Words as weapons? Free speech requires responsible speech

Whenever I’m asked what sparked my interest in the philosophy of language, I immediately remember two texts that I read almost thirty years ago: one is a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann called “Everything”; the other one is an essay by Václav Havel called “A Word about Words”. Both texts can be read as rather powerful reflections on the social and political dimensions of language. For me, they show a crucial feature of language: language is not merely a medium of describing reality; rather it is interwoven with our actions. Bachmann’s story dispels the illusion that we can freely teach and learn language, irrespective of the social and historical baggage that our verbal categories come with. And when Havel writes that a word can “turn into a baton” that is used to “beat” one’s fellow citizens, this is not entirely metaphorical. A word might carry and pass on the very force that makes someone lift or drop a baton. Thus, a word can hit and harm you. In recent years, these ideas began to haunt me again. If words have such force, then the current appeals to free speech require us to speak responsibly, or so I’d like to suggest in what follows.

Two camps. – Yesterday, the feminist Mona Eltahawy explained that she no longer wants to speak at De Balie, a famous forum of public debate in the Netherlands. The reason was that, after accepting the invitation, she had learned that this forum had formerly hosted a group of speakers who ended up openly discussing the “deportation of Muslims”. Among these speakers were Paul Cliteur, a Dutch academic and active politician in a right-wing party, and Wim van Rooy, a Flemish author with similar political leanings. Already back in the day, the event sparked strong reactions. Some thought that such speech is outright harmful and suggested that this debate triggered associations of the Wannsee Conference. Others thought that the right to free speech entitles us to say anything, or anything as long as it isn’t evidently unlawful. If you’re following the news, you might by now think that this follows a familiar pattern: on the one hand, there are those who deem certain speech acts as harmful and protest against them; on the other hand, there are those who declare that such protests infringe free speech. (See here for an earlier post on misconstruing free speech.) At first glance, then, it looks like we’re dealing with two camps: those who want to regulate speech and those who reject the regulation of (free) speech.

Two camps? – Many people and especially journalists seem to have bought into the idea that we are indeed dealing with two camps, with those who want to restrict and those who don’t want to restrict free speech. But I think that this is a misleading way of plotting the disagreement. It’s not easy to pin down what’s wrong with it, but here’s a try. I think we’re basically dealing with two different ideas of language: let’s call them the action view and the entertainment view.

  1. According to the action view, speech is interwoven with other actions and thus, depending on the kinds of actions, harmful or good. Thinking and speaking are actions, and to be treated accordingly. If I call someone an asshole, for instance, I act in a certain way and can harm others, even in a way that is recognised by the law that sanctions insults.
  2. According to the entertainment view, speech is a medium in which we entertain certain thoughts: we exchange arguments and hypotheses that are detached from action. Thinking and speaking are decidedly distinct from actions. Ideally, we think and speak before we act or instead of acting.

If we take these perspectives as opposites, we can immediately see why they spur so much disagreement. If I take the entertainment view, free speech and open debate will not be a means of harming others but rather a way of preventing bad action. We can argue instead of hurting or harming each other physically. We can anticipate bad consequences, and stop them from happening. – By contrast, if I endorse the action view, then speech is already a way of possibly harming others. Arguing or insulting can be the beginning or incitement of a chain of related and escalating actions. If I start insulting you, I might subtly begin to legitimise stronger harms, possibly ending up with forms of dehumanisation. In fact, ongoing insults might damage your (mental) health already. The upshot is: the disagreement is not about (free) speech, but about how language actually works.

Differences in degrees. – Now, if you ask which of these views of language is right, I have to say: both, in a way. The relation between language and action is not one of different categories but one of degree. Some language use is clearly action-related or even a form of action; other language use is detached from action or even a replacement of certain acts. So if I insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, the language is clearly detached from action. However, arguably the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults.

Now what does that mean for the debate between the two camps? The good news is that they both have a point: language allows for action as well as for replacing action, even if these views are degrees on a continuum. This should allow for some progress in the debate between the two camps. But the crucial question is how we can deal with situations where the different emphases of these linguistic features lead to conflicts. As far as the general pattern of the opposition is concerned, I’d try to treat such conflicts in the same way we treat complaints more generally. How do you react if someone says that they feel insulted or intimidated? If you don’t understand what the complaint is targeting, you will probably ask what it is that constitutes the insult or threat, rather than continue with the abuse. Insisting that your right to free speech entitles you to say whatever you like is comparable to hitting someone and then, if they complain, saying that they might as well hit you, too.

Appealing to free speech is just a way of pointing out that language opens the possibility of entertaining certain thoughts, but it is no adequate response to someone complaining about an insult or threat. What many people forget is that freedom comes with responsibility. So, whatever we think we are entitled to through that freedom requires us to exercise that right responsibly. Thus, free speech requires responsible speech.*

That said, the right to free speech is important and should not be infringed easily. So what about the concerns regarding this freedom? The first thing to note is that such freedom is not infringed by protest or criticism. In fact, if Mona Eltahawy protests and cancels her attendance for the reasons given, she exercises her right to free speech. The second thing is that speech acts and other acts happen to have consequences. You can secretly think whatever you like, but if you publicly discuss the deportation of people belonging to a certain religion or race or whatever, you should face the consequences of being publicly called out and sanctioned accordingly. Again, appealing to free speech is not an adequate reaction to such complaints.

But if free speech is of no concern in such situations, when does it pose a concern? First of all, we should ask ourselves this: Who can actually infringe our right to free speech? Generally, it’s people who hold some power over us. So ask yourself whether the notorious student protests or other events that fill the media are really a threat to free speech. As long as people don’t have any power over you, it’s unlikely that they pose a threat to your right to free speech. It’s more likely that they exercise this very right. That said, exercising this right can be done in a sincere or in an insincere manner. And it can be done in a hurtful or threatening way. Spotting the difference between sincere concern and tactics is probably a lifelong exercise.

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* Here is a follow-up post on how free speech can be turned into responsible speech.

Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

As you all know, the sciences and humanities are targeted on many levels. We’ve all seen budget cuts happening, for more or less comprehensible reasons. By now we’re used to that, and the more cynical sides of our souls will quickly admit that at least many of the humanities are not much of an asset to the average tax payer. So far, this made for nasty ways of playing off the sciences and humanities against one another. But now the sciences are explicitly targeted, too, for example by people doubting climate sciences or the standards of vaccination. Over the last two weeks, I got a ‘live’ glimpse of the way in which right-wing politicians mobilise people against universities. Of course, we have seen this happening everywhere: prominently in the US and in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, being exposed to the tactics in my academic home country, the Netherlands, made me realise just how powerful the narratives against us are. This phenomenon is not going to go away by itself. Thus, I think we – people working in the sciences and especially in the humanities – need a positive narrative about why academic work matters and a more concerted way of communicating this. By now, I’ve seen a number of petitions and open letters going … nowhere. Part of the problem is that we’re not only targeted from the outside, but also, mostly inadvertently, internally. In the light of the current threats and the way that universities are structured, the common ways of defending ourselves do not work. Therefore, I would like to launch this call for ideas.

Yes, it’s really bad. – We all know that academia is under threat in many ways. Up till recently, that is, perhaps up till ten years ago (perhaps shortly after the financial crisis), these threats have been generally justified with economic arguments: We need to shut down philosophy, languages and cultural studies because otherwise we can’t finance cancer research and the military – or some such line of reasoning that would convince at least some of us. But now the tune has changed. The narrative that I encountered in the Netherlands and elsewhere is running under the heading of cultural marxism (in the sense of a conspiracy theory): Whether you know it or not, if you are working in education or at a university you are willy-nilly part of a left-wing conspiracy that counters free speech and all sorts of other values. This accusation is of course nonsense. But the problem is that it is widely held and believed. Given that Mr Trump has already approved a policy targeting what are thought to be enemies of free speech, it won’t be long until we will see this in action as a more general means to “evaluate” studies and departments. These are the beginnings of a fairly new concerted set of actions against standards in (higher) education. But the new line of argument against academia is not that we’re just useless; it’s that we are inherently bad.

What might stop us. – In many alt-right narratives, universities are portrayed as bulwarks of leftist indoctrination. So far the the response has been defensive: “Science has no agenda” etc. But instead of defending ourselves against outrageous claims, we need a comprehensible narrative of how academia contributes to the protection of democratic values, and we need ways of implementing this narrative. As it stands, the academic communities are defenceless against such doubts for three reasons: firstly, we represent a form of institutionalised doubting, as it were, and will respond with more doubting rather than reassurance; secondly, we are very bad at collective action and solidarity because we are incentivised to compete against one another wherever possible. Therefore, the principles of our work and the structure of our career paths make it very hard to respond even to common threats. A third reason might be that the narratives against academia have already gained too much power: The current way of playing off academics as right-wing versus left-wing or free-speech versus de-platformers, for instance, has gained so much force that even some of your colleagues might go along with it and see you (or you them) as a mere instance of left or right-wing activism. Academics are of course not immune to the effects of ideologies.

What we need to do. – Given the incentive to compete, it’s difficult to start a conversation. But that’s what we need to do. When we see academia in Turkey or Hungary under threat, we follow the news and start petitions or some such measures. But when it hits home, it’s much harder to believe that it is happening in the first place. So the first thing we need is to break the silence. We need a clear-headed exchange about what is happening around us. If it turns out that I’m just alarmist and everything is fine, then all the better. In any case, it will help to have an open conversation across different status groups (from higher administrators to deans to professors to students). Secondly, we need clear ideas why we matter. Such ideas are hard to come by because we’re often used to make our case against other disciplines. These ideas should not be just defensive, like “no, we’re not against free speech!” Thirdly, we need ways of communicating these ideas at all levels. Many of us are good at talking to students or grant agencies, that’s by and large preaching to the choir. We need to reach those who currently believe that we are the enemies of society. So we need to talk to journalists and others who shape the discourses of the many intently.

How we should begin. – Of course, we don’t need to begin with the most difficult of interlocutors. Convincing your colleagues about the fact that we’re in trouble might be tricky enough already. What we need is an understanding of what is going on. So we should indeed begin by exchanging anecdotes and tentative ideas. Given that we’re all too busy already, the easiest would probably be to ask Greta Thunberg to do it on our behalf. – Joking, sorry! Of course you can begin by responding to this blog post or just by talking to a colleague. If you’re looking for ideas, you could ask a friend outside academia. They exist. Or why not devote some twenty minutes to some exchange at the end of the next department meeting or conference? Once we begin a conversation, ways of coordinating action will suggest themselves.

Whatever we do, we need to understand that we’re not defending ourselves (only) against claims about economic necessities; we’re up against people who claim that we undermine basic values. We shouldn’t let these people dictate the stories about who we are and what we do. Countering them doesn’t mean that we should be defensive; it’s enough if we begin to take control of our own stories and why they matter.

Fake news about free speech

Much of the time we probably assume that thinking and judging are activities that we perform. Who is doing the thinking right now? It is you. You read and form a judgement of what you are reading. But some philosophers have taught us that it’s mostly the other way round. Thoughts float around and pull us along. It’s not you doing the thinking, but you are being thought, one might say. While we take ourselves to be agents, it’s ideologies, prejudices, advertising, superstition or memes that hold us in their grip. Now I don’t take this to be a matter of either-or; rather I assume it’s a matter of degree. We might be driven or pulled along, but we can also build resistance. Perhaps you might assume that we do so in the grip of a counter-ideology. Perhaps we should even say that our minds are driven by layers of different ideologies.* Nevertheless, I guess we can become agents of our thinking to some degree. How? For instance by trying to recognise the reasons out of which we embrace one set of beliefs rather than another. After my last blog post, more precisely after some reports about my last post, I could literally see the pull of certain political memes rushing by. Although I didn’t assume that my little note of protest would pass completely without attention, I was shocked to see what happened after the media reports. If you’re interested in hermeneutics, two things stand out in particular: (1) how recklessly some people distribute false claims, and (2) how much this feeds into political memes. In the following, I want focus on one claim and show how it figured in the discussion.

Let’s begin by looking at my claim and its misrepresentation. In my last post, I suggested that a forum in a university or public institution “provides the speaker with an authoritative platform”. What does that mean? The platform is “authoritative” in that it comes with the usual expectations that we associate with universities but not, for example, with bars or some speakers’ corner. One of our student newspapers, the UKrant, quoted me as follows: “According to Lenz, providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing their positions.” I wrote to the author saying that this was a misrepresentation, and they replaced “endorsing” with “supporting”. I wrote again saying that this misses the crucial distinction between support of the content of a position as a opposed to the support of the speaker by lending authority. The UKrant replied that they thought this was an adequate representation of my view and kept their wording without noting my position. – Anyway, since this distinction between supporting content and authority has been missed by almost all media outlets that I have seen, let me illustrate it with an example: If someone tells you that she has a PhD, you will be inclined to believe that she is an authority in her field. But taking her as an authority doesn’t mean that you support her views, even in her field. In fact, you might be a peer reviewer taking issue with her views in a paper. You might even think her view is false, but the paper might still get published and you might still think of her as an authority. By misrepresenting my view as they did, the newspapers ascribed to me a statement I had never made or believed.

Is this rightly framed as a matter of free speech? – Being known for a view that one doesn’t hold is one thing. But things got worse, because the whole matter was framed as an issue of free speech or diversity of opinion. This framing is absurd for two reasons. (1) If you assume that denying someone to speak at a university is a denial of free speech, then you must at least tacitly believe that everyone should have the right to call themselves a doctor. The right to free speech is not tantamount to the right to be invited to speak at a university or to anyone else’s duty to listen. Otherwise the university would have to invite everyone, because everyone has the right to free speech. (2) My note of protest was not a call for “de-platforming” but a free expression of my personal opinion, as stated in my earlier post. Thus, the framing as a free speech issue rendered the whole matter absurd and perniciously misrepresented not only my own opinion but also the position of the dean and, by extension, other fellow philosophers in my faculty.

How did the media contribute? What struck me in the communication with the representatives of the newspaper in question was the callous insistence that they had presented the state of affairs correctly, and that they did not seem to recognise the right of reply. I think there is a reason why this is considered unlawful in many countries. But let me add that this shouldn’t be read as a generalisation. I don’t think that everyone is a liar or that all media are about fake news. Be that as it may, once the text by the UKrant was out, I found cuts of it screenshotted and shared widely. The Ukrant article with its problematic misrepresentation and framing was quoted extensively by other outlets, both regional like rtv noord and national ones like the volkskrant, as well as on twitter, in emails that passed my spam folder, and even in an open letter by Paul Cliteur. Seeing the framing repeated and increased, it soon it began to dawn on me that the “story” fed into the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, according to which (higher) education is undermined by a left-wing conspiracy against free speech, and other rights and values we hold dear. I began to understand that what drives this spectacle has nothing to do with me or my faculty. It’s all just passed along as another instance confirming the supposed conspiracy. In this machinery, not much seems to matter: many people on twitter don’t seem to care what you think, and they do not want to hear themselves corrected. The journalists who compiled the texts I’ve seen certainly didn’t care about fact checking. I’ve never experienced this machinery at work with a piece of my own mind, as it were. And so I felt quite naïve about my involvement in the whole episode. But I’ve learned some things from it.**

Here is one of them: In view of the machinery that the press and the readers seem to feed, people and their ideas only seem to matter as instances of a larger political meme or ideology. But that’s not the whole truth: Many people who were angry with me for supposedly speaking out against free speech did care deeply. It mattered to them as it had mattered to me. After entering into some longer exchanges on twitter, I realised that some people were even ready to accept that they might have been mistaken about my view. Grudgingly so, but there was progress through exchange. So there is a common ground: we are worried about what’s going on around us. But we must be careful, for the political memes and counter-memes that are set up and fed to play us off against one another are just that: memes. But they are very, very powerful. As we all know, there are ready-made sets of beliefs for everything: for right, left, religious, atheist, migrant, male, female, other, white, non-white, journalists, philosophers … We must look hard and see what’s going on beyond that.

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* Apropos being dragged along by other thoughts, I learned a lot about the function of ideologies from Spinoza, interpreters of Marx such as Brian Leiter, and David Livingstone Smith’s teleofunctionalism, who has a recent paper in this rather pertinent volume.

** Additon on 7 April 2019: The free speech spin was carried further in ways I didn’t anticipate: (1) Cliteur publicly tried to intimidate academics (and myself personally) by demanding that “it should be made unsafe” for the likes of me. (2) Following the invitation to the night of philosophy, Cliteur was escorted by security and claimed that the requirement of security proves his point that universities  are undermined by activism against free speech.

 

On giving propagandists a platform

I always had mixed feelings about debates on invitations to controversial speakers. Every case is different I guess, and should be discussed as an individual case. At the same time, I think that inviting someone as a speaker at a university or public institution should be justified in the light of the fact that such a forum provides the speaker with an authoritative platform. Some even believe that such an invitation produces epistemological evidence in favour of the invitee’s position.* In any case, my feelings were mixed but, I thought, fairly balanced. You can always see pros and cons, and try to listen carefully to the other side, or so I thought. In this post, I want to do two things: I want to protest against the invitation of Paul Cliteur to Groningen; and I want to talk about something that I completely underestimated: the ambiguous weight of stating the obvious.

When I noticed that Paul Cliteur is invited to Groningen’s annual night of philosophy to give a lecture on “Theoterrorism and the Cowardice of the West”, I was not only shocked by the fact itself but also surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction. I feel that, unless I note my disagreement, I am complicit in endowing the speaker with extra authority, simply by being part of Groningen University. Arguably, we should note disagreement not only on behalf of those targeted by propaganda, but also in solidarity with those who feel intimidated to do so publicly. (Not long ago, a number of colleagues from Amsterdam received death threats after politely protesting against a lecture by Jordan Peterson.) Often protest or disagreement is construed as an attack on free speech. (“Nowadays we can’t say that anymore”, you hear them say all the time, while they say whatever they want.) But the opposite is the case: the very idea of free speech must comprise the right to disagreement or protest against speech. Cliteur is an active politician and a professor of jurisprudence, who has written quite a number of texts with all the ingredients of what I’d call right-wing attitudes: claiming a conspiracy of “Cultural Marxism”; nationalism; anti-Islamism, you name it. I don’t want to categorise him too readily, but he strikes me as a Dutch version of Jordan Peterson in Canada or of Thilo Sarrazin in Germany. – But what was I actually reacting to? There is a great number of claims that I find objectionable. But often the problem of propagandistic tales is not that they contain explicitly objectionable things; rather, it’s how they recontextualise “obvious” observations.

A problem with people like Cliteur is that they make outrageous claims, while sounding perfectly reasonable. Here is an example: Cliteur clearly and sensibly distinguishes between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a political ideology based on religious doctrines). So he does not say that religion entails terrorism or that religious people are potential terrorists. But then Cliteur introduces the term “theoterrorism” to label terrorists who motivate their acts by reference to their religion. Indeed, one of his main claims is that he is almost alone in taking terrorists’ reliance on their religion seriously. He portrays others as reverting to misguided explanations and himself as seeing what their true motivation is:

“Many people are reluctant to engage in this kind of research. They are concerned with something quite different: protecting religious minorities from discrimination and the “stereotyping of their religion.” Or they have the ambition to explain why the essence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam is averse to violence. I fully recognize the importance of that type of commentary from a believers perspective. But it is not the kind of approach that makes it possible to understand the theoterrorist challenge. I fear these well-meaning people are dangerously mistaken. The greatest contribution you can make to the peaceful coexistence of people of good will is to make a fair assessment of the role religion plays in contemporary terrorism, and not to suppress or censor people who dare to address this issue.”

What’s going on here? While he pretends to be looking for an alternative explanation of terroristic acts, he does in fact claim a link between religion and terroristic acts. Religious beliefs, then, are taken as the proper reasons (if not the causes) for people to commit terroristic acts. This way the difference between Islam and Islamism, while maintained verbally, is in fact nullified. Thus, Cliteur can evade the charge of hate speech against religious people, but he might be said to celebrate his way of linking terrorism and Islamic beliefs as a scientific discovery.

Linking religion to terrorism in this general way is bad for all sorts of reasons. Believe it or not, many people are religious without ever entertaining so much as a trace of a terrorist inclination. But two further aspects are striking about Cliteur’s claim: Firstly, no one ever denied that the terrorists he cites referred to religious attitudes. There is nothing spectacular about this. Secondly, Cliteur makes no move to invoke any solid evidence for this claim. But if his point were supposed to have the status of a proper explanation, then he would need to rule out alternatives. Compare: I could tell you that I go shoplifting on a regular basis because Father Christmas told me to. Now people might speculate about my motives. But you could just tell everyone: “People, Martin’s reasons have been staring us in the face ever since. Father Christmas told him so!” While no one might deny that I said so, the reference to Father Christmas might not in fact be the best explanation of my actions. Cliteur’s point amounts to no more. He links (Islamic) religion to terrorism; he presents this claim as new while at the same time giving himself the air of stating the obvious, and he provides no evidence or ways of ruling out alternative explanations for the phenomena he picks out. It is obvious that certain terrorists invoked religious beliefs; it is far from obvious that the invoked beliefs or the religion in question explain their acts.

Although this is bad enough, it does get worse. In his little essay on theoterrorism, Cliteur asks what “the West” should do. He sees Dutch values and free speech and just about everything threatened. At the same time, he claims that all the available strategies in the West have failed. Again, without providing evidence. It is obvious that terrorism hasn’t gone away; it is far from obvious that the available strategies were not effective (e.g., against cases we don’t know about). Now what do you actually do if you claim that people are threatened by terrorism but that none of the attempted solutions work? The party Cliteur supports has a well-known list of answers, consisting of the now common right-wing ideas rampant in Europe and the US. In conjunction with the politics Cliteur supports, the brand of nationalism that recommends itself as the answer is not too difficult to guess.

While he is careful enough not to call a spade a spade, his pamphlet on theoterrorism might be read as a legitimisation of both legal and illegal means to overcome what he calls the “cowardice of the West”. The claim that Western measures fail seems to call for new measures.

“But does the west’s defense do the trick? … So as long as the western countries persist in their assault on Islamic sacred symbols, Muslims are not only mandated but religiously and morally obligated to take revenge in the name of Allah, so the theoterrorists contend.”

By building up his case as a threat to the Abendland, by suggesting that “Muslims are … obligated to take revenge”, Cliteur eventually alludes to ‘obvious’ measures without stating them explicitly. It is this unspoken call to arms that is the most dangerous part of such political pamphlets. Inciting strong reactions without explicitly stating them immunises such propaganda against any critique that relies on explicit statements. “Oh, I didn’t say that”, is a common phrase of such people. They are all quite misunderstood.

Giving a platform to such incitements strengthens them. Yet, de-platforming might turn their protagonists into martyrs. Thus, rescinding an invitation might be just as problematic as making it to begin with. That said, what should worry us perhaps even more are the voices of those who were not invited in the first place. There are many more interesting and pertinent speakers for a night of philosophy.

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* Clarification in response to some misrepresentations on social media and the news: I’m not saying that “providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing (or supporting) their positions”. I rather claim that it lends some authority to their position A student newspaper misrepresented my position earlier. Unfortunately, that text was then shared widely. (Added on 27 March 2019)

Since the misrepresentations are continuously repeated, I devoted another blog post to them.

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Networks and friendships in academia

Recently, I came across an unwelcome reminder of my time as a graduate student and my early-career days. It had the shape of a conference announcement that carries all the signs of a performative contradiction: it invites you by exclusion. What can we learn from such contradictions?

The announcement invites early-career people to attend seminars that run alongside a conference whose line-up is already fixed and seems to consist mainly of a circle of quite established philosophers who have been collaborating closely ever since. Since the invitation is not presented as a “call”, it’s hard to feel invited in the first place. Worse still, you’re not asked to present at the actual conference but to attend “seminars” that are designed “to motivate students and young scholars from all over the world to do research in the field of medieval philosophy and to help them learn new scientific methodology and develop communication skills.” If you’re still interested in attending, you’ll look in vain for time slots dedicated to such seminars. Instead, there is a round table on the last day, scheduled for the same time the organising body holds their annual meeting, thus probably without the established scholars.* You might say there is a sufficient amount of events, so just go somewhere else. But something like the work on the “Dionysian Traditions” is rarely presented. In fact, medieval philosophy is often treated as a niche unto itself, so the choice is not as vast as for, say, analytic metaphysics.

If you think this is problematic, I’ll have to disappoint you. There is no scandal lurking here. Alongside all the great efforts within a growingly inclusive infrastructure of early career support, things like that happen all the time, and since my time as a professor I have been accused of organising events that do at least sound “clubby” myself. Of course, I’m not saying that the actual event announced is clubby like that; it’s just that part of the description triggers old memories. When I was a graduate student, in the years before 2000, at least the academic culture in Germany seemed to be structured in a clubby fashion. By “structured” I mean that academic philosophy often seemed to function as a simple two-class system, established and not-established, and the not-established people had the status of onlookers. They were, it seemed, invited to kind of watch the bigger figures and learn by exposure to greatness. But make no mistake; this culture did not (or not immediately) come across as exclusionary. The onlookers could feel privileged for being around. For firstly, even if this didn’t feel like proper participation, it still felt like the result of a meritocratic selection. Secondly, the onlookers could feel elated, for there was an invisible third class, i.e. the class of all those who either were not selected or didn’t care to watch. The upshot is that part of the attraction of academia worked by exclusion. As an early career person, you felt like you might belong, but you were not yet ready to participate properly.

Although this might come across as a bit negative, it is not meant that way. Academia never was an utopian place outside the structures that apply in the rest of the world. More to the point, the whole idea of what is now called “research-led teaching” grew out of the assumption that certain skills cannot be taught explicitly but have to be picked up by watching others, preferably advanced professionals, at work. Now my point is not to call out traditions of instructing scholars. Rather, this memory triggers a question that keeps coming back to me when advising graduate students. I doubt that research-led teaching requires the old class system. These days, we have a rich infrastructure that, at least on the surface, seems to counter exclusion. But have we overcome this two-class system, and if not, what lesson could it teach us?

Early career people are constantly advised to advance their networking skills and their network. On the whole, I think this is good advice. However, I also fear that one can spend a quarter of a lifetime with proper networking without realising that a network as such does not help. Networks are part of a professionalised academic environment. But while they might help exchanging ideas and even offer frameworks for collaborative projects, they are not functional as such. They need some sort of glue that keeps them together. Some people believe that networks are selective by being meritocratic. But while merit or at least prestige might often belong to the necessary conditions of getting in, it’s probably not sufficient. My hunch is that this glue comes in the shape of friendship. By that I don’t necessarily mean deeply personal friendships but “academic friendships”: people like and trust each other to some degree, and build on that professionally. If true, this might be an unwelcome fact because it runs counter to our policies of inclusion and diversity. But people need to trust each other and thus also need something stronger than policies.

Therefore, the lesson is twofold: On the one hand, people need to see that sustainable networks require trust. On the other hand, we need functional institutional structures to both to sustain such networks and to counterbalance the threat of nepotism that might come with friendship. We have or should have such structures in the shape of laws, universities, academic societies and a growing practice of mentoring. To be sure, saying that networks are not meritocratic does not mean that there is no such thing as merit. Thus, such institutions need to ensure that processes of reviewing are transparent and in keeping with commitments to democratic values as well as to the support of those still underrepresented. No matter whether this concerns written work, conferences or hiring. But the idea that networks as such are meritocratic makes their reliance on friendships invisible.

Now while friendships cannot be forced, they can be cultivated. If we wish to counter the pernicious class system and stabilise institutional remedies against it, we should advise people to extend (academic) friendships rather than competition. Competition fosters the false idea that getting into a network depends on merit. The idea of extending and cultivating academic friendship rests on the idea that merit in philosophy is a collective effort to begin with and that it needs all the people interested to keep weaving the web of knowledge. If at all, it is this way that meritocratic practices can be promoted; not by exclusion. You might object that we are operating with limited resources, but if the demand is on the rise, we have to demand more resources rather than competing for less and less. That said, cultivating academic friendships needs to be counterbalanced by transparency. Yet while we continue to fail, friendships are not only the glue of networks, but might be what keeps you sane when academia seems to fall apart.

Postscriptum I: So what about the conference referred to above? The event is a follow-up from a conference in 1999, and quite some of the former participants are present again. If it was, as it seems, based on academic friendships, isn’t that a reason to praise it? As I said and wish to emphasise again, academic friendships without institutional control do not foster the kinds of inclusive environments we should want. For neither can there be meritocratic procedures without the inclusion of underrepresented groups, nor can a two-class separation of established and not-established scholars lead to the desired extension of academic friendships. In addition to the memories triggered, one might note other issues. Given that there are comparatively many women working in this field, it is surprising that only three women are among the invited speakers. That said, the gendered conference campaign has of course identified understandable reasons for such imbalances. A further point is the fact that early career people wishing to attend have roughly two weeks after the announcement to register and apply. There is no reimbursement of costs, but one can apply for financial support after committing oneself to participate. – In view of these critical remarks, it should be noted again that this conference rather represents the status quo than the exception. The idea is not to criticise that academic friendships lead to such events, but rather to stress the need for rethinking how these can be joined with institutional mechanisms that counterbalance the downsides in tightening our networks.

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* Postscriptum II (14 March 2019): Yes. Before writing this post, I sent a mail to S.I.E.M.P. inquiring about the nature of the seminars for early career people. I asked:

(1) Are there any time slots reserved for this or are the seminars held parallel to the colloquium?
(2) What is the “new scientific methodology” referred to in the call?
(3) And is there any sort of application procedure?

The mail was forwarded to the local organisers and prompted the following reply:

“Thank you for interest in the colloquium on the Dionysian Traditions!

The time for the seminars is Friday morning. The papers should not be longer than 20 minutes. You should send us a list with titles, and preferably – with abstracts too. We have a strict time limit and not everyone may have the opportunity to present. Travel and accommodation costs are to be covered by the participants.

The new scientific methodology is the methodology you deem commensurate with the current knowledge about the Corpus.”

Apart from the fact that the event runs from a Monday to a Wednesday, the main question about the integration and audience of these seminars remains unanswered. Assuming that “Friday” is Wednesday, the seminars conicide with the announced round table, to be held at the same time at which the bureau of S.I.E.P.M. holds their meeting. (This was confirmed by a further exchange of mails.) But unlike the announcement itself, the mail now speaks of “papers” that the attendees may present.

The competition fallacy

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.” Max Frisch

 

Imagine that you want to buy an album by the composer and singer Caroline Shaw, but they sell you one by Luciano Pavarotti instead, arguing that Pavarotti is clearly the more successful and better singer. Well, philosophers often make similar moves. They will say things like “Lewis was a better philosopher than Arendt” and even make polls to see how the majority sees the matter. Perhaps you agree with me in thinking that something has gone severely wrong in such cases. But what exactly is it? In the following I’d like to suggest that competitive rankings are not applicable when we compare individuals in certain respects. This should have serious repercussions on thinking about the job market in academia.

Ranking two individual philosophers who work in fairly different fields and contexts strikes me as pointless. Of course, you can compare them, see differences and agreements, ask about their respective popularity and so forth. But what would Lewis have said about the banality of evil? Or Arendt about modal realism? – While you might have preferences for one kind of philosophy over another, you would have a hard time explaining who the “better” or more “important” philosopher is (irrespective of said preferences). There are at least three reasons for this: Firstly, Arendt and Lewis have very little point of contact, i.e. a straightforward common ground on which to plot a comparison of their philosophies. Secondly, even if they had more commonalities or overlaps, the respective understandings of what philosophy is and what good philosophy should accomplish can be fairly different. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, philosophies are always individual and unique accomplishments. Unique creations are not something one can have a competition about. If we assume that there is a philosophical theory T1, T1 is not the kind of thing that you can compete about being better at. Of course, you can refine T1, but then you’ve created a refined theory T2. Now you might want to claim that T2 can be called better than T1. But what would T2 be, were it not for T1? Relatedly, philosophers are unique. The assumption that what one philosopher does can be done better or equally well by another philosopher is an illusion fostered by professionalised environments. People are always unique individuals and their ideas cannot be exchanged salva veritate.*

Now since there are open job searches (sometimes even without a specification of the area of specialisation) you could imagine a philosophy department in 2019 having to decide whether they hire Lewis or Arendt. I can picture the discussions among the committee members quite vividly. But in doing such a search they are doing the same thing as the shop assistant who ends up arguing for Pavarotti over Shaw. Then words like “quality”, “output”, “grant potential”, “teaching evaluations”, “fit” … oh, and “diversity” will be uttered. “Arendt will pull more students!” – “Yeah, but what about her publication record? I don’t see any top journals!” – “Well, she is a woman.” In a good world both of them would be hired, but we live in a world where many departments might rather hire two David Lewises. So what’s going on?

It’s important to note that the competition is not about their philosophies: Despite the word “quality”, for the three reasons given above, the committee members cannot have them compete as philosophers. Rather, the department has certain “needs” that the competition is about.** The competition is about functions in the department, not about philosophy. As I see it, this point generalises: competitions are never about philosophy but always about work and functions in a department.*** Now, the pernicious thing is that departments and search committees and even candidates often pretend that the search is about the quality of their philosophy. But in the majority of cases that cannot be true, simply because the precise shape, task and ends of philosophy are a matter of dispute. What weighs is functions, not philosophy.

Arguably, there can be no competition between philosophers qua philosophers. Neither between Arendt and Lewis, nor between Arendt and Butler, nor between Lewis and Kripke. Philosophers can discuss and disagree but they cannot compete. What should they compete about? If they compete about jobs, it’s the functions in departments that are at stake. (That is also the reason why we allow for prestige as quality indicators.)  If they assume to be competing about who is the better philosopher, they mistake what they are doing. Of course, one philosopher might be preferred over another, but this is subject to change and chance, and owing to the notion of philosophy of the dominant committee member. The idea that there can be genuinely philosophical competition is a fallacy.

Does it follow, then, that there is no such thing as good or better philosophy? Although this seems to follow, it doesn’t. In a given context and group, things will count as good or better philosophy. But here is another confusion lurking. “Good” philosophy is not the property of an individual person. Rather, it is a feature of a discussion or interacting texts. Philosophy is good if the discussion “works well”. It takes good interlocutors on all sides. If I stammer out aphorisms or treatises, they are neither good nor bad. What turns them into something worthwhile is owing to those listening, understanding and responding. To my mind, good quality is resourcefulness of conversations. The more notions and styles of philosophy a conversation can integrate, the more resources it has to tackle what is at stake. In philosophy, there is no competition, just conversation.

Therefore, departments and candidates should stop assuming that the competition is about the quality of philosophy. Moreover, we should stop claiming that competitiveness is an indicator of being a good philosopher.**** Have you ever convinced an interlocutor by shouting that you’re better or more excellent than them?

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* At the end of the day, philosophies are either disparate or they are in dialogue. In the former case, rivalry would be pointless; in the latter case, the rivalry is not competitive but a form of (disagreeing or agreeing) refinement. If philosophers take themselves to be competing about something like the better argument, they are actually not competing but discussing and thus depend on one another.

** This does not mean that these needs or their potential fulfillment ultimately decide the outcome of the competition. Often there is disagreement or ignorance about what these needs are or how they are to be prioritised. With regard to committees, I find this article quite interesting.

*** In a recent blog post, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between being good at philosophy vs being good at academic philosophy. It’s a great post. (My only disagreement would be that being good at philosophy is ultimately a feature of groups and discussions, not individuals.) Eric Schliesser made similar points in an older more gloomy post.

**** On FB, Evelina Miteva suggeststhat we need fair trade philosophy, like the fair trade coffee. Fair trade coffee is not necessarily of a better taste or quality, it ‘only’ makes sure that the producers will get something out if their work.” – I think this is exactly right: On some levels, this already seems to be happening, for instance, in the open access movement. Something similar could be applied to recruiting and employment conditions in academia. In fact, something like this seems to be happening, in that some universities are awarded for being family friendly or being forthcoming in other ways (good hiring practice e.g.). – My idea is that we could amend many problems (the so-called mental health crisis etc.), if we were to stop incentivising competitiveness on the wrong levels and promote measures of solidarity instead. – The message should be that the community does no longer tolerate certain forms of wrong competition and exploitation.

Relatedly, this also makes for an argument in favour of affirmative action against discrimination of underrepresented groups: People who believe in meritocracy often say that affirmative action threatens quality. But affirmative action is not about replacing “good” with “underrepresented” philosophers. Why? Because the quality of philososphy is not an issue in competitive hiring in the first place.

Some observations concerning diversity (Part I)

(1) This morning, I took my daughter Hannah to a nice playground in Berlin. She is just over two years old and particularly enjoys climbing. As we approached the climbing frame, one of the boys on top shouted that they wouldn’t allow girls on the climbing frame. The girls around him smiled …

(2) Two years ago, I joined an initiative designed to keep a far-right right party (AFD) out of parliament. The initiative was founded by a group of social entrepreneurs, and the first workshop was attended mainly by social entrepreneurs, most of them in their late twenties or early thirties. At the beginning, we were asked whether we actually knew anyone who would vote for the AFD. This was affirmed only by one man, somewhat older than most. He told us that he knew a few people in the village he came from. Later in the day, we had to form smaller groups. Guess who had difficulty finding a group …

(3) Quite a number of years ago, I was on a hiring committee while still being a postdoc. For the first round of going through the applications, we were advised to focus on CVs. Discussing the candidates, I listened to a number of meritocratic arguments: they mostly, but not solely, concerned numbers of “good” publications (“good” means in prestigious venues, in case you were wondering). Then someone pointed out that we should perhaps take more time for reading. Someone else pointed out that we should scan cover letters for reasons of interruptions in the CVs, such as times for child care work. Guess what didn’t carry any weight when we drew up the list …

I could go on. These are minor observations; anyone could have made them. Nevertheless, in all their banality, these stories of exclusion form the daily fabric of our failures. But where exactly can we locate the failures? The people involved in these situations were not bad people, not at all: lively children on a playground, ambitious young entrepreneurs fighting for a good cause, a hiring committee focussed on selecting the best candidate. The events didn’t result in catastrophes: Hannah climbed up anyway, the initiative went nowhere, someone certainly deserving got a job. – The point is that these situations are so ordinary that hardly anyone would consider or be willing to cause much of a fuss. Or so it seems. The harm might be done: The next little girl might be discouraged from going to the playground; the next lonely man from the village will perhaps find better company among the far-right; a number of candidates, who would have been equally deserving even by the committee’s standards, were not even considered. Even if no one tells them, the stories of exclusion go on. But what can we do?

The first thing is that in all these situations, there was a possibility of making a difference. Contrary to a widespread belief, we are not powerless minions. The fact that we cannot save the whole world doesn’t mean that we cannot change our ways here and there, or listen for a change. But there are two things that make me doubtful:

  • Despite all the fashionable talk of diversity, such stories suggest that many of us don’t really want diversity. What these situations reveal is that the exclusive attitudes seem to be very deeply ingrained.
  • Even if such attitudes can be overcome, I sense a sort of paranoia amongst many people in positions of public leadership. If you look at more and less well-known people in politics, such as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors etc., many of them display a fear of everything that is different. But while it’s easy to call them names for it, we shouldn’t forget that they get elected by majorities.

It’s complicated. The exclusions we see are not ad hoc, but fostered by long-standing structures. There’s much of that I dislike or even hate, while I continue to be a beneficiary in some way or another. That is probably true of many of us. Thus, the charge of hypocrisy always seems justified. But if that’s true, the charge of hypocrisy shouldn’t cause too much worry. The worry of being called a hypocrite might be paralysing. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that hypocrisy is structural, too. It can’t be amended by targeting individuals. Everyone who’s is trying to interfere and make a difference, can be called a hypocrite.