Transgression and playfulness in academic exchange

Imagine that you are about to enter one of these hip clothing stores that play fairly loud pop music. Imagine that they play, say, Abba’s “dancing queen” and imagine further that you start to sing very loudly and dance most expressively along to the music as you enter. For how long, do you think, could you go on doing this? – I guess I couldn’t do it at all, because I’d feel embarrassed. It’s just not done, or is it? – I think discussing philosophy is a bit like this. If originality really has such a high status in philosophy, then you should sing and dance in a shop. No? It’s trickier than that. You can see this if you realise that, for some people, uttering a plain sentence in an academic setting feels exactly like singing and dancing in a clothing store. Embarrassing. – Now imagine you’re a bystander: What can you do with this? (1) Well, you can of course expose them, for instance by correcting their behaviour instantly. (2) Or you can make them feel at home a bit by at least humming along with the tune. They’ll probably feel less alone. And you’ll make the others see that it is actually purposeful behaviour. (3) If you’re in the position of the shopkeeper, you could even try and clear the aisles from obstacles to open space for further dancing and join in. There are certainly more options, but the point is: you have a choice and what you choose will partly determine how things develop and how things are judged. But let’s add some context first.

Many of the current discussions about academic exchange are haunted by accusations. On the one hand, there are those who accuse others of censorship in the name of dubious political correctness. On the other, there are those who accuse the accusers of violating safe spaces. What I find particularly sad is that these camps (if there are camps) recurrently run into a hopeless stalemate. I have seen many people attempting to intervene with the best intentions and yet being called out relentlessly. The stalemate seems to arise whenever people pick option one and tell others off for dancing in the shop. – I feel not one jot cleverer than all the people already enmeshed in this mess. But today seems as good as any day, so I’ve set aside time to write a bit about this issue. Before I go through the motions, let me articulate my thesis: I believe that the common distinction between the two camps of “safe space endorsement” and “free speech endorsement” is totally misguiding. Both “camps” are eventually owing to the same problem: the problem of an intersection between educational and professional issues. Let me explain.

Transgression and types of exchange. As I see it, the accusations between the two camps often have a paradoxical air, because the two camps in question share the same goals: Everyone wants open academic exchange, but also wants to prevent harm. Thus, there is always the problem of drawing lines between freedom and harm. One person’s frankness is insulting someone else, and vice versa. People draw these lines differently anyway. But what makes academic or philosophical exchange special is that it partly thrives on transgressing such lines. Most might smile at this today, but many people did worry in debates about the immortality of the soul or personal identity in view of the afterlife. One person’s progress is another’s loss of everything they hold dear. We allow for such transgressions because we (and this includes those who might suffer offence) think that discursive openness might lead to insights that benefit us all. At the same time, it should be clear that potential transgressions require special conditions that protect all those involved both from external repercussions and from internal conflicts.

But here is the catch: In academia we encounter each other in two contexts at once. On the one hand, we are part of an educational exchange in which we learn from each other and help and criticise each other freely. On the other hand, we are part of a professional exchange in which we judge each other from different (hierarchical) positions of power. (By the way, the idea of meritocracy has it that these levels are aligned, but they are not, because the former is way more fluid.) Now these contexts often play out against one another: Your supervisor might say that she wants you to speak up freely, but you might fear that if you speak your mind you’ll be punished professionally.

As I see it, the merging of the two contexts is what creates antagonising camps. No matter which side you take me to be on: if you fear that I might retaliate professionally, it will poison our educational exchange and turn me into an enemy. Conversely, if you trust me to speak in good faith and you don’t hold a professional grudge, I am sure I can utter whatever blather. You might not think very highly of me, but you might still just try and help me see some sense. After all, we all make mistakes. And next time it might be you. Seen in this light, then, I think the two camps boil down to something that has not much to do with the particular political convictions driving either side, but with the merging of contexts.

Playfulness. Where can we go from here? Now, there is no general solution for the merging of contexts. This is why I think that we should assign as much space as possible to educational exchange in academia. We are always different personae at once, and the way to go is to keep the problematic ones in check. How? Through establishing exchange in a more playful manner. Here are some considerations about that (and here is an attempt at playful considerations).* Some of you might remember how philosophical discussions work among friends: You might try out the strangest ideas and see that they end up turning into something surprisingly sustainable. If your interlocutor can’t think on, you make suggestions to help. If it turns out to be nonsense, you laugh and move on. – Why does this work? Because you trust one another. Does it always go well? No, but your friend will be looking out for signs of disagreement and be considerate of your feelings. If you tell them to shut up about a sensitive topic they won’t call you a censor, but shut up. Next time you’ll look into it again and sort out what went wrong, “go meta” or whatever. – Now, you don’t need to make friends with all your interlocutors, but arguing in good faith works like that. We try and fail and laugh and have someone else try. The crucial idea is that such dialogues will be fluid and change the norms as we go along. Is it ok to sing in a shop? Well, let’s see where it get’s us. The whole thing is more like a jazz improvisation where the tune is not fixed. The point is this: everyone’s job is just to make everyone else sound good.

Controversial ideas and conformity. But while the trust of friendship might be a helpful regulative ideal, we have to tackle the interference of the professional level and other group dynamics. This is why I want to consider the question of embarrassment again. Of course, we might also feel occasionally embarrassed among friends, but in professional contexts, that is: in contexts in which we feel judged (be it as students or peers), embarrassment might be outright paralysing. And although some recent articles try to tone down the issue of self-censorship, I would assume that it is fairly pervasive and also problematic, if it stops us from considering what is called “controversial ideas”.

We might begin again by imagining the dance in the shop or, if you like a change of setting, in a philosophy seminar. Would that be ok? Few will think so. It would be a transgression of social norms. While it might not be outright politically incorrect to dance and sing in class, it would certainly put the dancer on the spot. The dancer would be discouraged and perhaps feel embarrassed. Now while making philosophical claims is not exactly like dancing, controversial claims might have the same or worse social effects, to put it mildly. In Descartes’ day, “Everything is material” or “Everything boils down to motion” might just have done the trick. Today, we have other issues, but the shaming of people in professional contexts is said to have become somewhat fashionable. On the whole, shaming is not very resourceful and reduces to option (1) above: If someone says something that sounds off, the common response is to say that this is false. In professional terms this quickly translates into a downgrading of status (unless the person is so established that judgement is outweighed).

At this point, a pattern emerges: Accusing one another, one group will call for safe spaces, the other will call for free speech. But what’s at stake is the embarrassment and fear of bad effects. Unless there are very vocal proponents, people in both camps will fear being put on the spot and thus try to conform to given behavioural standards. The effect is often exposed as self-censorship, but it seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon sometimes called the Bandwagon Effect: We try to align our views and behaviour with what are the perceived standards. A particularly stunning exposure of our drive to conformity is the Asch experiment (a video is here), in which study participants will align even their own correct perceptual judgments with the obviously wrong judgment of others. However, the experiment has also shown that this effect reduces as soon as there is one ally who also utters the correct judgment. Whatever the intricacies of the social mechanisms at work, the take-home message seems to be that isolation creates embarrassment, while allies help dissolving embarrassment. If this is correct, we can use this to find resources of at least softening the impact of paralysing norms in academic exchange.

Standing by. My hunch is that, at least in the confines of seminars and other philosophical (online) discussions, we should seek to establish more roles than those of proponent and critic. The so-called bystanders are crucial when it comes to demonstrating the normative weight underlying the discussion in question. If you see that someone or some group is isolated because of a controversial position, you might at least try to support their case. Most of us are trained to play devil’s advocate, so we might as well manage helping our peers. The point is not ultimate endorsement but giving space to the idea, ideally in a playful manner such that it can come out as sounding good. This would restore some of the educational context: firstly because the proponent would hopefully feel less threatened through professional isolation; secondly, because it would ensure that we’d be discussing improved versions of ideas rather than strawmen. This would mean something like humming along with “dancing queen” or clearing the space to dance. It might of course also mean to leave. It dispels shame and hopefully even creates some much needed trust.

In my mind’s ear, I can now hear some people objecting that there are really harmful transgressions that should not be endorsed in universities, not even for the sake of argument. I agree that there are such positions. But I also think that these are exceptions. They should be treated as such, as exceptions. If people threaten others, they have left the grounds of academic exchange. For those who remain, it is vital to restore trust and argue resourcefully. This might require more than calling out falsehoods. (Online discussions are not all that different from offline discussions, except for the fact that they have massively increased means of signalling approval or disapproval of bystanders. So “like” with care and don’t pile up!) It might help more to enhance and play around with positions, and forgive each other when we fail. Something which, I am told, we do much of the time. Rather than trying to optimise our positions, it might be better to attempt exchanges by looking for cues to move or stop, try and fail. We have to improvise our way through these conversations; there is no score, and no set of rules will help us making progress.

If we want to make progress, we need transgression of norms, and this is sometimes a risky business. We might choose friendly playfulness to keep possible harms in check and prioritise educational over professional exchange.

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* Many thanks Lonneke Oostland who emphasised the importance of playfulness in philosophical exchange, and to Ilona de Jong who hinted at Asch’s experiments (referred to further down).

Spotting mistakes and getting it right

“Know thyself” is probably a fairly well known maxim among philosophers. But the maxim we live by rather seems to be one along the lines of “know the mistakes of others”. In calling this out I am of course no better. What prompts me to write about this now is a recent observation, not new but clearly refreshed with the beginning of the academic year: it is the obvious desire of students to “get it right”, right from the start. But what could be wrong with desiring to be right?

Philosophers these days don’t love wisdom but truth. Now spotting the mistakes of others is often presented as truth-conducive. If we refute and exclude the falsehoods of others, it seems, we’re making progress on our way to finding out the truth. This seems to be the reason why most papers in philosophy build their cases on refuting opposing claims and why most talks are met with unwavering criticism of the view presented. Killing off all the wrongs must leave you with the truth, no? I think this exclusion principle has all sorts of effects, but I doubt that it helps us in making the desired progress. Here is why.

A first set of reasons relates to the pragmatic aspects of academic exchange: I believe that the binary distinction between getting it right or wrong is misleading. More often than not the views offered to us are neither right nor wrong. This is owing to the fact that we have to present views successively, by putting forward a claim and explaining and arguing for it. What such a process exposes is normally not the truth or falsity of the view, but a need for further elaboration: by unpacking concepts and consequences, ruling out undesired implications, clarifying assumptions etc.

Now you might object that calling a view false is designed to prompt exactly that: clarification and exploration. But I doubt that this is the case. After all, much of academic exchange is driven by perceived reputation: More often than not criticism makes the speaker revert to defensive moves, if it doesn’t paralyse them: Rather than exploring the criticised view, speakers will be tempted to use strategies of immunising their paper against further criticism. If speakers don’t retract, they might at least reduce the scope of their claims and align themselves with more accepted tenets. This, I believe, blocks further exploration and sets an incentive for damage control and conformism. If you doubt this, just go and tell a student (or colleague) that they got it wrong and see what happens.

Still, you might object, such initial responses can be overcome. It might take time, but eventually the criticised speaker will think again and learn to argue for their view more thoroughly. – I wish I could share this optimism. (And I sometimes do.) But I guess the reason that this won’t happen, or not very often, is simply this: What counts in scholarly exchange is the publicly observable moment. Someone criticised by an opponent will see themselves as challenged not only as a representative of a view but as a member of the academic community. Maintaining or restoring our reputation will seem thus vital in contexts in which we consider ourselves as judged and questioned: If we’re not actually graded, under review or in a job talk, we will still anticipate or compare such situations. What counts in these moments is not the truth of our accounts, but whether we convince others of the account and, in the process, of our competence. If you go home as defeated, your account will be seen as defeated too, no matter whether you just didn’t mount the courage or concentration to make a more convincing move.

A second set of reasons is owing to the conviction that spotting falsehoods is just that: spotting falsehoods. As such, it’s not truth-conducive. Refuting claims does not (or at least not necessarily) lead to any truth. Why? Spotting a falsehood or problem does not automatically make any opposing claim true. Let me give an example: It is fairly common to call the so-called picture theory of meaning, as presented in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, a failure. The perhaps intuitive plausibility that sentences function as pictures of states of affairs seems quickly refuted when asking how such pictures can be said to be true or false of a supposed chunk of reality. What do you do? Step out of the picture and compare it with the proper chunk? Haha! – Refuting the picture theory, then, seems to bring us one step closer to an appropriate theory of meaning. But such a dismissal makes us overlook that the picture theory has enormous merits. Once you see it as a theory of representation and stop demanding that it also accounts for the truth and falsity of representations, you begin to realise that it can work very well when combined with a theory of use or a teleosemantic theory. (See e.g. Ruth Millikan’s recontextualisation) The upshot is that our dismissals are often resulting from overlooking crucial further assumptions that would reinstate the dismissed account.

Now you might object that an incomplete account is still a bad account. Pointing this out is not per se wrong but will eventually prompt a recontextualisation that works. In this sense, you might say, the criticism becomes part of the recontextualised account. – To this I agree. I also think that such dialogues can prompt more satisfying results. But bearing the pragmatic aspects of academic exchange in mind, I think that such results are more likely if we present our criticism for what it is: not as barking at falsehoods but attempts to clarify, complete or complement ideas.

Now you might object that the difference between barking at falsehoods and attempts to clarify can be seen as amounting just to a matter of style. – But why would you think that this is an objection? Style matters. Much more than is commonly acknowledged.

On mentoring. A response to Katarina Mihaljević

Professional philosophy has a reputation for protecting harassers in their midst. Although John Searle’s assaults are said to have been known since 2004, it was only this year that he has finally been sanctioned, a bit. Fostering such perpetrators not only speaks of an enormous sexism in the institutions in question, it also affects the normal or desirable relations between faculty members and students. Thus, it is not surprising that many public discussions about “the profession” revolve around the problematic aspects such as the effects of power imbalance. So much so that one might almost forget that faculty-student relations are not only poisonous but might even provide some remedies, also against the problematic culture in our discipline. Katarina Mihaljević argues that mentorship is crucial in education and even in combatting sexism. At the same time she points out that the precise nature of mentorship remains unclear: often neither students nor faculty members seem to have a clear idea of what to expect. In what follows, I would like to reflect on mentorship and its elusive nature.

During my years as a graduate student, mentorship wasn’t part of the educational programme. I just asked two of my professors for guidance and was very lucky in that they responded in an encouraging manner and supported me greatly and continuously. In my faculty at Groningen, mentoring forms a clear part of the graduate education. But that does of course not determine the nature of mentoring. According to one of many definitions, mentoring is a “process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development …” While at least some of us are trained to impart knowledge, it’s harder to get clear on what it means to transmit social capital and to lend support. A “code of conduct”, as Katarina envisions it, might provide a framework, but it can’t get to the heart of the matter, simply because questions of social capital and support are highly personal. In this sense, it is no surprise that the “rights and duties” remain and perhaps even have to remain vague. Nevertheless, there are a few elements that form a recurrent part of the conversations I have with students. In what follows, I’d like to list those that I find crucial:

  • Contextualising (content): No matter whether I am formally determined to be someone’s mentor or just happen to discuss a paper, I often begin by trying to figure out what the goals of students are. Why, for instance, does she want to write a certain paper? Is it related to a continuous set of interests or just falling out of the actual course work? Answers to this question help me understanding the philosophical drive of the student and, in turn, enable me to show a particular research question in its relation to wider issues inside and outside philosophy. My hope is that a particular piece of work makes sense to the student in a wider scope.
  • Contextualising (career): Where do you want to go with this piece of work? That is often my next question. Sometimes I receive an incredulous stare, but the point is to relate the actual work to wider life goals. Does someone see themselves as an academic or outside the university? And what difference might the work on a particular topic make? Sometimes people burn for a topic; others might wish to foster certain skills or just challenge themselves. – The idea is not to tailor the essay accordingly, but rather to get a sense of what matters to the student and whether I can say anything helpful at this point. If this goes well, the best outcome is some sort of confident projection of the student’s goals into the future. Ideally, the student seriously begins to see herself in a certain professional context or environment.
  • Understanding uncertainties: Obviously, this projection is not an attempt to fix the future. It’s about seeing obstacles and paths around them. To make this work, I try to connect to my own experiences as a student. This not in order to end up saying something like “do it my way”, but in order to understand: How would I have felt with such goals? How would I have felt about telling them to my supervisor? It helps me seeing the courage and worries involved in this projection. In some moments, I can then honestly say “oh, that would have worried me”, or “I would have loved to do something like that” or “faced with this, I wanted to do x, but never dared to.” Let’s face it: most worries are about performing well and how to get there. But in the background there is a larger story about belonging to a community. The crucial point, for me at least, is not to come up with recipes but to remind myself and others that it is part of the game to have worries or uncertainties. Mirroring that this is normal might help, and also put things into a balanced picture in line with other parts of life.
  • Advising: The forgoing items are mainly elements that figure in listening, “active listening”, still involving some talking on my part. Where does the advice come in? Ideally, students give themselves much advice while responding to questions. Most things suggest themselves when people unpack their ideas. One can steer this by asking things like “Have you asked yourself this?”, “Have you heard about that [book, conference, person]?”, “If you do x, you might run into the following problem.” – The idea is to encourage students to articulate their ideas in the strongest possible ways, to make them see objections, and show them the context in which they can be placed. This has a scholarly and a social dimension. Over and above the discussion of ideas, I find it crucial to impart an understanding of the network of people and institutions involved. Ideally, students feel encouraged to approach people whose ideas they find interesting, be it during talks, at conferences, summer schools or via mail. If students begin see themselves as a real part of the conversation I have reached one of the crucial goals in mentoring.
  • Limits: What I find equally crucial is to point out the limits of this process. Ultimately, I can’t do or help much. I cannot make promises that go far beyond the words spoken in such meetings. Of course, one can and should act on students’ behalf, be it putting them in touch with colleagues or relevant authorities, write a reference or help settle administrative processes. But that’s about it.

All of these steps are fairly elusive because they depend on the personalities of the people involved. This means that the crucial outcomes (or limits) of mentoring ultimately depend on the mutual trust that people have. That’s why students should feel free to turn away from a given mentor and turn to someone else if they wish. Personally, I always found it helpful to talk regularly to two people: one person who is more involved in the topics I care about; another person who might be more efficient when it comes to settling formal or even career-related issues.

Countering sexism, then, as Katarina envisions it, is ultimately an issue of fostering trust, confidence, and empowering ways of dealing with uncertainties. It should go without saying that this can only flourish in a climate in which perpetrators of any kind do not enjoy any protection. That is true of individual people and institutions as well as the wider discipline. But there is also a lot of sexism below the threshold of harassment. While good mentoring might be part of a remedy against this, mentoring is always related to a certain status quo. If mentoring is a form of guidance for going along with that status quo, it would involve strategies of coping with forms of sexism. It is here that I see the limits of mere mentoring. Countering sexism cannot mean gaslighting people into living with it.

Sexism and the importance of mentors in academic philosophy

It takes a village to raise a baby and it takes willing mentors to turn you into a good philosopher. I know it is true because I never had one. And then I briefly had one (nod to you, Martin), and now I have a new one ( 👋 Sander). When discussing mentoring with my colleagues, it often seems that the reason so many of us did not manage to clock in over the total of sixty minutes with our assigned academic supervisors/mentors during our one or two year-long master program was the skewed balance between the research, teaching and the administration duties. Argument went that, at the end of the day, our mentors/supervisors simply had no time or desire to meet with us.

But what if we could argue, even better, give some evidence that mentoring presents an important factor in helping underrepresented groups, such as women, to continue their studies on the graduate level?

Although mentoring, widely construed, is by no means a sufficient condition to secure transition of more women from the undergraduate to graduate programs[1], it is my contention that ultimately external conditions, such as mentorship, peer review, access to work spaces and the relevant literature are necessary if a student is to develop her philosophical contributions to a satisfactory level. For the purposes of this short note, I will only focus on mentoring and how the absence of it helps uphold the status quo in philosophy.

It is my contention that to stop being sexist in academic philosophy is to stop being selfish: with (1) the attention and (2) the resources.

One thing that all of us struggled with asking for and receiving attention were the unclear boundaries and vaguely described and understood rights and duties on both sides. Is one’s mentor supposed to take on a parental role? Or that of a therapist? Or that of a shoulder to cry on after Joris never texted back? The attention that so many of us wanted was never expected to be a one-sided effort. Regardless, most of the times, we would end up talking to whomever would listen about our minors, essay ideas and career plans.

To succeed in academic philosophy, women need not only mentors but also promoters. What does a promoter do? One example of promotion is to use resources at hand in a form of the access to information on relevant venues for the development of her research interests (read: summer schools).

In conclusion, to tackle the continued perpetuation of institutionalized sexism in academic philosophy, we ought to help develop more both capable and selfless male and female philosophers. In order to do that, I believe that we need to set up a more concrete mentor-mentee code of conduct which will outline rights and duties on both sides of the table.

[1] In their own take on quantification of the gender gap in the philosophy departments, Paxton, Figdor and Tiberius (2012) argue that the presence of female faculty members positively impacts the number of students transitioning to philosophy majors.

Framing employment in higher education, and father’s day

If you work in (higher) education, you will know some version of the following paradox: It takes the ‘best’ candidates to educate people for a life in which there is no time for education. – What I mean is that, while we pretend to apply meritocratic principles in hiring (of researchers and instructors), there is not even a glimpse of such pretence when it comes to the education of our children. If we were to apply such principles, we would probably expect parents (or others who take care of children) to invest at least some amount of time in the education of their children. But in fact we expect people to disguise time spent with or for their children. So much so that one might say: your children live in competition with your CV. – There are many problems when it comes to issues of care and employment, but in what follows I’d like to focus especially on the role of time and timing.

A few days ago I read a timely blog post over at the Philosophers’ Cocoon: “Taking time off work / the market for motherhood?”. The crucial question asked is whether and, if yes, how to explain “the gap” in productivity. Go and read the post along with the comments (on this blog they tend to be worth reading, too) first.

For what it’s worth, let me begin with my own more practical piece of advice. If a gap is visible, I would tend to address it in the letter and say that a certain amount of time was spent on childcare. Why? I’m inclined to think of cover letters in terms of providing committee members with arguments in one’s favour. If someone says, “look, since his PhD, this candidate has written three rather than two papers”, someone else can reply with “yes, but this difference can be explained by the time spent on childcare”. Yet, this advice might not be sufficient. If candidates are really compared like that, people might not sufficiently care about explanations. All I would hope for is that providing arguments or explanations for gaps should at least not hurt your chances.

However, this does not counter the structural disadvantages for women and mothers in our institutions. You might object that there are now many measures against such disadvantages. While this might be true, it also leads to problematic assumptions. Successful women now often face the suspicion of being mere beneficiaries of affirmative action. This could entail that awards or other successes for women might be assessed as less significant by their peers. (Paradoxically, this could increase the prestige of awards for male peers since they count as harder to get in a climate of suspicion.) But the problems start before any committee member ever sets eyes on an application. What strikes me as crucial is the idea that childcare is construed as a gap. Let me mention just three points:

  • Construing childcare as a gap incentivises treating it as a waste of time (for the stakeholders). But this approach ignores that employees in higher education are representatives of educational values. Treating childcare and, by extension, education as a waste of time undermines the grounds that justify efforts in education in the first place.
  • You would expect that work in higher education requires certain skills, some of which are actually trained by taking care of children. Attentiveness, constant interpretational efforts, openness to failure, patience, time management, dealing with rejection, you name it. While I’m not saying that parents are necessarily better teachers or researchers, it’s outright strange to play off one activity against the other.
  • At least in the field of philosophy, most work products are intrinsically tied to the producer. It’s not like you could have hired Davidson to write the work published by Anscombe. Unlike in certain examination practices, our texts are not crafted such that someone’s work could be replaced anyone else. So all the prestige and quantification cannot stand in for what they are taken to indicate. Thus, comparing products listed on a CV is of limited value when you want to assess someone’s work.

That said, the positive sides of parenthood are often seen and even acknowledged. At least some fathers get a lot of credit. Strangely, this credit is rarely extended to mothers, even less so in questions of employment conditions. Ultimately, the situation reminds me of the cartoon of a sinking boat: the people on the side that is still up and out of the water shout in relief that they are lucky not to be on the side that sank. Yet, educating children is a joint responsibility of our society. If we leave vital care work to others, it’s more than cynical to claim that they didn’t keep up to speed with those who didn’t do any of the care work. Comparing CVs obscures joint responsibilities, incentivising competition where solidarity is due. Such competition sanctions (potential) mothers in particular when excluding them from jobs in higher education or the secure spots on what might turn out to be the Titanic.

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.