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

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