Author Archives: Russell Blackford

Not conservative, reactionary: The flawed case against same-sex marriage

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

The time has come for Australia to provide for same-sex marriages. This would reflect the countries with which we compare ourselves, including the US and the UK, and it would acknowledge the contemporary meaning of marriage in Western liberal democracies.

As I write, however, progress has stalled. It remains to be seen whether Australia will have a plebiscite on same-sex marriage in early 2017. Federal parliament is considering the issue, and political parties are negotiating. Something that ought to be easy has become very difficult.

A plebiscite is unnecessary, since the federal parliament has undoubted power to amend section 5 of the Marriage Act to change the definition of “marriage”. That is exactly what happened when the definition was last altered by parliament, as recently as 2004, to exclude the possibility of same-sex marriages. On that occasion, the Howard government’s action did not need a specific vote by the public.

Michael Jensen’s case against same-sex marriage

You need to squint pretty hard to see what arguments can be put against same-sex marriage in Australia without relying on religious morality or appealing to bigoted dislike of gay men and lesbians. On 28 May last year, however, Michael Jensen wrote an op-ed piece for The Drum to set out what seems to be a core social conservative argument.

It’s worth dusting this off to take another look. If a plebiscite does go ahead, whether next year or at any other time, something like Jensen’s case will likely be put in support of a “No” vote.

Jensen almost pleads with readers not to regard him as merely a bigot. In fact, I know Michael Jensen – albeit very slightly – and I doubt that he harbours any secret hatred for gay men and lesbians. The problem isn’t bigotry in the ordinary understanding of that word, and I understand Jensen’s concern that he might be simply demonised. Too much of that goes on in public debate.

At the same time, when I read and re-read his argument as published by The Drum he seems to be living in an earlier era. Central to the argument is that providing for same-sex marriage would alter the very meaning of marriage as a social institution. I can understand this concern up to a point, but the horse has bolted.

In a trivial sense Jensen is correct. The necessary alteration to section 5 of the Act would – obviously – change the definition of marriage in Australian federal law. But of course, that also happened in 2004.

To be fair, Jensen might say that the 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act merely clarified something that had previously been understood. By doing so, it shifted the onus to anyone wanting to introduce a new concept of marriage into the law. Let’s grant this point for the sake of argument. In the end, I doubt that it really matters.

At any rate, Jensen could plausibly claim that the understanding throughout Christendom, during the Middle Ages and continuing into the emergence of European modernity, was of marriage as a heterosexual and monogamous relationship. This idea of marriage was thus the one exported to British colonies, such as those founded in Australia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jensen could then go on to emphasise, as he does in his contribution to The Drum, that marriage was, at least in this European and Christian tradition, about the union of an individual man and an individual woman who intended to have children.

However, the fact that this was a traditional European and Christian view doesn’t get us far. At the heart of the current controversy is whether such a view should prevail in future.

Religion, reasons, rhetoric

Jensen needs to say more, and of course he does. He claims that he is not putting a religious position, but if it’s not religious what is it? He employs some esoteric language that seems astonishingly contrived in a secular context. He writes, for example, “A child is a tangible expression of our sexed twoness.”

What, here on Earth, does that mean? As far as I can decipher it, Jensen is stating that we are a species which reproduces sexually (unlike, say, protozoa and certain starfish). Fine, but no one I know of disputes this.

Putting the point in a strange way is presumably meant to give it a kind of moral overlay or resonance, as if the facts of sexual reproduction among mammals are not merely established by science and common experience but also possess a metaphysical or theological oomph. If so, that’s not a claim Jensen can rely on while also denying that he is arguing from a religious viewpoint, or at least something very like one.

Jensen continues: “To remove the sexual specificity from the notion of marriage makes marriage not a realisation of the bodily difference between male and female that protects and dignifies each, but simply a matter of choice.”

Again, it’s hard to get my secular head around this sentence. But here’s my best attempt: our species, Homo sapiens, is (leaving aside a small percentage of intersex people) a fairly obviously sexually dimorphic one. Or more straightforwardly still: men and women have some significant biological differences. Some people may deny that we’re a sexually dimorphic species, but if so their number is … small. Again, this point isn’t news to anybody who’s not overthinking it.

But nothing follows automatically, from these familiar biological facts, as to whether or not the social institution of marriage should be available only to couples consisting of one heterosexual person from each of the two standard sexes. If we are capable – as we obviously are – of setting up the institution of marriage in a way that caters to personal choice more flexibly, why not? And how is human sexual dimorphism – or how are men and women – less protected if and when we do so? (Notwithstanding same-sex marriage, there will still be men and women unless something very drastic is done via genetic technology!)

It’s also true, of course, that we are a species whose members have varied sexual orientations. So, why shouldn’t our social institutions take that fact into account into some way?

Before I leave the topic of human sexual dimorphism, we need to be careful just how much weight we give to it in policy deliberations. It’s not entirely irrelevant to policy that men and women really are different in certain ways. But at this stage of human history, it is often wiser, and more to the point, to accentuate the similarities between us. Otherwise, it becomes tempting to give the differences an exaggerated emphasis (and, indeed, to be too quick to make assumptions about just what the differences are).

In particular, there’s plenty of work still to be done in response to the key feminist insight that men and women are cognitive equals. Doing that work is a good way to “dignify each”. In the past – and even now – the contrary assumption has unjustly excluded women from a very broad range of social positions and roles.

Though Jensen is not a bigot, and although he attempts to be civil and scrupulous, he can be criticised for some of his rhetoric. He approaches the role of propagandist when he states: “Instead of the particular orientation of marriage towards the bearing and nurture of children, we will have a kind of marriage in which the central reality is my emotional choice. It will be the triumph, in the end, of the will.”

The last sentence of this really adds nothing of substance, but it sounds very sinister: “Oh no! It will be … the triumph of the will!”

More seriously, although I don’t know whether this was intended, Jensen’s wording evokes the spectre of Nazism via the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film, Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”). Whether or not Jensen’s (or my) readers are familiar with Riefenstahl’s brilliant, histrionic, terrifying film, a Nazi-like tinge to the phrase “triumph of the will” has entered the English language. (If not, what exactly is so bad about triumphs of human will?)

It would be helpful if all parties to the same-sex marriage debate managed to avoid suggestions that good-faith opponents are Nazis, resemble Nazis, or have anything to do with Nazis.

Once the rhetoric is stripped away, why shouldn’t my decision to get married, or not, reflect my values and choices, “emotional” or otherwise? Jensen’s suggestion here, that there is something wrong with individual choice, is highly illiberal. We might wonder why the law should override individual choices unless some kind of significant harm to society can be demonstrated. As to that, Jensen himself seems to accept that no such harm is in the offing. He states, early in his op-ed, that introducing same-sex marriage will not be “the end of the world for me.”

As best I can reconstruct it, then, Jensen’s argument against same-sex marriage comes down to a claim that European Christian marriage (and perhaps marriage in other cultures) traditionally mirrored and represented the fact that Homo sapiens is a sexually reproducing and sexually dimorphic species. That is, marriage involved opposite-sex couples who intended to have children via (of course) sexual reproduction. Therefore, the argument seems to conclude, the institution of marriage should always be like that.

This simply doesn’t follow as a logical argument. Something more must be being assumed, but if so Jensen doesn’t explain what it is.

Living in the past

A problem for Jensen and others who share his views is that the nature of marriage has already changed. It is already a matter of “emotional choice” whether or not to get married. It is already possible, furthermore, to have children outside of marriage without the traditional stigma of illegitimacy.

Nothing prevents a heterosexual couple from having a traditional sort of marriage, oriented mainly to children, if they want one, but already this is an option rather than a social obligation. Already, many straight couples get married with no intention of having children. They have various personal reasons. Some might find the status of marriage legally and socially convenient, and they might find the idea of marriage romantic – yet not connected, for them, with procreation and child rearing.

Far from being socially disastrous, such developments in freeing up the nature of marriage have given many people more ability to live as suits them best. With highly consequential life decisions and plans such as this, one size does not fit all.

A more accurate picture than Jensen’s of recent and current social change is that same-sex marriage is not putting pressure on the institution of marriage to become something different from what it was. At least in the main, the causal arrow goes in the opposite direction.

That is, same-sex marriage became more thinkable in the last few decades partly because marriage itself was already changing in ways that made the idea of same-sex marriage seem more coherent and attractive.

Over the past two centuries, and increasingly over the past fifty or so years since the Sexual Revolution, the institution of marriage has been transformed. Marriage, as once understood, was a form of social, and especially sexual, control. To be more specific, it especially controlled the sexuality of women. Among the wealthier classes, it assisted economic ends such as estate planning. Marriage was often far from a romantic or companionable relationship.

But in Western democracies, at least, marriage has evolved for the better. The current ideal of marriage is an equal union between two people, involving love, sexual and other intimacy, and companionship. We have, moreover, abandoned the concept of marriage as a kind of licence for sexual experience, which was otherwise forbidden by morality, if not by law; and we increasingly understand marriage as not necessarily including children. Marriage has become a kinder and far more flexible concept.

The institution of marriage retains deep emotional significance for most Australians. But our predominant understanding of marriage is now one from which gay men and lesbians cannot reasonably be excluded. It’s time to let them in, but this is not meant as a mere slogan. Marriage has changed until it no longer makes sense to keep gay couples out.

Conservatives should, as I’ve suggested in the past, take comfort that the institution of marriage has survived the social upheavals of the last half-century, and that so many couples, including gay and lesbian couples, still want to participate in it.

However, arguments against same-sex marriage – when not relying on religious morality or simple bigotry – require that we view the institution as something that it no longer is and cannot easily be again.

Arguments such as Jensen’s are not apt for conserving marriage as it has become widely understood. They are arguments for turning back the clock to earlier ideas of marriage. Such arguments are losing their appeal in Australia, and especially any appeal to younger Australians.

Once more, I don’t call Michael Jensen a bigot and I don’t wish to smear or silence him. But he and others with similar views are living in the past. In that way, their arguments are more reactionary than conservative.

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The shame of public shaming

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms. However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty.

Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu, but its effect is being offset by the rise of social media and, with it, new kinds of shaming.

Indeed, as Welsh journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson portrays vividly in his latest book, social media shaming has become a social menace. Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015) is a timely contribution to the public understanding of an emotionally charged topic.

Shaming is on the rise. We’ve shifted – much of the time – to a mode of scrutinising each other for purity. Very often, we punish decent people for small transgressions or for no real transgressions at all. Online shaming, conducted via the blogosphere and our burgeoning array of social networking services, creates an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The making of a call-out culture

I noticed the trend – and began to talk about it – around five years ago. I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to “call out” and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong. Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).

Since then, the trend to an online call-out culture has continued and even intensified, but something changed during 2015. Mainstream journalists and public intellectuals finally began to express their unease.

There’s no sign that the new call-out culture is fading away, but it’s become a recognised phenomenon. It is now being discussed more openly, and it’s increasingly questioned. That’s partly because even its participants – people who assumed it would never happen to them – sometimes find themselves “called out” for revealing some impurity of thought. It’s become clear that no moral or political affiliation holds patents on the weaponry of shaming, and no one is immune to its effects.

As Ronson acknowledges, he has, himself, taken part in public shamings, though the most dramatic episode was a desperate act of self-defence when a small group of edgy academics hijacked his Twitter identity to make some theoretical point. Shame on them! I don’t know what else he could have done to make them back down.

That, however, was an extreme and peculiar case. It involved ongoing abuse of one individual by others who refused to “get” what they were doing to distress him, even when asked to stop. Fascinating though the example is, it is hardly a precedent for handling more common situations.

At one time, if we go along with Ronson, it felt liberating to speak back in solidarity against the voices of politicians, corporate moguls, religious leaders, radio shock jocks, newspaper columnists and others with real power or social influence.

But there can be a slippery slope… from talking back in legitimate ways against, say, a powerful journalist (criticising her views and arguments, and any abusive conduct), to pushing back in less legitimate ways (such as attempting to silence her viewpoint by trying to get her fired), to destroying relatively powerless individuals who have done nothing seriously wrong.

Slippery slope arguments have a deservedly bad reputation. But some slopes really are slippery, and some slippery slope arguments really are cogent. With public online shaming, we’ve found ourselves, lately, on an especially slippery slope. In more ways than one, we need to get a grip.

Shaming the shamers

Ronson joined in a campaign of social media shaming in October 2009: one that led to some major advertisers distancing themselves from the Daily Mail in the UK. This case illustrates some problems when we discuss social media shaming, so I’ll give it more analysis than Ronson does.

One problem is that, as frequently happens, it was a case of “shame the shamer”. The recipient of the shaming was especially unsympathetic because she was herself a public shamer of others.

The drama followed a distasteful – to say the least – column by Jan Moir, a British journalist with a deplorable modus operandi. Moir’s topic was the death of Stephen Gately, one of the singers from the popular Irish band Boyzone.

Gately had been found dead while on holiday in Mallorca with his civil partner, Andrew Cowles. Although the coroner attributed the death to natural causes, Moir wrote that it was “not, by any yardstick, a natural one” and that “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.”

Ronson does not make the point explicit in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but what immediately strikes me is that Moir was engaging in some (not-so-)good old-fashioned mainstream media shaming. She used her large public platform to hold up identified individuals to be shamed over very private behaviour. Gately could not, of course, feel any shame from beyond the grave, but Moir’s column was grossly tasteless since he had not even been buried when it first appeared.

Moir stated, self-righteously: “It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of [Gately’s] strange and lonely death.” But why was it so important that the public be told such particulars as whether or not Cowles (at least) hooked up that tragic evening for sex with a student whom Moir names, and whether or not some, or all, of the three young men involved used cannabis or other recreational drugs that night?

To confirm Moir’s propensities as a public shamer, no one need go further than the same column. She follows her small-minded paragraphs about Gately with a few others that shame “socialite” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for no worse sin than wearing a revealing outfit to a high-society party.

You get the picture, I trust. I’m not asking that Moir, or anyone else, walk on eggshells lest her language accidentally offend somebody, or prove open to unexpectedly uncharitable interpretations. Quite the opposite: we should all be able to speak with some spontaneity, without constantly censoring how we formulate our thoughts. I’ll gladly extend that freedom to Moir.

But Moir is not merely unguarded in her language: she can be positively reckless, as with her suggestion that Palmer-Tomkinson’s wispy outfit might more appropriately be worn by “Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton.” No amount of charitable interpretation can prevent the impression that she is often deliberately, or at best uncaringly, hurtful. In those circumstances, I have no sympathy for her if she receives widespread and severe criticism for what she writes.

When it comes to something like Moir’s hatchet job on Gately and Cowles, and their relationship, I can understand the urge to retaliate – to shame and punish in return. It’s no wonder, then, that Ronson discusses the feeling of empowerment when numerous people, armed with their social media accounts, turned on badly behaved “giants” such as the Daily Mail and its contributors. As it seemed to Ronson in those days, not so long ago, “the silenced were getting a voice.”

But let’s be careful about this.

Some distinctions

A few aspects need to be teased out. Even when responding to the shamers, we ought to think about what’s appropriate.

For a start, I am – I’m well aware – being highly critical of Moir’s column and her approach to journalism. In that sense, I could be said to be “shaming” her. But we don’t have to be utterly silent when confronted by unpleasant behaviour from public figures.

My criticisms are, I submit, fair comment on material that was (deliberately and effectively) disseminated widely to the public. In writing for a large audience in the way she does – especially when she takes an aggressive and hurtful approach toward named individuals – Moir has to expect some push-back.

We can draw reasonable distinctions. I have no wish to go further than criticism of what Moir actually said and did. I don’t, for example, want to misrepresent her if I can avoid it, to make false accusations, or to punish her in any way that goes beyond criticism. I wouldn’t demand that she be no-platformed from a planned event or that advertisers withdraw their money from the Daily Mail until she is fired.

The word criticism is important. We need to think about when public criticism is fair and fitting, when it becomes disproportionate, and when it spirals down into something mean and brutal.

Furthermore, we can distinguish between 1) Moir’s behaviour toward individuals and 2) her views on issues of general importance, however wrong or ugly those views might be. In her 2009 comments on Gately’s death, the two are entangled, but it doesn’t follow that they merit just the same kind of response.

Moir’s column intrudes on individuals’ privacy and holds them up for shaming, but it also expresses an opinion on legal recognition of same-sex couples in the form of civil unions. Although she is vague, Moir seems to think that individuals involved in legally recognised same-sex relationships are less likely to be monogamous (and perhaps more likely to use drugs) than people in heterosexual marriages. This means, she seems to imply, that there’s something wrong with, or inferior about, same-sex civil unions.

In fairness, Moir later issued an apology in which she explained her view: “I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.” This is, however, difficult to square with the words of her original column, where she appears to deny, point blank, that civil unions “are just the same as heterosexual marriages.”

Even if she is factually correct about statistical differences between heterosexual marriages and civil unions, this at least doesn’t seem to be relevant to public policy. After all, plenty of marriages between straight people are “open” (and may or may not involve the use of recreational drugs), but they are still legally valid marriages.

If someone does think certain statistical facts about civil unions are socially relevant, however, it’s always available to them to argue why. They should be allowed to do so without their speech being legally or socially suppressed. It’s likewise open to them to produce whatever reliable data might be available. Furthermore, we can’t expect critics of civil unions to present their full case on every occasion when they speak up to express a view. That would be an excessive condition for any of us to have to meet when we express ourselves on important topics.

More generally, we can criticise bad ideas and arguments – or even make fun of them if we think they’re that bad – but as a rule we shouldn’t try to stop their expression.

Perhaps some data exists to support Moir’s rather sneering claims about civil unions. But an anecdote about the private lives of a particular gay couple proves nothing one way or the other. Once again, many heterosexual marriages are not monogamous, but a sensational story involving a particular straight couple would prove nothing about how many.

In short, Moir is entitled to express her jaundiced views about civil unions or same-sex relationships more generally, and the worst she should face is strong criticism, or a degree of satire, aimed primarily at the views themselves. But shining a spotlight on Cowles and Gately was unfair, callous, nasty, gratuitous, and (to use one of her own pet words) sleazy. In addition to criticising her apparent views, we can object strongly when she publicly shames individuals.

Surfing down the slippery slope

Ronson discusses a wide range of cases, and an evident problem is that they can vary greatly, making it difficult to draw overall conclusions or to frame exact principles.

Some individuals who’ve been publicly shamed clearly enough “started it”, but even they can suffer from a cruel and disproportionate backlash. Some have been public figures who’ve genuinely done something wrong, as with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes to make his stories appear more impressive. It’s only to be expected that Lehrer’s irresponsibility and poor ethics would damage his career. But even in his case, the shaming process was over the top. Some of it was almost sadistic.

Other victims of public shaming are more innocent than Lehrer. Prominent among them is Justine Sacco, whom Ronson views with understandable sympathy. Sacco’s career and personal life were ruined after she made an ill-advised tweet on 20 January 2013. It said: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was then subjected to an extraordinarily viral Twitter attack that led quickly to her losing her job and becoming an international laughing stock.

It appears that her tweet went viral after a Gawker journalist retweeted it (in a hostile way) to his 15,000 followers at the time – after just one person among Sacco’s 170 followers had passed it on to him.

Ronson offers his own interpretation of the Sacco tweet:

It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?

In truth, it’s not obvious to me just how to interpret the tweet, and of course I can’t read Sacco’s mind. If it comes to that, I doubt that she pondered the wording carefully. Still, this small piece of sick humour was aimed only at her small circle of Twitter followers, and it probably did convey to them something along the lines of what Ronson suggests. In its original context, then, it did not merely ridicule the plight of black AIDS victims in Africa.

Much satire and humour is, as we know, unstable in its meaning – simultaneously saying something outrageous and testing our emotions as we find ourselves laughing at it. It can make us squirm with uncertainty. This applies (sometimes) to high literary satire, but also to much ordinary banter among friends. We laugh but we also squirm.

In any event, charitable interpretations – if not a single straightforward one – were plainly available for Sacco’s tweet. This was a markedly different situation from Jan Moir’s gossip-column attacks on hapless celebrities and socialites. And unlike Moir, Sacco lacked a large media platform, an existing public following, and an understanding employer.

Ronson also describes the case of Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose life was turned to wreckage because of a photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the photo she is mocking a “Silence and Respect” sign by miming a shout and making an obscene gesture. The photo was uploaded on Facebook, evidently with inadequate privacy safeguards, and eventually it went viral, with Stone being attacked by a cybermob coming from a political direction opposite to the mob that went after Sacco.

While the Arlington photograph might seem childish, or many other things, posing for it and posting it on Facebook hardly add up to any serious wrongdoing. It is not behaviour that merited the outcome for Lindsey Stone: destruction of her reputation, loss of her job, and a life of ongoing humiliation and fear.

Referring to such cases, Ronson says:

The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah [Lehrer]: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn’t done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters.

Thanks to Ronson’s intervention, Stone sought help from an agency that rehabilitates online reputations. Of Stone’s problems in particular, he observes:

The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh [an operative for the rehabilitation agency] to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

This is not the culture we wanted

Ronson also quotes Michael Fertik, from the agency that helped Stone: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist,” Ronson concludes sadly, “but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

This is not the culture we wanted. It’s a public culture that seems broken, but what can we do about it?

For a start, it helps to recognise the problem, but it’s difficult, evidently, for most people to accept the obvious advice: Be forthright in debating topics of general importance, but always subject to some charity and restraint in how you treat particular people. Think through – and not with excuses – what that means in new situations. Be willing to criticise people on your own side if they are being cruel or unfair.

It’s not our job to punish individuals, make examples of them, or suppress their views. Usually we can support our points without any of this; we can do so in ways that are kinder, more honest, more likely to make intellectual progress. The catch is, it requires patience and courage.

Our public culture needs more of this sort of patience, more of this sort of courage. Can we – will we – rise to the challenge?

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

[My page at Academia.edu]

Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion

Faith versus Fact
There is currently a fashion for religion/science accommodationism, the idea that there’s room for religious faith within a scientifically informed understanding of the world.

Accommodationism of this kind gains endorsement even from official science organizations such as, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But how well does it withstand scrutiny?

Not too well, according to a new book by distinguished biologist Jerry A. Coyne.

Gould’s magisteria

The most famous, or notorious, rationale for accommodationism was provided by the celebrity palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. Gould argues that religion and science possess separate and non-overlapping “magisteria”, or domains of teaching authority, and so they can never come into conflict unless one or the other oversteps its domain’s boundaries.

If we accept the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), the magisterium of science relates to “the factual construction of nature”. By contrast, religion has teaching authority in respect of “ultimate meaning and moral value” or “moral issues about the value and meaning of life”.

On this account, religion and science do not overlap, and religion is invulnerable to scientific criticism. Importantly, however, this is because Gould is ruling out many religious claims as being illegitimate from the outset even as religious doctrine. Thus, he does not attack the fundamentalist Christian belief in a young earth merely on the basis that it is incorrect in the light of established scientific knowledge (although it clearly is!). He claims, though with little real argument, that it is illegitimate in principle to hold religious beliefs about matters of empirical fact concerning the space-time world: these simply fall outside the teaching authority of religion.

I hope it’s clear that Gould’s manifesto makes an extraordinarily strong claim about religion’s limited role. Certainly, most actual religions have implicitly disagreed.

The category of “religion” has been defined and explained in numerous ways by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and others with an academic or practical interest. There is much controversy and disagreement. All the same, we can observe that religions have typically been somewhat encyclopedic, or comprehensive, explanatory systems.

Religions usually come complete with ritual observances and standards of conduct, but they are more than mere systems of ritual and morality. They typically make sense of human experience in terms of a transcendent dimension to human life and well-being. Religions relate these to supernatural beings, forces, and the like. But religions also make claims about humanity’s place – usually a strikingly exceptional and significant one – in the space-time universe.

It would be naïve or even dishonest to imagine that this somehow lies outside of religion’s historical role. While Gould wants to avoid conflict, he creates a new source for it, since the principle of NOMA is itself contrary to the teachings of most historical religions. At any rate, leaving aside any other, or more detailed, criticisms of the NOMA principle, there is ample opportunity for religion(s) to overlap with science and come into conflict with it.

Coyne on religion and science

The genuine conflict between religion and science is the theme of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Viking, 2015). This book’s appearance was long anticipated; it’s a publishing event that prompts reflection.

In pushing back against accommodationism, Coyne portrays religion and science as “engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.” Note, however, that he is concerned with theistic religions that include a personal God who is involved in history. (He is not, for example, dealing with Confucianism, pantheism or austere forms of philosophical deism that postulate a distant, non-interfering God.)

Accommodationism is fashionable, but that has less to do with its intellectual merits than with widespread solicitude toward religion. There are, furthermore, reasons why scientists in the USA (in particular) find it politically expedient to avoid endorsing any “conflict model” of the relationship between religion and science. Even if they are not religious themselves, many scientists welcome the NOMA principle as a tolerable compromise.

Some accommodationists argue for one or another very weak thesis: for example, that this or that finding of science (or perhaps our scientific knowledge base as a whole) does not logically rule out the existence of God (or the truth of specific doctrines such as Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection from the dead). For example, it is logically possible that current evolutionary theory and a traditional kind of monotheism are both true.

But even if we accept such abstract theses, where does it get us? After all, the following may both be true:

1. There is no strict logical inconsistency between the essentials of current evolutionary theory and the existence of a traditional sort of Creator-God.

AND

2. Properly understood, current evolutionary theory nonetheless tends to make Christianity as a whole less plausible to a reasonable person.

If 1. and 2. are both true, it’s seriously misleading to talk about religion (specifically Christianity) and science as simply “compatible”, as if science – evolutionary theory in this example – has no rational tendency at all to produce religious doubt. In fact, the cumulative effect of modern science (not least, but not solely, evolutionary theory) has been to make religion far less plausible to well-informed people who employ reasonable standards of evidence.

For his part, Coyne makes clear that he is not talking about a strict logical inconsistency. Rather, incompatibility arises from the radically different methods used by science and religion to seek knowledge and assess truth claims. As a result, purported knowledge obtained from distinctively religious sources (holy books, church traditions, and so on) ends up being at odds with knowledge grounded in science.

Religious doctrines change, of course, as they are subjected over time to various pressures. Faith versus Fact includes a useful account of how they are often altered for reasons of mere expediency. One striking example is the decision by the Mormons (as recently as the 1970s) to admit blacks into its priesthood. This was rationalised as a new revelation from God, which raises an obvious question as to why God didn’t know from the start (and convey to his worshippers at an early time) that racial discrimination in the priesthood was wrong.

It is, of course, true that a system of religious beliefs can be modified in response to scientific discoveries. In principle, therefore, any direct logical contradictions between a specified religion and the discoveries of science can be removed as they arise and are identified. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere (e.g., in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (2012)), religions have seemingly endless resources to avoid outright falsification. In the extreme, almost all of a religion’s stories and doctrines could gradually be reinterpreted as metaphors, moral exhortations, resonant but non-literal cultural myths, and the like, leaving nothing to contradict any facts uncovered by science.

In practice, though, there are usually problems when a particular religion adjusts. Depending on the circumstances, a process of theological adjustment can meet with internal resistance, splintering and mutual anathemas. It can lead to disillusionment and bitterness among the faithful. The theological system as a whole may eventually come to look very different from its original form; it may lose its original integrity and much of what once made it attractive.

All forms of Christianity – Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise – have had to respond to these practical problems when confronted by science and modernity.

Coyne emphasizes, I think correctly, that the all-too-common refusal by religious thinkers to accept anything as undercutting their claims has a downside for believability. To a neutral outsider, or even to an insider who is susceptible to theological doubts, persistent tactics to avoid falsification will appear suspiciously ad hoc.

To an outsider, or to anyone with doubts, those tactics will suggest that religious thinkers are not engaged in an honest search for truth. Rather, they are preserving their favoured belief systems through dogmatism and contrivance.

How science subverted religion

In principle, as Coyne also points out, the important differences in methodology between religion and science might (in a sense) not have mattered. That is, it could have turned out that the methods of religion, or at least those of the true religion, gave the same results as science. Why didn’t they?

Let’s explore this further. The following few paragraphs are my analysis, drawing on earlier publications, but I believe they’re consistent with Coyne’s approach. (Compare also Susan Haack’s non-accommodationist analysis in her 2007 book, Defending Science – within Reason.)

At the dawn of modern science in Europe – back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – religious worldviews prevailed without serious competition. In such an environment, it should have been expected that honest and rigorous investigation of the natural world would confirm claims that were already found in the holy scriptures and church traditions. If the true religion’s founders had genuinely received knowledge from superior beings such as God or angels, the true religion should have been, in a sense, ahead of science.

There might, accordingly, have been a process through history by which claims about the world made by the true religion (presumably some variety of Christianity) were successively confirmed. The process might, for example, have shown that our planet is only six thousand years old (give or take a little), as implied by the biblical genealogies. It might have identified a global extinction event – just a few thousand years ago – resulting from a worldwide cataclysmic flood. Science could, of course, have added many new details over time, but not anything inconsistent with pre-existing knowledge from religious sources.

Unfortunately for the credibility of religious doctrine, nothing like this turned out to be the case. Instead, as more and more evidence was obtained about the world’s actual structures and causal mechanisms, earlier explanations of the appearances were superseded. As science advances historically, it increasingly reveals religion as premature in its attempts at understanding the world around us.

As a consequence, religion’s claims to intellectual authority have become less and less rationally believable. Science has done much to disenchant the world – once seen as full of spiritual beings and powers – and to expose the pretensions of priests, prophets, religious traditions, and holy books. It has provided an alternative, if incomplete and provisional, image of the world, and has rendered much of religion anomalous or irrelevant.

By now, the balance of evidence has turned decisively against any explanatory role for beings such as gods, ghosts, angels, and demons, and in favour of an atheistic philosophical naturalism. Regardless what other factors were involved, the consolidation and success of science played a crucial role in this. In short, science has shown a historical, psychological, and rational tendency to undermine religious faith.

Not only the sciences!

I need to be add that the damage to religion’s authority has come not only from the sciences, narrowly construed, such as evolutionary biology. It has also come from work in what we usually regard as the humanities. Christianity and other theistic religions have especially been challenged by the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and academic biblical scholars.

Those efforts have cast doubt on the provenance and reliability of the holy books. They have implied that many key events in religious accounts of history never took place, and they’ve left much traditional theology in ruins. In the upshot, the sciences have undermined religion in recent centuries – but so have the humanities.

Coyne would not tend to express it that way, since he favours a concept of “science broadly construed”. He elaborates this as: “the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.” On his approach, history (at least in its less speculative modes) and archaeology are among the branches of “science” that have refuted many traditional religious claims with empirical content.

But what is science? Like most contemporary scientists and philosophers, Coyne emphasizes that there is no single process that constitutes “the scientific method”. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is, admittedly, very important to science. That is, scientists frequently make conjectures (or propose hypotheses) about unseen causal mechanisms, deduce what further observations could be expected if their hypotheses are true, then test to see what is actually observed. However, the process can be untidy. For example, much systematic observation may be needed before meaningful hypotheses can be developed. The precise nature and role of conjecture and testing will vary considerably among scientific fields.

Likewise, experiments are important to science, but not to all of its disciplines and sub-disciplines. Fortunately, experiments are not the only way to test hypotheses (for example, we can sometimes search for traces of past events). Quantification is also important… but not always.

However, Coyne says, a combination of reason, logic and observation will always be involved in scientific investigation. Importantly, some kind of testing, whether by experiment or observation, is important to filter out non-viable hypotheses.

If we take this sort of flexible and realistic approach to the nature of science, the line between the sciences and the humanities becomes blurred. Though they tend to be less mathematical and experimental, for example, and are more likely to involve mastery of languages and other human systems of meaning, the humanities can also be “scientific” in a broad way. (From another viewpoint, of course, the modern-day sciences, and to some extent the humanities, can be seen as branches from the tree of Greek philosophy.)

It follows that I don’t terribly mind Coyne’s expansive understanding of science. If the English language eventually evolves in the direction of employing his construal, nothing serious is lost. In that case, we might need some new terminology – “the cultural sciences” anyone? – but that seems fairly innocuous. We already talk about “the social sciences” and “political science”.

For now, I prefer to avoid confusion by saying that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, forming a unity of knowledge. With that terminological point under our belts, we can then state that both the sciences and the humanities have undermined religion during the modern era. I expect they’ll go on doing so.

A valuable contribution

In challenging the undeserved hegemony of religion/science accommodationism, Coyne has written a book that is notably erudite without being dauntingly technical. The style is clear, and the arguments should be understandable and persuasive to a general audience. The tone is rather moderate and thoughtful, though opponents will inevitably cast it as far more polemical and “strident” than it really is. This seems to be the fate of any popular book, no matter how mild-mannered, that is critical of religion.

Coyne displays a light touch, even while drawing on his deep involvement in scientific practice (not to mention a rather deep immersion in the history and detail of Christian theology). He writes, in fact, with such seeming simplicity that it can sometimes be a jolt to recognize that he’s making subtle philosophical, theological, and scientific points.

In that sense, Faith versus Fact testifies to a worthwhile literary ideal. If an author works at it hard enough, even difficult concepts and arguments can usually be made digestible. It won’t work out in every case, but this is one where it does. That’s all the more reason why Faith versus Fact merits a wide readership. It’s a valuable, accessible contribution to a vital debate.

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.

I.

In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.

II.

The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.

III.

As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.

IV.

If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.

V.

The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.

VI.

Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.

VII.

An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.

VIII.

In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

[My Amazon author page]

A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

[My Amazon author page.]

The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech – again – and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill – not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that – if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence – I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.

Ironies

One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should – at least in my view of the world – be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.

Complications

It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill makes the case – quite correctly – that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O’Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights – and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why I still support Charlie Hebdo

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

You know the shocking story: in January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen launched a paramilitary attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. The gunmen murdered twelve people: two police officers and ten of the magazine’s staff, including the much-loved editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”).

In the immediate aftermath, many people expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo’s staff and their loved ones, and with the citizens of Paris. There were vigils and rallies in cities across the world. Twitter hashtags proliferated, the most viral being #JeSuisCharlie: “I am Charlie.”

Yet, as with the Salman Rushdie Affair in 1989, many Western commentators quickly turned on the victims. In an article published in Free Inquiry (warning: behind a paywall), I responded that these commentators deserved a special hall of shame.

Some folks don’t like Charlie

Charlie Hebdo has more than its share of enemies. Its style is irreverent, mocking and caustic. It attracts attention from fanatics, particularly from Islamists who are incensed by its frequent drawings of the prophet Muhammad. Importantly, however, its ridicule is aimed at fearmongers and authoritarians. It is an antifascist magazine, and it treats racial bigots with particular savagery and relish. Its most despised targets include the Front National – France’s brazenly racist party of the extreme Right – and its current president, Marine Le Pen.

While the corpses of the murder victims were still warm, however, some commentators insinuated that Charb and the other victims had it coming. Most deplorable of all, perhaps, was an op-ed piece published by USA Today within hours of the attack. This was written by a London-based radical cleric, Anjem Choudary, who has publicly expressed support for the jihadist militant group ISIS (or Islamic State). Choudary openly blamed the victims, along with the French government for allowing Charlie Hebdo’s freedom to publish.

With evident approval, he stated that the penalty for insulting a prophet should be death, “implementable by an Islamic State.” He added: “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

While Choudary’s apologetics for murder were especially chilling, much sanctimonious nastiness issued from more mainstream commentators. All too often, it came from individuals who identify with the political and cultural Left, as with an article by Teju Cole published in The New Yorker on 9 January 2015.

To be fair, Cole’s contribution to the backlash was milder than some, and certainly more eloquent and thoughtful. He even makes some reasonable points about threats to free speech that are not overtly violent. But his article is worth singling out for comment precisely because of its veneer of sophistication.

Cole appears aware that much of what looks insensitive, or outright racist, in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons could easily receive anti-racist interpretations when viewed with basic charity and in context. He alludes to the fact that one cartoon in a back issue of Charlie Hebdo was explicable, in its immediate context of publication, as a sarcastic attack on the Front National. Yet he dismisses this point with no analysis or evidence: “naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism”.

Well, was it being used to satirise racism or not? Little research is needed to find the context of publication and discover that, yes, it actually was used to mock the racism of the Front National – so what is Cole’s point? And why the sneering word naturally? It is calculated to suggest bad faith on the part of opponents. The thought seems to be that Charlie Hebdo’s defenders would say that, wouldn’t they?

Despite his knowledge and intellect, Cole discourages any fair search for understanding. Despite his brilliance as a writer, he belongs in the hall of shame.

The refugee crisis in Europe

More controversy has come to Charlie Hebdo with the current refugee crisis in Europe. The magazine has ridiculed harsh European attitudes to Syrian refugees, but predictably there has been much moral posturing and hand wringing in the mainstream and social media. A recent report on the ABC News site summarises the international reaction and includes images of the relevant cartoons. Opportunistic, or merely obtuse, commentators allege that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mock the refugees themselves, particularly the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi.

That accusation is seriously and obviously mistaken, and the point of the cartoons is not especially hard to detect. They attack what they portray as European consumerism, bigotry and heartlessness.

Nonetheless, in an astonishingly clumsy article published in New Matilda, Chris Graham takes jabs at those of us who supported Charlie Hebdo last January. He writes: “Did you hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’? Blindly? Without really knowing what the publication actually represents?”

Well, what does the publication actually represent? Graham hints that it’s something rather sinister – perhaps some kind of white or Christian supremacism – but if that’s what he thinks, he doesn’t spell it out so it can be refuted.

At any rate, there is no great secret about what Charlie Hebdo actually represents: it is, as I stated earlier, an antifascist magazine. It is, furthermore, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-clerical, and generally anti-establishment. In brief, Charlie Hebdo is a vehicle for radical left-wing thought of a distinctively French kind, one with antecedents at least as far back as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Speaking for myself, then, I certainly did not act blindly in expressing my solidarity, and I frankly resent that suggestion. By contrast, I’ve seen many people blindly accept the claim that Charlie Hebdo is some kind of racist publication.

Graham describes the cartoons in a way that reveals his confusion. He even comments on one of them: “Apart from the fact it’s not funny, it also makes absolutely no sense. Maybe the ‘humour’ is lost in the translation.”

Maybe any humour could lose something in the literal-minded translation that Graham offers his readers. More to the point, it might be lost on someone who displays no understanding of the French tradition of satire. In any event, why expect that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons will be humorous in the ordinary way? Why shouldn’t they be bleak and bitter and fierce, with no intent to elicit giggles or guffaws?

As this episode plays out, I welcome the newly established JeResteCharlie (“I remain Charlie”) project, and I’m pleased to see a recent contribution to the debate by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie supports JeResteCharlie, he explains, “Because we are living in a time in which we are in danger of backsliding in our commitment to freedom of expression. That is why it is important to emphasize these values yet again right now.”

I agree, and I still support Charlie Hebdo.

Critique and its responsibilities

I don’t suggest that the ideas and approach of Charlie Hebdo are beyond criticism, though I do question how far that was a priority in early January before the murder victims had even been buried. That consideration aside, there is always room for fair, careful interpretation and criticism of cultural products such as prominent magazines.

There is certainly room for debate about whether Charlie Hebdo showed good taste in so quickly exploiting Aylan Kurdi’s death to make a political point (though, again, the cartoons do not mock the boy, whatever else may be said about them). Nothing I have stated here is meant to show that Charlie’s Hebdo’s approach to satire is tasteful. Then again, the magazine’s willingness to flout ordinary standards of taste frees it to make timely, appropriately caustic, comment on French and international politics.

We need good cultural criticism, but we also need some scrutiny of the cultural critics. Much of what passes for cultural criticism merely examines cultural products – whether novels, movies, video games, cartoons, speeches, items of clothing, or comedy routines – for superficial marks of ideological impurity.

This approach ignores (or simply fails to understand) issues of nuance, style, irony, political and artistic context, and the importance of framing effects. It fails to discover – much less appreciate – complexity, ambiguity, or instability of meaning.

There may be occasions when the excuse of irony is offered in bad faith. When that is the accusation, however, it needs support from careful, detailed, sensitive, honest argument. Meanwhile, authors and artists should not be pressured to create banal content for fear of dull or dishonest interpreters. There are some contexts, no doubt – e.g. in writing posts like this one – where straightforwardness is a virtue. In many other contexts, that’s not necessarily so.

Fair, useful cultural criticism should display some humility in the face of art. It should be grounded in an understanding of context and the relevant styles and traditions of expression. If we propose to engage in critique of cultural products, we had better show some complexity and generosity of response. That is how we earn our places in serious cultural conversations.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The monsters of Jurassic World

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss – and perhaps clarify – them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits – I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other – we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world.

Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun – scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie – alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters’ attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly – they are pretty much treated as dino fodder – but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil – the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator – a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more – perhaps triply? – unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.

Conclusion

Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive – and perhaps as simply inevitable – whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons – valuable or otherwise – play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and

  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Life during the culture wars

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Our political Manichaeism

Throughout his recent book Moral Tribes (2013), American psychologist and experimental philosopher Joshua Greene portrays a cultural and political tribalism that divides modern liberal democracies into groups of angry, warring enemies.

Likewise, high-profile social psychologist Jonathan Haidt emphasizes what he sees as a “political Manichaeism” in current cultural and political debate. Manichaeism was an ancient religion, dating from the 3rd century, whose key teaching was a supernatural dualism of absolute good and evil confronting each other in an ongoing cosmic struggle. Too often, it appears, disputants over cultural and political issues take a similar attitude; they see themselves as involved in a struggle for political power against utterly evil opponents. This creates an environment inhospitable to compromise, reason, good will, and ordinary civility.

In such an environment, tribalists demand ever more costly displays of ideological purity from their allies: this can involve insisting on more and more extreme views, as well as self-censoring any doubts or heretical impulses. At the same time, the culture warriors of rival tribes view opponents as morally corrupt, and as fair game for social destruction.

In the extreme, moral tribalists engage in threatened or actual violence, directed at others whom they regard as evildoers or complicit in evil. Among the worst examples are the murders committed by radical Islamists, such as those who attacked the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and the actions of extreme right-wing terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. Breivik was judged by the Norwegian justice system to be legally sane, but he subscribed to a bizarre and apocalyptic conspiracy theory involving attempts by elite “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

When nastiness becomes normal

Radical Islamists and extreme conspiracy theorists such as Breivik cling to ideological systems that are far outside the mainstream in Western liberal democracies. However, more mainstream participants in cultural and political debate, some of whom would never resort to outright acts of violence, can also be culpable in creating an environment in which nuance, charity, and compromise disappear.

When this becomes commonplace, we can find ourselves treating it as normal and acceptable. We may find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who merely disagree with us on issues and may have done little or nothing wrong. We may seek to advance our favoured causes by taking names and claiming scalps, rather than exploring and debating ideas. As a result, largely (or entirely) innocent people can have their good names trashed, their lives made miserable, and their careers damaged or ruined.

In some cases, mainstream politicians cannot resist getting in on the act. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to accept that politics is a dirty game and that it is (sort of) okay for professional politicians to try to destroy each other’s credibility and careers. That may be an ugly sight, but it’s so much worse when powerful politicians turn on far less powerful individuals, treating them as enemies to be destroyed.

The firing of Scott McIntyre

Consider the the harsh treatment of Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service, in Australia.

What was McIntyre’s crime? He did no more than publish a series of trenchant tweets criticising the mythos of Anzac Day.

Taken as a sequence, the offending tweets stated as follows: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered. The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society. Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Many of us might disagree with McIntyre’s sentiments, or at least feel uncomfortable with their emphasis; we might raise our eyebrows at their expression on a solemn national day for remembering those who died or suffered in war; and we might deplore McIntyre’s tone, including his apparent contempt for many of his fellow citizens (“poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers”). McIntyre may be open to some kind of moral criticism for the tweets, their wording, and their timing. Nonetheless, his views lie well within the usual boundaries for tolerance and consideration in a liberal democratic society.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume there are some opinions that are beyond the pale of tolerance. Views involving the advocacy of genocide are obvious candidates. Staff who are closely identified with their employer – such as its senior managers or individuals who provide its public face in one way or another – inevitably bring the employer into disrepute if they publicly express truly hateful, Nazi-like viewpoints. But nothing in McIntyre’s tweets was remotely like that: despite the aggressive language he chose, he expressed opposition to violence, not advocacy of it, and he sketched a rather tame and familiar left-wing critique of war and what he evidently understood as its glorification.

Yet, the SBS moved swiftly (with “decisive action”, as its senior managers expressed it) to fire him with immediate effect. This followed an outcry on Twitter that included denunciation of McIntyre by a government minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Here, then, we see a crucial issue. Should such powerful individuals as the ministers of national governments be using their very large public platforms to attack individual citizens who are not professional politicians or others with great power?

All sides of politics

I hasten to add that the problem does not lie on just one side of politics, though government attacks on public broadcasters provide some salient examples in Australia.

Notwithstanding such examples, the problem can be found on all sides of contemporary cultural and political controversy. Left-wing political activists are not always clean. Indeed, they often seek to advance their causes by opportunistic attacks on individuals who are portrayed as somehow deserving it. Hyperbolic and uncharitable attacks on specific, identifiable people provide a well-established tactic on the Left, one that was explicitly advocated by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky in his influential “how to” book, Rules for Radicals.

As I described in a post at Talking Philosophy, and republished recently on my personal blog, political activists may rally supporters by pretending that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Alinsky candidly acknowledged, the opponent – the person considered to be in the wrong in a particular situation – may actually, on a more objective assessment, have some admirable qualities and be 40 per cent right. As a result, activists often isolate and demonise essentially decent, reasonable people, pretend that situations are far more dire than they really are, and otherwise engage in deliberate misrepresentations. Those who are rallied – rather than doing the rallying – may thus come to misperceive named individuals not only as their opponents but as morally vicious people who are fair game for ill-treatment.

There may be no substitute for such tactics in genuinely dire situations where many people are suffering terribly, and where activists desperately need swift, dramatic victories to ameliorate the suffering. Thus, we may not regret that dishonest and hurtful tactics have been used in the past to achieve victories against slum lords, exploitative corporations, and oppressive regimes. However, distasteful it may be to say so, perhaps the ends can justify the means in truly urgent circumstances.

But even if we accept that much, what kind of society will we be living in if this approach becomes normalised? Do we want a cultural and political environment where intellectual dishonesty, social destruction of individuals, and pressures to engage in tribal displays (shows of ideological purity and of a willingness to adopt extreme views) become the daily currency of social interaction?

Our predicament

Much of our current political and cultural disputation takes the form of culture warring, waged across many fronts, rather than good-faith attempts at mutual understanding and shared deliberation. This is not, of course, entirely new. Social media such as Twitter and the blogosphere make it more visible, but we might wonder whether it is actually any worse than, say, twenty years ago.

Such trends are difficult to measure. Haidt, for one, is convinced that there has been a decline in civility and mutual good will in American politics – and if he’s correct, his observations probably apply beyond the US. On the other hand, we might recall the extremes of other decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s (the volatile era when I came of age).

However new it may be, the Manichaeism that Haidt identifies appears to be real. If that’s not obvious, try it out as a working hypothesis. You’ll likely see ongoing outrage, abuse, and demonisation of opponents from all sides of political and cultural debate. Note that the warring sides will not always be Right versus Left in the traditional sense. That has changed in the new culture wars of the twenty-first century: unusual alliances are forming, often cutting across old divisions or exposing deep disagreements within what we think of as the Right or the Left.

Cultural warfare is dividing good people from each other, creating a general environment of hostility where many of us are constantly on hair-triggers (and where many people feel they must self-censor or else be turned on by their own tribes). All of this hurts good people, lowers the quality of debate, distorts our understanding of the problems we confront, and harms the process of democratic deliberation.

What’s less clear is what we can do about it. I’ll return to that in later posts.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.