Politics masquerading as Philosophy

I occasionally visit the blog Talking Philosophy, where a gaggle of working philosophers/professors of philosophy infrequently pontificate on anything that strikes their fancy.  Most of the articles are interesting, fun analyses of obscure topics, quasi-satirical take-downs of bad argumentation, or explorations of philosophical concepts.  Still others are teaser posts for the philosopher’s publications.  Great stuff, highly recommended.

Some, however, are political exhortations couched in the language of philosophy, presumably to give meandering sermons some degree of academic legitimacy.  BLS Nelson’s most recent post is an example of the latter; the arguments non-existent, the examples misleading, and the politics so obvious that even a philosophical veneer doesn’t hide the pulpit.  Indeed, the first comment says 90% of what needs to be said; it’s two pages of a message that could have been distilled into a twitter feed, and probably should have.

The post started strong, briefly outlining the benefits and drawbacks of critical thinking.  However, he couldn’t finish the first paragraph without a token dis to conservatives, and an irrational one at that.  Ironically, while the conservative blog he linked to in The American Conservative was indeed talking about critical thinking in a decidedly woo-ish manner, they were both making parallel points!

We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.

Yes, dear reader, the content and context of what you just read is a rough approximation of warranted deference.  Not once does the “conservative” relate his point to politics, nor does he claim that critical thinkers don’t “trust”, only that “Nobody can live by critical thinking alone.”  If what follows in BLS’ post is “critical thinking”, I’m with the conservative.

Anyways, he then goes on to list “two maxims related to deference”

(a) The meanings of words are fixed by authorities who are well informed about a subject.e.g., we defer to the international community of astronomers to tell us what a particular nebula is called, and we defer to them if they should like to redefine their terms of art. On matters of definition, we owe authorities our deference.

(b) An individual’s membership in the group grants them prime facie authority to speak truthfully about the affairs of that group. e.g., if I am speaking to physicists about their experiences as physicists, then all other things equal I will provisionally assume that they are better placed to know about their subject than I am. The physicist may, for all I know, be a complete buffoon. (S)he is a physicist all the same.

On (a), I have no trouble with the “maxim”, but I quote it because you’ll notice that he later attempts to use the logic here to prop up a social argument.  More on that below.

On (b), I agree with the maxim (insofar as “prima facie” is included), but his example is a mess.  The first sentence of the example begins by making a mundane point about the “experiences” of physicists as physicists, then takes a sharp turn down a blind alley by changing the subject to. . .well, the subject ‘physics’.  It’s a subtle shift, and though I doubt it’s intentional, it’s shamefully sloppy.  Furthermore, the force of the example should properly be found in that second sentence, and without consistency, it has neither force nor coherence.  It’s one thing to be the member of a group, it’s rather another to study a subject intensely enough to be a bona fide authority; it’s the difference between being a human that behaves, and being a proper student of human behavior.

He then makes the claim that both maxims “follow directly from the assumption that your interlocutor, whoever they are, deserved to be treated with dignity.”(emphasis mine).  Not without a pile of other premises, my man.  You can treat anyone with dignity without accepting their authority, even provisionally, on the “group” to which they belong.  If you have zero information about that group(think: alien liason), one individual’s testimony is insufficient to establish anything like a reasonable approximation of the truth of that group’s experiences.  If you have alternate information from equally “authoritative” sources, one individual’s counter-testimony won’t immediately grant the most recent account ascendance.  Furthermore, this is nearly identical to the argument made by the conservative blog BLS links to in the beginning.  It’s about dignity, not “good reasons in(sic) cooperative conversation.”

What is brushed aside here is all of the information we have which informs the scope of testimony that we will accept from any individual from any group.  Presumably, BLS won’t accept the testimony of a latino lesbian that contains an account of the privileged status of latinos or lesbians in western culture.  He will be at pains to explain why he would reject such an account, however, were he to rely on the reasoning he presents in this post.  Clearly, the level of trust we place in testimony has far more to do with consistency with past experience than with “group membership” or marginalized status.

Continuing with pseudo-philosophical linearity, he presents a “banal” (read: moral) conclusion:

(c) Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on matters relating to how group (y) is defined.

I won’t bore you with an analysis of his example, first and foremost because it doesn’t make any sense if it isn’t obviously false.  The important point here is that he nowhere clarifies what he means by “defined”.  Does he mean how one is to be included in group (y)?  Does he mean the totality of group (y)’s experiences?  Does he mean an average characteristic experience of (y)?  It’s frankly ambiguous, and this is a problem, because “defined” is what his entire “argument” rests on.

Now, if the political aspect of this post wasn’t obvious from the start, he makes it patently so with his “logical instantiation” (i.e. in other words) of (c):

(c’) Members of privileged groups ought to defer to marginalized groups on matters relating to how the marginalized group is defined. For example, if a man gives a woman a lecture on what counts as being womanly, then the man is acting in an absurd way, and the conversation ought to end there.

Again we’re left wondering what he means by “defined”, but his example does us no good.  The devil is in the details, and in this case, the devil is language.  The contrast of “privileged groups” and “marginalized groups” is a grope at our heartstrings, an emotional appeal rather than a straightforward “instantiation” of (c).  It’s loaded, to say the least.  So too the remainder of the example.  Man “lecturing” woman alludes to a dominance relationship, one of many boogymen(persons?) since second-wave feminism gained preeminence in political discourse.  We’re taught to recoil, on pain of social ostracism, from approving in any way, shape, or form of demonstrations of male dominance.  It is, not just un-hip, but downright shameful, and has little or nothing to do with what the man is lecturing about.  The wording was either chosen deliberately for precisely that reason, or unconsciously out of an inability to police the author’s own tendency to use emotion over reason in making his arguments.  The intellectually honest approach would have been to flip the example and allow his reasoning, rather than social pressure, carry his point (if it can).

Some hint of what he might mean by “defined” is to be found in his phrase “what counts as being womanly”, but this fails to meet the challenge for all the reasons we might bring to bear on politically and socially charged issues.  Consider for a moment a different phrasing:

For example, if a woman gives another woman a lecture on what counts as being womanly, then the first woman is acting in an absurd way, and the conversation ought to end there.

Is it fair to say that even women shouldn’t be given “prima facae authority” pertaining to “what counts as being womanly”?  I would think so.  If even women can’t reasonably “lecture” other women on the definition of ‘woman’, or what it means to be “womanly”, why was it necessary to use ‘men’ in his example?  What possible good does it do his argument?  What clarity is gained with this method?  I submit that nothing philosophically relevant is elucidated with this example, and it was tailor made to bend, nay, shame, the reader into acquiescing to the conclusion.

You reject this maxim?  Then clearly you find men lecturing women on their “place” an acceptable practice.

We’ve learned nothing save how to play dirty.  He even slyly insinuates this by referring to those who find (c’) controversial as “some sorts of people.”  Delightfully ambiguous; this is what’s called plausible deniability(i.e. how cowards insult people).

But BLS is not without subtlety, as he demonstrates by providing an extreme example (d) of “conclusion” (c), essentially denying that members of group (x) are entirely lacking any authority on the experiences/definition of group (y).  Great, but the gulf between (d) and (c) is what “some sorts of people” find controversial, so it does no good to gesture vaguely at said gulf as though it’s orthogonal to the discussion.  The post is, after all, about warranted deference.  Apparently, it’s not never, and it’s not always.  Bravo.

The remainder of his post is a sort of hurried mush-mash of lecturing about discourse and the like.  My favorite is his redefining of the term ‘silencing’:

To be silenced is to be prevented from speaking, or to be prevented from being heard on the basis of perverse non-reasons (e.g., prejudice and stereotyping).

Those of you who follow the shenanigans in the “atheist community” will understand the buzz-word-laden addendum (and the scare quotes).  To be silenced is to be prevented from speaking, or to be prevented from being heard.  Period.  It’s still silencing if you think your reasons are acceptable, so the “on the basis of [blah blah]” is just a whole lot of “it’s not silencing when I do it”.

His final example is not a continuation of his argument, but rather what’s called “putting a fine point on it”, in this case ‘it’ being “check your privilege”.

And if Petra is a member of a marginalized group, it is no good to say that Petra has no knowledge of what counts as being part of that group.

Yes, if you’ve been paying attention, that’s a “logical instantiation” of (d), not (c) as he would like you to believe.  Any student of persuasive writing will recognize the essential task of leaving your reader with a succinct copy of your central point when closing.  Instead of doing so, he retreated to the extreme, trivially true form of his central point because, I suspect, he is at least unconsciously aware that he hasn’t persuaded us of anything.  Are members of a group more, or less, likely to accurately define said group?  What does that even mean, and who adjudicates the matter?  These are the questions left unanswered, and they are what fill the gulf between (d) and (c).

Why do I care?  Well, it’s just the internet, but after first reading a more recent post from the same site, called Critical Thinking and College, BLS’ points seemed to clash mightily with a paragraph from that one:

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.(emphasis mine)