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E-Pluribus | April 19, 2023
"Let me ask you a philosophical question" "NO!"; an uptick in shoutdowns; and debating without debasing.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Alex Byrne: Philosophy’s No-Go Zone
Philosophical issues are often by their very nature challenging, confrontational to conventional beliefs, and even at times disturbing. At Quillette, professor Alex Byrne tells of how a relatively prosaic observation, a woman is an adult human female, recently set philosophy’s collective hair on fire.
A staple of Philosophy 101 is René Descartes’s Meditations, in which the 17th century Frenchman devotes himself to the “general demolition” of his own opinions. In a couple of pages, he succeeds in demolishing his conviction that he has “hands or eyes.” This is the ethos of philosophy—question claims that we ordinarily take for granted and can’t imagine denying. Nothing is off the table. Weak-minded scientists may conform their conclusions to the prevailing orthodoxy, but at least clear-eyed philosophers will remain unbowed.
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What is disturbing about this affair is that it illustrates how a small vocal clique can bend an academic discipline to its will, relying on the unwillingness of the majority to push back. Academics—as is sometimes observed—are selected for conformity. (I used to think that philosophy was an exception to this rule, but not anymore.) Brazen unprofessionalism is permitted, even encouraged—provided it’s from those with the “correct” opinions. Junior academics and graduate students soon learn what they are not allowed to say.
In the present moment, sex and gender are of great political and social interest. Philosophers pride themselves on being able to ferret out and rebut nonsense, and these topics provide an inexhaustible supply. Moreover, philosophers are keen on promoting “public philosophy,” bringing the subject to the great unwashed. The discussion of sex and gender should have been philosophy’s finest hour, with our profession contributing to the wider conversation, airing its disagreements for all to see. Instead, the discipline has been slowly suffocated by an intolerant minority, driving it closer to irrelevance.
Read it all.
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Johanna Alonso: Shouting Down Speakers Who Offend
“Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar; this year, the soothsayer might have said, “beware the shouting protesters of March.” Certainly not as memorable, but in 2023 perhaps more appropriate as a number of speakers learned on various campuses last month, reports Johanna Alonso at Inside Higher Education.
[J]ust because something could hypothetically cause violence does not make it a threat or reduce its right to protection under the First Amendment—which universities have a duty to uphold, according to Sabrina Conza, a campus rights advocacy program officer at FIRE.
Many students harbor misconceptions about what constitutes free speech, believing that shouting over others is included in their First Amendment rights, she said. Such thinking was evident during the UAlbany protest as students chanted, “This is what free speech looks like.”
“If two groups of speakers were protesting on a sidewalk and one group was expressing one opinion and another group was expressing another and they were screaming and shouting, that’s one thing,” she said. “But when a speaker goes through a process to be given a forum, and then someone comes in and disrupts that, it’s not free speech. I think that that would be easy to understand for someone if they went to a play … and a bunch of people came in and started screaming or blowing bullhorns. I don’t think that they would sit there and think, ‘Oh, that’s completely fine.’”
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Opponents of speaker shout-downs encourage protesters to engage in dialogue and debate with those they disagree with, rather than try to drown them out. But protesters generally don’t see that as a successful strategy; progressive students think conservatives are completely unwilling to listen or consider alternative opinions, especially on charged issues like trans rights, according to [Jeffrey Kidder, a professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University].
Moreover, some believe that conservative student organizations bring controversial speakers to campus specifically to incite progressive protests, which simultaneously manages to garner positive media attention for the speaker, make leftist students seem like extremists and distract from more important issues.
“We want to talk about trans rights for students, trans rights nationally and this conversation about what is a good way of protesting—that plays right into their hands,” said Sharma, the UAlbany YDSA co-chair.
Read it all here.
Peter Coy: Debate Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive
Children are told it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts. One nonprofit organization is taking that message to its sponsored debates in an attempt to turn down the temperature while still exploring various ways of looking at societal with a view towards solutions, writes Peter Coy at the New York Times.
Open to Debate [is] the new name of what was founded as Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates. Since 2006, the nonprofit New York-based organization has staged more than 200 debates on propositions and questions including “Declinists Be Damned: Bet on America,” “Is the Democratic Party Too Far Left?” and “Artificial Intelligence: The Risks Could Outweigh the Rewards.”
Until Covid hit, Intelligence Squared used a live, gladiator-style format. Members of the audience would vote for the side they agreed with before the debate and again after it. The side that managed to shift opinion in its direction won, even if it still commanded only minority support. One gratifying finding was that, on average, 32 percent of those in the audience changed their minds.
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Last week, Intelligence Squared took another step away from the gladiator format by changing its name and website and announcing a new focus on outreach, vowing that “at scale” its approach “can change the direction we’re headed in America.” Its first debates as Open to Debate: “Is Florida Eating New York’s Lunch?” and “Are Men Finished and Should We Help Them?”
Can better debate really change the nation’s direction? In a small way, maybe. To find out more, I interviewed Clea Conner, the chief executive of Open to Debate, as well as John Donvan, who is the moderator of the debates and a former chief White House correspondent for ABC News.
Conner told me that the organization abandoned “the whole win/lose construct” because it was hindering its mission of promoting dialogue. She said Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a contributing New York Times Opinion writer, is working with Open to Debate on finding new data points to measure “how debate opens minds.”
[. . .]
“We should be able to disagree without having to hate each other,” Donvan told me. In the old days, he said, his main job as moderator was keeping time. “Increasingly, my role is to kind of protect the integrity of the arguments,” he said. “I want to make sure people are at least hearing each other. Finding common ground is not the point, but common ground may be exposed.”
Read the whole thing.
Noam Blum has a story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that demonstrates that if parody isn’t dead already, there are those totally committed to beating the life out of it. Click for the full thread.
And finally, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) doesn’t seem to recognize that the ability to bestow compassion is precisely why humans actually are supreme: