Epithets in Philosophy
By Daniel A. Kaufman
Do epithets have a place in philosophical disputes? Is it useful, productive, or even appropriate to call people “racist,” “misogynist,” or “transphobic,” when engaged in philosophical arguments about the ethics of affirmative action, or whether we are properly described as living in a “rape culture” or whether gender identity is such that trans-women are in fact, women?
This question is currently live over at the Daily Nous, a much-read, insider-philosophy blog, published by Justin Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina. Weinberg has been linking to a series of posts by Kathleen Stock of the University of Sussex, in which she expresses a number of views critical of contemporary gender- and trans-identity politics, from a feminist perspective, as well as an essay by Talia Mae Bettcher of Cal State Los Angeles that is critical of Stock.
Bettcher engages in plenty of insult and condescension, referring to Stock’s “breathtaking hubris” and expressing doubts as to whether Stock’s essays “would have received a passing grade” in her Trans Feminist Philosophy course. One commentator referred to Stock’s “transmisogyny.” Another said that Stock, in suggesting that trans-women are not women, was “questioning my existence.” Stock, herself, refers to the “misogyny” of some trans-activism at points in her essays. It all got heated enough that Weinberg felt inspired to suggest a set of guidelines for civil discussion with respect to controversial and politically charged subjects, including “avoid[ing] needlessly using or mentioning provocative terminology or labels” and “avoid[ing] insulting, dramatic language.”
Good advice, one would think. Public discourse has become vitriolic enough, without the people who are supposed to be our intellectuals joining in. As scholars, we’re supposed to be generating light, rather than heat, after all. But it wasn’t long before someone dissented. Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a not-insignificant voice in philosophical social-justice circles, wrote the following:
I wonder … about what counts as “needlessly” using provocative terms. I assume that if the view under consideration is that black people shouldn’t be allowed into US PhD programs because they’re intellectually inferior, Justin will agree that it’s appropriate to apply the label “racist”. But I (genuinely!) don’t know what he’d think about whether it’d be needlessly provocative to apply that label to, say, Charles Murray’s work, or the American criminal justice system, or ideal political theory. (My own opinion is that it’s perfectly appropriate to use or mention that term in each of those discussions, and that we should collectively work to get over our instinct towards extreme defensiveness in discussions involving the term.) And of course similarly substantive and difficult questions arise for “misogynist”, “transmisogynist”, and lots of other provocative terms.
I responded critically, and at present, our argument is ongoing. But I think the issue important enough to more fully flesh out my views on the subject here.
The simple fact is that people are going to disagree on this stuff. Especially, this stuff. Philosophers can’t agree on the relative moral significance of motive and outcome; or whether reality exists independently of our minds or is partly constituted by them; or whether the meaning of a term lies in its referent or in some representation of the referent. What are the chances that they are going to agree on the ethics of affirmative action programs or sex and gender or the broader character of our culture, all of which are significantly more complex and whose key terms themselves are ambiguous and subject to interpretation and therefore dispute?
People also aren’t going to agree on the implications of the relevant scholarship – or even as to what counts as the relevant scholarship – something that activists and partisans either fail to understand or deliberately ignore, which is why, in the discussion over Stock’s essays, Bettcher and her supporters repeatedly handwave in the direction of “the literature” and accuse those who reject the conclusions they draw from it as being bigoted in one way or another. But once again, it seems to me that this sort of disagreement is exactly what one would expect. Philosophers of substantial education and sophistication disagree on the inferences to be drawn from Sellars’ distinction between the Scientific and Manifest images, even coming to literally contradictory conclusions as to what it implies. Philosophers equally expert on the subject disagree profoundly on the implications of Book 10 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the interpretation of Books 1-9. What are the chances that philosophers of different political orientations, perhaps belonging to different philosophical traditions, are going to agree on the implications of the gender-identity literature, or the literature on racism or even what the relevant literature is?
The trouble with the deployment of epithets in the contexts of these sorts of discussions – of calling one’s interlocutors “racists” and “transphobes” and the like – is that doing so has a number of serious negative effects and no positive ones. It begs for a reactive response, the inevitable result of which is a kind of rhetorical arms-race, in which people just hurl epithets at each other and accuse each other of things. It creates division where there needn’t be any and thus, destroys any possibility of coalition building. (I’ve written quite a bit on the ways in which hardcore progressives seem to be doing everything they can to push classical liberals and those on the center-left out of the civil rights coalition, thereby shrinking it and making it less effective, both intellectually and politically.) And it corrupts the academic literature, which is also filled with these sorts of epithets and accusations, and is thus perceived as ideological and motivated, rather than dispassionate, which means that it has no power to persuade, only seeming credible to those who already agree with the point of view being expressed.
There are, of course, appropriate places for epithets and accusations and all other manner of rhetorical warfare: polemics; political rallies; certain types of opinion writing… I have a dedicated column to this kind of expression, which I call “Provocations.” But it is an unmitigated disaster when it is brought into academic discourse and especially philosophy. We already have several examples of disciplines that have entirely lost credibility with the public, because they have been so adulterated by motivated, ideological thinking and activist postures and rhetoric – anthropology; sociology; many of the so-called “area studies” – and philosophy is at great risk of being perceived in the same way. It’s bad enough that we’ve alienated ourselves by way of excessive specialization and technicality. Adding the sort of taint that comes with being perceived as ideological and partisan and betraying the dispassionate, critical stance that traditionally has been philosophy’s distinguishing mark will be proverbial last nail in the coffin.