By Jon Cogburn
If we had to vote for the The Onion's most successfully philosophically biting story, I would nominate ACLU Defends Nazis' Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters. It works as humor in part because it's just a little bit of an exaggeration of the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union has over and over again successfully defended the Ku Klux Klan's and other Nazi groups' right to march and make speeches, which, were they politically successful, actually would entail burning down ACLU headquarters and much worse. And the broader philosophical point is raised concerning how one should react to speech one finds harmful.
The ACLU approach embodies the quote we usually misattribute to Voltaire, "“I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And by defending the right to say it, they don't just mean saying things in the privacy of one's own home without fear of government eavesdropping and punishment, but the right to say things in the public square and be heard doing so.
There are many ways of silencing people that are far short of government censure. "Doxing" refers to publishing people's private information on the public internet without their consent, usually as part of an attempt to get a mob to harass that person into silence. I wrote a post yesterday about a new conservative philosophy blog where some of the posters have been uploading screen shots from people's non-public facebook posts and comments, and since that time some of the accounts have come down because of the level of harassment has become unbearable. The right does not have a monopoly on this kind of silencing. A few years ago at newapps there was a serious discussion about collective shunning (in the forms of neither hiring, nor inviting to speak) people whose online speech was understood to be harmful to various groups of people. The author of the post didn't name anyone, but what he wrote was interpreted by many to refer to an offensive post I'd written while reflecting on some pretty serious difficulties my four year old son was having, including a recent diagnosis of him as being on the autism spectrum. Among other things, I was thrown off of the blog, something like five people cancelled meals with me at a conference, and I was disinvited from the editorial board of book series.* Ironically, the newapps proposal to shun people was framed in terms of shunning people who silence others, though the effect of shunning people (not employing them and not inviting them to speak) is silencing them.
The newapps post to which I linked above has the virtue of making explicit something that surely goes on implicitly. We use public spaces to sort of together decide who is worthy of moral censure and then contribute to the piling on. Since the publication of Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed we are all a little more aware of how dangerous and damaging these kinds of dynamic are.
All of the very public hullabaloo surrounding our own J. Ed Hackett's impassioned response to Richard Swinburne's lecture on Christian morality has brought much of this to the fore again, and was the occasion both of the doxing in question, something of an inquisitorial process by which conservative philosophers are being asked if they have anything to do with the blog that is doing the doxing, and personal insults back and forth.
There is no easy solution to things like this. I knew two egregiously bullied gay kids who killed themselves, one in high school and one early in college, and until my dying day will overflow with regret that I did not do more to befriend them and try to help. Whether you know it or not you have gay or trans family members and friends who have been through hell because of the way we collectively enforce gender roles. Those of us who are aware of this understandably get very upset and defensive when we hear people say things that strike us as dehumanizing gay people. Likewise with disability issues and issues concerning race. I would not have been so truculent with my fellow newapps co-bloggers if I hadn't felt so powerless during that time to help my son suffer less and be able to attend a school with other kids.** The vast majority of us, no matter our political views, are relatively powerless yet desperately want to do something to help and so lashing out angrily across the internet is in the end probably the easiest thing to do. So we do it. And it feels pretty good, and maybe it does change public norms sometimes. I don't know. On the other hand, in addition to what it puts people on the receiving end of the abuse through, it does a lot of damage as well.
Now we must note that falsehood does not necessarily imply vice; honest errors of knowledge are possible. But such errors are not nearly so common as some people wish to think, especially in the field of philosophy. In our century, there have been countless mass movements dedicated to inherently dishonest ideas — e.g., Nazism, Communism, non-objective art, non-Aristotelian logic, egalitarianism, nihilism, the pragmatist cult of compromise, the Shirley MacLaine types, who “channel” with ghosts and recount their previous lives; etc. In all such cases, the ideas are not merely false; in one form or another, they represent an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values). If the conscientious attempt to perceive reality by the use of one’s mind is the essence of honesty, no such rebellion can qualify as “honest.”
Peikoff goes on to say that there are only two exceptions for people who might hold inherently dishonest ideas but not be morally contemptible: the "retarded" and the very young beautiful soul idealist types (modeled on "Andrei" in Rand's We The Living). You can tell that you are dealing with an Andrei and not an untermenschen because real Andreis who are initially unable to grasp the extent of non-Objectivist evil in the world go on to:
get out of such movements fast, on their own, without needing lectures from others; they get out as they reach maturity. Being conscientious and mentally active, they see first-hand what is going on in their movement and they identify what it means; so their initial enthusiasm turns to dismay and then to horror. . . The very honesty of such individuals limits their stay in the movement; they cannot tolerate for long the massiveness of the evil with which they have become involved. Nor, when such youngsters drop out, do they say to the world belligerently: “Don’t dare to judge me for my past, because my error was honest.” On the contrary — and here I speak from my own personal experience of honest errors that I committed as a teenager — the best among these young people are contrite; they recognize the aid and comfort, inadvertent though it be, which they have been giving to error and evil, and they seek to make amends for it. They expect those who know of their past creeds and allegiances to regard them with suspicion; they know that it is their own responsibility to demonstrate objectively and across time that they have changed, that they will not repeat their error tomorrow in another variant, that their error was innocent.
There's actually some wisdom in this, were it not the case that altruism and non-Aristotelian logic were the kind of vicious views that Peikoff takes impressionable teens to fall for. It's also very clear that part of the fun of being a Randian is that you get to see yourself as the main character in the kind of novel Rand wrote.
In my experience, philosophical conversation always breaks down when one or both of the interlocutors decides that there is no way the other person can simultaneously be saying what she is saying while being rational and of good will. The most productive discussions are where both sides are broadly sympathetic to some overarching explanatory or practical goal, where they take each other to be of good will, rational, and informed and where each has a healthy humility about the possibility of being wrong. The most extreme way to break away from this is the Peikoffian one, where the very fact that your interlocutor disagrees with you shows that your interlocutor is of ill will. Let's call this a Peikoffian breakdown. But one can also think that your opponent possesses a good will, but not countenance the idea that a rational and informed person could hold those views. Peikoff grudgingly admits this for young, impressionable readers whom Frege briefly led astray from Aristotelian logic. Let's call this a Simonian (for the author of "You're so Vain") breakdown.
When we find that widespread acceptance of certain beliefs (such as Swinburne's that homosexuality is a disability, or Peter Singer's that infanticide is morally permissible) to have been acutely harmful to people we love, it's very hard not to react in the Peikoffian manner. We don't want people believing these things and so desperately want them not to believe them that we're happy to avail ourselves of rhetoric (in the pejorative sense) than philosophy if that's what it takes.
I think that this is what's going on in such cases and that people on the left and right do it. I also don't think it's a good thing. First, a bunch of philosophers being disrespectful in public to one another probably won't in the end change very much any of the political issues we feel deeply about. Second, the more we treat each other as possessing ill will or lacking basic reason the more we end up walling ourselves into little communities that don't challenge one anothers' beliefs. Finally, Peikoffian or Simonian disagreement dumbs down all sides of the debate.
When gay marriage was made the law of the land I took exception with some of my facebook friends celebrating and saying that societal acceptance of polyamory was next. In part it bugged me because this was just what opponents of gay marriage were mocked for warning us about it, and in part because Andrew Sullivan's conservative case for gay marriage (especially when added to John Corvino's work) is what had convinced me that civil partnerships was not enough. But, luckily my polyamorous friends didn't just abuse me and we were able to have a good conversation about it. I was able to communicate that my belief in the normative force of fidelity didn't mean I thought they were bad people or going to hell or any worse than me. We had discussions about the nature of jealousy, the mutability or not of human nature, the role that norms play with respect to different kinds of people and how the principle of "ought implies can" might or might not apply, and the pros and cons of hetero-normative family arrangements. I learned a lot, we got clearer about exactly where our factual disagreements were, and we learned that we had a lot more in common ethically than we might otherwise have thought.
Can something similar happen with respect to someone who finds it appropriate to criticize homosexuality and compares it to disability? I don't know. Please re-read Elizabeth Barnes' Confessions of a Bitter Cripple and get back to me. Perhaps some ideas are so damaging that it's nearly impossible to hold them and still be of good will. I'd like to think that philosophy discourse is more powerful than that though, that we needn't take the Peikoffian or Simonian out. Or maybe Barnes' piece shows that philosophy isn't sufficient, we also need to know each other as people. Finding out your best friend, or your brother or son, is gay has much more normative force than any set of arguments one can put into words (and this isn't to short Corvino, Sullivan, and others' labors). Part of what makes Barnes' essay so powerful is that she shares her experience as a human being in seminars while subjected to casually sadistic ableism. I think that if we at least don't fall into Peikoffian disagreement, then philosophy can do what it's supposed to, get us closer to the truth together. But I suspect that this only works with the kind of human understanding Barnes' piece delivers.
Addendum: This morning as I was writing the above my fellow philpercser John Schwenkler wrote me an e-mail that he thought it would be very helpful if philosophers could agree to the following (he's given me permission to reproduce this):
- There really can be reasonable or at least non-bigoted disagreement on matters of sexual ethics;
- Christian (and otherwise religious) and conservative (and otherwise differently-thinking) philosophers often feel isolated and out of place in professional contexts, and hesitant to express their views in the company of their colleagues;
- This is unfortunate, and in many cases we are all worse off as a result;
- There are certain habits of piling on, straw-manning, snark, and so on that, while called for at times, often just make this situation much worse; and
- It's terrible how the Internet tends to worsen these tendencies, and we would all do well to bear in mind the humanity and assume the good faith of those we're in conversation with, and of the others who might be listening in.
I agree, and hope that what I wrote above will add some credence to this statement and hope.
[*I should note both that what I've written above is a very one-sided account, and that I've made up with all of these people! Human beings are passionate creatures and sometimes even with the best of intentions we're mean to one another. Unfortunately, the internet can make this much more public that it would otherwise be. Moreover, the way I feel like I was treated was not one jot worse than the way I treated other people during various moral panics, almost always fellow Christians with more conservative views than my own. So it really was by far for the best. I should also note that people I gratuitously insulted have been absolutely wonderful in accepting my apologies and moving on as well.
**For what it's worth, he's doing great. He's in third grade, going to school, and today is his ninth birthday and he's the proud owner of a new kitten named Hobbes II.]