Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pity the white liberal man

For the record, I hate you because you're wearing that T-shirt
On Tuesday, New York magazine posted an article by Jonathan Chait attacking "political correctness", and Twitter took notice. Since then, loads of responses have been written, running the gamut from supportive to combative to dismissive to outraged. My initial reaction fell nearest to "dismissive". I have a very low opinion of Jonathan Chait, and I have a very low opinion of complaints against "political correctness". An article by Jonathan Chait complaining about political correctness... I was afraid the eye-rolling might never stop.

I knew what the article said before I read it. No, that's not true. I knew Chait's basic thesis before I read it. To his credit, this isn't a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced on auto-pilot. This is a standard expression of straight/white/male resentment produced with great care and skill. I guess that's a pretty back-handed compliment, and there's no getting around that, but I don't mean it to be. What I'm trying to say is that Chait argues his position about as well as it can be argued. And I'm glad he did, because I think this argument is very much worth having. It's not going away, in any event.

Chait's article provides a number of examples which convey his point very clearly, and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to it. It's easy for me to identify with his perspective. I think it's outrageous that a guy should lose his job at one publication for having written a satirical piece in another. I agree with him on most of the examples he gives. Chait's article attempts to bundle these examples together into a dangerous trend of political correctness run amok, but it's not clear to me what broader issues connects his examples. He calls it "political correctness", and he defines it as a "is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate." But there's a practical problem he doesn't seem to have noticed.

PZ Myers puts his finger on it: What exactly do you want, Jonathan Chait? It seems like a pretty innocuous question, but it is in fact utterly lethal to Chait's entire position, because Chait cannot even begin to answer it. It's not that there is no answer, but that any answer he might honestly give will be discrediting. He wants leftists to stop doing stuff he doesn't like. That's the long and the short of it. The most charitable answer (charitable because it assumes that he's right about everything) is that he wants people to stop being wrong about everything. I want people to stop being wrong about everything too. But the people who I think are wrong about stuff (like Chait) usually think that they're right.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Chait's article that would have any hope of convincing anyone towards Chait's point-of-view. That is to say, if you resemble the villains of political correctness Chait describes in his piece, there is nothing in the piece to explain why that's a bad thing. In all of the examples he uses, he never explains why his view of the controversy is correct. Partly that's because he chooses his examples in order to create the impression that he is correct. Partly it's because he skews his presentation of those examples to reinforce that impression. Mostly, I think, it's because it never occurred to him that he might have anything to learn from anyone to his left.

In every one of Chait's examples of leftists "going too far", the leftists in question disagree that they are going too far, and Chait doesn't even bother to argue the point. You need to do a lot more work to give "going too far" any kind of content as a criticism, and Chait doesn't even bother. To be fair, he can't, because categories like "too far" and "not far enough" are too simplistic to accommodate the wide range of disparate issues Chait is trying to address all at once. There is no one argument that simultaneously explains why that guy shouldn't have been fired and why trigger-warnings are unnecessary, for example. Each of those issues requires its own argument to establish what is the appropriate position. There is no broad principle, not even "political correctness", that ties it all together.

But Chait's piece has struck a chord with aggrieved white liberals, including many of atheism's white liberal "leaders" like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Chait's article doesn't make any mention of atheism, but the "political correctness" he's talking about is precisely what has caused "deep rifts" in the online atheist community. Like Chait, Dawkins has frequently been the target of criticism from his left, and that clearly gets under his skin (for example, see Adam Lee's The Suppression of Richard Dawkins). For Chait, the criticism tends to come from Ta-Nehisi Coates and "black Twitter". For Dawkins, it's what he calls "radical feminists" (it's really mainstream feminists, but he doesn't know that). They are both complaining about being criticized from the left, and they both feel (genuinely, I'm sure) bullied and intimidated by people who don't seem to recognize their inherent goodness. 

They both think they're dealing with a new kind of toxic leftism which has emerged only in the last few years. They each have a sense that social media is somehow driving the problem, but neither one has yet grokked the real story... in a world of social media, they are no longer the gatekeepers of respectable opinion on the left. Before Twitter, leftist opinions were confined to academia because they were excluded by the media. Anything to the left of milky-white liberalism is still mostly excluded by the media, but not social media. The only way this problem will ever go away to the satisfaction of Chait and Dawkins would be if leftists were once again marginalized and denied a voice in the conversation. The honest answer to PZ's question is that Chait wants to go back to a world where opinions to the left of his own were ignored, excluded and suppressed. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Subjective process, objective result

Suppose Xander and Willow are each working on the same math problem. They are not cooperating, but they're both working on the same problem. Each of them relies upon their knowledge of mathematics and their ability to perform arithmetic. They differ from one another in terms of both knowledge and ability. Willow is very good at math, but Xander is not, and they come up with different answers.

Suppose now that it wasn't a math problem. Instead, it was a moral question. Once again, they are not cooperating, but they are both working on the same problem. Each of them relies upon their values and their judgment. They differ from one another in terms of both values and judgment, and they come up with different answers.

In both cases, we're talking about a subjective process. Each of them is trapped in their subjectivity, as are we all. Xander can't use Willow's judgment any more than he can use her ability at arithmetic. He's stuck in his own head, with his own judgment. But does that mean the question itself is subjective? Does that mean that there is really no right or wrong answer, and that it is just a matter of opinion?

In the first case, no. There is a right answer, and at least one of them (probably Xander) has gotten it wrong. But in the second case, lots of people want to say that there is no right answer. I think that's wrong. I think morality is every bit as objective as mathematics, but that's argument is beyond the scope of this post. For now, I'm just trying to dispel one particularly bad argument against the idea of objective morality.

I see atheists making this mistake all the time, and it drives me nuts. The argument is that since morality depends on values and values are subjective, morality therefore must be subjective. Morality is based on values, but in the same way that mathematics is based on arithmetic. Values are the process we use to evaluate moral questions, just as arithmetic is a process we use to solve math problems. Different people have different aptitudes for arithmetic, and this explains why different people will come up with different answers to math problems, but that doesn't make math subjective. Similarly, because values are subjective, different individuals will reach different answers to moral questions, but that alone doesn't make morality subjective. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Resolving hypocrisies

Accusations of hypocrisy are the low-hanging fruit of political debate. It's such an easy charge to make because hypocrisy is ubiquitous. Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, and for politicians, it's basically a job requirement. But these accusations are so common not just because they are so easy to make, but also because they are very satisfying to make. They allow us to enjoy a small moment of moral superiority as we think about how scheming and unprincipled our enemies are.

The problem with accusations of hypocrisy is that they are especially weak arguments when it comes to trying to persuade people who don't already agree with you. Because hypocrisy is so common, we all have a great deal of experience in rationalizing it away when we need to. When someone accuses a politician you like of hypocrisy, it's really easy to make excuses for it. And I don't just mean bullshit, self-serving excuses. Real life is loaded up with genuine complexities, so any straightforward statement of principle is necessarily a simplification. Principles are like moral heuristics. They're extremely useful rules of thumb for guiding behavior, but there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions will always look like hypocrisy when viewed unsympathetically.

There's also an ambiguity at the heart of every accusation of hypocrisy, and one which is rarely acknowledged. The essence of such an accusations is that some behavior is at odds with a previously articulated principle, which is a kind of contradiction. When two ideas are in contradiction, that contradiction can be resolved by abandoning either idea.

I've been thinking about this recently as a result of the attack last week on the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Or rather, as a result of the conversations in the media (including social media) which have been provoked by that attack. Specifically, the conversations about free speech, and the accusations of hypocrisy raised against free speech advocates.

Consider this article, which I take to be a representative example of the genre: As a Muslim, I'm fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists. I disagree with this article on several points (first and foremost, the use of the term "free speech fundamentalists", as if the dogmatic insistence on free expression is as bad as the dogmatic insistence on censorship), but for the purposes of this post, I'm just interested in the accusation of hypocrisy. You might also want to take a look at this video, in which Raza Nadim repeatedly raises the same point:

At about the 11-minute mark, Dan Hodges attempts to take hypocrisy off the table and asks Nadim whether a non-racist "blasphemy" against Islam would be acceptable for publication or not, and Nadim doesn't exactly answer. He sort of dances around a bit and tries to change the subject. Everyone should be allowed to publish whatever they want, he says, as long as the rules are applied to everyone fairly and consistently.

Well, who could disagree with that? Certainly not me, but his answer begs the question. Much more importantly, Nadim doesn't specify what result he's looking for. Hodges's question was designed to evade the ambiguity of hypocrisy and nail Nadim down on a specific position regarding free speech in principle, but Nadim dodged, taking advantage of that ambiguity.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the claims of hypocrisy against Charlie Hebdo are correct, that still leaves the question of which of these two contradictory approaches we should endorse. And that's really the bottom line question underlying the whole debate over free speech. Was it wrong to publish Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam cartoons, or was it wrong to censor earlier anti-Semitic ones? Simply recognizing the hypocrisy doesn't answer that question, and that question is the crux of the matter.

Stepping back from the specifics of Charlie Hebdo, we're really talking about balancing interests.There will always reasonable disagreements over difficult cases. Even the most "fundamentalist" of free speech advocates recognizes certain exceptions, such as defamation and libel, and there are other exceptions which are rather more controversial. However we resolve these disputes, there will be consequences. Speaking for myself, I'd rather have too much free speech than too little.