About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther review

(Note: mild spoilers in what follows. There is nothing that people who are interested in Black Panther won't already know.)

First, I completely enjoyed Black Panther. I thought it had almost the look and feel of a Star Wars movie - rather than a typical superhero movie - with its depiction of dynastic struggle, shaky and shifting alliances, and advanced weaponry and transportation, all set mainly in a series of vast, visually stunning landscapes and high-technology cityscapes.

The evident theme, as so often in science fiction movies and superhero movies, relates to the use of power - in this case technological power - whether to protect yourself, to help others, or to overcome and oppress others. The latter might be motivated by personal ambition or by political zealotry.

Science fiction and related genres return to this again and again. Indeed, the justifiable and unjustifiable uses of great power provide the key theme of these genres. That is so all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's as true of the work of H.G. Wells as the work of E.E. "Doc" Smith.

For X-Men fans, the main antagonists of Black Panther had something of a Xavier-versus-Magneto vibe in what they, respectively, sought to do with the extraordinary power available to them. At all times, they acted against a familiar background of ongoing injustice on a very large scale.

(All X-Men fans know that Xavier and Magneto are themselves often interpreted, with just a touch of revisionism, as analogues for someone like Martin Luther King vs someone more radical like Malcolm X ... or the Black Panthers if it comes to that. Note, however, that the Black Panther Party came into existence some three years after the creation of the X-Men, and a few months after the creation of the Black Panther as a Marvel character. Its founders were inspired by, among things, the writings of Malcolm X.)

T'Challa, the Black Panther, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in mid-1966, and there was some controversy at the time. It was a big deal, back then, for Marvel to create a black superhero. It made a strong political statement in the circumstances of the mid-60s, though some questioned why he had to be an African king, not a more grounded African American character, such as the later Luke Cage (who dates from the 1970s).

Similar questions will doubtless be raised this time, and they'll merit discussion. Meanwhile, Black Panther is an interesting and spectacular movie with large, perennial, themes about power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry, themes that inevitably speak of, and to - even as they are by no means confined to - American race relations.

What do I mean by that? In current circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, any production from Hollywood that deals with the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry will be open to interpretation as at least allegorizing American race relations, and as addressing them in some way. Race need not be thematically explicit, as it is in Black Panther. Thus, the mutants of the X-Men mythos, including the current TV show The Gifted, are, in part, stand-ins for persecuted people of colour.

At the same time, the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and resulting political zealotry are not confined to racial issues. It follows that a movie such as Black Panther can reference specifically racial issues, yet have a resonance far beyond those issues. It thus connects with the rich legacy of narrative, especially SF narrative, that engages with questions about the responsible uses of power.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cordelia Fine on the James Damore case

I'm bookmarking this long article about James Damore in The Guardian from back in November 2017, because I want to return to it. When I initially read the article, I was especially struck by the remarks attributed to Cordelia Fine, who has, for some years, been a patient and unrelenting critic of much sex-difference research. She sees this research as scientifically dubious and socially dangerous insofar as it undermines feminist efforts to advocate for gender equality.

While Professor Fine could be expected to criticise Damore's views on sex differences in interests and personality traits - and indeed, she does so - it's notable that she adds that his summary of sex-difference research in his now famous memo was "more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature" and that some of his ideas were quite familiar to her and not even especially controversial. As quoted, she goes on to say, "So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him."

Here, Fine is showing a level of common decency and reasonableness - and is expressing a degree of compassion for an intellectual opponent - that is all too often missing from public debate about controversial issues. Too often, the response is not only to distrust any message that contradicts our prior beliefs and commitments, but to go even further. The response, that is, is often to reject, demonise, and attempt to harm the messenger. Cordelia Fine deserves praise for taking a different approach to a message that clearly goes against some of her core attitudes and beliefs.

My purpose here is to praise Fine's approach (at least on this occasion) to public controversy, not to defend the substance of Damore's memo. You can go here for one even-handed attempt (by Jonathan Haidt) to assess its merits or otherwise. My larger concern is not with the science of sex differences but with the widespread tendency to shame opponents in public, and to call for them to be fired (as Damore was fired from his job at Google in August 2017). This is, of course, something that I've been objecting to for a long time now.

Edit, 17 February 2017: The National Labor Relations Board has since publicly released a memorandum of advice from its legal counsel on James Damore's application to the NLRB to consider his case. The advice memorandum itself strikes me as extraordinary, claiming that Damore's dispassionate and reasoned discussion of the science of sex-related psychological differences was comparable to such blatant stereotyping and hostility in the workplace as referring to "jealous ass ghetto people"; the memorandum even claims that parts of Damore's memo amounted to sexual harassment, notwithstanding that the content was entirely clinical and analytical rather than in any way sexualised. That said, any employer enjoys a very broad discretion under American law to dismiss employees for conduct that could potentially cause workplace disharmony. It was always doubtful, therefore, that Damore could have won this case or even that the NLRB genuinely had jurisdiction to deal with it. I also have doubts as to whether other legal action commenced by Damore since his dismissal from employment can succeed.

For all that, the reasoning in the NLRB advice memorandum is troubling, and it appears to me to be wrong in fact and law, even if the legality of Google's action in firing Damore could have been upheld, all things considered, on the basis of less controversial reasoning.

University of Miami fills its academic chair in the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics

This process was delayed by a whole year, for reasons that are unknown to me. However, the University of Miami has finally filled its high-profile professorial chair in atheism, humanism, and secular ethics. The successful candidate was Professor Anjan Chakravarrty. He starts at the beginning of July, and I wish him good luck with the mission associated with this job.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The history of "human dignity"

This article discusses a new edited book on the mysterious concept of human dignity (the article is by the book's editor, Remy Debes). The book, Dignity: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

I spent most of my life until deep into adulthood never encountering the idea of dignity in this sense, though of course any acquaintance with Kantian ethics soon reveals its importance in the tradition of modern moral philosophy. Prior to studying Kant at a relatively late stage of my life, I was socialised into the commonsense morality of my local culture, just like everyone else, but nothing I encountered ever relied on dignity in the sense of a special kind of inherent moral worth beyond price or quantification. (I did, of course, encounter other usages of the word "dignity", such as the idea of a certain admirable or noble calmness of demeanour, especially when maintained in difficult circumstances.) Debes presents dignity as a cornerstone moral concept in Western morality, but I find that a very doubtful claim. I also doubt very much that the relevant sense of dignity is the ordinary one that most people know - rather, it is quite esoteric.

At least in my experience, ordinary people (by which I mean people who are not trained specifically in academic fields such theology, moral philosophy, and human rights law) may seldom or never encounter the word "dignity" in Debes's sense. They are more likely to have been taught to avoid certain antisocial dispositions of character (such as dishonesty, cowardice, cruelty, arrogance, and propensity to violence), to avoid certain kinds of harmful conduct (such as murder, theft, rape, physical assault, and telling damaging lies about others), and to develop certain moral virtues (such as honesty, courage, kindness, a certain level of modesty not inconsistent with quiet pride, and a willingness to settle disputes peaceably).

I don't think this is something odd about my upbringing, however odd that may have been in any other way: I've never heard dignity (in the relevant sense) mentioned very much, if at all, in everyday discussion in any country that I have visited, and nor do I encounter the idea very much in literature or popular culture. Talk of "dignity", or "human dignity", in the relevant sense is language used only by certain kinds of people - those who are influenced either by Kant or by some kind of theological morality. The whole idea is explicitly rejected by utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse.

Still, the concept of human dignity does loom large in some areas of contemporary moral discussion, particularly in bioethics and in much of the human rights discourse. It's a slippery and sometimes frustrating concept. When I get a bit of time, I'll be fascinated to read up further on its history.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Locus Awards 2018 - Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination nominated

Locus magazine's annual awards covering the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, are now up for votes (voting closes on 15 April). Since this is determined by a vote of the public (with double weighting for Locus subscribers), it will be largely a popularity contest. Nonetheless, it's pleasing to have come so far as to have Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination listed on the ballot in the "non-fiction" category. If you've had a chance to read the book, and assuming you enjoyed it or found it useful, do consider voting. If you look at the other names on the ballot in the category, I'd say that I'm a definite outsider, which is fair enough given what the others all accomplished to get there. Still, you never know what will happen, and anyway it's an honour even to be on the same list as some of those people.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Hugo Award nominations are now open

Hugo Award nominations are now open, closing on Friday, March 16.

The rules as to who can nominate are complicated (and confusingly explained on the site). However, it seems that anyone who is a member of the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention (to be held in San Jose), or who was a member of the 2017 World Science Fiction Convention (held last year in Helsinki), is able to nominate and should be receiving an email about it from this year's convention committee. Likewise for anyone who is already a member of the 2019 Worldcon (scheduled to be held in Dublin).

As I've done in the past, I'll look carefully at the nomination list when it's announced, and I'll read as much as I can of the nominated work before I cast my votes for the various categories. But even before that, there is the nomination process. For the first time in a long time, I have a work published last year that seems a plausible contender for one of the categories ("Best Related Work"), so we'll see if it gets any nominations.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

"Hylas and the Nymphs" furore

A week or so ago, Manchester Art Gallery removed from its walls the treasured pre-Raphaelite painting "Hylas and the Nymphs" by John William Waterhouse. It has now been restored after a public outcry.

The moral of the story is that when you think something is not right it is good to protest about it. Making a statement here on this blog would not have helped much, but actually writing to the gallery (in this case ... mutatis mutandis in other cases) does help, as does urging others to do so.

I was especially incensed about this incident, because I've always loved this particular painting. I've long had a large copy of it on my walls at home.

For the record, I set out below what I sent to the gallery, a couple of days ago, when I heard about the gallery's action. I'm not claiming that what I wrote is perfect, but do take note that when you feel strongly about something you can dash off a short letter and send it by email - and that it won't even take you very long. I haven't seen what anyone else sent, but I imagine that a lot of the other correspondence received by the gallery from all over the world was along similar lines. And it produced the desired result.

Notice that I (just) managed to stop short of calling for anyone to be fired. There's too much of that. Still, my correspondence was not merely in response to someone expressing their views on a topic of public importance; it was in response to pretty high-handed action contrary to the very purpose of the person's job, which is to act as a custodian of great works of art, not to be a political activist.

I am shocked at your decision to remove "Hylas and the Nymphs" by John William Waterhouse, a work that I have loved for decades. My wife and I have a large print of it on one of our walls at home, and we're proud of it.

You are privileged to be the custodians of this treasured work of art, and it's your responsibility to make it available to the whole world. Removing it from view, apparently for reasons based on political ideology, is an extraordinary act of cultural vandalism. I understand that it will no longer even be possible for the public to buy postcards of "Hylas and the Nymphs".

I urge you to reverse this appalling decision immediately. I'm tempted to urge that you also fire whoever was responsible. That would be going too far: we are all entitled to make mistakes, even serious ones, without losing our livelihoods. But the person responsible should certainly be counselled about the nature of their responsibilities, so they won't do something like this again.

Yours sincerely,

Russell Blackford
Newcastle, Australia

Friday, February 02, 2018

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination in Locus Recommended Reading List for 2017

This prestigious list related to the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror - the annual Locus Recommended Reading List - has just been announced. My latest book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics, has been listed in the non-fiction category.

I'm very pleased to see it there, especially since it came as a surprise. I expected that it would be difficult to make the list, given the likely quality of the field; and I also thought that I'd probably missed the boat as the book came out quite late in 2017, and a lot of people probably don't yet have copies even if they're planning to read it. So, that's some good news.

Congratulations, too, to my many friends who have work on the list.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Farewell to my father, Ken Blackford (1920-2018)

I've held off writing this, as it's been a difficult, emotionally draining week-and-a-bit - and I'm only now ready to write something brief to provide a record on this blog.

My father, Kenneth Charles Blackford, suffered what was possibly a cardiac event in his sleep late on Tuesday afternoon, 23 January 2018. He was 97 (born September, 1920). Although he had health problems, there was nothing immediately life threatening, so the timing came as a shock to my sister (who had visited him that very day), myself (I'd spent some time with him a couple of days before), and other family members. On the day it happened, he had been feeling ill, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was apparently taking an afternoon nap from which he never awoke, so he never knew that he was dying. That was best for him, though it was unexpected for those he left behind. When contacted, we were initially almost in disbelief.

We held the funeral on Monday, 29 January, and I must say that speaking briefly about his life and character was very difficult for me. I kept choking up, even though I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

The last 10 years of Dad's life were difficult for him - first with the death of my mother, his beloved wife of many, many years, in 2008, and then with steep deterioration in his eyesight, especially through 2012 and thereafter, caused by glaucoma. By early 2013, he was too blind to cope by himself or even as a guest at someone's house, and he had to move into a nursing home. He faced all of this with a great deal of courage and stoicism, and far more good humour than anyone could possibly expect from somebody in his situation. Over the past five years, in particular, I spent a lot of time with him, and there will be a hole in my life now that he's gone.

I especially want to thank all the people who've given me and my family their love and support over the last week or so. It's very much appreciated, and it's been crucial to my getting through a difficult time in reasonable mental shape.

My dad will be remembered with love for his gentle humour, endless curiosity, quiet bravery, fundamental decency, and all the other qualities that made him who he was.