Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, March 10, 2018

more on offensive ideas

In response to my previous post on this subject, my friend Chad Wellmon sent me a link to a (paywalled) essay by his colleague Elizabeth Barnes on the value of responding to offensive ideas. Barnes makes a useful distinction between ideas that are deeply offensive but not widely or seriously held — an argument in defense of rape, for instance — and the ideas of, say, Peter Singer. 

So what’s the difference with Peter Singer? His views are, from my perspective at least, no less offensive than the pro-rape argument. Yet he strikes me as different for the simple reason that, when it comes to a description of what many people think or what many people’s everyday views imply, Singer isn’t wrong.

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. They’re implicit in the grave "I’m so sorry" quietly whispered to my friend after colleagues meet her beautiful, smiling daughter for the first time. They’re the unspoken message when another friend is reassured, just after her son is born: "But you can have another child." They’re the natural conclusion of a well-meaning doctor remarking to me, on learning that I don’t have children: "Oh, that’s probably for the best — your children might’ve inherited [your condition]."

I seriously doubt that the well-intentioned people who say these things would endorse Singer’s conclusions. But Singer is right that his conclusions flow straightforwardly from these sorts of common attitudes. For this reason, I find myself strangely grateful for the brutal honesty of Peter Singer. He says explicitly what others only gesture at implicitly. 

(Barnes has a rare medical condition that, as far as I can tell, does not threaten her life but makes that life more difficult in various ways.) Now, someone might argue in response that if Singer’s arguments indeed extend commonly-held views, that’s all the more reason to ignore them — to push them further and further to the margins. Barnes: 

People worry that grappling with offensive views gives those views undue legitimacy. But in the case of someone like Singer, the views have legitimacy whether or not I choose to engage with them. To state the obvious, the arguments of the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University are going to matter whether or not I pay attention to them. But, more important, Singer’s views already have legitimacy because people will continue to think about disability in ways directly relevant to his arguments regardless of whether progressive academics decide those arguments are simply too offensive to be discussed. (After all, as Singer himself wryly notes, the sales of Practical Ethics tend to increase whenever there are calls to "no platform" his talks.) Even Singer’s views on infant euthanasia aren’t a dystopian thought experiment. At least one major European country (the Netherlands) openly practices infanticide in some cases of disability.

If ideas have actual social and political purchase, if they are doing work in the world, then it’s rather naïve to think that by ignoring them we could somehow delegitimize them. That’s simply wishful thinking. 

In the talk I gave at Duke in January, called “Embrace the Pain: Living with the Repugnant Cultural Other,” I tried to make a case similar to the one Barnes makes, though on somewhat different grounds. I also think my argument is a kind of response to the thoughtful comments Alastair Roberts made on my earlier post. 

Anyway, here’s an excerpt: 

So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.

In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.

Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.

I also argued in that talk that we stand a better chance of getting people to, as Roberts puts it in his aforementioned comments, “stress-test” their beliefs under two conditions: if we are able to cultivate a game-like character in our campus conversations and if we faculty members work much, much harder to create an environment in which our students trust us to manage and direct those games. 

A postscript: at dinner after my talk I sat next to Bob Blouin, the Provost of the University of North Carolina, and he commented that he thought that faculty would do a better job of cultivating their students’ trust if they felt trusted by administrators. Well, yes. Precisely.  


  • Perhaps one of my key concerns here is that we don't confuse or collapse the task of pursuing truth into that of manufacturing consensus and social harmony. The pursuit of truth is an opening of ourselves up to destabilizing and often threatening forces and isn't a promising foundation for social harmony. Rather, the pursuit of truth tends to require the preexistence of some measure of social harmony between those engaged in it (which is one reason why the wider life of the university as a community of deeply intertwined lives is so essential to the university's existence as a realm for the pursuit of truth).

    Also, if manufacturing consensus and social harmony become our overriding goal, as they seem to be in many contexts today, there are considerably easier ways of achieving such things than through argument. Ostracization of threatening and destabilizing viewpoints, character assassination, ramped-up peer pressure, appeal to third parties to intervene against opponents, etc., etc. are all far more effective means of achieving such an end.

    We shouldn't only engage with positions like Singer's because they exist somewhere in society. We should engage with them because they are the sort of carefully considered yet challenging arguments that stress-test the sorts of positions that are usually grounded in such a firm social consensus that the arguments in their support are weak and untended. The cultural case against same-sex marriage from a few decades back is a good example of such a position, for instance. The position was strong because of social consensus, but it lacked stress-tested arguments in its defense.

  • Alastair, I think you might be missing a significant consideration. I certainly want to pursue truth rather than manufacture consensus, but certain structures and practices have to be in place before a given group of people can fruitfully pursue truth. I think the academy in particular has neglected to attend to those structures and practices (and I also think that social media in general militate against the cultivation of them). For that reason much of my recent work has been intended not to answer important questions but to address the conditions under which those questions can possibly be answered, or at least, to return to my earlier formulation, fruitfully pursued.

  • Thanks for the response, Alan.

    Yes, I agree about the importance of this. Hence my remark: 'Rather, the pursuit of truth tends to require the preexistence of some measure of social harmony between those engaged in it (which is one reason why the wider life of the university as a community of deeply intertwined lives is so essential to the university's existence as a realm for the pursuit of truth).' I fear, however, that the university isn't jealous enough about preserving its existence as a realm of truthful discourse. As the university increasingly assumes the burden of manufacturing conditions of social belonging and security that its core practices presuppose, it has been abandoning its primary purpose and increasingly focusing upon the manufacturing of social consensus and the securing of inclusion, equality, and harmony instead.

    Truthful discourse definitely requires many positions at the table, but inclusion of persons isn't the primary goal. Structures of advocacy in order to 'steelman' socially unrepresented positions that nonetheless have potentially strong arguments in their favour is very important. However, if the pursuit of truth is the priority, this requires not merely presenting the views of persons from historically marginalized communities in their strongest possible form, but also engaging with the Machiavellis, the Schmitts, and the Stalins of the world. Historic victims are not the only marginalized communities that need to be engaged in their strongest form in a truth-driven discourse. This doesn't mean, of course, that we should handle a womanist philosopher in the same way as a Nazi theorist, but it does mean that both must be honestly engaged and that both must be subjected to the judgment of truth, even if the results may sometimes be socially unsettling.

  • "Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not."

    2 thoughts about this:

    1) The dawning of a conviction can often follow an extended "pause to consider"- take, for example, the long "might I be wrong?" questioning Augustine's describes in the early books of the Confessions, or Malcolm X's later consideration of whether the Nation's interpretation of Islam was authoritative. If you start out in the truth, it is fortunate to be spared the dialectical itch of uncertainty. But if not, the opposite seems the case.

    2) Even if we happen upon true opinions unawares, a different sort of "pause to consider" can be very valuable. Without actually doubting our own convictions, reflecting on how things would be different if they were false sheds light on what those convictions really mean. Aquinas asks: does God exist? and thinks through objections that answer 'no.' Some of Ta Nehisi Coates' best writing, I think, was his blogging on Fitzhugh. (Both of these examples feature rather 'civil' discourse, by the way.) So I definitely do want a world in which these serious pauses to consider take place.

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