with an “Actually, just kidding–here’s my actual view…” statement. Views on how morally acceptable this is will vary. Or perhaps the empathy one might gain from the exercise would offset the badness of temporarily lying. In any case, setting moral concerns briefly aside, it’s worth asking yourself whether this is an exercise you’d like to try. If it’s an exercise you find yourself averse to even apart from a concern about lying, consider whether your aversion is based on a worry about what kind of response you might get or what your fellow philosophers might think of you. And if indeed it is, well–then perhaps even simply considering the exercise will have helped you feel a bit more empathy for those who actually do hold the kind of views in question.
Lastly, thanks for this discussion, Justin.Report
I agree with this post 100%. Academia seems like a free and open place to those who do not seriously consider any of the taboo views, but for those who find some of the taboo views plausible or even endorse them, academia can seem repressive.
Personally, I do hold some taboo views and find others plausible enough to consider.
1. I believe in equal rights for men and women but think it is immoral to practice sex discrimination in hiring. Hiring should be based on merit and individual need (for example, if someone has more merit but has a cushy postdoc and someone else has less merit but is unemployed, I think we should favor the unemployed. But we should never favor in hiring someone because of their sex organs.)
This is a view that I have been afraid to express publicly in both my PhD program and at my current department. The backlash would be significant, and I cannot afford negative opinions of myself floating around out there in such a highly competitive job market.
2. I think women actually have it easier in philosophy than men. I think that actually the system works to discriminate against men not women. If you’re a female in philosophy, you are more liable to find good employment than if you’re a male in philosophy. I think the empirical evidence proves this.
However, I’d still be afraid to articulate this view in my current department and also at my PhD program. Again, the backlash would be significant, and I would create many enemies.
3. I do think that men face a lot of sexism in society. For a long time for example only men were forced to fight and die for the elite’s silly wars. There is still a lot of sexism against men. If a man stays home with the kids, you can bet he won’t get much respect, but if a women does that’s fine.
I’d be afraid to articulate that men are highly discriminated against just like women, just in different ways. This is a very unpopular idea in the circles I have been in, but I think it is very plausible. Even if women are more discriminated against, men are still highly discriminated against.
4. I do think a eugenics program might be a good idea. I’m not convinced, but I’d like to discuss it with people. But whenever I suggest even jokingly that maybe it’s worth thinking about I get evil looks. So, I’ve never tried to seriously discuss the idea with anyone.
5. I think transgender people are mentally ill. I don’t think homosexuals are though. It’s interested why these cases should be treated differently, and I’d like to discuss it. But can’t! I’d be afraid!
6. I think that the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world. I think we often are confused about who the bad guys are. We’re the bad guys! I can say this in some circles, but I have to very careful.
Gosh, there are a lot of other taboo views I hold, but I don’t really think it’s useful to list them all. My point is that for someone who holds or seriously entertains taboo positions, academia doesn’t seem like a very friendly or free environment, hence my name ‘Banned.’
I live a life of forced silence on many things I care about.Report
Fantastic post Gray. I was about to write something similar but yours does that job well enough. Thanks also Banned for your contributions. I also think the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world (and that mass media propaganda is a far far far greater problem than many of the issues contemporary “liberal” academics get worked up about these days). I share some but not all of your other views and find all worth discussing, and more generally share your sense of forced silence on many things i care about and have spent my whole adult life learning and thinking about and learning to think about. I look forward to finally being able to say what I think (and better, figure out what I should think!) on many issues, even if that has to wait until I have tenure (I will not say more now because I want to sign my name to this comment, but I welcome anyone who wishes to contact me). In my experience, many academics shut down debate on these topics for signaling purposes and also because they are afraid of what might happen if they had to defend them. In many cases they could not. This isn’t the same as saying they are indefensible, only that people who refuse to (respectfully) engage with ideas they (must publicly signal they) don’t like are ill-prepared to defend the ones they do like. Of course this is true outside academia as well. But many academics seem to have the conceit that things are much better with them. But I see fear and willfully ignorant groupthink in the average aggressive moralizing leftist academic as much as I do in the average trump supporter. This is one of the main reasons to avoid the kind of censoriousness moralizing now common. True and important views need good defenders and we can’t be those if we don’t engage with the strongest arguments against us (a good example for me here is anti-white supremacy or anything close to it and racisms in general. Many people seem to think it noble to refuse to engage in these issues. I think it’s weak and mostly about signaling what is beyond the pale for you. But this does no good and likely does harm as compared to respectful engagement).
I also want to second the observation that those who mainly accept the party line won’t feel the environment oppressive, just as most journalists who make it through the filters Chomsky and Herman describe will mainly feel free to express their opinions. The point in both cases is that the filters are working to eliminate people with ideas contrary to orthodoxy/power. I think this is far more effective in the media than academia, but the process is still very real here. Bill o’Reilly feels pretty free to say what he likes I imagine. And if you trotted out a list of opinions he couldn’t express, like the us is a terrorist state, he’d give you the exact same response as many have in this thread: so what if we can’t express absurd ideas? But the thing is, you find it absurd in large part because you are systematically shielded from arguments in its favor, and anyone suggesting it would be branded insane and dangerous. And you know this, and being a good social creature learn to internalize the rectitude of such judgments. We in philosophy should fight hard against that kind of complacency, but instead many of the most vocal philosophers online seem to be fighting to preserve and strengthen just this sort of complacency. Fortunately, there is a robust backlash now which I hope grows (though there are elements of that backlash I would strenuously reject). Philosophers should be taken far more seriously in the culture than they are, but we need to earn it by setting an example. I thank Justin for starting and encouraging this thread.Report
I should clarify that, to my knowledge, nobody in this thread has claimed that a view I regard as true or even plausible is absurd or beyond the pale. But I have seen that happen many times, especially on reputation-management media but also in person.Report
One (I hope) final addendum. I think that much of the dogmatism of the “left” nowadays is in response to dogmatisms on the “right”. Many people are going to dogmatically stick to their religio-politico-moral views, even when faced with compelling evidence to the contrary (and especially if faced ‘merely’ with the evidence that they cannot defend their own views). In this context, it makes a kind of sense to simply fight dogmatism with dogmatism, especially when it (often rightly) seems that much of importance in human life is on the line. Not that people reason it out this way of course.Report
Anything charitable or semi-positive about intelligent design (does not need to be defending or endorsing of intelligent design).Report
We read Dembski’s version of ID in an upper-year undergraduate course in philosophy of science at a major research institution.Report
Sexism against males.
Racism against white people (I’m not aware of significant racism against white people, but it seems that charges of it can’t be discussed, which is worrying).
The idea, common outside the academy, that in the ordinary sense of the word “oppression”, middle class people in the West cannot (generally at least) be considered “oppressed”, regardless of what other groups they belong to.
Whether religion is harmful and if so, whether they are equally harmful or not.
Why should the public pay us to write about philosophy?
How does the lack of female representation in philosophy relate to gender disparity in other departments, including those with more women than men?
What are the best arguments being offered for conservative opinions and how might they be best replied to?
Why are conservatives so rare in philosophy? Does it matter that they are so rare?
Just as a by the way, though I shouldn’t have to justify myself, I am a liberal feminist who thinks that it is very bad that women and other groups are underrepresented in philosophy. That doesn’t stop me from noticing that the above discussions generally seem to be off the table.Report
“Racism against white people (I’m not aware of significant racism against white people, but it seems that charges of it can’t be discussed, which is worrying).”
What is this anti-white racism you refer to? The rare Leonard Jeffries (“ice people”) variety that was widely denounced and ridiculed? Or the pseudo-racism variety that imagines racism is mainly a matter of feelings and likings? Anyway, if one is aware of no “significant racism against white people,” what is “worrying” about the lack of discussion in academia or anywhere else? Who should be worried? And why think the topic of anti-white racism “can’t be discussed”? (In fact, the notion of anti-white racism is commonly discussed, and generally criticized, in classes where race and racism are central topics.)
What reason is there to think that in a field where 1% of professors in the U.S. are Black American (and not many more are Hispanic American or Asian American), students are being “protected from” or faculty are “fearful to defend”…the idea of anti-white racism? Let it be publicly noted that some black people deeply dislike white people and might even concoct an absurd racial metaphysics to rationalize the dislike. That’s neither news nor of intellectual interest.
The persistent display of white fragility in this thread has been remarkable. Btw, the supposedly verboten topic of the comparative stupidity of black people gets brought up all the time, especially among philosophers complaining about how we can’t discuss certain ideas. When this complaining gets called out as old-school racist signaling (though I don’t think that has happened in this thread until now, over 100 comments in), there will be complaining (voiced or not) about how mean, unfair, and unserious it is to describe these courageous intellectuals as explicitly or implicitly racist for their interest in defending an “open question” about comparative black stupidity. This ish is embarrassing.Report
“Anyway, if one is aware of no “significant racism against white people,” what is “worrying” about the lack of discussion in academia or anywhere else?” You replaced my words “can’t be” with “isn’t” and that’s a big difference. I see no good reason not to allow abortion, but if the alternative view couldn’t be discussed, that would be worrying.Report
I meant to sign as “prime.” Apologies.Report
‘Whether religion is harmful and if so, whether they are equally harmful or not.’
That’s a topic i would be quite willing to discuss especially in connection with Russell and Hume whose work I teach. It is certainly not a topic I would regard as taboo. Perhaps things are different in the USA.Report
The example of abortion puzzles me. I thought everyone who teaches the ethics of abortion includes Marquis’ famous argument against it.Report
I’ve always found that strange. If you look at the abortion literature, the vast majority of pro-life arguments take the personhood approach (e.g. Schwartz, Beckwith, Moreland and Rae, Lee, George, Tollefsen, and Kaczor). To my knowledge, Marquis is the only person who defends the FLO argument. Hence my puzzlement at why anthologies tend to leave out this approach.Report
Banned, if you’re still reading this, I want you to know you’re not alone. In fact I would venture to say that despite the repression, if you ask the right questions in the right way, you will often see people voice sometimes even significant displeasure with the ideologically repressive status quo.
Personally, I think this entire state of affairs is being propped up by taxpayer money financing the university system. There is a negative feedback loop between the Gender Studies/Critical Race Theory takeover of the humanities, and the people who have come up in those programs (and in ideologically-aligned departments of “Education”) constituting the metastasized cancer of bloated university administrations. But once the taxpayers stop shelling out for “Directors of Social Justice” and “Provosts of Multicultural and LGBTQXYZFFS Affairs,” the nexus will dissolve.
As for the OP, I would vociferously dispute point 3. Any time I see the words “race,” “class,” or “gender,” and especially if I see all three, I know exactly what I’m going to read before I read it. In fact, if I know the author is part of this ideological monoculture, as most professional academics are, I don’t even necessarily need to see “race,” “class,” or “gender” in the abstract. The “Progressive” takeover of the Humanities has reduced academic inquiry to sounding the same dreadfully, deathly boring note over and over again.
TL;DR read @RealPeerReviewReport
A comment likely lost: how do any of us know what students at other institutions are being exposed to? I could comment on such, maybe, at where I teach, though do we sit in on other profs’ classes to know? To me this is trying to prove a negative, and we all know how that goes. What AREN’T students being exposed to in philosophy classes??? How can anyone answer this apart from direct experience? Maybe my school doesn’t favor feminism, doesn’t favor continental philosophy, analytic philosophy, philosophy of mind, applied ethics, etc. But can I then say that, across the board, students are not exposed to these?Report
Here’s another one. It is generally assumed that critique of feminism from male philosophers is neither needed nor appropriate, and that gender imbalance in philosophy is not a problem in the fields of feminism and the philosophy of sex and gender, despite the involvement of so few males.Report
Hey Nonny Mouse – I’ll try to make things worse.
The situation you describe may be explicable in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way by reference to the progressive femininisation of society and the unpopularity of philosophy among females.
Under the circumstances we could expect the situation to be just as you describe, viz., few females studying philosophy, no wish for any analysis of feminism, lots of interest in sex and gender and no worries about how few females study philosophy. Long term we would expect philosophy department to lose resources to more female-friendly departments.
This would be a gender-issue to some extent but it may also say something about the current state of university philosophy. It is not just women who wouldn’t want to study it. This is a topic that students are shielded from by problems of self-reference, but it would have to be included in any list of dis-encouraged topics. Philosophically-speaking, as opposed to politically or socially, It seems the most important one of all. It is surely very odd that university philosophy should be an unattractive study for half the human race. It would suggest that men are from Mars and women…, oh yes.Report