A Note On Making Discussions Here Better
We often have vigorous and contentious discussions in the comments here at Daily Nous, and this past week—with its focus on philosophizing about transgender issues—was no exception (see here and here).
I’m happy to provide a public square for the profession to have these kinds of discussions, and I appreciate those who contribute to them in informative, insightful, helpful, and creative ways.
That said, I think there are some steps we could take to make the conversations here better. What follows are some suggestions that I hope people take into account when commenting here, in addition to adhering to the comments policy.
- Avoid contentious, evidenceless generalizations. Don’t say, for example, “various S’s say X” without providing at least the rudimentary details (names, at least?) of some number—at least 3?—of specific instances of S’s saying X. Don’t say, “there are never any T’s at Y’s,” without providing several examples of Y’s at which T’s should be expected. And for the love of the availability heuristic don’t respond to this request by saying that everyone knows the generalization you are making is true. Not everyone knows. And if it is in fact something to know, let’s get some details so we can be epistemically responsible. [Insert joke generalizing about how Justin always mentions the availability heuristic here.] (I understand that there may in some cases be good reasons for refraining from providing details; however, being unwilling to spend the time and effort to find and describe them is not such a reason.)
- Avoid needlessly using or mentioning provocative terminology or labels. As someone who has been moderating these discussions for a while now, I’ve noticed how even the mere mention of certain terms—let alone their use—negatively affects conversation quality. Certain words, even when merely mentioned, can generate angry responses and insulting exchanges, alienate other contributors, and attract trolls. And sometimes, those words themselves become the subject of the conversation, derailing discussion of the post. Maybe you don’t think the term should be provocative, and maybe you are right that it shouldn’t. But if you suspect it is, try to use other, less provocative words to make your point. (Yes, my wording in this suggestion violates suggestion 1, but that’s because I’m giving priority to suggestion 2.)
- Avoid insulting, dramatic language (especially those adverbs). You don’t need to say that a view is “astonishingly” wrong-headed, “astoundingly” ignorant, or “ridiculously” irrelevant. That dramatic language is needlessly antagonistic (and, at the risk of violating this very suggestion, alas, it comes off as rather juvenile.) Just explain the mistakes, provide the missing information, steer things back on course, etc.
- Remember that you are speaking to your colleagues; be a good colleague. There are various heuristics one could use to check oneself on this. Not all will be appropriate, but some of them should be. When commenting here, you should generally be able to agree with the following statements (note that these are about the way you are communicating, so put aside, for the moment, any worries about the specific content you’re communicating):
♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone I have to work cooperatively with on an ongoing basis.
♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone who I think is as smart as I am.
♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone whose feelings matter to me.
♦ I’m interpreting my interlocutor charitably.
♦ I am thinking not just about what I am intending with my comment, but also about what the likely result of my commenting in this way will be.
Of course you don’t, in fact, have to work cooperatively with your fellow commenters on an ongoing basis, you may not think that they are as smart as you, and you may not care about their feelings. But that doesn’t matter for the task of figuring out how to positively contribute to a productive discussion here.
And here are some warning signs. If you find that your comment expresses any of the following, chances are you are not making a positive contribution to the conversation:
♦ My interlocutor is in the grip of an ideology, while I am not.
♦ My interlocutor is falling prey to various cognitive biases, but I am not.
♦ My interlocutor is arguing in bad faith, while I am not.
♦ My interlocutor should be ashamed of what he or she said, but I am not going to explain why.
♦ My interlocutor just cares about his or her own ideas/subfield/friends/demographic group/power, while I care about philosophy.
If you find your comments match up with these characterizations, you may want to hold off commenting, or revise your comment before posting it.
I believe that keeping these heuristics in mind will help you communicate effectively and productively online, which is increasingly an important component of academic professionalism.
- Don’t sockpuppet. (To engage in sockpuppetry is to use multiple monikers in the same conversation.) I can understand if someone who regularly comments at Daily Nous under their own name wishes to use a pseudonym on a particularly sensitive thread here or there. That’s ok. But once you commit to a new moniker for commenting on a particular thread, that is the moniker you need to use for that thread. Don’t switch to another on that same thread. Doing so is usually manipulative and creates false impressions. (I understand that something in a conversation you’ve already joined might prompt you to wish you had used a pseudonym. Sorry. The administrative ease of having a simpler rule takes priority here.)
There’s more I can say, but this is already longer than I planned. If you haven’t ever done so, please take a look at the comments policy. I’ll spare you the details for now and just quote one line from it here: “More generally, let’s aim for more thoughtfulness and less obnoxiousness. Humor and lightheartedness are welcome. Just don’t act like a jerk.”
As someone who has sometimes unknowingly been the jerk, let me reiterate that bit of common sense that your parents probably told you when you were a teenager: “you don’t always know how you come off.”
You don’t always know—but that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. I hope that the suggestions in this post help. I also hope that those who have been reluctant to contribute to discussions here because of their dissatisfaction with the tenor of the comments decide to join in. To them I say, “be the commenter you want to read on the blog.”
Thanks for listening. I understand there is a risk that what I’ve written here will sound like scolding, despite my efforts to counteract that. If you feel scolded, I’m sorry. Perhaps you can take comfort in knowing that I’m aware that I’ve had my share of communicative failures, and that I’m also aware that I’m not aware of all of them.
As usual, your comments and suggestions are welcome.
P.S. I am currently in an airplane somewhere high above the Atlantic Ocean, traveling to a conference that I will be at all week. As a result, you can expect that my attention to DN will be somewhat reduced; there may be longer than usual delays if a comment needs moderation or an email needs a reply. Have a good weekend!
A comment, which I will not be publishing because it is from someone repeatedly attempting to sockpuppet here, asks, “now you’re trying to tone police?”
Though I don’t appreciate the sockpuppeting, I do appreciate the opportunity this question affords, so I will answer it:
Yes, I am trying to tone police.
Presumed follow-up question: “Aren’t you aware that complaints about tone have long been criticized as tools by which the powerful have silenced the vulnerable and oppressed?”
Yes, I am aware of this criticism (heck, Mill made a version of it) and while I am aware of examples of the phenomenon of using complaints about tone to silence dissent, I am not convinced that, on balance, the norms of civil discourse are worse for the vulnerable and oppressed than their absence.
In any event, fortunately for all parties (myself included), I’m not laying down rules for the whole world. I’m just talking about what I’m hoping for in the comments section of this blog. Here, I am trying to foster the adoption of norms of communication that will lead to the productive, mutually respectful discussion of a variety of topics among professional colleagues (who are, after all, human beings with varying opinions, personalities, styles, sensitivities, capacities for self-control, etc.). In this particular context, I think everyone’s voice has a better chance of being heard under such conditions.
Does this mean that I think anger and outrage about the profession is never warranted? No. (I was once asked, in an interview, if there is anything philosophers are outraged by that they shouldn’t be, and my answer was “Yes: people in philosophy being outraged.”) It’s just that the comments section of a professional blog is not likely to be a place in which outrage—especially pseudonymously expressed outrage—does much beyond generate annoying flame wars, prompt amens from the relevant choir, and attract trolls.
Note that I’m not even saying that one can’t express anger in the comments here. Just do it responsibly and respectfully.
If you feel overly constrained by these norms, please consider that they’re also in place to help relieve you of having to deal with comments from others that would provoke, annoy, insult, or outrage you. Perhaps you don’t feel you need such relief. In that case, consider yourself lucky, and keep in mind that not everyone is as temperate and thick-skinned as you are.
Let’s talk. Let’s disagree. Let’s criticize. Let’s argue. The better we are to each other, the better we’ll be able to do those things, and the more of us there will be with whom to do them.
This is great advice.Report
“♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone I have to work cooperatively with on an ongoing basis.
♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone who I think is as smart as I am.
♦ I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone whose feelings matter to me.”
Unfortunately, I am not sure this heuristic is that helpful. I have been told by colleagues throughout my career such things as the following (non-exhaustive list): that I was deceitful for not disclosing my trans status, that the increase in testosterone would probably help my philosophical abilities, that they would change pronouns after I’ve had “the surgery,” been asked about how I have sex, and had my sexual orientation and history subjected to speculation. Some of these conversations have occurred with people who identify themselves as trans or would consider themselves progressive. From my position, these were unprofessional and inappropriate. My interlocutors didn’t seem to think so.
Note that I omit here lack of collegiality and professional norms which I have observed over the years of the following sorts: sexual harassment (directly observed, experienced, and testimonially known), what I would consider academic bullying, and gossip about other faculty members (among faculty members and worse, to students). Perhaps in all of these cases, there was no desire for cooperative work, or a sense that the other person is ” as smart” (whatever “smart” means–frankly I find that description unhelpful in most contexts), or no caring about other people’s feelings. I don’t know.
However, my personal sense is that while conversational norms online may be worse than offline in some cases, as anonymity may embolden people, and perhaps polarization is worse online (though studies are still ongoing), in some cases, at least, contributions are following the norms in place in academic philosophy departments. Whether those norms ought to change, and how, is a larger subject entirely.Report
I’m sorry you’ve been treated so badly by your colleagues. I understand that the heuristics I suggest are not fool- (or jerk-)proof guarantees for respectful discourse. I was merely trying to leverage the idea that, as you put it, “conversational norms online may be worse than offline.”Report
Hi Justin, I do appreciate where you are coming from, certainly. And I think my treatment was probably, on the whole, better than some others whose stories I have heard. The point was less about that history and more just pessimism about appeals to collegiality. But I’ll stop now and wait for other, more constructive contributions to the conversation.Report
@Chris Zhang Trans Guy
You raise a good point, but I don’t think it challenges the thrust of Justin’s advice, which is very helpful and well-intentioned.
Also, the gossip point isn’t a counterexample to the one bit of advice you quoted, since the wrongness of gossip partly consists in its not being face-to-face with the party being gossiped about.
As an aside: it’s interesting you bring this up because I experienced an incident of being gossiped (and probably lied) about by a grad student to at least one faculty member when I was a first year (minority) grad student, for the crime of expressing an opinion they deemed transphobic. There are many things wrong with such self-righteous behaviour, and with the self-righteous attitude in general, including the fact that it obscures the way in which those people who are used to seeing themselves as wronged (in some cases genuinely having been so) do not see how they wrong others in their eagerness to ‘shut people down’ or do what they consider to be self-protection or a righteous enforcement of progressive values. Anyway that was an unwieldy sentence and this point a bit off-topic, so I’ll stop now, but the purpose of my saying this was partly as a general warning about being the physician that doesn’t heal himself.Report
I think this is excellent advice. Let me try adding: post as if you weren’t anonymous.
The simplest way to do this, of course, is not to be anonymous. But lots of people say that professional repercussions make that impossible. I think that’s overstated – and I note that people with diametrically opposed views have the same concern – but I appreciate that my position is very secure compared to most people, and I accept their testimony.
… but. It is one thing to use the cloak of anonymity to say, cautiously and with charity, “ this seems problematic for reasons XYZ”. It is quite another to say, “advocates of this position are fucking morons who will be left on the dustheap of history”. I don’t say things like that (FYI, I have opinions rather stronger than I state on DN), partly because it’s unproductive but partly because I don’t want “fucking morons” (Wallace, 2018) on my CV. Anonymity formally spares you that, but don’t take advantage of it!Report
I never knew about sockpuppetry. Now that’s a tip I can make use of!Report
Great post, thanks for the time you put into it. Would you be willing to give examples of (2)? I’m not sure what that’s meant to flag. (Well, or I am in obvious cases, but think you probably meant something more substantive and subtle.)Report
I’m reluctant to give examples at this point because I don’t really have the time to take part in or keep an eye on what I predict would likely be quite acrimonious discussions of those terms.
Perhaps in a future post.Report
This is good advice. Do 3. and 4. also apply to invited guest posts?Report
Not just 3 and 4. Your recent DN guest interlocutor failed to live up to a single one of these very well considered guidelines.
I have to say I appreciate Justin’s persistent efforts at maintaining the best possible environment at DN, regardless of how difficult the task may be.Report
Daniel, I do not agree with that assessment of Bettcher’s post, but let’s not argue over that, please. Instead, let’s look forward, to improving things. Thanks.Report
That’s the difficulty isn’t it? That people don’t agree on what count as the relevant civilities. Everyone agrees not to be mean. The trouble is that people don’t agree on what that consists of.Report
I think that Bettchter’s reply was problematic in certain respects, but I want to register that I also do not agree with Kaufman’s characterization. It was un-collegial of Bettcher to insinuate that Stock is essentially operating at the level of a C- undergrad, but the rest of her post made substantive contributions and avoided outright insults. It was far less combative than it could have been, given the way this issue is playing out elsewhere, and it’s probably good for all of us to recognize that these two Philosophers are actually doing a comparatively admirable job at maintaining civil discourse.Report
I could go point-by-point through the essay and show how each and every principle Justin indicated is violated. Sorry, but it’s demonstrable.
Justin, however, rightly doesn’t want to have that argument here, and I don’t think we should. The guidelines are a good idea regardless.Report
Why not? If we agree on the guidelines but disagree about whether certain things fail to meet them or not, isn’t it worth sorting through that to better understand what the guidelines really mean?Report
Because Justin specifically asked me not to, and I’m going to respect that.Report
It seems reasonable to expect authors of posts to try to follow these suggestions. Let’s see how things develop.Report
I respect your effort to create a level playing field, Justin. I expect it will not favor subfields of applied ethics that rely largely on increasingly complex and subtle forms of bullying.
(I say that while having the greatest respect for certain scholars in those subfields, especially those who refuse to be uncharitable toward their ideological opponents.)Report
I want to second the call to think carefully about whether anonymous posting is, at least for some people, either professionally necessary or socially productive. Of course there are going to be cases where one’s point of view is liable to upset people that one has good reason to think may professionally harm one in the future, or which will cause one undue psychological distress. For that consideration alone it’s important to allow people to post anonymously, I think.
But when someone going by the name “R1prof”, for instance, joins a nuanced and otherwise productive conversation with a remark like “This thread reeks of confused cis folks desperate to put trans people back into some sort of genie bottle”, I do not think anonymity is being put to good use. For one of the things we do in a space like this is establish a sense of who the ‘we’ is that uses this space. To the extent that we do so under our own names, we help to make that community manifest as it actually is. Anonymity inhibits the care with which we normally speak, but it also interrupts the natural tendency of a community of interlocutors to see themselves as one community.
By contrast, speaking under our own names helps to establish that the community within which we speak is one we see as ours. In taking the time to think about what we say, knowing that it will be something we are associated with, we both help to ensure that what we say is reflective of our considered view and we show the people we converse with that the view we have is one we are willing to own. Particularly where the view in question concerns some fraught social issue, it’s important that we be able to see that there are real people speaking in good faith from different points of view. Again, sometimes anonymity is necessary. But it is much harder to see us as a ‘we’ if some of us choose to disguise who we are when we speak. And so to the extent that one is speaking from a place of sincerity and relative security, one should be willing to speak under one’s own name. Or so it seems to me.Report
I think it’s also reasonable to realize when your strong opinions are so far removed from the mainstream of discussion that you’re better off staying on the sidelines, since any expression of your opinions would surely rile people up even more than they have been.
Which is partly why I haven’t been saying much, lately…
Also: it is liberating to discover that you can speak freely without using a pseudonym–and the hesitation of, “will saying this make me look like a jackass?” might help us to form good habits… such that, when you find yourself asking that often, you might then further ask, “wait, AM I a jackass?”, which is the all-important first step to recovery from jackassery.Report
But a worry is that some people will answer the am-I-a-jackass question incorrectly. Part of the merits of this post is that it gives us some reasonable criteria by which to evaluate it; hopefully some people who previously thought the answer was no will now realize that, yes, they’re actually jackasses.Report
”I think it’s also reasonable to realize when your strong opinions are so far removed from the mainstream of discussion that you’re better off staying on the sidelines, since any expression of your opinions would surely rile people up even more than they have been.”
I strongly disagree. That would reinforce the appearance of monolithic agreement, and could have an ever-growing self-censure effect.
I would wish everyone who disagrees with relevant mainstream opinions put forward on this site, to express that disagreement.Report
I regularly contribute with strongly-held opinions that are not in the mainstream. I don’t self-censure, as a rule, simply because there will be disagreement. As a prudential judgment, I self-censure when I recognize that my expression is likely to evoke poor results. In this case, the amount of effort necessary to make my position clear would be more than I am willing to put in–and, even if I did put it in, I expect it would neither be read in full nor charitably–and so the result would be increased ire from those who disagree with me.
I agree that the appearance of monolithic agreement is bad. But I do post–as is obvious–under my real name and without any obscurity as to my identity (I link to my own blog, where I have my CV publicly available). It’s a sensitive issue, and the slightest lack of care can make people very upset–perhaps justifiably, perhaps not. But the consequences for publicly upsetting people, today (whether or not their dismay is justified), can be harsh. So–in situations like that surrounding gender–if you’re not going to put in the time to exercise the utmost care in crafting the articulation of your position, it is better not to say anything at all.Report
Also, avoid castigating those who comment for personal reasons and for using web names rather than personal names. I have been castigated for comments because my tag is not the same as my name, while Nonny Mouse surely isn’t anyone’s name, right? The internet allows and we embrace on line names – and I used my email name. Get used to nom de plumes, and stay away from demanding a commentator give his/her rea name when not demanding it from everyone! It is nothing more than an intimidation move.
I agree 110% with this original post!!Report
I don’t really understand 2, to be honest. Is a term insulting? If yes, then don’t use it. Is it not quite insulting, but provocative? Ok, I agree that, ideally, it shouldn’t be used. But I expect wild variation in the perceptions of term’s provocativeness, and I don’t see why someone should hesitate to use a term if other people unreasonably think it’s provocative? Yes, I agree a similar thing could be said about insulting; this difference is a matter of degree, but I think this rule could justify censoring a wide variety of comments.
Rule 3 I also don’t quite get. Specifically, I don’t think the examples given are good examples of insults. It is not insulting to say that some view is astonishingly wrong. I’m afraid that considering such, rather normal, language insulting could soon lead us to a very bad place in terms of censorship.
All in all, as someone already said, these general formulations of rules are not problematic, we will all agree on them. What counts as instances of breaking those rules is a less clear matter.Report
If you think that I am wrong on some point, what does it add to the discussion to say that you are astonished at how wrong I am? Pointing out where you think the error in my argument is is constructive and would seem to be all that is relevant to crticising the argument. When you express astonishment at the wrongness, you are criticising me – you are astonished that I could make such a silly error.Report
A quick general comment which may be a response to multiple comments and emails: if you think the original post was directed at you, rest assured there are people who hold views opposed to yours who think it was directed at them.Report
As a committed dialetheist I hold both the position people thought the post was directed at and its contrary. I’m deeply offended that this post criticizes me for each of my contradictory views on the topic.Report
Justin, I’m glad to see you working to keep the conversations productive.
We all know that there’s a horrible tendency of internet conversations to degenerate really quickly (see the infamous rainbow cake debacle). I do wonder if things might not be uniquely bad for philosophy. The conversational norms and practices of our field strike me as particularly bad to be honest. When I read your comments about asking oneself whether you’d speak to a person this way face to face I couldn’t help but thing of all the times I’d seen people treat others horribly at conferences and even invited talks. Now I know that you put in some further qualifiers here that deal with that worry, but it is revealing how comfortable philosophers are being outright abusive to others in the profession to their faces. I know academic debates in general get heated, but my impression is that academics in other fields aren’t nearly so openly nasty to each other (I dunno this could be one of those grass is greener moments.) And I’m not just calling out the bad behavior of others here. I’ve done this, especially as a graduate student, and I didn’t even think much of it. I’ve almost certainly done it since unfortunately, but I’m honestly trying to do better. The thing that bothers me is when people hold this kind of behavior as something good, which should be encouraged. I find it astonishing that many philosophers seem to valorize rudeness or even outright cruelty as an ideal (though they’ll always try to dress it up as “rigor” or something similar). I’m not blaming this blog for any of this and it would be grossly unfair to expect you or anyone else on here to deal with it personally. However, I would like to see a wider conversation in philosophy about the norms and ideals that govern conversation and debate in our field.Report
Some of this looks clearly to be great advice. But some of it leaves me confused.
In particular, I wonder about the intended generality of (2) — and about what counts as “needlessly” using provocative terms. I assume that if the view under consideration is that black people shouldn’t be allowed into US PhD programs because they’re intellectually inferior, Justin will agree that it’s appropriate to apply the label “racist”. But I (genuinely!) don’t know what he’d think about whether it’d be needlessly provocative to apply that label to, say, Charles Murray’s work, or the American criminal justice system, or ideal political theory. (My own opinion is that it’s perfectly appropriate to use or mention that term in each of those discussions, and that we should collectively work to get over our instinct towards extreme defensiveness in discussions involving the term.)
And of course similarly substantive and difficult questions arise for “misogynist”, “transmisogynist”, and lots of other provocative terms.Report
One problem is that unless you assume that all the people in the discourse share your ideological commitments, all you are going to do is create a rhetorical arms race between you and your opponents. You call them “nationalist xenophobes” and they call you “treasonous.” You call them “transphobes” and they say you are “advocating perversion.” Etc; etc.
Is this really the sort of conversations you want to be having? And do you really think you are going to be able to sufficiently purge these conversations of those you disagree with to insure that every time you yell “racist!” all you’re going to get is a round of applause?Report
I don’t recognize the picture of my opinion that you are painting. I don’t wish to purge conversations of those I disagree with, and I’m not advocating yelling. It sounds like you think I think we should call each other names instead of articulating and defending our respective positions. I don’t understand why you think that, but I assure you it’s not the case.
My point is that there are many labels that are both provocative and hermeneutically important. I think there are serious social epistemic costs to trying to do without them.Report
That you don’t see that calling people “racist” and “trans-misogynist” in the contexts we are talking about is ideologically-inflected name-calling is precisely the problem.Report
If somebody is in fact consistently endorsing racist positions (for whatever your preferred definition of “racist” is), what is an acceptable way of pointing that out without “name-calling”?Report
Kathleen Stock has been accused of being a “trans-misogynist.” I don’t agree. So, therefore, I view saying that about her as “name-calling.”Report
Apparently, the acceptable thing to do is to check in with Dan there to see if he agrees that it is racist and so therefore not name-calling. Classic liberal.Report
dr_i_rohl · June 4, 2018 at 11:52 am
If somebody is in fact consistently endorsing racist positions (for whatever your preferred definition of “racist” is), what is an acceptable way of pointing that out without “name-calling”?
Clarifying the bold part is the obvious way to start. For example, compare these four common arguments, all of which use “-ist” as shorthand but are completely different in effect:
1) You argue that _____ are less capable, that the difference is genetic, and that the difference tracks with high accuracy to their classification as ‘_____.’ That is completely wrong because…
2) Your position directly discriminates against ____ people, in the following specific ways, and appears intentional because…..
3) You are arguing for a neutral process here, even though you concede that differing characteristics in applicants will produce wildly differing outcomes between _____. This is inappropriate and you should choose neutral outcomes over processes because….
4) You suggest that we should evaluate the truth and sufficiency of positions as if they were written by an anonymous Internet writer, rather than “a trans disabled poor black woman” versus “a cis fully-abled rich white man.” That view is wrong, because…
And so on.
Say what you mean SPECIFICALLY. Don’t use a label which is so broad as to be meaningless. All of those labels have more value as insults than as descriptorsReport
Let me repeat what I said in my last comment.
“It sounds like you think I think we should call each other names instead of articulating and defending our respective positions. I don’t understand why you think that, but I assure you it’s not the case.”
In your follow-up, you seem to ignore everything starting from the “instead of”. If you want to insist that describing someone as racist always amounts to “name-calling”, let’s grant that for the purpose of argument. (I disagree, but let’s let that pass for now.) Then my view is that “name-calling” can sometimes be appropriate. For example, it is appropriate when discussing racist proposals. Indeed, I had thought the existential claim was so obvious as to be common ground.
It doesn’t follow, or even come close to following, that we should engage in “name-calling” INSTEAD of explanation, argument, and discussion.Report
Jonathan, you ignored my point regarding the rhetorical arms race that we all know ensues in these sorts of discussions, when they involve ideologically and politically diverse groups of people. You think it’s a good idea to have those sorts of conversations among philosophers and I don’t.
I think my point was quite clear and makes sense, given the current political climate and the argumentative dynamics that we see displayed all the time in places like this. I’m happy to leave it at that and allow people to make up their own minds.Report
Daniel, I don’t see what your point about rhetorical arms races is supposed to be. You asserted that if people describe racism as such, then the conversation will devolve into a shouting match of name-calling. You have not provided any argument that this must be the result. I took you earlier to be thinking that my suggestion was that one merely shout “racist!” at racism, without providing any rationale or explanation or argument. (Had that been my idea, your prediction about it would have seemed pretty reasonable.) But when I reiterated that this wasn’t my idea, you seemed to treat that as irrelevant, and reiterated your assertion that my proposal must lead to an arms race of name-calling.
My idea is that we should do our best to describe things as they are. If something is racist, we may very reasonably call it racist, and explain why. If we aren’t sure whether something is racist, we may reasonably have a discussion about whether it is racist, and consider the pressure in favour of or against. If you or another of my dialectical opponents wants to claim that I am treasonous or advocating perversion, then you should do so and explain why.
Your view seems to be that certain ideas are so explosive that we collectively must avoid discussing them. I disagree.Report
I think it would be inappropriate, in a context like DN, to call either Charles Murray’s work, or the American criminal justice system, or ideal political theory “racist.” (I say this–and here I suppose I’m stretching use-mention past the breaking point–as someone who thinks the first two of these things are in fact racist, and that there are arguments for why the third is that, while unsuccessful, deserve to be taken seriously.) This is because “racist” is obviously such a loaded term. Being publicly called out as a racist, under certain circumstances, can ruin someone’s life, particularly if one is in a precarious social and economic situation. I agree with you that, ideally, we would live in a world where the term did not provoke such defensiveness, but I hope you’ll be able to understand why people who are not as professionally secure as you are would have reason to be concerned about the possibility of being associated with it.Report
“But I (genuinely!) don’t know what he’d think about whether it’d be needlessly provocative to apply that label to, say, Charles Murray’s work, or the American criminal justice system, or ideal political theory. (My own opinion is that it’s perfectly appropriate to use or mention that term in each of those discussions, and that we should collectively work to get over our instinct towards extreme defensiveness in discussions involving the term.)”
In the same sentence, you call the American criminal justice system and ideal political theory racist. Do you honestly expect people who defend ideal political theory not to get defensive for being grouped with the American criminal justice system?
Maybe Justin won’t agree, but another way of putting his #2 point is this: stop being so hyperbolic. The views we argue about have little practical consequence in the world, We are not that important.Report
I’m a person who defends ideal political theory, but I wouldn’t get “defensive” at the suggestion that ideal theory is racist. It’s a fair objection in my view, that deserves to be (and often is) taken seriously by folks like me who believe that ideal theory is worthwhile.
I think it’s true that calling something “racist” is often a very provocative act, but I dont think that means we should refrain from such provocative acts, provided that our views are sincerely held. Ideally, such accusations should provoke reflection, rather than indignation.Report
I don’t like this post, for three reasons. First: it is written in a patronizing tone. Second: it is unnecessary — the quality of the discussion at DN is generally high without the need of advice like this. Third, a reason specific to advice number 3. Calling a view “astonishingly” wrong-headed, “astoundingly” ignorant, or “ridiculously” irrelevant is more than just calling it wrong-headed, ignorant, or irrelevant: it adds to the content of the assertion. And to this extent, advice number 3 is not merely policing on tone, but also on content, something which is very close to censorship.Report
What content are you adding that isn’t just an attack on the person who produced the argument? No bad argument is astonishing in itself. Anyone who teaches students about fallacies will provide them with bad arguments to illustrate the fallacies, but nobody finds these arguments astonishing. Any astonishment we feel when presented with an argument will be astonishment that someone finds it convincing. But that is a criticism of the person and not the argument.Report
The example was about a view, not about an argument, but this does not really make a difference. So: by calling a view (or an argument), astonishingly wrong-headed, or astonishingly bad, one claims that the view is wrong-headed or bad in an astonishing way, i.e. one claims that the view is wrong-headed or bad in an extreme and shocking way.
Surely it should be permissible to say of a view that it is bad or wrong-headed in an extreme and shocking way. Even more: surely it should be permissible to say to an adult and intelligent interlocutor that their view is wrong-headed or bad in an extreme and shocking way. Therefore, it should be permissible to say to an adult and intelligent interlocutor that their view is astonishingly wrong-headed or astonishingly bad. And surely it is OK to criticise adult and intelligent interlocutors for finding convincing and adopting views that are astonishingly wrong-headed or bad.
One last point: it is false that any astonishment we feel when presented with an argument will be astonishment that someone finds it convincing. Philosophers sometimes discuss views that no one has held, they point out that no one has held such a view, and yet it is sometimes important and useful for their purposes to note that such a view is astonishingly wrong-headed. So, sometimes we feel astonishment about a view without feeling astonishment that someone finds it convincing. But, as I argued in the previous paragraph, there is nothing wrong with criticising a person, especially when the person is an intelligent adult), for believing astonishing (or even stupid) things.Report
What content are you adding that isn’t just an attack on the person who produced the argument? No bad argument is astonishing in itself.
I suppose I might agree that “no bad argument is astonishing in itself”, but probably disagree with the idea (which you might not fully be claiming here! I’m not sure) that we should never or almost never use expressions like “astonishing” in describing a bad argument or mistake of some sort. For example, in a book review I published on an important book by a well respected (rightly!) political philosopher, I called his discussion of various defenses of market socialism “stunning” in that it completely failed to engage with the relevant texts and flatly contradicted the (easily accessible) content of those texts, even though it purported to be a refutation of them. The book didn’t offer any argument that the authors/texts under discussion were in some ways committed to conclusions other than what they claimed, but just flatly asserted the opposite of what the various proponents of market socialism claimed was compatible with their view. (In this case, personal ownership of dwellings and other sorts of personal property.) I found this flat contradiction of the views under discussion, without any argument to show why it was appropriate, “stunning”, and am happy to stick with that. It’s sometimes worthwhile to state that a claim isn’t just wrong (many claims are wrong!) but wrong in a particularly clear and surprising way. I’m willing to believe that people apply these terms too often and too quickly. We should all probably be more careful with them. But it seems wrong to me to think that they are never appropriate.Report
I do not think the prompt to avoid using adverbs such as “astonishingly” is policing content. If, for example, it is a fact that a person’s thought, argument, etc., is astonishingly wrong (and even if it is a fact that the person is very stupid, childish, etc.) the content of this fact can be (and really ought to be) readily spelled out via demonstration (e.g., a strong counter-argument). It’s the difference between strongly stating that something is wrong and strongly demonstrating just how wrong it is. It is very easy (and relatively worthless) to do the former, while it takes some skill and patience to do the latter. Moreover, doing the latter without the former marks that we genuinely grant that our interlocutors are just as capable of intelligent discourse as we are, and are just as capable as we are of actually understanding the error of their ways.
Further, given that (in accord with another comment) people tend to hastily and unfairly judge others as being terribly ignorant, avoiding expressions of such judgments (and perhaps suspending them altogether) off the bat here makes sense, given that they are not needed for advancing philosophical discourse anyway, and tend to be distracting and antagonistic, as noted in the original post. And, if we mistakenly make our interlocutors feel ashamed or very stupid (before we have convinced them of their error), is that really worth the potential reward of correctly identifying our interlocutors as such?Report
There’s always the old saying that if you don’t agree with the rules in place in a group based entirely on voluntary association, you can always….stop posting.Report
naive squirrel: yes, there is a difference between saying that something is wrong and demonstrating that something is wrong. Similarly, there is a difference between saying that something is astonishingly wrong and demonstrating that it is astonishingly wrong. I was not saying that it is OK to say that something is astonishingly wrong *without* providing proof/argument/support for that claim. Similarly, I would not agree that it is OK to say that something is wrong (or right, for that matter) *without* providing proof/argument/support for that claim. But what I think is that it is OK, and therefore it should be permissible, to say that something is astonishingly wrong, argue for it/prove it, and then conclude: “therefore, what X said is astonishingly wrong. QED”.
desiderata: I didn’t know that was an “old saying”… but, in any case, it is also true that even if you don’t agree with the rules in place in a group based entirely on voluntary association you can criticise them.Report
Desiderio Lopez Guante, I never implied that you must think it’s okay to claim something is wrong without giving proof – I said that the mere claim that something is wrong is worth very little in relation to giving the demonstration. And my question was: is the reward of adding the relatively worthless claim in addition to the demonstration really worth the risk of mistakenly making your interlocutor feel like they must be ashamed of their apparently shocking ignorance? If I trust you have good reasons for claiming that my idea is “shockingly wrong”, don’t you think I might be harmed if you ended up being wrong about my wrongness? And, if I may ask – what is the reward exactly of adding the relatively worthless claim to a demonstration? If I had to guess, I’d say it was little more than instant self-gratification, and at this rate, whatever content being policed (if any) would merely be such that it contributes to your own sense of pleasure and intellectual domination over others (at the expense of their own sense of self-worth). As I’ve suggested, I’m not sure why we can’t be satisfied with simply giving a demonstration that someone is wrong – do we *need* to add further simplified thoughts on the matter? I think not.Report
I am not sure I understand your point. It *seems* to me you are saying that, if something appears wrong to us, we should demonstrate that it is wrong, but avoid adding the claim that it is wrong. That is a very odd thing to say. If I demonstrate that P, then I normally conclude my demonstration with the words: “Therefore, P”. So, if I am demonstrating that X’s view is wrong, I will conclude with the words: “Therefore, X’s view is wrong”. And, of course, if I am demonstrating that X’s view is shokingly wrong, I will conclude with: “Therefore, X’s view is shockingly wrong”. Is such a conclusion of such a demonstration what you are objecting to?
You ask: “If I trust you have good reasons for claiming that my idea is “shockingly wrong”, don’t you think I might be harmed if you ended up being wrong about my wrongness?” Perhaps. But I want to make two points about this: (a) even if I only claimed that your view was wrong (not shockingly wrong, just wrong), you might still feel harmed if I ended up being wrong about your wrongness — shall I therefore abstain of claiming that you are wrong, when that is what I believe? (b) *In general* something has gone seriously wrong with a person if he or she feels harmed because someone else said (rightly or wrongly) that his/her view was wrong. If Y was right that X’s view was wrong, X should reply: “Thank you for correcting me”. If Y was wrong that X’s view was wrong, X should reply: “You were wrong in claiming that I was wrong”, and proceed to show that. There should be no room for sentimentality in these matters.Report
I don’t think this is getting anywhere but just to recapture my original thought – the content you imagine to be censored is not content that is necessary for advancing the conversation, and if anything, is content that will only frustrate/derail the conversation or discourage your interlocutor. Also, I think it is actually odd to say something like, “therefore, your argument is wrong” at the end of a reply, just in general (since that sort of thought would be implied by the counter argument/objection). It just doesn’t do any good for the conversation, and I’m really not sure why you seem concerned to object to the original guideline (which is just a guideline for facilitating good conversations), except that, as I suspect, you just really enjoy using self-gratifying language even if it is inaccurate or could be counterproductive/harmful.Report
naive squirrel: I explained very clearly why I object to the guideline. But what you have to say is this: “I’m really not sure why you seem concerned to object to the original guideline (which is just a guideline for facilitating good conversations), except that, as I suspect, you just really enjoy using self-gratifying language even if it is inaccurate or could be counterproductive/harmful.” You thereby (a) fail to interpret me charitably and (b) imply that I am arguing in bad faith, but (a) and (b) go against number 4 of the guidelines you so much admire. I could at this point enjoy in self-gratifying language that, although not inaccurate, I suspect would be harmful to you… but I’ll pass and leave it to you to ponder whether you are really interested in having good, frank, and productive conversations….Report
I’d like to recommend a further principle:
Don’t speculate about the future actions or arguments of specific people who are participating, or directly implicated, in the conversation at hand. Also, don’t speculate about institutional or social processes–i.e., hyper-complex systems that you are unlikely to have mastered intellectually yourself–in the absence of data
This might actually be implicated in some of the other suggestions, but I think it’s worth emphasizing, because if the conversation **is really a conversation**, then the possibility of a revised position has to be proactively extended by all members to everyone, all the time. Meaning, we have to respect each other’s possibility for change, and we have to respect our own (collective, not just individual) ignorance.
This “don’t speculate” rule is something that I actually heard years ago, at an education policy seminar of all places, and I have found it INCREDIBLY useful for becoming less of a jerk myself in professional conversations. I find I am more able to work with people I don’t agree with, and more able to avoid paranoid thinking about them and their motives.Report
Jonathan, the space for replies has run out so I can only respond in a new thread.
This may be easier if we use a specific example, rather than talk in the abstract.
Someone argues in a way that is critical of the concept of gender-identity and concludes that as a result, trans-women are not women.
Now supposed someone reading this disagrees profoundly and want to explain why this view is incorrect. One way of doing it might be to argue on behalf of the concept of gender-identity. Another might be to suggest that even if one accepts the critique of gender-identity, one can make sense of the idea that trans-women are women nonetheless.
Any such strategy would constitute what I would call a civil, productive, philosophical argument.
What I suggest is neither civil, nor productive, nor, frankly, philosophical is to reply by calling the person or his/her argument “transmisogynistic” or saying that he/she is engaged in “psychic violence.” And in doing so, what one invites is not a civil, philosophical counterargument, but a further rhetorical escalation, employing contrary epithets and accusations.
I don’t think this is how we should engage with one another, in these sorts of contexts. A philosophical conversation is not a political rally. And while you might disagree, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable position to take, especially given how vitriolic the current climate is.Report
So it is your view that such claims should be regarded as verboten? And here I thought you were all about the free speech yada. It does make sense to me, though, why you would (i) make such heavy weather about the principle, (ii) apply it to defend the enemies of your enemy, but (iii) refuse to extend the same courtesy to your enemies.Report
We are talking about a number of guidelines, suggested by Justin, for the civil discussion of controversial topics on a philosophy blog. I agree with them. None of that makes anything “verboten.”
Free speech applies in the context of government regulation and censorship. Justin can do whatever he likes on his blog. That said, I am largely in agreement with Mill about what should be permissible in the social universe as well, distinct from the law.
If certain subjects weren’t subject to such vitriolic reaction, I probably wouldn’t think Justin’s guidelines were needed. A lot of this has to do with the current climate.Report
I agree that free speech is stricly speaking a constraint on what constraints the state can legitimately impose on speech in the public domain. In fact, the point occurs to me everytime I see people claim that because others strongly disapprove of they have to say, their freedom of speech has been violated or suggest that academic freedom issues are free speech issues. But notice that this isn’t Mill’s view, insofar as the harm principle applies also to socially imposed sanctions against offensive speech. What’s more, given how you’ve gone on and on about how there is currently a free speech crisis on our campuses driven by radicalised ‘leftist profs’ and students, who as far as I know are generally not agents of the state, it doesn’t really seem to be your view either.Report
Sorry you feel that way. I’ve explained what you think as best as I can. If you choose not to believe it that’s your prerogative.Report
Error: I meant to say “I’ve explained what I think the best I can.”Report
Also, you suggest upthread that Justin should’ve refused, in line with his new guidelines, to post Bettcher’s response to Stock. When combined with your whinging about how illiberal it is for students to ‘no platform’ speakers they deem too offensive or provocative, it seems to me that the old cliche about pots and kettles applies pretty well, don’t you think?Report
Seems like you just want to pick a fight. I’ll pass. If you change your mind and want to have a serious conversation, I’m game.Report
So my other response isn’t showing up, probably because the language was casually salty, so I’ll try this instead: Please, sir, may you kindly explain what is not serious about pointing out an explicit contradiction in your stated views?Report
Do you seriously fail to recognize the difference between insisting that a guest poster EDIT a blog post and shouting down an invited speaker?Report
In this case, I don’t think that this matters. Dan is clearly out to police (though not censor) the substantive views of his opponents insofar as we’re taking about the whole second half of Betcher’s response to Stock, not just a few minor stylistic changes. Of course, what Dan is doing is less loud than what the students are doing, but that’s in virtue of the difference forums they are trying to police (insofar as they are not state agents out to monitor all public speech, they are like Dan, not censors either).Report
JT, there is a distinction between ”I recommend we don’t use term X” and ”I forbid using term X”Report
I don’t recall Bettcher or the students forbiding anything–how could they, when they lack the power to back it up in any meaningful way?Report
How would you feel about thick terms like “cruel”? There’s a descriptive element to “cruel,” such that it might literally be true that something or someone is cruel. At the same time, if you call someone cruel or call a proposal of hers cruel, you’re likely to arouse indignation on her part. Do you recommend, then, that we shouldn’t use terms that are likely to arouse understandable indignation on the part of our interlocutors even if it turns out that those terms are literally true?
That’s not a laughable idea or anything–my instinct is that it’s false, but I could be talked into it–but I just wanted to make sure that’s what you’re advocating.Report
I think my reply to JT above suffices as a reply to this as well. If not, please say so, and I’ll be happy to say something further.Report
For what it’s worth, I’m sympathetic to an ideal of purging our language of thick terms. Of course that’s wildly unrealistic, and they’re useful in some contexts, but at the very least, on the margin we probably use them too much–especially in online discussions–and would do better to use them more sparingly. I think using thick terms makes it easier to conflate important distinctions; if we disagree about whether some employment contract is “exploitative”, it might be because we differ on the descriptive facts—e.g., just what are the terms of the contract, what alternatives do the parties to the contract have, etc.—or because we differ on the normative facts, or both. Especially in the contexts of online discussions where we don’t usually have the time to be as explicit as would be ideal, I think using thick terms often obscures just where the points of disagreement lie. And I think that’s very unfortunate, because I think that the realistic best case scenario to in discussions between people who disagree radically isn’t a substantial shift of opinion–that’s usually not in the cards–but a better understanding of the roots of the disagreement. Just what parts of my view–perhaps very fundamental parts–would I have to change for me to see things the way my interlocutor does? And if I’m right that using thick terms obscures points of disagreement, then discussions in which they’re freely employed are less likely to be fruitful in that sense.Report
We were talking about a specific example. It was a particularly stark hypothetical racist policy suggestion. I introduced it in my first comment on this post. It was in many ways a more straightforward test case than yours is for the general principles being described, because it was uncontroversial whether the negative label applied. I think that the example I introduced was an effective one for making my point: the idea of a “needlessly provocative” label is one that admits of substantive and contested judgment calls, since some of the rhetoric in question looks, I suggested, obviously appropriate. You seemed to be disagreeing with me about that example, and that general claim, although as I look back now, I don’t see you being very explicit about whether this is so. So I’m honestly not sure any more whether you agree with me that it’s appropriate to describe racist things as racist.
Now you are shifting to a different example where it is much less universally recognizable whether the rhetoric in question is “needlessly provocative”. You take it as obvious that it is; I do not. I don’t care to get into that discussion today. I didn’t try to use that example to make my point because it’s messier and less obvious how it fits into the discussion. But it certainly does illustrate the general point: that content-neutral gestures at the idea of something being “needlessly provocative” aren’t rich enough to do the necessary work.Report
Jonathan, with respect to your specific example, it seems to me that if someone says what you described about black people and academia, that is a person you’d just as soon not engage with in conversation at all. I don’t see what added value there is to calling him “racist,” insofar as he isn’t going to care.
The reason I didn’t address that example specifically is that it strikes me as largely irrelevant to the discussion here, which is about Justin’s suggested guidelines for discussion on Daily Nous. The reason why *I* chose the example that I did, is because it is specifically relevant to those guidelines, insofar as the recent discussions over Kathleen Stock’s essays were the inspiration for them. Epithets and accusations were hurled around in that discussion, in a manner that I think is not only antithetical to the point of such conversations, but which has exactly the sort of escalatory effects I indicated.Report
I take it that the point was about calling the policy racist, not so the author of such a post.
But I do agree that, while there are substantive judgment calls, I think what (2) offers is a call to reflect on what whether the provocative language mooted is in fact necessary to the end one is after in commenting on a blog post.
Are you looking to “shout it down”? Are you looking to engage with the content? Are you looking to change the minds of other readers? Are you looking to make yourself feel a certain way, or look a certain way in the eyes of others? (Not all of these will be appropriate for a philosophy blog.)
Describing things as they are won’t always be helpful – even assuming that the provocative labels are accurate.Report
Epistemic conviction and epistemic humility are on a conceptual and attitudinal see-saw. The more weighty the one the more the other is displaced. Perhaps then the issue is about which we should place more trust in conducting and evaluating discourse. I drafted a longer reflection on this, but ultimately decided that perhaps it’s better that I should just leave it as a suggestion in the previous three sentences for others wiser than I to comment on.Report
JT, the space for replies has run out, so I have to reply in a new thread.
1. I did not suggest that Justin should not have posted Bettcher’s response. What i actually said is there for everyone to see.
2. I do believe that there is a strong, illiberal strain on many college campuses, and I don’t think that pointing it out as I have done is “whinging.”
3. I don’t think there is any contradiction in thinking it is a mistake to no-platform speakers you disagree with in the context of a university and agreeing with Justin’s guidelines with respect to how we carry on arguments on controversial topics on his blog.
This really is all I have to say on the subject.Report
If you say so. But, question: why is ‘illiberal strain’ any better than ‘racist’ or ‘transmisogynist’? Hm.Report
I mean “illiberal” in the philosophical sense, a la J.S. Mill. Hardly a slur. And there are many progressives who are happy to disassociate themselves from it.Report
Yes, many progressives are happy to disassociate themselves from liberalism. Some progressives go so far as to say that calling yourself a “classical liberal” is to be too scared to admit one is really a conservative. From my point of view, the problem is not that liberals should admit that they are actually conservatives, but that such progressives should admit they themselves are actually illiberal. In some conservative or evangelical parts of the US, the term “liberal” is used as an insult, but I think that conservatives who use “liberal” as an insult probably don’t distinguish between progressives and liberals in the way we are here.Report
Is there not a philosophical sense in which Bettcher et al. are applying the term ‘transmisogynist’, one that is grounded in a philosophical literature? You’re suggesting that it makes a difference that some of the people you are criticising have identified themselves as anti- or non-liberal. But this surely does not apply to all of the *students* you are referring to, many of whom would surely bridle at the label. Moreover, it makes a difference that it is, in your mouth (the academic analytic political philosopher), used derisively. Compare, for instance, the term ‘TERF’, which Stock takes issue with in her reply to Bettcher’s response. While the acronym stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminis*’, which seems fairly descriptive and accurate, Stock seems to find it provocative because it is often used to attack those with views like hers, and you seem to agree with her. But if that’s right, then I don’t see how you get to keep applying your preferred barb without being guilty of some kind of inconsistency.Report
A good philosophical argument will allow for separate discussion of facts and morality. If you say “XYZ policy disadvantages transwomen”, we can debate that fact. Only in the context of agreed or hypothetical facts do we reach the question about “should we do XYZ” or “is XYZ moral.”
Conversely, those labels allow for only one possible moral conclusion, and they skip the whole foundation of facts. If XYZ policy is transmisogynistic, then of course we shouldn’t do XYZ, because of course XYZ is immoral. And of course it disadvantages transwomen, or is otherwise bad, because it wouldn’t be transmisogynistic otherwise, right?
That’s why those terms are so popular: It’s a lot easier to “win” by an accusation of transmisogynism than it is to actually prove the point.
“Is there not a philosophical sense in which Bettcher et al. are applying the term ‘transmisogynist’, one that is grounded in a philosophical literature?”
After all, is there not “a philosophical sense” in which some–more than a few–feminists and trans advocates are properly termed “misandrists” or some other equivalent term?
Sure there is. This is philosophy; you can make a philosophical argument for all sorts of viewpoints. But “misandrist” is still an uncivil and obnoxious term to apply to feminists, and it is guaranteed to prevent a competent discourse. Same for “misogynist.”Report
“Compare, for instance, the term ‘TERF’, which Stock takes issue with in her reply to Bettcher’s response. While the acronym stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminis*’, which seems fairly descriptive and accurate, Stock seems to find it provocative because it is often used to attack those with views like hers, and you seem to agree with her.”
No, the problem with the term “TERF” is that it is NOT “descriptive” or “accurate”. While technically it may not count as a slur, it is nevertheless a pejorative: no one seriously self identifies as a TERF and to be labelled a TERF is to be stigmatised and to be treated as an appropriate target for derision, scorn, hatred, getting fired from your job, ostracised, etc. Fear of being labelled “TERF” is one of the central mechanisms by which women have been silenced. While it functions similarly to political terms of art like “homophobe” and “Islamophobe”, being labelled a “TERF” comes with much higher social, professional and economic penalties.
“TERF” is a label used to silence critique, both in the sense of intimidating women into silence, and in the sense of ensuring that the speech of women who do speak do not get any uptake. Many users of the term are aware of this, and use it for these purposes deliberately. They know that it is not neutral, but it’s non neutrality is precisely what makes it so politically useful. It’s naive to believe that it is a merely neutral or descriptive term. If a merely descriptive or neutral term was really the requirement, then it would be no skin off anyone’s nose to use terms like Stock’s preferred “gender critical”. No political terms are neutral. People who say that “TERF” is neutral or descriptive are either naive or playing political games.
Moreover, “TERF” is misleading, not accurate, because you can correctly (correctly according to the way in which people who endorse its usage actually use it) be called a TERF without being either trans exclusionary or a radical feminist. All it takes to be labelled a TERF is to be a woman and to sincerely say obviously true things like “penises are male” or “male humans cannot become female humans” or “males cannot get pregnant”. Being labelled a “TERF” is a bit like being labelled a “witch” or a “heretic”: it is applied to people who either do not accept all tenets of a dogma or who are suspected of not accepting all tenets of a dogma. Many people labelled “TERF” are not transphobic, fully support the human rights and dignity of trans people, and agree with the provision of resources to ensure trans people’s rights are respected and that their dignity is upheld, but quibble over some of the dogmas, whether for political or metaphysical reasons (or both).
And crucially, “TERF” is a term that is often coupled with misogynist and / or violent threats like “TERFs can choke on my girl dick” or “Kill all TERFs” or “punch TERFS” or “Slap this TERF ‘cunt'”, etc. The level of vitriol and misogyny commonly associated with its usage is very striking. “TERF” is never applied to men, only women: there is no masculine equivalent for “TERF”. Given that it is nearly always men who are responsible for transphobic violence and sexual violence, that men are the reason that men’s toilets are not safe for trans women, and that men (like Donald Trump) are usually the ones pulling the levers of power that marginalise trans people (eg bathroom bills and military bans), I find it very interesting that there is no masculine equivalent for “TERF”.
In a nutshell, “TERF” is a non neutral political term of art, used to demonise and silence women, and is often associated with misogynist and violent abuse. Don’t use it.Report
Largely agreed, but my point wasn’t that the term is unproblematic. Rather, it’s that Dan and others’ usage of ‘illiberal’ (albeit to a lesser degree) makes their call to play nice a bit farcical.Report
Sorry, that should be: …‘illiberal’ is similarly problematic (albeit to a lesser degree) and that this makes their call to play nice a bit farcical.Report
More than just the term though, it’s really their more-‘reasonable’-than-thou reflexive dismissiveness of pretty much anything that isn’t in agreement with Locke, Mill, or Rawls that bugs me.Report
Great guidelines for comments. I would add two suggestions.
1) Don’t assume a They who are in power/have the institutional advantages who you are fighting/standing up against/resisting. In particular, don’t assume the person you are talking to is a member of/sympathetic to/secretly supports that They.
The distrust in comments seems to come at root from the sense that the side you identify with is losing or losing ground; that They, the other side, is winning, and that you have to be indignant and snarky to mark a boundary. But this is silly if – as is probably the case – no side is actually winning and _everybody_ feels beleaguered in some important sense.
“But what about if the person you are talking to really is racist? or really wants to silence conservatives?” Well, then…
2) Act not like someone without power who has to strike back, but like a leader for a reflective community. Having power and being a leader don’t have to go together. Comment as if you are a leader – a beacon – for the entire community, responsible for all people in the community, not just those you instinctively identify with.Report
“But this is silly if – as is probably the case – no side is actually winning and _everybody_ feels beleaguered in some important sense.”
This is what I thought in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling being called a “punt”. If both teams are punting, that means NEITHER team is close to scoring.Report
Bharath, do you think this polarised, zero sum attitude toward political discussion we are seeing could be related to the rise of social media? It’s like people see themselves on a side in a war, and each comment is either taking a potshot at the enemy or supporting members of one’s side. The contested territory is language and discourse itself: silencing a hated enemy is considered a triumph, words can be violent, people with the wrong thoughts are irredeemably evil. None of this is conducive to converging on truth, building consensus: in fact in this polarised world such ideas are considered laughably quaint at best, and secretly evil at worse.Report
Surely some academic somewhere is even now writing about how civil discourse itself is a norm that exists only for oppressors to oppress the downtrodden.Report
It’s surely related to the rise of social media. But I think social media is bringing out a underlying tension, rather creating it. The underlying tension has been building for a while now, which is due to at least three broad themes:
1) American and French revolutions
2) Industrialization, global capitalism and communism
3) End of patriarchy/slavery/colonialism.
(1), especially French revolution, raised issue of left vs right, and whether a “top down” reason focused reorganization of society is viable. (2) and (3) meant that society was radically changing and reorganization of some kind is not an option that can be avoided (“Lets go back to monarchy and all will go back to normal”) but a necessity we have to deal with.
(1)-(3) are a vast mess, sociologically and intellectually. Add to it (4) prospects of artificial intelligence, and no one can control all of this. Looking at this rationally means seeing the mess is not anyone’s fault in particular, but is just what modern life looks like, and what we have deal with dispassionately. But that’s hard. It’s easier to imagine there is one major axis (racism, or conservatism, etc.) through which all can be resolved, and some control gained.
There is no magic axis. No one bad guy, or group. No one saviour. Embracing the complexity is the only way forward. If philosophers can model how to do that, then tech people can use that to create new social media which can heal rather than divide.Report
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said:
“My idea is that we should do our best to describe things as they are. If something is racist, we may very reasonably call it racist, and explain why.”
Actually, this is wholly unreasonable. And the problem applies to “racist,” “SJW” and most other online insults.
1) Racism is incredibly imprecise. At the far-conservative end, it’s limited to “intentional, unjustified, and overt discrimination which is openly based on race.” At the far-progressive end, racism includes “differences in speed for association of words and faces relating to race, whether or not it has any proven effect on any actions outside that test.” At the far-far-left end you can find people who believe all whites are born racist, like the Original Sin argument.
2) Racism is incredibly insulting because it is not limited. Racism is always bad; racism is so ill defined as to be meaningless; therefore it has become a generic insult. If you know John is a racist, there is almost nobody who will assume that John is “a nice friendly black minister who scored non-zero on the Implicit Association Test.”
3) The term is always avoidable. There is no use of “racism” or “racist” which cannot be replaced by the definition/descriptor that you actually mean.
4) The choice to use a non-specific and known-to-be-insulting term in the context of a philosophical argument, rests on the person using it. When you (or anyone) chooses such a term, you have demonstrated your willingness to degrade the argument.
For those reasons, I don’t think “racism” is a reasonable term for intellectual argument. It is “broken.”Report
Lol. Stuff like this is why none of my friends took me seriously when I told them I was going into this philosophy thing.Report
JT, that is a highly ironic comment given its context in a thread on a post about “making discussions here better”. I don’t see how laughing outright at others’ comments in a derisive fashion is going to make discussions here better. It seems to me that your confidence in your convictions is inflated by the fact that all your friends share them.Report
I do not mean to agree with JT on this or disagree with Erik H. But laughter and irony are (part of) what makes us human… they should be allowed in any adult, intelligent conversation.Report
Now that you’ve said that, Desiderio, I can interpret JT’s comment in a much more lighthearted manner. At first, it struck me as derisive, dismissive and lacking in epistemic humility. But now I can see how it could just be a moment of droll reflection. And I can kind of “toggle” between the two interpretations, a bit like a visual illusion. I suppose the written word in these sorts of contexts can leave a lot of emotional ambiguity.Report
If that was agreed upon in philosophy, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’d much prefer that things weren’t the way they are now. The certainly weren’t when I started out.Report
Actually, I used to disagree with the lot of them on this, which is why I got this far into philosophy. I used to think in much the same way about this stuff as Dan does. This has changed in the last couple of years, to the dismay of some of my philosophical friends, which is partly why I’m getting out.Report
[shrug] I view this as a practical argument, not a philosophical one. I focus on practice because “convincing laypeople” is what I do for a living these days–i’m currently a lawyer and a mediator–and I’m quite good at it, although I don’t spend much time on a comment thread.
In a mediation, the goal is often to identify things which have wildly differing values to both parties. If you’re lucky there will be equivalents on both sides: this permits the sides to give up something which they perceive as low-value, and to receive something that they consider high-value. Finding these things is difficult, and can be crucial to complex settlements.
Avoiding the reverse application is also crucial. Much of my job is to help folks recognize demands that they admit are low-value to them, but which are are high-value to the other side. Usually these are demands which should be avoided.
Accusations of racism are usually in the “avoid” category.
For the speaker, the “racism” term isn’t usually a high-value statement when compared to the alternatives. After all, a speaker can pretty much always say what they actually mean by “racist”. The definition will be far superior, or at least equivalent, to the generic term: the more specific it is, the better.
For the recipient, avoiding the term is usually a very high-value tradeoff. People detest being called a racist. They will fight back as hard as they can to avoid it. They will also reduce concessions on their side if the term remains, since it is so costly to them. But most people are far less resistant to discussing the underlying facts which gave rise to the claim.
Of course, you can always use high-cost issues as a threat; if you want to win by force, that’s fine. Sometimes you might prefer to spend $20,000 to win $5,000, just on principle. Sometimes you might prefer to call someone a racist, even if you think it will cause them to oppose your side even more than they already do. Perhaps you’re angry or are more focused on screwing them over than obtaining a resolution. Perhaps you think that force is the best alternative.
That can be a perfectly rational call, but it is not civil discourse. And it isn’t what they seem to want on this web page.
I might also recommend this post:
JT’s recent comments provide an opportunity for drawing some of the disagreement into sharper focus. For instance, JT refers to Dan’s “whinging” about illiberal students no-platforming speakers and suggests that it is hypocritical of Dan to point out places where a recent guest blogger falls short of the standards Justin puts up above. JT also takes Dan to task for using ‘illiberal’ to characterize the former sort of behavior while also objecting to the way ‘racist’ is used in some quarters to silence discussion of what are sometimes called ‘hatefacts’ (don’t google that), the sort of thing that young college students want to debate when, for instance, they invite a Charles Murray to Middlebury. In a later comment JT grants that ‘racist’ is more ‘problematic’ than ‘illiberal’, but the point remains: it’s supposed to be ‘farcical’ that Dan objects to shouting down speakers and the way ‘racist’ is used in some quarters, but is happy to encourage Justin to have his guest-bloggers meet his guidelines or to use ‘illiberal’ to refer to displays like those at Middlebury.
What this line of thinking illustrates is the need to be clear about whether ‘illiberal’ fits the bill as a descriptive term accurately characterizing the behavior that it is generally applied to, while terms like ‘racist’ are more commonly deployed in prescriptive ways meant not to accurately characterize what is going on but rather to socially condemn people and keep certain views beyond the pale of discussion. I think there’s a plausible case to be made that this is going on, and that JT doesn’t do much to raise any real problem of hypocrisy in what Dan has said here. But it seems to me that’s where the debate sits.Report
I was offering to use Kaufman’s definition, whatever it might be, to bracket the debate about the definition of racism, as racism was only brought into this for purposes of analogy, so that one’s exact choice of definition is not relevant.Report
Justin, you say: “I’m happy to provide a public square for the profession to have [contentious] discussions.”
I think this is a laudable goal and the guidelines you propose are appropriate for pursuing it.
But although the goal is laudable, I worry that its appeal rests on false assumptions about the (online) public square. Existing research should lead us to expect that directly discussing contentious issues, particularly online, will polarize opposing sides of the debate. Not only are people unlikely to be convinced by the other side, they’re not likely to make concessions or moderate their views. Indeed, they’re likely to more strongly hold their original views and think less of the other side. The research I base this claim on is usefully summarized by Jason Brennan here:
See also Cass Sunstein’s discussion of some important experiments here:
(Discussion of experiments starts around 8:25.)
When I read through comments in these kinds of spaces, I sadly find only confirmation for the hypotheses discussed by Brennan: almost no one seems to change their views in the direction of their “opponents” and polarized groups seem to flourish. Philosophers don’t seem to do better than anyone else.
I worry that commenters, as well as people reading silently on the sidelines, take this polarization with them when they leave the site. I worry that they bring it into their research, teaching, and departmental service.
Of course, we need to discuss contentious issues. But I read the research as telling us that we’re better off doing so through older-fashioned media like full-length articles rather than comment threads.Report