Cancel Culture: A Cross-Generational Dialogue (guest post)


“Should we double down on generating controversy, or should we watch what we say? And if the latter, can we still participate in an open inquiry?”. . .
“Philosophers who ‘just raise the tough questions’ should reflect the discipline’s tradition of open inquiry back on themselves and consider the purpose that specific ‘tough questions,’ or even the call for philosophy to leave no stone unturned, might serve at a time like this.”

The following is a guest post* by Sigal Ben-Porath, professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and associate member of Penn’s departments of Philosophy and Political Science. It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.

[detail of tape art instllation by Aakash Nihilani]

Cancel Culture: A Cross-Generational Dialogue
by Sigal Ben-Porath (with Itamar Ben-Porath)

Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about free speech, on campus and elsewhere, and about ‘cancel culture’ and how it organizes our moral vision and social interactions. Clearly, many other philosophers (and others) are thinking about similar issues, whether or not they are personally impacted in a public way by ‘cancellation.’ As I worked on my earlier book and my forthcoming book on these issues, my family was often my first sounding board for ideas, as well as my reality check when I attempted to help colleges and universities address speech policies and tensions on the boundaries of protected expression. 

For this post, I took up Justin’s suggestion to have a dialogue with my eldest child, Itamar, about the effects, both actual and desirable, of ‘cancel culture’ on philosophy and philosophers. Itamar graduated from Vassar College last year, and they have consistently encouraged me to think about the impact of protected speech, in philosophy and elsewhere. Their voice and convictions are different than mine, which makes our ongoing conversation always enjoyable and challenging. I hope you feel the same. 

*  *  *  *  *

SIGAL: Philosophers seem to be involved in ‘cancel culture’—a loosely defined term—at a pretty high rate. While there is reason to question the accuracy or completeness of databases on professors facing speech-related pressures, it is easy to observe that scholars in the discipline regularly get caught up in, or dive headfirst into, struggles over the boundaries of speech. Philosophy seems to train us to do just that: to refuse to take assumptions and claims for granted, to question long-held norms, to analyze concepts and look for fallacies. From Logic 101 to Epistemology to Political Philosophy, the habits and practices that animate the discipline are helpful for considering assumptions about what is permissible, desirable, appropriate. As philosophers, we are taught to value the gadfly, the questioning of common sense, the innovative idea that pushes boundaries (or buttons). The process of doing so sometimes gets philosophers into trouble. I sometimes wonder if philosophers should embrace the possibility of cancellation as a risk that comes with doing they work, as Agnes Callard seems to do.

ITAMAR: That “cancel culture” is only loosely defined, in my view, speaks to its primary functions: conflating disparate instances whose sole, general similarity is that in all of them, one party responds negatively to another party’s words or actions. It may also be worth noting that the accusation of “canceling” is overwhelmingly likely to be made against favored targets of the reactionary media apparatus, including feminists (defined to include any woman who accuses a man of sexual misconduct), people of color, and queer activists. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard of NDAs described as “cancel culture”? For that matter, what about the disappearance of tenure-track positions, with all the resulting weakening of free-speech protections in academia? Questioning common sense may be a vital part of the philosophical project, but to ignore the particularities of the “common sense” at hand in a given moment is to allow oneself to slip from gadfly to troll.

SIGAL: So you reject that canceling is properly defined, or maybe even that it is an actual threat as currently used. But it seems that especially in colleges and universities, it is having real impact. Philosophy is not alone as a discipline facing these struggles. At law schools across North America, struggles over racial inclusion—which sometimes focus on the permissibility of mentioning slurs—have generated a lot of heat in recent years, and have gotten a number of professors a lot of media attention, whether they chose that or not. The MLA has recently erupted in its own controversy over who gets to police the boundaries of open expression. Philosophers would find these fights recognizable. In philosophy journals and departments, the generational struggle over perceived tensions between pursuing truth and avoiding harm are often focused on feminism and trans rights, or the struggle over defining who is a woman. This fight continues to rage, costing some their reputations, relationships, or jobs. Expressing views on social media can result in a firestorm; and even ‘playing devil’s advocate’ in class can be public enough—whether or not students capture the moment on their cell phones—to generate significant pushback from students, colleagues, alums, or parents.

ITAMAR: If, as your sources suggest, the impacts of cancel culture on academia include: a White professor seeing eye-to-eye with his students and opting to no longer use the N-word; a professor claiming that “trans women are a fiction,” facing protests, and resigning; and repercussions for a professor who, among other findings by school administration, referred to racial minorities as “cockroaches” and denounced their participation in civil rights claims, then I struggle to see “cancel culture” per se as unjustified. While there are real free speech concerns in the world today, including many which affect the work of academics, I fail to see how those issues form a broader whole with the cases you list above, all of which involve an instance of bigotry being nonviolently resolved.

SIGAL: Fair enough. The term ‘cancel culture’ is probably confusing and not useful. But these cases seem to get at a challenge that many of us feel in our work: worry about saying the wrong word, about being caught up in a culture that is changing under our feet. How in your view should we think about these normatively? Should we double down on generating controversy, or should we watch what we say? And if the latter, can we still participate in an open inquiry? To do our work, we need to be able to openly explore (among other things) concepts at the heart of public discourse, from the demands of justice to the definition of race to the categorization of gender.

ITAMAR: I would suggest that philosophers redouble their commitment to the challenging of power! To insist on the illegitimacy and possible danger of trans women, to demean people of color and use slurs, and to repeat known right-wing dog whistles such as “What is a woman?” in a philosophical tone—all of these are lines of inquiry that may masquerade as subversive, yet each of them is in its own way a reinforcement of existing power structures. To insist on the innate value-neutrality of philosophy as a discipline, or of the questions we choose to raise and our methods for pursuing answers, is to passively align with power. This process not only harms the most vulnerable but also serves to undermine the bedrock of democracy on which philosophy itself rests. Philosophers who ‘just raise the tough questions’ should reflect the discipline’s tradition of open inquiry back on themselves and consider the purpose that specific ‘tough questions,’ or even the call for philosophy to leave no stone unturned, might serve at a time like this. Thus, ‘what is a woman’ is not a neutral question; discussing it is a political act with public consequences, and this fact needs to be taken into account as part of the work.

*  *  *  *  *

Sigal here—I get the last word, because I have tenure. 😊

Those of us who teach philosophy can readily recognize a generational shift in attitudes toward open expression, a shift that sometimes creates tensions between our scholarship and our teaching. Students seem to more often favor sensitivity to potential harm over a rough-and-tumble, boundary-pushing style of exchange. This raises persistent worries among professors about the chilling effect of concerns about harm, and about the mob mentality that can generate or spread demands for cancellation. Some of us relate these social changes to technology: students can easily record our words, and demands for punishment can go viral in new and pressing ways. Others—I am among them—see the greater diversity of the student body as a key driving force of concerns about harm, and see some positive impact to the effort to be effectively more inclusive. Some suggest that students are those with real power here, but elements of institutional power, from tenure protections to recent court opinions, suggest otherwise.

I have long since learned from my children and students that to have a truly open inquiry, and real discussion in which we can freely exchange views, we have to implement norms of respect and listening. Otherwise all we can aspire for is a discussion dominated by the voices of those who already have confidence, power, and presence. Itamar is asking me to consider whether this means not only that we need to include more voices, but that we should also consider excluding those who perpetuate biased views or who disregard the harmful impact of their questions, and possibly even to avoid some questions. I am not sure I am ready to go there, but I do look forward to continuing the conversation. 

COMMENTS POLICY

 

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Nicola DiSvevia
4 months ago

A first few thoughts, please help me think this through:

1. The philosophical search for the truth cannot be reduced to a mere exercise of power.

2. Almost any outcome of philosophical inquiry, if put into action, would have consequences that at least some people would find objectionable – and indeed can cause them relative harm.

3. The philosophical search for truth, if pursued in good faith as such, should be allowed to proceed unhindered; but it should be clearly kept separate from any action based on any view someone may arrive at.

4. Whether and what actions/policies should be adopted, and who has the right to exercise power, belongs to the political sphere proper: this is governed by the mechanisms of a free and democratic society.

5. No philosophical view, no matter how compelling to some, has the right to assume any special status in the public/political sphere. People are always free to disagree, whether for good reasons or not.

6. Philosophical inquiry should proceed on the assumption that others have to make a valuable contribution, and its participants have to act so as to respect others as such.Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Nicola DiSvevia
4 months ago

So a few things:

(1) The worry is that regardless of how academics pursue their work, people outside of academia see and use academic articles differently. If someone publishes flawed arguments defending the view that gender is biological, then non-academics with political agendas will then use those publications as validation for their views. And this can and is the case no matter how many people tear a part the original article, and show just how wrong it is. This dynamic exists both for philosophy and without. How many times do you see people cite outdated scientific studies to support their views?

(2) There’s also just generally a concern about academics debating things that are really important to them and their capacity to live in the world. Say you’re a trans person who constantly struggles with people around you disagreeing and arguing with you about what your gender really is. The idea that somewhere in academia, a whole bunch of people who aren’t trans are out their debating about your identity, without your or other trans people’s inputs, it seems rather terrifying to me.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Ian
4 months ago

There’s also just generally a concern about academics/doctors/politicians/etc debating things that are really important to them and their capacity to live in the world. Say you’re a white/black/mixed/american/russian/ukrainian/heterosexual/vegan/non-vegan/anti-gun/pro-life/republican/democrat/mormon/muslim/christian/student/professor/blue-collar/white-collar/urban/country/goth/bdsm/etc person who constantly struggles with people around you disagreeing and arguing with you about what your race/ethnicity/nationality/sexual orientation/diet/views really is or should be. The idea that somewhere in academia, a whole bunch of people who aren’t whatever you are are out their debating about your identity/views, without the input of you or other people like you, it seems rather terrifying to me.Report

Nicola DiSvevia
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

Thank you for your input. It seems to me that one important issue is how academic research can translate into policy decisions affecting people who have little or no say in these and which they regard as unjust. And they may very well be right.

I would like to preserve the maximum of academic freedom, but one thing that’s become clearer to me is that academic freedom cannot be independent from a just system of governance: one in which affected parties are properly represented and consider the process of policy-making which regards them as just. (To speak in very general terms.) In such a system a maximum of academic freedom could be allowed since any political/societal decisions based on it would be arrived at fairly and justly.

But very arguably we are far from having such a system, and so researchers are burdened with having to take into account any possible unjust consequences which may arise from operating in such a system. And they get attacked if they are perceived as not doing so, to forestall any negative consequences their research may have further down the line.

In this light it seems to me that the debate around ‘cancel culture’ is in part a stand-in for a very necessary debate about how we should govern ourselves, and what principles a just system of governance should embody. And I think there’s probably a huge task ahead of us here.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Nicola DiSvevia
4 months ago

“academic freedom cannot be independent from a just system of governance: one in which affected parties are properly represented and consider the process of policy-making which regards them as just” – is this copy and paste from a textbook of Marxism-Leninism? Because I was taught exactly this sort of bullshit. Seriously, I can’t believe humankind has learnt nothing from the 20th century.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

Please disregard my prior request for an elucidation of that post.

I am trying to get some kind of measure of what the pool of participants and audiences is like on this forum. Would you mind telling me what your relationship is to professional philosophy?Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

Can you clarify what your argument is here? I see you got a lot of “likes.” I’m trying to understand what you mean, what people are seeing that they like.Report

Sigal Ben-Porath
Sigal Ben-Porath
Reply to  Ian
4 months ago

I agree, and I would add that we see similar things happening with other published work (see, for instance, the much-debated article on best practices in caring for trans youth by Emily Bazelon [https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/15/magazine/gender-therapy.html] which was just cited by the FL governor as evidence that trans kid’s parents should be criminally investigated). The way our published words are used is obviously outside our realm of influence. But at least as much as spoken words, we should account for the context into which our work and ideas are entered. And we already do! We cite others’ work, we cite evidence, we join conversations that are lively and abandons lines of discussion that seem to shrivel. The impact of our words matter, way beyond impact factors.Report

ABD
ABD
Reply to  Sigal Ben-Porath
4 months ago

Cancelling is punishment. Not by the state, but punishment nonetheless. It should be kept in mind that if doing X is unwise, risky, or even bad, that does not entail that the person doing X deserves to be punished.

This is especially so if one is to claim that: If A does X, and X is not bad, but B will exploit X for bad ends, then A deserves to be punished.Report

Sigal Ben-Porath
Sigal Ben-Porath
Reply to  ABD
4 months ago

I guess I would dispute the initial assumption that ‘cancelling is punishment.’ To know whether this is so, you need a clear definition of cancelling, and part of what we suggest here is that this is a mixed bag of responses under a single title. What qualifies as ‘cancelling’ such that it can be defined strictly as ‘punishment’? Firing surely qualifies. It is harder to be in agreement about other reactions. Is a Twitter mob punishment, or an aggregate (over)reaction?
As to ‘X is not bad’ – this is a key difference between me and my kid. I generally agree, but Itamar suggests that X is in fact bad if could reasonably be expected to foresee its bad impact on vulnerable people. I don’t think this argument can easily be dismissed.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Sigal Ben-Porath
4 months ago

..‘cancelling is punishment.’ To know whether this is so, you need a clear definition of cancelling… is there are some general rule that says that in order to know whether ‘x is y’, we need a clear definition of x?Report

Sigal
Sigal
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

I would assume that to make a definitive claim like ‘cancelling is punishment’ – and to assess whether it is accurate – it would help to know what you include in your understanding of the former. I don’t think cancellation is punishment. A lot of responses to different views and actions are described as ‘cancellation’ and some of them, eg social media pile ons, do not qualify as punishment.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Sigal
4 months ago

Why do they not qualify as punishment?Report

Owen
Owen
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

At least some instances of cancellation – particularly, de-platforming – are motivated by preventing an individual’s words or ideas from causing further harm. So one motivation is prevention of bad consequences, rather than punishing individuals for wrongdoing.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Owen
4 months ago

On many theories of punishment, prevention is the whole point. Moreover if they already committed harm and are being de-platformed as a consequence of the harm they committed and de-platforming is taking away something from them that is desirable and wanted by them and that they would have have they not committed the harm, then how is that not a punishment?Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

Yes, punishment can be a means of harm prevention, but not all harm prevention is thereby punishment. E.g., quarantine is harmful to the individual quarantined and designed to prevent them from harming others, but wouldn’t qualify as punishment.

As for the idea that the harm is already committed prior to being de-platformed: perhaps, but that doesn’t preclude being motivated by mitigating *future* harm from further speech. Again to use the quarantine metaphor, someone may have already spread a disease prior to quarantine, but you still quarantine to prevent further spread.

This isn’t to defend the practice of de-platforming to prevent harm caused by the platforming. Just that such is a plausible non-punitive motive, given some folks explicitly voice concerns that giving certain people a platform will cause further harm.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Owen Schaefer
4 months ago

Sure, but quarantine is imposed, generally for a specific period of time (rarely indefinitely), when there is a known and causally certain risk of infecting/harming others if one carries a pathogen of and a reasonable assumption that one is a possible carrier. Cancelling/De-platforming is generally not done for a specific period of time and, as far as I am aware, the claims of possible future harm and causal relations are not exactly known or even really defined but simply claimed by those who have been offended (on behalf of others, often). Btw. the idea of already committed harm was not brought by me. I assume the harm in question is having an appalling view which is, at the same time, one of those views currently at the forefront of culture wars?Report

krell_154
Reply to  Sigal Ben-Porath
4 months ago

 Itamar suggests that X is in fact bad if could reasonably be expected to foresee its bad impact on vulnerable people. I don’t think this argument can easily be dismissed”

Some things can be more important than the bad impact that X can have on vulnerable people. Freedom to say what I want to say (not including things like threats or call to violence) is more important than someone being offended by what I said.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  krell_154
4 months ago

What does ‘being offended’ mean to you?Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  ABD
4 months ago

JS Mill wouldn’t say that “cancelling” is punishment, unless it’s “parading the avoidance” (which is an under-specified condition). Rather, he may see it as a natural, spontaneous reaction brought on by the offenders themselves, not a punishment inflicted upon them.

From his On Liberty (emphasis added):

“We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment. A person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit—who cannot live within moderate means—who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences—who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect—must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable sentiments; but of this he has no right to complain, unless he has merited their favour by special excellence in his social relations, and has thus established a title to their good offices, which is not affected by his demerits towards himself.”

Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Patrick Lin
4 months ago

Sure, let’s suggest that people who have differing views on some hot political topic of the day all invariably show “rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit” and “pursue animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect” and so let’s cancel them. Of course, all the others who have the right views, are just wonderful folks who are a joy to hang out with.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Joe
4 months ago

Pretty sure that’s not JS Mill’s point (or mine). He was arguing that whatever natural aversion we have to people we find offensive, that social avoidance is not a harm to them, in the sense that it might trigger the harm principle (that the state may regulate such conduct).

Mill does leave open the possibility that you can go too far in avoiding or socially isolating people, if the scope or extent of it counts as “parading the avoidance.” Again, it’s under-specified as to what counts as that…maybe something like an organized boycott, as opposed to spontaneous avoidance of a person? So, maybe some kinds of “cancelling” could count as going too far. But, say, a program that decides to un-invite a speaker on its own accord seems to be in bounds.

I’m not trying to make a point here, other than to apply canonical philosophy to shed light on the issue above re: whether “cancelling” could be “punishment.”Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Patrick Lin
4 months ago

In that case, however, the point is irrelevant. Nobody cares if I choose to avoid someone I don’t like or find unpleasant or offensive. And nobody cares if someone who is unpleasant or offensive whatever is shunned or avoided by people. That’s not what cancelling or de-platforming is at all. It’s when I start to actively prevent someone who I find offensive or whatever from getting certain opportunities or from being able to interact with other people where those opportunities are normally not up to me to award or those people are not my dependents. It’s when I and my like-minded friends decide that I find Patrick Lin’s views or the fact that he works on Mill offensive and organize a pressure campaign to prevent him from, let’s say, giving talks at my and/or other universities or conferences.Report

A.D.
A.D.
Reply to  Ian
4 months ago

There are lots of terrifying things in the world. Academics publishing articles in obscure journals…isn’t one of them.

More to the point: think of if you applied this to contentious issues that you disagree with: could a theist say that we shouldn’t debate theism/atheism since it’s “terrifying” that academics are debating things central to their “identity”? Could those who think infanticide is wrong say that we shouldn’t debate infanticide because it’s distressing that some think there’s nothing wrong with killing infants? Could a pro-life activist say we shouldn’t debate the ethics of abortion because it’s distressing that academics would say that it’s okay to kill human organisms?Report

Owen
Owen
Reply to  Nicola DiSvevia
4 months ago

Point (3) seems to unacceptably narrow philosophical inquiry, and exclude many applied approaches. A huge swath of philosophy is precisely concerned with whether particular actions are right/wrong, good/bad. Beyond that, per Itamar above, many concepts are thick and have normative implications beyond pure theoretical terms. So those attempting to delineate the concept ‘man’, say, would fail to appreciate the full ‘truth’ of the concept if they ignored the normative valence and in turn the implications of their conceptualizations for action.

Relatedly, (4) is itself within the scope of philosophical inquiry, and is in direct tension with (5) insofar as it privileges a particular political philosophy. It seems to me the present discussion over cancel culture is itself a question of what are the reasonable bounds of speech, deliberation, etc. And there is evidently philosophical disagreement over that.

Moreover, I think it would be problematic to specify unique norms of discourse (and hence standards for when cancellation is acceptable) for philosophy that are implicitly distinct from those in disciplines with different aims, or the public at large. Discourse is not hermetically sealed by discipline, and engagement across disciplines/in the public requires (or ideally should strive for) shared norms of discourse.Report

Robert Bloomfield
4 months ago

I’ve been looking at these issues from the perspective of an accountant. The job of accounting is to hold parties to account well, on the basis of a good account of their performance. Speakers are stewards who have an important asset—the power to speak—and the fundamental principle of double-entry bookkeeping is that assets are always balanced by obligations. Those obligations fall into 3 categories: to make a contribution (be intelligible, relevant, and faithful), to foster the process (be efficient, engaging, and diplomatic), and to foster welfare (help, don’t harm, individuals and the venue itself).

The relative priority of these obligations varies from venue to venue, and some of the controversy about ‘cancelling’ is over these priorities, which are often at odds. Some argue that in an academic journal, contribution should give way to diplomacy (not causing offense), and some even categorize offense as harmful, and that’s a debate we can discuss far more meaningfully than terms like ‘cancel culture’ can allow.

But the bigger part of this debate is whether people are being held to account well for their stewardship of their power of speech, on the basis of a good account of their performance. ‘Cancel culture’ complaints often boil down to complaints that basic accounting principles are being violated. Especially relevant here is that the burdens of accountability should be proportional to the stakes at hand—firing someone because they were a bit undiplomatic is rarely proportional. Also highly relevant is the subsidiarity principle—people often have a choice on whether to hold someone to account, and they shouldn’t do that if someone else is in a better position to do it. A non-philosopher who reads a few paragraphs of a peer-reviewed philosophy paper is not in a very good position to determine whether the author lived up to their obligations, so they aren’t in a very good position to organize a campaign to hold the author accountable. 

I’ve written a bit about this approach to governing speech here, and you can contact me for more thorough treatments.Report

Ned Hall
4 months ago

Thanks very much for the super interesting and timely post, Sigal. (And for modeling marvelous parenting behavior!!)

I think it might help our discussion here if we framed specific proposals for how we philosophers could alter our practices in response to Itamar’s call (in their last contribution to your exchange). Here we should distinguish different arenas. For example, we might restrict which questions we research. Or we might restrict how we disseminate the results of our research to the broader public. Or we might substantially modify what views we teach our students about. And so on.

One reason for distinguishing these arenas is that considerations relevant to one won’t necessarily be relevant to another. Suppose I publish an argument that gay marriage is immoral. The DeSantis’s of the world could take (admittedly modest!) advantage for political purposes; but a student whose parents are married and gay, and who comes across the article, could just dismiss it as stupid reactionary bullshit, with no harm done to them personally. By contrast, if I teach a class on the ethics of interpersonal relationships and include a unit doing a deep dive into debates about the morality of gay marriage, DeSantis won’t notice – but the aforementioned student, if they’re in my class, certainly will, and could easily have a horrible experience. In short: when we’re weighing what, in practice, it means to display “sensitivity to potential harm”, we should keep these differences between arenas in mind.

With that all as background, Sigal, do you have examples of the kinds of concrete proposals that would speak to Itamar’s concerns? Because, again, having some such in mind will likely make it easier and more productive to investigate the force of those concerns.Report

Sigal Ben-Porath
Sigal Ben-Porath
Reply to  Ned Hall
4 months ago

Thanks Ned! I agree that keeping in mind one or the other audience, and one or the other harm, will have very different effects. In my mind, adding these to our overall calculations of which question to ask (calculations like, is it interesting? is it publishable? do I have an original contribution to make? should my students be able to think about this matter? etc) is reasonable, inasmuch as doing philosophy has in mind some audience and some goals, rather than it being a solitary or solipsistic activity. My view is that the consideration of potential harm should affect my actions in their context. So if you are going to teach a unit on the morality of same sex marriage, I do not recommend that you refrain from that (though Itamar might). I rather suggest that you think about what reading to include, and how to lead the discussion, and how to set norms for the classroom conversation, in a way that reduced or addressed the potential harm. I think that is important whether or not you are aware of a student who is affected as in your example. My sense is that this is important for pedagogical rather than strictly philosophical reasons, but it is important nonetheless. As for making scholarly arguments (ie publishing controversial ideas), I assume that the goal here is to move the discussion of certain ideas forward, so accounting for the direction you move them is already a part of the calculus. I am trying to make that more explicit, and here too Itamar goes further than I would (but in a way that I find compelling).Report

Ned Hall
Reply to  Sigal Ben-Porath
4 months ago

Great, thanks. I’m going to propose some principles that I think ought to govern the philosophy classroom (or at least the smaller, more discussion-focused philosophy classroom). They are inspired in part by some excellent work of Teresa Bejan, in part by my own reflections on what (in my experience) has made for the very best philosophical conversations, and in part by the thought that we will do best in trying to sort out what free speech in the classroom should look like if we begin with a positive conception of what we’re trying to achieve in the classroom, and work back from there – as opposed to focusing, right out of the gate, on avoiding certain kinds of harms.

There are three principles that I think should govern the way I and my students interact with each other. The first is that everyone should be free from fear of reprisal. Everyone should be able to contribute to the discussion confident that nothing they say will cause them serious material or reputational harm. (This corresponds to what Bejan calls “parrhesia”.) The second is that everyone should have equal standing not just to speak but to be heard. That is, everyone should be able to contribute to the discussion secure in the knowledge that whatever they say will be taken very seriously, by everyone else. (This corresponds to what Bejan calls “isegoria”.) The third is that, having been gifted these two rather considerable freedoms, everyone should operate as much as possible with a sense of responsibility towards the mission of the class. (Saying something highly provocative simply because you enjoy making your fellow discussants uncomfortable, for example, is a way of being irresponsible.) Finally, we should add a kind of meta-principle, which is that it be common knowledge within the classroom that these three principles are in force.

Focusing on these principles with my students, and working toward a classroom dynamic in which it is common knowledge that we have decided to govern ourselves by them, has, I think, some profound benefits. They make it much easier for the students to develop real intellectual autonomy – indeed, to help each other do so. They make possible conversations that are at once intense, challenging, highly collaborative, and productive of much deeper understanding of the topics under discussion. Especially when accompanied by some compassionate recognition that we are all fallible, they provide a collective resource for getting conversation safely back on track should it ever be derailed by a thoughtless or needlessly offensive contribution. (For example, reading the N-word aloud!) And in the present cultural moment, they help work against two deeply unfortunate tendencies that some students display: first, the tendency to think that when one experiences a feeling of offence or extreme upset at something one hears, that is automatically evidence that one has been wronged; second, the tendency to adopt an overly moralistic and unforgiving posture to the supposed wrongdoers.

All that said, I think the broader institutional setting one finds oneself in can make it very hard to build these principles into one’s classroom dynamics. (And look, it’s hard enough already!) Suppose my institution’s recent behavior has made it perfectly clear to its students that if something happens in a classroom that they don’t like – e.g., an instructor reads aloud from Huckleberry Finn and forgets not to voice the N-word – then as far as that institution is concerned it is perfectly appropriate for them to publicly demand punishment, even as severe as firing or suspension from teaching. (By “perfectly appropriate” I do not mean that the institution will automatically agree to the demand, but only that it has clearly signaled that any such demands will be taken quite seriously, will lead to a thorough investigation, etc.) Then as an instructor I’m going to find it very hard if not impossible to build the sense of mutual trust in my classroom required in order for us to take the three principles on board. That, to me, provides one very good reason for colleges and universities to loudly and unambiguously adopt the Chicago principles (or something similar): it’s not that by doing so all the thorny problems surrounding free speech on campus will somehow get solved; it’s rather that doing so helps create the conditions needed in order for the real work to have a chance of succeeding.

Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I think that as philosophers, the good we do for the public is providing them with theories, and with the best case for and against theories, to help them think through issues for themselves. I don’t think we should be deciding which issues they should be thinking through for themselves, or what views they shouldn’t be questioning. Also, if we as philosophers decide that a given view isn’t to be questioned, aren’t any arguments we make for that view just rationalizing? And why should the public pay for professional rationalizers?Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

What is the value for society in providing the public with the very best arguments available for the view that the white race is superior to all other races?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Is this a philosophical view or a scientific one? A scientist correcting a factual error about intelligence or psychology is different from a philosopher treating a philosophical question as settled.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

That one race is superior to others would be a philosophical view, since “superiority” is not a scientific concept. Do you not agree?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I’m trying to imagine what possible case one could make as the best philosophical case.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Is this supposed to be an issue which already divides people and for which reasoned arguments can be offered for each side?Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I think it can be either type of issue for the purpose of my question. You said:

the good we do for the public is providing them with theories, and with the best case for and against theories, to help them think through issues for themselves. I don’t think we should be deciding which issues they should be thinking through for themselves, or what views they shouldn’t be questioning. “

And from that, it follows that if someone is trying to think through white supremacy for thmselves, part of the good we do for them is to provide them with the best case for that theory. So I am asking why you consider providing that case a good thing to do (even if provided alongside the best case against it).

If as a philosopher someone asks me for the best case for and against white supremacy so they can think through it themselves, why is it better for me to present those cases and let them decide which they prefer, instead of simply saying “No, my view as a philosopher is that the idea that one race can be superior than another is not a topic that should be up for debate”?Report

bizarre
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

That would be an inappropriately dogmatic response, wholly akin to declaring that the divinity of Jesus should not be up for debate. Any moral claim whatsoever is undoubtedly less epistemically secure than, e.g., the principle of non-contradiction. And yet, dialethism remains an active area of philosophical discussion.

Setting aside the fact that the epistemic threshold for barring philosophical debate has not been crossed, it would also be a politically foolish response at a time when, supposedly, many around the world are tempted by various racial and national supremacy claims. Some of them may well be persuadable by rational argument for equality, which requires defeating the best case against it. And even if they’re not, we might still owe it to them as fellow members of a political community to attempt to rationally persuade them before resorting to propaganda or coercion.

It also won’t help your case here to invoke a moral, rather than political, justification for barring debate. Any moral case for doing so is bound to be more controversial than the first-order case against white supremacy, so if the first-order issue is what we really care about – and it should be – we should tackle it head-on, as opposed to, say, working to ostracise our colleagues who disagree on the second-order issue.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  bizarre
4 months ago

This sounds like a trick question and it sort of is but it’s a pretty simple trick I don’t expect you not to see, and I want to know your answer to the question’s substance before I say something more. Do you think it is debatable whether the white race is superior to all other races? Obviously you should feel really free to clarify how you’re interpreting “debatable” in your answer to the question!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

The word “debatable” like the word “prove” is context-sensitive. It’s going to mean different things in different circumstances. If “debatable” just means that you can give a reason for a position, then any position is going to be “debatable”.Report

krell_154
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I’m not the person you asked this question, but here are my answers.

Do you think it is debatable whether the white race is superior to all other races?”

Debatable in the sense of being an interesting question worthy of serious attention? No.

Debatable in the sense of should people be allowed to debate it without fearing severe consequences (provided that the debate does not slip into hate speech or calls for violence)? Yes.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  krell_154
4 months ago

You and I know how to hear a debate, and even to agree with one side or the other, without acquiring a concomitant motivation to act on what anyone in that debate said.

What percentage of the population of the world would you estimate shares that ability with us?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Kris, thanks for your patience. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m trying to dodge your question. I’m just finding it hard to imagine a reasoned case for white moral superiority. This may well just be lack of imagination on my part. I can come up with plenty of best cases for other moral positions that I think are false. But as it stands, if the best case for white moral superiority is a blank page, it doesn’t look dangerous.
My instinctive answer is certainly to let the argument be published and let’s see what we learn from dissecting it.
I don’t think anyone would want you to be required to give the best case for or against any particular position, but it seems to me that it is when you give the best cases for and against positions that you are doing public good as a philosopher. Your moral opinion carries no authority in itself, but you might have some interesting arguments to offer regarding the thesis that whites are morally superior. If you ignore arguments for the thesis on principle, you can’t contribute without just rationalizing.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

You know of the existence of volumes and volumes–probably would fill at least a small library–of text offering reasoned cases for white moral superiority. So when you say you can’t imagine such a thing existing, it is really difficult for me to parse your meaning. Can you help?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I know of discredited scientific arguments regarding intelligence or psychology. Did you have something else in mind?Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

No, I don’t have anything else in mind. You have implied that (as I said above) “you consider providing that case a good thing to do (even if provided alongside the best case against it).” This means you believe we should provide the arguments you just named, that this is part of the value of our profession. I am asking you what value is added by that act.

I hope you are seeing that my question is probably much more direct and simple than you might have been thinking thus far?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I take it that making the best case doesn’t include being dishonest. If we say that the best case for white moral superiority rests on false premises, that’s no case at all. It doesn’t really matter what the premises are in that case. You can derive almost anything from false premises.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Kris, I wonder if I’m getting needlessly hung-up on your example. There are certainly important false moral claims for which I can think of a “best case”. That I’m failing to do so for white moral supremacy may just be lack of imagination.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

I’m not sure what’s happening. I’m trying to elucidate the consequences a claim you made. I thought I was drawing a simple first level implication from the following thing you said:

“I think that as philosophers, the good we do for the public is providing them with theories, and with the best case for and against theories, to help them think through issues for themselves. I don’t think we should be deciding which issues they should be thinking through for themselves, or what views they shouldn’t be questioning. Also, if we as philosophers decide that a given view isn’t to be questioned, aren’t any arguments we make for that view just rationalizing?”

I am interpreting what I quoted above as stating (if I can be forgiven for being the first to stoop to predicate logic-ese)

“For every view V, and for every person P, if P wants to think through V for themselves, we should provide them with the best arguments for and against V, and we should not tell them to refrain from thinking it through.

All I am doing is providing an instance for that claim’s variable V.

I am filling in for V, the view that the white race is superior.

If my interpretation of what I quoted is right, then by filling in for V, I’ve created a sentence you’ve intentionally committed yourself to. You’re committed to the view that when a person wants to think through for themselves the idea that the white race is superior, we as philosophers are committed to providing them the best case for that claim, and we are committed to not advise them not to consider it.

Is this clarifying my question for you?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Kris, sorry for missing your reply earlier. Absolutely, its a good idea for this case to be presented if it exists (again, under the assumption that making the “best case” doesn’t involve misrepresentation of empirical facts or of our best scientific theories). My reluctance to just say “yes” was based on the fact that this example strikes me as so innocuous that I wasn’t sure I was being fair to your concern. As I said, I just can’t think of what the “best case” for white moral supremacy could be.

I do think that another example might serve you better. I can think of “best case” arguments for other importantly false moral claims, but I’m stuck on this one.Report

Athos Rache
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

Crime statistics…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Athos Rache
4 months ago

Are you talking about an argument based on crime statistics that isn’t also based on psychological claims that psychologists wouldn’t dismiss as pseudo-science?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Just to be clear, I appreciate that an argument from false premises to a moral conclusion is a philosophical argument. But unless we pretend that the premises are true, it’s no case at all.Report

krell_154
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

The value is in showing that even the best such argument is bullshit, since the claim in question is extremely implausible.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  krell_154
4 months ago

Does the phenomeon “showing an argument is bullshit” take place if the context involves an audience primed to be sympathetic with the argument, or to be sympathetic with the idea that even if they disagree it’s not bullshit? Or in such a case, instead, will an _attempt_ to have shown an argument to be bullshit, have _failed_?

If we’ve still succeeded at “showing an argument is bullshit” even if our audience, on hearing our takedown of the argument, comes away convinced it’s not bullshit, then of what use is “showing an argument is bullshit”? What difference does it make?Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Actually, this one is easy to answer. The best arguments for white supremacy have already been given. These arguments were given many, many years ago when the question of whether some races are superior was taken seriously by people with significant intellectual talent. So they put their talents to work trying to prove a thesis that their personal prejudice attracted them to. As it turns out (surprise, surprise) the best arguments they came up with were not very good and have since been decisively refuted. The case AGAINST any kind of racial supremacy today is so strong that no one with significant intellectual talent would find any reason to work on this issue. The people who advocate for it today are crackpots, and their arguments are fundamentally flawed in the most obvious ways.

Now, was it valuable for society that at some point the best arguments (which turned out to be very poor) for white supremacy were put forward. I think that it obviously was. Once these arguments were given we were able to decisively refute them. This allowed us to be justified in emphatically rejecting it and relegated this idea to the intellectual fringe.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  JTD
4 months ago

You wrote: “Now, was it valuable for society that at some point the best arguments (which turned out to be very poor) for white supremacy were put forward. I think that it obviously was. Once these arguments were given we were able to decisively refute them. This allowed us to be justified in emphatically rejecting it and relegated this idea to the intellectual fringe.“

In the long term perhaps. But in between then and now, many lives were suffered and died because of those arguments. White slave owners used those arguments to justify slavery. Europeans at the time used those arguments to justify colonialism and cultural imperialism. Many countries were broken. And many cultures were erased and assimilated.

Thus, it’s extremely shortsighted and dangerous to only look at the positive value which is very small in comparison to what occurred between now and then including the legacy of what those arguments have on racial minorities today.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

No, I think that this gets the historical record wrong. You seem to suggest that Europeans in the 15th century had no interest in dominating others cultures and peoples they came across and no interest in exploiting slave labor. Then, some smart people came along and made the best case they could for the thesis that humans are divided into races and some of them are inferior to others, and these arguments then convinced Europeans to commence colonialism and chattel slavery.

If this were what happened then we would rather that those arguments were never made. Furthermore, if I somehow had the power in the 15th century to stop people making these arguments and thereby prevent all subsequent slavery and colonialism then of course I would exercise it. However, this is fantasy. What actually happened is that Europeans had an interest in dominating other people and exploiting slave labor (like many other peoples before them in human history, sadly). So, they started doing these things and adopted racialist theories as post hoc justification.

The argument then is about whether, once the genie of racialist thinking was out of the bottle and being used as post hoc justification, it was helpful that serious intellectuals at the time started to debate these theories and make the best case for and against them. It is here that I say that the answer is “yes”. It was helpful because eventually the strong arguments against racialism and racial supremacy overwhelmed the case for it and this helped to propel along the abolitionist and anti-colonialism movements. Furthermore, part of what gave these arguments force was the fact that serious intellectual effort had been put into arguing the opposite. So, it was not so easy to dismiss a seemingly compelling abolitionist argument by saying “but we haven’t yet heard the best case for the other side so lets stick with the status quo until more thorough inquiry has been done on the question of the equality of the races”.

I won’t pursue the argument here, but I think that most social justice issues have a similar structure as this one and thus the cause of social justice is almost always better served by open debate where the best case for and against is put rather then by the side arguing for the socially just cause (temporarily) gaining power and then shutting down all debate and enforcing their view on society.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  JTD
4 months ago

//Then, some smart people came along and made the best case they could for the thesis that humans are divided into races and some of them are inferior to others, and these arguments then convinced Europeans to commence colonialism and chattel slavery.//

The idea (I’m certain your interlocutor is expressing) is that the very best arguments were offered and used as a _rationale_ for a practice which had no need of any rational justification at all to continue existing.

We need to stay grounded by remembering that _no one listens to the philosophers_. If we have reasons to practice philosophy, it is _emphatically not_ because of any effect we will have on our listeners. We don’t have any.

If anyone hears us (as opposed to listening to us) it is only to pick out the very best arguments they can find in our ramblings for their preferred positions.

The practice of philosophy can have wonderful, beautiful, ethically uplifting effects in the philosopher themself, and perhaps in those they personally interact with about important things over a long course of time.

But to the public at large, to any audience that reads our mass publications for some reason, we are _at best_ a tree from which to pick their preferred fruit, not an authority to listen to for wisdom.Report

Pierce Gauche
Pierce Gauche
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

If anyone hears us (as opposed to listening to us) it is only to pick out the very best arguments they can find in our ramblings for their preferred positions.”

No, Kris: I find this a nihilistic view of the philosophy’s value. It could easily be applied to (far more consensual) conclusions in the natural sciences: people pick not only the normative views but also the facts that suit them.

That philosophy is more openly normative is in fact a challenge to other disciplines (I’m looking at you psychology and economics) which claim to provide value free wisdom.

This hearing/listening distinction is not confined to philosophy.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Pierce Gauche
4 months ago

I’m not sure what you’re saying overall (for example, I’m not sure what you mean by a “consensual conclusion”) but for what it’s worth I don’t have a nihilistic view of philosophy’s value, you’re just responding to my explanation of what I think its value is _not_.

I think philosophy has value, at least, for the philosopher doing the philosophy, and for people that philosopher may be in direct communication with for some time.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  JTD
4 months ago

“ What actually happened is that Europeans had an interest in dominating other people and exploiting slave labor (like many other peoples before them in human history, sadly). So, they started doing these things and adopted racialist theories as post hoc justification.”

You have evidence for this claim?

The Racial Contract by Charles Mills is a good example showing how philosophical ideas influenced public policy/laws. The Founding Fathers of the US were influenced by John Locke. Aristotle thought slaves and women lacked the ability to pursue the good and hence should stay subjugated.

Whatever the rationale at those times, people didn’t just dominate without some kind of reason or idea. Even if such reasons or ideas were religious or nationalistic ones i.e. captured warriors post-war were made into slaves as punishment, they were still reasons or ideas used to justify such behaviors.

Of course, in those times, such ideas were universally adopted and if you rebel you would have been killed, imprisoned, or made into a slave yourself.

It’s easy to take for granted that counter speech can remove bad ideas and hence remove bad behaviors and laws in this day and age with free speech and human rights. But still, the world was filled with unfreedoms far longer than our current state of affairs in history. In other words, our freedoms we have now may be fragile and we shouldn’t be naive about the supposed benefits of counter arguments have on bad ones.Report

T R
T R
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

You have evidence for this claim?”

The modern idea of race first appears with Bernier in 1684, and the Portuguese started importing slaves from Africa in the 1440s. The idea of race trailed the European use of African slaves by more than 200 years.

The rest of your comment suggests that slavery was driven by ideology, but slavery is primarily a system of labor, and what drives it is economics, not ideology. The ideology of race was driven by a need to justify the economic system that was already in use.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

I’ve started replying to a bunch of the responses to my questions, but the above pretty well encapsulates what I wanted to say in response to JTD above.

We analytic philosophers tend to pretend to ourselves that speech is not action. Even when we admit that speech is action, we still behave exactly as if it weren’t. A nasty, destructive, reprehensible habit. We should be more thoughtful and frankly, more interesting than to act that way.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  JTD
4 months ago

I would take things further still.

An issue (maybe a hot button one, or maybe something hardly anyone cares about) may to be settled because the best advocates of both sides have their ‘day in court’, so to speak, and one side clearly had the better arguments in the end. In that case, *so long as no new arguments or responses are provided by the losing side*, academia is justified in treating the matter as closed.

However, it is important that this not be done if new arguments or evidence are presented on behalf of the side that lost out the previous time. When new arguments are presented for a view that seems to be a lost cause, academics can either consider them in the usual way or else (if they must) say “Sorry, what you say may be right, but I just don’t feel like spending my time considering that.” And if *everyone* takes the second approach, then there is no longer any sound basis for anyone to dismiss the original claim as demonstrably false. At that point, such a conclusion can no longer be fairly warranted.

If academics en masse instead take the line that the new arguments and evidence should not be considered at all, and also assert that we know in advance of serious consideration that the new arguments and evidence are misguided, then everyone should understand that we can no longer take academics seriously in any of their pronouncements about the subject matter. The same, if not worse, follows if academics en masse agree not to consider certain arguments because it could cause social or psychological harm. That would be akin to a judge deciding not to hear an appeal (or maybe even to hear an original case) because people might find the testimony traumatic or because bad people might do bad things with the legal transcript. Even if there are good grounds for worrying about those things, that would be an open admission that the judge cannot be relied upon to administer justice in that case.

One plausible basis for considering an academic case closed in spite of appeals to consider new arguments could be that the supposedly new arguments are really just old ones. But who’s to judge whether the arguments are new or old, if there’s controversy? It would be the height of foolishness to leave that decision to people who have an obvious interest in not reopening the subject again.

There is simply no way to avoid assessing and discussing unpleasant positions and arguments and at the same time to have any credibility as an authority on those matters.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

//There is simply no way to avoid assessing and discussing unpleasant positions and arguments and at the same time to have any credibility as an authority on those matters.//

I am wondering when you think the philosophical field as a whole, or indeed any individual philosopher, was held by any person at all, to have credibility, as an authority, on any matter that person cared about.

Given that practically no person in the history of the human race has probably ever ascribed that kind of credibility to any philosopher (again: concerning any matter that person cared about), any defense of the neutrality of debating the value of classes of human persons on the basis that anyone is ever looking to us for answers about that, fails at its foundation.

Let’s try to create rationales for our profession which are based in what actually happens.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

“Given that practically no person in the history of the human race has probably ever ascribed that kind of credibility to any philosopher (again: concerning any matter that person cared about), any defense of the neutrality of debating the value of classes of human persons on the basis that anyone is ever looking to us for answers about that, fails at its foundation”

This is hyperbolic. Even if the average person doesn’t read philosophy, many of the people governing our laws and society do. The Supreme Court has referenced John Locke multiple times. Marx was a philosopher and look at how influential he was to communist world leaders in the 20th century. Fidel Castro read the Communist Manifesto in prison. The Nazis were influenced by Nietzsche.

Here’s a list of well known people who studied philosophy. They may not agree on everything, but I’m pretty sure many of their ideas and worldviews were shaped by philosophers they read. Many of these people are alive today governing our society.

https://www.apaonline.org/page/whostudiesphilosophyReport

Last edited 4 months ago by Redundant
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

In another post in this thread I clarified I mean to distinguish between what I’ll call “listening” and “hearing,” listening implying coming to philosophers with the view that I am genuinely ready to be informed or have my mind changed, and hearing instead only implying that I’ve understood the words they said and find them useful for my own purpose.

But discussing whether anyone ever actually listened to Marx or only heard him, is of course a much larger discussion than anyone here (including me) is probably prepared to have, it’s more like the type of thing we’d have to write books at each other over. I just find it very implausible to think that more than a very few people ever actually listened to a philosopher’s work in the sense described above.

I also clarified in that post that I do think philosophical practice has value both for the philosopher and for those he is in immediate ongoing contact with in philosophical discussions–I do think people might listen to a philosopher in person over the course of years–what I doubt is the professional justification of philosophy that assumes that people in general, or important political movers and shakers, listen to the professional work of philosophers (again, with “listen” being meant in the narrow sense I described above).

Sorry to leave it at that contentious claim, but that’s where I’m at anyway.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Kris Rhodes
Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I agree with what Redundant has just said, but I want to add that I was referring to the credibility of academia as a whole as a fair system for assessing the force of various ideas and theories. That credibility is far greater, and far more important, than the credibility given to any one figure.

This is a point that seems quite often to be missed. By analogy: we should not expect lawyers to be taken as trusted authorities on the cases they argue for in the courtroom. It is inescapable that they will be biased one way or another. What we have instead is a *system* we have designed to overcome the flaws of one side or another by putting measures in place to help ensure a fair hearing every time.

As it is, people can fairly go around saying that all lawyers are biased. That’s no harm to the credibility of the justice system. But if the courts ever decided not to hear cases on certain issues because they were too inflammatory, the result would be that the courts of law could no longer be credible on those cases, and the cases would end up getting resolved in other, probably very inferior, ways.

Similarly, if academia decides that it will not give certain ideas a fair hearing and openly announces it (with pride, even), then it signals to the world that nothing academia has to say on those issues should be taken as authoritative.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

Should what academia has to say on the issue of the roundness of the earth be taken as authoritative?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Unlike scientists, philosophers do not provide us with authoritative answers. Scientists can reasonably ask people to take their word, being folk who should know, that the world is round. We can’t do that for any philosophical conclusion (or for only a tiny set at most). Scientific theories are proven in a way that philosophical theories are not.

A scientists opinion that the world is round carries weight in itself. My opinion that, say, abortion should be legal, carries no weight in itself. But I might be able to help people think the issue through for themselves by presenting the best case for the various sides.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 months ago

//Unlike scientists, philosophers do not provide us with authoritative answers.//

I understand that. My question was directed at someone who believes that philosophers are credited withi some kind of authority or other.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Hi, Kris. My view is that what academia has to say on certain issues can be taken as authoritative in a sense (not to be trusted absolutely, since there should always be room to question, but rather as sufficiently settled for all practical purposes). The roundness of the earth is one example you give that fits that description.

I also hold that, on many other issues that are not so fully settled, we should be able to look to academia to see the best arguments on both sides, and the current state of play, so they are authoritative in that way. Many issues in applied ethics, economics, and so on seem to be like that. We can at least rule out a number of seemingly plausible views and understand why they don’t work, and see that there are forceful arguments against certain positions that may be popularly held. The fact that academics are (one hopes) not under any kind of extra-intellectual pressure to come to certain conclusions is an important part of that.

You’ve made all sorts of comments in this thread that suggest that nobody cares (or should care?) what academics, either individually or as a whole, have to say. Your view, if correct, has considerable implications for the profession.

Why is it, on your view, that the system pays so much more for researchers than teachers? I’m happy with what I earn, but I have colleagues who earn about three times my salary because they engage primarily in research while I spend nearly all my professional life on teaching. The same is true virtually everywhere in academia. All sorts of grants are available for strong researchers.

Do you think that those universities, foundations and private donors who give money to those who research and publish in philosophy are fools, and that they should smarten up and stop wasting their money? Do you think that the number of paid positions in the position should be drastically reduced, and that we should lose access to the tenure system, because nobody cares what philosophers say about anything? I’d like to understand more, please.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

The difficulty with your courtroom analogy is figuring out what a “fair hearing” constitutes in academia. It’s also important to keep in mind that fairness does not necessarily require absoluteness. If the courtroom has its limits then surely even academia should as well if you want the analogy to be sufficiently successful.

What are the boundaries and limitations of a “fair hearing” in academia?Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Redundant
Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

I’m not sure I understand the question, Redundant.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

I think it’s pretty straightforward:

What does a “fair hearing” in academia look like and don’t look like? A list of examples would be good.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Redundant
CHEYNEY RYAN
4 months ago

Thanks for this discussion. I have a brief off-the-top-of-my head comment based on almost fifty years in the field.

I think we have always had a cancel culture in philosophy, but perhaps it has taken different forms. Previously, cancelling came from the top down and pertained entirely to those on the left. I was fired from one job (by the dean) for writing my first article on pacifism. In my next job, my tenure was opposed by the dept head and several others of my department for my interest in Marxism. For the first two decades of my career, interest in feminism was ridiculed; the first woman professor in my department was called “Little Bo Peep” to her face by the dept head. The idea of hiring someone to talk about race would have been regarded as absurd by the powers that be. And so on. (By the way, I dont remember the same amount of public whining about this from the left at the time as we now witness from those on the right.)

What interests me is the extent to which the complaints now come from students, i.e. from below rather than above. Perhaps the anxiety about this is in part anxiety around more demanding, politically energized students. This is just a hypothesis–I dont teach undergrads any more so have no first hand evidence.Report

Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

So you reject that canceling is properly defined, or maybe even that it is an actual threat as currently used. But it seems that especially in colleges and universities, it is having real impact”

Sorry I haven’t read the whole thing yet so my comment should be taken in that light but, the sentence beginning with “But” above has somehow managed to be both begging the question and throwing out a red herring in one and the same sentence. I have faith that as the dialog progresses things get better than this.

(Begging the question, because it talks about a real impact, which only makes sense if the concept is clearly defined, which is the very thing that is at issue. Red herring, because it distracts from the important topic introduced, which is to clearly define cancel culture.)Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Followup: The overall thrust of the post is indeed better than I feared based on the quoted passage above. Though I basically stand 100% with your son in terms of views on cancel culture, Sigal, I appreciate that it’s clear you’re engaging in good faith and have a true concern to avoid harm and are very open to following the implications of the fact that speech is action. I vote no cancel. (this is joke)Report

Patrick Lin
4 months ago

I’m skeptical that “cancel culture” is an actual thing, insofar as it seems to be a natural condition for human societies across time. Just ask Socrates.Report

cancel culture.jpg
Grad Student
4 months ago

Sorry, I can’t escape the feeling that Sigal is letting her son pretend innocence and in general, let him get away with bombastic, though highly dubious and philosophically flawed claims. It’s ok over the family dinner table, of course, but it’s another thing to publish that in the Daily Nous. Some sample of examples:

1.”[A] White professor seeing eye-to-eye with his students and opting to no longer use the N-word” – I don’t know which specific case Itamar is referring to, but I guess he refers to a case where a professor didn’t *use* the N-word (in such a case he would have been fired immediately and justly so) but *mentioned* it, a distinction that practically every philosopher knows and every person outside the US grasps intuitively. It’s really an American thing to treat the N-word as if it were “Voldemort” – he who must not be named (though somehow we all know magically what the word is, right?). I think the vast majority of people I met that are not Americans treat it us utter stupidity (though this insensitivity to the mention/use distinction, unfortunately, does get exported to other countries). I come from Sigal’s home country (Israel), and people here, who are mostly from an ethnic group that suffered from racism throughout the years know the difference between saying that Hitler said that all the Jews should be killed and arguing that all the Jews should be killed. Although some young Americans can treat me as a total racist for talking like this, please let me assure you that at least in my country I’m considered very liberal and left-wing, like many others who outrageously distinguish between use and mention.
2.”[A] professor claiming that “trans women are a fiction,” facing protests, and resigning” – Again, I don’t know the specific case, and I don’t know what ‘fiction’ means here, but I do know of cases where people needed to resign or face protests for saying that biological sex is a real phenomenon. Biological sex for god’s sake! One of the top 5 most common facts of biology (a little after DNA replication and protein translation). Really, the younger generation in America in average really don’t how stupid they sound for people from other countries. Now, one should not face protest or resign for stating a trivial fact, even if you don’t like this fact.
3. “To insist on the innate value-neutrality of philosophy as a discipline, or of the questions, we choose to raise and our methods for pursuing answers is to passively align with power.” – No, it’s not. At the maximum, it’s to not actively challenge power while you’re doing philosophy (which does not have to be all you do in life, you know). And please explain to me how thinking (say) on what is the best interpretation of quantum mechanics or on whether we should adopt a non-classical logic in a value-neutral way is a passive alignment with power? Or maybe these questions don’t count as philosophical because Foucault didn’t write about them?
You might say that there are some sub-fields in philosophy that you cannot do in a value-neutral way. This sounds more reasonable. But this is very far from implying that we should do philosophy by motivated reasoning and wishful thinking. On the face of it, we should still use our value-neutral (sorry, the servants of power) tools such as logic to evaluate an argument even if we like its conclusion, right?

Really, all this dialogue is so confused, and the main thing I take from it is that it’s completely irresponsible to limit one’s speech based on that.Report

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

Re. remark #1: Yes, we known there is a difference between use and mention. Interestingly, in American English we have a phrase, “n-word,” that you can say whenever you want to mention (rather than use) that particular word. So, pronouncing the full word out is gratuitous when the purpose is merely to mention it. Thus, pronouncing out the full word always has a significance beyond merely mentioning it. A captive audience of students forced to hear the full word pronounced out by a teacher will rightly take offense at its gratuitous nature. This may be technically protected by academic freedom, but it is very poor pedagogy.Report

Immodest Mouse
Reply to  Louis Zapst
4 months ago

The word exists in so many historical documents (legal cases, plays, even philosophy worth reading) that your point, while it has merit, misses the purpose of this discussion.

The purpose isn’t to discuss questions like: “Should I mention the actual “N-word” in class today in a thought experiment about utilitarianism?” The answer, as you and anyone with a hint of good sense knows, is NO you absolutely shouldn’t. That’s gratuitous and while sometimes gratuitous, even shocking, examples can be pedagogicaly useful this is not one of those cases.

The purpose of the discussion, I take it, is to address other sorts of questions: whether, for example, somone should be pressured into resigning because students took offense because they said the actual N-word while reading lines from a play in a theater class from a play in which a character uses the word (something that literally happened at my university in a play chosen by students and where the faculty member was an instructor) or whether students should be allowed by adminstrators to revolt and refuse to attend class if they don’t believe that their professors used politically correct terminology in their history class (something that also happened in my university in the last five years). Should we, as philosophers, pedagogues, and human beings, want to do our work in an environment where disagreeing with our students on matters of word usage, political ideology, or pedagogy can get one fired, pressured into dismissal, or simply just not re-hired when one’s adjunct contract runs out?

In neither of the cases that I mentioned are things as easy as you’re making them out to be Louis and, for my part, my own response (which is probably fairly common) has been to tiptoe around these issues in the classroom *unless* the viewpoint I’m going to discuss is in line with neoliberal progressive student political ideology, in which case I’m probably safe. You might think that that this is good pedagogy but I would hope that you’d be harder pressed to think that there aren’t serious philosophical questions here worthy of merit and debate among philosophers (at least qua philosophers if not qua educators).

Should transwomen be regarded as women for all socio-political purposes in a neoliberal democracy? I think they SHOULD but I can at least understand where people like Kathleen Stock are coming from and I can appreciate their arguments even when I disagree with them. When discussing a department’s next hire, should that department prioritize racial equity/justice at the expense of other department needs? There are some good, serious, questions here that merit significant philosophical (ethical, political, even meta-ethical) attention. Is the phrase “the N-word” always to be preferred over the actual word even in the sorts of contexts I mentioned above? I honestly don’t know! I think there are good philosophical things at stake. I wonder whether teaching about the ethics of abortion is about to turn into one of these sorts of issues given where we are legally and politically.

What we’re talking about, at least if I understand this debate, is that it’s risky (for non-philosophical reasons) to research or teach most of these topics (at least to research or teach these topics from anything but the neoliberal progressive orthodoxy). Is that good for the discpline? Is that good philosophy? Whetever you think, I think those are good philosophical questions.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Louis Zapst
4 months ago

How is that case “very poor pedagogy”? Most students already know what that word sounds and reads like anyway. Saying the full word would just add redundancy on top of its already offensiveness. May we please stop acting like saying certain slurs out loud is somehow intellectually revolutionary because it’s not. The accusation that such cases constitute “very poor pedagogy” is hyperbolic.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

I’m confused by your response, I am not sure whether you may be talking past your interlocutor, or whether instead I’m simply misunderstanding you. Are you ascribing to Louis Zapst the view or sentiment that saying certain slurs out loud is intellectually revolutionary?Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

“This may be technically protected by academic freedom, but it is very poor pedagogy.”

Censoring slurs is at best neutral in regards to pedagogy unless I’m failing to see what’s so intellectually impressive about hearing the slurs out loud other than knowing what it sounds like and the negative connotations that it has.

My response is a general claim. Accusations that censoring certain words is “bad pedagogy” is often presupposed by the assumption that somehow *not* censoring them is somehow very intellectually beneficial, which I doubt. At least, to such a small degree that it’s not worth defending saying those words out loud to begin with.

The way many people bend over backward to defend saying slurs out loud in teaching by using such premises leads me to make that claim–the claim that saying slurs out loud is not intellectually revolutionary as these defenders *behave* like it is.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

In what you just quoted, ‘this’ refers to uttering slurs, not to censoring them.

He’s saying that to utter a slur is bad pedagogy.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I re-read it and yes we agree to a certain extent. It all hinges on how we define the aim and function of pedagogy; whether or not it’s poor or good pedagogy depends if it violates its telos. But I wish he wrote it straightforwardly and used less passive voice.Report

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

If by writing “hyperbolic,” you meant that I understated the matter, then I might agree. Saying the n-word is not “intellectually revolutionary” at this point in the USA. While there is plenty in a philosophy class that will cause discomfort to students by challenging their beliefs, the gratuitous saying of the n-word is not in this category. The n-word is gratuitously insulting language that makes students feel uncomfortable in a way that is pedagogically corrosive, rather than “challenging” or “disruptive” in any good sense.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

What arguments against using the n-word to mention the n-word have you made yourself familiar with?Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I’m not sure I understand your question, but clearly you have some very specific arguments in mind, so bring them on and let’s discuss.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

No, I don’t.

You’ve expressed strong disagreement with the idea that we should say ‘the n word’ instead of saying the n word. You’ve characterized the idea as particularly risible. This means you’ve considered the matter carefully, including becoming familiar with the best arguments against your view.

I am asking you what arguments you familiarized yourself with, that licensed your sentiment that to insist on locutions like ‘the n word’ is laughably foolish.Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Really? you don’t? I have a feeling that I will regret spending any more time on this, but let’s give it a try:

  1. From what you’re saying it’s implied that you presume that such arguments exist. Otherwise, your sentences lack reference. I call this presumption to question. Prove me wrong! (or stop wasting my and other readers’ time).
  2. You also assume that one must consider a matter carefully and become familiar with counterarguments before one is “licensed” to find an idea “particularly risible”. I call this into question as well. I can think of so many counterexamples. there is no limit to the number of stupid ideas people adopt, as well as to the level of ridiculousness. But I’m afraid to give you one because before we settle this matter you might demand me to refute the idea in the counterexample as well.
  3. I consider the claims that the earth is flat, or that people should be judged by their skin color, as very stupid. I have not become familiar with the best arguments against this view (i.e., the view that these ideas are stupid). I am familiar, though, with some very strong arguments in favor of the claim that the world is round (which implies not flat) and in favor of the claim that people should not be judged by their skin color. Is that not enough? If it is, then let me assure you that I am familiar with some arguments and examples for the usefulness of the mention/use distinction.
  4. Although I don’t think it’s in any way necessary, I am actually quite interested in this whole cancel culture phenomenon, and I follow related news sometimes. It counts as spending some effort to try to find good arguments against my view. I haven’t found any serious one. Again, feel free to prove me wrong and actually teach me something (rather than sending me to read every available piece about an idea I find ridiculous.
  5. Just to be clear: I do not say that saying “the n-word” is idiotic in any context. I said it earlier, for instance, because I knew that if I’ll use the word people will stop listening. Also, there are reasons to say “the n-word”, or “the f-word” near children, for instance, because you don’t want them to use the words themselves without understanding their social implicatures. I’m only saying that treating merely mentioning a word as racism, especially when mentioning contexts where the word actually appeared (plays, verdicts, Trump’s oval office), is ridiculous.

Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

I don’t have any particular arguments in mind. I am not familiar with any of them. I would have to look them up myself. I know how I would argue in this case, but I was asking you what you’ve already read.

  1. From what you’re saying it’s implied that you presume that such arguments exist. Otherwise, your sentences lack reference. I call this presumption to question. Prove me wrong! (or stop wasting my and other readers’ time).

“That such arguments exist” — if I fill in for “such” the wording from my post you’re responding to, then what you mean by “that such arguments exist” would be:

“That there exist a set of the best arguments against your view.”

Filling in for “your view,” we get the following:

There exists a set of the best arguments against the this proposition:

‘Treating [using the n-word in order to] merely mention… [the] word as racism, especially when mentioning contexts where the word actually appeared (plays, verdicts, Trump’s oval office), is ridiculous.’

So you are asking me to prove that existence claim, correct?

As I said, I would have to go find them myself, but if that (what you called) presumption is genuinely what you’re doubting, I’m happy to do that work.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

I don’t think I can edit my reply, but to make the proposition more clear:

There exists a set of the best arguments against the the following proposition:

‘It is ridiculous to treat as racism the use of the n-word in order to merely mention that word, especially when discussing contexts where the word actually appeared (plays, verdicts, Trump’s oval office).’

That’s what you’re asking me to prove, correct?Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

To answer your other points:

I personally would never find a point of view risible unless I believed I was familiar with the best arguments for that view and that they were terrible arguments. I believe I know what the best arguments are that the earth is flat. I believe I know what the best arguments are that people should be judged by the color of their skin. Do you not believe you know what the best arguments are for those views?

We are all familiar here with the use/mention distinction. (Though I, and some others who have published about this, would emphasize that mention is a type of use rather than completely different from use.) It’s a very useful and important distinction. The existence, usefulness or importance of the distinction is not in question, nor does it settle the matter here. The question is what are the consequences of mentioning certain terms by using them (or if you prefer, by fully quoting them), and what is the wisest course of action in light of those consequences.

And, to your final point, I understand the scope of your claim and would not have assumed otherwise than what you say in your fifth point about that scope.Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

Yes, you are correct. I should also say, perhaps, that when you said “best” I read it as including the property “good”, for otherwise, the claim that a set of best arguments exist is trivially true. So yes, please go and find them.

With regard to the other points – I have never bothered to look at the arguments of the current flat Earthers nor on the arguments of current white supremacists, so no, I don’t have any basis to believe that I’m familiar with “the best” arguments, at least no more than I have a basis to believe that I’m familiar with “the best” arguments for the claim that merely mentioning the n-word (say, by quoting a historical text/event where the explicit word appeared) is an expression of racism.

Of course “[w]e are all familiar here with the use/mention distinction.” That was my point. But it seems that Itamar is not. Whether mention is a type of use is irrelevant. What’s relevant is whether it makes a normative difference if I use the word in a normal sense of ‘use’ or if I merely mention it. Also, the issue is whether merely mentioning the explicit n-word is an expression of racism, not if it makes some people unhappy.

But really, as you said, the most important point is the existence claim. It would be nice to actually see a serious argument for the ban of even quoting the full word. (I’m quite sure that most of the likes of Itamar are not familiar with one, but this, contrary to Itamar’s sentiment, is exactly what we have philosophy for – to discuss serious arguments (although I suspect that we can both be blamed as racists by some for merely discussing that)).Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

I’m off to collect links/citations. Meanwhile for discussion here’s a broad outline of an argument I think is perfectly good (esp. when filled out in more detail in any ensuing discussion).

  1. I am not hurting anyone when I say “the n word” instead of saying the word itself even in quotational contexts
  2. I am hurting at least some people when I do so.
  3. There is no concomitant good served to outweigh the hurt I am doing in such a case.
  4. Therefore I shouldn’t do so.

Statement 1 seems obvious.

Statement 2 is probably contentious in the present conversational context. To support it I offer the following observations

2a. A lot of people claim to feel hurt by utterances of the n word even in quotational contexts, and ask me not to use the term even in that way.

2b. There is no reason to think that all of them are lying all the time about this.

2c. It requires almost no effort for me to make that change.

2d. To make a person feel hurt without a concomitant good resulting from that action, is to harm that person, if that person does not wish to feel hurt.

2e. Many people have suffered trauma relating to the use of the n word

2f. To provide a stimulus to a person matching a traumatic stimulus from their past is prima facie to harm them. (A traumatic stimulus, and a subsequent trigger related to it, is a stimulus which makes it unduly difficult for the person to remain in reasonable control of their own rational and emotional processes.)

2g. It is plausible that without special training human beings typically can’t easily respond differently, at the reflexive level in which trauma responses reside, to words used quotationally and the same words used directly. (Note that there is no such thing as a quotation mark in the spoken language in any case.)

2h. I should not undertake to train someone in dealing with trauma triggers unless they have intentionally asked me to do so at least.

I think I had some more observations in mind but the above will do for now w.r.t statement 2.

Statement 3 is true as as far as I know but as it is a negative existential I’m happy to hear of any proposed counterexamples from people who disagree.

Statement 4 follows from the other 3 via generally consequentialist reasoning. We can recast it in virtue theoretic terms by way of the concept of an “asshole”, namely, a person who acts in an entitled fashion (whether an entitlement exists or not) without regard to the harms the person might cause by that action. If on the other hand neither consequentialist nor virtue oriented thinking works for the audience of this argument, we’d have to have some discussion of moral foundations in addition to the more practical matters under discussion.Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I’m sorry that you wasted your time on such an irrelevant argument. As I wrote explicitly more than once: “the issue is whether merely mentioning the explicit n-word is an expression of racism, not if it makes some people unhappy.”

Your argument can apply to manners and impoliteness as well. Saying “thank you” when appropriate does not hurt anybody while not saying “thank you” might. There is no concomitant good served by not saying “thank you” when appropriate. Therefore, you should say “thank you” when appropriate. But one should not lose one’s job, face protests, or be blamed with racism for not saying “thank you” when appropriate.

Also, besides being completely irrelevant to the current discussion, your argument is not very convincing. You spent a lot of time defending premise 2, but it is premise 3 that strikes me as most dubitable. while for every specific case you can say that *everything else remains equal* there is no concomitant good served… there is a good served by people in general not being afraid to speak, and not facing grim consequences for not choosing the most perfect way to say whatever they want to say. The peace of mind of speakers in a free and open society is undermined when every non-perfect choice of words is a ground for cancellation. Furthermore, in specific cases, one can think of other concomitant goods, e.g., the value of a play in the theater that cannot run because the n-word is in it, etc.

About premise 2, most of your support for the premise is not very impressive. You give some empirical conjectures, but no empirical support. How many people suffer from “trauma relating to the use of the n-word”? Were any of these people attended the relevant classes? Do all those who call for the resignation of someone are certain that someone from the class has related PTSD? Is the sound of the n-word the most common trigger for post-traumatic symptoms? Among the top 10 even? Somehow, I tend to think that if anyone is PTSD triggered by the phones of the explicit n-word, this person is probably above the age of 50, such that this person had a chance to meet people who call this person by this name when the word was more frequently used. But somehow it’s people from the younger generation that call for resignations. Also, we usually think that afro-Americans are allowed to use the explicit n-word, but all the PTSD-triggers stuff applies to any uttering of the n-word whatsoever, right?

But again, the most important thing is that all this talk about harm is irrelevant. You promised to find us good arguments the conclusion of which is that merely mentioning the n-word is an expression of racism. You haven’t delivered yet. Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

//I’m sorry that you wasted your time on such an irrelevant argument. As I wrote explicitly more than once: “the issue is whether merely mentioning the explicit n-word is an expression of racism, not if it makes some people unhappy.”//

Well, to engage in an activity that functions to harm people of a certain race disproportionately is racism. I suppose I should have written that as well.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

But so we’re clear, you are in basic agreement with the proposition “We should refrain from quoting the n word, even when discussing someone else’s use of it?” And your only beef is with saying that to not refrain is racism?Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

No. I think I was quite explicit about why not. And your addition that “engaging in an activity that functions to harm people of a certain race disproportionately is racism” is again dubious. You need some empirical support to the claim that merely mentioning the n-word does, but more importantly, this claim is probably false. The majority of Afro-Americans vote democrats (AFAIK). The percentage of Afro-American voters for the democrats is disproportionate to their share of the population. Thus, mocking the democrats “harm people of a certain race disproportionately”. But mocking the democrats is not racism. Also, harming the Ozone layer disproportionately harms white people. But harming the ozone layer is many other things, but not racism.
But frankly, I don’t see how this discussion is going anywhere, and how it might be resolved by at least one of us becoming wiser than he was. I don’t commit to saying anything more. I hope it contributed to some of the other readers, at least.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

//No. I think I was quite explicit about why not.//

Sorry, as noted below, I wanted to delete that post.

Mocking democrats does not harm anyone that I know of.

Harming the ozone layer does not disproportionately affect white people. “Disproportionately affect” means “affects a higher proportion,” not “affects a higher number.”

But in any case, my words weren’t careful. See my other post about definitions of racism. It’s not about disproportionately affecting just any race at all, it’s about perpetuating racial dominances.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I am not sure why I usually can’t edit posts but occasionally can. The above comment (beginning with “but so we’re clear”) should be considered deleted, as I wrote it under a misunderstanding of what I was responding to.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

Yes, you should say thank you when appropriate. That would be the parallel conclusion to the argument I gave. Your words about the severity of punishment that should happen if you don’t, have nothing to do with the argument I gave. Let’s stick to one thing at a time? Or at least, explicitly signal when we’re changing the subject. Okay?

Your discussion of premise 3 changes the subject in the exact same way. No longer talking about what an individual should do, you are now talking about what society should cause people to fear, how severely, etc.

Your discussion of premise 2 changes the subject in the exact same way. No longer talking about whether the premise I gave is true, but instead questioning how often it is true of particular cases, asking how severe the problem really is, etc.

You said: //there is a good served by people in general not being afraid to speak, and not facing grim consequences for not choosing the most perfect way to say whatever they want to say.//

You are talking about casess in which people “have not chosen the most perfect way to say whatever they want to say.” Those are not any of the cases under discussion. Use of the n word is not simply “not the most perfect way.” No one here is arguing that anyone should be punished for not choosing the most perfect way to say whatever they want to say.

I expect you, a philosophy grad student, to prevent yourself from engaging in simple straw man attacks, before others have to point them out for you. If people elsewhere in this thread (I don’t know if you have been following) want to talk about what gives philosophers, and the field as a whole, any kind of “credibililty” or “authority,” let’s start there.

Your entire paragraph on my statement 3 is premised on that straw man. For that reason I invite you to think through that issue once more for yourself.

//How many people suffer from “trauma relating to the use of the n-word”? //

I said “many,” and if you genuinely think this is in question then this discussion is a very different one than the one I thought I was having. That’s okay, I can adjust. Just let me know.

//Were any of these people attended the relevant classes? Do all those who call for the resignation of someone are certain that someone from the class has related PTSD? Is the sound of the n-word the most common trigger for post-traumatic symptoms? ///

These questions are blatantly irrelevant. No classes are under discussion in my argument. No calls for resignation. No claims about the ranking amongst other trauma triggers.

//But somehow it’s people from the younger generation that call for resignations.//

More irrelevance, but also assuming that people from a younger generation can’t act on behalf of harms to others besides themselves, and also assuming implausibly that seeing how your carefgivers respon to trauma does not affect your own psyche w.r.t. those stimuli.

//Also, we usually think that afro-Americans are allowed to use the explicit n-word, but all the PTSD-triggers stuff applies to any uttering of the n-word whatsoever, right?//

Not right. You understand that in the context of a history of racism, utterance of the word by a white person and utterance by a black person will be differential w.r.t. how a black person responds psychologically. I am not going to brook discussion over whether I am correct to say “you understand” that. You do. We will not play the philosopher’s game of trodding over well known ground in a pretense of neutrally proving each and every step on the way. You and I are people, dealing with each other. Do not deal with me as you would a professor or student in the classroom. When speaking with me, I require that when you behave as though you do not know something, you are sure you genuinely do not know it first.

Do credit to yourself as a thinker.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

Sorry for the multiple replies but I don’t have a link to edit my posts on this forum.

When discussing the question of whether something is racist, it’s important to be clear on what we mean by “racism” as the term covers a lot of ground.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0731121420964239

Generally, if you’re wanting to stick to strictly the question of whether it should be treated as racism to use the n word in quotational contexts, then it should be made clear: the relevant claim is that to use the n word in a quotational context is to perpetuate processes that maintain racial dominance. That is what I would mean by saying that activity “is” or “should be treated as” racism.

However, if instead, you are meaning to discuss the proposition:

“When a person uses the n word in quotational contexts, I should treat that person exactly as though they were an intentional believer in and perpetuator of explicit ideas that the white race is superior to others” or something like that, then I would demur from providing any arguments for that position as I would disagree with that position and do not think any serious person has put it forth.Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

I was under the impression that my original comment was about the ridiculous response of society to the mere mentioning of the n-word, not about any specific individual or any specific case. This was the subject all along, and the fact that by this stage you don’t get it and think I’m changing the subject renders this discussion hopeless. Sorry, I quit.

P.S.
I recommend reading a little about the ozone layer. Clearly, you didn’t understand my example, and it’s quite a basic knowledge.
Ozone layer – WikipediaReport

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

I haven’t mentioned any specific individual or case, so the relevance of your comment is sy best unclear.

I know about the ozone layer, whatever problem there may be with my understanding your use of the concept, it is not a failure to understand the concept itself.

You’ve thrown out two irrelevant comments and declared yourself finished.Report

Grad Student
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
4 months ago

By the way, for those who might be puzzled from my reference to Trump’s oval office – I had this video from 6 years ago in mind:
CNN host Brooke Baldwin loses it when Trump-bashing guest uses N-word on the show – YouTube
Unfortunately I couldn’t find the full video.

I want to say that the fact the trump defender won this debate is a symbol of everything that is wrong in America. But so much is wrong in America…Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Grad Student
4 months ago

Thank you for this comment, Grad Student.

I don’t know whether the young interlocutor here is “pretendi[ng] innocence”, but he certainly does seem to be making “bombastic, though highly dubious and philosophically flawed claims.” Some more examples follow:

  • “It may also be worth noting that the accusation of ‘canceling’ is overwhelmingly likely to be made against favored targets of the reactionary media apparatus… When was the last time, for instance, that you heard of NDAs described as “cancel culture”? For that matter, what about the disappearance of tenure-track positions, with all the resulting weakening of free-speech protections in academia?”

There is plenty of bombast here, and the high rhetorical flames emanating from the speaker may be responsible for the fact that the target seems to be missed entirely. ‘Cancel culture’ may be a difficult thing to delineate, but the phrase is not completely without specific meaning, and I think we all know what that meaning is. Roughly, to ‘cancel’ people is to expose them (and often their defenders or even people who fail to join in the attack on them) to widespread outrage and scorn, typically on social media, such that their social and/or professional reputations are greatly damaged. A ‘cancel culture’ is, roughly, a culture in which there is a widespread and seemingly credible fear of being cancelled for saying or doing what to most people on the planet would be fairly or completely innocuous things, and in which many people therefore are cowed into silence or complicity with popular opinions. I have no doubt that parts of that definition could be disputed, but I think it gets the broad strokes at least right.

Now, it is meant to strike us as outrageously hypocritical that non-disclosure agreements and the disappearance of tenure-track positions tend not to be called ‘cancel culture’. But the obvious explanation for this is that they are clearly not cancel culture. It may be that the erosion of tenure and the compulsion to sign NDAs are bad things that should be stopped. But neither of those things is an instance of people being made the targets of public outrage.

(It’s also noteworthy, speaking of hypocrisy, that the interlocutor apparently uses the phrase ‘reactionary media apparatus’ to describe just one side of the nastier arenas of the culture wars, but I’ll avoid further comment on that).

Here’s another:

  • I would suggest that philosophers redouble their commitment to the challenging of power!

At the very least, this shows that the speaker has been deeply misinformed about the nature and purpose of philosophy. Philosophers qua philosophers are committed only to seeking the truth through a set of objective rational norms. Whoever is going around telling people that philosophers have a ‘commitment to the challenging of power’, especially where the ‘power’ is almost certainly to be specified dogmatically by the same person or faction, is guilty of a rather nasty perversion of the reputation of our discipline at best, and at worst seems to be indoctrinating people into some sort of cult.

My purpose here is not to blame the young speaker, whose errors here may well have been caused by a dogmatic and bullying sect that managed through various ways to gain temporary hold of his youthful rage (possibly perverting his education in the process by converting it into a means of political recruitment). After all, many of us have been susceptible to such pressures in our own younger days as university students and even beyond. But it’s perhaps worth remembering that it is people just like the speaker, often with the same age and confident moral intensity, who so often lead the cancellations.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

Being “committed to challenging the power” is not incompatible with “seeking the truth through a set of objective rational norms” like you said because rational norms such as criticism may well fall under the broad term of “challenge” here. This would be different if Grad Student said “overthrowing the power” which would be a reach since power can be used for good or bad.

Philosophers have challenged many sorts of powers in de facto ways such as writing books and articles critiquing certain political arrangements and questioning the moral legitimacy of state authority. Insofar as philosophy involves arguments and critique, we can and should expect many philosophers to criticize the conclusions put forth by certain powers that be to see if they are worth following, believing, or accepting in the first place. One can call this ‘pragmatism’ or ‘applied political philosophy’ or ‘applied ethics’.

For example, Marcus Arvan recently wrote an article called ‘Educational Justice and School Boosting’ that challenged the so called (educational) “powers” and current laws.

https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVEJA

I don’t know if these sorts of normative philosophy articles align with what you consider to be philosophy, but as practiced, they have been around for a long time.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Redundant
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Justin Kalef
4 months ago

‘to most people on the planet would be fairly or completely innocuous’

‘complicity with popular opinions’

When can an action both be bad according to popular opinion, and completely innocuous according to most people?Report

P D Van Pelt
4 months ago

My suggestion, as a practicing pragmatist, is consider whether what you Wil say is more or less useful. Think before you speak.Report

Fellow Hermeneut
4 months ago

This was a fruitful dialogue that I imagine having with my own son who recently graduated from college with a degree in theater and philosophy. The two agree that teachers have a responsibility to be aware of 1) the potential harmful effects of speech, 2) the specific context in which power differentials and other factors impact the effects of speech, and 3) the value of the speech. Like Sigal, I am skeptical that colleges can guarantee safe classroom spaces where no offense is taken without also having a chilling effect on discussions of public interest. It is difficult to distinguish a Socrates from a sophist and administrations everywhere are more concerned with how they look than cultivating philosophically rich discussions anyway. But what we can and should do better is work to maintain a diverse community where multiple perspectives and identities are represented and encourage all people to make a good faith effort to discuss issues with respect and mutual understanding. In our polarized society, we need more discussions of this nature not less. Whether speech reinforces existing power structures is no basis for distinguishing good speech from bad speech. I am afraid there is no algorithm to help us here.Report

Tristan J. Rogers
4 months ago

I haven’t seen anybody comment on this surprising claim:

“To insist on the innate value-neutrality of philosophy as a discipline, or of the questions we choose to raise and our methods for pursuing answers, is to passively align with power. This process not only harms the most vulnerable but also serves to undermine the bedrock of democracy on which philosophy itself rests.” (emphasis added)

I can think of very many figures in the history of philosophy who would be surprised to learn that philosophy itself rests on the bedrock of political system of democracy. Doesn’t this imply that philosophical critiques of democracy are self-undermining?

I don’t think anybody truly believes that philosophy is (or ought to be) value neutral. But to reduce the genuine values that guide philosophy (e.g., truth, beauty, goodness, etc.) to a shabby power struggle is unfortunate.
I haven’t seen anybody comment on this surprising claim:

“To insist on the innate value-neutrality of philosophy as a discipline, or of the questions we choose to raise and our methods for pursuing answers, is to passively align with power. This process not only harms the most vulnerable but also serves to undermine the bedrock of democracy on which philosophy itself rests.” (emphasis added)

I can think of very many figures in the history of philosophy who would be surprised to learn that philosophy itself rests on the bedrock of democracy. Doesn’t this imply that philosophical critiques of democracy are self-undermining?

I don’t think anybody truly believes that philosophy is (or ought to be) value neutral. But to reduce the genuine values that guide philosophy (e.g., truth, beauty, goodness, etc.) to a shabby power struggle is unfortunate.Report

Last edited 4 months ago by Tristan J. Rogers
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
4 months ago

While I’m generally on Itamar’s “side” of things so to speak, I did think those thoughts were worth clarification at least.

With that said, I’m wondering something about the idea that truth is a value for philosophy. If a philosopher argues that the term “truth” is redundant (as in some deflationary theories of truth) is this necessarily bad philosophy, or in some way not philosophy at all? Can a term be redundant yet also refer successfully to a value that should guide us?Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
4 months ago

I do agree that that emphasized part was a reach. People practiced philosophy in India in ancient times despite not being a democratic society. The first nun was possible because the Buddha fought for gender equality and criticized slavery. Women were able to free themselves from the oppressive home life and their abusive husbands during that time and retreat into the Buddha’s sangha.

I guess Kant was right when he wrote: “Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere.”

Perhaps they are unaware of the meta-philosophical literature. This is understandable since meta philosophy is rarely taught. My professors never went through a “What is philosophy” section in our classes. It’s one of those things you either know about or don’t, which can lead people to make arguments that have been addressed already.

I recommend Kristie Dotson’s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” as a start.

https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1039&context=comparativephilosophyReport

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

That article is really important, I am sorry I hadn’t encountered it before.Report

Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Redundant
4 months ago

“With all due respect, what does philosophy have to offer to Black women? It’s not obvious to me that philosophy has anything special to offer Black women today. I make this provocative claim to shift the burden to the discipline to explain why it is good enough for us; we should be tired of always having to explain how and prove that we are good enough for the discipline. (Yancy 1998, 172, italics in original) ”

Yes.

(Emphasis added)Report