Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stop the Non-Confrontational Bullshit

I have recently been struck by a segment of the population that holds the following commitments:
(a)  The Free Speech Principle: Free speech should not be restricted, even in cases where this involves the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ideas.
(b)  The Anti-Bigotry Principle: Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are bad, and we should seek to eliminate them.
(c)   The Non-Confrontational Principle: Because discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are uncomfortable, we should seek to avoid them.
The tension between these three principles should be evident. In particular, the tension between free speech and anti-bigotry are the topic of much debate. For the sake of argument, I will grant that they can somehow be reconciled, such that we know how to handle the tough cases in which they offer conflicting counsel. Let me also say that, even beyond the sake of argument, I am sympathetic to both.
            I am more interested in how the non-confrontational principle interacts with these two commitments. The non-confrontational principle doesn’t have quite the air of moral authority of the free speech and anti-bigotry principles. Of course, ceteris paribus, we should not make people uncomfortable, but very rarely is ceteris paribus in any discussion that matters. For instance, we should not avoid talking about colon cancer because thinking about someone’s ulcerated GI tract makes some of us squeamish. Similarly, we should not avoid talking about racism simply because highlighting its mechanisms and effects makes some of us self-conscious.
There is also something especially hypocritical about outspoken advocates of free speech and anti-bigotry being non-confrontational. After all, if one believes that free speech is important enough that one is willing to grant it to bigots, whom one recognizes are doing a bad thing that should be eliminated, then it seems very odd to discourage others from exercising their free speech with the aim of identifying bigotry and its effects—these would appear to be good things given one’s opposition to bigotry.
Yet, I think that a nontrivial segment of the left espouses precisely these three commitments. Given that the non-confrontational principle does not appear to enjoy the same status as the free speech and anti-bigotry principles, and also seems to invite legitimate charges of hypocrisy, why would one hold it? I speculate that, in some cases at least, a plausible explanation is the phenomenon known as white fragility. Robin DiAngelo nicely summarizes the core of this phenomenon:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
If white fragility is in place, then the non-confrontational principle is a plausible ideology for reinforcing “white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” If we’re to avoid uncomfortable conversations about race, as the non-confrontational principle recommends, then real talk about race is taboo, uncouth, etc.
However, I want to point out that white people aren’t alone in this. Many victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. also want to recruit the non-confrontational principle. However, there are good reasons to think that there is no black, female, etc. fragility that explains their invocation of the non-confrontational principle. First, people in marginalized groups do not enjoy the same kind of “comfort” that DiAngelo attributes to those exhibiting white fragility. Second, members of marginalized groups experience racial (and other kinds of) stress more routinely than those who exhibit white fragility. Third, one’s opportunities to display emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation, are often an artifact of not being the victim of racism, sexism, etc., i.e. of privilege. (To choose an example close to home: an Arab guy with a shaved head, deep voice, etc. is only allowed to display a limited range of anger and frustration before he comes across as ‘intimidating,’ ‘threatening,’ etc.) I think that all of this points against the idea that non-white fragilities explain marginalized individuals’ use of the non-confrontational principle.
Now, perhaps these considerations make marginalized individuals’ invocation of the non-confrontational principle more justified. Furthermore, members of marginalized groups are generally more consistent than their more fragile counterparts: they frequently deny that bigots should have unlimited free speech. This removes much of the hypocrisy. However, it does not erase the initial shortcomings of the principle, namely that it lacks a sound justification. For instance, even if one is routinely made uncomfortable by discussions of other people’s GI tracts, that is no reason to avoid talking about colon cancer. Similarly, even if one is the victim of routine bigotry, that is no reason to avoid conversations about bigotry.

For my part, I remain committed to giving everyone fairly august rights to free speech. I want to know what the bigots are thinking, and want to use every means of nonviolent expression available to tell them the twenty-seven different ways that they’re horrible people. I also want to tell all those fragile white people to get over themselves. So, I say to everyone: let’s stop it with all this non-confrontational bullshit.

Monday, April 24, 2017

How to be a Pragmatist in the Philosophy of Science (Part I)

I recently attended a workshop called “The Pragmatic Alternative.” The big question of the conference was “What is pragmatism in the philosophy of science?” Here I offer my own answer to that question. As I see it, pragmatism’s main foil is representationalism. I define representationalism as the philosophical doctrine that scientific representations’ capacity for mirroring stuff in the world accounts for the success of scientific practices. Here, representations are theories, models, etc.; mirroring includes relations of correspondence, similarity, and various kinds of iso- and homomorphisms; and stuff in the world includes objects, properties, and structures. I take the phrase “accounting for” to include, but not be limited to, philosophical analysis, explication, and explanation. At root, representationalism is a commitment about the direction of such accounts: mirroring accounts for scientific success.

The traditional reason to reject representationalism concern so-called “placement problems.” Very roughly if part of our successful scientific practice entails that X exists, then representationalists must explain the success of the practice in terms of its ability to mirror X’s in the world. However, some of our scientific practices entail modal stuff: laws, causes, necessities, possibilities, chances, etc. How to place modal stuff into a naturalistic worldview is widely thought to be problematic. For some, this is reason to abandon representationalism.

Enter my brand of pragmatism, which turns representationalism’s account on its head: successful scientific practices account for scientific representations’ mirroring the stuff in the world. So what does this look like? Here’s a schema for one version of this:
1.     Science provides solid reasons for p.
2.     So, p.
3.     p if and only if p is true.
4.     So, p is true.
Regarding the first premise: this is a proxy for actual, first-order scientific reasons for a given claim. So, for instance, if p is bacteria causes ulcers, then the first premise of this schema will be nothing more than the gastrological, bacteriological, etc. evidence for this causal claim. This also means that, in an overwhelming number of cases, the inference from the first claim to the second will be inductive. The general thought here is that science provides us with our best reasons for thinking that the world is the way that it is. The next thing to note is that one can perform a number of trivial inferences in between the second and third claims of this schema. For instance, in our toy example, we can infer that, e.g. bacteria exist, something causes something, and ulcers exist. The schema’s second claim, along with all of these trivial consequences, furnish us with a “naturalized ontology.” As naturalists, we realize that our chances of getting our ontology right once and for all no better than those of the scientists from which that ontology is derived. This is just to say that our ontology “falls out” of scientific practice.

Finally, consider the last two steps in this schema. In Step 3, we adopt a deflationary account of representational success, i.e. one in which the mirroring relationship does no heavy-lifting. Note that nothing hinges on choosing truth as the kind of representational success. It’s only that we have a very clear account of what a deflationary theory of truth would look like in this case. A full-blooded pragmatism would also provide deflationary accounts of representation, reference, and the like, any of which can be used in the third step. The move from the third to the fourth step is what allows us to say all the things that the representationalist wants to say, without according those claims the same elevated status that the representationalist seeks to give. It thereby accounts for representational success (fourth claim) in terms of scientific practice (first claim).

This is a sketch, and raises several questions, which I hope to address in another post:
A.    Can we make sense of successful scientific practice without already smuggling in some assumptions about mirroring? In other words, how do we vindicate the first claim in this schema without “cheating”?
B.    How does this brand of pragmatism compare with others?