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).

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Paul Gilster on the science fiction of Edgar Allan Poe

Paul Gilster, a technology writer and specifically an expert on the prospects of interstellar travel and exploration, has published a superb essay on the science fiction of Edgar Allan Poe over on his Centauri Dreams site. It doesn't hurt that he's cited my "Science Fiction as a Lens into the Future" piece, which I have recently republished here. Check out both of them if this topic interests you.

I was not aware of Centauri Dreams until Gilster kindly contacted me today to let me know he'd cited my work. However, it looks like a wonderful resource, and I'll be browsing it further. If you have any interest in space travel you would probably benefit from doing likewise.

It was slightly galling to find that on the site's "about" page Gilster uses the trope of building star-faring craft as an intergenerational task like building a medieval cathedral. It's an excellent image, so the galling part of it is that he beat me to it! In my latest book, At the Dawn of a Great Transition: The Question of Radical Enhancement, I used the same image for the construction of a post-human, star-faring civilization. In future writings where I make that point, I'll be sure to cite Gilster's prior use of a similar idea!

In all, though, the point is just: do check out Centauri Dreams and particularly the newly published essay on Poe.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

That's controversial!

My essay, "Oh No, That's Controversial!", has been published online by The Philosophers' Magazine. I discuss the recent launch of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which is an initiative that I support for reasons that I explain in some detail. This does not mean that its performance has been perfect so far, but it has good intentions and has made a pretty good start. In my view, this journal does have a role to play - perhaps an important one.

Near the end of my essay, I observe: "I’m sympathetic to this project; for many reasons, I wish it success. One reason is that it seems to stand for an important point that’s seldom well understood. We can distinguish between abusive conduct toward individuals, on one hand, and, on the other hand, scholarly discussion of ideas that some people might find upsetting. It is one thing to mock, or taunt, or deeply denigrate individuals for their personal characteristics or aspects of their self-presentation, or, indeed, for their ideas. It’s an entirely different thing to communicate opinions on topics of general importance, even if they challenge others’ self-conceptions or dissent radically from a local consensus. Within very broad limits, advancing unpopular or dissenting opinions should not be seen as inviting abuse, censorship, or harmful consequences such as derailed careers and tainted reputations."

Monday, September 06, 2021

Submissions to the Australian government's current consultation on freedom of expression

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has now published the submissions it has received on a proposed constitutional amendment to protect freedom of expression in Australia. These submissions include my own, which I earlier published on this blog.

This exercise involves consultation with interested parties over a specific proposal originally introduced as a Bill in 2019. The views of the responding individuals and organizations vary considerably. However, I was pleased to see some other parties making points similar to mine about: 1. the need to protect the use by everyone of communication technologies to receive and impart ideas and opinions (or some similar formulation), and not just to protect large news and media corporations and their employees; and 2. the need for governments to meet a stronger test than provided in the Bill if they are to justify encroachments on freedom of expression, i.e. the formula "reasonable and justifiable" is too weak, and could permit the constitutionality of too many laws that restrict the freedom.

On the second point, there seems to be almost a consensus that some tougher test is required to justify government encroachments on freedom of expression, though parties making this point have offered a variety of formulas to toughen up the requirement. The most popular view seems to be that the word "necessary" - or even the words "demonstrably necessary" - should be included in some way. My own proposal was that for most laws, outside of protecting individual reputation and privacy, the test should be the very strong one of "demonstrably necessary for the viability of an open, free and democratic society."

The words "for the viability of" are important here, as they make clear that I don't merely mean necessary to achieve some governmental purpose, but necessary for the viability of the society itself. Some laws would doubtless meet that test, such as laws against leaking military plans in advance, or against disseminating means of easily producing weapons of mass destruction. A law against genocidal hate propaganda would, I think, also survive, as campaigns using such propaganda can notoriously rip a society apart. But many existing laws would be in deep trouble under my version of the proposed new section of the Australian Constitution, which, in my opinion, they should be.

Friday, September 03, 2021

A terrific article in The Atlantic, and some observations on "cancel culture"

This piece, by Anne Applebaum, in The Atlantic, is important and excellent. It concerns what is now called "cancel culture" - not a term that I find particularly apt, but it's the one that seems to have stuck.

On a daily basis, I see many people - often people whom I otherwise like and respect - denying that this phenomenon exists, even though it is all around them. There are constant pressures to conform in act and (especially) speech. 

This is not entirely new. Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed nearly two hundred years ago that there was no freedom of opinion in, specifically, the United States. This was not because of government censorship, but because of a culture where anyone who dissented from the popular view would be subjected to so much opprobrium that it would not be worth their while to say what they really thought. This is now very much the environment within what could be called the academic and cultural Left. The slightest dissent from the current package of popular ideas within that environment will lead to a vicious backlash that will upend your life.

I've experienced this myself, if only in a relatively mild way - mainly in the years from 2011 to 2013, when I expressed some views that dissented from those of my online "liberal" (in the strange American sense) peer group. I have not had my actual, real-life friends go after me, but I can report that what I experienced in 2011 in particular was emotionally devastating at the time. Many people have experienced far worse, and have been subjected to punishments massively disproportionate to anything wrong that they might have done or were accused of doing.

Individuals who minimize the impact of cancel culture have, I suspect, never been on the receiving end. Frankly, though, if they haven't experienced it that makes me suspicious. As I've seen, and experienced myself, it's so easy to be on the receiving end of cancel culture, even for very mild dissent from locally popular positions, that if you haven't ever been, I can only assume that you've never publicly expressed even a mildly heretical thought on social and political issues.

Tocqueville notwithstanding, it doesn't have to be like this. Perhaps I was fortunate in coming of age in the 1970s, a period when we actually made fun of the idea that we might be "politically correct" or "ideologically sound" in a Maoist or Stalinist way (note that leading Marxist thinkers such as Mao always emphasized the need for a so-called correct political line - this wasn't something just made up by 1990s right-wing culture warriors).

There was a general assumption back in the 1970s that a variety of opinions was a good thing and that we could and should enjoy political and philosophical arguments going late into the night - with no hard feelings attached. Perhaps we were naive and innocent in that way, but I do think something was lost when this freewheeling, tolerant culture was largely erased in the 1980s. In frightens me that most people under the age of, say, 55 have never experienced it.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, the use of social media to enforce conformity has made the environment much worse. It is now far easier for a mob to engage in a concerted campaign to go after an individual, and thus enforce conformity. We are back with a vengeance to what Tocqueville wrote about all those years ago. The environment is now scary, and even I am somewhat afraid to say - beyond my most intimate circle of friends - what I really think on important social and political issues, even though I think I have a contribution to make and despite the fact that I am fairly well buffered (financially and otherwise).

The victims, of course, are not the real enemies of the Left, such as fascists and right-wing culture warriors, who have their own supporters and are largely immune to cancellation. The victims tend to be humane people whose politics are at least somewhat liberal or left wing, but who are independent thinkers and don't go along with every view that happens to be fashionable within their milieu at the particular moment. Those people have valuable things to say and appropriately complex arguments to make. But it is dangerous for them to raise their head above the parapet. When they do so - and they are conspicuously shamed and punished - others with similar ideas learn that it's safest to conform.

This is an intolerable situation, and I wish we didn't have so many people minimizing it or denying that it exists.

The Economist on "The Threat from the Illiberal Left"

This article in The Economist is very good. It could almost be a summary of my 2019 book, The Tyranny of Opinion. You can read the whole thing with a free account with The Economist.