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So, I learned what a quale is with Adam See. I especially remember the banana thought experiment he used. Something like, “if a person in a room knew everything about bananas ever, would an actual encounter with a banana add to that person’s knowledge?” Well, the answer seemed obvious to me. Of course that person attained some form of knowledge; perhaps a practical knowledge or an intuition? It seems as if these real aspects are quale. Plus, I figure there is a stark difference in just knowing everything about say, a person (maybe mom), and actually experiencing that person. How can anyone justify the non-existence of quale!? Hum, back to the thought experiment, and to be fair, I am still trying to imagine a person with the eternal knowledge of bananas!
So, I was supposed to ask Adam something about the ontological status of thought and qualia. But then I forgot my question, so we talked about going to graduate school for philosophy instead. He said it was good that I like teaching.
So it looks like Adam did a version of the “Mary’s room thought experiment” on William, except with bananas instead of the color red (which is kinda weird because bananas aren’t “quales” but I guess the overall effect is the same). I never really got how anyone could possibly claim that Mary didn’t learn something new. I think the whole thing really hinges on the ambiguity of the word “learn” though. We tend to think of learning as acquiring data or facts, like Mary does. And then we think about it more and we realize learning also involves developing skills (probably more than acquiring facts). If someone just watched movies and read books about riding bikes they wouldn’t be able to ride a bike. But, now it seems weird to think of color-perception as a skill like riding a bike; but it seems more like a skill than an acquired piece of information. So maybe it’s not about “learning” or “knowledge.” Mary definitely has a new experience. But was this ever in question? I just don’t see how learning all the physical facts that constitute an experience can be considered a substitute for the experience itself. They’re just two different things…. And I also don’t see why any of this has to be such a huge problem for materialism.
I don’t know why it’s a problem for materialism either! It’s not like our experiences are hallucinations or not real. At any rate, it seems like its impossible to reduce everything to purely natural processes anyway, there has to be some sort of consciousness that wrestles with and translates phenomena into some physical law. I don’t know how we’d ever be able to get rid of this “being” that inevitability experiences, and who’s intuitions, sensations, and will are so often beyond just the mere scope of facts.
So, I don’t know if the “being” or consciousness or some particular phenomenal experience is gotten rid of just because we (or someone) give a material explanation of it. We can give a physical explanation of the process of perceiving red (i think?…. it has something to do with light-waves, and retinas and cones and rods and stuff), and yea, the explanation itself isn’t going to be “red.” But that’s like opening a cookbook and expecting to find the food itself in there. I have no idea if this makes sense…
A quale (yes, the plural really is qualia, but I like the
less pretentious ‘quales’ much better!) is a funny little thing. Different people have used the term
differently of course, but Goodman intended it to be both anti-platonist, as a
quale is a particular and all reality can be understood in terms of quales, and
he also intended it to be phenomenalist instead of physicalist. This last point
has to be understood historically, and it might really interest you, because it
was a debate within the analytic world in pre-war and post-WWII Europe, which
of course had some affect on the development of continental philosophy. The physicalists (such as Carnap **),
argued that the atomic starting points of experience were objects, and that the
particulars in the world could be reduced to the experience of objects.
The subjectivity of experience is important to you, and you
are right to focus on that. It is difficult though (as you know) to give an
account of subjective experience while still giving an account of knowledge, as
the latter seems to carry with it demands for public and intersubjective
experience. Your knowledge of a banana or of your mom can’t be the kind of
knowledge we want to call (shared) knowledge. So how does private knowledge fit into that picture?
This is the way the conundrum has been set up. But of course this is only truly a
conundrum if we think of the subjective and the objective as cleanly
bifurcated. I think you have a good sense of the alternative view. If,
alternately, there is a murky boundary – always being renegotiated and
redefined – between my inner private awareness and the consensual communis
opinio, then we don’t’ have quite the confusion. The difficulty
comes not only when we see the subjective and the objective as two mutually
exclusive enclaves, but as two static and worlds, each unable to impenetrate
This Mary thing is actually an old debate that’s dressed up to look like a new one. Actually, it’s two debates: a metaphysical one and an epistemological one. The metaphysical one is of course the
“what’s real” question, with the opposing teams being the materialists and the – what we should call for present purposes – the “non-materialists” as they are not quite idealists (though probably related in a cousin-type fashion). The epistemological one is, again, the old question: what constitutes knowledge? In
this particular version of the debate the question is whether knowledge is completely constituted by the information that is characterized as “third-person” – that information that we call “scientific”.
This would then leave out of the so-called knowledge category all first-person subjective experience, even subjective experience of (scientific) third-person perceptual phenomena.
“Qualia” is a term that has been used by various people, with varying definitions. For Goodman, it was the presented particular quality specifying color, place, and time. It was a phenomenalist definition of the basic unit of reality instead of a physicalist definition (which would have been an object or something like the Logical Positivists’ “the given”). Even though people are often using the term “qualia” to refer to a subjective part of perception that seems cleaved from the third-person, scientific, or “physicalist” part of perception, Goodman was not really using the term in this way. He did not mean for qualia (or in my own non-pretension version, “quales”) to be an argument for mental, non-physical entities. In fact, he did not countenance abstract objects.
Having made that disclaimer regarding the term, the main question(s) still remain: What’s real? And, What constitutes knowledge? Is it just the things that form the basis of third-person, objective experience that
we thus share with others? Or is it the things that are part of our own sense-experience; the things we hold tight within our own worlds, our own private experience? I’m not sure it’s a skill vs. knowledge distinction that you made; that would be a distinction between information stored in the declarative part (in the neocortical) of the brain and the non-declarative part (in the basil ganglia). Aristotle noticed these basic distinctions in his Ethics… The distinction is really more along the lines of whether knowledge is constituted by materialist facts, or whether knowledge incorporates mental (e.g., non-physical) data that
is subjectivist, private, and non-public in nature.
The historical difficulty with [private] sense data (cf. Hume’s famous difficulty with this issue) is that even if it serves as the basis for a physicalist “given” (i.e. physical object, not just a phenomenal sense
experience), that “given” has an odd way of evaporating. We think it’s solid but it’s not. For my sensing of something is always my sensing, and if scientific experience is to have a footing in empirical data, that data must always have its footing in private sensing. So the problem becomes: where is this objective reality and is it still objective? A mind-independent reality (e.g. the kind the materialist wants) has a tendency to easily slip over into a mind-dependent one.
There has to be a line that is drawn between the inner and the outer. We want the physical object to be real, we want it to be shared data, we want it to be objective. But how do we obtain it? Through sensing. But ah, here’s the difficulty. For most, we want a shared experience, a shared world; we want the joint mushrooming of the phenomenon that we call“knowledge.” And so, if that’s true – which is the world science has promised us – what happens to that subjective, ineluctably private world we each call
I think you’re right to say that the problem is, in many ways, one of definition. If the notion of “learning” is confined something that is isomorphic with third-person knowledge, such as a materialist description of the world – one that is always a description of things from the third-person, e.g., “objective” perspective –
then we seem puzzled at the idea that our own subjective experience is somehow not a part of what’s called “knowledge”. I mean, how my experience of red (or a banana) not count as knowledge; or, to move up a level in the linguistic confusion, how does my knowledge of red not count as knowledge?
In short, it is a problem for materialism because materialism wants reality to be defined in terms of third-person descriptions. This is Russell’s motive in distinguishing knowledge by description (e.g., third-person) with knowledge by acquaintance (e.g., experience). This problem dovetails with the traditional idealism/materialism debate, where the latter can’t countenance mental, non-physical entities. Goodman, despite his use of the term “quale”, was adamantly opposed to idealism, though didn’t really want to join
the opposing team either. Both forks have prongs that impale themselves.
So, yes, it is about what we call “knowledge”. But, now, what do we think that is?
At this last POPc meeting, we got to speak about nominalism and what it meant for a notion of subjectivity. It was really cool! Somehow our conversation ended up being about whether there was really an inner dimension of consciousness, or whether (in line with the changing nature of reality for nominalists) we were webbed within, or reflections of others. I like the latter possibility a lot more. I can’t even imagine uttering even the word “I” without it referring to some sort of “We” that conditions even our singular possibility for speech. I mean, if after all, language is what draws our attention to objects in the world, makes images memorable, and translates things into intelligible terms, we can’t ever think of such pointed and shared language in the singular. Maybe, from this line of thinking, consciousness is just a multiplicity of many contingent beings overlapping one another at any instance in time or space – or as Dr. Shottenkirk put really nicely in more concrete terms; perhaps “I” is just one circle on a sort of venn diagram that is intersected by many other “I”s that themselves constitute another circle in a whole web of relations. hum
I think I learned what nominalism was at POPc, but now that I’m thinking about it again, I’m getting confused. So there’s no such thing as “red,” understood as an essential property of things, it’s just a predicate we apply to things. We point to things and call them red and so then they’re red (there’s probably a bunch of things wrong with this crude description). So maybe Mary doesn’t know that what she sees is red. In fact she probably doesn’t. But regardless things would be different for Mary (I think) if she saw blue. So, there’s something in the world by virtue of which whatever Mary sees is either red or blue. There’s a reason we apply certain predicates to certain things. What is this reason?
Before today, I had a distorted perspective on people who called themselves philosophers. I always assumed that they were slightly pretentious people trying to figure out the purpose of life and death, or other very vague topics. It was interesting to learn for the first time, that it most definitely is not. Kate, the philosopher who I spoke to, showed me that philosophy can come from anything, even languages.
We talked about a certain phrase in Korean that caught her attention. It’s a phrase that is similar to “I love you” but its meaning is something different. It means a collection of things from, loving endlessly, and respect, and even a sense of possession. There is no equal phrase in any other language. At least from what I know, not English or Spanish.
I enjoyed our conversation very much. It’s nice to know that philosophy is not as overblown as I thought.
The question of what is right and wrong came up. Whose right is right or who determines what is right? At what point do we deny someone the chance to do their idea of right or should we?
I truly enjoyed my conversation with Kate. I am a visual artist and really dont know a flute about philosophy .. I was a bit intimidated by jumping into our conversation at first. There was a hat to pick random questions, I planned to pull a paper from the hat to help steer our path. Before I did we fell into an interesting conversation about the intension of the artist in the work that we create. How important is it that the idea comes across to the audience? I work very intuitively, try not to think too much in order to channel and not let my ego or fears taint the work. The finished work develops a certain meaning to me, which is most commonly the exact opposite of that of my audience. As a poet, Kate had some similar experiences with her work and we bounced ideas around that had me questioning the type of experience someone shares with my work. Wrapping it up, I was a bit curious where the conversation would have gone had I pulled the paper from the hat.. we decided to pull one just to see, and it was exactly where we had gone on our own.. like a fortune cookie.
I talked with Kate today about the schopenhauer and the will, and how we experience emotions differently. We were wrestling with what the will is exactly, and how it affects what knowledge we acquire. I think that knowledge is a very personal thing that is largely determined by ones individual experience. even when it comes to emotion, we can take certain similar experiences in different way. Many of the thing that we know and feel that are universal to some extent are also indescribable, such as a subconscious feeling of acceptance or rejection within a crowd. We can identify with the general feeling of anxiety or comfort, but may have a different value or meaning for it in relation to our individual experiences.
As I know your philosophical views fairly well, I’m tempted
to not respond to just your post but to your larger body of knowledge. But that
could go on forever, so perhaps I will just stick to the rules and stick to the
post. (This is perhaps a good idea even though I made up the rules and so
surely can un-make them, but just to make things look less random and chaotic,
I will be obedient to myself…)
Which bring us nicely to Schopenhauer. Obedience plays an interesting role in
his thought, but again talking about that might be an endless detour. To pinpoint him a bit more and to
address your concern with the will: “To explain this somewhat more accurately,
I remind the reader that our consciousness has two sides; in part it is
consciousness of our own selves, which
is the will, and in part
consciousness of other things, and as
such primarily knowledge of the external world through perception, apprehension of objects.” (S., The World As Will and Representation Vol. II
Trans EFJ Payne (NY: Dover, 1958), p.
367) In volume I, he states, “All willing
springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering.” (p. 196)
I am no Schopenhauer expert, as I only spent a bit less than
a year studying him (during the writing of my dissertation). And, as you might
guess, he veers a little too closely to Kant’s belief in a firmly established
external, objective source of truth – it’s a bit too much for me to want to
spend time with him. But you know
they say Schopenhauer always slept with a loaded pistol near him, so perhaps
that belief in certainty was only superficial.
Anyway, your issue was how the will affects what kind of
knowledge we gain. If you go with Schopenhauer’s definition of the will (a
definition which does fluctuate a bit), it revolves around our distinct
awareness of ourselves; an awareness that seems qualitatively different from
our awareness of everything else.
I understand your argument that we all experience things a bit
differently, but it is, it seems to me, hard to prove that one way or the
other. There is, on the one hand,
the subjective experience, and then there are two other things as well: my
articulation of my subjective experience, and your parsing of my
articulation. By the time you have
listened to my experience and compared it with yours, that e.g., your parsing or understanding of my articulation – is
three stages beyond the initial experience itself. Each stage of that process,
from my original experience to my articulation to your parsing of my
articulation, must distort both what it translates (e.g., the previous stage)
as well as distorting that originary metaphysical data. Much is left unarticulated, both because
much is missed and not realized in the initial experience, and much is left
unarticulated simply (as you point out) because we are unable to articulate
much of that. Words are to
experience like boulders are to sand.
It cannot do the work we hope it to do.
So yes, maybe we experience things differently from one
another. But then, maybe we
don’t. Maybe there is this (as you
also point out) universality to some kinds of experience, which would make a
certain amount of sense as we are all animals of certain species operating
within the constraints imposed by that species. For example, we all have two eyes that work the same,
etc. But again, how far that
universality goes is hard to nail down.
Science – the physics of bodies, the biology of our organisms, the chemistry
that lurks beneath both – is surely about that universality of our bodies. So of course a great deal of the claim
to universality is true, at least within that materialist sort of realm. It is when one steps over into
psychological that the hard ground turns to quicksand. How much is my experience like
But we shouldn’t follow S. down into that spiral of
sourness. Let’s do a Monty Python
and “look on the bright side of life”. If we say that the difficulty is just
knowing what is shared and what is not, we can, instead of focusing on the
insolvability of that, then see what we gain with that dilemma. Surely our ignorance of what is shared
and what is universal must be the ripe source of much that is pleasurable and
meaningful: I listen to you and try to parse your explanations because I want
to know. And, I care about what
you say because I want to know. If
I already knew, I wouldn’t listen, and I wouldn’t care. Not knowing whether or not my subjective
experience is like yours seems like a small price to pay for that. Right?
We often think that the creative process ends when an artist finishes a work and showcases it in a museum or gallery, but in a sense, the artist is extending the process through the observations of the viewers. Finding background information can change one’s perspective and ability to look deeper, as well as find application it to other aspects of life. Once someone has given birth to a work of art, book, movie, etc. it is still a living work as long as there are people to experience it, projecting onto it their own background, emotions, and experiences. ~KJSa
(Anonymous Poster-Not Daniela!)
You say that post is not you, and I remember that there was
another woman who posted but didn’t want her name used. Unfortunately, I don’t know who she is,
and also unfortunately, I don’t know if you agreed or not!! I know many of your views, and so
perhaps more fairly I should just write you a response not to what you posted,
but to address more what I know you think about and what philosophical
perspectives you align with. (forgive ending the sentence with a preposition…)
With that we must jump to Kant! But, as this series was A Night With Nelson Goodman, I will
instead tell you a little about that.
Goodman rejected much of what Kant stood for: G. rejected K’s synthetic
a priori, he rejected the idea that there was a non-constructed, objective
reality, he rejected the Kant’s idealism.
The following is an excerpt from my book on Goodman:
Clearly Goodman agreed with Kant that we “concatenate” the
empirical data, which is unstructured before we impose on it space, time, and
causation. Goodman only takes this
perspective farther when he argues that all data is not only absent these three
things, but is completely indefinite before our acceptance of it into our
Goodman also departs from the Kantian perspective that demands a bifurcation
between cognition and judging, such that these are seen as different kinds of
contemplations that correspond to the objects that they are contemplating. In other words, to contemplate an
aesthetic object is a different mental activity than contemplating a cognitive
object; resulting in the distinction between 1) knowing, and 2) judging. To “know” something is to have that
thing brought under a concept, under a principle. To “judge” something, on the other hand, is to experience it
as a particular. With aesthetic
experiences, one experiences the particular as either the beautiful or the
sublime, the latter being that which holds the greatest reward, for it is that
which most fully appeals to our disinterested contemplation – the “purposeless purpose” such as seen
in the tulip, which is recognized as God’s creation; it is a contemplation
which is independent of our knowing the purpose of that object or what
advantage we might extract from the object. On the other hand, the painting and other forms of human artifacts
are merely beautiful and cannot give us the truly disinterested
contemplation. But in both cases,
aesthetics is feeling, not knowing.
course, this is not Goodman.
Goodman rejects the Kantian distinction between knowing and judging by
denying a priori knowledge, and, hence, the epistemological distinction between
analytic and synthetic statements.
I, too, would argue against the distinction
between knowing and judging. I, too, would agree with Goodman that art is
actually quite like science: both are constructed symbol systems, both require
combinations of “feeling” and “thought”, both require a dove-tailing of knowing
and judging and that these latter two are never experienced apart from the
other. I wonder what you think
The grid and paper like concept of the artwork made me reflect on the eastern philosophical tradition in that we as the experiencers of this constructed reality enter into the reality of the constructor assuming that we understand the nature of what we are experiencing, but the truth is just beyond our perceptual range. Then when we realize we were in this constructed reality we make vain attempts to understand and when we almost “get it” we are forced to acknowledge (Like the Bramanist) that the truth is something we cannot entirely fathom.
I think I know what post is yours though you decided to be
mysterious and anonymous. That
nicely dovetails with the content, which I know to be yours as I recognize the
views! “…reflect on the eastern philosophical tradition in that we as the
experiencers of this constructed reality enter into the reality of the
constructor assuming that we understand the nature of what we are experiencing,
but the truth is just beyond our perceptual range.”
I, too, think we have a constructed reality. I think Goodman is right about that
one. There was for him (and others
at that time) a general rejection of not only Kant’s synthetic a priori but of
the a priori in general. Reality
was constructed by us, and it is through symbol systems that we understand
those constructs. And it was the quale that was at the bottom of that
construction. Goodman was trying to get to the very basic unit of his
constructionalism, not unlike what Wittgenstein did in his Tractactus. For Goodman,
the basic unit was a particular color, at a particular place, at a particular
time. It is the perceptual unit
that is at the basis of all experience.
And all experience is constructed out of a bunch of those individual
quales (or “qualia” in the proper – and in my view, silly – use of the
So each of us build up a little system of quales, many of
which are ones we have inherited from our culture and from others. Reality is a
construct, but social life has built into many forms of reality that is passed
down from the group to the individual.
Much of what we see we see because others have convinced us to see
it. This is not an argument for
not seeing it the way the social construct demands. Surely we as social creatures must do that. Otherwise it
would be a world of nut jobs. And nothing would get done.
But what about those cases where the symbol system is not
just an inherited one, but an individually constructed one? That’s what you were concerned with –
the artist’s individual construct.
And when we look at it, how much do we accurately parse from that
I think you are right to hit upon the opacity of the
communication. Goodman wanted to
nail it down, wanted aesthetics to be a system that was tied to the strict symbolism
of semantic (linguistic) expression.
So that predicates, with their extensional definitions, would be the
thing that was referred to. “The
painting is sad” would have meaning because you would have this metaphorical
definition of “sad” that would have its sure footing in the secondary extension
of the term.
But I think you’re right – much is not translated. And that
is the cherry on top. That’s the best part; if we know that we don’t completely
know, we go back over and over to explore and discover, to revel anew in
someone else’s experience, the care about their point of view. If we got it all we wouldn’t do
And I bet a lot of those ancient Indian philosophers knew
This has led to a very interesting, extended philosophical discussion on creativity, parameters, and how the two interact to make Art. Far more discussion than at any other art opening I’ve ever attended. Questions with Kate include: How do parameters affect creativity? Do we tacitly accept the artist’s and society’s parameters upon entering the gallery (I think yes), to subsequently either accept and work within them (like the art) or reject and replace them with our own (walk out of the gallery in a huff)? Is there something about this work that exerts control over the medium such that control replaces creativity– in other words, is it a formal cop-out for old-school creativity, as is most non-representational contemporary art? Both painstaking and deliberately obtuse? Is that a bad thing? Is that a good thing? Is that just a thing? Can it be just a thing? Can it??
Tonight POPc starts the Censorship series. We’re doing it for the next four Saturdays of December at the HappyFunHideawayBar @1211 Myrtle Ave. BKLYN. It’s following an Olio talk I did two weeks ago in Crown Heights that was entitled “Free Speech and the Pleasure of Being Offended”. The audience there was engaged in the topic and lots of interesting views were expressed. Since POPc is more one-to-one and engaged than a lecture, I’m sure the same will be true, My contribution is again a book (“Cover Up the DIrty Parts” (Cambridge Scholars Press)) and a body of paintings and the video derived from those. These are meant as a stimulus (Socrates’ “gadfly”) for discussion and debate, and ultimately the creation of a consensus. That’s what POPc is about: drink/think/ and create some meaning.
Democracy is for the people—and needs to be financed by the people, because a democracy is built on both, its infrastructure and its virtues. It follows that as free speech is dependent on democracy, democracy is dependent on economic development.
Those who criticize the study of economics for assuming all individuals as self-interested, rational, and autonomous agents, to focus on our civil rights, also overlook the social relations of an economy that makes its members highly interdependent, by treating the economically powerless and powerful as though they were equally autonomous, equally prepared to think about and fight for freedom, obscuring the conditions conducive to exploitation and deprivation, obscuring the mere reality that thinking is a luxury. Both, material and psychological stability is required as a prerequisite for autonomy, and self-governing individuals are needed to submit themselves to a democracy. It is merely an illusion to suppose that a broken society is composed of individuals who are equally-willed and equally prepared for freedom. It necessarily follows that some countries are not prepared for democracy, because its participants, whom interact interdependently, true for all economies, can only exercise autonomous choices with adequate resources—resources they do not yet have.
But when are people able to receive power and when should governments disperse it? When and how does free speech not cause political chaos—and how do we incorporate freedom in our system so that chaos becomes productive?
The value of free speech, however offensive, is that we develop realities together—but these are words, and thoughts, and ideas—they are invisible to that immediate reality. They affect the shaping of a future that is not yet here. Systems are what is present, and only corrupted systems impede the thoughts from shaping a future.
Regarding the subject of hate speech and censorship, I think contextualizing the idea of speech to a history might be more productive than thinking of censoring a given person. It seems to me that blaming a specific person for a specific act often times distracts us from the socio-historical contexts that underlie any such action – we might be mistaking/discussing/treating only the symptom of hate speech rather than its underlying antagonism. In this sense, perhaps when an given person expresses racist/sexist/other forms of hate speech, they are merely espousing the effect of something that paradigmatically (just as a literary method can be a paradigm for writing) shapes them. As an example, hate speech against women might reflect the legacy we have of antagonistically dividing public/private spheres as well as reason/irrational when it pertains to gender. Any specific speech act expressing hate is in many ways, just then an expression of this particular social cleavage rather than a cordoned, detached off case. This means that philosophers might shift the terms of debate from what qualifies as hate/immediately violent speech, to thinking of how to remedy the underlying problem such that speech is liberated or at least self-reflective of its determinations. Following Nietzsche’s genealogical approach, my suggestion is to do small histories, or genealogies of notions like race or gender (in Nietzsche’s own works, the idea of good and evil) to highlight how such notions are not necessary, essential, or natural facts of human beings, but rather a contingent effect of a certain discursive trajectory. To show to do a genealogy of American history regarding certain marginalized groups is in this case, to dispel any illusion that we have of simply being innocent bystanders unwittingly besieged by social (read racist) symptoms. The seemingly abrupt rise of Donald trump, or the extra-judicial security measures inaugurated by George Bush (and bolstered by Barack Obama) are no longer facts of existence, but shown perhaps to be determinate by the trajectories taken by American interventions and soft power maneuvers at home and abroad for the past century. If there is a such historical a pattern, why should we keep trying to cut off the heads of a hydra?
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of commentary about movements by college/graduate students to make their campuses more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds, whether it be in creating of safe spaces, usage of trigger warnings, or an acknowledgment of historical mistreatment or erasure of minority groups. A lot of the commentary I’ve seen amounts to a lot of hand-wringing about whether kids today are tough enough to survive in the world, or that accommodating minority viewpoints amounts to censorship of others. I, however, am worried that people (writers who immediately come to mind about this are Conor Friedersdorf or Jonathan Chait) who make these arguments are misconstruing what the students raising these discussions are asking for. Primarily, they are asking for empathy.
From my perspective, the mainstream/accepted view of “free speech” is a liberal idea in the traditional sense, and is most championed by traditional liberals, namely white men. As minority groups have started to wield some clout they are no longer content to be spoken to and about on others’ terms. They want their institutions to recognize them, whether by acknowledging current racism and sexism, or owning up to ugly histories. They are in favor of using their own free speech to upset the status quo, in a way that forces the majority to have to share the stage as never before.
For example, my understanding of trigger warnings is that they are a method to signal to students who have personal experience with sexual assault, war, violence, or other deep trauma, that there is material in the curriculum that may trigger a reaction. The student can then prepare in whatever way they find necessary to deal with the issue, which may mean skipping class for group discussion or not reading all of the assigned materials. They are not asking that certain topics not be discussed, or that certain books not be read, but that they are offered consideration. These students are not trying to hide from the bad things in the world; they are most likely to be intimately aware of them. At the same time, professors should consider what the academic value is in teaching the way they have taught a subject for X number of years.
As a graduate of law school, I took criminal law in my first year as all law students do. Many criminal law classes spend at least a week focusing on rape (and most students call it “Rape Week”). Law professors use rape to illustrate several concepts in criminal law, whether rape itself is necessary. At the same time, students read a case history going back centuries that systematically devalues women’s humanity. Law school classes are discussion based, and often dominated by men, some with ugly opinions. Statistics about how many women have experienced sexual abuse or assault are pretty widely known at this point – professors should recognize that not only is it pretty likely some of their students have been victims, some students have also been perpetrators. Accommodating those who have experienced this trauma is not censorship, it is merely understanding that people should be able to obtain an education without being needlessly traumatized.
Another recent issue that came to mind is the email to Yale students asking them to be thoughtful in their Halloween costumes and then the subsequent response from an associate master saying that kids should be able to be kids and be able to be offensive, dismissing the initial intent of the email from the university. The university never banned offensive costumes, but asked students to be thoughtful about what those costumes were saying. Part of the responsibility of free speech is understanding what you are saying. What would the purpose be for a student to wear a Halloween costume on a college campus that is derogatory towards a portion of the campus population? Yes, the student has the right to make offensive statements. But the rest of the community has the right to speak with as much force about why they disagree.
We can think of freedom of speech as a continuous line. At one end, absolutely everything can be said. At the other end, absolutely nothing can be said. Different societies place themselves at different ends of the spectrum based on what they deem as appropriate. This is what they define as their “Freedom of Speech.”
I say that our society should, and for the most part does, draw its point on the line where people are free to say what they want in public spaces but they are not directly influencing someone towards illegal or violent behavior. For instance, a person is free to write hate speech on a blog or internet forum, but they cannot directly recruit others to start a riot. An organization is free to speak negatively about Muslims (racist, xenophobic, etc.) but they cannot hold a sign up sheet for members to go commits acts of violence against Muslims. If someone of a certain (unstable) mindset hears the freely spoken hate-speech on the street corner and decides to go commit an act of violence, that is on them. They have been given a variety of sources to draw their own conclusions on what should be done. They have freedom of choice. If someone on a street corner pulls another person in to commit a specific act of violence, the person pulled in is under the influence of direct coercion, not exercising their free will. That is where I think we draw our point on the line. If driver hits someone crossing the street at a crosswalk, the hitter is guilty of a crime. If a driver is cut-off and has to swerve to avoid an accident and through the swerving they hit someone crossing at a crosswalk, the cut-off driver is not guilty of a crime. The driver had numerous choices to make (they could have crashed into the cut-off driver, for example) and simply chose one that ends with a bystander getting hit crossing the street. The driver may have probable cause for saying that they may not have hit the person at the crosswalk under normal circumstances, but that is a different argument.
I think people get confused when they mistake social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter as public forums open to Freedom of Speech restrictions and benefits. Social media outlets are private companies. They determine where they get to define their point on the freedom of speech line, separate from where any one society gets to define its point on the freedom of speech line. Social media outlets are choosing their point on the freedom of speech line at the locations that fit in with their best interest. (“Best interest” here can be defined by any number of factors, not just money.)
There might be an argument that over time our society has begun to outsource our ideas of freedom of speech to algorithms run by search companies and social media outlets by letting them choose what is right for us to see and not see, but I think this is separate from where our society sets our point on the freedom of speech line.
Free Speech allows one to express their inner most thoughts and feelings, and to question one’s right to do so is absurd. Humans are equipped with a mind that thinks, that imagines and expands within time, but only when interaction with that “thing” they are thinking about is practical. When interaction with people, ideologies, cultures, works of art, societal and governmental institutions is not free nor encouraged, human intelligence and societal progression is unlikely to come to fruition.
Coerced Silence sets one back in time as they can no longer think beyond that thing they are imagining. It is as if someone has paused all of time, and one is forced to live in the same moment over and over again. This is especially true for speeches labeled as “hate.” If something is hated, it is disputed and rejected at the forefront. But hate only prevails where understanding and where meeting of minds is lacking.
From a modern religious perspective, freedom to speak one’s mind is an innate right that all have, not only because one has the capabilities to do so, but because it is necessary for peace and harmony amongst a world composed of many tribes and nations. Acquiring knowledge is ordained by G-d as an obligation to all of mankind. Free speech is essential to the acquisition of knowledge as it permits the free exchange of ideas and objections to existing ones.
When speech is censored, fear is consequently perpetuated; and as a result progression is in doubt for the individual and the society in which they reside or even identify with. Fear is not a mere phenomena one associates with a feeling. Fear is more powerful than an army of a million soldiers, as it can dictate the actions of people based off illusions that have been created as a result of the sacrificed. Just think about children’s stories and how fear is used as a mechanism to constrain their actions e.g. Robin Hood and the big bad wolf is a perfect example of how fear is instilled within the child to refrain them from meeting strangers.
Now imagine censorship on a society of adults imposed by the government. Everyone know’s there will be consequences to breaking rules and codes of law and how insane does it sound to be punished for the articulation of the thoughts and ideas one possess. Yes, some speeches can hurt, and even lead to violence but despite this, the consequences for censoring them is far more worse. Take a look at Yemen, for example. Fear has been ingrained into the hearts of the citizens that even when no law exits stating that one should not speak up against the corruption their government, they still fear doing so. One instance of censorship on speech is all it takes to spark a chain of fear amongst people and by all means, it is better to accept others, and tolerate each others differences because imagine how boring of a world it would be if everyone was alike.
A Short Comment on the Issue of Free Speech
In a democracy like our own, we often find ourselves debating the limits of free speech and how appropriately to respond to a apparent breaches of those limits. One limit most people seem to be at ease with today is the restriction on speech intended to incite violence. But what about speech that might be intended to harm in a different sense, or even speech that, although not intended to harm, just might end up having that effect? Consider the case of racist remarks. These might harm in the sense of offending the hearer or helping to reinforce a racist hierarchy or racist stereotypes. Should we put in place legal restrictions on such speech, restrictions that bring with them the full force of the law in case of violation? Answering this question isn’t easy. On the one hand, in the America of today, we have little tolerance for such language. We don’t want to hear racist remarks in the public forum, and we don’t want to encourage their use. On the other hand, what sort of punishment – if any – is appropriate when such remarks are made? How far should we go in bringing the law to bear on instances of apparent racism?
The public is divided on this question. And I cannot answer it completely here. But I will make a few remarks on what I think might be productive and unproductive ways of handling these sorts of cases. The hope being that a different perspective on the issue might at the very least add something else worth pondering, if even for a moment, when we engage in this important debate.
Lately, in the case of public celebrities using racist language we’ve seen a common response. Their show, for example, is cancelled, their sponsors drop them, and they are later made to make a public apology – the hope for us being that they really are sorry and have learned the error of their ways, and the hope for them probably being that this apology might allow them back into the public arena. I think this sort of response to racist speech is, though well intentioned, misguided. Consider the situation from a sort of psychological perspective. How is the person who made these remarks likely to react to this response? At least one possibility seems to be that they might resent the response. And if they actually believe what they said, they might then resent the group – or the supporters of the group – their racist remark was about. In effect, the punishment moves to intrench their racist beliefs even further. Now they also hate the group because they cost them their job.
Another possibility is that they have learned simply that if they want to keep their job and their sponsors they better not make those sort of comments in public. What we have done is simply teach a racist that it is okay to be racist so long as they don’t express their racism publicly. If we want to combat racism, however, as it seems obvious we do, we need it to be out in the open so that we can identify it and tackle it head on. And keeping it in the closet – or forcing it back into the closet – as this sort of response might encourage, doesn’t seem to help us in that respect.
Here’s another option for dealing with cases like these. Instead of withdrawing sponsorship and forcing the individual out of the job, we could see this as a “teaching moment”. That is, we can see this as an opportunity to educate the person as to why what they said (and the belief behind it) is wrong. The previous strategy, as I said, makes it possible that they never learn this, just to keep it to themselves. But ultimately what we want is for people to actually change their beliefs, not just keep their mouths shut. What we could do is at the very least first approach these sorts of moments as a chance to start a conversation – with the individual about their beliefs, and perhaps even publicly. Perhaps then if the conversation doesn’t work, they just don’t accept that they’re wrong, then we can go the other route – take away the position, drop the sponsorship.
I also see another problem with the sort of initial response I described above. It often times seems to come along with a sort of assumed essentialism about the offender. Sometimes the apology isn’t accepted – not to say it always should be (certainly only genuine ones should). Rather, sometimes the response is simply to label the individual racist, accept this as an immutable fact about them, drop them, and move on. But people can change, and it would be wrong to not give them the opportunity to do that. People can be mistaken in their beliefs, and upon learning how they’re mistaken they can and may make the effort to correct themselves. We’re making the mistake, I think, if we decide to treat people otherwise. After all we don’t treat our children this way, our friends, or our students. If a child makes a racist remark, we don’t just immediately assume the child is a lost cause. We sit down and talk to them about it, try to reason with them, show them where they went wrong. We allow for change, forgiveness, and redemption.
I’ll finish with a short story my grandfather told me. He came to America from Hungary after the first World War, but was sent to Europe as an American GI during WWII to help the allies fight against Hitler and the axis. He was uniquely placed to understand the situation of the Germans and the people of the other axis countries. Hungary itself had ended up on the side of Germany through an unfortunate series of events. You would think that a man who had gone through some of the bloodies battles of the European theater, who had seen some of the worst the Germans could do, would hate the German people. But he didn’t. When I asked my mother why her father never expressed hate for the German people, she explained it to me this way. As my grandfather saw it, the average German citizen was at bottom no different than you and me. They loved each other, their families, the flowers, a beautiful day. But they were also as easily duped, and coerced as we are. The average German citizen didn’t know that what they were doing, supporting was wrong. But when he talked to them after the war as an occupying soldier, he could see them slowly start to understand, and he could see something in them change. For him the extended moral was this. We could treat people who make racist, or bigoted, or other unkind remarks here as we might have wanted to treat the Germans, we could essentialize them – say they are racist, just as we said all Germans are Nazis. Or we could recognize that if even the Germans could change, we here could too. Moreover, if we didn’t recognize this, what would that make us? What was the other option? The Nazis, when someone disagreed with their way of speaking, with their ideas of what was appropriate language or thought, simply eliminated them, took away their jobs, etc. Did we want to do the same when someone disagreed with us?
In short, a seemingly good way we might judge our behavior is by comparing it to those whose behavior we abhor most. We need to make sure that when we go “fighting the enemy” we don’t end up becoming an enemy ourselves. One way to do this is to treat people as our brothers, as worth talking to and reasoning with, as capable of change. Better this than simply accepting the way they are, assuming changing is impossible, and looking for ways to simply be rid of them.
I must say that the conversation I had with Prof.
Shottenkirk was most certainly one of the better conversations I have had, not
only at PoPC, but in this life period. We delved profoundly into the dynamics
of power; specifically, as it relates to the media filter with which we
understand our world. I am of a strange position with respect to all of this in
that I believe our present state of affairs in fundamentally corrupt and will
never really self-correct; however, the best we can hope for is a form of
crisis management and to save a few minds from the onslaught of hypnotic
reality construction that comes at us from every talking screen we own.
We have come to enjoy the show of our social order and have even gotten so neurotically
disconnected from any sort of ethical framework that the very idea of something
being objectively right or wrong is seen as repugnant and as such if someone
says something that doesn’t immediate validate our own feelings on any given
issue we either refuse to hear them out or worse demand that they be silenced
because feelings have come to be valued more than either liberty or truth.
(NYPost- False College Kid Outrage)
There is no grappling between truths and falsehoods anymore there is only the
spin one puts on any given statement and how many retweets said spin has that
validates it as truth. This causes what we are experiencing which is the “design
your own truth” phenomenon. Where we can control exactly what type of truth
gets told to us and we intellectually masturbate ourselves into a coma. The
scary thing about all of this is it has come multifaceted and only serve the
interests of the already too powerful.
Some of the more interesting facets of the present zeitgeist that were brought
up were: Jargon speak, and the slow death of the democratic idealisms that
maintain our freedom, and how readily power is forfeited because of the responsibility
attached to it. I brought up how it seems to me that language has been used to
detach people emotionally from terms and ideas and then substitute buzz words
and talking points are injected into the public consciousness to pre-program
(or rather reprogram) a person’s feelings with respect to certain views.
(George Carlin on Soft Language)
I think this destruction of language and reorientation of a person’s emotional
triggers in conjunction with our current social media climate has led to people
tailoring their lives to only allow speech that conforms to their own ideas.
This has in turn lead to the death of the old adage “while I don’t agree with
what you say I will defend to the death your right to say it” (an essential
component of a free society), and replaced it with “you are just wrong and you shouldn’t
say that and we don’t have to have a dialog.” These attitudes will send
democracy the way of the dinosaur and I for one just hope we can manage the
crash with limited bloodshed.
(The Network-1976 “Democracy is a dying giant, the individual is finished.”)
Lastly in addressing the forfeiture of power I said
something along the lines of: “Power is hard to obtain, but once it is had
people forfeit it readily and rather easily.” This I believe is exceedingly true
and I think the media who have abandoned the pursuit of truth for a healthy financial
bottom-line a long time ago
(The Network-1976 “The World is a Business”)
have seized the power of the spoken word and the people readily beckon to be
told what to think and feel because they have lost the will to do it for
themselves, and why shouldn’t they? Everything they own does their thinking for
(The Network-1976 “TV isn’t truth”)
Upon sitting down with Dr. Dena Shottenkirk, I learned that we had some similar
experiences over our winter vacations from the academic world of Brooklyn
College. I learned that the Professor had been abroad in Vietnam, while I had
been in Germany. Although we went for different reasons and while the political
and social climates are quite different in these two countries, which are truly
worlds apart, we both seem to have been confronted by forms of censorship in an
almost scary way.
As far as I understand, Vietnam is not very welcoming to the
Enlightenment concept of the natural rights that each individual is born with.
The same concept that has been termed, “Unalienable Rights” by the founders of
our great nation. These innate rights, as far as we understand them in the
civilized, Western world, of course include the rights to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness. Ironically, a derivative of these three basic rights, our
right to free speech, is something that is not often spoken about these days. While
Vietnam is in many ways still clearly a third world country, Germany is not. In
fact, Germany is considered to be one of the leading countries in the European
Union and consequently also in the “Free”, “Western” world. It’s true
that Germany has in many ways made remarkable social progress since the Second
World War, however, as I’ve been told many times since I was a young child,
there seems to be much that goes unsaid. I was perplexed to learn that upon Dr.
Shottenkirk’s arrival in Vietnam she was strongly encouraged to carefully watch
she says. They kindly advised her not to speak out at all, whatsoever, about
the government of course, and suggested the strong likelihood that her phone
was being tapped and informed her of the dangers of speaking. I was never
afforded this luxurious forewarning in Germany and I had been there many times
After all, what could go wrong anyway? Germany is one of the leading countries
of the “Free” world.
I have always been suspicious of Germany, it’s hard not to be
skeptical these days, especially when an individual or a nation has such a dark
(recent) history, but even if they are a stranger or a close, childhood friend.
Individualization seems to lead to questions of hidden motives and a general
distrust or anxiety. In any case, there are of course not many people who were active
participants of the Nazi Regime still alive in Germany today, but the people
that are alive, grew up in homes that had been infected by Hitler’s poisonous ideology.
While it seems to the public eye that Germany has made a remarkable turn to
liberalism and to the political left, I could always only look at their new
republic, from New York City, in a skeptical way. That being said, I didn’t
want to believe what I have heard so many times in the past. However, just like
so many others, I am also constantly reminded how little faith one can put in
“humanity”. When I was in Germany over the summer, the situation in Greece was
rather bad, even dire, if you will. It was endlessly spoken about on every TV
station, all day and all night; all anyone was talking about was whether or not
to bail out Greece. It was even suggested that maybe the situation in Greece
was so unsalvageable that the European Union had no choice but to rescind its
membership. When I was in Germany over the winter break, another huge political
debate was taking place, this time it was about the 1,000,000 Turkish refugees
that Chancellor Merkel had decided to grant entry, into the country, without
background checks. There is much to say about all of this, however, I do not
want to stray too far from the subject at hand, the subject of censorship and
the Enlightenment idea of natural rights such as the right to freedom of speech.
One may question what the harm associated with discussions that
remain unspoken is. One may look at an incident like the one that took place in
France over the Charlie Hebdo cartoon and suggest that there is an inherent
danger in granting citizens the Freedom of Speech. However, this is not the
American ideology that Professor Shottenkirk or myself had become accustomed to
and in many ways may have even taken for granted. If you agree with the
fundamental Enlightenment principles, that all men (and women) are created
equal and that as equals we are born with certain unalienable rights such as
the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it becomes very
difficult to make a solid argument against the right to free speech. While
censorship is perhaps “safer” in some regard and makes it easier for
governments to rule and control their people, it fundamentally violates our
natural born rights. I find censorship to be infinitely more threatening and
scary than the freedom of speech. After all, how would it be possible for
people to actively pursue happiness in a censored society? Alternatively, the
very concept of nationalism, the idea that a populace or society gives a nation
its sovereignty, seems to so strongly imply these natural rights and freedoms
that if a country doesn’t provide them, they could be accused of tyranny and of
violating the very purpose for which that Republic exists. This is not so much
a problem in a country that openly admits its Monarchic organization as in
countries that claim to be Republics or Nationalistic states and even Democracies.
To summarize a lightning-speed, deeply philosophical conversation in a short essay
or account is just about as difficult to do as to summarize all of my experiences in
Germany. I had the privilege and great pleasure to spend New Year’s with my
grandparents this past winter for the first time in my life. However, as the world has
seen, tensions are high in Germany and some of the people in Cologne, the city in
which I was born, suffered due to that tension. While TV stations ran the story
for weeks and while many talk shows and discussions seemed to be had over the
events that occurred, I couldn’t help but notice how much went unsaid. In modern
day Germany, there is a law against speaking out about foreigners. What this
implies is that if there is a group of loud, arrogant, drunken Americans at a
bar, German citizens are not supposed to say anything critical or accusatory to
them. In fact, the bar is not allowed to kick them out at their own discretion.
While these kinds of laws, like the ones that protect religious freedom and
provide additional funding to religious and minority institutions are no doubt
constructive, and in many ways, are to be expected from and celebrated in
Germany, there is no doubt to me that there is a lot that goes unsaid.
It is no new revelation of mine that in many ways the Second World War was
fought solely over the restoration of Pride. Germany’s drama with France goes back
to Napoleon’s occupation of the land, which became one of the major influences
that united Germany in the first place, before the First World War. Germany
lost to France in the First World War and so it is understandable that France
was one of Hitler’s primary targets. As many people know, pride can be a death
sentence. In Hitler’s case it certainly was. In fact, he brought his entire
beloved nation to their knees. I have always found it profoundly interesting
that when I introduce myself in the United States as a born German, people
always seem to have the same reply, “that’s so cool.” I never truly understood
what was so cool about it. It is also interesting to go to Germany and introduce
myself as an American, as someone who grew up in NYC, it makes me feel a little
bit like a celebrity. I’ve met a lot of Germans who desperately desire even
just a 3-month stay in NYC, if only they could afford it. How they’d love to
study there, they told me. “One day I’ll come visit you in NYC”.
The most interesting thing about all of this is, I find, is that since the Second World
War, it isn’t difficult to recognize the German desire to reclaim their pride.
In fact, I remember when Germany won the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the general
sentiment that all Germans shared in being able to finally, proudly wave their
flag. And what an accomplishment that is, to be the world champions of Soccer. While
Germany will forever be grateful and indebted to the United States for helping
to reconstruct their beloved nation after the Second World War, and in many
ways Germany today feels like “Little America”, it is clear to me that an issue
of pride still resonates in the hearts of many German nationals. What this
means for different people seems to vary, but one thing is clear, they all hate
answering questions about the Nazi era and many of them seem to want to live it
down, to be forgiven and to move on as a nation.
My grandmother recently said something rather alarming. As an outstanding German
citizen, she fears that Germany might actually be degenerating politically, back to the
Right, and as an American, I fear for her freedom and wellbeing, her own rights to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I suspect that my grandmother is not
alone in her fear and it is not an ungrounded one, for I wholeheartedly trust
her judgment and share her sentiment. One of the issues in Europe today seems
to be with how to best deal with this issue of pride. Perhaps, it exists in the
United States more than I am accustomed to seeing, because I have the great
fortune of living in NYC, one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in
the world. However, in Europe this issue exists in a different light because of
the two world wars, both of which impacted the United States in a unique, more
There is no question that our environment heavily influences who we are and what
we do. For this reason, the notion of choosing one’s friends wisely, is often stressed.
There is no question that while we put our faith in empirical knowledge (we believe
what we see), that the opposite is also true and we see what we believe. I
think it is an unreasonable request of people to demand of others to entirely
forget and disregard history. For example, I cannot go to a bank and ask them
nicely to forgive my debts and simply walk away. It just doesn’t work like
that. No bank will ever agree to that. I can deny my debts eternally, but there
will come a time, at the end of the day, when no bank will ever give me another
loan, when I won’t receive any credit allowance anymore, when my accounts will
be frozen and my assets seized. Then again, history is history, right?
I think the most prominent thing that prevents Germany and other European Nations
from being able to proudly wave their flags is their seeming inability to
wholly conform to the Enlightenment ideas that founded the great nation of
America. There is no question in my mind that adopting, instituting and
protecting these ideals, of the natural rights and freedoms of all people, even
if they are Jewish, Black, Homosexual, Disabled, from Greece, Turkey or Syria, is
the most commendable thing a proud nation can do. I am aware of Hitler’s idea
of the “Ubermensch” and his dreams of a unified Germany, however, just consider
the potential sentiments of pride associated with tourism, of seeing people
voluntarily visiting your country on their vacation, and consciously deciding
to invest in your nation to experience and learn about some of the culture and
tradition you hold to such high regard. Instead of sneering at people that look
different than you, at people that are trying to learn your language and incorporate
into your society, shouldn’t that make you proud?
Apologies for the format, somehow it didn’t copy properly from Word.
Hi. i am writing per the meeting/discussion I had with Dena this past Saturday which was about our ancestral inheritance of information that relates to how we perceive/express. I believe in the Jungian idea that we inherit systems of logic that cannot be expressed purely in language form. I hesitate to say “systems of logic” actually because I don’t think that there is any “system” at play, it is a much more organic network, as we artists say when we all find ourselves all talking/working in a similar vein that it is, “in the air.” (I’ll take this opportunity to write a disclaimer: I’m an artist and not a philosopher.) Language creates strong barriers that confuse the life of the subject (or for lack of words, the “thing”). Language is a structure that creates a prefabricated theme, unlike the subject itself which carries an infinite amount of information including a history that perhaps is being ‘blocked’ willfully by a consensus-driven society, meaning: we are aware of the natural history of the thing/subject but choose structure over organic or even more portent meaning. Art is a way to move around this blockage, it may articulate a subject/thing that includes a history well known but somehow suppressed either by language or some other cultural barrier (I believe language is the first form to manipulate an idea to a cultural standard but obviously there are many other ways in which we streamline hegemonic standards in society.) I believe our notions of things include limitless definitions, some of which is carried through a generational inheritance of experience and can only be expressed in the nonverbal like the cultural practices of art, music, etc.
This past Saturday I was fortunate enough to have some time
to catch the PoPC gathering and have a nice chat with Professor Shottenkirk. We
touched on several subjects (as we often do), but there are a few key points I
will talk about (and perhaps clarify here). The first was brought up after a
discussion about the presently tense campus climate between Zionists and SJP.
Prof. Shottenkirk brought up that some people were saying that the Anti-Zionist
rhetoric ought to be considered hate-speech, and that there were those that actually
expressed that they felt unsafe due to the free expression of Anti-Zionist
sentiments. It is worth noting that I (personally) do not have a dog in the
fight. My unwavering belief in freedom of speech extends even to speech that some
would classify as “hate-speech.” As I firmly believe in the old adage “While I do not agree with what you have to
say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As such, I had to
observe in response to those who “feel” unsafe as the result of some form of
speech that in reality no one is
guaranteed the right to “feel” safe all the time, they are only afforded
physical safety of life and limb. This is an important distinction. I have
a right not to be physically assaulted or attacked by another person because
this would jeopardize my life, liberty, and my pursuit of happiness. However, I
do not have the right to have my emotions protected from injury at all times.
If that were the case, than anything that upsets my emotional state ought to be
guarded against via state and/or institution which would invariably result in
the curtailing of free speech and freedom of expression. The responsibility to
guard against the emotion of insecurity falls to the individual as the minister
of his or her own emotional welfare. No institution ought to have power over
this solemn facet of individual liberty.
This discussion brought us around to the large issue of freedom of speech and
how (as I have said in previous discussions) currently we are seeing “feelings”
being prized over liberty and/or truth. This is indeed a terrifying state of
affairs because of its larger implications. While trying to preserve
participation in democracy what this form of nanny state/campus silencing of
possibly hurtful rhetoric does is it undermines a fundamental aspect of
democracy which is the free flowing exchange and philosophical critique of
ideas. This does democracy a disservice because although it may foster greater
participation, said participation comes at the price of the curtailing free
speech and in doing so actually paves the way for totalitarianism predicated on
the relativistic inclinations of the arbiters of the socially acceptable speech
of the period (whomever they may be). What was most interesting about the
points raised in this part of the discussion was the fact that during it we
brought up how the before mentioned curtailing of speech was commonplace in
countries like Canada, and our hostess just happened to be Canadian. She
expressed that while her country is great and the people are nice, their
perpetual preoccupation with maintaining only nonthreatening speech actually
prevents progress, and doesn’t allow for new innovative concepts to be brought
to the floor out of fear they might offend.
Towards the end of our discussion freedom and artistic expression were a major
part of the discussion, and as we were talking about how that plays into the
pattern of limiting freedom of speech I decided to pose a question that I had
been pondering for some time. Some students that the University of Missouri
want their Thomas Jefferson memorial removed on the grounds that it is racially
insensitive http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-thomas-jefferson-statue-stand-with-jefferson-20151021-story.html The question I posed in relation to this story and the larger issue of
freedom of expression in art was: What is the philosophical difference between
this effort to sanitize past artistic representations of figures we have
decided to remove in the name of political correctness and the terrorist
organization Isis destroying ancient works of art because they do not conform
with their ideological agenda? To my rationale there is in effect no difference between the two. They are
both attempts to avoid contextualizing and putting history into perspective
while at the same time removing anything that might threaten a new ideological
framework that their respective advocates seek to impose on the larger society.
Art (especially historic art) ought to be preserved and invoke critical
thinking and discourse about the past. It should not be destroyed or all
together removed from view because it might be upsetting to those who are
unable or unwilling to engage in the mental labor needed to contextualize, and
debate the philosophical nuances of the piece. To do so would not only limit
future forms of artistic expression from ever seeing the light of day, but also
destroy fundamental artistic works of our past, and for what? To avoid ruffling
a few feathers? Isn’t that what good art is supposed to do?
I must say that I find this enthusiastic yielding of freedom of speech and
expression most troubling. I worry that our democracy cannot sustain this for
much longer. As more and more people are being brought into the democratic
process that appear not to embrace the democratic ideal in as much as they
embrace the systems thereof. These voices pose a real danger to the future of
democracy and of progress by the people. I fear that if this form of wholesale sanitation
of speech in the name of championing emotions over rational philosophical evaluation
continues that we may end up with a stagnant society of theatrical governance
that is ripe of the infiltration of technocratic totalitarianism.
Here is a good article I have found that addresses much of what I have been
talking about it is written by a Daphne Patai a professor in
the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University
of Massachusetts Amherst. http://www.mindingthecampus.org/2016/02/the-normalization-of-bad-ideas/
Our POPc conversation was fun and enlightening. Considering the first Amendment, the protection of free speech, as a guarantee for an epistemological process was surprising. Initially, this is a novel claim because the Bill of Rights has, at least to my mind, a legal, not philosophic context. Although the authors of the founding documents were attuned to European philosophies, not in the least the famous Locke, I still consider their intentions to be providing legal precedent. Moreover, if one were to grant them a philosophic content I would expect an explication of a social or political philosophy.
Surprising as this pairing was, after some reflection I had a stronger reaction to the epistemology put forward by this account. Analyzing epistemology etymologically we find two ancient Greek words at its root: episteme and logos. The former is ‘knowledge’ and the latter, ‘word’.
Offhand I would be likely to respond that epistemology is some kind of theory explaining how we can know something. If pressed further, I would suggest the existence of a kind of cognitive mechanism which functioning, would give us the ability to determine whether some perceived object actually corresponded with a concept. Yet, what I heard at our meeting was something rather different.
As I understood it, the ‘mechanism’ of my somewhat rushed and imprecise account would be replaced simply with language; the mechanism, if there ever was one, would be a posteriori, not a priori. Considering epistemology in this way is somewhat closer to the abridged etymological analysis given above. However, this remains speculation, as it is all rather vague. But, what is less obscure is the shift in my consideration of epistemology from an a priori condition constituting the capacity to know, to an a posteriori exercise of language.
What is meaningful in all of this, in relation to the Bill of Rights, is if language is our main vehicle for knowledge and is concretely in the world, it is vulnerable to political, social and cultural censorship. In contradistinction to this, my initial a priori presumption would be that something precedes the interior and exterior spheres of discourse where we consult ourselves and others. And this not in time, but logically; that we must presuppose the condition for our capacity of knowledge before we can proceed to know some thing.
If a cognitive synthesis was a priori the condition for knowledge, then it would not rely on interactions in the public sphere and there would be less need for the protection of it. But this is not, truthfully, the whole story. Precisely this rupture in how I conceived of epistomology was what made my POPc meeting powerful.
On the grounds that language instantiates epistemology, there is still a degree of interiority involved, i.e. we converse with ourselves. But even a dialogue with ourselves, never mind publicly, is inevitably shaped by social and cultural discourses. Thinking and talking about the right way to act will necessarily involve a culturally and socially specific ethics instantiated by our discourse. The individual will have been steeped in these discourses since birth and will always be in the thick of things without much capacity for genuine universality. If I have some question, e.g. what is the United States? already I have brought in semantic content from my culture, not to mention the language deployed to simply ask this question.
These, then, are the differences constituting my surprise. I see no reason why the two approaches preclude one another? Certainly the a priori capacity needs no legal guarantee, yet the exercise of this capacity in language does. The capacity precedes determinate knowledge, yet the actual knowledge is what matters in this life. Heretofore, I have not properly appreciated this dimension of the Bill of Rights. Nor did I give much thought to epistemology. But I’m grateful to have been provoked to these thoughts. I hope to work to gain clarity while exploring the dynamics of language.
For whatever it is worth, I admit to’ve been taken by surprise at the aim of Prof. Shottenkirk’s inquiry, re: the documentary project. Free Speech, as it were, has never been a great area of interest of mine, because, for one, despite being a professional writer, I still don’t know how things like the past-perfect tense work. Which is to say: I’m not expert of linguistics, grammar, epistemology, or other areas having to do with language. I just use it and have a good internal compass, I believe, for flow. Secondly, I’m not an idealist. Ergo, I don’t think things such as “justice” actually exist in the world, and I don’t mean that philosophically, but practically. The dice are loaded.
That being said, my interview with the professor somehow went into the direction of Facebook, Donald Trump, and police brutality of African-Americans. The first two I have almost zero interest in. (I’m pursuing a Master’s in Art History, with a concentration in medieval art, so I’m rarely concerned with modern technology, and I’m also a card-carrying Democrat, so there’s no chance of Trump, or any Republican for that matter, persuading my vote.) The third subject I would lump in with the previous sentiment of “I don’t think things such as justice exist,” and leave it at that. Albeit, the combination of Facebook, Trump, and African-American brutality does, I admit, set up an equation that plays on the margins of Free Speech.
In my case, the thought was this: “How do white people, living in urban centers and expressly progressive, respond to black friends on Facebook who are outraged at the rhetoric of Donald Trump and numerous examples of race-based police brutality?” The answer seems obvious: Be outraged as well. Strangely, many whites (present company included) have fallen silent on this subject. That is to say: we simply don’t comment on our black friends’ outrage. I wonder why?
First off, I’ll give you my own kind of psychological answer, then try to veer back into the topic of Free Speech. Example: two young males, one black, one white, are chased down by police for minor infractions. The white is let go with a small felony charge, basically amounting to time already spent in jail and some additional community service; the black is given a two-year sentence, compounded by the fact that the police beat the crap out of him for trying to run during arrest. (It happened just like that, and no, I don’t know the two cases; I just saw a friend’s Facebook post.)
The friend posting was also black and his comment was something to the extant of: ‘There is a double-standard and whites across the board are responsible.’ The expression here implies two things: (1) that the differing treatment of the same crime, committed by two men, was based on racial prejudice; and (2) that white people who were involved neither with the crime, nor arrest, nor the judgement, are still responsible.
Again, I did not comment on the friend’s post, though I agreed with him that the double-standard was obvious. Does that mean I disagree with him that all whites are responsible? Not necessarily. I think that whites are privileged in ways we may not be fully conscious of, and that it is possible to be racist on a number of levels without realizing it. But I didn’t say that on Facebook. What I did was stay silent. Why?
Well, for one… and I’m speaking just for myself here… I think I prefer to disassociate myself from those police officers and judges who have committed the brutality and implemented the double-standard. What’s more, there was no shortage of live television clips of young black people getting beat up by white males at Donald Trump rallies at the time my friend posted his opinion on Facebook. In my silence I’d like to believe I am disassociating myself from these as well. The implication being that, despite being fair-skinned and linked ancestrally with those deemed “white,” I don’t actually see myself as one of them, and therefore don’t need to bear the responsibility that my friend ascribed to “all whites.” So why do I feel responsible?
Is it because, despite my flight from white suburbia into a place like NYC (a so-called bastion of progressivity), I still consort with these types of police officers, criminal justice workers, and everyday Joe’s who act and talk ignorantly about racial matters, during family gatherings (holidays, weddings, etc.)? Or is it something deeper?
Whatever the case, there is some type of fear that has kept me from speaking out on a subject in which I obviously have a variety of feelings. (Fear of my friend’s response, perhaps?) On a very simplistic level, I believe that Free Speech, in our current system, is more a freedom to sabotage oneself. We also know that we are policed by various government entities, so there is a real sense that Free Speech, as it were, is only free to the extant we are willing to overlook the many ways in which it isn’t. Yet, again, in this instance it is a case of self-policing. I could go on, but with that I believe I’ll turn the microphone back over to other writers and thinkers of a more eloquent composure than myself. Thanks for listening.
I wrote two large paragraphs and then accidently deleted the while thing, so here goes round two. It is slightly terser in frustration.
Censorship, particularly from the left of the right: Violence is gendered. Direct physical violence is masculine; emotional/mental violence is feminized and as such has not historically been seen as real or as equal in gravity to physical violence. However, persistent emotional violence manifests physically in ways that are more crippling and enduring than most non-lethal physical violence. Emotional violence is also private; there is no objective witness to the damage and no medical/bureaucratic public record. Because of all this, nonphysical violence has often been ignored or sidelined by censorship laws and discourse. When the left, then, calls for censorship, a call which if inverted would almost certainly be oppressive and/or harmful, it is an attempt to make visible and public the real and private violence members of such a group have historically experienced. It is an imposition of the subjective upon a public discourse constituted and perpetuated by limited and skewed obectivity, that of the (dun-dun-dun!) white male. In summary, if freedom from censorship ends at protection from violence, we must remeber there are many forms of violence, some of which have been accepted as more real or bisibke than others for reasons of power. And if uncensored speech is an epistemological concern, then we must take account of whose truths structure the public discourse and who is rendered silent or invisible when subjectivity is sidelined.
At the POPC with Professor Shottenkirk we had a very interesting discussion on the detrimental effects of censorship and lack of free speech. We discussed the link that censorship leads to a more racist outlook. Furthermore, we explored the importance of being exposed to diversity, with diverse communities and thoughts. We also explored the important role that dialogue plays in the formation of our beliefs, and the consequences when dialogue about our beliefs/ thoughts are suppressed.
When individuals grow up or is surrounded in a community of like minded people, without much diversity, they tend to share the same views and opinions as the people surrounding them. Generally, when you are surrounded by the same people, your views tend to be in alignment with each other. Because your views are in alignment, expansion of your views does not take place. If someone were to be exposed to different views, they would be forced out of alignment. In the process of being forced out of alignment, you reexamine your views and in that process expansion of your views take place.
For example, you might believe a racist remark to be accurate, but coming in contact with others that share different opinions will force you to examine your views. In such a process, where diversity is present, racial dogma has a chance of being decreased.
This is further compounded when the community is censored, and free speech is prohibited. In a censored community, only mainstream uncensored beliefs may be discussed. The fact that everyone’s thoughts have to be in alignment leads to an increase in hate speech and racist dogma. In such communities, you can’t have a proper dialogue with others about your views. Dialogue with others is an important process since it impacts your internal dialogue with yourself. Through dialogue with others we form our thoughts. Without a place to discuss our views our internal dialogue is stunted and there isn’t much expansion of our thoughts. As you can see, this dialogue between me and Prof.Shottentkirk, was essential in forming my internal thoughts on this topic.
Furthermore, dialogue with others makes individuals more empathetic towards each other. This can be illustrated through Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development. Erikson discusses the developmental stage of Identity vs Role confusion. At this stage an individual finds their identity through struggling with morality, and questions what is right and wrong. This is established through social interactions when we negotiate with others and listen to each other’s opinions. So in essence, dialogue with others allows us to form our identity. Through this process we find our own unique moral compass and become empathetic. Through engaging in dialogue, and being more empathetic, hopefully we can diminish hate speech.