Tone, emotional range, character

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of the importance of tone when discussing contentious politics, I would have rated it low-to-non-important, this largely being down to having been tone-trolled by folks arguing in bad faith. Some people do have a tendency to expect you tread on eggshells around them, if only to distract you from what you’re actually trying to say.

“It’s the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises wot matters!”

If you’re only interested in the truth of a specific proposition, then okay, fine. But what if you’re interested in more?

Say you’re in the union movement and the prospect of a demarcation dispute with another union raises its head; you ask “Comrade, do you think X is the demarcation criterion we should be using to sort this out?” and get an answer in the affirmative. What does this tell you? Say you spool things out to have a discussion of why a given demarcation criterion is appropriate, and your interlocutor is on-point on all of the details. You absolutely agree on all the technical details.

Perhaps you bring an appreciation of social ques and historical context to this conversation. Perhaps they’re not telling you what they really think. Perhaps they do believe what they’ve told you, but are holding back that these details are actually irrelevant to their plans.

Maybe there’s no question of ideological trustworthiness, and you just want to make sure you’re both on the same page, or that you can campaign together from the same office. Perhaps the social ques and the historical context point to a healthy, stable solidarity. It could be that the tonal differences between bluster and genuine affection are what settles things and allows you to focus on the work.

It’s easy to take an appreciation of tone and character for granted, but it gets a lot harder to parse it all if your appreciation of tone is deprecated.

***

Over the last seven years, I’ve run into people who’ve had a pretty rough time participating in political discussions online, who’ve subsequently fallen into deep depressions. Blocking and withdrawing has been the order of the day, and seemingly with a relatively high error level; erring on the side of caution while realizing rightfully they don’t owe strangers their time.

But what about what they themselves are owed? The right to be healthy and aspire to happiness takes more than just being able to brush off abusers and trolls. What if, owing to an acquired tone-deafness, one lost the ability to tell the difference between passive-aggressive concern trolls, and genuinely caring individuals with valid criticisms? Or the difference between someone willing to offer moral support, and someone just looking to establish their base by flattering vulnerable people? Wouldn’t that be a bit isolating – unhealthily so?

“I’m happy to have a small, select circle, thanks! I don’t need to keep my enemies that close.”

Well, maybe. Maybe you’re due a break, and it’s not like you earn 4 weeks paid leave arguing on Twitter. You don’t need my permission to walk away.

Still, I’ve been seeing people adhering to crude, tone-deaf, by-rote heuristics to work out who is and who isn’t a bad actor; seeing people of good faith being turned aside, and seeing a number of those doing the turning aside winding up even more miserable for reasons they can’t begin to articulate. Worst case scenario; I’ve seen someone clearly isolate themselves this way, then blame the people they’ve turned away for making them do it.

“LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE MADE ME DO!”

A lack of range in your emotional capacity can do this. The numbness of depression can beget self-neglect. Self-neglect can beget further depression. It helps to have trusted people around you to help prevent this from spiraling out of control, and for that you’re probably going to have to put up with at least a little political disagreement.

Which brings us back to the matter of how to know who you can trust, and how tone helps.

***

A friend and I were musing the other week about two guys with a couple of very similar radical left sensibilities; sensibilities that friend and I regard as problematic. Two guys with the same particular tribes, much the same particular ideations, and to some extent even the same incoherence and inconsistencies. But independent of each other, friend and I decided that we regard their character as immensely different, such that one stands out as clearly more trustworthy.

There’s no particular political transgression that sets them stand apart. A crude, political dot-point heuristic couldn’t possibly clear things up; they’re both equally on-point with their political tribes. And yet, one of them would easily be welcome at a dinner party among like-minded(ish) friends, while the other is regarded as more than a little suspect.

One guy is clearly driven by empathy and good intentions, erring on the side of sappiness, while the other seems to have more pride invested in his tribalism, resulting in what passes as a mildly venomous smugness. Both will make the same dismissals, but while one will appeal to what he sees as people’s better nature, the other will lace his assertions with subtle backhandedness, and deliver them with a not so subtle sniff.

It also helps that it’s clear – at least to those of us familiar with their tone – that one of them is both warmer and more capable of uttering the words “I think I may have made a mistake.”

There’s something to be said for having political disagreements with people you can trust – for one they serve as a check should you turn out to be wrong. Potentially this serves as a check on self-harm. So if your criteria for allowing social proximity is a reduced, narrow list of marginal political differences, well, that’s a bit daunting. And what’s it like for a political community, or a family with politically contentious advocacy needs, if most of the adults therein are isolated like this?

“You’re expecting ethnic minorities to sit down and sup with white supremacists? To never punch a fascist!?! That’s the politics of civility!”

No. I’m not expecting that. Obviously.

For the most part we’re talking narcissism of small differences level disagreements here, not overt, intentional political hostility; fine-grained disagreements about ontology or epistemology; arguments over the merits of deontology versus utilitarianism; concerns over to what extent functions of a mutually supported organization should be decentralized; differing perspectives born of differing material interests on what clauses of proposed legislation may have unintended consequences, and so on – all argued with what a healthy appreciation of tone would inform you is good faith, and what an appreciation of material, political reality would inform you is not being treated as an abstract, intellectual plaything.

If a democratic socialist can’t sit down for coffee with a social democrat to talk their differences over, then their problem isn’t political theory. Their problem is personal and it won’t be resolved or navigated through with the use of an ideological spot-check.

Tone and emotional range go a long way to helping here, and I was wrong to ever doubt it*. I for one am happier and healthier knowing this now.

~ Bruce

* PS. Neil, you were right.

“Hate”

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve been accused of hating anyone or anything, let alone spuriously, and I’m at odds to explain why other than perhaps my ever-shrinking Internet presence of the past 10 years. I’m not a bit enough win, I guess.

Over the period, I’ve had a fair bit of time to reflect on the matter. Particularly on the relatively futility entailed in letting someone else make it all about you, and then proceeding to defend your case.

Whether or not a given individual, in their heart of hearts, actually hates someone is usually pretty nebulous, even if they’re arguing in bad faith. It takes a truly bad actor – say a mugger or the like – to make the matter utterly unambiguous. Similarly, you have to be an unmitigated saint in order to disprove all but the most absurd of accusations, and it’s impractical to expect sainthood of anyone.

It’s largely a distraction. It’s a distraction if you’re unfairly accused. It’s a distraction if you’re fairly accused – the purity of your soul isn’t really salient if there are material consequences to be considered. Unless you’re appointed to some role with a duty of care to the alleged hated, if you’re just some schlub off of social media, or a writer with a small platform, what’ve people got resting on it?

And yet it’s easy to be distracted by it. Maybe you’ll kid yourself that the way past it is to argue through it, only realizing the conversational mobius loop you’ve slipped into after the fact. The return on all that effort is pretty damn nominal.

I’ve been watching people I follow on Twitter being drawn into discussions of “why wouldn’t you fuck people from group X?”, or less colorfully “what is your sexual preference”. We’re talking about sexuality, and the apparent expectation that people make themselves available to certain dating pools.

If I were to participate, I’d probably have to say that I’m Popperian about my sexuality: inductively, I’ve only ever been attracted to natal women, but if I were attracted to anyone outside that group I’d accept it as the proverbial black swan that disproved the hypothesis of my hetero-sexuality. Beyond that, in terms of civics, I’d assert that I’m not under any obligation to date anyone I’m not attracted to, or anyone I am attracted to, and that anyone who thought otherwise was exhibiting the kind of sexual entitlement bias that deserves the attention of a forensic psychiatrist.

Going by the way discussion has gone, this would variously be seen as evidence of a lack of hate, or evidence of hate. For the life of me, I don’t think this does demonstrate hate, but I can see how it’s not compelling as well – it doesn’t disprove hate.

And who’d want to get bogged down in that discussion? And why? And over Twitter?

And of course, while all this has been going on, people haven’t been able to talk about the other matters they’re interested in; mental health, discrimination, confounding variables in social science research, public safety and the common good, medicine, the ontology of protected groups and subsequent proposed demarcations, the trustworthiness of our government, the scope and function of medical organizations, and so on. (Who ever said Twitter was bad for this kind of thing, right?)

Bringing things back…

I have a kind of confidence, and maybe it’s an unearned confidence, and maybe it’s because I’m a white man going through all of this in easy mode, but my suspicion is this: if in future I don’t contest the matter of my own alleged hate, and just ask that we move on to the material stuff – the points of contention – I’m confident that the kinds of people that I want to reach are going to be less inclined to be mistaken about my hate that if I’d dug-in and defended myself.

Sadly, though, I can’t generalize this confidence in the form of advice for others. For one, I’ve seen enough lesbians maligned as malicious in the last three decades to suspect that they can’t expect the same good faith that I can, apparent progress over the years notwithstanding. A good part of Aboriginal activism in Australia has extended good faith towards white Australia in a way that hasn’t been reciprocated.

If popular morning television serves as a barometer, when Aboriginal Australia is accused of hate and white Australia’s vanity is served by this accusation, is it likely that yet more good faith from Aboriginal Australia is going to bring ordinary people around?

All the same, any issue of privilege not withstanding, I think I’m going to go with this confidence in future should I need to. “Okay, so say I’m a hater. What about the important details?”

If I’m a hater, and it matters that much to them, they can always unfollow me and not invite me to their birthday party. Beyond that, I can’t see that it matters terribly much – I don’t wield that much power.

~ Bruce

Don’t worry, sample bias will tell you

There’s a moderately funny joke that circulates in various iterations, depending on the context.

How do you know someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

The reason it’s funny is the same reason it stays funny when you sub-out “vegan” with “paleo”, “intersectionalist” and “into cross-fit”: there are obvious populations of very noisy and intrusive people who’ve adopted these terms as identity labels that they then bang on about ad nauseum at the expense of other people’s personal boundaries.

What could stay funny though, every now and then in conversation, takes a turn down a road where wanting there to be a more serious point to the joke, people find themselves winding up in silly-town.

I’m not going to get into the issue of that passive-aggressive damned-if-you-do type game where a person will pretend not to know they’re in the company of members of the group in question while uttering the joke – all before lying in wait to pounce with a “that proves it!” when someone in said group outs themselves by responding*. Sure, that’s dirty pool, and it’s probably interesting to consider why these passive-aggressives think they’re being clever, but it’s not what this post is about.

This isn’t a “not all vegans et. al.” diversion either. Some people have serious grievances with behaviour coming out of these groups. I don’t want to negate or derail those discussions, at least in as far as they’re serious. This isn’t about that.

What I am on about, and what strikes me as odd, is when some people – scientifically literate people – utter this joke and then go on to treat it as roughly emblematic of serious social science as if the sample bias wasn’t glaringly obvious.

”Aha! But why is it that when I notice a vegan et. al., they’re always being noisy?!?”

Because you don’t notice the quiet ones as easily. Because they’re quiet. Your measurements are being thrown off. All the pieces of your answer are in the joke. Pay attention.

Why would a person with a particular interest in drawing attention to sample bias – especially sample bias in social science – fail to notice this? And why would anyone feel they need this to be more than a joke, even if they were motivated by defensiveness?

It’s not as if criticism leveled at these groups depends on the joke. If you can’t find decent quantitative research on vegans et. al. behaving badly, there’s plenty of material waiting around for qualitative analysis just on Facebook alone. And if you can get decent quantitative research, the joke’s made less than redundant.

Nothing’s hanging on the joke’s literal truth, so why so serious?

There’s another transgression in all of this, and I’ve possibly given an example of it here myself: killing a perfectly serviceable joke by taking it too seriously.

The take-home, I think, is that ideally “chill out, it’s just a joke” should apply equally to the people telling it, too. That and perhaps a few folks need to stop pretending they haven’t left their science hat at home.

~ Bruce

* I’m inclined to append a disclaimer to this post, but…

A few things I’d appreciate from future (post) election coverage

At the time of writing, it’s been a couple of hours since the scale of the swing to the Libs in Queensland became apparent, and to my mind, I reckon the Libs will be returned with a minority government. Not what I wanted, but I’ll learn to live with it. I don’t reckon Western Australia or the Northern Territory will swing it back to Labor. South Australia certainly won’t.

Either way, even if we don’t wind up with a Morrison government, there are a number of things about political discussion I’d like to see changing.

No More Petty Silver Linings

So Tony Abbott has lost his seat. Great. I guess. Is this going to influence policy terribly much? Because if it doesn’t change things for the better, it’s just a symbolic victory. Which is to say it’s not an actual victory.

When Howard lost his seat, I felt non-plussed, and now I’m clearer as to why; change was already overdetermined owing to swings in other seats, rendering Howard’s loss an irrelevancy. Nipple-twiddling over his political demise was pointless and childish.

Whatever you earn in the form of a morale boost is lost on alienating people who aren’t interested in political blood sport.

I regret my past involvement in similar episodes of pettiness.

Less preaching to the choir

This applies mainly to partisan outlets, or at least those with a bit of a leaning. The choir are going to believe what they want, dismissing what they don’t want to hear and exaggerating the importance of confirmatory news. These people don’t want to be informed, can’t be meaningfully informed beyond a certain point, so what’s the point of trying?

Okay, maybe to some extent outlets have to do this as a part of their business model, but if it could be kept to an minimum, that’d be great.

Cant

The accusation of “pandering” that gets thrown around by alt-right types isn’t entirely without merit. Sure, they often deploy it when its not true, and even when true, it’s usually a disingenuous means of dismissing information and argument out of hand.

That doesn’t mean that pandering doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean that alt-right are the only ones with a problem with it.

When pandering comes in the form of the uncritical and rote use of theory-heavy (and often co-opted) lexicon – “hey woke people, you know I’m one of you because I use the words” – it’s alienating. Nobody much wants to spend time learning to talk like one of the cool kids. They want you to get to your point with a bit of economy.

You’d think, for example, with the way some authors write, that the assumptions of Queer Theory were un-contentious a priori truths, necessary for the welfare and liberation of gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people. It’s almost as if some authors don’t realize that activism for gays, lesbians, intersex and trans people predates Queer Theory by decades, or that Queer Theory has actually elicited honest disagreement from progressive activists over the years.

The uncritical use of the folk versions of this kind of lexicon carries with it the (usually unexamined) implication that all of the disagreements have been settled, and material differences resolved, and pandering to the people who insist on this – effectively an erasure of movement history – can get downright toxic. Orwellian, even.

The average punter may not know the particular movement history, or even how to find it, but at the very least this kind of thing does tend to generate a gut-feel that undermines trust.

(I’m wondering if in the same vein as the term “scientism”, we need a word for the over-extension of concepts from literary criticism – but that’d just be more cant, wouldn’t it?)

Less gimmicky bs

I’m not going to nab a picture of it, because it’s too damn tacky for even me to post; that picture of the ABC politics team photoshopped as The Avengers. Gimme a fucking break, please, ABC. I take you seriously. Please do the same.

Letting News Ltd. die a quiet death

News Ltd. has slid into irrelevance. So once all the analysis of their decline is over, we won’t need to talk about them so much in future, right?

What’s the point of gloating? There are newer sources of misinformation out there that are shaping up to be much more dangerous than News Ltd is ever likely to be again – dangerous both to our everyday lives, and to our democratic institutions.

Trying to get one-up on your racist uncle at Christmas isn’t worth it, and prosecuting a grudge in the media for much the same reason is even worse. The public doesn’t need the importance of discredited news outlets being artificially inflated at the expense of more salient issues.

Post-electoral scapegoating

I suspect the public are pretty sick of this kind of thing, even, if not especially, from the parties and political poles they voted against. It’s bad enough when it comes from the floor, or the comments section, but when it’s journalists on Twitter, or tribal wankers writing in literary journals, it’s no favour to the public interest either.

So you lost? Who are we going to blame this time? Women, for provoking angry men simply by existing? Jews for not shutting up about antisemitism in the ranks? A lack of absolute ideological loyalty from allies, voters, volunteers and party members who never owed you that kind of loyalty to begin with? People who asked awkward questions at meetings and public forums that they were very well entitled to ask? People who didn’t see your glorious leader as some charismatic saviour?

All these and more, even when your losses could very well have been overdetermined by things like gerrymandering and voter suppression?

”Too many party members lack my moral clarity and sense of purpose, otherwise we would have made the right choices and our destiny would have been assured!”

No really, fuck off.

Take the loss and stop looking for ways to frame it on ideological or tribal impurities. At the very least, please consider getting out of the way of others on your team who aren’t such raving egoists.

Morose, misanthropic ideating

No, next-to-nobody likes Scott Morrison. Please, no whining that Australians love Scott Morrison. If a service station hotdog won a culinary event when the alternative was a shit sandwich, you wouldn’t conclude that people love service station hotdogs.

This isn’t to call Bill Shorten or anyone else a shit sandwich. What it is, is to say that it’s a fair observation to make that no Australian politicians are widely loved. So let’s not pretend that’s an issue in play, please.

Maybe Labor could do with replacing Bill Shorten. Maybe the Australian public could become better judges of character. Maybe the Australian public could curb its appetite for lively reality-tv-like characters.

Whatever the case, hyperventilating about the shortcomings of the Australian public, to the extent of peddling obvious falsehoods, isn’t going to do anyone any favours, least of all yourself – you’re harder to take seriously that way.

***

This is a non-exhaustive list, of course. But damn, political discussion would be a whole lot less alienating – at least from my perspective – if the above weren’t as common as they are.

~ Bruce

Liberal philosophers in the public arena

I don’t want to start by invoking that cliché about philosophers living in ivory towers, because largely it’s bullshit. People from given backgrounds are going to have tendencies in common with their peers, and sometimes these tendencies are going to be flaws that set them somewhat apart, sure. But you’d be wrong on the basis of that to try writing philosophers off as having nothing useful to say.

That being said, it’s sometimes painful to watch some of these flaws relating to public discourse play out over and again. In one form or another, I’ve seen all of the below instantiate at least a few times over the past decade, and it’s never satisfying. Even if only due to the medium it’s conveyed through, apart from confirmation of the dire, nobody seems to get much out of the exchange. With a real turn towards authoritarianism being evident in public debate, this worries me now more than ever.

***

As a rule – a loose one – philosophers, in their own domains, aren’t as prone to the same argumentative indulgences the rest of us take for granted. They are, for one, supposed to be more charitable when arguing with their interlocutors; instead of erecting a straw man of an opposing position, you erect a better version of it – a steel man.

However, when you’re dealing with canny, and/or unscrupulous sorts – people who would deny the truth of their politics without a second thought – the steel man can end up being tantamount to bullshit, if not a lie.

“Obviously he’s not talking about sending literal ethnic groups to the ovens. Perhaps he’s talking about conceptual races of ginger bread men! Yes! That’s it!”

There are few things more tragic than a naïve, liberal philosopher, over-generalizing their principles in practice, ultimately to the benefit of thinly-disguised grifters and fascists who’ll subvert and violate those very principles. That is except perhaps when didactically, they enjoin the rest of us to do the same as if we should be ashamed not to.

“How dare you suggest this man with a thesis explicitly promoting fascism is a fascist?! You’re just trying to limit his participation in public discourse through the use of smears!” – An obvious exaggeration, but you get the point.

Dear liberal philosophers, they can see you coming a mile away. You, and your vanity. The grifters, the narcs, the totalitarians, the authoritarians, the anti-vaxxers and other kooks; they know how you want to be seen and have no compunction about leading you into a state of contradiction. They can intuit that you’ll be blind to such self-contradiction, too, if your self-image is involved.

The fact that con artists hide their intentions is axiomatic, and the fact that fascists try doing the same up until the point that they’re confident of seizing power is well established. The fact that hypocritically crying “free speech” and playing the victim goes some way to helping them increase their power doesn’t help matters either.

None of this, of course, diminishes the importance of free speech. It’s just that it’s good to know who actually supports it.

My suggestion here is that it’d be good for philosophers operating in the political arena to consider themselves as much laypersons as the rest of us when it comes to spotting malice, and not to treat public spaces as places akin to their own classrooms. This isn’t to say to give the benefit of the doubt, but rather, not to be overly dismissive of the concerns of the normies when it comes to bad actors.

***

Then there’s the philosopher-on-philosopher, or inter-academic bun fights enacted through political proxies in the public eye. These are a spectacle to watch if you can avoid getting involved (which is hard to manage if you have a nagging conscience and a means to express yourself).

It’s weird what gets dropped from an argumentative repertoire when particular bugbears come into play.

Tell me, if you can, when Dan Dennett last used the four rules he adapted from Anatol Rapoport, when disagreeing with feminists or their allies. I’d almost settle for anything more than sniping. (And not that I have a problem with people getting stuck into the post-modern, but if Dennett was to follow his own rules outside of academe, you’d think he’d at least define “postmodernism” before commenting on it – ala say, this).

Of course, Dennett’s hardly the first person to forget their principles in a political argument. Humans in general have that failing, sadly. Even the least-crummy of our species.

Again, the bad actors can see this coming a mile away. If you think a canny apath or demagogue can’t see Dennett’s liberal hubris, and imagine a way to exploit it, you’re misguided. It’s Dennett’s minimal engagement in political discussion that mitigates this risk, but ideally non-participation isn’t the measure you’d want to use to do that.

***

I’m beginning to think it may be grounds for an Internet law: The more emotionally invested a philosopher’s online extolling of a given principle is, the more likely it is that they’ve take advantage of unjustified exceptions to it. And by “emotionally invested” I don’t necessarily mean a material interest, but rather a propensity for getting worked-up; red-faced and spittle-flecked, even if they don’t have any skin in it.

Political arguments on the Internet, being what they are, are fertile ground for this kind of failing.

I once knew a philosopher who’d go on at length about the tyranny of the majority, not just in terms of voting and state power, but in terms of suppression by private means; prevailing public opinion, political pressure and bullies. In the abstract at least, I agreed with him, and still do. In practice though, too often I can’t. I can’t generalize his sentiment, because he doesn’t apply it generally.

It’s no secret that in Western nations, atheist and rationalist communities tend be male-dominated, not just statistically, but in terms of power. It’s also no secret that within a number of these communities, there have been outbreaks of harassment targeted at women; death threats, rape threats, stalking, publication of home addresses with clear intent to incite further harassment.

Further, arising from this culture of nastiness, women, for the simple crime of speaking up, could find themselves blacklisted or subject to petitions calling for their exclusion from publication.

You’d think that someone who was deeply concerned about the effect that tyranny of the majority can have on open discussion, would be worried by the potential for suppression in a scenario like this. Well, yes and no. According to former philosopher friend, it was the very minority targeted with harassment that were stifling free speech. They were the bullies, allegedly. They supposedly had the weight of popular opinion behind them, even if readily available indicators of Internet traffic overwhelmingly said otherwise. They were the majority. They were the tyrants.

(Don’t bother pointing out that most men in atheist circles don’t behave like this. While likely true, former philosopher friend had a habit of treating silent bystanders as a part of the majority, in this case and in others, so your objection would be beside the point. To be consistent, he’d had to have called it in favor of the marginalized feminists, not the wealthy men with large fan bases.)

It probably didn’t help that former philosopher friend’s enthusiasm wasn’t distinct from his material interests, though. It’s always a bad look to run apologetics for a faction that allows poor behaviour, while simultaneously sniffing around its members for favorable blurbs for or reviews of your books.

In the public sphere, philosophy can get ugly. And stupid.

***

Separating the character of the person saying a thing from the thing they’re saying is a nice distinction to make if what you’re interested in is pure argument. If you can manage it, and you’re in the place for it, then yeah; great. The practicalities of advocacy in the public sphere don’t work like that, though.

Maybe you’ll criticize people for going the ad hom or tu quoque. Fair enough. They’re fallacies for a reason. Argumentational fuck-ups.

Maybe you’ll criticize folks for being too politically pure, too vain, for dismissing a truth told by a flawed person. And maybe you’ll be right. It happens. It happens too damn often, truth be told.

It’s also possible though, that making a distinction between interlocutor and argument is itself something that’s possible to be too pure, and too vain about.

“I distinguish between the truth of this statement, and the deplorable character of the person making it! The two aren’t contingent! Look at how rational I am!”

Well whoop-dee-doo. Here’s a cigar. Maybe you’ll tell folks to be more rational too, because that always works.

A couple of practical questions back on the topic of liberalism, again: Is it reasonable to expect that people will be convinced of the worth of free speech by an argument where the very advocates for free speech you cite clearly don’t believe in free speech themselves? Is it reasonable to expect that people will be compelled when they have grounds for just the reasonable suspicion that your sources don’t actually find free speech plausible, or are at best, actually ambivalent about it?

We’re talking ordinary members of the public here, not your students. Not people looking for a grade or for an academic pat on the head. And to be clear I’m not expecting perfection here; my choice of “clearly” and “reasonable suspicion” above are deliberate.

Advocacy for free speech in the public sphere is a practical concern. Something that may not matter to the truth state of a claim may very well decide the outcome of a given outreach effort in service to that claim. An interlocutor may not follow your logic, but may be an excellent judge of character, and to some extent, of who not to trust. Your being naïve about your allies and colleagues may not help in light of this – it may expose you as a rube, and paint your cause as untrustworthy.

I don’t know about you lot, but at the end of it all, I’d still rather live in a world where free speech exists, than live in a world where it doesn’t, but where philosophers can virtue signal to each other that they’ve all discussed the matter with the utmost purity of argument, in accordance with convention.

Accommodations must be made, but that works both ways. Liberal philosophers are going to have to sacrifice some of their academic sensibilities, at least when asking for the ears of the non-philosophers out there.

***

It’s generally good form, in terms of being compelling, to start out with your agreements before going on to state your disagreements. It’s also good form for philosophers to not be compelled by these kinds of tactics, so I’m going to give myself a pass here. My agreements, hence, are up-back.

Philosophers are more than welcome in public discussion; they’re needed. We wouldn’t have rights to discuss in the first place without philosophy. We wouldn’t have science, and hence the Internet we furiously tweet over, without philosophy. We couldn’t debate the worth of philosophy without philosophy, if only because debating the worth and role of philosophy is philosophy. And this is before even considering philosophers’ right to participate as human beings (or p-zombies).

Perhaps, intellectually, we’re heading for, or are already in another dark age. There’s clearly a lot to decry about the current state of public discussion, and obviously philosophy has a lot to say about it.

But the discussion between philosophers and the general public won’t ever approach academic perfection. Not only is the general public not a part of the academy, not only does a good portion of the general public lack a desire to be a part, it has every right to expect not to be. Philosophers can make a contribution, but they can’t set the terms of discussion without the requisite social contract. Which. They. Don’t. Have.

So perhaps philosophers need to leave the academic peacocking out back, and learn to know where they are and who they’re chatting with a bit better? And maybe leave Stompy McRagespittle off the team until he’s had the requisite therapy and/or shots?

~ Bruce

A Stroll Along Linear Park

Back in 2004 I used to take my canid little fella Joe for walks along The River Torrens / Karrawirra Parri between Klemzig and Athelstone. For legal and environmental reasons, his ashes weren’t spread there, but otherwise I would have liked to have done that. It’s a good spot for a dog, which you’ll discover for yourself if you go for a walk there yourself and meet the many good doggos.

On the 13th of this month, I went for such a walk myself and took a few snaps.

Admittedly, the subject of the first photo is something I’ve long considered an eyesore. But don’t worry; it gets better.

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01 - AoG

“Influencers”, formerly Paradise Community Church, formerly Assembly of God Paradise, is one of the Hillsong Family of Churches. Don’t bother trying to form an ecclesiastical Venn diagram in your head – just remember it’s an Evans family gig. The same dank humus that Family First (now rolled into Australian Conservatives) grew from.

Years and years ago, we had to put up with “motivational speakers” organized by this church turning up to the public high school I finished my secondary schooling at – which included a visit by one Dave Roever of nutty Satanic Panic and Divine Destiny meeting fame. The Muslim students weren’t too impressed, as you can imagine. Nor were the Atheists among us.

That’s enough outrage. Time for something soothing.

Continue reading “A Stroll Along Linear Park”

Imagined History of a Never-Was: “New Atheism”

church-53192_640Jacob Hamburger writes over at The Point, asking what the New Atheism even was. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since Gary Wolf resurrected the term at Wired in 2006 in his oft-cited essay. Asking and mostly getting the same answer, over and over.

There’s really only one position in relation to “New Atheism” that I’ve ever been completely comfortable with: that it doesn’t exist, that it never existed, and that the term was a snarl word that only functioned rhetorically. The phrase “Gnu Atheism”, an altogether un-serious mutation of the term born a few years later out of a scam that snared journalist and vocal critic Chris Mooney, always seemed a far better candidate to be taken seriously, despite its obvious satirical bend.

People using the term almost only ever define themselves in relation to the “New Atheism”, rather than in the affirmative. Who called themselves a “New Atheist”? A notable exception would be the late Victor Stenger, who seemed quite innocently unable to realize how odd he was in doing so. Mostly the meaning of the term shifted and slid according to the short term requirements of authors and pundits.

One day Daniel Dennett could have been a “New Atheist”, and the next a bulwark against it. The critique was folly. “New Atheism” was a shadow puppet.

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Supposedly coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf at Wired, the term was used much earlier in 1986 by Robert Morey in his “New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom”, and possibly earlier than that again. Tacking a “new” onto the start of any “ism” being an old formula that’s sadly never gone stale.

Wolf’s article is more restrained than either Morey’s thesis, or any number of the jeremiads using the term that would follow. He focused on three authors, none who called themselves “New Atheists”; Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris. This was shortly before Christopher Hitchens had entered the fray.

It’s weird, even humorous that Wolf invoked the late Paul Kurtz in contrast to the “New Atheists”, then of the Centre For Inquiry. In the 1980s, the afore mentioned Morey was lambasting Kurtz himself as one of the “New Atheists”. It was an old game and one Kurtz would have been aware of, especially on account of the matter of stridency; the man was a supporter and friend of the not-exactly-timid Madalyn Murray O’Hair who also came in for a smearing in Morey’s tome.

Criticisms of Dawkins, typical of the time, came down to him being “strident”, and being incapable of alliances with liberal-minded Christians (despite his cooperation with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the matter of creationism in schools). When you strip away the objections based on fiction, you were basically left with tone, which doesn’t have very much meat to it as far as purported ideological demarcations go. Anything that foreshadowed “Dear Muslima” was thin on the ground.

Wolf seemed even less capable of presenting a meaningful difference between Dennett and the likes of Kurtz.

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Lashings of embellishments from a variety of authors in the following years didn’t flesh things out any further.

“They’re logical positivists!” (No “they” weren’t).

“They want to destroy Christian culture!” (Basically a re-branded War on Christmas fiction for people who imagined they were above Fox News).

“They support the Iraq War!” (Mostly “they” didn’t).

“Scientism!” (Having a poor conception of the boundaries of science does not a scientismist make, and at any rate, Harris’ philosophical silliness wasn’t widely adopted by purported “New Atheists” anyway – not unless you tweaked your definitions to perform an act of circular logic, at least.)

The worst part of these takes on the “New Atheism” though, wasn’t that they were untrue (although frequently they were). The worst part was that so little, if any of it, could be used as demarcation criteria. And when it was a suitable for demarcation, you’d find “New Atheism” being split off into other categories.

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Even in the early days there was a whiff of sexism about the scene you couldn’t easily deny; Dawkins’ lilting waffle about the gentler sex; Harris’ bias for male pronouns; more overtly, Hitchens calling the Dixie Chicks “fucking fat slags”. Aside from how conspicuous it is that people wanting to bury the “New Atheism” at the time buried the lede on this one, this is still insufficient to demonstrate that there is (or was) a “New Atheism”. How would this sexism set the “New” apart from the “Old Atheism” – the old guard Wolf mentions?

Wolf wrote favorably about Asimov as an example of the old, but that guy was a complete shit to women; a serial groper, a condescending patriarch and completely unable to render women believably in fiction to boot. A demarcation criterion needs to be able to make a distinction, but “fucking fat slags” is a sentiment you could imagine ass-grabber Asimov getting behind, so sexism’s probably not going to do the job.

Maybe vanity and thin skin? No. I mean, Harris and Dawkins, and maybe Dennett could be accused of thin-skin, much like a number of other less known “New” atheists. But nice-guy Sagan’s “Butt-Head Astronomer” legal battle with Apple arguably tops any fit-of-pique the purported “New Atheism” could lay claim to.

Kurtz’s labelling of Ron Lindsay’s management style as Stalinist seems grounded in vanity as well. And the criticism of offensive cartoons – something he himself presided over but overlooked in a way suggestive of preening – brings us neatly back to the issue of confected difference.

The function of the “New Atheist” trope, at least from the secular progressive side, isn’t primarily to critique atheists. It’s a tool by which authors write about themselves in negative relief, a direct approach to extolling their own virtues being far too obvious. “Look at the New Atheism! [I’m not like that! Allow me to list the qualities I don’t have!]”

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Back to Hamburger: So what came of “it”?

Hitchens is dead, for one. I think he would have objected to Hamburger’s attribution of the idea of liberalism ideally being grounded in pure reason alone. It’s almost as if Hamburger missed the discussion of “rationalist naiveté” – and Hitchens proximity to that discussion. Only Hamburger’s focus on that period is quite extensive.

And why the weird narrative tales? Non-belief and scientific rationality only becoming political causes after Hitchens joined with Dawkins et. al.? Harris “founding” the “New Atheist” genre, as if the other books by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens weren’t authored independently? That’s not how it happened.

I don’t think Hamburger is being mendacious. I don’t even think he’s writing his essay in an attempt to position himself with readers in the way that PZ Myers’ recent testimony-cum-denouncement so obviously labours to do. In a way, I suspect he’s naively fallen into the same trap Victor Stenger did, albeit from the opposite end of the pit.

It is possible to be unwittingly maneuvered into writing this kind of thing even if you’ve only passively adopted just a few questionable assumptions in good faith.

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There are meaningful trends in the detritus of the readerships of the Usually Mentioned Atheists. You can find misogynists pretty easily. There’s a particular school of handwaving concerning the boundaries of science that’s been masquerading as clear and forthright ever since The Moral Landscape.

There’s been pride expressed over political ignorance and a related if often inverse dismissiveness regarding philosophical literacy. “You used a word that philosophers use! You’re one of those Politically Correct Ismists that are saying things! Now I know I can ignore you! Bwaha! You should leave the pub and leave me to stroke my most intelligent of beards!”

Depending on how the net has been cast, there are also more-or-less decent, more-or-less intelligent, and more-or-less anodyne sorts in there with more than salvageable ideas. But again, none of this is “New” and none of it is uniform across the purported “New Atheism”.

What can be done to collate meaning in all of this mess? Rather than giving the vague snarl word of “New Atheism” any serious coinage (or excessive dismissal in cases where no malice is evident), I think someone’s going to have to work out a taxonomy based on actual positions held, that actually matter taxonomically; something akin to John Nerst’s notion of the Pomo-oid Cluster, albeit for atheist authors post-2004. Or rather, someone should have tried this a long time ago.

Going beyond just the concept of a cluster and actually making a map of the territory would be immensely useful too, even if it wouldn’t take off in every-day conversation. At the very least people arguing in good faith could more easily avoid talking past each other, and a kind of convention for recognizing disingenuous railing against “New Atheists” could be more easily practiced.

As it stands, it’s too easy for woke-acting columnists to rail against “New Atheists” (The Guardian and Salon have offered up several examples over the years), just as it’s too easy for genuine criticism of atheist authors to be dismissed as disingenuous or hostile (which you can see for yourself if you crawl down this rabbit hole).

Forget how the various tribes of authors feel about this for a moment, and ask yourself “in a civil democracy, how does this particular form of ambiguity – this confected grouping – serve the public interest?”

~ Bruce