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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Charity to those we oppose

This piece was first published at Talking Philosophy back in October 2014. I think it's still about right, and worth preserving on a site that I control, so I'm republishing it here...

I have a couple of old blog posts, one from mid-2008 and the other from early 2010 in which I am highly critical of Australian journalist Guy Rundle. In both cases, particularly the second, I’m quite snarky about Rundle – but I’m not going to apologise about either. Neither goes beyond my rather loose standards of civility; the criticisms are of substance in each case; and there is no realistic possibility that even a large number of posts of this level of aggression would tend to intimidate Rundle, someone with considerable cultural influence and easy access to very large platforms. By all means, make up your own mind about that. As for me… these days, my language might or might not be slightly more temperate, but I’m still fairly comfortable, even five or six years later, with the two posts as they stand.

So far, so good. Nonetheless, these posts were on subjects that I felt passionately about. In the first case, it was about the heated public debate in Australia during 2008 on the art of Bill Henson (a celebrated Australian and international photographer who’d been accused of, in effect, creating and exhibiting child pornography); in the second case, it related to the debates, throughout the relevant period, about the “New Atheism”, during which “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins received a great deal of hostile criticism, including from other atheists who wished to take a softer approach to religion. I somewhat angrily defended Henson in one post and the New Atheist crew in the other. Again, you can make up your own mind about the cogency or otherwise of my defence, though (again) it was of substance on both occasions.

Still so good. But I’ve been very aware of late of how easily we (or some of us) find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who disagree with us on issues that we feel passionately about. When someone made a comment on Twitter yesterday, recommending Guy Rundle’s new book, I immediately found myself replying with a pair of vitriolic tweets about Rundle which I’ve since deleted. Having made them, I found myself going into a mode of rationalising it in my mind. When I woke up this morning I realised this was nonsense and that I’ve held a somewhat irrational grudge against Rundle based on nothing more than disagreement on a couple of things (again, things that I felt passionately about) a few years ago. That’s just silly and unfair.

It’s no use saying that my original remarks in 2008 and 2010, linked to in the tweets, were substantive. The fact is that it’s easy to judge someone in an unfair and sweeping way based only on a couple of disagreements in the past. I’d fallen into exactly that trap.

I deleted my remarks on Twitter, made a couple of tweets explaining why I’d done so, and apologised privately to the person whose original tweet I’d reacted to (who was cool with it). There’s no use in apologising to Rundle himself – i.e. there was no real prospect that he’d been harmed or seen the offending tweets.

I could pat myself on the back for reacting fairly quickly and well in this case, but still… I didn’t meet my own standards in the first place. I regret that. More importantly, the incident underscores that I, like many others, can be tempted to unfairness and a lack of charity toward other individuals provided only that they have, perhaps on more than one occasion, taken what I see as the “wrong” approach to an issue that engages my passions. If I can do this so easily, while already being aware of the problem, it’s no wonder that I see so much of this sort of thing happen in social-media interactions. Well-meaning, decent people can quickly find themselves demonised, portrayed as morally corrupt, etc., over good-faith differences of view. Even if the latter seem (as Rundle’s did to me) to be ill-informed and simplistic, they may turn out to have an element of truth, and even if that’s not so they probably at least are the views of someone trying to sort through an issue in good faith.

In Rundle’s case, he especially bothered me back in 2008 and 2010 because he was attacking targets who were already under serious public attack (especially in the case of Henson) and put arguments that had already been used, and in my mind refuted, many times (especially so in the case of the New Atheists). But there’s another factor here. Rundle is a very well-known journalist in Australia. As mentioned above, he has access to large platforms and carries considerable influence. He’s a major left-wing public intellectual in his own country. It can seem fine to make unfair and vitriolic attacks on such a person on the basis that it’s “punching up”.

This business of “punching up” and “punching down” merits more thought. First, Rundle really would be far better placed to do significant harm to my reputation than I am to harm his. He has much bigger platforms and many allies who also have bigger platforms. (For whatever it’s worth, he also doubtless has enemies who are much more of a concern than I am.) There is definitely something in the idea that two antagonists in public debate can be greatly out of balance in power. In such cases, vitriol is far more damaging and potentially silencing when resorted to by the person with (considerably) more power. Indeed, people with large platforms should, arguably, be very reticent in what they say about relatively powerless individuals.

Still, I noticed one person toward whom I feel nothing but good will announcing a break from Twitter a few days ago, having endured too much abuse from others who disagreed with certain of her views on feminism. What she found especially hurtful was the large amount of abuse she’d received from other feminist women, as opposed to whatever she’d received (and been braced for) from anti-feminist men. As was noted in the brief Twitter discussion around her departure, some of those women may have thought that they were “punching up” at her… but what feels like punching up to the person doing the “punching” may feel very different to the person being “punched”, especially if it’s from more than one source and it’s continuing. That can soon become exhausting and can be silencing.

There’s no exciting moral to all this. I don’t intend to turn into the civility police, and I don’t suggest that we all walk on eggshells even when criticising very powerful individuals, institutions, ideologies, and ideological tendencies. That said, it’s well to remember that even seemingly powerful opponents can be psychologically hurt and reputationally harmed. Furthermore, it does nothing to advance the search for truth and wisdom when we interpret opponents uncharitably or draw unfair, sweeping inferences about their intellectual ability and moral character, perhaps based on no more than a couple of disagreements. Indeed, many opponents may turn out to be correct; even the ones who don’t may have something cogent and useful to say if they are allowed to discuss the merits of the issue rather than being subjected to tactics that silence their contributions.

To rally supporters and succeed in their struggles, political organisers may well need to pretend that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Saul Alinsky notes in his celebrated (or notorious) Rules for Radicals, the opponent in a particular situation may actually, on an objective assessment, be more like 40 per cent right. But that message, alas, never rallied anyone. At the same time, Alinsky tells us, the organiser should be able to see things from both viewpoints once a dispute reaches the final negotiation phase. Here, tactical trade-offs can be made, which requires a more objective understanding of all the underlying interests and merits.

While those might be good rules for political radicals trying to achieve victories against slum lords, business corporations, or oppressive governments, it would take a rather extreme situation before philosophers ought to start thinking in that way. In normal circumstances, there’s much to be said for searching out that 40 per cent, or even 4 per cent, of truth in an opponent’s position if we want to make intellectual progress – and that includes trying to see the opponent fairly as a person. (If the opponent actually turns out to have 60 per cent of the truth, or perhaps more than that, even better.)
Again, I’m not the civility police. But rules for philosophers should involve attempts to be charitable and fair. This is a word to the wise… or in my case the not-always wise.

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