Saturday, November 29, 2014

What should we read?

I've just (much too late) started reading Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? and think that maybe everyone should read it. It's written in a funny way though, being superficially accessible but assuming a fair amount of background knowledge and quick comprehension. He brings up relativism, for instance, but then refuses either to define it or to argue for or against it. He seems fairly sympathetic, but it's hard to tell. Mostly he seems to think that talking about it is a waste of time. But then why does he bring it up? Never mind, we're on to the next topic: the point of talk about social construction. As far as I can see (I'm on p. 16) the book is written for a general audience, but a general audience either with some familiarity with the people and ideas Hacking talks about or else without any concern to understand the references he makes. What kind of audience is that? Perhaps the rest of the book explains things more, or else avoids references to Sartre's early work, etc. It's relatively easy reading, and seems like a good aid to cultural literacy, but I think my students would be lost. Is there anything similar but better?

Speaking of books that everyone should read, Jon Cogburn writes:
I think Kaufmann is an underappreciated treasure, especially for ninteen year olds. His Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ is up there with Ray Monk's The Duty of Genius, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, and Magee's The Philosophy of Schopenhauer as easy to read philosophy books that would be required teen reading if I had my druthers.
And elsewhere (although I can't find it now) he has suggested that everyone should be familiar with the critiques of religion presented by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. (If he didn't say this then I will.) But what exactly should people read by Nietzsche? As far as I know he didn't write a nice 20-page "Right, here's what I think about religion" essay that teenagers could read and understand. If everyone ought to know what he thought, though, then it would be handy to have some version of it to give to people who won't (or haven't yet had the opportunity to) study his work more seriously.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what else should everyone read? I'm thinking especially of lucid, accessible, reliable critiques of influential ideas and ideologies. Partly I'm thinking what I should try to get my students to read, but partly also I'm wondering, if I've missed Hacking (whose book I was at least aware of), what else might I have missed? And someone with a slight knowledge of Derrida's work recently asked me how Wittgenstein's related to it. What should someone like that (an interested non-philosopher) read? I'm tempted to tell people like that just to give up, but that's not very friendly, and they aren't likely to listen. So is there a decent Philosophy of Language for English Professors book out there? (That's not an English professors = dummies joke. The friend who asked is an English professor, and he's not alone in being interested.) Or perhaps these books don't exist and I should be writing them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Rape culture

[UPDATE: I expect everyone knows by now, but for the record see also this.]

If you haven't yet read this article about rape at US universities then you should (and then see this followup). (Also see this.) When I was an undergraduate a typical party involved bringing and guarding your own unrefrigerated beer (no one was rich or generous enough to provide free drinks for other people), possibly having a conversation or two with people who turned out to be no more interesting than the friends you had gone with, leaving once you had drunk your beer, and wondering why you had expected this party to be any different from the others. In the US there are fraternities that provide unlimited free drinks in a country where most students can't legally drink in bars. Drunkenness ensues. So does sex. And violence, especially sexual violence.

The Rolling Stone article focuses on the University of Virginia, where I got my PhD, but the problem is nationwide. We had a discussion this past week at VMI with students from Washington & Lee University about sexual harassment. Apparently it is common there. (It happens at VMI, too, but we don't allow fraternities or alcohol on campus, which I think makes it rarer.) At UVA when I was there some fraternities had a reputation for rape, but they won't be closed down unless specific allegations are proved. This is hard because rape is often hard to prove, because victims are especially discouraged from prosecuting in these cases (do you really want to harm the university's reputation?, do you know what this will do to your reputation?, do you want never to be invited to another party ever again?, etc.), and because the fraternity members all stick together in defense of their "brothers" and against women who go against them in any way. The only people I know who defend fraternities at all are people who were in one when they were in college and who point out that not all frat boys are rapists, that fraternities typically do charitable work as well as throwing parties, and that being in a fraternity provides an ineffable bond of brotherhood whose value can never be appreciated by outsiders. It is about as clear as it ever could be that the bad of fraternities outweighs the good. But universities won't get rid of them because parents and alumni support them, and these are the people who provide the money that keeps universities going. As with gun control, large numbers of people are prepared to accept violent crime against young people for the sake of the very dubious benefits of their own preferred way of life.

Lowering the legal drinking age to 18 would surely help, but something called rape culture is also said to be to blame. It is not clear what this idea amounts to. Part of it, I think, is that we live in a culture that is too tolerant of rape. Which is to say that rape happens in our culture, and happens far more often than it should. This is true. But part of the idea also seems to be that rape is a product of culture, so that to blame specific rapists is naive. It is more important, perhaps not more urgent but at least closer to addressing the problem at its root, to attack rape-friendly aspects of culture, such as rape jokes and pornography. This, I think, is less true, and perhaps not true at all.

I don't mean that rape jokes are OK. It's more that getting rid of rape jokes will not necessarily get rid of rape. Perhaps rape jokes make rape seem more acceptable to people who might commit or help cover up rape. But perhaps they don't. And perhaps it's more a case of actual rape making rape jokes, etc. more common than vice versa. Jokes about rape are neither funny nor sensitive to the suffering of rape victims. So I'm not defending them. But putting a stop to them will not necessarily do anything at all to reduce the amount of rape that occurs.

Focusing on rape culture rather than rape might therefore lead to efforts going in the wrong direction. It has other likely effects too. It makes the issue one about what might be called texts (jokes, movies, etc.) rather than people and how they treat each other. (Enter the theorists...) It also greatly increases the number of people who can be condemned. (Let slip the dogs of war...) In doing these things, i.e. making the issue one for theorists and one that directly involves far more people, there is a risk of watering the problem down. If it's a theoretical matter how concrete can it be? And if it's about offensive jokes, etc. then it certainly seems less serious than when it was about rape and only rape.

So I sympathize with this kind of statement from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network:
In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.
While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions. 
I sympathize, but I'm not sure I agree. Amanda Marcotte responds to the statement I just quoted that:
This doesn't make sense. People who use the phrase "rape culture" do not deny that rape is a matter of individuals making the active choice to rape. "Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes. Instead of recognizing this, or, at the very least, just not bringing it up at all in its memo, RAINN instead bashes a straw man, arguing that the focus on "rape culture" diverts "the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions."
What's at issue here, it seems to me, is whether, or how, useful the idea of "rape culture" is. Does it help us refer to the way that rapists are helped by those who make excuses for them, or does it move our focus from where it belongs? I suspect it does both, i.e. it has both good and bad effects. Whether it does more harm than good is an empirical question that I'm not in a position to answer. Marcotte points out some of the good the term does:
The bill addressing sexual assault in the military that passed in December demonstrates the impact that "rape culture" as a concept has had. Most of the provisions—disallowing commanders to overturn rape convictions, making it a crime to retaliate against accusers, and giving civilian defense officials more power in prosecuting rape—stem from a new understanding about the way that a rapist's friends and colleagues will often give him cover and protection and blame the victim for her disruptive accusations.
There is a difference between the kind of provisions listed here and the much broader cultural features that critics of rape culture often condemn. For instance, Marshall University's Women's Center lists both "sexually explicit jokes" and "refusing to take rape accusations seriously" as examples of rape culture. The former, it seems to me, are not necessarily bad at all, while the latter is extremely bad. Mixing both types of behavior together seems both likely to be unproductive (although I can only speculate about this) and confused (because it shows no recognition that there are different degrees of badness here). The same website says that "rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population." I don't deny that there is some truth to this. But the primary victims of rape are rape victims, not all women. And it seems especially unfortunate that a kind of rape metaphor (holding in a subordinate position) is seemingly used to explain the badness of rape. The primary evil of rape is the evil done to its victims, not the consequent psychological and social effects on women in general. (Which is not to deny that those effects exist and should be taken seriously.) If we did not already understand the evil of literally holding someone in a subordinate position then we would not understand the metaphor apparently presented to explain the effects of rape on society at large. There is an implicit recognition here, in other words, that what is primarily bad about rape is not these effects. They might exist, and they might be a real problem, but we do not need to be warned about them nearly as much as we need the kind of reminder of the horror of rape that the Rolling Stone article provides.      

I've gone off track. My main point was meant to be simply the fact that our culture appears to be more rotten and dangerous than most of us realized. My secondary point, though, is that the way to fix this is surely to attack the most rotten points, not to retreat into language-reform and theory. By all means let's fight not only against rape but against all sexual assault, all sexual harassment, and all sexist behavior. But let's not pretend to know that cultural factors are the most salient cause of rape, or that these factors can be altered by conscious actions, or that we know how to carry out cultural surgery or social engineering successfully. A misguided consequentialism, I suspect, lies at the root of the insistence that tasteless jokes must cause violent crime in order to be rejected. And then certainty that such jokes are bad leads to unproved claims that they cause rape. We cannot prove causal claims like this. What we can do is take the kind of action that is starting to happen now because of the Rolling Stone article. And when we read essays like that we do not want to tell or laugh at sexist jokes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Vote for A Bag of Raisins


(If you want to, of course, and honestly think it's the best candidate among the other philosophy blog posts from the past year selected by 3 Quarks Daily.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hard questions

It's been a week since my last post, so I feel as though I ought to write something. I also feel that some time in my life I ought to have a go at answering some really big or hard or interesting problem. So here's a small first step in that direction. I'm not leaping into lion-taming directly but more moving towards it via a move from accountancy to banking. Still, here goes.

Four of the most amazing things are that there is something rather than nothing, that some of what there is is alive, that some of what is alive is conscious, and that some of what is conscious is also rational, i.e. capable of making sense. The first and third of these facts correspond with well known metaphysical puzzles or research projects. The second (that some things are alive) does not appear to be regarded as much of a mystery, at least in comparison with the other questions, and is generally treated as a scientific question. Michael Thompson has shown that the related question of what life is, at least, is philosophically interesting. And the fourth amazing fact has to do with meaning or language. To answer why there is meaning we would seem to have to figure out what meaning is, and that gets us into the philosophy of language. So the amazing facts closely relate to a set of questions, and these questions are fundamental in ontology, philosophy of biology (actually I know nothing about the philosophy of biology, but it seems as though 'What is life?' ought to be the fundamental question there), philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.

But the questions also seem to be closely related. Wittgenstein links the first and last of them when he says that:  "I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself." With some reluctance and/or self-mockery Michael Thompson writes that:
a life form is like a language that physical matter can speak. It is in the light of judgments about the life form that I assign meaning and significance and point and position to the parts and operations of individual organisms that present themselves to me.  
This links the second fact with the fourth, if only by analogy. And the third (about consciousness) is surely related both to questions, or matters, of life and questions or matters of meaning or sense.

So, first point: the most amazing facts about the world are not just facts but important philosophical mysteries, the mystery being in each case why this fact is the case. And second point: the mysteries appear to be interrelated in some way (albeit I have not come close to proving that the apparent inter-relatedness is real or at all important). My third point is that the questions seem to be similar in nature. "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is, or appears to be, unanswerable. So does "What is consciousness?" So does "What is life?" if I'm remembering this correctly. And I don't think that "What is meaning?" has much of an answer either.

Are these questions all somehow the same question? Or are they not the very same thing but all equally nonsensical? Or are the similarities I am seeing all merely superficial?

I have no intention of working on any of these questions any time soon, or ever really. But having written this out I may as well post it. (My desire not to post rubbish is in danger of killing the blog completely, so I'm going to try to resist it. And at the very least I have linked to work by Thompson that is not rubbish at all.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lest we forget

It has seemed to me for a long time now that criticizing World War I has become too easy. People, especially in Britain, like to point to this war as an illustration of the pointlessness and badness of war. Of course it is that, but it's such a comfortable example that it encourages not thinking rather than thinking. The tendency to act thoughtful and sad, to do the things you are expected to do during a minute's silence, without being thoughtful or sad also produces empty words. I had a student a few years ago end an email with the words, "Lest we forget!" He seemed to think that these words meant "Let us not forget" rather than "So that we don't forget." The words need to be attached to a memorial to make sense, and using them in ways that don't make sense shows thoughtlessness, the very opposite of the thoughtful remembrance supposedly intended. Of course students will always make mistakes, but now here's John Quiggin making what appears to be exactly the same mistake. Of course people who are not students will always make mistakes too, but I take this as a sign that the rot has really set in.