Mount St. Mary’s Students Call for Resignation of Philosophy Professor
Students at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland are calling for the resignation of philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild because of an article he wrote earlier this month for The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute, a conservative advocacy organization.
The article, “Once Upon a Presidency,” is an attempt to sympathetically convey the perspective of supporters of Donald Trump (including those who were at the January 6th attack on the Capitol), portraying the ignorance, question-begging, conspiracy-theorizing, hypocrisy, and anti-intellectualism common to Trumpism as reasonable or understandable. While absurd, it is at the same time actually a useful look at recent events through a mindset many readers of Daily Nous will find alien.
The article caught the attention of Mount St. Mary’s students, who have launched a petition calling for Professor Hochschild’s resignation. Brea Purdie, the student who authored the petition, writes:
I find it repulsive that Hochschild calls for respectability and humanity when the actions of Trump supporters on January 6 proved to be less than that. I find it telling that he asks for decency when there are prominent white supremacists rubbing elbows at the same event as he, and proudly boasting racial symbolism along with the American flag. Lastly, I find it incriminating that he went to such frivolous extremes to weave a narrative in which he is the victim of attending an event where people lost their lives, and white supremacy ran rampant. For him to call for respect in a situation where his peers call for the eradication of my being, yet he claims to uphold pro-life, is bigotry. I refuse to accept or respect this.
Readers should note that though he calls the article “semi-autobiographical,” it is not clear to what extent, if any, Professor Hochshild is one of the Trumpers whose views he expresses in his article, nor is it clear from the article that he actually attended Trump’s speech on the 6th or the subsequent violent attempt to halt Congress’s certification of votes. Professor Hochschild himself says on Twitter, “I did not participate in any riots,” but he might also deny that there was a riot, as in his article he describes the march on the Capitol as “a protest” of mostly “cheerful and patriotic, generous and civic-minded, orderly and polite” people. In any event, he says of the article, “I wrote a story to promote understanding. No other intention: not to advance an agenda, nor offend individuals. Feel free to criticize me for it.”
The students and others who have signed the petition appear to be doing just that. Are they doing more than that? It is not clear. The petition calls for Professor Hochschild to resign.* Such a request does not itself call for a violation of his academic freedom, which unambigously protects him from any institutional disciplinary measures for writing the article. Yet the petition also says, “Immediate action must be made, and I implore The Mount to rethink their decision of inactivity.” This statement is presumably aimed at the university’s administration, and seems to call for the university to take action in the wake of Hochschild’s article. Whether the petitioners intend such action to be something like disciplining or firing Hochschild, which would be a call for his academic freedom to be violated, or instead something like issuing a statement, hosting a public conversation about the article, or launching various initiatives to counter a perceived “hostile environment”, is unclear. Of course, people may take issue with the petition’s main idea that because of his views, Hochschild should no longer work at the university.**
In light of the publicity that the response to Professor Hochschild’s article is getting, the provost of Mount St. Mary’s University issued a statement reiterating its commitment to academic freedom, calling for members of the university to work together with “mutual respect” to “reach a greater understanding of each other’s views and to discern the facts about the state of our society,” and announcing several diversity-related initiatives:
A Maryland television news station covers the story here.
* Earlier reporting of this story elsewhere (for example) said that the students were calling for Hochschild’s firing. It appears those reports were mistaken. An early screengrab of the petition contains the “resignation” language.
** Prompted by comments from Daniel Greco, David Wallace, and Daniel Groll, this paragraph has been revised. So later readers can understand what they are responding to in their comments, below is the text that was replaced:
The students and others who have signed the petition appear to be doing just that. In calling for Professor Hochschild to resign, rather than for the university fire him* they do not appear to be requesting the university violate his academic freedom, which unambigously protects him from any institutional disciplinary measures for writing the article. Rather, they are making use of their own free speech rights to protest and object to Professor Hochschild’s views. [Edited to add: However, as Daniel Greco’s comment, below in which he quotes a part of the petition text that asks the university to “rethink their decision of inactivity”.]
Why have you not presented anything written by the professor in the article? It seems absurd not to provide even a single sentence from his article in this post.
I included a link to the entire article. If you think there is a passage in it worth drawing particular attention to, you are welcome to do so.Report
My point is that you have not drawn attention to any claim in Hochschild’s essay to which you specifically object, nor have the students. I’m an old goat, so old that I feel comfortable saying: that’s not the way philosophical discussion is best conducted. I would never start a critique of an opponent by 1) suggesting that all my readers will find the “mindset” of my opponent’s narrative to be “alien.” 2) describing my opponent’s mindset (along with that of 75 million other people) as ignorant, question-begging, hypocritical conspiracy-theorist, and anti-intellectual, to boot, without offering a specific response to something he had written. In the old days, we might call that an ad hominem attack. 3) implying that my opponent’s essay goes against the basic values of a university, without specifying which values or what, in the essay, conflicts with those values. As for the student petition: unlike the students, I did not find Hochschild “calling for” a)respectability, b)humanity, or 3)decency in his essay. The main thing he called for, at the end of his essay, was the legitimacy of reasonable skepticism, after complaining throughout his essay that skepticism itself has been stigmatized at this cultural moment. But we all know this to be a very old problem; and much of the history of philosophy has concerned various thinkers skeptically challenging received views or even developing skepticism as a methodology. But Trump supporters are not philosophers, you may say. It appears that at least one is. I’ve never met Hochschild, but I’m guessing he is a respectable, humane, decent person. And I am skeptical about the notion, hinted at by the students, that he is sympathetic to the “eradication of [anyone’s] being.”Report
Josh Hochschild can claim that his purpose is just to explore alternative viewpoints or remind us of the legitimacy of reasonable skepticism, but anyone who isn’t a child will know the actual context of his essay and see through that bit of rhetoric. Donald Trump and his lawyers falsely, and without a shred of real evidence, denied the legitimacy of President Biden’s election. This pattern of lies, which they still have not retracted, incited the attack on the Capitol and — much more importantly — has done immense and possibly irreparable damage to the fabric of American democracy. For a tenured academic to use his intellectual heft to articulate faux justifications for this nonsense is disgusting. To do so in the name of “reasonable skepticism”, presenting himself as someone “just asking questions”, is an embarrassment.Report
I read about two-thirds of the Hochschild piece, couldn’t bring myself to finish it (one of the things he links to, an article about a small city in W. Va., I found to be of some interest, but that was it).
Not only does he try to justify Trump’s “skepticism” and falsehoods about the election; he also tries to defend Trump’s record, praising among other things his having presided over a “robust” economy and having “reframed diplomacy in the Middle East.” To anyone who even half-followed what Trump did on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Iran, for instance, the praise is absurd.
Of course Hochschild is entitled to express these views, but it’s worth noting how flimsy and unconvincing they are.
P.s. In case it’s not obvious, I am agreeing with ‘Critic’ here.Report
Having looked at the petition, it doesn’t look to me as if your description of it as merely calling for his resignation, and not asking his employer to take some kind of disciplinary action, is accurate. Here’s the last paragraph:
“Before The Mount makes the argument that these views are that of his own, it must be noted that he publicly posted his affiliation to the institution in this article. In addition to this, his views reflect his teaching, where students of color have repeatedly reported racial bias in his classroom. After this publication, we now see why he refuses to acknowledge institutional racism in higher education, and why he creates a hostile environment for students that don’t subscribe to his ideals. Immediate action must be made, and I implore The Mount to rethink their decision of inactivity.”Report
Thanks for pointing this out, Daniel. I’ve added a note to the text of the post about this.Report
Would also be healthy to note that DailyNous and other philosophers defended Josh when they shielded both students and faculty against egregious conduct from their former President. Both at great financial and reputational expense. This man is no monster.
“In calling for Professor Hochschild to resign, rather than for the university fire him* they do not appear to be requesting the university violate his academic freedom, which unambig[u]ously protects him from any institutional disciplinary measures for writing the article. Rather, they are making use of their own free speech rights to protest and object to Professor Hochschild’s views.”
The first sentence of this is clearly false, as pointed out by Daniel Greco: the text of the petition makes clear that the students are making a demand to Mount St. Mary’s admin, not a request to Professor Hochschild. (The fact that they couch it as a resignation demand not a firing demand doesn’t seem especially salient: the two are used fairly interchangeably in the broader discourse and lots of de facto firings are formally couched as resignations.) Justin: I think you should edit this; just adding a parenthetical reference to Daniel Greco’s comment doesn’t really correct the error. (Or if you still think it’s correct as it stands, I’d be very interested to know why.)
The fact that the students are using their own free speech rights seems neither here nor there. They have a free speech right to call for Professor Hochschild to be fired; indeed, they have a free speech right to call for Professor Hochschild to be arrested and executed by the federal government. The issue is whether their demand shows a lamentable lack of understanding of academic freedom, not whether they in turn should face sanction for their speech. (And if I in turn were to exercise my free speech rights to call for the signatories to withdraw from Mount St. Mary’s, that too would be lamentable, especially if I addressed that call to the Mount St. Mary’s admin and not to the students themselves..)Report
Thanks for the suggestion. I have revised the paragraph in question somewhat in response to your comment and the ones from Daniel Greco and Daniel Groll.Report
Great: much clearer. Thanks.Report
As a longtime friend of Josh Hochschild’s I was appalled when I read this essay, and have been quite disturbed by the social media behavior from him that’s surrounded it.
However, surely the adults in this room can recognize that giving such attention to this incident only supplies Hochschild with more of what he is looking for, viz. an opportunity to play the martyr, and reinforces the narrative among Trumpists that elite academics are joining with the mainstream media to trample on their free speech rights. (That this narrative is to some extent true is neither here nor there: the point is that it’s a bad idea for Daily Nous to feed the flames, at least on this occasion.)
More generally, given the evident incoherence and downright illiteracy of this petition (at least judging from the portion that Daniel Greco has quoted), surely the proper thing for us to do is to recognize the petition privately as the pointless and absurd performance that it is, and then ask ourselves what might be done in order actually to bring it about that Hochschild experiences a change of heart and repents of the harm he’s done to the Mount and to friends of his and other conservative academics, who now have to be tarred by association with this shit.
For shame, Josh. Like, really, what the fuck?
But, Justin, your coverage of this car crash is only making the situation much worse.Report
I’m not privy to the social media behaviour you mention, but I’m a bit surprised by the contrast here between your use of the word “friend” (indeed, “longtime friend”) and the rest of what you have to say about Hochschild.Report
I have a lot of friends, including some close and longtime ones, who’ve been corrupted by Trumpism, much to my dismay. (There but for God’s grace go I, however.) What most of them haven’t done is write an essay like this one that acts as red meat for “Stop the Steal” lunatics while at the same time hiding behind the veneer of “legitimate skepticism” in order to avoid taking a genuine stand, then use the whole sorry incident as a way to make themselves free speech martyrs. It’s a gross betrayal of everything a Catholic intellectual should stand for. Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.Report
I am generally sympathetic with Justin’s efforts to push back against overblown concerns about “cancel culture”, “silencing” etc., but in this case I fear he has missed the mark.
The situation here seems simple: students thinks a professor should no longer work at their institution because of a popular article he wrote. I think the students are clearly wrong to make that demand and our primary response should be to say so, whatever the supposed subtlety in the students’ demand that the prof resign rather than be fired.
My claim is not that such a demand can *never* be appropriate. I can easily imagine a kind of article that merits a call for resignation. But I think it is equally clear that Prof. Hochschild’s article is not that kind of article.
First, just taken on its own, there’s nothing in there that clearly crosses “the line” where it is reasonable to demand that someone give up their job for what they’ve written or, more generally, where the appropriate response is not first-order argument with/about the ideas but rather a kind of second-order argument that the person’s speech is sufficiently outside the bounds of the reasonable that it merits resignation/firing.
Second, even if a case could be made that the article, considered on its own, does cross some line, drawing “the line” in such a way that this article crosses it is bad policy. No matter where we draw “the line,” we’re going to get false negatives and false positives because of borderline cases. The closer we draw “the line” to reasonable speech the more likely it is that there will be cases where reasonable speech is construed as crossing “the line”. The further “the line” is from reasonable speech, the more likely it is that something which crosses “the line” will be construed as reasonable speech. Given that we’re going to make mistakes no matter where we draw the line, the key question — in my mind — is “In what direction should we err?”
My view is that, as academics, we should strongly favor drawing the line so as to avoid, almost as much as possible, reasonable speech being counted as crossing “the line.” And if we do that, then I think it’s clear that Prof. Hochschild’s article does not come anywhere close to crossing where “the line” should be from a policy point of view.
If that’s right, then there’s really nothing complicated about how we should react to the students’ demand. The dominant response to the students’ letter should not be, “Well, technically they’re not calling for him to be silenced or fired or what have you” but instead, “We, as academics, strongly condemn attempts to pressure the professor to resign for writing the article. The response is totally out of proportion to the supposed infraction and, more generally, the value of academic freedom demands that we protect people’s right to publish articles of this kind. Students: you are no doubt well-intentioned and many of us may agree with your politics. But: you’ve really got it wrong in this case.”Report
Thanks, Daniel. I’ve revised the post somewhat. I agree with you that Hochschild’s article is not over the line — or even close. I also agree that the students should not be calling for his resignation, but I did not want to delve much into that in the post. Perhaps that was an error on my part. As part of the revisions I added “Of course, people may take issue with the petition’s main idea that because of his views, Hochschild should no longer work at the university” as a nod to the concerns you raise in this comment.Report
Thanks for your reply Justin. It sounds like we probably agree on the substance of the matter. The only thing I would add is that I think I’m less sanguine than you about calls for official administrative action that fall short of firing (like issuing a “statement”). No doubt: it’s much much better than calls for resignation! But even so, I think we should be wary of encouraging approaches to reasonable speech that call for official administrative responses rather than direct engagement with the speech. (One reason I think so is that I think students and faculty alike should generally be wary of asking administrators to exercise power in lieu of more direct action by students and/or faculty).Report
I think you’re right about our differences here. I agree that “direct engagement with the speech” (by students, faculty, outside critics, etc) should generally be encouraged (though in some instances this may be asking a lot, or too much). But I also think that official statements that reaffirm the basic values of the institution, prompted by protected expressions of perceived threats to those values, can be a desirable form of additional speech in these contexts. I understand that the relevant power relations (here, employer-employee) can make this tricky to navigate.Report
It’s important for us to remember that the Red Guard was, after all, just exercising their own free speech rights when they posted ‘big character posters’ (dàzìbào) accusing faculty at Peking University of counter-revolutionary thoughts and activities. Surely those who value a liberal society in which all are free to speak and think as they wish should not be concerned about these developments.Report
To begin with: No, of course Professor Hochschild should not be fired, asked to resign, or otherwise sanctioned for writing this article. So much of value depends upon our willingness to stand in solidarity with colleagues who express controversial views, and against the erosion of academic freedom.
Having said that, I am growing weary of this run of pieces by authors who clearly support Trump, but rather than lay their cards on the table, play coy instead — maybe so that they can cast as fools those who try to pin down their commitments. Extra points (or extra demerits) for cloaking themselves in an ill-defined “anti-establishment” mantle. Having looked at Hochschild’s webpage, I’d say that this is a case of “putting old whine in new bowties”. If this spate of disingenuous work does not draw to an end very soon, I fear it will deserve the label “evergreenwald”.Report
I thank Dr Sepielli for finally cutting to the quick of this issue.
If philosophers and our students can agree that we should limit the number of charlatan grifters in our midst trying to parlay the title of “professor of philosophy” into a foot on the lowest rung of the pseudo-conservative grievance-media gravy train, then we could direct our attention away from individual cases toward a simple hiring ban on anyone who has been photographed (more than once) wearing a bow tie.Report
He states that it is not autobiographical (but merely “semi-autobiographical”)—I’ve glanced briefly at his twitter account. He says in a tweet: “But I wrote this to help make a perspective intelligible for people who disagree but want to understand.” It’s not at all clear to me that he should not have written/published it, even if it is clear to me that Trump has been bad for people and that being a Trump supporter itself demonstrates a certain kind of intellectual corruption. (Vilifying Trump supporters to the degree that the publication of this essay is itself regarded as beyond the pale also demonstrates a certain kind of intellectual corruption).
Other helpful context, which lays out a drafted preface to the work, explaining its genre …
What a pile of [redacted]. The US just came as close as we ever have to a bona fide coup attempt, a sizable portion of the country is gripped by mass delusion, and here is Josh Hochschild writing thousands of words in a right-wing rag to “elicit sympathy” and “get people thinking” and “provide narrative context” in place of “limited notions of reasons”. (Sorry, I can’t bring myself to go back for the exact quotes.) Somehow I think he would’ve been in a different place five years ago if someone had penned such a thing about Simon Newman, the tyrannical past president at MSMU who tried to fire Josh and several other faculty for their opposition to his policies.Report
I suspect you and I are very close in philosophical and political orientation. But in working out whether such a publication is prudent or not, I suppose my thought is that there is a complete lack of effort, in our current political divide, to understand and sympathize with the other side. You may think such a lack of effort is perfectly justified (wrt ‘stop the steal’ folks), I think it’s really destructive and leads to further division and extremism. So insofar as such a publication contributes to such understanding, I think it’s a good thing.
You think that such a publication will only serve to further justify the ‘stolen election’ narrative. I agree that this would be bad, since I think this narrative is not only false, but corrupting in certain ways.
But, as an outsider, it seems entirely plausible that JH has the intentions that he says he has, even if the essay overall has a destructive effect. And it is at least not obvious that the essay is destructive, bad, or irresponsible. People should try to understand each other, and understanding often requires trying to place oneself into another person’s perspective for a moment. Report
Yes: (i) I do think that in fact this publication will do more to reinforce “Stop the Steal” lunacy than it will lead to a deeper understanding of those who’ve succumbed to it, that (ii) it is indeed fairly obvious that this will be its net effect, and, finally, (iii) that it’s also fairly obvious that reinforcing Trumpist lunacy was a significant part of Josh Hochschild’s purpose, whether or not he’s willing to acknowledge it even to himself. But all these are factual questions, not philosophical ones, and I see no point in debating this matter further.Report
Okay—not intending a debate—let’s grant it has a negative net effect and is therefore irresponsible. It still might be good for people on this platform, who are generally not Trumpists, to read it with an open mind, as addressed to people like them (unsympathetic people who nevertheless want to understand).Report
God forbid a philosophy professor, who happens to agree with a *significant portion of the country* on certain issues, write an essay which presents the mindset from the inside. The fact that so many here find it beyond the pale is just further evidence that it should be done. I am not a Trump supporter, but I have Trump supporters in my friends and family and I assure you, they are not bad people. So what is going on? Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if someone published an essay, explaining what is going on, why decent people supported Trump. Who better to do it than a person who himself might be a Trump supporter? If the fact that someone like that might be *one of us* (GASP) is too much for you to comprehend, you might consider, for a second, that you are as vulnerable to the very ignorance, closed-mindedness, and media manipulation, which you so readily attribute to the other side.
I also find calls to be forthright really irritating. Even this account has the students calling for his resignation, for the university to take some action against him. Just to recap—merely presenting Trump supporters (30+% of the population) sympathetically has students calling for your resignation, fellow academics and “friends” cursing at you, etc.Report
I think the article is beyond the pale because it boosts propaganda about the 2020 election, propaganda that was developed and spread by a dangerous authoritarian movement. I found the link to the “political scientist” who had concluded that the election was stolen particularly egregious. I think boosting such propaganda is beyond the pale in the same way that boosting the “stabbed in the back” myth in Weimar Germany was. I understood, before reading this essay, that this propaganda had been successful thanks to being boosted and endorsed by various right-wing authorities. (And also that Trump successfully conned people who were “fed up with both parties,” etc.; it’s all old news.)
I have Trump supporter friends. Everyone does. Are they “bad people”? Most of them surely have many virtues; their support for an authoritarian movement is, obviously, a vice or derives from vices (e.g., the epistemic vices that would lead one to take the “political scientist” in question seriously). I assume all the same was true of many casual supporters of fascist movements in other times and places.Report
Thanks for this—I think it helps explain more where you are coming from. Are the standards higher for JH because he’s Catholic, maybe a semi-prominent Catholic philosopher? I suppose I think a lot of things are “beyond the pale” in some sense—(like advancing the pro-choice cause, particularly if one is Catholic) but given that people believe these things, it’s better to have the thought process explained and the rationale laid out, especially if the view in question is sufficiently widespread.
I’m wondering if the difference here is that I don’t know JH—if I did, maybe I would feel a certain betrayal, think that he should know better. But to me he’s a mistaken guy explaining the reasons for believing what he does, similar to people defending the legality of abortion, etc. I take those people at their word, I don’t attribute nasty motives to them—shouldn’t I treat JH the same way? Both sets of lies, to my mind, have been really destructive and will continue to be destructive.
In sum—dangerous and destructive ideologies abound. It’s best if we are not taken in by them. But given that lots of people are taken in by them, we shouldn’t vilify people who defend such views, or present them sympathetically. But if we’re talking in terms of an internal Catholic-philosopher dispute, then I might see more the reasons one might be particularly incensed.Report
Whoops, I took you to be “Critic” so some of what I say here does not apply at all—sorry! What I would say to someone, setting aside any special intellectual responsibilities one might have as a Catholic philosopher, is that I think there are gong to be differences here just with respect to how uniquely bad a vice this is. In other words, the difference is that I think a lot of philosophers defend and promote dangerous, destructive garbage. I’ve learned to welcome it, since I think it’s necessary to engage sympathetically with each other over these disagreements. This is just another instance of that.Report
“Are the standards higher for JH because he’s Catholic, maybe a semi-prominent Catholic philosopher?”
Like I say, his essay is ‘beyond the pale’ in the sense of being part of a dangerous propaganda campaign–one that, according to scholars like Daniel Ziblatt, Steven Levitsky, Robert Paxton, Timothy Snyder, and Jason Stanley, Rick Hasen, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and others, puts American democracy at risk.
So let me clarify the sense in which JH is “part of a propaganda campaign” in a sense in which other kinds of activism aren’t. Extremists have captured the Republican party in part through a deliberate propaganda campaign that exploits the way the media, including social media, work. As Yochai Benkler and his colleagues have argued, right-wing news sources are uniquely amenable to fake news originating on social media–or in state government “voter fraud hearings.” People like Bannon and Giuliani understand this and have weaponized it.
By contrast, a lot of writing on abortion isn’t intended as propaganda to exploit a certain media system’s lack of immunity to lies or falsehoods in order to bring about a disastrous result. (To the extent that activism on some massively important issue is propagandistic in this sense, I would also call it beyond the pale.)
To make oneself a node in such a propaganda network is different from giving a philosophical argument for some position. JH made himself part of the propaganda network by directing his readers to plenty of Trump-related propaganda, particularly concerning the election. As I say, the blog post he linked to was particularly egregious.
So in saying his post is “beyond the pale,” I’m saying we should be aware of its role in authoritarian propaganda and should try to mitigate its negative effects. I think this is consistent with Preston Stovall’s recommendation of setting aside reactive attitudes (as difficult as this is for humans who worry about democratic backsliding) and, in general, taking a goal-oriented approach to discussions of it, including with those who agree with it. I am a little baffled by his and your claim that this essay illuminates the Trump supporter’s mindset but if it does that for some, that can be acknowledged without expressing appreciation for the essay. Again, to me, that’s like a liberal in the Weimar Republic expressing appreciation for an explanation of people’s belief in the “stabbed in the back” myth that reinforces this myth. (Note: I’m not saying American right-wing authoritarians are likely to be as murderous as the Nazis were. The analogy is with the promotion of authoritarian propaganda. I agree with Daniel Ziblatt, who argues that Weimar Germany is the closest historical parallel to our current situation and that “there are real differences, and I’m always careful when making these Weimar comparisons. But as dangerous as it is to go wild with the Weimar comparisons, it’s just as dangerous to foreclose that comparison because it ended so badly.” https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22151075/trump-republican-party-american-democracy-daniel-ziblatt )Report
I can be a little more concrete: we should avoid normalizing authoritarian propaganda. How best to do that is an empirical question.Report
I’m just not sure about the uniqueness of this. A prominent Christian philosopher recently wrote a popular piece defending the legality of abortion. It was full of specious arguments, but he probably thought they were great. I’m sure he didn’t intend it to be exploiting the media’s immunity to lies, etc., but it did exploit the media’s immunity to lies, and in a way that (to my mind) will have very bad consequences. And it supported a political movement that has (to my mind) corrupted many, including the majority of philosophers. Is that propaganda? Surely the difference is not the actual intention—both take themselves to be promoting truth. Why should I see JH as making himself a “node in the propaganda network” but this Christian philosopher as not?
In fact, it’s hard to see how this construal of propaganda doesn’t just boil down to “popular pieces that support falsehoods” (maybe with some addendum that it’s political or that it matters a lot). Then to argue that a piece is propaganda, it is sufficient to argue that it is false. I don’t have a horse in the race wrt the definition of propaganda, but I would say that if we accept your construal of it, most of popular philosophy would then be propaganda.
Also, if I’ve expressed appreciation for the essay, I hope it’s in an attenuated sense. What I meant to do was defend it against charges that it’s particularly egregious, or should have never been written, or other such charges—I think such charges display a lack of self-awareness and an intellectually irresponsible double standard.Report
“I’m just not sure about the uniqueness of this. A prominent Christian philosopher recently wrote a popular piece defending the legality of abortion. It was full of specious arguments, but he probably thought they were great. I’m sure he didn’t intend it to be exploiting the media’s immunity to lies, etc., but it did exploit the media’s immunity to lies, and in a way that (to my mind) will have very bad consequences.”
“it’s hard to see how this construal of propaganda doesn’t just boil down to “popular pieces that support falsehoods” (maybe with some addendum that it’s political or that it matters a lot).”
There are several differences between the two cases you’re considering. Some are differences of degree. But they’re massive and therefore justify different reactions, as differences in degree often do.
First, the problem Benkler identifies has to do with factual errors, not “specious arguments.” Second, the problem he identifies is that the right-wing information network has far less immunity to falsehoods than other information networks. Third, JH isn’t just repeating mistakes. The originators of the lies he’s repeating know that they’ll spread through an information network with weak safeguards against misinformation and exploit this for political advantage. That’s what Giuliani banks on when he organizes the state government “voter fraud” hearings and waves printed out affidavits on Fox News. (I’m not claiming JH is aware of this.)
I’m against all spreading of falsehood and bad reasoning. But there’s a difference between (a) contributing to the exploitation of a system of factual falsehood in order to bring about a disaster and (b) being wrong and having one’s wrongness repeated by a mostly decent system (even if it were to contribute to a disaster). This difference licenses different responses. Awareness of the specifics of how right-wing propaganda functions is probably the most important one, though there are likely others.Report
I don’t think there’s a sharp distinction between factual errors and specious arguments. Oftentimes even full-blown propaganda doesn’t rely on anything we would call factual errors or lies so much as a selective presentation of statistics, etc. Oftentimes this selective presentation is not done with overt intentions to mislead, in the sense that the person believes in the cause, and wants to further it through the strongest possible and most “salient” data. I’m going to see how skewed the presentation is if the perspective is not my own. And sure, some presentations are more egregious than others. But I see it all the time in pro-choice arguments—again, I don’t think it’s intentional, although it betrays a certain kind of intellectual vice.
And I agree that there are differences here (one can have a more cogent defense of a pro-choice position)—my point about the abortion thing was just that it can’t only be the destructiveness of the movement that makes JH’s piece “beyond the pale”. We disagree about matters of real consequence all the time.
Labels like ‘propaganda’ tend to be distractions, since then we start arguing about the scope of the evaluative term rather than just saying what is bad (or not) about this particular thing. I.e., we now have to answer: ‘is it propaganda? and why is propaganda bad?’ rather than just ‘why is this bad?’. Again, I don’t think a piece explaining the thought process behind ‘stop the steal’, given how widespread the movement is/was, is something we ought to think of as ‘beyond the pale’.Report
“I don’t think there’s a sharp distinction between factual errors and specious arguments.”
There is: false claims vs. bad inferences. And false claims are among the things that get asymmetrical amplified in the right-wing social media network in question, e.g, factually false claims about pedophiles in pizza parlors, the dangers of vaccines, and election fraud in PA. The political scientist JH links to echoes claims in this last category.
Furthermore, the relevant part of Benkler’s theory can be expressed in terms of a degree concept.
I’m not sure that ‘propaganda’ isn’t a useful term. I haven’t looked at the research on it in depth (a brief summary I once heard of Stanley’s worm made it seem interesting to me). But I use the term eliminably. It doesn’t occur in my a/b distinction, for example.
You list a few questions that are important to ask about the spreading of dangerous falsehoods. One that you leave out is: how does it spread? This is central to what I’m saying. Just as we must take different steps to stop a disease that people spread to each other by breathing vs one that spreads through mosquito bites, likewise, we must take different steps in response of the (a)-type vs. (b)-type spread dangerous falsehood.
I think everyone will agree with you that explanations of belief in the stop the steal lies are valuable. The issue, obviously, is in how it addresses lies about election theft. Does it deal with it in way (a)? If so, that’s a fact about it that its audience has a legitimate interest in knowing.Report
I still can’t buy the distinction, as least, not as strictly as you seem to apply it, such that JH falls into (a) because he links to a blog post with some misinformation, while other spreaders of falsehoods fall into (b) because they are making honest mistakes, or something (even though they also often repeat misinformation, it’s … a decent system? Or the system isn’t designed [by whom?] to spread falsehood? Sorry, I just don’t understand your (b)-type). There are so many factual errors out there, that are repeated in all kinds of fora, often innocently enough. E.g., that a police officer died at the capitol as a result of being hit with a fire extinguisher. Is this automatically (a)-type? Why did this continue to be repeated? It fits a narrative, and the narrative takes on a life that carries along these falsehoods with it. There are other, more controversial examples. So even though there is a distinction between an outright falsehood and a specious argument, in practice these things almost always are intermixed. Even the worst examples of promotion of falsehood weave together a narrative through a combination of selective attention, straw men, falsehoods, specious arguments and so on. The blog post linked to is an example of this. But there are so many examples of this, this is something even famous philosophers do, and they get accolades, not approbation, if their views are the ‘correct’ ones. Again, I just don’t see what you call (a)-type spreading of falsehood as practically separable from other types, nor is it unique to this political movement, and JH’s article isn’t even an example of (a)-type, links to terrible blog posts notwithstanding.Report
I don’t think the considerations you raise, about the typical correlations between falsehood and speciousness, suggest that amenability to factual falsehood isn’t a distinct property of an information network meriting analysis. But it doesn’t matter, to reiterate, Benkler’s theory, on which my distinction is based, can be drawn in terms of degrees of speciousness too.
It sounds like you deny Benkler’s theory that there are two functionally distinct networks of information, a right-wing one and another, centrist/mainstream/liberal one, where the right wing one behaves significantly differently with respect to fake news, ie, both outright falsehoods and species arguments. You point out that both networks contain some of each and that philosophers get accolades for specious arguments. I just don’t think gesturing at unnamed anecdotes is a way to reject a rigorous theory justified by a large body of data.
As for weather JH’s article meets the criteria for an a-type article, I think it clearly does, but am honestly fine with agreeing to disagree about it at this point. Had we started with that question, I might have been up for it.Report
And this may be old news to you, but for anyone to whom it’s not the issue of how the right wing media Network is *exploited* by those who understand its weaknesses is a complex and interesting one. One way to start thinking about it is through Bannon’s “flood the zone” theory.Report
Ah, sorry—I think I get it now. You are appealing to Benkler’s distinction between networks to make an evaluative claim on the basis of that distinction. It’s okay to spread misinformation on the left because you are part of a fundamentally decent system, while if you spread misinformation on the right, you are part of a network of propaganda. You are right that I reject that distinction, I suppose, in one sense. While I’m not opposed to the idea of there being different modes of dissemination on the right vs. the left, I am strongly suspicious of that distinction being used to justify stricter standards of what is acceptable on the right vs. the left. I would think that whatever standards we use, it should be consistent, and that we should be especially suspicious of our own appeal to differential standards if it happens to impose stricter requirements on those who disagree with us.Report
Nothing I’ve said is suggestive of the idea that it’s okay to spread misinformation on the left. I’ll step away from this conversation now. Cheers.Report
Okay—fair enough. It’s hard to discern what you are arguing if it is not that misinformation is beyond the pale for JH *because* he is presenting a right wing viewpoint, and it would not be beyond the pale were he not advancing this particular viewpoint (I.e. it would be okay (not beyond the pale) were he on the left.) But I agree we’ve talked ourselves out. Best wishes to you.Report
Okay, I can’t resist. Two points. First, I’ve given a sufficient condition on something’s being beyond the pale: boosting authoritarian propaganda that threatens democracy (or, possibly, some other disaster). I didn’t put this forward as a necessary condition. There are loads of ways people can say things from a left-wing viewpoint that are beyond the pale.
Second, I’m not putting forward different standards that are fundamentally based on political orientation. I’m suggesting we be aware of how dangerous propaganda propagates. And it propagates very differently in the right-wing media network than elsewhere. This will mean that evaluations of speech acts based on this specific and, presently, critical property will be skewed on a right/left basis. But, to reject this skewed outcome based on the mistaken assumption that it results from a fundamentally double standard would be to override empirical evidence with an a priori dogma that the right and left must always be equally beyond the pale (in all ways). History as well as the present clearly indicate that dogma is wrong.
When Hitler held power in Nazi Germany, right-wing viewpoints had to deal with the danger of reinforcing Nazism, which they often did. Left-wing viewpoints faced no such danger at that time and place, though they may have addressed others. It’s clear that these dangers weren’t symmetrical. These dangers were likely reversed in, say, China during the cultural revolution.Report
If I’ve been uncharitable, I’m sorry, but likewise, please don’t put words in my mouth. I never claimed an a priori symmetry.
The Nazi example appears to be doing a lot of work here, and your perspective requires seeing the growing authoritarianism on the right as significantly more of a danger than growing authoritarianism on the left. Maybe one major point of disagreement here is that I don’t see things that way. The overblown rhetoric about an ‘armed insurrection’ (in contrast to the ‘peaceful protests’ of the summer), or repetitions of falsehoods (like that Michael Brown was murdered by the police, i.e. his hands were up and he was not a threat) are not clearly less of a threat than ‘stop the steal’ stuff. They are different, surely. You think the threat is so much greater on the right to justify special caution with the way misinformation spreads on the right. I’m skeptical. More to the point, however: when we are quick to excuse (or engage in!) the former, while seeing the latter as ‘beyond the pale’, that is a double standard.
The left-leaning misinformation tends to be used as justifications for crackdowns on free speech. One exaggerates the threat, makes it seem existential, and then progressively places stronger restrictions on the spread of information in order to control the narrative in a way that conforms with the perspective of the current power structures. One could draw parallels with Nazis there, too, of course. (That would be a bit much—just as comparing the right to Nazis because of fake news and a shameful event at an out-of-control riot is a bit much.)
I’m concerned about this (and engaging in this long thread) because philosophers are increasingly blind to the ways that we are ourselves tools of misinformation. I don’t see JH as doing anything different in kind than, say, Jason Stanley or Kate Manne or other people who engage in ‘public philosophy’ are doing, insofar as the latter repeat (or create) skewed narratives for certain political ends, increase division, demonize the other side, and contribute to increasing authoritarianism on the left. JH’s essay could be read as doing similar things: repeating a very skewed and one-sided narrative, built on selective attention and a demonization of established powers on the left, contributing to the vices of the right. Again, these aren’t a priori claims. Just as I don’t think JS and KM are engaged in dangerous propaganda, neither do I think JH is engaged here in dangerous propaganda. They are presenting their sincerely-held views. I think all three are all terribly mistaken, but sheesh—we disagree. About really important things. We should all be comfortable with that.Report
“The Nazi example appears to be doing a lot of work here, and your perspective requires seeing the growing authoritarianism on the right as significantly more of a danger than growing authoritarianism on the left.”
It’s unfortunate that after apologizing for being uncharitable, you immediately go right back to over-simplifying and mischaracterizing my views. Nothing I’ve said here commits me to the overall left vs. right comparative claim you attribute to me here. Again, what I’ve said is that JH’s article has a specific demerit that doesn’t just reduce to being a dangerous falsehood and that’s largely a feature of the right at this point in time, in this country. Maybe you say this because of what you take the Nazi analogy to be doing here. See the Ziblatt quote I shared above.
“Maybe one major point of disagreement here is that I don’t see things that way. The overblown rhetoric about an ‘armed insurrection’ (in contrast to the ‘peaceful protests’ of the summer), or repetitions of falsehoods (like that Michael Brown was murdered by the police while his hands were up and he was not a threat) are not clearly less of a threat than ‘stop the steal’ stuff. They are different, surely. You think the threat is so much greater on the right to justify special caution with the way misinformation spreads on the right. I’m skeptical. More to the point, however: when we are quick to excuse (or engage in!) the former, while seeing the latter as ‘beyond the pale’, that is a double standard.”
I completely disagree with your statement about the Jan 6th attempted auto-coup and somewhat disagree with your characterization of reporting on Michael Brown. But we don’t need to get into that. Three points suffice. First, it goes without saying that there’s rhetoric and writing on the left that’s false, harmful, and/or beyond the pale. That will be true of every political group there ever has been and will ever be. Second, once again, I don’t recommend special caution with respect to the right. To say, based on empirical evidence, that the right is more prone to a certain kind of dangerous propaganda is not to make *any overall comparison* between right and left.
Maybe it would help if I put some cards on the table, as my criticisms of right-wing authoritarianism are often misinterpreted as some kind of view of the left. So let me say, there are dangerous elements of left-wing thought. I can easily imagine certain ways of promoting them whose dangers I would want to point out. I might even say they’re beyond the pale–I don’t share your aversion to that phrase. For example, I think that the left’s response to last summer’s riots was reprehensible and makes me concerned that they’re not as willing to rebuke their most radical elements as I’d like them to be. (I would say, and I think it’s a consensus among people who study this, that the radical left hasn’t captured the Democratic party in the way that the radical right, i.e., Trumpists, have captured the Republican party.) I don’t have a specific example at hand, but I’m certain I could easily find a discussion of these riots that I’d consider beyond the pale.
As for the overall estimation of which side is a bigger threat: first, I don’t know how to debate the issue in a way that could plausibly lead to progress. This is largely because it’s just so hard to weigh the left’s threat to free speech against the right’s threat to democracy in a rigorous way. Second, the threat that most concerns me right now is that the Republican party causes an electoral crisis in 2022 or, as would be more likely, 2024. ( https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-01-20/election-2020-election-lawlessness ) The same radical right-wing forces responsible for this threat also, in my view, contribute to the radicalization of the left and, so, there’s no tradeoff between opposing them. For example, I think Trump presidency contributed to the problems on the left that concern you.
“That would be a bit much—just as comparing the right to Nazis because of fake news and a shameful event at an out-of-control riot is a bit much.”
Again, ‘out-of-control riot’ is a poor description of a planned attempt to violently interrupt an election. But set that aside. If you’re referring to Ziblatt’s or my analogy, again, you’re being uncharitable. Our analogies are by no means based on fake news or January 6th alone, as important as these are. He and others, who I listed above, have been doing excellent work on right-wing authoritarianism for years. Their theories have been spectacularly confirmed, to a degree that’s unusual in the social sciences, over the last couple years by, e.g., Republicans’ support for Trump in the wake of the call to Raffensperger, Graham’s call to Raffensperger (and the lack of repercussions attending it), the mob that illegally tried to disrupt vote-counting in Detroit, Republican partisan vote on certification in many districts, Trump and Rubio endorsing a gang of truckers surrounding and bumping a Biden-Harris bus in Texas, Trump facing no consequences from his party for calling for his political opponent’s arrest, systematic analyses of data on Republican rhetoric, and so much more.
“I don’t see JH as doing anything different in kind than, say, Jason Stanley or Kate Manne or other people who engage in ‘public philosophy’ are doing, insofar as the latter repeat (or create) skewed narratives for certain political ends, increase division, demonize the other side, and contribute to increasing authoritarianism on the left.”
I think it’s shameful to compare Stanley and Manne to a guy citing hardcore stop the steal propaganda without presenting a shred of concrete evidence.
“They are presenting their sincerely-held views. I think all three are all terribly mistaken, but sheesh—we disagree. About really important things. We should all be comfortable with that.”
This is consistent with everything I’ve said.Report
Sorry, I suppose I am denying that we should be comfortable with amplification of authoritarian propaganda. And I don’t see why we should be comfortable with it. I’m not saying it should be censored. But I think varying degrees of comfort and discomfort are appropriate, for various people, towards all kinds of permitted speech. Surely there are views whose expression should be permitted but that we wouldn’t want to normalize. And it’s at least plausible that non-normalization has an emotive component.Report
Thanks—especially with respect to your view of the left, this is helpful. We may disagree more on just facts of the matter in this particular case. I am as saddened by instances of friends and family under the sway of leftist ideology as I am by friends and family under the sway of Trump. They both exhibit the same intellectual vices. Obviously we disagree, but calling the capitol event an armed insurrection or a ‘coup’ is, to my mind, nonsense. I cannot see any motivation for such rhetoric except to demonize the right as thoroughgoing extremists by exaggerating the import of the events of the past few months.
I wish we would question these narratives more than we do. I resist the terminology of ‘beyond the pale’ because the implication is that JH’s piece is uniquely bad, when it seems to be bad in an ordinary way, but uniquely ‘right’. I can hardly imagine any far-left philosopher receiving such a treatment as a result of linking to propagandistic misinformation, which levies falsehoods and misinformation to propose authoritarian strictures on free speech. I mean, can you? I admit that my estimation of the piece (which was not high to begin with) went down when I followed the links, which I hadn’t done before. So now I think that it was irresponsible and he should have known better (especially with the paragraphs explaining ‘the steal’ and linking in an affirming way to these pieces), as an intelligent human being and philosopher, even if it could be useful for those with opposing viewpoints to read it. But I’m still concerned that standards like this are so unevenly applied, and that similarly irresponsible work on the left gets a free pass. No student petitions, no comments on daily nous describing the myriad ways that it has failed, no ‘what the fuck’s from longtime friends. If anything, we should be more critical, not less, of irresponsible work and perpetuation of skewed or false narratives that accord with our views.Report
And with respect to ‘comfort’—when a colleague or friend publishes something that I think is bad or irresponsible, I might wish they hadn’t published it. I might think it’s actually pretty destructive. I’m comfortable with it in the sense that I take it to be part of philosophy that we live with this tension, with disagreement, we might respond and if we do, it should not be with an ad hominem or calls for retribution. So I mean comfortable not in the sense that the tension itself is comfortable (it’s deeply uncomfortable at times) but that we are comfortable—have reconciled ourselves to—experiencing that tension.Report
I’m glad to find some common ground.
I’ll end (last post for real this time) by trying to motivate my view on the insurrection and also by maybe building on an area of agreement.
To motivate my view on the insurrection:
Here’s the dictionary definition of ‘insurrection: “a violent uprising against an authority or government.” I don’t see how it can be argued that what occurred on January 6th doesn’t meet this definition. It’s certainly far from nonsense to say that it does.
I find it equally clear that it meets the dictionary definition of ‘coup’ (+ attempted + auto-).
I think it’s fairly clear that Trump and his team intended to organize a violent event to pressure Congress and Pence. We don’t yet know how many Republican leaders or activists were involved or in what ways. In particular, we don’t know the degree of “concertation.” I don’t think our default credence that there was none should be overwhelmingly high, particularly given various links between the militias involved and Republican representatives and activists and given the months of illegal attempts to overturn the election. But, I reiterate, it remains to be seen.
I reiterate, I don’t know who all was involved or to what extent. I think something in the neighborhood of agnosticism is warranted at this point.
But regardless of insurrection vs. riot terminology, I’d recommend Robert Paxton’s analysis, which, though not totally rigorous at every step, is helpful for clarifying that the events of Jan. 6th are an indicator of a risk that can manifest through pathways other than a successful armed uprising: https://www.newsweek.com/robert-paxton-trump-fascist-1560652
On to the part we might, to a significant extent, agree about. You write, “ I can hardly imagine any far-left philosopher receiving such a treatment as a result of linking to propagandistic misinformation, which levies falsehoods and misinformation to propose authoritarian strictures on free speech. I mean, can you?”
I can imagine certain specific kinds of misinformation eliciting far too little pushback and, indeed, getting support from many leftish quarters in academia. And I think that’s a serious problem. On the other hand, we don’t totally agree about this. I think Brian Leiter, one of the most popular philosophy bloggers, would love to go after a that kind of leftish authoritarian stricture on free speech. There are several others on Twitter, etc., who are of a similar persuasion. So in short, I agree that you’re identifying a serious problem, and, I’d characterize it differently, I deeply wish that more academics would do better at calling out the bad behavior on “their side.”Report
Thanks again for the discussion.Report
Claims about academic freedom are dismissed too legalistically, as though it only comes into play when Hochschild’s employment terms are threatened. The values behind norms of academic freedom clearly call for engaging with the content — the arguments, reasoning, claims — of an opponent, instead of pushing for action of some kind against him. The student response here plainly runs afoul of those values.
This concerns even those of us who disagree with everything Hochschild says and implies about Trump and the “skepticism” spouted in his name (and unlike many of my colleagues, I’m actually on record about this). Still, the petition is something we should all fear, too, and that is the danger at issue in this episode. We should support Hochschild unambiguously and unqualifiedly in this case, whatever we loathe about his essay and low neck attire.Report
Josh Hochschild doesn’t need our support. This petition is a juvenile stunt that is clearly going nowhere, and (as I said above) to treat it seriously as a threat to his academic freedom is to play right into his hands. We should condemn the petition, yes, as symptomatic of a poisonous mindset that attempts to use mob action and administrative policy to silence or punish dissenters without engaging with their arguments. Having done that, we should turn all our attention to engaging with Josh on the latter front. His ludicrous essay, and the shameful behavior surrounding it, is the far more important story here than the online petition that got a couple thousand random signatures and then was promptly and properly dismissed by the Mount’s administration.Report
I take it the social science has settled that the increased political polarization in the U.S. since the 1990s has developed in step with a growing overestimation, on both the left and the right, of the number of people on the “other side” who hold extreme views. Those of us who don’t want the extremists to dominate the conversation, then, need to find ways of talking to people across social and political boundaries. And though it’s difficult, particularly for those with skin in the game, to do that publicly, it’s probably better for everyone if we do.
So what follows? Well, first, it means we have to be willing to try to not only talk with but listen to people we may not (think we) otherwise agree with. The parenthetical clause is important, because if the social science research is accurate, we may find that once we start talking our disagreements aren’t as many as we thought. And as human beings are consummate perspective-shifters, our form of life in some sense transperspectival by nature, it shouldn’t be so hard for most of us to do that. There will always be extremists among us, and extremism is an urge anyone but a saint can give in to, but that doesn’t mean we need to let the voices of extremism carry the conversation.
Second, in order to fight extremism in the public sphere, we have to curb our negative reactive attitudes toward the character and positions of the people on the “other side”, as well as curb the urge to spread those attitudes to the people we’re talking with. For we’ll only get traction by spreading those attitudes if we’re talking to people prepared to give them uptake, which means we’re speaking to “our side”. And so giving in to those urges, satisfying as they may be for the reflection we see of ourselves among our tribe in reacting to them, proves that we were not really interested in addressing the underlying problem of political extremism. So we should probably try to ignore or discourage that rhetoric from others as well.
Insofar as we’re interested in fighting the dominance of extremism in the public sphere, then, and insofar as we’re doing so by way of talking to the vast majority of non-extremists in our midst who might not share our political views in every detail, we need to curb the urge to spread the vitriol of the base moral sentiments (I know these terms are out of fashion, but they serve a purpose in communicating the immediate affective character of the reactive attitudes). And doing <i>that</i> means avoiding using terms like “absurd”, “nonsense”, and “disgusting” to characterize the views of others, or denying that those views are understandable. We should also avoid imputing ignorance or nefarious purposes, it seems to me. The default position should be to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, just some rough-hewn thoughts for the builders’ use. I’ve been living in Europe since the end of Trump’s first year in office, and I’ve watched the situation back home with dismay along a number of dimensions. The storming of the Capitol was heartwrenching, as were many of the events across the country leading up to it. I appreciate reading Hochschild’s essay, not because I agree with the mindset it’s trying to convey, or because I think I know his purposes in writing it, but because it helps me understand what might have been going on in the minds of the people he’s talking about. And those people are part of my community. It matters to me that I can understand and identify with them, however imperfectly.Report
Thank you, sir!Report