By Jon Cogburn
Every few years somebody puts up a blog purporting to represent conservative academic philosophers. As far as I can tell, all such group efforts have imploded due to a combination of (a) the manner in which anonymity of either posters or commentators encourages abusive (sometimes defamatory) behavior, (b) the sorites series that exists between reasonably holding unpopular political beliefs and the kind of things one believes and does when in the rabid grips of Nietzschean ressentiment, and (c) the unwillingness of those who have reasonably held unpopular beliefs to remonstrate with and, when necessary, ban the ressentimenters.
I don't know how many reasonable people there are at the new "Rightly Considered: blog. I do know that yesterday's post by "Criticus Ferox" characterizes the American Philosophical Association as "an anti-maile, anti-white, anti-American activist group that pretends to be a professional organization for academic philosophy" and none of the other nineteen posters saw fit to point out how just how risible and dangerous this kind of rhetoric is.
And it works the other way too. Voltaire said that he only ever prayed that his enemies be ridiculous, and that God granted it. That is funny, but not really the way philosophy works. We want those who disagree with us to charitably construe our own arguments and then present the best reasons why we are mistaken. Perhaps we alter our views. Or we respond in kind, and through dialectical iterations together get closer to the truth. But when the other side engages in gratuitous insults and weird negative generalizations, all it does is undermine the possibility of this. Worse, the atmosphere of gratuitous insult in public discourse encourages a certain number of the ressentimenters to respond in threatening, sometimes genuinely frightening, ways. We all know this happens, and there is no excuse for even tacitly encouraging it. As someone who has been on the receiving end of it in the past, let me tell you that it can at the very least make going to an APA or SPEP a genuinely unpleasant experience. For a friend of mine who gets way more of this than I ever did the threats were so bad and so specific that at one time that he ended up locking himself in his hotel room for an entire conference.
And note that it is almost always the case that an anonymous poster attacks someone by name. If the initial poster were to have posted under his* own name,** then he would perhaps take some responsibility for the fallout. Do you really want to put people through this? Are you OK with your co-bloggers and commentators doing this? What if, God forbid, an unhinged person really were to respond to the casual dehumanization of your opponent with actual violence?
Sadly, all of this is old hat to anyone who has followed the blogosophere, especially with respect to the way anonymity functions. However, Rightly Considered has, as far as I can tell, pioneered a new thing to further hinder public philosophy, the practice of putting screenshots of people's facebook posts as well as screenshots of other philosophers' responses to those posts (I refuse to link to any of the ones that do this). This adds another level of dysfunction. Besides it being a violation of privacy, the end result is that many of us are going to end up pruning our friends lists radically, not accepting friends who are conservative males, and being much, much more careful neither to set posts to public, nor to respond to other people's posts. The end result is further balkanazation and less public discussion of ideas, especially ones that people who identify as conservative would like to contest.
In a comment on my facebook wall, one she gave me kind permission to share here, Elizabeth Barnes expressed these worries far better than I am able to.***
Regarding the publicizing of private facebook posts, let me see if I can articulate why this might feel so invasive. To begin with, when people set facebook posts to a private setting, they are making a conscious choice to limit the audience. You can set facebook posts to public, or you can easily use a more public form of online communication like twitter, tumblr, or a blog. A lot of academics live at a great deal of physical distance from friends and colleagues, so facebook is a good way of facilitating communication, but that communication is often of the kind we wouldn't want being extremely public or searchable on google. Certainly for myself, I post content on facebook that I wouldn't necessarily want, e.g., my undergraduate students to see - which is part of why I keep my settings friends-only and never accept friend requests from undergrads. I would hope that conservatives value privacy and respect individuals' choices regarding privacy, so it's been disappointing to see the RC blog so casually disregarding this.
More specific to my own case, I hope people can try to understand how the following might feel. I make a post on facebook that is viewable only by a restricted friend list of professional philosophers and graduate students. The vast majority of these people are people I know personally and many are people I consider genuine friends. The post I make is photographed by one of my facebook 'friends' and published on a public blog, where it is taken entirely out of context (it was never intended as a direct response to Richard Swinburne, but was instead prompted by the ongoing conversation surrounding it, especially the hostile responses to Mike Rea's - to my mind - very thoughtful comments.) After seeing my private post on a public blog, I scroll down and see the pseudonymous author describe themselves - no doubt facetiously, but still - as someone who you should be careful not to mess with because they always carry a gun. I of course have no idea who this person is. I don't know whether they're someone I interact with on a regular basis or someone I'm facebook friends with. I hope I've never done anything to personally harm this person, though if I have I hope they know that I'd want to hear from them about it. In any case, after having already been subjected to some extremely creepy and uncomfortable online harassment, this experience is of course deeply unsettling. And I can't help but worry that - with all the attention that blog post is getting - I'm in for another round of disturbing anonymous emails.
Surely - surely - you can understand how this feels invasive and upsetting. And surely you can understand how it can lead to stuff that's really unfortunate. I increasingly find myself reluctant to accept friend requests from from self-identified conservatives, for example, especially young male ones. I hate this. I hate being suspicious of people and I hate reinforcing ideological barriers. But I also want to protect myself and my privacy. By behaving this way, the bloggers on RC are inevitably going to cause me and others to be suspicious of (and distant towards) people who don't deserve it and who mean no harm.
Two other of my in friends are currently experiencing some harassment because of their treatment on Rightly Considered and as a result are considering the extent to which they want to pull back from on-line communications. I don't think any of us have managed to articulate the issue as well as Barnes did.
If you post at Rightly Considered or know anyone who does, please ask them to take down the posts with facebook screenshots and to realize that not only are you hurting the cause of public discussion of philosophy, but also that the people you are insulting are all human beings.
Part of my own conservatism is the strong commitment to Calvinist three G theology: guilt, grace, gratitude. We're all sinners. We all experience grace. And we express gratitude for this grace when we love and act out of that love. I'm sure that my upset about how Rightly Considered is effecting my friends and harming philosophy has led some of what I wrote above to be less than loving. I apologize for that and welcome any remonstrance, but I do hope that Barnes' statement strikes a chord with everyone involved.
*In seven or so years of public blogging, every single time an angry and demeaning conservative anonymous commentator has used a stereo-typically female name while vilifying or mocking someone, I've checked the IP address and found that same poster commenting elsewhere under male names. Conclude from this what you want.
**I can think of only one philosopher (to be clear, not a conservative) who does not avail himself of anonymity while casually engaging in unjustifiable summary dismissal of his interlocutor's philosophical worth. It would be interesting to find out if other fields have functional equivalents. It would also be interesting to, if possible, discern whether the extent to which the anonymous conservative ressentimenters are following his rhetorical lead.
***Facebook makes it very easy to ask people if you can share their comments, and they often say yes, or are happy to clean something up for public consumption. The above is (again, with permission) copied verbatim.]