Square Brackets: a podcast about elisions, ambiguities and [our] confusions

Podcasts continue to increase in popularity, and after years of being encouraged to try my hand at producing one, Greg Andrews and I decided to do just that. Square Brackets is the result, and after releasing a weekly episode for the past two months, it’s probably time to announce it here on Synapses.

Continue reading “Square Brackets: a podcast about elisions, ambiguities and [our] confusions”

Judge Learned Hand and liberalism

“Judge Learned Hand” reads like a Zen koan or something, but he was in fact an American judge, who has been “quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge“. Yes, that is (most of) his real name – the full version is Billings Learned Hand.

His Wikipedia page (linked above) makes for fascinating reading, but if you leave this post wanting to know more about his thinking, I’d encourage you to read Jerome Frank’s 1957 article titled Some reflections on Judge Learned Hand (pdf).

The aspect of his thinking that I want to briefly discuss here is about what liberalism meant to him, and what it means to me. In 1944, Hand gave a speech titled “The Spirit of Liberty” to a gathering of around 1.5 million people in Central Park, NY, many of them newly-naturalised citizens.

You can – and indeed should – read the full speech. The portion of it I want to address goes as follows:

Continue reading “Judge Learned Hand and liberalism”

No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”. Continue reading “No, that doesn’t actually beg the question”

Dying with dignity

Yesterday, a strange collection of people received an unusual email. It was a suicide note from a man we knew to varying degrees, sent to people with whom he’d formed a connection over the years, whether via secular humanist activism (as in my case) or badminton, or something more intimate, like being family or close friends.

It was scheduled to be sent hours after he had taken his life, and included instructions regarding memorial services, burial and the like.

I didn’t know him well, so I’m not sad at his death in any personal fashion. I am however sad at how he had to die – alone, and with no certainty that his suffering would be alleviated, given that the medical support that should be available at times like these cannot be provided unless you can find a physician who is willing to break the law. Continue reading “Dying with dignity”

The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy

There’s an interesting – and important – discussion going on in South African professional philosophy at the moment. You can read about it on the Mail&Guardian, but the nutshell summary is that tensions regarding the “apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy” have resulted in the president and “several black philosophers” resigning from the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA). Continue reading “The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy”

On the proposed South African sugar tax

As Africa Check reports in Daily Maverick, it’s not yet clear what the effects of the proposed sugar tax in South Africa will be. But it is clear that South Africa has a serious obesity problem – and that sugar is a clear causal factor for obesity.

A Mail&Guardian journalist recently approached me for comment on this (I’ll update this post with a link to the piece when it’s published), but because the M&G article will likely only quote snippets, here’s a fuller response to a few sugar tax issues. Continue reading “On the proposed South African sugar tax”

On opinions, and how the world needs editors

The reading material for my “Evidence-based Management” course at the University of Cape Town contains an early draft of what ended up becoming chapter 1 of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience.

Springer book coverIn the book, Dr. Caleb Lack and I argue that phrases like “everybody is entitled to their opinions” are typically trite or misleading.

They can be meaningless, in the sense that of course it’s true that everyone is legally entitled to hold whatever opinions they like.

This doesn’t seem to be what we mean when using the phrase, though – we typically say: “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” precisely when an opinion has been expressed, where we disagree with the expressed opinion, and where we express that disagreement by using the phrase in question. Continue reading “On opinions, and how the world needs editors”

On using italics and “othering” other languages

The Mail&Guardian recently published an op-ed telling readers that the paper would no longer italicise words in South African languages other than English (for the benefit of foreign readers, we have 11 official languages here).

You can read the piece on the M&G website, but you’ll need to create a (free) account to do so. While I understand, and have great sympathy for, their motives, the reasoning is muddled, and the conclusion incoherent. Continue reading “On using italics and “othering” other languages”

Ideology, interpolation and artistic intent

41M7ZMFHYMLThe Story of O is commonly considered to be a pornographic novel. As with any artwork that challenges moral sensibilities, a “pornographic” novel expose us to things that are morally abhorrent to us, while simultaneously leaving us uncompelled to condone what is described.

The interesting thing about The Story of O, for the purposes of this post, is that the brutality and abuse that O is subjected to seem to actually be morally acceptable in the fictional world of the story.

And herein lies my focus: is The Story of O, or any work of literature that has an implicit moral stance which we find unacceptable, to be valued less as a work of literature because of its unacceptable moral stance?

Second, should the fact that one or more of us feel outrage at something in an artwork mean that the artwork should not be shown, produced or performed?

The contemporary example that made me want to air these issues is the Estonian composer Jonas Tarm, who had intended to play “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago.

The Carnegie performance was cancelled, after

it was brought to the administrators’ attention, in a letter of complaint signed “a Nazi survivor,” that the piece incorporates about 45 seconds of the “Horst Wessel” song, the Nazi anthem.

This, despite the fact that that the “Horst Wessel” song has been used in various compositions for many years, often as negative commentary on Nazism, and was in this piece framed negatively also (via the manner in which Mr. Tarm introduces the segment).

It seems that it was precisely his intention to get people to think about that historical period critically, and perhaps to feel some discomfort while doing so – but political and emotional sensitivities have made that impossible in the Carnegie Hall case.

This is not a judgement on those sensitivities themselves, but more on (as a friend put it) the apparent decline in our ability to interpolate between texts.

The failure of our ability to interpolate, in other words, is our failure to see things in a context, and to play off various texts (including, in the case of “O”, the moral text), off against each other.

More worrying, perhaps, is our conceding to that decline, in setting standards of offence, and what offence legitimises, that cater to serve the interests of those who are most offended (or who can claim to be so).

Victory goes to the most sensitive, which simply serves to incentivise people to be hypersensitive.

The same set of questions arise in terms of the genesis of art – for example, when (if ever) questions about the moral character of the artist matter, regardless of the quality of the art. For example, can (and should) one enjoy art produced by a child abuser, murderer, rapist, etc.?

This issue is, I feel, intrinsically connected to the question of what we value works of art for. It is true that we “possess a capacity to entertain a thought without accepting it”, to quote Malcolm Budd’s paper “Belief and sincerity in poetry”, and to my mind, this capacity is an essential component of enjoying art.

But Budd points out that a reader can enjoy a text “also on account of the poem’s expressing a philosophy that he believes”. If I subscribe to Christian values, I might enjoy Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way that text glorifies those values, just as Hitler would probably have derived great pleasure from watching Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

But works that can be described as propagandistic, in the sense that they exist primarily for the purpose of convincing the audience of the worthiness of a certain moral stance, are not, I feel germane to this discussion. The reason for this is the categorial intentions of the author.

It seems fair to say that most texts (and here I mean text in a broad sense, to include things like movies), while containing an implicit moral stance, do not exist primarily for the purpose of converting others to that stance. Works that do exist for this purpose may be considered as manifestos, but not as literary texts (for the purposes of this discussion).

So a movie such as Triumph of the Will may be viewed with distaste in the same way as we might view a swastika with distaste, while a text that can be more broadly conceived as containing a moral stance which we may find offensive, without actually having been conceived for the purpose of promoting it, should not be viewed with distaste for the same reasons. To do so would be, I feel, a type of category error.

If we set the bar at “someone could find this morally offensive”, the problem would be that is becomes impossible to find a text that has any objective (or at least, non-partisan) artistic value.

And that some texts have value, considered solely as literary texts, is a thesis which seems intuitively correct – they can make us feel, or make us think, as independent virtues regardless of their (for example) propagandistic value.

While it’s true that the moral or political stance of the audience often precludes the possibility of reading the art “on its own merits”, those merits have to include more than simply those stances.

And while there are contexts in which things are clearly simply abusive towards an audience, or only intended to provoke without additional artistic intent, the fact that we – or some of us – can’t read art in a context, outside of our subjective sensitivities, seems to be a deficiency of and in the audience, rather than in the art.

Speaking on related issues to these, the author of the New York Times piece linked above says (in relation to Mr Tarm’s composition):

I’d like a chance to think about [these issues] for myself. The New York Youth Symphony should program “Marsh u Nebuttya” on its next Carnegie program and give me, and the rest of the audience, that opportunity.

Precisely. These questions are sometimes not easy, but we get no closer to answering them by refusing to allow them to be asked.

Arguments, and assumptions of bad faith

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that the news cycle – especially here in South Africa – is hitting fresh heights of bonkers-ness just about every day. And where scandalous news emerges, outrage on social media follows.

Outrage is oftentimes merited, and you should please not read this post as a complaint about people getting upset about things (although, as David Mitchell points out in a characteristically amusing column, it might be a problem that outrage has become our default setting).

More important than the outrage itself is the motivation for the outrage, in both senses of motivation – the originating argument or cause of it, and then the retrospective justification of it, where I think too many of us are operating in bad faith.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of the “principle of charity”, Wikipedia’s entry opens with: “In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.”

To put this into practice, one strategy might be to apply Rapoport’s Rules, summarised by Daniel Dennett as follows:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

But instead of taking this approach, much online commentary, whether in the short-form of Twitter or in blogs and columns, seems to be a frantic dash to demonstrate the evil of your opponent’s point of view.

There are important debates going on about left-wing politics, political correctness and what counts as fair and unfair criticism. It’s important that these debates aren’t won by those who claim that being offended is always a trump card, because that a) incentivises victimhood and b) is a race to the bottom for what entitles you to claim protection from offence.

It’s good to be challenged – we are often wrong (regarding science, for example), and need to be told so. But how we tell each other that we’re wrong is the problem, in the sense that if you criticise from a position of assumed certainty that you’re right, and your opponent wrong, nothing good is likely to come from the interaction.

I’ve so far stayed out of the Jonathan Chait debate that was occupying so many people in (the broad and very difficult to define) online political community I belong to. There are far too many triggers for hostility in the issues he raises, with a concomitant low probability of sober reflection on the issues.

But now that the fire of that debate has gone out, I do want to point you to his piece responding to his critics, in which he (rightly) reminds us that the fact that some people complain about political correctness simply as a way to excuse or mask their bigotry does not mean that others might also take offence too often, and for the wrong reasons (for example, the race or gender of the speaker, regardless of what the speaker is saying). To quote an important passage from that piece,

making distinctions is important and valuable. Voting may present us with limited and imperfect choices. But when we analyze the world, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to binary choices. We can oppose both racism and inappropriate responses to racism. Indeed, that kind of multifaceted thinking is a special responsibility for liberals.

imagesHaving begun this post with a vague allusion to issues in the South African political landscape, let me close with the specific case of the City of Cape Town having approved the renaming of a road in honour of the conservative apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, who can among his achievements apparently count ordering the murder of 5 children (and a Nobel Prize).

I was one of the handful (around 250) that opposed the renaming during the consultative process, while around 1700 wrote in support of it. My reasons for opposing it were offered in a previous post, so I won’t rehash them here. But I do want to say something about last week’s council meeting, at which the City approved the renaming (initially proposed by this group of “prominent Capetonians“).

According to news reports, (at least) two quite disturbing things happened at this council meeting, to which I’d add one example of the language of politics gone utterly mad.

Disturbing thing number one is that our Mayor, Patricia de Lille, was apparently taunting ANC councillor Tony Ehrenreich by waving a red clown nose in his general direction whenever he spoke, and accusing him of engaging in “clown politics”. To my mind, if the Mayor engages in debate as if it’s happening on a school playground, there’s more than one person playing “clown politics”.

More disturbing, though, is this detail of how the council meeting proceeded (my emphasis):

The ANC then asked to caucus and, on their return to the chamber, found that the meeting had proceeded without their input. ANC councillors were outraged. The Speaker’s calls for order were drowned out by ANC councillors banging on desks while chants of “no” rang out. Smit then ordered the ANC to leave and the hall to be vacated.

The council sitting was moved to another room, with many DA councillors also shut out as metro police blocked ANC councillors from getting in. Chaos erupted when ANC members tried to force their way in, resulting in a tussle between some ANC councillors and metro police officers. There was continual shoving and pushing as ANC councillors tried to storm the room.

For the next two hours, ANC councillors tried to get in while remaining DA councillors were gradually escorted into the room, where ACDP and FF Plus councillors participated in the discussions.

I’m sympathetic to the DA and de Lille’s claim that the ANC might sometimes act in ways that are aimed at making the City “ungovernable”. But when you’re taking a decision regarding renaming a road after an apartheid president, in a city perceived by some as being racist, it’s quite mad – in terms of effect on public perception – for only the DA, ACDP and FF Plus to be debating the motion and making the decision (a separate issue to whether they were quorate, which they were).

Furthermore, if the meeting did proceed while the ANC was taking a break to caucus, that indicates serious bad faith on the part of the Democratic Alliance, in that they don’t give any impression of being interested in engaging with the ANC or Ehrenreich’s arguments.

In general, that’s the problem I’m highlighting in this post, in full awareness that doing so is hardly novel. But for those of us that care about debate, and its value in showing us where we’re wrong (which is essential to becoming more often right about things), the occasional reminder of why we do this, and how to do it, hopefully serves a purpose.

In our little corners of the Interwebs, or in meatspace, we can do better than simply yell at each other, or presume malice in others before we’ve even bothered to try and understand what they are saying. It’s difficult, to be sure, and I often fail at it myself. But not doing so, or giving up trying, simply cedes all public discussions to the idiots and the ideologues.

In closing, on the Humpty Dumpty language of politics, consider this quote from the Mayor of the City of Cape Town, on the ANC’s opposition to the above-mentioned street renaming:

[The ANC] are opposed to progressive politics and anything that is not backward-looking and embraced by the cold hands of racialised politics.

Renaming a road after an apartheid president is “progressive politics”? As a friend said on Facebook, “Yup, what self-respecting revolutionary could be against honouring a freedom fighter like FW? I want to cry.”