Friday, February 23, 2018

When to engage

Elizabeth Barnes has a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on an important topic: when is it a good idea to engage in a serious way with harmful and offensive ideas? Barnes draws a distinction between, on the one hand, Peter Singer’s discussions of the value of disabled people, and on the other, a hypothetical philosophical argument in favour of rape. She finds both stances morally problematic, offensive, and pretty clearly false, but sees value in engaging with the former, but not with the latter. The difference lies the opinions of people at large. As Barnes puts it: “A pro-rape argument isn’t an important ‘option on the table’ in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one”; by contrast, Singer’s view about disabled people reflect widespread assumptions.

I like Barnes’s piece, and I think her strategy of looking beyond views’ intrinsic features to social facts about how views are distributed, is a sensible and correct one. (I wrote something making a similar point a little while back.) That said, I think I have a couple of points of disagreement about how this kind of framework plays when we look to specifics.

First, consider again the contrast Barnes draws between the view-to-be-engaged (disabled people are less valuable) and the view-to-be-shunned (rape is fine): Singer’s views follow naturally from widespread casual remarks; pro-rape arguments aren’t really on the table. But this isn’t a dichotomy. It is possible for a view to follow naturally from widespread remarks and thoughts, and also to not really be on the table in academic discourse. Indeed the example of a pro-rape stance is I think quite a lot like this. Barnes is right that it’s not “on the table”—it is a sociological fact about academia that it’s the kind of view that a lot of people will feel fine rejecting out of hand without even listening to arguments about it. But this isn’t, I think, because it is so alien to many ordinary people’s unreflective assumptions.

It is true that, in polite company, people don’t go around saying outright that sexual assault is fine. But as Barnes points out, this is no contrast with the disability case:
“Most people would, of course, be far too polite to say what Singer says. But Singer’s claims about the comparative value of disabled lives follow naturally from the casual remarks that disabled people and caregivers hear all the time.”
Barnes is surely right about this, but this does not seem to mark a difference from the rape case. Just as every disabled person, and everyone engaging in public discourse about disability, has heard casual remarks that reflect something like Singer’s ideas, so too has every sexual assault survivor and anti-rape activist heard many casual remarks reflective of the tolerance, or even the celebration, of sexual assault. (This pretty much just is the idea that we live in a rape culture.)

And I’m not only talking about the dark corners of 4chan or the metablog. I’m also talking about the President of the United States. Also the professional philosophers in good academic standing who argued that lots of us were overreacting to the Al Franken allegations, because after all, she had voluntarily posed in sexy photoshoots on other occasions. Published work in academia isn’t insulated from rape culture either. While it’s true that nobody who wants to be taken seriously can run around literally saying “rape is good”, there is no shortage of people of academic stature pushing the boundaries—witness Jordan Peterson’s charge of hypocrisy against women who say they don’t want to be sexually harassed, and yet wear makeup to work. Witness Laura Kipnis's reflective distrust of students making harassment complaints against professors.

So insofar as there is a difference between the cases Barnes mentions, I don’t think it’s that one of them fails to tap into an important set of widespread scripts and assumptions. I suspect that the difference may be more contingent than that. Here is my hypothesis: the difference is Peter Singer himself. When an eloquent and celebrated, highly credentialed Ivy-league professor with a serious track record of important scholarly work says it’s better for a disabled infant to be killed, this by itself has the effect of putting that view on the table. This is one of the social powers of public intellectuals.

If someone of Singer’s stature were explicitly defending rape, I do think that would have the unfortunate result of entering that view into the domain of ideas competing for our attention. We can ignore it on r/TheDonald, but if it’s published in Ethics we’d better show up. I’d also like to add a word about what I mean by ‘showing up’. I think I’m interested in a slightly different category of responses than Barnes is. Here’s how she puts her topic:

“When I talk about engaging with ideas, I mean taking ideas seriously — discussing and citing them, having them presented at conferences, responding to them in print or at symposia, and so on. There are separate questions that arise, such as whether academic freedom should protect them (surely it should) or whether they should be taught in the classroom (surely that depends on all sorts of complicated factors, including the size and level of the class, the students enrolled, your pedagogical aims, and your teaching style). And there’s also the issue of how non-academics respond to scholars who defend controversial ideas. (Disability-rights organizations regularly protest Singer’s public lectures, for example.) Here, though, I want to focus specifically on how scholars interact with ideas that many consider harmful, demeaning, or offensive.”
Scholars are people, and what we do and how we respond isn’t exhausted by what we say in print and in colloquia. So in addition to the question about what we’re going to cite and publish in our academic output, we also face the question of what we’re going to say to our colleagues on facebook, or how we’re going to discuss other scholars’ views with our students. Collectively there is a lot of ‘soft power’ to be wielded concerning what we as a discipline consider to be a normal defence of a philosophical stance, and what we consider to be beyond the pale.

Barnes is exercising some of that power in her Chronicle piece when she calls Singer’s views offensive, and describes the emotional toll that comes from engaging them. She, like the disability rights activists who routinely protest Singer’s talks, is contributing to a cultural pressure against defending such ideas. (I think this is a perfectly reasonable thing for her to be doing.)

One last observation. (This is already much longer than I intended it to be!) I think that the central questions here about when it is valuable or important to engage with offensive ideas, and when it is better to ignore them, declining to “feed the trolls”, also comes up when reacting to nonacademic public discourse that is offensive or harmful, including cases in which the harm done more a matter of personal interactions than the defence of particular views. Enforcing social norms—for example, by publicly stating that some behaviour is unacceptable—is how those norms are created and maintained. Conversely, if bad behaviour is treated with silence—even if that silence comes along with private whispered disapproval—then it is collectively treated as acceptable.

In other words, I still feel like this is a pretty good model to emulate, for those of us in a position from which it's secure to do so.

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