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).

Experiencing humility: hope for public debate?

When I was young (yes, stop snickering), when I was young I was often amazed at people’s knowledge. Most people had opinions about everything. The government issued a statement about a new policy and my father or one of my uncles already knew that the policy wouldn’t work. This admiration didn’t stop during my adolescence: I remember listening in awe when friends saw through all the motives and consequences of political decisions. How did they figure it all out? – Well, they probably didn’t. Or not much of it. I don’t want to sound condescending but most of us probably don’t understand the implications of political decisions all that well. Yet, judging by the readiness and vehemence of our contributions to public debate, most of us do at least give the impression of relative expertise. If this is correct, there is a disproportion between actual understanding and confidence in our opinions. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that amending this disproportion might hold the key to improving public debate.

According to Kees van den Bos and other social scientists,* this disproportion is one of the crucial factors leading to polarisation in public debate. However, the inverse also seems to be true: if people are asked to explain how certain policies work and experience that they understand these policies less well than they thought, they are likely to exhibit more moderation in their views of these policies. Fernbach et al. (2013) write:

“Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation under-mines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups. These moderation effects on judgment and decision making do not occur when people are asked to enumerate reasons for their position. We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge.”

So while I might become increasingly stubborn if you ask me to give reasons for p, I might become more moderate if you ask me to explain how p works. According to the researchers, this is the case because in the latter scenario I am humbled by experiencing the limits of my knowledge. I guess it won’t be too much to ask you to imagine examples. Asking how certain policies of, say, traffic regulation or migration work in practice might even lead politicians themselves to moderation.

What precisely is it that leads to moderation? My hunch is that the effect is produced by experiencing humility. This means that it is vital that the subject in question experiences their lack of knowledge. It is probably no good if I am told that I lack knowledge. (In fact, I believe that this might instil resentment.) The point is that I realise my lack in my own attempt at an explanation. So what I would like to emphasise is that the moderating effect is probably owing to experiencing this lack rather than merely knowing about this lack. Of course, I know that I don’t know how precisely certain policies work. But it’s still quite another thing to experience this ignorance in attempting to explain such policies. In other words, the Socratic attitude alone doesn’t help.

If this effect persists, this finding might indeed help ameliorating conversations and debates. Instead of telling people that they are wrong or asking for reasons, we might simply ask how the proposed idea works. This requires of course humility on part of all interlocutors. A good start might be debates in philosophy.

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* I am grateful to Hendrik Siebe, Diego Castro and Leopold Hess for conversations about this work online and offline.

“How would you arrange the deportation of my father?” On responsible (free) speech. A response to Silvia Mazzini

Could you tell me, face to face or in writing, how you would go about having my father deported? – Why, you ask? – Well, maybe you think he is a burden for society. After all, he is quite old by now. So how do you do get it arranged? Should some people be sent to fetch him? Perhaps at night? Go on, then! –

You, gentle reader, probably don’t have such desires. But if I follow the political discussions in the Netherlands and other countries, many people want that. Only they don’t tell me personally; they talk about certain groups, not to me.

Ah, it’s not old people, you say, just Muslims? So they don’t want to come for my father? Well, lucky me then… Should it make a difference whether people want to deport my or someone else’s father? Well, it makes a difference, but does it matter? Not much. –– The point I would like to suggest is that we can imagine that certain opinions concern us directly, even if they don’t. In a controversial discussion between two opponents, such imaginations can help both interlocutors to make the conversation more personal, concrete, emotional and thus responsible. Following up on my last post, I would like to develop some ideas, then, how we can turn free speech into responsible speech.

In my last post, I tried to show that our disagreements about the limits of free speech are owing to two different ways of understanding how language works. Ultimately, I suggested that the crucial limit of free speech should be determined by the responsibilities we have as speakers. But I didn’t say much about these responsibilities themselves. Commenting on the post, my colleague Silvia Mazzini suggested that responsibility could be seen as offering the other the ability to respond:

Maybe we could then interpret [responsible freedom of speech] like Levinas did: responsibility is the “ability to respond”. In this sense, freedom of speech would mean that all the people involved in a dialogue are able to respond – that they have the intention to consider the different positions of the others.

This strikes me as the way to go. What I like about this idea in particular is that it doesn’t require us to provide a complicated catalogue of virtues or rules. Rather, the responsibility is imposed through the very fact that the opinion is not voiced as a statement about others but to others.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, does it really make such a difference whether I offer my opinion about a policy regarding a group of people to someone in particular? David Livingstone Smith’s work on dehumanisation made me see one point in particular recurring again and again: Although it might be simple to imagine doing harm to a certain group in the abstract, it is really hard to do something harmful to someone directly in front of you. (That is why dehumanising tactics are employed: it is easier to harm someone if you think of them as not really human.) Arguably, this carries over to speech acts. My hunch is that it is much harder to direct hate speech at someone in particular (rather than speak abstractly about members of a group).

My idea is, then, that it is easier to act as a responsible speaker, if you are addressing someone in particular directly. There are a number of reasons for this. Interacting with a concrete person, we are more likely to respond with adequate emotions and empathy, and we have to face the response. Although a face-to-face encounter will be best, I think this will even work in online communication. It makes a difference for me as a writer whether I imagine you, whoever you are, as a concrete person who might frown or agree. Or whether I simply toss out statements about abstract ideas, however much they might affect you. The point is, thus, that we shouldn’t always try to amend online debates by being as rational as possible or by cancelling out emotions. Rather, the task would be to facilitate adequate social emotions necessary for responsible interaction. Addressing others directly should have two consequences: (a) it should be more difficult to objectify and thus to harm the interlocutor; (b) it should invite the other to respond and make me anticipate some response. Thus, if we get people who utter opinions to address people directly in this way, they will speak more responsibly, rendering free speech not a battleground but a possibility for genuine and considerate exchange.

So far, so good. Of course you might have objections, but my worry at this point is not how to justify my idea. Rather, I see the main challenge in implementing it. I think we should give it a try and then see how well it works. So how can we change our conventions? How can we get from talking about people to taking to them? This is an open question, but at this moment I can think of four steps in the relevant contexts:

  • Change speech acts from third-person to second-person sentences: Saying that you should leave this country is much harder than saying that blog readers should leave this country. I’d think twice about what’s going to happen if i did so.
  • People can stand in for targeted people: If you hear someone going on about a religious group, you can respond as if you were targeted. The point is not to lie, but to offer yourself as a possible interlocutor (which might be more effective than just saying that the speaker is a bad person).
  • As a possible interlocutor you can demand the other to (empathetically) imagine your situation: It might make a difference to ask your opponent how she thinks the deportation of your father should be arranged. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs in the abstract.
  • Dehumanising language must be rejected. Of course, there are limits. It is vital to state that, if your interlocutor crosses a red line.

Now you might think that all of this is too difficult. I doubt that. In the face of what we often call political correctness, we have acquired a lot of vocabulary and changed some of our speaking habits. Now we can adjust our imagination and syntax a bit. Of course, this will take time. But I really hope that you and I as well as (other) people in education, in companies, in the press, moderators in the media, citizens in online or analogue discussions gradually train and learn to adjust their language and address people directly. Yes, it will be harder to offer your opinion, but it will also be more fruitful. – At this point, I’m suggesting this and hope for more ideas about means and ways of implementing it. Ideally, we’ll find that this or something like it turns out to be a viable way of amending political discourse.

By the way, this should cut across the entire political spectrum. It has, for instance, become fashionable to engange in what is sometimes called leftist populism or target the group of “old white males”. Whatever your contention might be, if you want to tell someone like my father that inverse racism isn’t a thing, you won’t get him to respond sensibly if you target him as a member of that group. We act through language. And the way we act in our words is palpable, it affects individuals, and individual people are likely to respond in kind. Verbal attacks affect us, irrespective of the side we think we are on. Thus, whenever we want to make a point that affects others, we should try and address them directly. Conversely, if we encounter problematic opinions, we don’t need to shut them down. To respond on behalf of a targeted addressee, as if you were addressed directly, might be more fruitful in maintaing adequate standards and emotions.

Finally, it goes without saying that I am worst at following my own advice. So please don’t call me out too harshly.

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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