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.

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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

When requesting condemnation from Muslims…

Before I proceed, not as a caveat nor a qualifier, but because I haven’t said as much here as yet; the Charlie Hebdo shootings are unequivocally and without qualification, an atrocity. In as far as a meagre site like this, with its meagre traffic and meagre output can be capable of noticeably contributing to the global outpourings of sentiment, the editorial position at Rousing Departures is one of solidarity in freedom of expression, and sympathy for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. If anyone reading has a problem with this, or if they want to append a “…but” of their own, they should just walk away.

***

Don’t jump to conclusions on account of the title – condemnations of atrocities are always desirable. That being said, you can’t nor should you demand that any given person enact a condemnation.

When I condemn Islamist atrocities I do so for the obvious reason that they are ethically undesirable, and frankly, because it’s easy for someone in my position to do. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo staff, or Saudi Arabian atheists, or Sufis subject to Taliban rule, and unlike a whole range of other populations, I’m not under any threat of violence.

Some folk don’t seem to understand their own relative safety.

ruppie “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” – Rupert Murdoch.

An obvious retort (there are many), is that holding cancer victims responsible for treating themselves is more than a little silly. At the very least, this is a bad analogy, but then Rupert didn’t get his riches on account of his wits, so I guess we can’t expect any better.

A somewhat less obvious retort, although entirely more salient, is that Rupert’s prescription would have Sufis labouring to reform or repeal Wahhabism. Sufis who never blew or shot anyone up. Sufis who never contributed to Wahhabist theology or Islamist politics. Sufis who’s relationship with the excesses of Wahhabism/Islamism can simply be summed up as having been on the receiving of sectarian violence.

Before people start attributing responsibility for anything to Muslims, it’d first help to know about the various kinds of Islamic believers there are out there. Let Information Is Beautiful help you get started on that. (Keeping in mind, that not only do the various branches read their texts differently, but that they don’t all have the exact same religious texts*.)

It would also help, before asking anything of anyone, to make sure they aren’t already doing it. Just because you’ve never seen a Muslim condemn Islamist violence, doesn’t mean that such condemnation doesn’t happen – that’s the argument from ignorance right there.

Not only do many Muslims criticise Islamist terrorism, but they have sometimes been known to really rise to the occasion. This is desirable, and laudable, and very much so because such action is voluntary.

(And if you want to see a Muslim being really critical, you can always head to this arcane thing called the Internet to read such material. Hell, I’m pretty sure even old Rupert would love such reading, should he ever find it.)

***

If you’re going to frame your demands for condemnation under the banner of The West And Its Values, which you’re probably free to do if you’re in a position to make such demands, then you may want to actually be just a little in-touch with history. Let me furnish you with a few facts.

  • Fact: The Ottoman Empire, while certainly guilty of its own crimes, kept Wahhabism in check until the 20th Century. The West did not because the West just doesn’t factor in in the early history of Wahhabism. From the 20th Century onward, The West has been pretty rubbish at opposing Islamism.
  • Fact: Ideologically, modern Islamism syncretises doctrinal elements from certain Western values; specifically, those of Nazism/Fascism. (This is something, incidentally, that should obligate Western anti-Fascists to actually oppose Islamist groups, rather than voice solidarity with them).
  • Fact: Financially, Wahhabism and Islamism for the past few decades, have been propped-up by the Western hunger for oil. A hunger that has seen past Islamist/Wahhabist atrocities wilfully ignored by Western powers, as well as into the present in cases like that of Raif Badawi.

Perhaps, if you’ve owned a car over the last few decades, you’d like to reconsider your own responsibilities, given your own potential indirect funding of Islamic terrorist cells. Or perhaps you’ll review your patronage-by-extension of the regime responsible for atrocities during the Grand Mosque Seizure of 1979. Of course, such a likelihood is slim because the likelihood of substantial indirect financial contributions to these atrocities by Westerners increases with wealth/fossil fuel use – right Rupert?

(Before turning a blind eye to Islamist extremism became the hypocrisy of choice for a portion of the post-Soviet-era Western left, this was the right’s stock in trade**).

I don’t mention any of this to denigrate The West, and I certainly do hold the Enlightenment values of tolerance dear; values that stand on their merits. But I do have to state that I can’t empathise with people invoking these values for the sake of having something to brag about or barrack for. While these values permit triumphalism, they’re not about triumphalism, and it’s not like any of us are Enlightenment intellectuals capable of taking credit anyway.

This kind of thing seems suspect to me, and has a whiff of hypocrisy about it – do these Brave Heros of The West really hold these values dear, or are they just playing Dungeons and Dragons? And as with connecting ordinary Western motorists with Wahhabist oil barons, the basis for targeting average every-day Muslims with charges of responsibility seems incredibly tenuous.

***

As alluded to earlier, you have to consider the risk speaking out would subject Muslims to; consider the distribution of terrorist attacks.

A thought experiment: Would you really demand that a gay Sufi from Şanlıurfa Province in the south-east of Turkey, come out to denounce ISIS, on pain of being tarred a sympathiser by avid readers of The Sun? How would you weigh their responsibility for ISIS against the risks involved?

On the other hand, it would hardly be beyond the pale to argue with some sheltered, never-vilified, can-always-run-back-to-their-parents, with-it white dude from the upper-middle-class suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, over their newly found religious affiliation with radical Salafism. This could hardly be any worse than giving someone an earful for joining Golden Dawn or One Nation. Not everyone is free to toy with their religious identity like this, and not everyone faces the same consequences, nor indeed, the consequences of their own ideological choices.

Between these extremes there is a whole lot of context, and the details matter.

***

During the time I’ve been gasbagging over these things, no doubt know-nothings will have had their egos stroked and their anxieties soothed at their regular pub, no doubt trolls will have frothed in the comments sections online, and no doubt other atrocities will be hypocritically overlooked by too many of those demanding condemnation, as well as those engaging in apologetics.  No doubt more Muslims will have taken to the streets in protest. No doubt Muslims like Tehmina Kazi will have spent more of their time directing their liberal-secularist organisations in light of all the horror and pontificating.

All without thanks or acknowledgement from certain quarters, no doubt. Quarters that require both left and right eyes to see.

~ Bruce

* Spare me the No True Scotsman Fallacy – pretending that All True Muslims read all the same texts, all the same way, is a fatuous observation to make when you don’t use the same criteria in identifying Muslims to hold responsible in the first place.

** Which is probably as good a juncture as any to suggest that people look into the writings of Kanan Makiya, giving special consideration to how he was a darling of the left prior to the collapse of the USSR, and thrown under the bus afterward. Even if you’re not going to go away sold on ideas like interventionist regime change, Makiya’s writing is a necessary challenge to endure if you aspire to be well read on such matters.

The free speech thing…

Disclosure: Andrew Bolt is a part of my extended family, not that I’ve even met him in person. There’s not much more to it than that.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford ponders the state of discussion about freedom of speech in Australia, following the result of the recent case of Eatock vs. Bolt. I tend to think the discussion has been pretty dismal.

First of all, let me say I don’t feel at all sorry for Andrew Bolt.

I think that the article in question that sparked the case was reprehensible. Bad journalism. Lazy with the facts. Defamatory.

The legalities of the case aside (details of the act, potential for establishing precedent etc.), in terms of consequences, I don’t think Andrew’s got much to complain about. He’s not had to withdraw the article from online publication. He’s still out there banging on about the same stuff as before. All the Herald Sun has been ordered to do is to publish a correction to the details that are known to be factually incorrect.

The Herald Sun is paying the legal fees, not Andrew. The Herald Sun is no doubt getting a lot of attention over all of this. Really, it’s hard to see this as not being a PR exercise for News Limited, who’ve been generating and manipulating controversy to their own ends for a very long time (as recent news attests to).

A case of legal fees tantamount to advertising costs.

I’m agitated by the hypocritical News Ltd line, that what we’re seeing here is the birth of some kind of martyrdom to political correctness. This from the stable who remains silent while academic Julie Posetti is currently left waiting for another two months, under threat of curious defamation allegations brought by The Australian’s editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell.

Honestly, go and have a look at this article, while paying attention to the rotating promotional device in the top right hand corner. Reading Kemp’s article makes it all the more laughable.

Irony, your name is News…

As Blackford points out, Bolt has form on special prohibitions against free speech for artistic expression when it comes to Bill Henson. (It’s also a curious inversion, that David Marr should author a book defending Henson’s freedom of expression, while being so quick to decide that Andrew Bolt’s freedom of expression wasn’t to be concerned about).

I could go on. I’ve been reading these articles since the verdict, and the hypocrisy and in-house double standards have been mind-blowing, appalling even.

Then there’s the honest, genuine issue of free speech, which is often either being overlooked, or sidelined in fits of sanctimony.

The point of this is not that nothing should have happened, that Bolt’s antics shouldn’t have had consequences, not even legal ones. The concern is, and it keeps getting (deliberately?) overlooked, over and over again, that the threshold in the Racial Discrimination Act for what construes a transgression is perhaps set too low (‘offense’ rather than ‘harm’ as in defamation law), and the terminology is too vague (what precisely is meant by ‘offense’?)

Perhaps if procedural concerns hadn’t influenced options the way they had, perhaps if Bolt were instead taken to court on grounds of defamation, the result would have been much the same (the judge said as much). I don’t think people with free speech concerns like Russell Blackford, or Legal Eagle, would have had quite the same concerns if things had proceeded down such a route.

And I don’t see the expressed concerns being sated by mere mention of the judge’s capacity to manage balancing freedom of speech with just consideration of the nature of the offense. The concern seems to me, not that the balancing act was or was not well measured, but that there was too much leeway given to the judge (and to any judge hearing such a case) in the first place.

Is nobody thinking of the potential for this to backfire? Surely if Bolt’s attitude to ‘Welcome to Country’ is any indicator of the mood amongst the white-right-and-in-large-print, there’s the motivation for this to happen.

Consider some context from overseas…

‘During the year in which Michigan’s speech code was enforced, more than twenty blacks were charged – by whites – with racist speech. As Strossen notes, not a single instance of white racist speech was punished.’

(‘Critical Race Theory and Freedom of Speech’, The Future of Academic Freedom, Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1996.)

The racist speech in question causing offense rather than harm, on campus, during the period of Strossen’s campaigning against the speech codes with the ACLU in the late 80s, and early 90s. Yeah I know, those poor white college dudes getting it stuck to them by the ACLU once again. It’s political correctness gone mad… or something.

With the law as loose as it is, with judges left with a wide, vague scope in which to find balance, with Bolt (and ideological kin) trying to pass themselves off as the non-racist, unifying force in Australian identity politics, and with a right-wing media inconsistent about defending free-speech, I would have thought there’d be reason to worry about Aboriginal Australian activists potentially being targeted, and silenced with, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Perhaps all it would take is a single scathing criticism, of a single privileged white male editor with an overblown sense of entitlement, by a single black activist, for a case to be made and for discussion to be shut down. Perhaps this, or perhaps any other heated discussion of race and racism, especially where disadvantage of one kind or another could also hinder participation. Consider who’s more likely to be able to afford expensive legal fees (tantamount to advertising costs).

I guess it could all depend on how well Section 18D mitigates against the vagaries surrounding ‘offense’, although by that point you could already be in court and the damage could be done. Just because someone can defend and win, notionally, doesn’t mean that all is right and well. People can be harassed with the threat of merely being taken to court – harassed into silence no matter what their prospects of winning the case.

(This capacity for silencing reminds me, from memory, of the ‘good faith’ defense against sedition in the amendments in the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005, where the accused is to provide proof of their own good faith).

I’ve seen Aboriginal activists get heated in discussion before, and make an error of fact or two, and in ways that would likely offend any number of delicate white people. But I wouldn’t want to see them harassed into silence over it. There is a right to a margin of error in these things, because ultimately error is unavoidable in public debate unless you withdraw from it altogether (which is the threat from this kind of thing we’re talking about).

The thing is, when it comes to error, 18D seems vague as well, the seemingly most relevant defense being…

… a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

(Racial Discrimination Act 1975 – Sect 18D)

Fair by what criteria? Two out of three ain’t bad? And how do you test that an expression of belief is genuine? Dunk ’em in water and see if they sink?

(And I’m not sure about this – perhaps someone can fill me in – but in which way does the burden of proof lie in these particular matters. Is bad faith assumed until proven otherwise?)

There needs to be some room for error in these discussions (not that I suspect this would get Bolt off the hook – that was  some bad journalism), but the act seems to leave things wide open to be determined on a rather ad hoc basis.

***

Again, the point is not about denying Ms Eatock justice, or getting Bolt off the hook. The concern is the law, and how it could pan out in an array of cases, and whether this is a good thing.

Honestly, I’m a bit disturbed at how quickly people have been drawing such all-encompassing conclusions, so soon after the verdict. That, and disturbed by how quick some of them have been to dismiss, and misrepresent, and adduce all sorts of motives in other people, just for the expression of some degree of concern over some aspect of the case (and don’t get me started on the ‘absolute free speech’ strawman – precisely none of the people I’ve seen expressing considered concerns believes in absolutely, unqualified, unfettered free speech*).

The discussion of free speech in Australia is depressing. Our public intellectuals leading the discussion have been woefully disappointing.

~ Bruce

* I don’t believe in absolute free speech myself. There are exceptions to be made (Millian corn sellers etc.). I’m grateful when people realise this, or ask, rather than just assume.

Update: Prior to the final draft/publication of this post, but after the bulk of this article was written, Russell Blackford published his thoughts on the matter at length. Notably, he argues that 18D was interpreted too narrowly by the judge.