by Bharath Vallabha
In September 2016 Richard Swinburne gave a keynote address to The Society of Christian philosophers. The text of his talk is here, which is linked to in a post at the Daily Nous.
The part of the talk which caused a firestorm is on pages 11-13 (starting at the end of 11), where Swinburne claims: “Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment.”(12)
He goes on to say that homosexuality has both genetic and cultural causes, and so if “there was a general recognition in society of an obligation to abstain from homosexual acts, that would prevent homosexual behaviour being presented as an option for young people of equal value to the heterosexual one which makes possible procreative marriage.”(12-13) He claims older gay people might not be “cured” this way, but nonetheless if they abstained from homosexual acts they “would be doing a great service to others, and one which would help to make them themselves saints.”(13)
There is a lot going on here, about homosexuality, but also about disability, and generally about what ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ mean. I find the last sentence particularly hurtful. Suggesting gay people might become saintly by forgoing their sexual impulses strikes me as callous and dehumanizing in the extreme. But I recognize this is the crux of the issue. If you think being gay is a sin, of course you think resisting the sin will make you saintly. If you don’t think being gay is a sin, you might think a gay person following his sexual impulses is perfectly normal and his fighting for his rights inspiring.
The question I want to take up here is: if you think there is nothing wrong with being gay and that is a settled issue for you (as it is for me), how should you react in a professional context to Swinburne?
This is related to Dan Kaufman’s recent post about an alternate organization to the APA. I share the feeling that the ways in which some are responding to these issues is mistaken, and a frenzied approach will prove more harmful than helpful. So it is pressing to figure out if and why it is mistaken, and what might be alternative approaches.
In the question I raise I highlight “in a professional context,” because I imagine people will have strong emotions in private. People might curse, scream, put down the opposing side and question their morality and compassion. They might say “Fuck that asshole,” “Screw him,” “They are going to hell” or “These people are so stupid,” and worse. I wish people (including me) didn’t vent like this even in private and that we are guided more by a spiritual or stoic equanimity. But the issues are painful and some venting is perfectly understandable — in private. In this age of social media, it is worth holding onto the private/public distinction.
The basic fact is that Swinburne was giving a talk. If he was harassing gay colleagues or trying to force them out of the profession, that’s one thing. That calls for complaints and for action to be taken. But in this case he was at the podium, which should be treated as an intellectual safe space.
Not a safe space in that anything goes. If the presenter starts belittling people or ranting or exposing himself, obviously that’s not allowed. Nor is it an emotional safe space, where the top priority is to be mindful of people’s traumas. A talk could be an emotional safe space, and I would love to see that more, not in the sense that people be forced to be emotionally sensitive to others’ trauma, but that people choose to incorporate such sensitivity into their theorizing and their behavior.
An intellectual safe space is one where one’s ideas are bracketed from certain social contexts in order to examine them simply as ideas. Of course, no ideas are disconnected from social contexts. They always arise somewhere, somehow, in certain power structures, etc. But the bracketing is a matter of engaging in a kind of as if; as in, as if ideas exist as points in a crystalline structure of thought and as if everyone in the room at the talk are co-explorers of that intellectual terrain.
Marx said “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” But, of course, one way of changing the world is to interpret it. In fact, taking the as if attitude that ideas exist independent of context has been one of the great propellers of change. It is only by detaching ideas from their context that new possibilities come to light.
As Dewey argued, this is the life cycle of ideas. They have to be first wrought from their context, and then after analyzing them as ideas, they have to be embedded back into it. Without the first two steps, we are only automata. Without the last step, we are like farmers who meticulously grow fruits, only to leave them on the branch for them to rot there.
At any given time and for any given idea, people will differ on where they are in this life cycle. One person might be just coming to wonder if God exists. For that person, considering the ontological argument as an abstract series of premises and conclusion might be exhilarating. But for another person, who is bored of such things, the ontological argument might seem – as it did to Pascal and Kierkegaard – like empty nonsense that has nothing to do with living faith. Or as it did to Marx, like a cover under which to enslave the masses.
Well, which is it? What is the worth of the ontological argument? There is no definitive, “correct” view. Not because there is no answer about whether God exists, but because people vary so much on where they are, in the search for an answer.
If atheists conclude the existence of God is a settled matter and protest any discussion of the ontological argument as traumatic and outdated (as, of course, happened in some communist countries), this would betray the ideal of intellectual safe spaces. The atheists might be right about the existence of God and are certainly right about the trauma imposed in God’s name. But that doesn’t show that everyone has to be at the same stage in the life cycle of this idea as they are. The reality is that a great many people are not at that stage, and the “end stage,” as the atheist sees it, can’t be imposed on those still struggling with the issue.
I would love for everyone to think being gay is normal and healthy; that it be so integral a part of our values that wondering if being gay is a sin wouldn’t be a live issue for anyone. But this is patently not the world we live in. For a great many people, including some people who are gay, it is a live issue. To impose the end stage on this topic, as I see it, ultimately would be counter-productive. It would only lead those who disagree or are not sure to repression, anger and righteous indignation that their intellectual life-cycle is being cut short.
No one is obligated to listen to or read Swinburne’s talk. Not even the people at the conference were obligated to do so. If you can’t stand the talk, don’t go. Or if you are there and can’t stand it, leave. That makes sense. You don’t have to admire the speaker or the talk. But respect the space. If you are up to it, enter the space to engage with his talk intellectually. Highlight the flaws in his argument, and do it for as long as you are able. This is not letting yourself be oppressed by Swinburne or “the establishment,” but you doing a service for your cause. You are reaching out to Swinburne and to those in the audience who are undecided. Don’t let their uncertainty about your values unsettle you. Let your certainty about your values inspire you to show the coherence of your beliefs.
“But he’s a bigot! I can’t engage respectfully with a talk which aims to prove I am perverted. Isn’t debating with Swinburne tantamount to acknowledging he might be right?”
No. This is the power of the as if element of intellectual safe spaces, and it protects everyone involved.
Swinburne and I disagree about the nature of homosexuality. We could hash out the disagreement in the streets, through physical fighting; or through media and advertising, in terms of who can emotionally move people more.
By entering an intellectual space, like a talk, Swinburne is at least committing to a better method: of hashing out the disagreement through debate. People take to the streets or to emotional manipulation, because they can’t articulate the thoughts that are moving them. Swinburne is, in Brandom’s phrase, making it explicit. If nothing else, I can respect that.
Perhaps Swinburne is a confirmed bigot, who would never break bread with a gay person. Or perhaps he goes on holidays with family members who are gay. Either way, by giving a talk he is adopting a pose as if he and his opponents, even those who are gay, have something in common – reason – which can be used to navigate the disagreement.
To engage with Swinburne’s argument doesn’t require doubting your view, any more than getting into a boxing ring to decide the issue does. Intellectual safe spaces are just a different type of ring. They are social constructs meant to facilitate peaceful engagement, even when emotions are running high. Be passionate in your beliefs and your confidence. But also be passionate in respecting the life cycle of your opponent’s ideas and in guiding rather than forcing them to your conclusion.
“Sure, I can debate Swinburne. I am an intellectual after all. But if I debate him, it will be used against me. Anti-gay rights politicians will use the fact of the debate to claim the issue isn’t settled, and so will claim anti-gay laws are justified as “just their view.” Why set myself up this way?”
During the colonial period, the colonized faced a similar dilemma. If you respect the law, you are complicit in your own oppression. If you disobey the law, you are treated as criminals. The way out of this dilemma was non-violent resistance. The non-violence showed respect for the concept of law even as the resistance showed disagreement with the existing law. The ability to show respect and disagreement at the same time moved hearts, which then changed laws.
If you debate Swinburne, but wear your disdain for him on your sleeve, it will end up being used against you. If you don’t debate him but attack him instead, you will be pegged irrational thugs. But if you take seriously the as if element of intellectual spaces and engage with Swinburne as if he is debating in good faith, it will move hearts. I haven’t seen any reason to think Swinburne is using the debate as just a ploy. But even if he is, if you don’t use it as a ploy but take seriously the value of respecting the other side which is foundational to intellectual debate, it will move people. It is the best way of moving people.
In that spirit, in the comments, I am happy to discuss not only this post but also the content of Swinburne’s talk.
130 responses to “The Value of Intellectual Safe Spaces”
Bharath, you are quickly becoming one of the wisest voices here. We are very fortunate to have you.
For everyone else, in keeping with both the letter and spirit of Bharath’s essay, I encourage you to engage the issues and to eschew invective and personal attacks. I will be moderating even more strictly than I normally do.
As I said previously, I think it is the right thing to address speeches like that of Swinburne’s in the spirit it is given and to highlight the faults. I said the same thing about Scruton’s “Gay Reservations”.
I think it is a pity when people want to suppress opinions like these.
But you know there is a caveat and here it is. How do we distinguish between the podium and the soap box? Can we distinguish between the genuine practice of scholarship and political activism?
I can imagine that many of those who are accused of activism might claim to be in the podium and similarly ask for that to be respected.
[…] My latest post over at The Electric Agora. […]
Another point is, if it is academically respectable for someone to say “Such-and-such group engage in such-and-such behaviour because they are suffering from a disability”, then why isn’t it academically respectable to say “Such and such group say such-and-such things because they are (perhaps unconsciously) prejudiced”?
I’d be more interested in substance, rather than tit-for-tat.
Why do you think that an argument that certain people might be acting from prejudice would be less substantial than an argument that certain people might be acting from disability?
And what makes you assume that this would be “tit for tat” rather than an honest position reached by examining the evidence?
That sounds like an uneven playing field.
Robin, I just want to talk about the essay, which is about the norms that should govern intellectual spaces. I am going to moderate for relevance as well as abuse.
How is that not a norm that govens intellectual spaces?
Why is “Such-and-such group is suffering from a disability” OK, but “Such-and-such a group is suffering from predudice” so beyond the pale that even the suggestion must be moderated from any discussion about it?
Why shouldn’t that argument be engaged in a thoughful way just as the other is?
Go ahead. Engage in it.
It would not be relevant to the subject for me to actually engage the subject. I am only interested in whether or not this particular subject can be engaged.
It seems to me a good idea that ideas can be considered, bracketed from certain social contexts and simply as ideas. I don’t see why this particular idea should be any different. It is an honest and straightforward question.
I agree that it is not suitable if it is to be used to belittle a group or to quash certain viewpoints.
But simply as an idea? It seems to me that there would be no reason to exclude this particular idea.
And that is, quite seriously, all I have to say on that particular subject as, after all, this is not a discussion on the philosophy of prejudice.
I agree with Dan-K, this is a lovely essay and I agree with its essential points. The real issue is of course not homosexuality so there is no need to address it. The question is how should we behave when confronted by unsettling ideas.. I was brought up with the values of an English public school. And for those of you who don’t know, an English public school is not public! The point is this. An important lesson that I learnt was on the sports fields and it was contained in the mantra ‘play the ball and not the man’.
For me the issue is astonishingly simple. Unsettling ideas deserve to be carefully examined from a 360 degree perspective, as advised by de Bono, using his Six Thinking Hats approach, or any other ‘all things considered’ approach that works for you. This, in sporting terms, is playing the ball. However, when we play the man, attacking his character or behaviour, we are playing the man. This, to put it bluntly, is intellectual dishonesty.
When we try to discredit ideas by attacking the bearer of the ideas, we are not only intellectually dishonest, we are also being guilty of lazy, sloppy thinking. Examining and evaluating ideas on their own merit requires serious thought. It is far easier to attack the man and also emotionally satisfying.
That brings me to me next point. By injecting unpleasant emotions into a discussion we pollute it and poison it. This is a grave disservice to the entire enterprise of thought.
And finally, curiosity is what has driven the development of the human mind. It is the essential intellectual virtue that has resulted in the huge intellectual output of our species. When we attack the bearer of unsettling ideas instead of evaluating his ideas we are abandoning curiosity. This is the gravest sin of all.
I agree with you. I don’t the central point really has to do with homosexuality at all. You could substitute any issue on which there are strong feelings and the same would apply.
“Robin, I just want to talk about the essay, which is about the norms that should govern intellectual spaces.”
Precisely. And it is worth emphasising that this blog/discussion is also an intellectual space.
Intellectual spaces are(or should be) governed by the intellectual virtues. Here is a list of the main intellectual virtues. Note well that the very first intellectual virtue is curiosity. See http://www.ivalongbeach.org/academics/master-virtues This has an ancient history, starting with Aristotle, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_virtue
The subject of intellectual virtue is enjoying something of a modern revival.
The Intellectual Virtues:
1. Curiosity: a disposition to wonder, ponder, and ask why. A thirst for understanding and a desire to explore. Slogan: Ask questions!
2. Intellectual humility: a willingness to own up to one’s intellectual limitations and mistakes. Unconcerned with intellectual status or prestige. Slogan: Admit what you don’t know!
3. Intellectual autonomy: a capacity for active, self-directed thinking. An ability to think and reason for oneself. Slogan: Think for yourself!
4. Attentiveness: a readiness to be “personally present” in the learning process. Keeps distractions at bay. Strives to be mindful and engaged. Slogan: Look and listen!
5. Intellectual carefulness: a disposition to notice and avoid intellectual pitfalls and mistakes. Strives for accuracy. Slogan: Avoid errors!
6. Intellectual thoroughness: a disposition to seek and provide explanations. Unsatisfied with mere appearances or easy answers. Probes for deeper meaning and understanding. Slogan: Go deep!
7. Open-mindedness: an ability to think outside the box. Gives a fair and honest hearing to competing perspectives. Slogan: Think outside the box!
8. Intellectual courage: a readiness to persist in thinking or communicating in the face of fear, including fear of embarrassment or failure. Slogan: Take risks!
9. Intellectual tenacity: a willingness to embrace intellectual challenge and struggle. Keeps its “eyes on the prize” and doesn’t give up. Slogan: Embrace struggle!
Every person carries around with him an intellectual space. It is contained in his cranium. Is this a large and flourishing intellectual space, nourished by the intellectual virtues? Or is a small impoverished place, crippled by the intellectual vices?
Our personal intellectual spaces have a remarkable property. They are connected in a continuum to form one immense
public intellectual space. The practice of the intellectual virtues is what created this common intellectual space.
For an excellent discussion of the intellectual virtues, see the book by Roberts and Wood , Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology.
Here is a good review of the book:
They discuss what it means to have an excellent intellectual character. They divide the intellectual virtues into the following categories: love of knowledge (Ch. 6); firmness (Ch. 7); courage and caution (Ch. 8); humility (Ch. 9); autonomy (Ch. 10); generosity (Ch. 11); and practical wisdom (Ch. 12).
They have an important introductory section on ‘will’.
“Before we sketch our concept of a virtue, let us reflect on a notion that will be important throughout our discussion of virtues in this book. We propose that the will is a central epistemic faculty, and that its proper formation is crucial to intellectual character.”
This book is a model of clear, well organised, insightful thinking and is my favourite.
I particularly like their use of the phrase ‘regulative epistemology’. But that phrase introduces a problem because the opponents of Swinburne are also exercising regulative epistemology. But their exercise of regulative epistemology is based on the intellectual vices, and not the intellectual virtues. For every virtue there is a corresponding vice. It is an extraordinary sleight of hand in the modern times that we see the vices being elevated into the new virtues. Thus hounding your intellectual opponents out of the public spaces is considered to be a virtue. I shudder at such perversions and I shudder even more when intellectuals defend these perversions.
The fact that an argument insults some people doesn’t count against it, but neither does it count in favour of it.
If we are to firewall an argument against its social context then it is also firewalled against such spurious supports and must stand on its own merits.
If an argument depends upon the premise that no X can Y and if we can point out that some X’s do, in fact, Y then the argument falls.
Often arguments are protected from the fact that they are straightforwardly wrong.
A certain well known philosopher said this, in ‘Knowledge, Wisdom and the Philosopher’:
“The scientist, by virtue of the very nature and values of his trade, must be a revolutionary. I am not suggesting that he must be politically radical, but rather, that he must be a radical partisan of the truth;”
Yes, indeed, this is true of science, where a certain kind of truth is readily ascertainable. Science is monotheism of the ultimate kind and deviations from its truth cannot be permitted or tolerated. The problem is that the concept of radical partisanship of the truth has infected other realms of thought where it is not so apparent, not so ascertainable and generally inapplicable.
This radical partisanship of the truth is what lies behind the conduct described variously by Kauffman and Bharath Vallabha. But the truths of human thought and conduct cannot be known with the same certainty as those of science and therefore they are not the appropriate domain for the radical partisanship of truth.
A fine and convincing essay…
Robin, Yes, it is unfair to say Swinburne is doing scholarship but Chomsky is doing activism. I don’t defend that. Likewise, I can think of many things the left does which are unfair, like romanticizing eastern traditions while putting down western traditions. As Eastwood said in Unforgiven, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” We are all limited beings dealing with complicated situations.
Re distinguishing podium from a soap box, we can’t distinguish. That’s the point of the as if. To look for proof that the speaker deserves my intellectual attention is exactly to reduce ideas to social context. The primary issue isn’t respecting the person, but respecting the space. It’s like in group therapy. When it feels impossible to respect the person, at least one can respect that he has the talking stick right now. If the stick isn’t respected, there is only fighting.
There is another perspective. I would never bother going to a talk by a flat earther. My time is too precious. And I would never support an organisation that gave a platform to flat earthers; not because I find their ideas unsettling or dangerous, but simply because life is too short to waste my time responding to such crackpots. I’ve had my fair share of arguments with UFO nuts and similar people, and can’t think of anything positive to come out of it. Swinburne’s ideas on homosexuality strike me as of a similar kind.
A part of me is quite happy with Nazi’s prancing about, talking about how subhuman Jews or Hindus are, just so people can actually see how ridiculous these people are. However, I would not be happy with my tax dollars being used to provide platforms for them. Not when there exist so many more intelligent and deserving people.
As I said, I do not agree with Swinburne. But I don’t think orthodox Christian sexual morality is like flat eartherism or Nazism.
“As I said, I do not agree with Swinburne. But I don’t think orthodox Christian sexual morality is like flat eartherism or Nazism.”
And as I have said before, I agree with Swinburne. I think he has got it exactly right. But recognise that it is no crime to disagree. Disagreement sharpens, refines and illuminates our arguments. For this reason we should embrace disagreements since this is the way we learn from each other.
But for Bunsen to compare orthodox Christian morality with flat eartherism or Nazism is a smear of the worst kind. Bunsen, you should know better than to engage in this kind of unbridled polemic. It is not worthy of you. Flat eartherism is in blatant denial of science. Orthodox Christian morality does not deny science. In fact the opposite is true. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences does all it can to embrace the sciences.
Furthermore, to compare orthodox Christian morality with Nazism is an extraordinarily crude and untrue smear. It is a falsity of the worst kind. Read Pope Francis’ statements and sermons and you will find he consistently preaches a message of love, conciliation, mercy, tolerance and forgiveness. Can you name any other world leader who consistently does this? Read the source documents of Christianity, the Gospels of Jesus Christ and you will see exactly this.
I would encourage everyone: rather than slurring and being slurred, let’s stick with the substance of the issue. That’s the whole point of Bharath’s essay on intellectual spaces.
The views towards homosexuality are only one small piece of orthodox Christian sexual morality, which extends its conception of the inseparable relationship between morally appropriate sex and procreation across the board: prohibitions on birth control; masturbation; etc. There is much that is substantial to discuss along these fronts, and the tradition is one that goes back as far as St. Augustine.
So, let’s just skip the offense and offendedness and work within the frame, provided by Bharath.
Bunsen Burner, Yes, this is a decision for the Society of Christian Philosophers to make. The majority of them might decide the Christian morality they subscribe to shouldn’t treat homosexuality as a disability. This might become a red line issue, and this is how organizations split.
But I would be wary of SCP splitting like this. I have family members (Hindu, Christian and atheist) who think being gay is wrong or a confusion. I have not cut off relations with them. Not because I don’t support gay right, but because if I start cutting off relations like this, I have no idea where to stop. Some in my family are anti-Muslim, some anti-atheist, some fine with factory farming, some deny climate change, etc., and, as best as I can see, there is no obvious pattern to the distribution of views. Labels like conservative or religious or Indian or liberal don’t explain it. The patterns of distrust, resentment and disagreements are too fine grained and context dependent.
As with families, so with organizations. SCP is better seen as a neighborhood where people congregate based on similar interests, but necessarily no one shared belief, or shared opponent. SCP identity, like most identities, is a family resemblence concept.
Re taxes, I would say they are going not to any particular person or view having a platform, but to fostering intellectual safe spaces.
One way of engaging with the post really is to engage with Swinburne’s view on homosexuality. As an example. So glad to do that.
Labnut, the argument Swinburne gives seems to me flawed in many ways, but I will highlight what seems most so for me.
A lot of his argument turns on the purposes with which God created us, and since he created us, we owe it to him to serve that purpose well. I am fine with this. But I believe the main purpose God created us for is to be with Him, to overcome the earthly habits and mental traps of our condition, and to find Him. Fulfilling this purpose is a matter of a spiritual and mystic lifting of our minds and hearts, and not a matter of reading things off the Bible or Christian tradition and asserting rules about how God wants us to have sex or how the wife has to listen to the husband. I don’t know Swinburne as a person or a Christian, or what his spiritual journey is like. But his essay strikes me as not a spiritual document, but a kind of spiritual materialism.
This is why I don’t support people just protesting Swinburne, as if his anti-gay views are just stupid tradition. I don’t think they are. I think his views are rooted in a deep view of the kind of document the Bible is, and also what loving Christ means. But it is a deep view with which I deeply disagree. What is at issue is really what a spiritual life means, and what it means to be a Christian. I think Swinburne is focusing on just the kind of things that Christ through his example showed us we need to get beyond.
Robin H., sometimes I don’t understand you. I feel your position is incoherent. You write
> Often arguments are protected from the fact that they are straightforwardly wrong.
That’s an ambiguous statement, because wrong can have two meanings.
It can mean morally wrong. But if you can protect an argument form being (morally) straightforwardly wrong by giving it an intellectual safe space, this actually means it derives its wrongness from a particular set of contexts that are kept out of the space.
It also means it’s questionable the argument is “straightforwardly” wrong. It’s wrong within a certain context (or several contexts), but perhaps not wrong in other contexts. There is no “fact” that it’s straightforwardly wrong, so it’s unclear how an intellectual safe space could protect it from this “fact”.
If you’re interested in facts, you can give wrong the meaning of being not morally but factually wrong. But being factually wrong means, roughly speaking, being wrong regardless of context (or regardless of a maximal set of contexts).
This is actually what an intellectual safe space tries to do: stimulate discussions that are as context-free as possible in the circumstances. So if you’re interested in showing that arguments are straightforwardly wrong (in the sense of factually wrong), an intellectual safe space is going to help you.
And anyhow: if an argument is shielded by the intellectual safe space from being straightforwardly wrong (morally speaking), this only shows how important the context is and how it works. If you give people like Swinburne an ISP for his arguments about homosexuality, you will learn a lot about the context in which he thinks. Last time I checked, the catholic church believed in the principle “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. Not a bad principle, a priori. But how far does it go? When does hating the sin become despising the sinner? Which moral guidelines can we derive from this principle? A discussion in an intellectual safe space about these questions should be very enlightening.
Perhaps it was not your intention, but indirectly you gave me quite a few arguments in favor of intellectual safe spaces.
Yes, it’s up to the SCP to decide who they let speak. I know nothing about them, but I do wonder how many gay people they have invited as speakers over the years. In my experience groups that think of gay people as disabled are rarely havens of free thinkers.
However, my point is that red lines can exist for multiple reasons, and not always because certain views are unsettling or dangerous. Sometimes they are just plain stupid. I am sure that the SCP has plenty of red lines. As do all the commentators on this blog. In fact I contend that the idea of a red line is somewhat fallacious. There is a continuum of views from the utterly uncontroversial through to rage-inducing, and a large number are in a nebulous gray zone that can have very different effects depending on a person’s experiences. I doubt there is ever going to be a time when everyone agrees which views are acceptable and which one are not.
I’d also like to comment on your analogy with a family. My experiences of organizations trying to be family-like have been truly horrifying. Trying to force a family environment on an office full of strangers trying to get stuff done can lead to some truly pathological issues. The old adage, ‘you can choose your friends, but not your family’, really resonates with me now.
Finallly, I don’t want to dwell on Swinburne since that is not the point of your essay, but I would never characterize Swinburne’s views as orthodox Christian morality. Certainly not in the UK where I have many christian friends who not only do not subscribe to such views but also will argue quite coherently that they represent a very poor interpratation of Christ’s teachings.
I would never characterize Swinburne’s views as orthodox Christian morality.
= = =
I don’t see how you can say this. I have many Christian friends who do not accept the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, but they would be the first to describe themselves as not being orthodox. And the university at which Swinburne gave the talk is a fundamentalist/Pentecostal institution, where I suspect that *everyone* accepts the Church’s sexual morality teachings.
Maybe it is that way in the US. In the UK we like our religion without the morality 🙂 My friends would probbaly say that there is no such thing as orthodox christianity anyway. It’s view on many things have changed drastically over the centuries. Presumably Swinburne is not going to come up with arguments for stoning misbehaving children. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t controversy over homosexuality, but the idea that it is not an actual sin has been a strong view in many Anglican churchs. And these people see themselves as pretty orthodox.
I would say that orthodox Catholics and Orthodox, as well as evangelicals and Pentecostals in the US pretty much all accept Christian sexual morality, at least as a matter of explicit belief.
As for the Anglican church in England, I can’t think of a less orthodox institution. It’s equivalent to the Episcopal church in the US.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. As you rightly pointed,
“A lot of his argument turns on the purposes with which God created us, and since he created us, we owe it to him to serve that purpose well. ”
As it happens, I disagree with you about your understanding of God’s purpose, from a Christian point of view. But let’s reserve that question for a future discussion.
I think the central issue, as DanK pointed out earlier, is to examine the norms important for fruitful conduct in intellectual spaces. In reply I claimed that the intellectual virtues describe the appropriate norms for conduct in these spaces.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of intellectual safe spaces. The moment we say that we are ceding territory to the barbarians so that intellectual space is by default unsafe. We should never make that concession because then we will have to live with the barbarians camped at our gates.
Labnut, I’m not understanding your last paragraph. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could at least reserve intellectual spaces like conferences, etc., for reasoned discourse, without accusations and claims of injury?
“Labnut, I’m not understanding your last paragraph. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could at least reserve intellectual spaces like conferences, etc., for reasoned discourse, without accusations and claims of injury?”
Yes, on the face of it, it is a good thing. But this rests on a faulty understanding of the problem.
Let me backtrack a little. We are a disputations, contentious species with a strong predilection for conflict, more often physical than not. The hallmark of this behaviour in earlier times was vigilantism. Slowly over time, we have learned to rein in and confine these tendencies. Our primary tool for doing this was the rule of law and the resulting banning of vigilantism. Consequently, if I have a dispute with my neighbour I don’t break down his gate and poison his dogs. I have recourse to the law and can sue him under a variety of municipal and state ordinances. What I gain from this is a life free from violent interventions by my neighbours. My life has become safe and the rule of law means that I do not have to seek safe spaces in sanctuaries, such as the churches, which happened in earlier times. In return I also had to give up something. What I gave up was the right to recourse for the multitude of minor infractions we encounter in ordinary life. I can no longer challenge to a duel the person who pushed in fron of me in the queue. We suck it up and move on. Sociologists will tell you that we gave up the honour culture.
However today we are returning to a vigilantism fuelled honour culture. If I make an unwise remark about gays on Twitter the hordes will hunt me down, get me fired from my job and possibly expelled from my townhouse complex. Loans will suddenly become more difficult to get. My children may lose their position in my preferred school. Etc. Yes, these things have really happened, though not to me.
This is vigilantism, pure and simple. The moment we concede the concept of safe spaces we yield the other spaces to domination by the vigilantes. Minor infractions, which are not punishable by the law become pretexts for interventions by vigilantes. This is happening because we are developing brittle sensitive egos which cannot entertain robust differences of opinion. Vigilantism is a major source of injustice and this is what we must fight against.
“I would encourage everyone: rather than slurring and being slurred, let’s stick with the substance of the issue. That’s the whole point of Bharath’s essay on intellectual spaces.”
I sometimes get the impression that people quickly scan an essay, looking for trigger words that can provide an outlet for their favourites biases.
Dan-K, in his usual pithy way summed up things as follows:
“ I just want to talk about the essay, which is about the norms that should govern intellectual spaces.”
I have contributed my understanding of these norms, which I called the intellectual virtues. Nothing original about that since there is a very substantial literature about it, which should tell you something.
I have also contributed my diagnosis of the problem, borrowing a lovely phrase coined by Dan-K, the radical partisanship of truth.
I can only appeal to everyone to stop thrashing their favourite biases to death and instead return to the central problem, as defined by Dan-K, “the norms that should govern intellectual spaces“.
The reason for intellectual safe spaces is that we don’t agree in the least who the barbarians are. Swinburne and Scruton are the barbarians in my opinion, while you consider them to be the wise men. It’s probable that my wise men are your barbarians. Given that tremendous diversity of opinions among thinkers, it seems wise to preserve intellectual safe spaces to protect those whom you consider to be barbarians and those whom I consider to be barbarians.
Sorry for the confustion, I meant factually wrong. I don’t even see how a claim can be morally wrong.
If an argument depends upon the claim that no A can do B and we have plenty of example of A’s which are quite successfully doing B then the claim is wrong.
We can show it is (factually) wrong in a more straightforward fashion. He says:
Note he has not specified that both partners must have sexual desire for each other and so this is simply wrong and it is not difficult to find counter-examples of lifelong successful marriages between gay men and heterosexual women and the children from these marriages.
We can perhaps forgive Swinburne for not knowing this, but it is the case.
And “Most homosexuals do not beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a lifelong commitment” does not seem to satisfy the argument – it is not a “disability” when you choose not to do something.
Maybe Swinburne meant to imply the clause that this loving act must be with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment and who they find sexually attractive. That makes the “disability” seem more contrived, but even then, a bisexual can meet this new criteria.
So Swinburne would be left saying that same sex attraction is not a disability per se, only when it is a uniquely same-sex attraction.
So really, what Swinburne is saying is a “disability” is the lack of sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex and the inabillity to form a unique lifelong commitment to that person. The word for that is not “homosexuality”.
I don’t see why there needs to be more said about this particular argument.
It does not say in the Bible, as far as I know, that homosexuality is a disability that needs to be cured. I don’t know of this concept having been adopted by the Christian church until the 20th century
Yes, I see. Your point simply is that the need for intellectual safe spaces suggests the extent to which one is in jeopardy outside of them.
In fact Swinburne is presenting the “disability” theory as a conjecture as to why God might have outlawed homosexuality.
If he had simply left it that God has condemned homosexuality for reasons best known to Himself then I doubt anyone would have complained.
I think your fixation on the word ‘disability’ misses 90% of the point, but I have no interest in debating it.
I am not sure what you think the fuss was about if it was not about the claim that homosexuality was a “disability” that needed to be “cured”.
The Christian right, including Christian right philosophers are saying that homosexuality is morally wrong all the time and no one complains.
If you don’t understand that then you miss 100% of point of the anger that was being expressed.
Great, we’ve missed each other’s points. Nothing new there.
And the idea that activists never complained about traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality until Swinburne used the word disability is just flat out false.
“The reason for intellectual safe spaces is that we don’t agree in the least who the barbarians are”
Barbarians are those who would deny me the right/opportunity for reasoned expression of my point of view, within the confines of the law and civil discourse, by resorting to intimidation, denigration, abuse, naked aggression, silencing, de-platforming, etc. Such behaviour is the behaviour of barbarians.
I think his point was that barbarians exist pretty much on every side. I said something similar myself not too long ago.
“Your point simply is that the need for intellectual safe spaces suggests the extent to which one is in jeopardy outside of them.”
Yes, but I am suggesting more than that. I am suggesting that by claiming the need for such spaces we are accepting the loss of safety in intellectual spaces at large. I am saying this is a dangerous concession we should not be making.
“I think his point was that barbarians exist pretty much on every side. I said something similar myself not too long ago.”
Yes, they do, but they are easily recognisable by their behaviour. Therefore one cannot take cover behind the excuse that we cannot agree who they are.
For example, I think it was Kahneman(I may have the name wrong) who complained bitterly that conservatives dare not express their point of view on campus.
Thanks, this is a very good essay, indeed a wise one, as Dan says. However, it stays at the level of ideas. This is also true of the comments, I think.
On the principle that philosophy should both interpret the world and deal with practical matters, the question arises of how to create and protect “safe spaces”. Mutual respect for controversial speech is one part of the solution. But when well-organised mob protests start operating, what then? The right to protest is also part of a free society. There is no very clear line between legitimate and aggressive protest. Enforcement tends to look bad (protesters being dragged into police vans, etc). Social media magnifies the capacity for anonymous harassment of controversial thinkers. For these reasons, the cards seem stacked against safe spaces staying safe.
One practical proposal, which goes back to Dewey, is that we should teach the intellectual virtues at school. I think this involves teaching the art of critical thinking, which seems to me much neglected in schooling. For more on this question see:
Well can we clarify then? is the topic at hand the norms of intellectual spaces? Or are we discussing the value of intellectual safe spaces?
Of course I am probably using the term ‘intellectual space’ more broadly than either you or Bharath are doing.
On the side-issue of Christian ethics, it is interesting that Swinburne thinks abortion is wrong only after about 22 weeks, when consciousness starts to emerge. Quote: “if [as he believes] human persons only come into existence at the same time as human consciousness, abortion before that point is not intrinsically wrong”. This is despite the fact that “Abortion at any stage of pregnancy was condemned by unanimous Christian teaching from the earliest Fathers (Letter of Barnabas 19:5) until the last century, and so may reasonably be held to constitute central Christian teaching”.
He later says that God may have commanded believers to not interrupt the process of pregnancy at any stage. But he doesn’t claim that God has anywhere given such a command. In any case that argument would not count for non-believers and could not reasonably be the basis for a law against early abortion in a largely secular society.
“One practical proposal, which goes back to Dewey, is that we should teach the intellectual virtues at school.”
Yes, along with virtue ethics in general, because that is how we make sense of intellectual virtue.
that is a very interesting reference. Yes, of course, philosophy should be taught in schools but the chances of that are asymptotically close to zero. To understand why you read Screen Schooled, which gives a horrifying account of the effects of small screen devices on schooling and the development of the young mind.
My hope is that Dan-K will read the book and give us an account of how it threatens pedagogy, since he really is in the front lines, where this is concerned.
Your essay is compelling and there is a lot in it that I agree with, but I feel a bit of sleight of hand is happening. You defined an intellectual safe space as “one where one’s ideas are bracketed from certain social contexts in order to examine them simply as ideas”.
This makes it seem as if it is intuitive and obvious as to how the bracketing should happen. However, an “intellectual safe space” is an abstraction that is undergirded by social practice. By analogy, consider the terms, “free market” or “‘arithmetic”. Both of these seem clear and obvious, but (making the Wittgensteinian move) their “obviousness” is actually a social illusion, supported by a web of community practices, norms and assumptions. Likewise, it seems to me that an “intellectual safe space” requires some tacit community norms about what is “in scope” and what is not (about what moves are valid in the “intellectual safe space” language game). The debate over these norms can’t themselves take place in the intellectual safe space … & they manifest as a turmoil over the boundaries. This seems to me to be characteristic of evolving norms. For example, was there an “intellectual safe space”‘ debate about whether the n-word can be used (not as quotation) in philosophy debates? I suspect not, but now it is part the norm governing those spaces, and it was established through other means, such as political activity or social pressure.
So, here is the issue as I see it: as social norms evolve, there will be a continual struggle over the “moves” of the game, with some people saying “move X should be disallowed” & others saying, “move X should be allowed but with restrictions”, & yet others saying, “Let’s consider meta-moves about what kinds of moves should be allowed”, etc. This debate will (has to!) take place “outside the game”, making it seem lawless and chaotic, but that is only because we are judging it from “inside the game” (the criteria for “lawful” and “non-chaotic” are moves inside the game). I’m not sure there is a straightforward way to “rule out” the turmoil.
Hi labnut: Philosophy is taught in some schools in some places. For example, Ontario, where about 30,000 high school students take the subject. It is taught in about 20 high schools where I live. (I helped design the course and co-wrote the textbooks.) But I’ll look up Screen Schooled, as you suggest.
“Philosophy is taught in some schools in some places. For example, Ontario, where about 30,000 high school students take the subject. It is taught in about 20 high schools where I live. (I helped design the course and co-wrote the textbooks.) But I’ll look up Screen Schooled, as you suggest.”
Well I am impressed. Well done on such stellar work. I should not be so pessimistic after all.
Thanks, but philosophy is far more notable for its absence from schools than for its presence in them.
I find Gautam’s analysis very perceptive. Every time I’ve seen this issue brought up I see people getting caught up in criticising other people’s red lines while being completely oblivious of their own. They want more ‘controversial’ opinions, but restricted to their definition of controversial. Gautum going ‘meta’ is exactly what this discussion needs. I’d like to hear how people in this discussion justify their own limits of tolerance. I suspect the comments here would be dramatically different if the example was not an anti-gay talk from a Christian philosopher, but Steve Bannon’s talk to the National Front. Why? Is ethnonationalism not an unsettling idea that deserves to be examined from a 360 perspective?
Furthermore, I’d be interested in people’s ideas of what a governance structure would be for these intellectual safe spaces. It clearly can’t be via consensus given the quite different views expressed on Swinburne’s talk in this forum. No governance perhaps?? We have that in London; it’s called Hyde Park corner. Is that a good example?
Agree with much you say. The family analogy wasn’t meant to say organizations should be treated exactly as families, but only that what binds organization members is often as amorphous as what binds family members.
Yes, you are. But I may happy to use it in the broader way. As you say elsewhere on this thread, each person is a potential locus of an intellectual safe space and every interaction, academic or not, is as well. This has to be fostered in society more generally, and often one has to be a stand for such a safe space even in every day life. But people need help to do that, hence churchs, schools, communities. In the post I was speaking of schools in particular, but point applies broadly.
One thing I would put differently than you. There was no magic time when such intellectual safe spaces existed in the society at large. Till 50 years ago in the west and the non-west, many people weren’t part of intellectual spaces, in academia or churches or govt, etc. Not because people were evil back then, but because majority of people lived agrarian lives, and even those in cities were living hand to mouth, or in segregated cities, etc.
The scope of who can participate exploded in the 20th century broadly and with internet in particular. We now have to avoid mindset of “I finally get to speak so you shut up!” But also avoid romanticizing the past as a haven for intellectual safe spaces. They just weren’t for many people.
Strongly agree with teaching intellectual virtues at school. Thanks for your work in schools. Really great.
I would add, in addition to teaching, students and public in general need to see people exhibit the intellectual virtues in public.
Agree. There is no way, straightforward or not, to rule out turmoil. To paraphrase Heidegger, turmoil is what we are thrown into. There is no magic space we inhabit as bodily beings outside turmoil, and i don’t defend intellectual safe spaces as magic spaces free of turmoil. For the reasons you highlight: there will always be things which are implicit, and which pull against our norms, etc. Navigating is just part of life.
Building on Vaihinger and recently Appiah’s book “As if”, I emphasize the as if nature of intellectual safe spaces. There is no Archimedean point where we can stand apart from our perspectival lives, certainly not for hot button issues. Plato, Descartes were wrong to say there was. And Wittgenstein, Foucault, rorty right to show limits of Plato and Descartes. But it doesn’t follow that we should give up acting as if we can occupy an Archimedean point. Just like I am not Christ and no one can be the one son of God. But still it is valuable to act as if I can be Christ like.
This raises interesting q, “were Plato and Descartes wrong or just really good at doing the as if that is essential for our lives?” I say both and maybe even more the later. The as if gives us back the past in all the ways we need it. And it can give us a present and future that way too.
I’m saying something equivalent to the old adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. What may be a barbarian for some people is a brilliant polemicist for others.
For me Swinburne insofar as he calls gay people “disabled” is questioning their flourishing as autonomous individuals who love members of their sex. Although I have no doubt that Swinburne is superficially a perfect gentleman, his theories about gay people could be and are perceived as barbaric violence against them. One might point out that Swinburne’s theories about gay people can be used by outright bigots (Swinburne is probably not a bigot himself) as a pretext for physical violence against gays.
On the other hand, Noam Chomsky is my rabbi. I admire him immensely, but I can imagine that many on the right consider that his questioning of the United States as a moral example for humanity and of the American way of life as a whole are barbaric because they constitute symbolic violence against all they cherish. I will not even bother to go into how people on the right must see Judith Butler, not my favorite philosopher, but one with distinguished academic credentials.
Hence, the need for safe intellectual spaces. Currently, in U.S. universities, the left has intellectual hegemony, but that can change and we can go back to a time when the McCarthyite right has hegemony. So for both left and right the need for intellectual safe spaces seems clear.
We live in very polarized societies, not just in the U.S. and I don’t see that as going away soon. In the midst of that polarization certain safe spaces where ideas qua ideas, whatever their political or social import, can be discussed seem crucial.
Thanks to you and Gautam for pressing these points. It gets to heart of issue.
There has to be a distinction between what we tolerate in practice and in debate. For me no toleration for, say, colonialism in practice, but toleration for discussion of it, say re whether Indians are less advanced culturally than Europeans and so if Europeans did Indians a service.
Imagine someone is brought in a fiercely racist way to think Asians are backward and they stole all ideas from Europe. And that person goes to college. In the life cycle of racist ideas, in my estimation this person is very early in it. Can I just force the end stage on him? I can try in practice. But if there isn’t even a space for him to think through the issue from where he is mentally, it will blow back. Nor is it consistent with ideal of Cartesian doubt.
In a liberal society this navigation between not tolerating in practice but tolerating in thought is inevitable. It is both the engine of liberal society and it’s greatest weakness, since tolerating in thought might pull back into doing so in practice. Hence sjws want to shut down conversation. They think toleration in thought leads to toleration in practice, as if a black person has to debate slavery with the practical possibility of being slaved again a live issue.
There can be no topic off limits for debate, just as in principle we should go into any poor area to help people. To tell a person raised in a racist way to get over it without even a space to communally think through his ideas in the process is counter productive, and even inhumane.
The full video of Swinburne’s talk is on YouTube (posted on Oct. 4, 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6J_nPeF_lQ
I mostly agree with your assessment. There is however one edge case that always gives me pause. What about people whose mind will never change no matter what arguments are brought to bear. To carry on using Swinburne as a foil, I very much doubt that there is any possibility of him seeing homosexuality as normal and healthy expression of alternative sexuality. What is the point of discussion then? It always seems to me that to have a productive debate with someone you have to enter it in good faith. Meaning that you must think that there is a possible combination of reason and evidence that will make you a convert. Otherwise you’re just rationalising a prejudice. What is to be done in such cases?
@Bharath: “There can be no topic off limits for debate”
You are treating a debate as just neutral words being exchanged in a cordial “as if” atmosphere. But word are not neutral. They are embedded in social contexts with overtones of aggression, class, contempt,etc, and they don’t become neutral just because we wave a magic “as if” wand and deem them so. An “as if” punch is as painful as an actual punch.
To make this vivid: think of Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford debating the nature of sexual assault. You can stand above the interaction, saying “As if!”, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a power imbalance here where words used by one person are perceived by the other as hurtful and emotionally unsettling. Likewise, if someone goes on stage and says “Gay people are objectively disordered”, it isn’t clear to me how a gay person should adopt the “as if” stance.
A made-up example to highlight my point: Someone goes up on a debate stage and says “Indians can’t think critically”. As a person of Indian origin, can I bracket this statement and consider it neutrally? The statement is pulling the rug out from under me, & to engage with it feels like falling into a weird sort of infinite regress. Worse, if I’ve heard this statement every day (in non-debate, judgmental, contexts) in ways that directly impact my life, how can I separate out my emotional reactions? In what way can this be a meaningful debate?
By the way, I agree with you that the “as if” debate space is vital and should accommodate as wide a variety of good-faith views as possible. I’m just challenging you on how to form such a space and protect it. Just as the “free market” requires a significant amount of government superstructure (e.g., property rights, money, contracts), an “intellectual safe space” requires a significant amount of superstructure and continual tending. Case in point — this forum requires significant moderation effort from Dan Kaufman to ensure that the conversation stays civil, respectful and productive. It is interesting to consider what criteria/approaches Dan uses for his moderation (treating this forum as an “in vivo” specimen of a safe space).
America has 350 million people. Of very diverse situations, identities, values, backgrounds. Of course people won’t be able to change everyone’s minds. Some will just be obstinate, or not smart, etc. But in general we aren’t in a position to say who is being obstinate and won’t ever change their mind. We have to talk to each other as if people are pliable in their beliefs. Not on a battlefield or during a bar fight. But in intellectual spaces, and spiritual spaces for that matters.
Also, point isn’t if there is a discussion happening everyone has to join in. There might just be some people forever debating why gays are disabled. Just as there will be people who will forever debate whether immigration is invasion or if people who eat meat are heartless. Point of debate isn’t to come to one conclusion. It’s more like intellectual exercise and conditioning, and some who are obsessed about gays might debate it endlessly. It just seems too strong to me to say gays deserve no one debate the issue. What happens to the millions of people who have been conditioned for their own whole lives to think otherwise? Sometimes not changing ones mind is a way of coping. As long as it doesn’t translate into actively harming gays, let it be, and engage when u can.
Nothing about debate in an as if mindset is meant to be neutral. As I say in post, it’s just an intellectual version of getting into a boxing ring. Debate doesn’t mean kumbaya holding hands and talking soflty.
Of course Kavanuagh and Ford can’t debate. They are at the center of basically a bar fight. But defenders of Kavanuagh and Ford should be able to have a debate with a mindset of as if the other side intends well.
Re Indian example, of course it’s hard. Just as it was hard, much harder, when the Indians were marching nonviolently and getting beaten by the British, or when blacks were getting hosed for silently marching. It’s strange to admire Gandhi for respecting the British even when they beat him up, and yet say hearing someone say something offensive and hurtful even in a debate context is too much.
That said, am all for having some explicit sense for how intellectual safe spaces should be moderated. That’s important.
I think the discussion has become hopelessly confused. Let’s remedy that by going back to basics and build on that.
At a minimum, all speech is regulated by the law. The laws forbids certain kinds of speech. For example:
1) Libellous speech;
2) Hate speech(in certain jurisdictions);
3) Incitement to break the law;
4) Inflammatory speech;
5) Breach of contract speech;
6) Seditious speech; etc, etc.
Then there is speech in specific domains which is regulated by domain specific norms, over and above legal norms. Some examples are:
1) The social domain which requires norms such as respect, truthfulness, integrity, tolerance, friendly interaction and affirmative sharing of emotions.
2) The corporate domain which is subject to such norms such loyalty, respect for confidentiality, subordinate respect, etc.
3) The military domain with its rigid, hierarchical demands for respect and compliance.
4) The political domain which aims to produce change, attain, or maintain power. Here the language is that appropriate to lobbying, alliance building and discrediting opponents. Ordinarily this results in the most robust form of discourse.
5) The literary domain whose language seeks to mirror some aspect of society in an insightful way. Here the norms are to do with beauty, clarity and expressiveness of language.
6) The engineering domain where precision is of paramount importance. The engineering drawing is the paradigmatic example of this.
7) The intellectual domain, whose aims are to satisfy curiosity by building understanding, knowledge and communication of knowledge.
We have different norms for different domains because that allows for the most effective speech in each domain.
Three broad observations are in order:
1) Much of the trouble stems from using speech appropriate to one domain, in another, inappropriate domain. I am often accused of using computer language in social discourse 🙂 The problem we are dealing with in this case is to treat the intellectual domain as if it were a political domain. That profoundly corrupts the intellectual domain.
2) The practice of virtue ethics is a good basis for all the domains.
3) Calling for safe spaces is to misunderstand the problem. The problem is that we are practising speech appropriate for one domain, the political, in another domain, the intellectual. We don’t need safe spaces, we need to respect the norms appropriate to the domain. In the case of the intellectual domain the appropriate norms are described by the intellectual virtues.
So far I have seen do discussion of the intellectual virtues, and yet that is the very heart of the debate. I suspect we are seeing the birth of a new domain , the virtue free domain. Now why should that be?
Here, by the way, is a lovely example of extreme political speech that is as far away as one can get from intellectual speech. And yet it was written by Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Read it from beginning to end and tell me if you can keep a straight face. Here is the article:
I spoke of intellectual safe spaces in contrast to emotional safe spaces. But I am happy to discard talk of safe spaces, and just stick with taking of virtues, intellectual, emotional, political, etc. Talk of safe spaces or virtues comes, I think, to the same thing. A safe space in a given domain is one which someone virtuous in that way helps cultivate in a social space. Even to fight to the death with honor is to contribute to fighting in a way that both people can respect and can feel safe in that way.
Perhaps this is what you mean by “the discussion has become hopelessly confused”. That instead of worrying about what should be the norms of debating, we should just work on cultivating the intellectual virtues which have been around for millenia. If so, I agree. But this is not as simple as listing virtues or telling people to separate the intellectual and the political. What confuses people is what it is to exhibit, say, the intellectual virtues in contexts they find trying and difficult. To guide then is to lead by showing the practice of the virtues in a way which garners people’s respect and lessens their distrust and confusion.
In that regard, I think saying you think discussion is hopelessly confused is not to exhibit intellectual virtue; say, 2, 4 or 7 in the list you give above. I know some talk like this, say, Wittgenstein and many others. But there is always a more constructive and more optimistic way of making the points, one which engages not with debate in an abstract sense but with the individuals in the debate (say, the particular people commenting here). To be present now, here intellectually is just to be present to the particular people in this conversation, and to have that engagement.
Similarly, bringing in the Dabashi article seems to me an example of not bracketing the cultural context in the space of intellectual debate. I get what you mean with the article. But you open that door and pretty soon it devolves into examples all over the place. The topic of this thread is, if I use your preferred language, how to cultivate and practice intellectual virtues. Seem to me better to focus on that directly in a cooperative spirit with people here now instead of focusing on who you think is failing miserably at it elsewhere.
Bharath: You say that “Talk of safe spaces or virtues comes, I think, to the same thing”. I disagree. People can have many virtues but have little or no assured place in which to practice them. I recall once meeting an Albanian who described how under the former regime it was extremely dangerous to speak about any public issue anywhere except within the family, and even that was risky. Conversely, we can have safe public spaces but be very poor at making proper use of them. Having safe public spaces is an institutional matter; having the virtues is a matter of personal cultivation.
In Albania case, there were no safe public spaces because civic virtues were not well cultivated by those in power. Certainly that can happen. And no single person living a virtuous life can change that. Conversely also u are right. There can be traditions of civic or intellectual virtues which cultivated safe spaces but which we are making poor use of; it’s what’s happening now with people who are so distrustful that they are, as Dan has evocatively and aptly put it, vandalizing the intellectual structures. This is happening on left and right.
Virtues are a matter of personal cultivation, but that doesn’t make them purely personal. Human flourishing depends on institutions which foster and are fostered by individuals being virtuous. The institutions aren’t just self sustaining structures that we humans can just make use of. I think this links to labut’s comment below about a “virtue free domain”, and an earlier comment of his about a too scientistic picture of our public life. I agree with that. Safe spaces can’t be administered the way traffic lights are programmed. They survive or not based on how the virtues are cultivated.
I admire your careful, gentle style of debate. I apologise for my intemperate language.
“Talk of safe spaces or virtues comes, I think, to the same thing. A safe space in a given domain is one which someone virtuous in that way helps cultivate in a social space. ”
“Safe spaces can’t be administered the way traffic lights are programmed. They survive or not based on how the virtues are cultivated.”
Thanks, you have clarified things nicely for me and I can see that talk of safe spaces is warranted. My understanding of the term was polluted by the institution of safe spaces on campus for the emotionally fragile and immature. As I understand you, certain practices create safe spaces for the practice of speech in a given domain. Thus the practice of the intellectual virtues creates a safe space for intellectual speech.
These virtuous practices are reinforced and maintained by institutional practices. For example there will be a chair to the meeting and the chair will enforce certain standards of order and proper speech. However that is only possible if there is a certain prior consensus in place. In our case the prior consensus is called the intellectual virtues.
My guess is that the far left is identifying Western tradition with oppression, and then thereby feeling unmoored to know how they can talk to an opponent, they are even more traumatized and acting out of that. I imagine this because I went through this when I was in academia. In college and grad school I knew Plato, Aristotle and Kant were great, but I had a hard time identifying with them, or thinking I am in their intellectual tradition. A few years ago it clicked: my criticisms of them became internal criticisms, extensions of their own projects and didn’t require discarding them or othering them. I felt they were my benefactors as much as anyone’s. It was and is very soothing and relaxing to think this. Suddenly the public intellectual spaces seemed safer because it became clear the structures which might enable dialogue were already there, if only I appreciated and made them my own. At root are intellectual and emotional habits of thought – wisdom – which really are universal, and are our shared heritage. Cultivating that sense of our shared heritage is itself central to intellectual, emotional, civic and personal virtues. As a society we are struggling to do that, and that’s where the game is.
I have benefitted from your comments urging this as well.
I kept a straight face. I mean, whether or not something is written in “intellectual” doesn’t preclude me being about to evaluate it on an intellectual level and weed out what I might agree or disagree with. I don’t expect a world without polemics and I probably wouldn’t want a world without polemics either.
The fact that politicians don’t understand the nature of a lecture or of scholarly debate should not deter us from holding them. The mere fact that an idea is being discussed at a conference lends it no legitimacy.
Re intellectual virtues and cultivating them:
I haven’t had a chance to explore it in detail, but looks quite good. It is linked to in a post at daily nous and the apa blog here:
I’m not sure I can consider the Society of Christian Philosophers a “professional context” in the way I consider academic journals, but I think we should strive to engage others and their ideas in a respectful manner no matter the context, even when it’s not easy for us to do so, and maybe especially when we feel that’s the other’s fault.
And I’m having trouble placing Swinburne’s talk anywhere near rigorous philosophy, it seems to me much closer to an unsubstantiated and meandering manifesto that’s disparaging people who don’t conform to his ideas of what constitutes normal sexual behavior.
I don’t really approve of my second paragraph/sentence in my previous comment. Being in a public forum I think I felt the need to declare my distance first, as a dispassionate commentary is easily mistaken for some kind of approval.
That said, I don’t see how his treatment of homosexuality as a disability supports his conclusions, he didn’t need to mentioned it. So I wonder why he did. I also find his arguments imply a condemnation of all non procreative sexual behavior, including infertile couples, which seems a non-starter. And more, like a lot of non-sequiturs, highly questionable premises that go on for pages, and the idea that procreation is threatened by any sexual behavior that doesn’t lead to procreation.
But I think I’m finding it too hard to quote him, to engage his arguments him neutrally, or to speak “as if”, while there’s so much I disagree with.
That is my impression of Swinburne’s essay as well. Not a great essay, seems to me. Maybe it is more captivating to people who know his body of work, as sometimes it can be interesting just to hear what famous philosophers think.
That said, he is clearly trying to articulate a broad form of argument for a variety of related views, and I think he does a good job of bringing that out, especially re his premises on (a) what is owed to God as a creator and (b) what God intended.
Not sure why disagreeing a lot has to get in the way of as if. Swinburne is also a substance dualist, which I can’t imagine ever embracing. But easy enough to engage with him on that. Intellectually speaking, I don’t see why moral topics should be different. And there is so much to engage with in his talk, be it relation of God to morality, how children can choose what their parents didn’t intend, what he makes of pluarity of religions, diversity within Christianity, how his views relate to Kant, Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor, MacIntyre…pick any thinker.
What matters is not whether he can be convinced otherwise re homosexuality. It is engaging with Swinburne’s humanity and he engaging with the humanity of those he disagrees with. Not predictable exactly how, but those kind of exchanges make a big difference.
Are barbarians equal in their goal?. Seems to me one side so called barbarians’ end goals are more consistent with what you might call a Liberal State…
To the extent that vigilantism was beaten back in other spaces, it was the fight back, the back fight, and ultimately the shaming of elites (who had global projects in progress), as the local was made global, before settling on the balance you describe. Now, at least in the intellectual space, that balance has now been shaken as the global context as changed. Now supporting a (anti-PC) backlash and counter backlash (progressive hard PC lash?) in a some (?) steps forward and some (?) steps back progression…
“And there is so much to engage with in his talk”
Yes, and we should welcome that. I have always believed that disagreements are the most valuable thing in discourse. That is if they are handled in the right way. The wrong way is to activate one’s defences so that one’s world view is preserved from challenges.
The right way is to suspend one’s world view and examine the matter ‘as if’. I love the way you have introduced that phrase. The thing to do is to suspend one’s emotional defences so that one’s cognition can become fully engaged. One’s emotional energy can then be directed at mobilising the cognition, arousing it to make greater efforts at understanding.
But the problem is not just one’s emotional defences, though, as we have seen in the comments, that is a large problem. A larger, more insidious problem is what is known in psychology as our ‘cognitive schema’. These are our implicit assumptions, frameworks and cognitive templates that we automatically apply to incoming information. See
Young considers cognitive schema from the perspective of toxic childhood experiences but the concept can be applied to explaining the emotional defences automatically erected in many other circumstances.
So when we consider unusual, challenging or discomforting information we must not only set aside our emotional defences, we must also disable our cognitive schema. This is very difficult. De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats was one technique for doing this and we successfully used it in the corporate world. I also think the ‘as if’ thinking recommended by you is particularly useful. Here I think the trick is to consciously adopt the perspective of the other person, to think ‘as if’ you were the other person.
“Swinburne is also a substance dualist, which I can’t imagine ever embracing.”
I smiled when I read that since I consider substance dualism to be obviously true and easily defensible. Vive la différence!
“What matters is not whether he can be convinced otherwise re homosexuality … Not predictable exactly how, but those kind of exchanges make a big difference.”
We must stop trying to convince the other person. We can never win the argument, we can only silence the other person And when we do that we become the loser because we can no longer learn from the other person.
To continue my thoughts:
“And when we do that we become the loser because we can no longer learn from the other person.”
Someone might reply that is OK because there is nothing to learn from the other person. To such a person I would say that they have reached the terminal stage of arrogance, insulating the mind from further development.
I love the game of chess. As I sit at the chess board I must carefully consider my opponent’s intentions. When I contemplate my own move I must also consider all my opponent’s possible replies. I must endeavour to understand his game plan. One cannot play chess effectively without placing oneself in one’s opponent’s mind. One learns to lose. One learns to play by the rules. One learns from one’s mistakes by carefully going back and examining the record of the game and thus we learn from the other person. When I play chess I don’t care about whether my opponent is conservative, liberal, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, white, black, or whatever. All I care about are the moves he makes on the chessboard, and I have to think about it carefully from his point of view.
That sounds exactly like a model for conduct in the wider world. But you can’t play chess if you don’t permit your opponent to sit down at the board opposite you. This is the silliness being practised by today’s modern brand of nasty liberalism.
Totally agree. Great bringing in cognitive schema here. I find thinking of intellectual debates in that way very fruitful.
We can also put the idea in terms of Quine’s web of belief. Usually intellectual debates feel abrasive because what is deep within one’s web of belief might be more on the periphery for another (say, religion or feminism matters a lot to one, and doesn’t matter so much to the other person). Or, what is deep within one’s belief (say, opposition to homosexuality), the opposite of that (affirming homosexuality) is deep within another’s web of belief. In the latter case, which is in all hot button topics, giving up the belief is just not something that can happen easily. Even critically evaluating it is not something that happens easily, anymore than one can change one’s schema, or even more, as in the link you provide, change a maladaptive schema. Much debate has this form: “Hey, we only need five fingers, like I have. You have six fingers and that’s wrong, so just cut off the extra finger.” And then get upset when the other person is sqeamish about or resists cutting off one of their fingers! The as if tries to even this out through focusing on the parts of the web of belief which both sides do hold dear, and so can work from there.
For me there is a scene in the movie Gandhi that stays with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0adv8zQsa9I
A Hindu, whose son was killed in riots, confesses how he killed a Muslim boy. And Gandhi says there is a way out of your pain, and that is to adopt a muslim boy, and raise him _as your own_. I can imagine some saying, “Bharath, you are not gay. You don’t know the pain, so stop saying how we should talk to Swinburne.” But Gandhi’s child also wasn’t killed by muslims, so should he have kept quite and agreed with the Hindu, and just nodded along to the Hindu’s anger? Gandhi was advocating a creative leap that is needed to build bridges. The Hindu cannot imagine a life with Muslims, so Gandhi asks him to raise a Muslim child as if that child were his own.
The same applies to talking to Swinburne, as in people who are offended by him should try talking to him as if he is their friend, or their loving grandfather, or, more relevant, even just an intellectual they respect. And same with Swinburne, that he should keep in mind how gays in the audience might feel, and speak with them as if they are his equals. This, it seems to me, is where Swinburne can be faulted. Just not clear he took an as if attitude of respect to this gay interlocutors. Maybe he did. It is hard to know unless some people actually engage and intellectual challenge Swinburne on his view in a respectful way. If he reciprocates that respect, that is progress already there and he isn’t the boogey-man he is being made out to be. And if he doesn’t respond in a respectful way, that highlights the intellectual virtues he is lacking. Simply protesting him doesn’t allow for these nuances to come out.
Clearly we have very different senses of what substance dualism is, and what role it plays in our cognitive schema! I can accept that. Perhaps it is related to the difference in our views on homosexuality, and perhaps – and here I am guessing – our views on religion.
In the comments to my post on the Enlightenment philosophers, you wrote:
“More and more I believe that discovering our common humanity, in a real visceral sense, is key to our happy coexistence, since we are more likely to respect the rights and needs of others like us. And so I believe that studying the philosophies, languages, literature, cultures and values of others are necessary means of discovering our common humanity.”
Very much agree, and it is has stayed with me. What is puzzling to me is how this is compatible with you agreeing with Swinburne on homosexuality. That is, what you say about discovering our common humanity seems to me just an intellectual virtue. So I don’t see how Swinburne’s view on homosexuality is compatible with that intellectual virtue.
“What is puzzling to me is how this is compatible with you agreeing with Swinburne on homosexuality.”
That is because I consider it a moral wrong, like, say adultery. Many of my friends are adulterers but they remain my friends and I never rebuke them for their adultery, though I certainly don’t approve of their conduct.
“perhaps – and here I am guessing – our views on religion”
I am a devout Catholic who holds slightly unorthodox views about religion.
“More and more I believe that discovering our common humanity, in a real visceral sense, is key to our happy coexistence”
That is the outcome of living and working in Africa, Germany and China. At first I was overwhelmed by the superficial differences but extended contact with these different people persuaded me that culture was merely the different clothing we wear. Underneath the clothing we were all the same.
I think what really brought it home to me was my conversion from a lifetime of atheism to Catholicism a few years ago. I entered a Church that was truly multiracial and multicultural. It was a real eye opener for me. What struck me was the spirit of genuine love and care for each other that transcended normal racial and cultural barriers. This was reinforced by a consistent message of love and reconciliation from the pulpit. And then I began to understand that God inhabited each one of us and that God valued all of us equally.
For a long time I was puzzled by the language and ritual of the Church which seemed really alien to me. I finally made sense of it and took the plunge(!) by being baptised into the Church only four months ago. I am now, at last, officially a Catholic!
I am still discomforted by the aggressive reaction of the atheist/liberal world to my conversion and belief system. Some just cannot resist playing the game of prodding the Catholic. Oh well, I didn’t expect it to be easy.
I understand you think being gay is like adultery, though of course I don’t see it that way. And I totally respect you being a Catholic. I have no problem with that. What I don’t get is what your views about gays have anything to do with God or spirituality or living with Christ.
My objection to Swinburne is not directly (or not only) his views on gays. It’s him trying to justify it by reference to God and Christianity. I find any view of religion that makes claims on what others ought not to do as foundational to one’s relation to Christ misses Christ’s core message, which I think is about elavating our consciousness and not about how people have sex (consensually as adults, not as adultery, etc). I am not going to shout down Swinburne or belittle him. But i see people respecting gays as exactly the kind of elavation of consciousness which Christ stood for.
My main attitude to Swinburne or you on this matter is: “well, you do your thing and I will do mine, and let’s see which side on this issue uplifts the world more.” If we can debate, great. If not, well, see u on the playing field of engaging with the world. I will try to do it without putting anyone down, and call out pro-gay people who put people down. I will criticize my side as necessary to create a fair playing field. I hope Swinburne and you do the same with your side.
Surely you realize that the Abrahamic religions all have a comprehensive sexual morality and that it includes a number of prohibitions, most of which have to do with non-procreative sexual activity? How could such an ethos be sustained without prohibitions?
So, I would suggest that according to traditional, Abrahamic sexual morality, the prohibition on gay sex is much more like the prohibition on masturbation and oral and anal sex, regardless of the sex of the participants.
“Surely you realize that the Abrahamic religions all have a comprehensive sexual morality and that it includes a number of prohibitions, most of which have to do with non-procreative sexual activity? How could such an ethos be sustained without prohibitions?” (Replying here since no reply button where the comment was.)
Dan, of course, I realize that. But that is religions as institutions, which is different from spirituality as the essence of religion. Certainly where spirituality begins and institutional norms end is a tricky question, but the distinction between the two seems to me essential. Just like there are lots of things one can’t do to get tenure, but most of that has nothing to do with Socrates or Spinoza or what we need to do to emulate them.
I am not Catholic, or even a Christian in the sense of going to Church. But I love the Bible (large parts of it), and love and respect a great many Christian thinkers. So because I am not Catholic, can I not make a claim on what Christ is about and what following Christ is about? I don’t see how that can be if we care about intellectual debate. And what bugs me about Swinburne’s talk is how he framed it, as if to say, “this is what religious people think (with all this sexual morality), and secular people think that (sexually amoral, etc.).” Who went and made Swinburne the voice for all religious people, or even all Catholics, or about what Catholicism means? He is welcome to that in his church, but when he steps into an intellectual safe space of debate, where anything can be questioned, we can certainly question his views of religion, Catholicism and spirituality.
This is why I think people protesting Swinburne is so counter-productive, and actually unnecessary. The moment Swinburne enters the space of debate, he is already in the space of “rupture” from tradition, in the sense that the tradition can be questioned. I see that rupture as not anti-religious, but as propelling the dialogue from an undue focus on institutional norms to the spiritual essence of religions.
“That said, he is clearly trying to articulate a broad form of argument for a variety of related views, and I think he does a good job of bringing that out”
I’m curious how you understand that because as I understand him he’s concluding that the will of god, or his commands, are moral obligations and those who don’t follow them make it harder for others to follow them, and by doing so they are making themselves not “naturally good people”.
“Not sure why disagreeing a lot has to get in the way of as if. Swinburne is also a substance dualist, which I can’t imagine ever embracing. But easy enough to engage with him on that. Intellectually speaking, I don’t see why moral topics should be different…”
To take some of some of the ideas he brings up out of context is mot a problem for me, and I feel he’s not really arguing his points, like homosexuality is a disability, dualism, or what God wants, in effect only stating his opinion, referring to the bible, or others interpretations of the bible. What does seem to be a problem for me is how his overall picture indirectly supports shaming and guilt, and can fuel in some people their oppression of homosexuals or of those who behave differently.
Maybe it’s better or more productive to look at things like you mention outside of the context of his talk.
“What matters is not whether he can be convinced otherwise re homosexuality.”
Yes, and whether he could or couldn’t, as above I don’t think he’s really arguing for the idea that homosexuality’s a disability, like he’s not really arguing it’s “a fundamental moral principle that beneficiaries have an obligation to please their benefactors”, which Vincent de Paul also disagrees with, and many other Christians I assume.
“It is engaging with Swinburne’s humanity and he engaging with the humanity of those he disagrees with.”
Not sure I understand what you mean by engaging with his humanity or how he’s doing that with us; though I think I can see what you mean, and I agree, if I was having a conversation with him.
I actually think the spiritualist reading completely misunderstands the Abrahamic religions and especially, Judaism, on which the other two are based. They are not religions within which a spiritual component is detachable from the legal — halakhic — one.
So, I think Swinburne was largely accurate with respect to his characterization of orthodox Catholic Christianity, minus perhaps the “disability” part, which introduced a distinctly contemporary concept into it.
I get you believe that and I respect we disagree about that. Clearly there is an alternate view in thinkers like Kierkegaard, Tillich, Thomas Merton, etc at least re Christianity. And that can be a good perpective from which to challenge Swinburne’s views. In this sense his talk seemed a bit like saying the only option re the mind are substance dualist or eliminativism. But there are plenty of in between options.
Yes, of course, though I would suggest that it is telling that 2 out of the 3 are Protestants. In Judaism you have Reform, but it is so far away from the halakhic Judaism that is demonstrably described in the Tanakh and the rabbinical writings that it winds up being at best, culturally Jewish, which, essentially is what I am. I don’t kid myself into thinking, however, that I am actually practicing Judaism.
Makes sense. I really don’t know enough about Judiasm. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying true Judaism can only be if one is following the ancient rules. Is that right? If so, what is left for debating? For example, if Swinburne is talking about Christianity in that way (the rules given in the Bible or Church teachings), what can I debate with him, as someone who doesn’t live in the institutional and cultural universe of those laws?
“What does seem to be a problem for me is how his overall picture indirectly supports shaming and guilt, and can fuel in some people their oppression of homosexuals or of those who behave differently. ”
Actually, it doesn’t “indirectly support” such behavior, but necessitates it: “if there was a general recognition in society of an obligation to abstain from homosexual acts, that would prevent homosexual behaviour being presented as an option for young people of equal value to the heterosexual one which makes possible procreative marriage.” Shaming and guilt are necessary regulators of human behavior, and if extrapolated into politics can be written into law. There’s definitely a whiff of nostalgia for a past when Swinburne’s views were more popular.
However, the reasoning here seems rather weak; Shaming, guilt, even actual criminal law have been used against homosexuals for century, and have proven remarkably ineffective in convincing even the young not to pursue that lifestyle. Perhaps there is something more to it than just a ‘lifestyle choice.’
And I agree with your other points about Swinburne’s reasoning. It’s actually not a very well argued paper, and presumes an audience that accepts his basic premises – most of which, Dan is right, are fairly consistent with the Abrahamic religious doctrines – certainly among the more conservative. (Do Universalist Unitarians count – well certainly not to Swinburne.) So he could reasonably have expected to be on safe ground with the audience he presumes – but perhaps he presumed too much about the homogeneity of his audience?
The ancient laws as interpreted through the rabbinical tradition. Without the halakhah, there isn’t much left of Judaism, as a religion (as opposed to a culture).
With regard to your other question, there isn’t much you can debate with him. He has done a lot of work within the philosophical tradition, and there, you can engage with him as you would with anyone else. There is a reason why he delivered this paper at an Christian university, because he understands that he is assuming a raftfull of religious premises that others might not be willing to accept.
A well-written, well reasoned essay.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would comment on it. I have a practical political view on forums, intellectual or otherwise. I assume that Swinburne has his “safe space,” and if the SCP proves not to be quite that, in the present political context, I am sure he will find another such.
However, I confess a notion always nags me in such discussions. I am committed to free speech, which is recognized Constitutionally as a right, and ought to be. However, I’m aware that this right is not entirely without constraints – the Supreme Court has long determined that shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater lacking proper exits or exit strategies is a public hazard; that incitement to riot or incitement to murder or other felony is unallowable; that explicitly advocating of the direct overthrow of the Constitutional government, or of the assassination of the President are suspect; that even incitement to risky behavior – eg., peer pressure to engage in drug use or drug sales – burdens advocates with responsibility for consequences; and, although I don’t think the SCOTUS ever ruled on it, most (all?) states have laws requiring anyone expressing suicidal ideation be taken into custody for their own good.
Also an extreme case, but with historical consequences: If it were 1930, and a German University club allowed Hitler to advocate his “scientific anti-Semitism” – as long as he remained calm and didn’t engage his usual rhetorical or performative flourishes – should this be allowable? And while Hitler never spoke at any university, he had advocates who did – and we know some of the consequences of that…..
I don’t actually have an answer to that one; so I leave it as a question….
“But that is religions as institutions, which is different from spirituality as the essence of religion. Certainly where spirituality begins and institutional norms end is a tricky question,”
I find it so interesting that you say this. It illustrates nicely the influence of one’s background. You are grounded in the deep traditions of Eastern spirituality that so much influenced Thomas Merton. When you talk about spirituality you are bringing in in a host of meanings formed by Eastern traditions. But the same word has a far narrower meaning in Western ears and consequently we largely talk past each other when we talk about spirituality.
I don’t think there is anything in traditional Abrahamic sexual morality that is reasonably compared to Nazi genocidalism. Certainly it can take such a form, but in the modern Western world, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Of course, in the pre-industrial parts of the world, it’s an entirely different story, alas.
Point taken; so to clarify what is really a more general question in such discussions; – and since it is somewhat to the side of Bharath’s argument, I raise it simply as a thought problem: At what point does speech – even a superficially reasoned speech – cross some line (or does any)?
Imagine a Marxist invited to a speak to the University Social Reform club, simply to explain the history and theory of Marxism. The University John Birch Society organizes its members to get tickets to the event. When the Marxist begins speaking, their own leader stands up with a bullhorn, and begins reading from a Birch Society tract against Marxism. Is the right thing to do to allow both to speak at once – which obviously restricts the Marxist from full enjoyment of his right to speak – or is that restriction enough to clear the Birchers from the hall for denying the Marxist the right to speak? I put it in those terms, because such events actually happened in the 1950s and early ’60s; but of course we can now imagine a conservative speaker and far-left SJWs.
But instead, the Bircher leader remains outside the hall, and merely shouts at it through his bullhorn. But he does so with such strong vituperation that, as the Marxist walks out from the Hall after the address, she is body-slammed to the ground and assaulted. Although the Bircher leader has not advocated that violence, surely his language had incited violence. And again, there were such moments in the ’50s, especially with speakers advocating civil rights. That such Birchers or Klansmen, or other right-wingers of the time were not prosecuted, due to regional politics, doesn’t change the fact that the violent consequences resulted from what we would now call “hate speech.” Fair enough, that seems settled.
But the next day, the President of the University declares, approvingly,, of the Birchers involved: “Those are my kind of guys!” Is the Faculty Council in the right to issue a censure of the President? Or was he also in his right to speak favorably of the violence?
The Bircher/Marxist confrontation (in the example ending in violence) seems open to clarification; but the issue of two opposed speakers speaking at the same time with one intentionally cancelling out the other, is more difficult; and the question of whether the President can be censured is more difficult still, since it depends on institutional policy and political context.
Is there a limit to free speech, and if so, what is it? *I don’t know.* It nags at me repeatedly in such discussions, and will probably continue to nag for some time.
But that may be a good thing. Such ‘nagging’ is an inevitable anxiety in a democratic republic, and makes participation in politics necessary and worthwhile.
I was obviously most concerned with pressing on with my general question; but rereading your remark:
” Of course, in the pre-industrial parts of the world, it’s an entirely different story, alas.” –
I did want to make public note that, as a Buddhist, I am horrified and disgusted by what some Islamophobic ‘Buddhist monks’ have said publicly in Myanmar, contributing to the death of thousands. None of them openly advocated genocide, but attempted genocide has certainly been the consequence of their ‘hate speech.’ It is just such instances that cause the more general question to nag at me.
In Africa, some of the Anglican churches are frighteningly fundamentalist.
“ I am committed to free speech, which is recognized Constitutionally as a right, and ought to be. However, I’m aware that this right is not entirely without constraints ”
and then you go on to acknowledge the constraints to free speech. All well and good. We have laws forbidding hate speech which I think is a ‘jolly good thing‘.
Then you go on to give examples of questionable speech, by say, Hitler, and wonder if they should be allowed. Finally you say
“we know some of the consequences of that…..I don’t actually have an answer to that one; so I leave it as a question….“.
I am really not sure what your point is(you should clarify it). But you do seem to be siding, to some extent with the idea that some forms of speech should be silenced, perhaps as already is practised in the universities? Perhaps I have misread you but let me proceed on the assumption that I have correctly understood your point of view.
As it happens, we already have a very clear answer to your question. It is called the rule of law which represented a sea change as we moved from the injustices of vigilantism to the justice of a law based society.
Yes, there are restrictions on free speech, but they are written into the law. This has five major components:
1. These restrictions are arrived at after thorough public debate and then reaching agreement in a legislature, through the committee stages and then finally the vote. It therefore represents a good degree of consensus in society.
2. Obtaining recourse against unwanted speech is done in an orderly manner, using the mechanism of the justice system. This means giving up vigilantism as a mechanism of recourse. For example, I might sue you for libel.
3. Obtaining recourse is done in a court of law.. Here the issue is thoroughly aired and the accused is given every opportunity to defend his actions. The accuser must thoroughly document and reason his case.
4. An impartial arbiter of standing(the judge in my country, or jury in your case), finally weighs the competing arguments and makes a reasoned judgement.
5. This reasoned judgement is put into effect by appointed enforcers.
This process, the rule of law, is one of the most important developments in society and with it we banished the great evils of vigilantism. It makes modern society possible.
Now along comes an unruly mob who do not like my speech and they wish to suppress my speech by using mob action. They wish to entirely bypass the five stages, described above.This is taking us back centuries to the evils of vigilantism. There are extremely good reasons for us abandoning vigilantism and instead using the mechanism of the rule of law to settle disputes.
We dare not turn our back on this. When we start suppressing speech through extra-judicial action we begin to weaken respect for the rule of law, placing it in jeopardy. That is a very dangerous development.
We will all be subjected to speech we do not like but which is within the confines of the law. We have to respect that. The answer to speech we don’t like is to engage with it, understand it and construct well reasoned rebuttals that are persuasive. But that takes effort and sadly we have a new generation who think emotional impulses count for more than hard work based on the application of reason.
“but attempted genocide has certainly been the consequence of their ‘hate speech.’ ”
Yes, indeed. Hate speech is something that is disallowed by the constitution of my country. We, the minorities, have frequently resorted to using this law to protect ourselves as we have more generally used the rule of law to protect ourselves.. It greatly frustrates the criminal thugs who rule our country. There are signs that they are endeavouring to weaken the protections conferred by the rule of law.
You should never allow the rule of law to be replaced by the rule of thuggery. It is not a pretty sight.
“In Africa, some of the Anglican churches are frighteningly fundamentalist.”
African churches have morphed into something that barely resembles their Western origins. African culture heavily overlays their practices and beliefs.
“s there a limit to free speech, and if so, what is it? *I don’t know.*”
Yes, there are limits to free speech and they are written into the law.
“It nags at me repeatedly in such discussions, and will probably continue to nag for some time.”
Fair enough, we should be concerned and sensitive to the implications. But resorting to extra-judicial action, a kind of vigilantism, is entirely the wrong response which can only lead to injustice and evil.
The great problem is this. It starts to weaken respect for the rule of law. Now as it happens, life is full of conflict and grievances which cannot be settled by the rule of law. We have entered into a grand bargain. We enjoy the protections offered by the rule of law provided that we abandon the settling of smaller grievances through extra-judicial actions. We simply have to suck it up and endure the smaller grievances, or perhaps negotiate their resolution.
Now when we weaken the rule of law we embolden people to take extra-judicial action to settle their grievances, instead of stoically enduring them as before, if they cannot get recourse under the protections offered by the law. The plague of school shootings and mass murders is the perfect example of people with grievances(real or imagined) who feel empowered to take extra-judicial action.
Is this the kind of world we want? It may well be the kind of world we deserve because we have foolishly weakened that great edifice called the rule of law.
“The ancient laws as interpreted through the rabbinical tradition. Without the halakhah, there isn’t much left of Judaism, as a religion (as opposed to a culture).”
I have been going on and on about the rule of law, as well I should, since it is so incredibly important. For this reason your remark greatly resonated with me. Jewish society was the first place in the world that developed a clear, rigorous system for the rule of law. It is often thought that we inherited our concepts of the rule of law from the Romans. But that is not true. We inherited the concept from the Jews who developed it more than a thousand years earlier then the Romans.
“With regard to your other question, there isn’t much you can debate with him… There is a reason why he delivered this paper at an Christian university, because he understands that he is assuming a raftfull of religious premises that others might not be willing to accept.”
This is puzzling. We agree the sjws are wrong to stifle debate. But now you are also saying that no debate can be had with Swinburne. So where does that leave us? Swinburne and people who share his view of his religion should be left alone to debate internal to their framework? If so, I can respect that. But then it also turns into a power issue of what kind of platform they can have to do that. If SCP is changing such that many of its members accept homosexuality, then that is a power shift that is happening internal to that dynamic – it is not something that secular, godless people are forcing onto Christians. That is what seems disingenious about Swinburne a little bit (I already grant plenty is disingenious about sjws): he is using the mantle of “debate” to just reaffirm his view and make it seem more the result of philosophical debate than it actually is. If there is nothing to debate him about his religious views, then unclear in what way the ideal of intellectual safe spaces applies here. I can leave him alone the way I leave alone my super orthodox Hindu family members, but I don’t act like those orthodox Hindus are open to reasoning.
I acknowledge I know Eastern traditions more. But for many years I also went to a methodist Church, and identified strongly with it. Not it makes me an expert of any kind on Christianity. My point is that not clear my views are based on what I am bringing from my Eastern background. I hold Thomas Kempis in great respect, and I don’t think he was influenced by the East the way Merton was.
Part of what I resist is a kind of essentializing of East and West, and what religion is and what Christianity is. This is rampant in Swinburne’s talk. It strikes me as wrong, like sweeping under the rug all the ways in which reform and critical thinking and pushing against doctrinal law and practices are internal to Christianity itself. It also makes it harder to debate, because like sjw, orthodox religious people are quick to say, “well, you don’t know Christianity since you are not one, or not a good one, so nothing to debate.”
I share your sentiment that its unclear when Swinburne is arguing and when he is laying out his premises, and when he is just sharing his perspective. There is a vaneer that Swinburne is engaging in debate, but as the back and forth here with Dan and Labnut brings out, this is a tricky issue, and how to debate him is not obvious.
I find this discussion with everyone helpful in part because it is bringing out the nuances of what debate means here, and in what ways it is possible and not possible, and how that fits into giving and taking intellectual respect.
I complement you on your fine essay and the way you conducted the resulting conversation. It was superb. I learnt a lot from you. We touched on many issues. Some were tangential to your central theme and I would have loved to explore them further with you. That will have to wait for another occasion. We should not neglect Dan-K’s fascinating essay about the enlightenment. True to form I have there contributed a thoroughly contrarian comment to the conversation 🙂 I hope it provokes thought and not offence!
I don’t understand what’s puzzling about a Christian philosopher going to a Christian conference, in order to deliver a paper on Christian sexual morality.
And yes, the whole point is that he could just be left alone. The trouble is, that’s not what happened. Instead, people who do not share his Christian premises went ape-shit and pressured the conference organizers to denounce him, after which they launched a social media campaign in which to malign him.
“I am really not sure what your point is(you should clarify it).”
Actually, my point is that I am not sure what my point is; hence the ramble through counter-examples. As I say, such counter-examples ‘nag’ at me – that is, they cause me an uneasiness. I have been a strong adherent to the principle of free speech since reading Voltaire in Junior High. And our media is so fragmented today that pretty much anyone can say anything and find an audience. But that isn’t without some unhappy consequences. And the raging hormones on both the left and the right, not to mention weird conspiracy theories – not just Alex Jones but lizard alien domination theorists – oft tempt me to despair of public discourse these days.
Dan, re leaving SCP alone, seems like what you are talking about is not intellectual safe space, but a safe space period. I am happy to leave orthodox Christians alone, as long as it is obvious what they are doing isn’t “rational debate in the sense of open to anyone to question it.” I was saying Swinburne shouldn’t be protested, but debated, since in debate space anyone is welcome. That is what distinguishes an academic intellectual space, from say a debate space in a Church. Sounds like you are treating SCP more like a Church or theological meeting than like an academic meeting. The President of SCP seems to disagree, and this is probably the fissure that is coming out in SCP.
I am fine to treat SCP as like a Church meeting. But not if then orthodox Christians will turn it around and claim it is an academic space, and that it shows it is an open debate in academia whether gays are disabled. My objection isn’t that can’t be a debate in academia. Swinburne can’t have it both ways: “leave us alone to do our SCP Christian thing” and “We are defending our views with the full force of academic debate.”
Bharath, I would say that what goes on at SCP is theological, which, as you know, is a hybrid of philosophical and religious thinking. It certainly involves arguments and is rationally scrutable to a degree, but it does involve certain basic commitments without which not much that follows makes sense.
That said, as a good Wittgensteinian, that’s pretty much the situation that every type of discourse/inquiry finds itself in. See, Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty” and his notion that in every inquiry a whole number of things must “stand fast.”
“If it were 1930, and a German University club allowed Hitler to advocate his “scientific anti-Semitism” – as long as he remained calm and didn’t engage his usual rhetorical or performative flourishes – should this be allowable? And while Hitler never spoke at any university, he had advocates who did – and we know some of the consequences of that…..”
In my post I am defending the strong claim that, in your hypothetical, as long as Hitler was following the norms of intellectual debate, he should be allowed to give that talk. I think intellectual virtues in a pluralistic society requires it.
But you are raising a legitimate concern: what if people only use the vaneer of intellectual debate to undermine debate in society more generally? This is what happened with the Nazi professors “debating” “scientific anti-Semitism”. The problem with this is that Nazi thugishness in society was being imported into academia, whereas academic debate requires that the order of influence should be the other way around: the values of academic debate should create open and free dialogue in the broader society. This process is, by its nature, as you say, a bit nerve racking, and there are bound to be tough cases. They can be shoved under the rug, since the tough cases just are the deepest ruptures in society. Better to bring it out in an intellectual context than to repress them more and have them come out in a thugish form.
I don’t have as sharp a distinction between theology and philosophy as perhaps you are drawing here, or between even religion and philosophy. For me they are all basically the same kind of thing. For me spiritual and intellectual virtues come to the same thing.
I certainly agree with the Wittgensteinian point. I don’t agree with Wittgenstein though on the interpretation that religion is a separate language game of its own. I think there are some universal norms of thought and of human life, and religion, theology, philosophy, human sciences, art, etc. are all partly attempts at articulating those universal norms. The attempt at human wide virtues is what enables us to talk to each other even with all our differences.
“But you are raising a legitimate concern: what if people only use the veneer of intellectual debate to undermine debate in society more generally? This is what happened with the Nazi professors “debating” “scientific anti-Semitism”.”
We dare not stray outside the principled observance of the rule of law. When we do that we validate the behaviour of the thugs who operate outside the principled observance of the rule of law. EJ is hinting that there may be occasions when we can suppress free speech. This is an extraordinarily dangerous idea that should never be tolerated outside times of declared emergency and wartime.
The Nazism issue is a non sequitur since something deeper and more fundamental was going on.
I do support the idea of laws prohibiting hate speech. India has them and hate speech is prohibited by the constitution of South Africa. Our experience has been positive. Our constitution says this:-
Freedom of expression
16. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes—
(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to—
(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that
constitutes incitement to cause harm.
16. (2)(c) is a most enlightened clause but interpretation can be difficult.
The phrase ‘constitutes incitement to cause harm’ embraces more than just physical harm. For example degrading ones’s public standing or damage to dignity constitutes harm.
The important thing is that this form of speech can only be silenced by due process of law and being carefully tested in a law court where the accuser and the respondent must carefully argue their cases.
The kind of silencing that EJ hints at is so badly wrong because it does not go through the due process of law, allowing the case for and against to be carefully argued in court.
When we abandon the due process of law we open the gates of hell.