dog whistles

A friend kindly explained to me that this post was quite badly written, so I have fixed it. Sort of. 

Perhaps the most tiresome — not the worst, probably, but the most tiresome — feature of journalistic/social-media discourse today is its fervent belief in the near-universality of dog whistles. Consider, for example, the convulsive and dyspeptic responses to the letter on justice and open debate recently posted by Harper’s. No reasonable person could object to the letter’s actual statements, and so those who pretend to be reasonable don’t even try. They ignore what the letter says in order to focus on what it really and secretly means, its inner and essential nastiness and cruelty so carefully concealed by a thin veneer of decent common sense. As Sam Kriss says, this kind of exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion is “a virulent form of paranoid signification.”

You adopt the ugliest possible interpretation of something, and then you convince yourself that it’s true. In fact, it’s not just true, it’s so shiningly, obviously true that anyone who doesn’t have your particular psychotic read on events is immediately suspect. Don’t believe Corbyn was activating secret Nazi programming implanted in people’s brains? Well, then you’re probably an antisemite yourself. Bad-faith positions are never cautious or provisional. You scream them loud to drown out the doubt inside your own head. And because the other side is screaming too, you have to pump up your agony to match their pitch. The thing spirals faster with every improvement in our communications infrastructure.

Everyone is furious and nobody really cares. Emphasis mine. Because if you really cared you’d understand that there are differences between good-faith disagreement and malicious hatred and you’d try to read carefully enough to discern those differences. I mean, there are certainly plenty of dog-whistly statements out there — POTUS specializes in them to a perhaps unprecedented degree — but there is something perverse about people who make it their default reading stance to presume hidden malice in any old text.

Reading these people puts me in mind of a sadly funny passage in C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy in which he’s describing one of the strongest features of his father’s personality:

It was axiomatic to my father (in theory) that nothing was said or done from an obvious motive. Hence he who in his real life was the most honorable and impulsive of men, and the easiest victim that any knave or imposter could hope to meet, became a positive Machiavel when he knitted his brows and applied to the behavior of people he had never seen the spectral and labyrinthine operation which he called “reading between the lines.” Once embarked upon that, he might make his landfall anywhere in the wide world: and always with unshakable conviction. “I see it all” — “I understand it perfectly” — “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he would say; and then, as we soon learned, he would believe till his dying day in some deadly quarrel, some slight, some secret sorrow or some immensely complex machination, which was not only improbable but impossible. Dissent on our part was attributed, with kindly laughter, to our innocence, gullibility, and general ignorance of life.

We can only hope that the Machiavels of this moment are even a fraction as honorable as Lewis’s father was. Not much hope of that, I fear. Albert Lewis’s practice of “reading between the lines” wasn’t founded on an unshakeable faith in his own perfect righteousness.

The point of the reading-between-the-lines is usually to discover the hidden bad motives of the people who hold a particular position — but once you have done that … so? Let’s suppose that you are absolutely correct, that you, with your profound insight and utter purity of soul, have peered into the hearts of the people who hold Position X and have genuinely discerned impurities there. Now what? Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the misogynist, kindness by the rapacious. No virtue or good deed is exempt from this taint, not free inquiry or free speech or free beer. Only a dimwit would think that the patronage of Bad People discredits justice or kindness or free beer themselves.

So even on its own terms, presuming bad faith is a useless exercise that typically disables you from reflecting on the validity, or otherwise, of stated claims. It shits down your own intellectual equipment. So as for me, I’ll keep trying to respond to what people actually say as opposed to what reading between the lines, AKA listening for the dog whistles, might lead me to suspect. I mean, probably Salman Rushdie signed that Harper’s letter because he just wants to protect his great fame and privilege, but there’s the tiniest sliver of possibility that he signed it because he prefers living in a society that responds to offensive speech by argument to living in one that responds by offering a rich bounty to anyone who murders him.

Freddie is right

Freddie deBoer:

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

Fish on freedom

Stanley Fish’s new book The First consists largely of repackagings of ideas Fish has already developed: he’s covered free speech in There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, academic freedom and academic culture in Save the World On Your Own Time and in many essays, religious freedom in a handful of essays, including a brilliant one called “Vicki Frost Objects” that’s far better than anything here. But Fish writes as sharply as ever, and The First could be a nice introduction to his writings on the issues emanating from the First Amendment. 

But I want to question something that he writes about academic freedom. His argument here centers on a single crucial distinction, which he develops in response to the Chicago Statement on academic freedom:

My challenge to that popular view (the Chicago statement has been endorsed by a number of other universities) depends on a distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. Freedom of speech is a democratic value. It says that in a democracy government should neither anoint nor stigmatize particular forms of speech but act as an honest broker providing a framework and a forum for the competition of ideas and policies. In this vision, every voice has a right to be heard, at least theoretically. (In fact, differences in resources will almost always translate into differences in the size of the audience one can reach.) In the academy, on the other hand, free inquiry, not free speech, is the reigning ethic, and academic inquiry is engaged in only by those who have been certified as competent; not every voice gets to be heard. The right to speak in the scholarly conversation does not come with membership; it is granted only to those who have survived a series of vettings and are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room.

I think Fish knows that this might not be comforting to people worried about professors and administrators who exclude the ideas they don’t like, so he clarifies:

Academic inquiry, then, is not free in the First Amendment sense; it is free only in a very special sense: the path of inquiry is open and should not be blocked either by putting the stamp of approval on particular points of view in advance or by dismissing other points of view before they are heard and evaluated.

But why not? Why shouldn’t those who ”are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room,” those ”who have been certified as competent,” decide that some points of view actually may (perhaps must) be dismissed before being heard and evaluated?

Fish argues that a scholar like Charles Murray should be treated differently than a provocateur like Ann Coulter, should be given a hearing in venues where she should not, but what if the certified-competent decline that distinction and treat Murray and Coulter identically? I don’t think Fish can offer them any reasons why they shouldn’t. His longstanding belief that academic life is to be regulated only internally, by people engaged professionally in the practices of that life, provides no means by which academic life can be prevented from growing narrower and narrower and narrower. 

I’ve been reading Fish pretty carefully for a long time now, and I think he would reply that no such means could be provided — that you cannot write rules and guidelines in such a way that people in power will be unable to abuse them, twist the rules to their purposes, as long as their power is uncontested. (Note that when power is to some degree distributed, rules can be effective: thus the ability of the American judiciary to constrain some of Donald Trump’s impulses.) If this is indeed his view, he may well be correct. For instance, conservative and religious voices — N.B.: those are not the same thing — may alike be so tenuously present in academia that they can do nothing to soften the tyranny of the certified-competent. Certain ”paths of inquiry” are closed and on Fish’s account of the academy must remain closed, despite his lip service to the phrase. 

If so, do we simply accept that state of affairs? Or do we look for broad social forces or institutions to which academic institutions might legitimately be held accountable? 

China syndrome follow-up

Adam Silver is standing by NBA employees’ free speech rights, though he doesn’t sound happy about it. “Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right [to speak his political views] as one of our employees. What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.” He also made sure to emphasize how deeply he “sympathizes” with Chinese companies that angry.

Let’s be clear about what Silver sympathizes with. A Chinese broadcasting company replied to Silver’s statement thus: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.” That is, people who are citizens of countries other than China, who speak while in their own countries, should be governed not by the laws of those countries but by the preferences of China. That is the view that Adam Silver sympathizes with. 

UPDATE: Ben Thompson makes a rather obvious point, though one I had neglected: The statement by Daryl Morey that so profoundly offended Chinese officials was made on Twitter — which is banned in China. Thompson continues by demonstrating how Chinese censorship works on TikTok, and near the end of the post writes, 

The government response is also critical: I already argued that CFIUS should revisit TikTok’s acquisition of; the current skepticism around all Chinese investment in the United States should be continued if not increased. Attempts by China to leverage market access into self-censorship by U.S. companies should also be treated as trade violations that are subject to retaliation. Make no mistake, what happened to the NBA this weekend is nothing new: similar pressure has befallen multiple U.S. companies, often about content that is outside of China’s borders (Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example, being listed in drop-down menus for hotels or airlines).

Teresa Bejan on free speech

I simply don’t understand Teresa Bejan’s argument here. To wit:

While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all.

Well, no — but then, no one ever does. The universal line is, “Of course, I believe in free speech, but” — with the next line likely to be something about shouting and and fire and crowded theaters. Whether people admit to being “standing against free speech” is not the question at issue.

What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear — including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.

As best I can understand, the claim here is that, for instance, the students who shut down Charles Murray’s lecture at Middlebury felt that they were being denied a right to speak equal to that of Murray’s, and would have been perfectly happy to allow him to speak if their opportunity had been equal to his. If indeed that is the claim, I see absolutely no evidence that it is true. Certainly Bejan does not provide any.

Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria — and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for — one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds.

Indeed, but how is any of this at issue in campus protests? Is anyone saying that either Charles Murray, or Ann Coulter, or students who protest their presence on campus, are not allowed to “speak their minds” at all? Who, from the perspective of “American democracy” Bejan invokes here, is being silenced, and by whom?

In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that.

I haver no idea what the phrase “opposition to arbitrariness” means. What is “arbitrariness” in this context? (Earlier Bejan writes of “Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light — all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.” But who is the equivalent of Diogenes in the current debate?) Who is opposing “arbitrariness”? Are they right or wrong to oppose it? And why?

As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America’s parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.

Again: yes, indeed. So the obvious conclusion, to me, is that when the “few” who want to shut down speech they disagree with win, then liberty and equality (within that particular community) are alike endangered. But I don’t think that’s Bejan’s conclusion. Can anyone help me make sense of this essay?

free speech for me …

This is a really good evisceration by Jesse Singal of some recent leftist takes on free speech on campus — it is accurate, incisive, and (to me) compelling. But I don’t think it will be compelling to people who hold the views it criticizes. Here’s a passage, critiquing an article by Angus Johnston, that helps me to explain why:

Johnston is apparently uninterested in answering questions pertaining to this actual incident [At William & Mary] and how the law would view it from a free-speech perspective, so instead he swaps out a different, easier question: “Setting aside, you know, the well-defined legal aspects of this, what do I, Angus Johnston, think about it?” (For those who want to know more about the heckler’s veto, which as it turns out is a very interesting subject, Ken White has a very good explainer on his legal blog Popehat.)

And yet again, this sort of meandering shruggery leads us to a dark place: Johnston very much seems to be endorsing the view that on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech. This is a pretty bad opinion. Not to beat up too much on the South, but there are many southern campuses that would benefit greatly from more pro-choice speakers and events, and in Johnston’s model, it’s fine for the Campus Crusade for Christ to march in and protest these events until they get shut down.

Here is where Singal is wrong: Johnston’s view is not that “on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech”; his view is that when people whose views he endorses can muster the muscle to shut down an event, then that’s acceptable and even commendable. If a pro-life group were to use precisely the same tactics to shut down a pro-choice speaker, then Johnston would decry it as fascism and demand that the cops haul the offenders off to the hoosegow.

Remember: Error has no rights; righteousness has no boundaries.

the mystery of Google’s position

Google’s position could be:

  • All studies suggesting that men-taken-as-a-group and women-taken-as-a-group have measurably different interests or abilities are so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be indicative of malice, bad faith, gross insensitivity, or other moral flaws so severe that the person invoking them must be fired.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, but the suggestion that such differences could even partly account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google is so evidently wrong that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • At least some of those studies are sound, and very well may help to account for gender imbalance in tech companies like Google, but saying so inflicts so much emotional harm on some employees, and creates so much internal dissension, that any attempt to invoke them can only be etc. etc.
  • We take no position on any of those studies, but fired James Damore because of other things he said.

I think those are the chief options. Sundar Pichai’s memo emphasizes emotional harm inflicted — “The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender” — without ever weighing in on the validity of any of the studies Damore’s memo cites. And Pichai says that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it” — but he doesn’t spell out what he thinks was fair and what unfair.

I think the third option above is the most likely, with the fourth the next-best candidate, but I seriously doubt that Google will get much more specific. Their goal will be to create a climate of maximal fear-of-offending, and that is best done by never allowing employees to know where the uncrossable lines are. That is, after all, corporate SOP.

It’s going to be really, really difficult to get reliable information about what happened here and why it happened, not just because Google will want to be evasive, and will be encouraged by its lawyers to be evasive, but also because, as Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, the misrepresentations of and straightforward lies about Damore’s memo are pervasive: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”

At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.

— What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About | The American Conservative. This, from a current U of C student, provides some extremely useful context for the university’s recent reaffirmation of its commitment to free speech on campus.

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to “banalize” all areas of discourse that were too fraught to discuss. He maintained that generations of satire of Catholicism had made the lampooning of it — and thereby, the legitimate discussion of it — unobjectionable, and he felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.  

That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.  

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.

It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.  

Already on the eve of January 7 my peers were transforming before my eyes into grotesque descendants of Jean-Paul Sartre, who maintained his support of Stalinism despite a knowledge of its worst atrocities, and of the craven Western Stalinists who defended the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Hungary, in 1956. How could they not see what was at stake? I became convinced that the root of the moral and political failure I was witnessing lay in the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.

Justin Smith. A follow-up on Smith’s blog: “I am not a big fan of most laïcité rhetoric, and I am sensitive to how it is used for purposes of exclusion. (I am also not listening to what Salman Rushdie is saying on this topic.) This is why I’ve tried to be consistent about coupling my position on Charlie Hebdo with an equally insistent position on, e.g., the rights and dignity of regular and non-regular (‘illegal’) migrants to France. I see my position as the one that, more than that of those with whom I disagree, is most insistent that Islam must not be perceived as a monolith, that in fact there is no such thing as the Muslim community, but rather numerous disagreeing factions, by no means all of which agree with the attackers that there is something unacceptably offensive about the content of Charlie Hebdo.

Random thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

1) I don’t think the most important question about what happened is “Do we support Charlie Hebdo?” I think the most important question is, “Do we support, and are we willing to fight for, a society in which people who make things like Charlie Hebdo can work in peace and sleep in their beds each night without fear?”

2) Freddie deBoer wrote,

Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal.

That last sentence is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The measure of freedom of speech in a society is not simply a matter of what laws are or are not passed. We must also ask which existing laws are or are not enforced; and what self-censorship people perform out of fear that their societies will not or cannot protect them. Freddie writes as though freedom of speech can be adequately evaluated only by reference to the situation de jure; but there are de facto issues that must also be considered.

3) One of the more interesting comments on this whole affair is that of Giles Fraser:

In one sense an iconoclast is someone who refuses the established view of things, who kicks out against cherished beliefs and institutions. Which sounds pretty much like Charlie Hebdo. But the word iconoclast also describes those religious people who refuse and smash representational images, especially of the divine. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits graven images – which is why there are no pictures of God in Judaism or Islam. And theologically speaking, the reason they are deeply suspicious of divine representation is because they fear that such representations of God might get confused for the real thing. The danger, they believe, is that we might end up overinvesting in a bad copy, something that looks a lot like what we might think of as god, but which, in reality, is just a human projection. So much better then to smash all representations of the divine.

And yet this, of course, is exactly what Charlie Hebdo was doing. In the bluntest, rudest, most scatological and offensive of terms, Charlie Hebdo has been insisting that the images people worship are just human creations – bad and dangerous human creations. And in taking the piss out of such images, they actually exist in a tradition of religious iconoclasts going back as far as Abraham taking a hammer to his father’s statues. Both are attacks on representations of the divine. Which is why the terrorists, as well as being murderers, are theologically mistaken in thinking Charlie Hebdo is the enemy. For if God is fundamentally unrepresentable, then any representation of God is necessarily less than God and thus deserves to be fully and fearlessly attacked. And what better way of doing this than through satire, like scribbling a little moustache on a grand statue of God.

I would love to agree with this, but can’t quite. All iconoclasm is not alike. Reading Fraser’s essay I found myself remembering Mikhail Bakhtin’s great essay “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” in which he compares ancient and medieval parody with its modern equivalent.

Ancient parody was free of any nihilistic denial. It was not, after all, the heroes who were parodied, nor the Trojan War and its participants; what was parodied was only its epic heroization; not Hercules and his exploits but their tragic heroization. The genre itself, the style, the language are all put in cheerfully irreverent quotation marks, and they are perceived against a backdrop of contradictory reality that cannot be confined within their narrow frames. The direct and serious word was revealed, in all its limitations and insufficiency, only after it had become the laughing image of that word — but it was by no means discredited in the process.

By contrast, “in modern times the functions of parody are narrow and unproductive. Parody has grown sickly, its place in modem literature is insignificant. We live, write and speak today in a world of free and democratized language: the complex and multi-leveled hierarchy of discourses, forms, images, styles that used to permeate the entire system of official language and linguistic consciousness was swept away by the linguistic revolution of the Renaissance.” Parody for us is too often merely iconoclastic, breaking images out of juvenile delight in breaking, not out of commitment to a reality too heteroglot (Bakhtin’s term) to fit within the confines of standardized religious practices. I think Charlie Hebdo is juvenile in this way.

But feel free agree with that judgment or not — it’s not germane. As I said, the truly vital question here is not whether the magazine’s satire is worthwhile. The truly vital question is how badly — if at all — we want to live in a society where people who make such magazines can live without fear of losing their lives.