Just Stop It

by Daniel A. Kaufman

___

To my fellow professional academics (and especially philosophers):

Just stop it, ok?  Stop it!

What am I talking about?  Our current penchant for attacking our colleagues personally and professionally, when they disagree with us on moral and political subjects that we care strongly about; our pursuing such attacks so as to silence these colleagues, rather than engage them in rational argument (which, of course, one might lose); and our abuse of the harm principle in doing so.

In other words, some in our profession are trying to turn philosophy – and the university more generally – into a fever swamp.  It’s stupid and short sighted and dangerous, and we all need to stop it, right now.

Currently, you’ll find the worst of this stuff going on in the brawl – you can’t call it a “conversation” – over gender identity.  Just this week, the Times of London reported that a professor had organized a campaign to accuse gender-critical scholars of hate crimes against trans people, in an effort to get them fired from their jobs. (About one such scholar, Kathleen Stock, of the University of Sussex, a participant in this campaign wrote “File a hate crime report against her, and then the chairman and vice-chair… Drag them over the fucking coals.”) (1) But nothing about what’s happening is specific to that topic.  You’ll find the interactions similarly toxic and dysfunctional in discussions of race and other areas that intersect with what used to be called “civil rights,” but is now commonly referred to as “social justice.”

The way this goes is depressingly familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years.  A professor articulates a view on a controversial social or political subject that is at odds with the prevailing view in the academy or at least, with the view that is most fiercely promoted by academic activists.  It is then claimed that the professor in question has “harmed” the relevant population, i.e. racial minorities, trans people, women, etc., and that consequently, his or her writing/speech is outside the frame of acceptable discourse.  If the professor decides to stand up for him or herself and reaffirm the position in question, even perhaps marshaling additional arguments or evidence on its behalf, what only can be called a “mob” is then unleashed, first on social media, and then later, depending on the circumstances, against the professor’s home institution, with the aim of exacting some penalty, up to and including the termination of his or her employment.

That one even has to explain what’s wrong with this says everything about the current state of academia and social/political discourse more generally.  (This sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency outside of the academy as well.)  What I want to focus on, here, however, is the misuse – nay, the outright abuse – of the harm principle, for it is the linchpin to this entire sorry state of affairs and is something that if not addressed, will destroy the basis on which the very possibility of critical scholarship – not to mention a liberal civil society – rests.

In a post at the American Philosophical Association Blog, Asia Ferren, of American University, says the following about Stock’s inclination to retain the word ‘woman’ for people of the female sex:

The assumption is perhaps malicious because … this assumption hurtsAnd more importantly, this assumption harms; it is often used to discriminate against and justify violence toward trans women. (2)

You see what’s going on here, don’t you?  Stock’s view (which, I should add, reflects ordinary, common usage of the word ‘woman’ in English, as it stands today)  is also one that is held by some other people.  And some of those other people discriminate and engage in violence against trans people, in part, because they hold that view.  And because of this, Stock allegedly is responsible for that discrimination and violence in articulating the view herself, and consequently, her writing and speaking on the subject is beyond the scope of acceptable discourse.

It doesn’t take much heavy thinking to realize what would happen if this sort of logic (as it is) was generalized.  While in graduate school, I assisted Steven Cahn in the editing of his book, The Affirmative Action Debate (Routledge, 1996), in which views both supportive of and opposed to affirmative action were included.  But according to the thinking just described, no such book should ever be published.  After all, there surely is someone, somewhere who has engaged in discriminatory and even, perhaps violent behavior towards racial minorities, who held such views on affirmative action.  Consequently, the scholars who contributed the anti-affirmative action papers were advancing ideas that “harm” racial and ethnic minorities, and in light of that, their views are beyond the scope of acceptable discourse.

In my Ethics and Contemporary issues course, one of the units is on homosexuality, and I use papers from another edited anthology, The Liberation Debate: Rights at Issue (Routledge, 1996), which includes an essay by Roger Scruton, “Gay Reservations,” that is critical of much of the contemporary gay rights movement.  (I pair it with a “pro” piece from the anthology, written by Martha Nussbaum.)  But this book also should not exist, given the thinking currently under consideration.  Undoubtedly there are some other people, who are not Roger Scruton, who have engaged in discriminatory and even violent behavior towards gay and lesbian people, in part because they hold some of the views articulated by Scruton.  Thus, Scruton is advancing ideas that “harm” gays and lesbians, and consequently, his writing and speaking on the subject should be considered out of bounds.

You get the point.  One can repeat this sort of thing with respect to every controversial social and political topic currently on the menu, the result being that none of them should be discussed.  Or at least, only one side of them should be discussed, which is not critical inquiry, but rather, the promotion of an orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy is – or should be – anathema to philosophy, whose tradition of critical inquiry stretches back at least as far as Socrates (who, recall, was censured and then put to death for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of his own day), and to the academy more generally.  Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge, and this becomes impossible if we adopt the sort of attitude I’ve been discussing, here.  No one is better off – minorities and marginalized people, least of all – if we deem the critical, academic discussion of subjects like affirmative action, gay marriage, gender identity, and the like out of bounds, leaving them only to the work of those who adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day.  Indeed, it is precisely the perception that the latter is the case, which is why so many people give so little credence to the so-called “area studies” and why so many of the liberal arts and social sciences have come into the cross-hairs of reactionary legislators and activists, who are more than happy to have a proverbial knife-fight with their progressive counterparts, over whose orthodoxy should prevail in our colleges and universities.

Beyond the academy, in a liberal, civil society, one only rightly interferes with the liberty of another person, when his or her actions harm others and consequently, interfere with their own exercise of freedom.  This is the “harm principle,” articulated most comprehensively (and ably) by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. (1859)  ‘Harm’ is meant to be construed quite narrowly – Mill explicitly argues that offense is insufficient to count as harm in the relevant sense – and in order to be workable, it must indicate demonstrable, verifiable injury.  The claim is simply too powerful and has too great a capacity to stifle both our “experiments in living” and speech to leave it to an entirely subjective interpretation, which, of course, makes it possible for anyone to claim it.

With regard to writing and speech, then, ‘harm’ can only be a result of writing and speech that constitutes direct incitement against another person (or  which libels them, defrauds them, etc).  Of course, no such thing is true of any of the cases we’ve been discussing, which explains the intense effort on the part of activists to expand the meaning of ‘harm’ to include the causing of offense, hurt feelings, and the like.  I hope it is clear, by now, why it would be a terrible idea for us to acquiesce to this demand.  Both the advancement of knowledge and of our civil society requires that we engage in discussion and debate with our opponents, and this means that sometimes we must endure discomfort, disappointment, disillusion and even distress.

So, once again, to my colleagues:  Stop it.  Stop claiming that you or others have been “harmed,” because someone expressed a view you disagree with or which hurt your or someone else’s feelings.  Stop joining social media mobs, in order to hound people out of their jobs or pressure their bosses to fire them.  In fact, stop using social media altogether, when engaged in what should be careful, deliberate discussions and debates.  Facebook and Twitter are great for posting pictures of your cat or telling your friends how much you loved the concert you went to last night or congratulating a couple on their wedding.  They are absolutely the worst sorts of places to engage in our professional duties, which are supposed to consist of thoughtful scholarship.

Notes

(1) “Trans Goldsmiths lecturer Natacha Kennedy behind smear campaign against academics,” Lucy Bannerman, The Times, September 8, 2018.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/trans-goldsmiths-lecturer-natacha-kennedy-behind-smear-campaign-against-academics-f2zqbl222

**Full disclosure:  I have known Kathleen Stock for over a decade, as a result of our mutual affiliation with the British Society of Aesthetics, and have interacted with her socially, as well as professionally.

(2) https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/09/12/women-in-philosophy-table-talk-on-the-possibility-of-real-open-conversation/

75 Comments »

  1. Earlier today I listened to the video of Kathleen Stock that Leiter posted in his blog, and she is articulate, intelligent and very attractive. I support her 100%.

    However, people aren’t going to stop it. They enjoy being a mob too much to stop it. Simpler people form a mob at sports events and insult the other team and fans of the other team; more intellectual people form mobs to hound down those who ideas they disagree with. It’s fun.

    I say that because I used to find it fun. I no longer do. I lost the ability to enjoy being part of a mob. Maybe you never had it. I’d say maybe that’s because you take philosophy and critical thinking very seriously: it’s part of your personality as well as is a certain intellectual honesty, which is rare. Not many people are intellectually honest.

    Kathleen Stock seems like another intellectually honest person. As is Leiter, for example. Maybe if I live long enough, I’ll get there too.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Just stop it, ok? Stop it!

    I agree.

    I’ll suggest that a lot of this has to do with the Internet, which can be an amplifier of disagreements. So small disagreements are blown out of proportion and made into a cause celebre.

    It is easier for me, a mathematician, to avoid this than it is for a philosopher.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo, this urgently needed saying. I think you will find the problem is worse than you can imagine. For example, see this report:
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1017806/metropolitan-police-racism-row-whiter-than-white-legal

    A senior police officer admonished his staff, asking them to be ‘whiter than white’ in their conduct. A complaint was made about his ‘racist’ language and he has been placed on restricted duties, pending an investigation for misconduct.

    Like

  4. The problem is that it’s not about arguments but values. The topics you mention are ones where no amount of evidence or logic will make people change their positions, because they are really arguing about the type of world they want live in. The hostility is an artifact of this. A strategy designed to make sure that everyone knows where the ideaological divide is, and therefore which side everyone is on.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bunsen,
    The problem is that it’s not about arguments but values

    But unfortunately it is about arguments. We are a society in conflict and we have always been a society in conflict. We have conflicting needs, values, goals and understandings of truth. At one time we resolved these conflicts physically, where, if you were stronger, more capable, or had more powerful friends, the spoils went to you. Today we resolve our conflicts symbolically, for the most part, through the many variations of the adversary system. We do this in the courts, legislative assemblies, sports fields, the media or publication before our peers, etc, etc. The rules are always similar. There is a symbolic arena, limiting the scope of the conflict. There are rules to regulate the nature and conduct of the conflict and there is some form of agreed arbitration to declare the outcome. There is an implicit understanding that we work in the confines of the symbolic arena, accept the rules, respect the arbitrator and accept the outcome.

    This change from settling disputes by physical means, to settling them symbolically, through the adversary system, is, I think, the most important development in the history of our species. It works because we are a robust, adaptable species, prepared to live with a mix of wins and losses. Win some, lose some, but ultimately it creates the rising tide that lifts all boats.

    For this to work we must be prepared for vigorous debate from all sides. As the law courts have shown again and again, the most reliable way to arrive at just outcomes in human affairs is to hear passionate arguments from all sides. It is the very passion of the proponents that unearths the best arguments, the relevant facts and reveals their worst flaws. When we decide to close down certain kinds of arguments or arguments from certain kinds of people, we fatally damage the adversary process and virtually guarantee an unjust outcome.

    Routledge have a marvellous series of books, Contemporary Debates in…

    1. Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion edited by Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. VanArragon
    2. Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science edited by Christopher Hitchcock
    3. Contemporary Debates in Epistemology edited by Matthias Steup and Ernest Sosa
    4. Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics edited by Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman
    5. Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art edited by Matthew Kieran
    6. Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory edited by James Dreier
    7. Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science edited by Robert Stainton
    8. Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Mind edited by Brian P. McLaughlin and Jonathan Cohen
    9. Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy edited by Laurence Thomas

    This is philosophy of the best kind, where the reader is exposed to arguments for and against many points of view. I would love to see this happen in The Electric Agora.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Roger Scruton, in this article
    https://home.isi.org/threat-free-speech-university(The Threat of Free Speech in the University)

    had this to say about heresy:

    The fear of heresy arises whenever groups are defined by a doctrine. No matter how absurd the doctrine may be, if it is a test of membership then it must be protected from criticism. And the more absurd it is, the more vehement the protection. Most of us can live with false accusations, but when a criticism is true we hasten to silence the one who utters it. In just that way, it is the most vulnerable religious doctrines that are the most violently protected. If you mock the claim of Muslims that theirs is a “religion of peace,” you run the greatest of risks: the Islamist proves his devotion to peace by killing those who question it.

    We have reached the place where a certain brand of liberalism(fascist liberalism?) has a doctrine and, as Scruton says, ‘if it is a test of membership then it must be protected from criticism.‘ Heretical deviants from the party line are punished accordingly. ‘And the more absurd it is, the more vehement the protection.‘, which is exactly what we see.

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    • Totally off topic: I just looked at our recent stats. Interestingly, South Africa supplies our third greatest readership after the US and Australia with the UK and Canada just below.

      You been getting the word around? 😉

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      • You been getting the word around?

        I am a click machine, with an approximate facsimile of intelligence 🙂

        And so are many of my compatriots who speak Xhosa, our regional language rich in clicks. Listen to the beautiful Click Song by Miriam Makeba:

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  7. > Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge, and this becomes impossible if we adopt the sort of attitude I’ve been discussing, here.

    This could be rephrased slightly, as

    > If pursuit of knowledge is not the aim, then the sort of attitude I’ve been discussing here is the consequence.

    I sometimes wonder what happened.

    Did some people in academia adopt this attitude, making the pursuit of knowledge impossible?
    Or did some corners of academia start to believe that the pursuit of “knowledge” is impossible (or at least highly suspect), with as a consequence that they started to adopt this attitude?

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  8. labnut: Whenever I have observed recent debates on these types of controversial issues, I couldn’t help noticing the way everyone was careful to avoid dealing with the more unpleasant consequences of their views. My impression was that these people simply are not interested in the possibility of these consequences. These are not possibilities that exist in the fantasy world that they desperately want to replace the exiting one with. As such i can’t begin to imagine what kind of logic, argumentation, facts, evidence, an so on, you could use to dissuade them of their notions. I suspect that these issues can never be resolved or even discussed honestly unles one side obliterates the other. Maybe literally.

    Consider this sad fact. We can’t even eliminate the flat earthers. Not only do they still exist, but it appears that thanks to the internet they are actually flourishing. What hope is there for more substantial issues?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As always, academic debate is annoying. It’s supposed to be polite “discourse”. The model is “dialogue”, among the elite. And yes, you are all in the elite. But that’s not how debates in the real world take place. The “real world” includes the world of journalists and lawyers, of political action, of people whose job it is not to be polite. The author of this scathing piece on the Ronell fiasco [https://www.salon.com/2018/09/08/a-witch-hunt-or-a-quest-for-justice-an-insiders-perspective-on-disgraced-academic-avital-ronell/] describes the academic model well, but few people noticed.

    “The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures.”

    Plato wasn’t much for democracy. What Daniel Kaufman is mourning is the death of shared assumption that allows for polite debate.

    The New Yorker was going to host Steve Bannon but pulled the plug after protest. The Economist had planned a similar event and went forward: a polite conversation with a fascist who faced no questions so threatening that he might walk off the stage.

    Compare that to the interview with Ian Buruma about his recent decision to publish a piece by Jian Ghomeshi. [https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/09/jian-ghomeshi-new-york-review-of-books-essay.html]
    Just above the headline is a word in all caps: INTERROGATION It amused me how many academics were impressed by the author’s skill at undermining Buruma’s arguments. Philosophers aren’t much for adversarialism. Legal philosophers seem never to have watched lawyers at work. And lawyers don’t read legal philosophy.

    I suppose Kaufman thinks he’s a fan of adversarialism; he’s been in agreement with Brian Leiter on these issues. But Leiter doesn’t like his world disturbed.
    [http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2017/09/why-its-tough-to-be-a-conservative-in-that-special-american-sense-in-a-university.html]
    “A university must tolerate, and even welcome, those who follow evidence and argument to conclusions that are false or unpalatable; but it may reject those who seek a platform for hatred or deception. That is why it counts counts against Middlebury College when its shouts down Charles Murray but it counts in favour of Berkeley when it excludes Milos Yannopoulos.”

    As I wrote at the time: universities would deserve criticism for rejecting a presentation by the authors of the Nuremberg Laws, but would be right in rejecting a speech by a rabble-rousing journalist who promotes them. You can see the result of Leiter’s ideal at the Economist’s webpage.
    [https://events.economist.com/events-conferences/americas/open-future-festival-new-york/#agenda]

    Leiter the atheist nonetheless defends theology as a Wissenschaft. Jon Elster is a political theorist who dedicated years to the formal analysis of Marxist Holy Writ but Leiter calls him a “scientist”
    [http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/08/elsters-criticism-of-norways-hohlberg-prize.html]

    But Derrida and Kristeva are “frauds”. By that logic Harold Bloom is a fraud. Leiter defends the formal rigor of closed systems. The debate over angels and pinheads is worth defending as philosophy.

    Derrida is no more a fraud than Mallarmé; he’s an annoying and passive aggressive but arguing with pedants he wins the case. Martha Nussbaum attacked Judith Butler, so it’s interesting that Butler in action, in Palestine, defends the liberalism that Nussbaum claims to represent in words. Who’s the professor of parody now?

    On Palestine and Israel Leiter’s priors make serious discussion impossible. That holds true one way or another for all of you. None of you want the muck of real debate, or real politics of real engagement in the world. One way or another it all reduces to your preference for safe and simple games.

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  10. Could it be that the continuous drone of cable news and almost universal participation in social media have shifted the balance of power? In the good old days various elites were the gatekeepers. That is, a relatively small number of people were in positions of power and were able to regulate and control the discourse. Bucking the system required real talent. Anything less usually resulted in a short-lived career.

    That relatively stable (staid?) regime has been turned completely on its head. Those with political agendas and who know how to rile up the mob, are now the ones with real power. It is therefore not surprising that those in positions of responsibility tend to submit to the will of said mob. Nevertheless, these so-called activists have succeeded in having quite a number of prominent officials and academics removed from their jobs for very specious reasons.

    I applaud you for taking a strong position. Fostering a healthy, vigorous and open exchange of ideas is obviously extremely important.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well said, Dan. But of course they are not going to stop. I think they see this conflict as part of a wider cultural war which they must win (for both idealistic and self-serving reasons). Any attempt at a serious critique is automatically deemed to be either naive or in bad faith (e.g. reactionary).

    “Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge…”

    My perception is that this is not how the people you describe see their jobs at all. They are committed first and foremost to promoting certain social and political ideas and causes.

    “Indeed, it is precisely the perception [… that the critical academic discussion of subjects like affirmative action, gay marriage, gender identity, and the like is deemed to be out of bounds] which is why so many people give so little credence to the so-called “area studies”…”

    Exactly. These politicized academics have brought scholarship into disrepute. The damage will in my opinion take generations to undo.

    “… and why so many of the liberal arts and social sciences have come into the cross-hairs of reactionary legislators and activists, who are more than happy to have a proverbial knife-fight with their progressive counterparts, over whose orthodoxy should prevail in our colleges and universities.”

    Moderate conservatives (and much of the general public) are also opposed to what these kinds of scholars (or pseudo-scholars) are doing, but they would not be seeking to replace one orthodoxy with another.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The problem isn’t that those attacking Professor Stock are politicized. Almost everything which deals with social reality is politicized as is almost everyone who talks about social reality. Professor Stock is politicized, Dan K. is politicized, Professor Leiter is politicized.

      The problem is that they’re a mob, a self-righteous, unthinking mob and mobs are dangerous. Mobs are the most anti-philosophical thing around since mobs are unthinking. In fact, philosophy begins back in the days when an unthinking mob condemns Socrates to death. So a mob within the field of philosophy is weird and frightening.

      Like

      • Well, on the danger of mobs a quote from Douglas Adams comes to mind:

        “the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”

        I think the miscalculations of scale of twitter mobs go just the other way. A handful of articles and a “mob” comprising of about 0.0001% of the active twitter users on any given month and the Nobel Laureates in charge of the Royal Society or the wise administrators of the University College London become so panicked that they are prepared to end the career of a fine scientist.

        That “mob” was only dangerous because people gave them power by folding like umbrellas. They should have stood their ground and taken no action against Sir Tim Hunt.

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        • The fact is that they are not standing their ground, for the most part. My call is for philosophers and academics more generally to behave like professionals and adults. Sure, administrators should grow a spine and rebuff these efforts, but that doesn’t give any sort of pass to the rotten people in our discipline who are engaging in this sort of mob behavior.

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          • The fact is that they are not standing their ground, for the most part.

            Because no-one is calling them to account for it. When they say “Oh, no, 0.0001% of social media users say we should fire Sir Tim, we had better obey them” people immediately release their fury on the 0.0001% of social media users who don’t really give a toss. If we turned just a little of that criticism towards the people who give the mob power by unnecessarily buckling to them then something might be changed.

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          • Robin, this essay was about a very specific phenomenon that threatens to destroy our discipline and many others. It involves adult, professional academics behaving in a cynical, appalling fashion; misusing essential, bedrock liberal principles; and going after the livelihoods of their colleagues. There are all sorts of other problems and other people who need talking to, but they are not what *this* essay is about.

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  12. Labnut

    “Roger Scruton, in this article

    had this to say about heresy:”

    But did you notice that in “Gay Reservations” Scruton rejects Mill’s point about “harm” and wishes to employ the same broad usage of “harm” as those he criticised.

    That is because he has heretics of his own to try to punish on behalf of his own in-group.

    Peas in a pod. He is only jealous that others now have the power that his mob no longer have.

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    • If Scruton has tried to organized mobs to pressure an institution to fire someone, because of bogus claims that their work “harmed” people, then he would be a pea in the same pod.

      As for his paper, I see no reason why I shouldn’t use it in my course. Unless you hunk in an applied ethics course, a unit on homosexuality should only include “pro” articles.

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    • Robin,
      He is only jealous that others now have the power that his mob no longer have.

      Do you have some kind of privileged insight into his state of mind? You should never base arguments on another person’s presumed motivation.

      In any case, by attacking Roger Scruton you have entirely missed the point of my argument. Of course, attacking the person instead of parsing the argument is an exceedingly common practice, but it remains a bad practice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My impression of Scruton is that he endeavors to engage with his opponents, not silence them by threatening their livelihood. A case in point is this amazing dialogue with Terry Eagleton, a Marxist and an atheist, in which Scruton is only ever generous and civil.

        Liked by 1 person

      • labnut,

        In any case, by attacking Roger Scruton you have entirely missed the point of my argument. Of course, attacking the person instead of parsing the argument is an exceedingly common practice, but it remains a bad practice.

        So you approve of the “they are punishing heretics” line when Scruton uses it of others, but you disapprove of it when applied applied to Scruton himself?

        It is OK for Scruton to attack the person rather than parsing the argument? But not OK when applied to Scruton himself?

        As for parsing Scruton’s argument, I assume that this is not about Scruton’s argument as such and it would be off track.

        And since Scruton has, himself, walked away from this argument since, perhaps there is no point any more.

        Certainly, as I have said, I would welcome every opportunity to parse Scruton’s argument, such as it is.

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  13. The idea of “free expression” – that is, someone with an x viewpoint being able to express x as a lecturer at a university, or by including their expression of x in a collection of essays – good, generally speaking. (I’ve been “blocked” on Twitter by a philosophy professor for something I wrote about something he wrote. Not the same thing as the former type of “blocking”, but it’s the same idea, so I can understand the feeling.)

    But in the case of Roger Scruton, I wonder if people have read essays he has written in the past. I’m glad he has the “right” to express his views, but it seems odd to me to complain that some are overreacting (Are they? It seems understandable why there is this reaction) to seeing Roger Scruton at their school or in a book of essays.

    This ‘right’ for gays is an injustice to children
    By Roger Scruton 28 Jan 2007
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3636798/This-right-for-gays-is-an-injustice-to-children.html

    “Every now and then, however, we wake up to the fact that, although homosexuality has been normalised, it is not normal. Our acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, of same-sex couples, and of the gay scene has not eliminated our sense that these are alternatives to something, and that it is the other thing that is normal.” … “We are being asked to overlook all that we know about the fragility of homosexual partnerships, about the psychological needs of children, and about the norms that still prevail in our schools and communities, for the sake of an ideological fantasy.”

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      • If the Scruton essay on gays as parents being bad is in an applied ethics course, then also essays on how Jews or Muslims should not be allowed to be teachers in public schools should also be included. There are many equivalent examples.

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          • I didn’t dodge the question. In an applied ethics course I was proposing there could be the Scruton essay, followed by one on why Jews should not be allowed to teach, and then the class could compare them. Unless you want to suppress my “free expression”.

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          • You can design whatever course you like. In *my* course, given that we are supposed to be critically engaged with the topic, the unit on homosexuality includes *both* the essay “Gay Reservations” by Roger Scruton *and* the essay “Gay and Lesbian Rights: Pro,” by Martha Nussbaum.

            And you did dodge my question. What I asked you was whether *any* literature critical of the gay rights movement belongs in an applied ethics class that takes up the subject or whether such a course should only include “pro” literature.

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    • My impression of Scruton is that he endeavors to engage with his opponents, not silence them by threatening their livelihood

      Sure, he only wanted to enlist a mob of parents to instill feelings of revulsion against them. Very civil that.

      How would you feel if he had said that it was reasonable for parents to instill a feeling of revulsion against Jews or some other minority?

      But, yes, I want his arguments here to be widely discussed, I want to be able to say – “here it is, intellectual conservatism’s strongest case against gay rights, such as it is” and let people judge for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Philip

      I’m glad he has the “right” to express his views, but it seems odd to me to complain that some are overreacting (Are they? It seems understandable why there is this reaction) to seeing Roger Scruton at their school or in a book of essays.

      In fact it is probably futile for anyone to try to uncouple their own emotional reactions from debates such as these. They are there whether we acknowledge them or not. Better to acknowledge and be able to assess how they are colouring our reasoning.

      I think that my emotional reaction to the Scruton piece you linked is more of a wry exasperation than anything else. It seems to me that we dismissed the “it’s not normal” objection back in the school yard and yet here it pops up again in the 21st century out of the mouth of an Oxbridge philosopher.

      And yet if we must parse this again then we must or people will say we are afraid to parse it.

      And if I am to ask others to listen to a different point of view then I must be willing to do so myself.

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      • Robin,

        Just to be clear, I wasn’t asking for the Scruton essay against gay parents to be excluded. My approach would be indeed to include it matched with an essay from the antisemitic literature against Jewish teachers in public schools. Then people could examine the parallels between the these two points of view. That would be my approach.

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      • I do, however, agree with much of the analysis done by Jonathan Haidt. Part of it had to do with the Baby Boomers, first, and now the Millennials coming into the professoriate and bringing with them a kind of “everything is political” mindset.

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  14. Stolzy,
    But you are on the inside. Why is it happening?

    This is a very good question. Dan dealt with why this behaviour is wrong, and he made a good case, which I extended by arguing for the adversary principle, so well known in law.. But why is this behaviour being exhibited in the first place? My first thought is that this is typically tribal behaviour. Tribes develop norms for membership and define themselves in opposition to neighbouring tribes. Symbols, beliefs and modes of behaviour serve to distinguish neighbouring tribes from one another. The tribe provides the comforting illusion of identity and purpose on the one hand. On the other hand it provides provides opportunities for the exercise of power within the tribe. This exercise of power is key to the way tribes are managed.

    This is why tribes almost never merge. That is because some power holders will lose their position, given that there can only be a limited number of power positions. For example, when companies merge there is always an ugly bloodletting at management level!

    The gravest threat a tribe faces is not from its neighbours but from internal defections, since they raise the spectre of fatally weakening the tribe’s cohesion. Thus a tribe reserves its strongest sanctions for defectors. The strident, indeed hysterical criticism Jordan Peterson has received from the liberal community is a perfect example of this. There have been some good, fairly recent examples of this 🙂

    This is the source of Dan’s observation:
    Our current penchant for attacking our colleagues personally and professionally, when they disagree with us on moral and political subjects that we care strongly about; our pursuing such attacks so as to silence these colleagues, rather than engage them in rational argument “.

    They have no intention of engaging rationally since the intent is to savagely punish defectors. You do not engage defectors in rational argument, since that accords them respect and thus defangs any attempt to punish their defections

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This still leaves open the question of why such tribes form in the first place. I suggest that it is the direct result of the success of liberal democracy and the liberal society. It has been so successful that it has absorbed conservatives, who all today subscribe to core liberal tenets. Liberalism is forced to redefine itself so that it can distinguish itself from the paler shades of liberalism exhibited by today’s conservatives. In doing so it is moving outwards towards the more radical fringes of liberal thought. But to what avail? The nature of conservatism is pragmatism, to adopt the sensible, the practical and the useful and this always destabilises liberalism by occupying the workable aspects of its policy.

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  16. Do you notice that when we describe some behaviour in terms of ‘tribes’, it is always other people, and not ourselves who exhibit tribal behaviour, as though we had inherited some special superior nature which makes us immune from the faults of others?

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  17. Dan

    There are all sorts of other problems and other people who need talking to, but they are not what *this* essay is about.

    So we have John, behaving badly and Robert, who rewards John for behaving badly by hurting the people John wants to hurt.

    You say that you only want to talk about John’s bad behaviour and that Robert’s rewarding John’s bad behaviour is a different matter.

    That does not make sense to me since, suppose you could convince John to stop his bad behaviour but Robert was still dangling that reward – then won’t someone else just come in and get the reward by behaving as John did? Then you would have to start working on that next person to stop behaving badly and so on with every person who is prepared to behave badly to gain the reward on offer.

    To me it makes more sense to say to Robert “Please stop rewarding bad behaviour” and if you could convince him to do so then John could behave as badly as he wishes and it would hurt no-one and there is a possibility that without the reward being dangled, he would not continue to behave so.

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      • It seems a point so obvious as not to need an essay.

        If we are wondering how we can stop some bad behaviour that we are rewarding then “stop rewarding it” seems at least worth a try.

        It seems like wondering how we can stop the rain coming into our house and saying that any discussion of fixing the large hole in the roof is irrelevant.

        My only point is that maybe we should at least consider the option of fixing the large hole in the roof rather than endlessly wonder how we can stop the rain from falling.

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  18. stolzyblog

    Why is it happening?

    Because it is being rewarded.

    I don’t get what people don’t get about that. We offer rewards for people to do such-and-such and then we wonder why it is that people do such-and-such.

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  19. “‘[H]arm’ can only be a result of writing and speech that constitutes direct incitement against another person (or which libels them, defrauds them, etc)…the intense effort on the part of activists to expand the meaning of ‘harm’ to include the causing of offense, hurt feelings, and the like.”

    I think this is one of the central points. It is all very well going the stoical path and saying that verbal aggression cannot harm me without my consent, but many people can’t just brush it off – it does lead to mental dis-ease. The 19th century liberal model of rational autonomous choice-making individual is a fine ideal, and one the human rights legal framework aspires to for all, but those laws do so by removing the constraints that make attaining this difficult for a significant fraction of humanity who lack mental, physical, social resources versus advertising, big business (calories, gambling, alcohol etc).

    As to libel law as a recourse acceptable to classical liberals, this varies greatly, and is a joke in most jurisdictions unless you are powerful and wealthy. Maybe we need a cheap micropayment based approach for social media to restore civility. I heard an interesting comment last night (on Q&A) that blocking is technologically the easiest solution on Twitter etc, so it is only natural that this has spread to other discourse.

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  20. Hi Dan,

    I recently ran across an interesting essay that not only offers an analysis of the (possible) connection(s) between ‘Social Justice Ideology’ and the onto-epistemological features of postmodernism, but also provides a critique of the doctrine/movement from both a Marxian and Nietzschean perspective. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

    https://www.legitgov.org/Critique-Social-Justice-Ideology-Thinking-through-Marx-and-Nietzsche

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  21. Robin,
    Do you notice that when we describe some behaviour in terms of ‘tribes’, it is always other people, and not ourselves who exhibit tribal behaviour

    As you imply, we are all tribal in some way or another. But modern society had reduced this phenomenon greatly so that it has become a residual aspect of our behaviour. I live in a part of the world where tribal behaviour is central to society so I know the difference.

    However, when a group begins to strongly and overtly punish defectors, we can see the resurgence of tribal behaviour and we are then justified in calling it out.

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  22. labnut

    However, when a group begins to strongly and overtly punish defectors, we can see the resurgence of tribal behaviour and we are then justified in calling it out.

    Can you describe the tribe you belong to and give me an example of when you have punished a defector from that tribe?

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      • How is it picking a fight? I am asking labnut to self-assess using the method he applies to others. Is that unreasonable?

        I used to talk about others in terms of ‘tribes’ a lot, for example I would speak of the Dawkins/Krauss tribe (and I am sure that I will fall into that trap again in the future).

        But I have realised that if I assign this sort of behaviour to others I either have to consider that I have similar motivations myself, or else that there is some reason that I can rise above it and others can’t.

        If I can’t describe my own behaviour in terms of a power struggle within a tribe or between tribes then I shouldn’t assume that others have this motivation.

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        • It seems fairly obvious to me that some people (in their public persona at least) belong wholly to tribes, for example, those who participate the online mobs described in the original post, and others are fairly autonomous in their mode of thinking. Undoubtedly, all of us are influenced by the tribes we grow up in and which we socialize in, but some people, for one reason or another, are less tribal in their behavior than others.

          Generally, we think of philosophers as not being especially tribal. Socrates, as presented by Plato, seemed to be tribe-independent, Spinoza was excommunicated by his tribe and never joined another, no one can accuse Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein of being members of any recognized tribe in their society. So it is weird, for me at least, to see philosophers participating in online tribal behavior. Do they really merit being calling “philosophers”?

          A quote from Wittgenstein: “a philosopher is a citizen of no community of ideas; that’s what makes him a philosopher”.

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  23. Robin,
    How is it picking a fight? I am asking labnut to self-assess using the method he applies to others. Is that unreasonable?

    Well, you are personalising the debate. The aim of that is questionable, especially since it makes the debate meander off course. I have a lot of life experience and I am a keen observer, which is what motivated me to make the observation in the first place. So I can easily answer that question.

    I am puzzled by your approach to the debate and I still can’t quite discern your stance, other than you are defending, what for you, are hot-button issues. Mind you, as you know well, I have my own hot-button issues and can be depended upon to spring vigorously to their defence 🙂 Putting hot-button issues aside, let’s outline the main argument and then we can identify your disagreements with it.

    Dan-K argued that
    D1. “Our current penchant for attacking our colleagues personally and professionally, when they disagree with us on moral and political subjects that we care strongly about;
    D2. “our pursuing such attacks so as to silence these colleagues, rather than engage them in rational argument
    D3. “our abuse of the harm principle in doing so.
    D4. “orthodoxy is – or should be – anathema to philosophy, whose tradition of critical inquiry stretches back at least as far as Socrates
    D5. “ Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge
    D6. “Beyond the academy, in a liberal, civil society, one only rightly interferes with the liberty of another person, when his or her actions harm others and consequently, interfere with their own exercise of freedom. This is the “harm principle,”
    D7. “‘harm’ can only be a result of writing and speech that constitutes direct incitement against another person (or which libels them, defrauds them, etc).

    In turn I argued that:
    L1. The best manner of arriving at any approximation of truth in human affairs was to use the adversary principle and therefore we should not discourage or punish debates on sensitive subjects.
    L2. I examined the reasons for this behaviour in academia(and beyond), claiming it had roots in our propensity for tribal behaviour.

    Given this outline of the argument(I hope Dan-K considers this to be a fair summary), I invite you to clarify your position. Where do you agree? Where do you disagree? In that case can you give a reasoned rebuttal? Can you advance an alternative thesis? Just where do you stand?

    I would urge you to avoid attacking peripheral matters, but rather concentrate on the core arguments. For example, do you agree with D5? I only partly agree with it. I think the aim of philosophy is not primarily to pursue knowledge but to equip society with the tools and skills to identify the key aspects of issues and examine them from multiple perspectives, so that we can make reasonable choices(very Socratic).

    Liked by 1 person

  24. labnut

    In turn I argued that:
    L1. The best manner of arriving at any approximation of truth in human affairs was to use the adversary principle and therefore we should not discourage or punish debates on sensitive subjects.
    L2. I examined the reasons for this behaviour in academia(and beyond), claiming it had roots in our propensity for tribal behaviour.

    I am sorry I didn’t realise I was so unclear. My point follows directly on from your L2, where you say that we have a propensity for tribal behaviour and I was asking about your own tribal allegiances.

    You don’t have to answer the question, but if we are to cast this all in terms of tribal behaviour I don’t see how we can do that without making our own tribal allegiances clear.

    And if we are not prepared to admit to tribal behaviour in ourselves then it seems odd to be accusing others of this.

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  25. To me the heart and soul of rational debate is to understand the opponent’s position in terms that they would understand. To be able to say “This is how I understand your position …” and for them to say, “Yes, that is it”, or maybe “Yes, that is more or less it” and then to engage in a process of clarification.

    If I were to go to Asia Ferren or Natacha Kennedy and say to them, “This is how I understand your argument … you are part of a tribe and you are punishing dissidents”, I am pretty sure that neither of them would say “Yes, that is it” or anything like that.

    In short they would deny acting in a tribal fashion or of punishing dissidents.

    And since none of us here appear to be willing to admit to those sorts of motivations in ourselves I wonder how that sort of accusation helps.

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  26. labnut

    For example, do you agree with D5?

    Philosophers never tell me what my job is, so I guess I won’t tell them what theirs is.

    But if we are happy for Roger Scruton to advocate for causes then why would you try to stop others doing so?

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  27. So what this seems to hinge on is the harm principle.

    Coincidentally, Kennedy, Ferren and Scruton have one thing in common – they all reject Mill’s account of the harm principle. They all want to have a broader account of “harm”.

    So from the perspective of an onlooker, this is not so much an abuse of the harm principle as a disagreement about the harm principle. I am not in a position to say that Dan is right and Roger Scruton is wrong on this.

    But, using the same account of “harm” as Scruton does, Kennedy and Ferren are saying that the claim that a trans woman is not a woman and a trans man is not a man is not only (according to them) factually incorrect, but also that the claim creates an environment which fosters harm for the trans gender community.

    I think that this is putting their arguments in terms which they might more or less agree.

    So Kennedy might say that if some professors are creating environments which foster harm for the trans gender community then it is reasonable for them and their allies to take action over this. They might, further, say that it is unreasonable to ask them to keep quiet about it.

    If you counter this by saying that they are abusing the harm principle, they can point to Roger Scruton, an elder, experienced philosopher with a high reputation, who would support their usage.

    If you say “You should be using rational argument” they would say “Ours is a rational argument”

    If you say “ Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge” they would answer, “yes, we do the pursue knowledge as our job, but in our own time we advocate for political outcomes as anyone is entitled to do”

    If you say “You are behaving tribally, punishing dissenters” they would say, “No, we are not, just as you are not behaving tribally punishing dissenters”.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Robin,
    you say that we have a propensity for tribal behaviour and I was asking about your own tribal allegiances.

    You are trying to make me the subject of the debate and I refuse to fall into that trap. The subject of the debate are propositions D1-D7 and L1-L2.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are trying to make me the subject of the debate and I refuse to fall into that trap.

      = = =

      Thank you, Labnut. It is precisely the sort of devolution that has happened in the comments overnight that I worried about. It’s conversations like these that make me want to go with a completely No Comments format, as so many magazines blogs have done. I’m sick of the accusations. I’m sick of the idiotic “what aboutism”? I’m sick of the tit-for-tat. I’m sick of the bizarre red-herrings whose sole purpose is to poison the water (see Phil Thrift’s absurd course suggestion). I’m sick of the personalizations. And I’m sick of the kindergarten-level, “Well you do it too!” Ugh.

      The sort of conversation this has turned into is a good part of why I wrote the piece to begin with. The fact that I have to explain why in critically examining an issue in applied ethics, one must examine more than one side of the debate tells you everything about the sorry state we are in. The fact that I have to explain that insisting on these sorts of one-sided treatment of subjects is the reason why relevant areas of the humanities, liberal arts, and social sciences have completely lost any measure of societal respect tells you how little people are paying attention (or care). And the fact that I have to explain why its a bad idea to expand the harm principle to the point that it includes any and every personal offense and instance of hurt feelings, determined by nothing but the say-so of the person — why doing this makes the sort of critical examination I just mentioned impossible and opens up scholars like Kathleen Stock to outrageous attacks on her livelihood and person — just leaves me feeling sick.

      Maybe the thing to do when posting these sorts of hot-button pieces is just to not open comments. It seems like most of the time, the devolution we’re seeing here happens with those pieces, not the others. I’ll have to think about it.

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  29. Robin,
    But if we are happy for Roger Scruton to advocate for causes then why would you try to stop others doing so?

    Advocacy and arguments for or against a position are entirely different things. You seem to be confusing them.

    Good philosophers engage in arguments, developing the rationale for or against a given position. Activists use the tools of advocacy in an attempt to change behaviour. This is an important distinction.

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  30. Robin,
    Philosophers never tell me what my job is, so I guess I won’t tell them what theirs is.

    You have used the dodge of re-framing the argument in prescriptive terms. A good way to avoid this is to quote my actual words. We are permitted to discuss the nature of philosophy and its conduct. Indeed we should, if the business of philosophy is to understand and analyse multiple perspectives of public issues, since that directly concerns us.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Robin,
    So what this seems to hinge on is the harm principle.

    I am glad you said that. I wish the whole debate had centred on the harm principle. As it happens, there is a large literature about this, and I hope Dan-K develops this further in future essays. I am going to comment more generally about this.

    We are a robust species, used to confronting and overcoming adversity. Harm is a central feature of our existence and we cannot wish it away. What I believe is that the experience of adversity, overcoming it, and thriving despite it it, is an important engine of progress, both personally and societally.

    I also believe that becoming a species of shrinking violets, cringing away from pain, discomfort, offence and adversity is fatally weakening us to the point where extinction becomes inevitable.

    As it happens, just yesterday my country(South Africa), in a Supreme Court judgement, legalised the private use of Dagga(Marijuana). We are only the third or fourth country in the world to do so. Bravo, you might say. That is such an enlightened thing to do. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, we also have one of the highest homicide rates in the world, one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world, sky high unemployment and extraordinarily high corruption(so please don’t look to us for examples of good behaviour).

    Could it be that we are seeking eudaimonia through the use of chemicals? In the past, effort, struggle and adversity were the path to a better future. Today that is being supplanted by chemicals, on the sports fields, in the night clubs, in the universities(Ritalin, anyone?), at home, etc, etc.

    Is that a good thing? The pharmaceutical companies certainly think so, and if I was one of their shareholders I might agree. But I don’t.

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  32. “bizarre red-herrings whose sole purpose is to poison the water (see Phil Thrift’s absurd course suggestion)”

    That statement is a complete untruth and an incorrect assertion about my purpose. It was the actual and honest parallel I thought of when reading the text of the Scruton essay.

    Liked by 1 person