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Civility, Testimonial Injustice, and Commitment to Philosophy

black-and-white photograph of man and woman yelling into megaphones

The American people are extremely politically polarized. Polling shows that this divide is only increasing, particularly on issues of race and gender. Recent revelations that have come out as a result of whistleblowing about the practices of Facebook confirm what many of us probably already expected based on our own personal experiences — social media makes these chasms even wider by contributing to the spread of false information and creating echo chambers for groups of like-minded extremists to speak to one another at the exclusion of any dissenting voices or disconfirming evidence.

The state of politics today has many people longing for an imaginary past in which those who disagreed did so respectfully. In this utopia, we focus exclusively on the merits of arguments (the good kind) rather than simply attacking people. We recognize that dissent is healthy, and we appreciate the insight of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty when he said,

the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. 

Here, Mill illustrates a certain kind of learning process — one that is employed by Socrates in his conversations with the citizens of Athens. To understand which conclusions we ought to adopt, we ought to listen to the arguments that people make. If we identify an error in reasoning, we can calmly point it out and everyone involved will be the better for it, as it might bring us all that much closer to truth. Perhaps, like Socrates, the finer points of our arguments will be met from even the staunchest dissenter from our position with a “that is undeniable” or “that is perfectly true” for good measure.

So, is it “philosophy to the rescue!”? One way of responding to our current predicament is to insist that everyone needs a strong education in logic and critical thinking. People need to develop the ability not only to recognize the commission of a fallacy when they see it, but also to frequently (and in good faith) reflect on their own body of beliefs and attitudes. We need to collectively get better at checking for cognitive bias and errors in reasoning in both ourselves and others.

On the other hand, we might ask ourselves whether the above account of Plato and Mill is an accurate description of the circumstances in which we are likely to find ourselves. A more compelling insight might be one from 18th century philosopher David Hume who famously said, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Hume makes the argument the reason alone does not and cannot motivate us to act — it is our passions that do that. If this is the case, then if we want to arrive at a common understanding or come together in motivation toward a common cause, we need to understand the complexities of one another’s psychologies; we need to recognize the common forces that might potentially move us to action. We might have arguments for our positions, but is it really those arguments that motivate us to act in the ways that we do?

Moreover, to insist that what’s needed now in contemporary culture is more civil discourse may be to fail to recognize certain obvious facts about the way that the world works. In an ideal world, it might be the case that we could all offer arguments, and expect to be heard and understood. However, the non-ideal world in which we find ourselves is a world characterized by power dynamics and replete with testimonial injustice. Groups with power are more likely to be listened to and believed than groups without it. The claims of the rich, for instance, are often given a considerably larger platform than the claims of the poor. What’s more, those on the desirable side of the power dynamic are more likely to describe themselves and to be described by others as “rational.” Often, these descriptions confuse the category of the “rational” with the category of “positions held by the powerful.”

Philosophers from antiquity have identified the capacity to reason as the essence of a human being, but, just as reliably, the concept of rationality has been weaponized to create “us” and “them” groups which are subsequently called upon to insist on “rights for me but not for thee.” Consider, for instance the Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche’s description of the way women’s minds work:

…normally they are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover. Everything abstract is incomprehensible to them. They cannot use their imagination for working out tangled and complex questions. They consider only the surface of things, and their imagination has insufficient strength and insight to pierce it to the heart, comparing all the parts, without being distracted. A trifle is enough to distract them, the slightest cry frightens them, the least motion fascinates them. Finally, the style and not the reality of things suffices to occupy their minds to capacity; because insignificant things produce great motions in the delicate fibers of their brains, and these things necessarily excite great and vivid feelings in their souls, completely occupying it.

Indeed, many figures in the history of philosophy who argue that rationality is the essential human function are also quick to insist that not all human beings participate in this essence. For Aristotle, for example, groups that are not capable of engaging in the kinds of practical deliberations requisite for virtue, namely women and “natural slaves,” are the kinds of beings that are rightly ruled over.

In light of the weaponized history of the very concept of rationality, it is no surprise that there might be barriers to genuine rational discourse and debate — people may not recognize the biases they bring to the discussion and they may not be self-reflective enough to understand that there may be voices to which they are less likely to listen or to treat as credible. If this is the case, we run into another problem for civil discourse. When people have been the recipients of testimonial injustice often enough, they may no longer be calm about it. They may be angry, and that anger may be justified. Demands, then, for “rationality” may just be tone-policing by the group to which people have always listened.

What lessons should lovers of philosophy learn from all of this? Evaluation of arguments is, after all, what we do. Should these considerations encourage us to give up our most deeply-held convictions as philosophers? Probably not. But it should prompt us to be more reflective about the broader social and political landscapes in which we make and, perhaps more importantly, listen to arguments.

On Speaking Up in Polite Company

photograph of place settings at table for Christmas dinner

One of the less joyous aspects of a typical holiday season is breaking bread with family members whose views one finds not merely wrongheaded, but abhorrent. When they choose to air those views around the table, one faces a dilemma: speak up or quietly endure? As with so many choices we encounter in our daily lives, philosophy can help us sort out the good arguments for acting from the bad.

There are three basic positions one could take on this issue: that we always ought to speak up, that we never ought to speak up, and that we sometimes ought to speak up. I will consider these positions in turn, arguing that the last is probably the correct one.

There are at least four arguments for always speaking up. The first is that if you don’t speak up, you are a hypocrite. The second is that if you don’t speak up, then you are choosing to do what is “polite,” rather than what is morally required. But the norms of politeness are always trumped by moral norms, so one ought to always speak up. The third argument is that we are naturally inclined not to speak up, so the best policy — the policy that will ensure that we do the right thing most often — is to always speak up. Finally, the fourth argument is that it is always possible to speak up diplomatically, thereby mitigating any harm that might be done by speaking up.

The hypocrisy argument leads with a false premise and then begs the question. It is simply not the case that if you don’t speak up, you’re a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who makes a pretense of conformity to some value or norm for illegitimate reasons. (This is why hypocrisy is a term of opprobrium.) Even if not speaking up always involved making a false impression that one agrees with some sentiment or adheres to some norm, one’s reasons for not speaking up need not be illegitimate. For example, maintaining familial tranquility for the sake of others is not always an illegitimate reason. In any case, the argument also assumes that being a hypocrite is always a morally bad thing. But hypocrisy can be morally justified, at least all-things-considered. For example, it may be permissible for a sexist employer to hire well-qualified female employees in order to impress a progressive female colleague. Here, the employer’s hypocrisy is arguably justified by the good results it produces.

The politeness argument simply assumes that the norms of politeness are not moral norms. But in many cases, etiquette supports morality. The requirement to be courteous, for example, seems to derive its force and legitimacy from the clearly moral requirements to show basic respect or to be kind. As Karen Stohr argues, the conventions of etiquette are the primary means by which we express our moral attitudes and carry out important moral goals. So, in choosing to do what is polite, one does not always depart from the norms of morality. If politeness requires not speaking up, that may be because it is the morally right thing to do.

The claim that always speaking up is the best policy may well be true. After all, most of us are probably seriously biased in favor of not speaking up. So, adopting an inflexible policy of always speaking up may maximize our chances of doing the right thing. But from the fact that the policy of always speaking up will most often lead us to do the right thing it does not follow that speaking up is always the right thing to do. In general, we are sometimes justified in adopting moral policies if they lead us to do the right thing most often, even if they sometimes lead us morally astray. For example, if I know that I am a bad sport at tennis, I may adopt a policy of sprinting away from my opponent after a loss to keep myself giving him the middle finger. This policy will lead me to refrain from doing the wrong thing most of the time, and so may be the one I ought to adopt, even though there may be instances where my opponent richly deserves the finger.

The fourth argument, that we are always able to speak up diplomatically, can help us see a bit more clearly what speaking up involves. It seems to me that it is impossible to speak up diplomatically. Diplomats try to finesse conflict to the point that it ceases to appear to be conflict. Speaking up means, at minimum, making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible. So, far from always being able to speak up diplomatically, we are in fact not speaking up if we try to do it diplomatically. What we should perhaps aim at is speaking up civilly, but this just means that we should speak up with politeness or courtesy, by showing basic respect to our opponent. This is different from finessing our conflict with our opponent, and even civil opposition can be highly inflammatory in certain contexts.

The arguments for always speaking up appear to be flawed in various ways. On the other hand, the arguments for never speaking up seem to be even worse. Some people will point out that speaking up will rarely change one’s opponent’s mind. This may well be true, but rarely changing one’s opponent’s mind is not the same as never doing so. More fundamentally, for the argument to work, it must assume that the only purpose of speaking up is to change one’s opponent’s mind. In fact, it seems to me that the reason one should speak up is primarily to signal to others that one does or does not support some sentiment, norm, or value, which may give them comfort, strength, or the courage to voice their own views. For example, if a family member voices strong contempt for homosexuality in front of one’s gay cousin, signaling that one does not agree with that contempt can let the cousin know that she is not alone or unloved, and may empower others in the family to confront the homophobe. The signaling function of speaking up is why I earlier claimed that speaking up means making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible: one must send a clear signal of one’s opposition in order to comfort or encourage others.

We come, then, to the conclusion that we sometimes ought to speak up. But when should we do it? The answer in abstract is deceptively simple, even simplistic: when doing so would bring about more good than any other option realistically available. In saying this, I am doing nothing more than applying the moral doctrine of consequentialism to a practical problem. Consequentialism tells us that we ought to judge an action’s rightness by its consequences, and I see no reason why this philosophy does not capture every morally relevant feature of the problem of speaking up.

In saying that the right thing to do with respect to speaking up is whatever brings about the most good, however, I am not necessarily recommending that people try to perform a consequentialist calculus whenever they face such situations. In practice it may be difficult to know which options available to us will do more good than others. Our epistemic limitations, together with our own biases against conflict, are reasons why we might be justified from a consequentialist point of view in adopting a policy of always speaking up — even if sometimes this policy will lead us to speak up when doing so will not bring about the most good.

Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility

drawing of sword duel with top-hatted spectators

It often seems like the internet suffers from a civility problem: log onto your favorite social media platform and no doubt you’ll come across a lot of people angrily arguing with one another and failing to make any real progress on any points of disagreement, especially when it comes to political issues. A common complaint is that the “other side” is failing to engage in discussion in the right kind of way: perhaps they are not giving opposing views the credit they think they deserve, or are being overly dismissive, or are simply shutting down discussion before it can get started. We might think that if everyone were just to be a bit more civil, perhaps we could make some progress towards reconciliation in a divided world.

But what, exactly, is this requirement to be civil? And should be civil when it comes to our online interactions?

At first glance the answer to our first question might be obvious: we should certainly be civil when talking with others online, and especially when we disagree with them. Perhaps you have something like the following in mind: it is unproductive in a disagreement to name-call, or use excessive profanities, or to generally be rude or contemptuous of someone else. Acting in this way doesn’t seem to get us anywhere, and so seems to be something to be generally avoided.

However, when people in online debates accuse the others of failing to be civil, they are often not simply referring to matters of mere etiquette. One of the more common complaints with regards to the lack of civility is that the other side will refuse to engage with someone on a topic about which they disagree, or else if they do discuss it, not discuss it on their terms. A quick stroll through Twitter will bring up numerous examples of claims that one’s opponents are not engaging in “civil discourse”:

“I can essentially find something we agree on through civil discourse with anyone willing to engage in it. Society has become so sheltered that too many brats think their opinions matter more than others.”

“If you are in America here, none of you understand this. Pick up a copy [of the constitution] and read it, study it, and then maybe we can engage in civil discourse. Until then you need to sit down and remain silent.”

Notably, many of those who have been banned from one or more social media platforms have claimed that their banning is a result of the relevant companies refusing to engage in the kind of civil discourse of which they take themselves to be champions. Consider, for example, former Alex Jones writer and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson who, upon his banning from Facebook, tweeted the following:

“The left has learned that they can silence dissent by labelling anyone they disagree with an ‘extremist’. I am not an ‘extremist’. I disavow all violence. I encourage peaceful, civil discourse. Anyone who has met me or is familiar with my work knows this”

Or consider the following from journalist Jesse Signal:

“90% of the time ‘I will not debate someone who is arguing against my right to exist’ is simply a false derailing tactic, but if someone DOES deny your right to exist, and is in a position of power and willing to debate you, how crazy would it be to NOT debate them??”

Signal’s tweet was in response to backlash in response to his writings on trans issues, in which many took him to be portraying the trans population in America as consisting largely of people who seek to transition because of mental illness or trauma, many of whom ultimately end up regretting their decision. Signal, then, takes the refusal of trans persons to debate with him about the nature of their very being to be a “derailing” tactic, while Watson claimed that his views, regardless of their content, ought to be allowed to be expressed because he is doing so in a manner that he takes to be civil.

In the above tweets (and many others) we can see a couple of different claims about civil online discourse: the first is that so long as one’s views are expressed in a civil manner then they deserve to be heard, while the second is that an opponent who refuses to engage in such civil discussion is doing something wrong. What should be make of these claims?

In response to the Signal tweet and the resulting controversy, Josephine Livingstone argues that “[d]ebate is fruitful when the terms of the conversation are agreed upon by both parties…In fact, it is the “debate me, coward” crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.” The worry, then, is that when one demands debate from one’s opponent, one is really demanding debate on the grounds that they themselves accept. When one’s grounds and those of one’s opponent are fundamentally at odds, however – consider again the charge that Signal wants to debate people whose very right to existence he is denying – it seems impossible to make any real progress.

As Livingstone notes, there is a persistent culture of those who call for debate and, when this call is inevitably ignored, cry that one’s opponents somehow fail to meet some standard of civil discourse. The thought is that refusing to engage with an opponent in civil discourse, then, is a sign of cowardice, or that one is secretly worried that one’s views are false or will not hold up to scrutiny. But of course this is hardly what has to be the case: dismissing or putting an end to a discussion that fails to be productive is not a tacit admittance of defeat or insecurity in one’s views. Instead, if there does not seem like there will be any progress made because the discussion is not productive, refusing to engage or ending it might be the best course of action.

The assumption that there can be some kind of neutral ground for debate, then, will already make demands on one’s opponent when their values are fundamentally different from one’s own. Again, if you are arguing that I should not have the right to exist it is difficult to see how we could reach any kind of midway point on which to have a discussion, or why I should be required to do this in the first place. Far from failing to meet a standard of civility, then, refusing to engage in what one takes to be civil discourse does not seem like any kind of failing when doing so would prove unproductive.

Political Incivility, Justified?

Photograph of many people holding signs at a political rally

“Civility” has been in the news recently. Stories of allegedly uncivil behavior in politics have received much coverage. The most recent event to kick off so much consternation was the decision of the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia to refuse to service to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders because of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy and the President’s desire to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Even more recently, Maxine Waters, a Democratic congressperson, told rally attendees that protestors should take even more confrontational steps against Administration officials—confronting them as they go about their daily lives pumping gas, shopping, or eating in restaurants. The President himself has been accused many times of acting uncivilly towards others. One need only browse his past tweets to see comments using demeaning and insulting language to describe individuals he views as enemies of himself or his administration. Continue reading “Political Incivility, Justified?”