Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Problem With White Supremacy

The problem with white supremacy is the supremacy, not that it is white supremacy in particular.

I could not agree to that statement without reservations. These reservations arise because the way `white' is used as an identity marker can vary from community to community. In at least some cases -- for instance in the work of Sally Haslanger; it's also very common in cultural studies and swathes of the humanities, as well as activist circles influenced by these traditions --  `white' more or less picks out `people at the top of a local racial hierarchy'. Understood in this way then the initial statement might look like it's objecting to concreteness in analysis, objecting to focussing on an instantiation whereby a particular group of people have power, rather than an abstract form of supremacy as such. This, though, is not what I mean to agree to -- I don't want people to pay less attention to the particular mechanisms which underlie or uphold white supremacy, far from it. So since my readership includes people who use the word `white' in a manner that ties it to political domination, I cannot just agree to the opening statement.

There is, though, an interpretation under which I think it says an important thing that ought guide and shape our political action. This is the interpretation under which the opening statement is pointing out that swapping out one ruling class for another is not progress; it's moving sideways on the moral arc of the universe rather than forwards. When I say it would be a good thing to end white supremacy this is not because I think there is some other group of people who are properly to be given the arbitrary advantages, domineering power, or generally favourable position in a hierarchy, that white supremacy currently affords to some citizens. It is rather because I think that nobody should have those arbitrary advantages, nobody should enjoy domineering power over others, and I reject hierarchical modes of social organisation as completely as I can (subject to my own biases and oversights).

This came to mind recently when reading and reflecting on certain practices in leftist circles that I have very mixed feelings about. These, roughly, take the following form -- in conversations about matters related to race, the saying goes, white people need to `take a seat'; and generally acquiesce to what they are told. For an instance of the genre see here. Relatedly, faced with critique (calling out or calling in) for doing some troubling thing, it is for members of the dominant group to apologise and attempt to repair the damage they have caused, not ask for clarification on what they did wrong or attempt to defend themselves. This latter is less explicitly defended -- but I've observed enough cases of people accused of wrongdoing asking for clarification and being told in no uncertain terms that `it's not my job to educate you' or that the request for clarification is a further error, or people finding that attempting to defend themselves leads to general communal condemnation and acrimony.

Why the mixed feelings about this, and what is the relation to the initial point? First, I think there are people in these spaces who do not support these deference mandating norms, and people who do. Of the people who do endorse unequal treatment, there are  (at least) two classes of people. The first class explicitly and consciously endorses these norms because they've thought about the effects and have come to the conclusion that  these norms are instrumental for egalitarianism -- to get from where we are now to a better state, we are going to need (or at least it would be very helpful if it were the case that) a great many white people to suddenly divest themselves, or otherwise be divested whether they like it or not, of a lot of social power. One way to achieve this would be to normalise these different power relations in activist circles. The goal, then, is to get the relevant people used to suddenly having much less power, and vice versa to get people from traditionally marginalised groups used to suddenly having more power; all in a relatively controlled environment. For this first class, unequal treatment is something they would advocate for in these spaces because ultimately they believe it serves the goal of egalitarian relations in broader society. I am not sure if I agree to this strategy, but I can see something to it, and people who have done far more activism than I seem to think there is something to it. I respect their judgement, and trust these people to intervene or work to change the norms when they are no longer useful.

However, I think there is a second class of people who are responding to and deploying these norms without it being part of an explicit plan towards the aim of egalitarianism. For these people, the fact that the white folk are subject to these norms effectively becomes a license to indulge one's will to power. Now is a chance for them to gain the ability to domineer, to arbitrarily order about and sometimes even humiliate, members of the dominant group -- the tables turned, revenge shall be theirs, and a more congenial hierarchy is finally instantiated! I'm inclined to be supportive of the first group of people, while I do not support the second. However, given that it's hard to tell these two groups apart, I overall feel ambivalent toward the norms themselves.

Let's focus on the second group. Lacking explicitly egalitarian goals, this latter group, I take it, can end up supporting just what the opening statement is meant to rule out. It is no political advance at all to simply change who gets to dominate who. To parody a bit: I would not want to replace white supremacy with a beautifully diverse rainbow of oppressors, nor would I want to see white supremacy replaced by some kind of rule by the saints, wherein the woke may dominate the problematic. What is more, I think these norms can, if we are not careful in how we deploy them, generate a kind of servility in people, where they become accustomed not to having reasoned acceptance of claims and a sincere commitment to anti-racism, but rather a pledge to defer to members of a favoured class; a kind of faith-seeking-understanding in their attitude to anti-racist thought. This way lies dogmatism and a dead doctrine, rather than a living tradition. This may not seem a problem if it was just the white folk doing it (maybe the white folk in many Western societies should just be a bit more servile than they typically are when it comes to reasoning about race relations) -- but these norms don't just go for white folk talking about race, they go for any instance of a demographically dominant group reasoning about a matter related to which they have an advantage. We all of us fit under the category `demographically dominant' for some axis or another, and axis of advantage and disadvantage encompass all of social life. We all thereby grow accustomed to being servile, conversation becomes a matter of working out who to defer to on what.

For all that, I really do see the practical or instrumental advantages in something like the norms discussed. The first class of people really do seem to be on to something, even though I think the second class can badly misusing the opportunities for power this norm creates. How, then, to retain those advantages, serve those ends of acclimatising members of a dominant group to relinquishing power, without thereby enabling domineering behaviour, or inculcating servile frames of mind? Of course there are no easy answers, but I wonder if philosophy might help.

Philip Pettit has done much work outlining the Republican ideal of freedom as non-domination. A nice summary can be found here, with the key definition being:

Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

A good Republican society is one in which we minimise or eliminate dominating power, we make it such that nobody has dominating power over another. I think we can take this and use it as the basis of self-conscious norm creation for activist circles. What we should like is norms for interaction that both acclimatise people to reversals of socially typical hierarchies -- which allow the black folk to tell the white folk what is really up rather than vice versa -- but which also do not allow for dominating power; in particular that do not allow for arbitrariness in application.

While there are difficulties defining exactly what counts as arbitrary, my sense is that a lot of the problems with these norms regulating the speech of dominant groups arise because they are effectively unconstrained in how they may be applied. I think we can agree we are in a situation that involves dominating power: in at least some circles one person or group can simply dictate to some others what is to be taken as the relevant consequences of these norms, and what is more can declare what counts as violation of these norms in a manner that cannot be challenged.  How do we go about removing this dominating power? I think having the Republican ideal in mind when self-consciously framing norms for how we communicate and interact with each other, and in particular framing them in such a way as to make it much more difficult for there to be arbitariness in application, may  be a path forward for trying to shape norms for members of dominant groups in activist circles. I do not know exactly how this would go, and even if I did I would prefer to just offer this as a starting thought and trust in people to reason their way to the better norms themselves; this is just where I think we should begin.

Finally, I want to stress something, lest I be quoted against people who I am actually in great sympathy with. My attitude here might seem like I am being harshly judgemental of people in the second class -- I accuse them of wanting to dominate and humiliate others, surely disreputable desires. But it is well to remember one's own position. While I am a black man in a white dominated field -- I am relatively light skinned, and generally rather meek and soft spoken thereby arousing less of that absurd superstitious fear from white folk than is typically aroused by black men with an otherwise similar build, I grew up in quite a racially integrated environment (South London represent) in a racially integrated family, and my profession and lifestyle grant me a far greater degree of personal autonomy than is typical under capitalism. To summarise, relative to the class of black people in white dominated fields, I am somebody who is least likely to face the kind of pressures, strains, and daily experiences of visceral discrimination that might make the chance to turn the tables so tempting. I would not want, and in any case would have no right or standing, to judge those who, faced with these pressures, use activist spaces to avenge themselves on a world that mistreats them so. The harsh critique of these folk I see from some quarters strikes me as coming from people even worse positioned to judge than me. There but for the grace of God go I, and I do not forget that.

(Lots of thanks to Yuzuko Nakamura for helping me write this post!)


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Conservative Under-Representation in the Academy

The topic of conservatives in the academy has recently gained a lot of attention -- for instance see here. There has been much gnashing of teeth over whether or not conservatives are somehow repressed or otherwise under-represented in the academy. I think this is a bit more diffuse a phenomenon than has been made out, and I think a lot of the works in the genre are either awful or just crude propaganda. So, I think I can do better, and in particular do so with the help of some distinctions because that's how philosophers roll. I begin with a (non-exhaustive) typology of (British and American) conservatisms.


  • Risk-Averse Conservatism: the basic idea here is that societies are very complicated things indeed, and lives are on the line if we mess up. As bad as things are now, we may still want to be very cautious in reforming things; because short of a state of Hobbesian anarchy they could always be much worse, and our ignorance of the nature of society is such that we are disturbingly likely to blunder into the bad state (or at least a worse one) should we try to interfere with the present order. People in this group are likely to say `Chesterton fence!' more often than a randomly selected member of the population, will probably have read Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, maybe also take inspiration from some of what Oakshott said in critiquing rationalism in politics (I don't know Oakshott as well as I should), and if they are a bit historically aware maybe also the Tamworth manifesto. Looking at this list, it seems like a peculiarly British tradition of thought? That probably just reflects my education!

  • Libertarian Conservatism: this is probably the form of conservatism most familiar to philosophers who are most of my reading audience, so I will say least on it here. Just a note on why I do think (contrary even to some of its proponents) it is properly classified along with the rest of the conservative genre. I take a lot of the spirit of libertarianism to be pacifistic: the underlying emotional core is that coercion is a very bad thing -- one cannot permissibly reach a better state in a way that involves violating people's liberty or engaging in some involuntary coercion (maybe there can be voluntary coercion in some kinds of sexual practice or if I make a binding agreement against future changes of mind -- I don't want to enter into that here). We really should walk away from Omelas. This quite naturally introduces a kind of status quo bias: it makes it harder to move away from wherever we now find ourselves. So, yeah: Rand, Nozick, Hayek -- you know the drill here.

  • Western-Civ Conservatism: comes in (at least) two very sociologically different forms, though I think outsiders often class these together. There is a shared belief that there is something about Western Civilisation which makes it very special and worthy of promotion and protection and special reverence, at least from those of us in the West. There is then disagreement about what the source of this specialness is. The (a) group think that what makes it special is the racial constituents of Western Civ -- the fact that it was distinctively European, a group whose peculiar biological stock make them especially good at civilisation building, or at least a group whose peculiarities are such that unless we act to protect their contributions via some sort of racial selection in who gets to occupy positions of power, cultural esteem, or maybe just physical presence in nations, we shall lose their extremely valuable contributions to world life. Folk arguing for this are effectively the intelligentsia of the alt-right, who have recently occupied so much of our cultural attention. The (b) group are more institutionalist, and usually focus especially on religious and Christian institutions. Some ideological innovation that just happened to occur in the West allowed for massive and special and superior progress to occur there -- maybe it was the Catholic Church, maybe it was Calvinism, maybe it was capitalism or the right kind of property arrangements, maybe all of the above -- and it is vital that we preserve this, preferable that we expand it, for this is the source of the goodfullness and superiority of the West. I see both (a) and (b) Western Civ Conservatism types online -- and they actually get into very heated arguments; this is a difference which doesn't look that significant from the outside but seems (as far as I can tell) to be felt as deeply meaningful from the inside. Both (a) and (b) to some extent represent very traditional lines of conservative thought in the West, but are currently undergoing somewhat of a renewal so it is not yet clear who they will claim as intellectual ancestors -- e.g. I see Weber appealed to far less than I would have guessed given the character of what (b) types say. In any case, a safe bet is that folk in group (b) will have a very high opinion of Aquinas but a more directly relevant intellectual expositor is Weaver, and group (a) must surely see Spengler as some sort of forerunner, though I am a bit less certain of this.
To clarify, I don't think these are always kept entirely separate -- in fact one of my more controversial-among-anyone-who-would-care opinions is that Anna Julia Cooper mixes Risk Averse Conservatism and Western Civ Conservatism (and then both (a) and (b) types) in her thought, in ways that are generally under-appreciated. I just think that these are logically separable ideologies in a way that can make a difference to this debate. Ok, that said, now a few notes on this. First, I think Libertarian Conservatism is pretty well represented in the academy. Tendencies towards it are pretty common in business schools and economics departments; Nozick is required reading in political philosophy; my more thoughtful leftwing academic friends generally cite Hayek's `The Use of Knowledge in Society' as one of the most insightful challenges to their position out there. This is also, mind you, the form of conservatism that is closest to liberalism. But in so far as the claim is that there are just no forms of conservatism that get any love in the academy, I think this falsifies it.

Second, I actually agree that the Risk-Averse Conservatism doesn't get enough attention or due respect in the academy. It is not that I agree with the kind of social philosophy that tends to result from it, and I think that with effort one can generate the sort of considerations characteristic of it even as an outsider. But, it's a set of considerations worth taking into account when one advocates for social change; there are actual examples of disaster following from not being significantly aware of this point. People generally make their own best advocates, so it is worth having about some inclined to think this way, and in any case we could at least make some texts from this tradition required reading -- they do not seem to be the kind of thing that one just encounters as part of a liberal education, and I think that is a shame. I don't think this tradition is actively suppressed, I think people literally just do not so often think about it. 

Third, there is a strand of thought that I have not included here and that some might think I should -- something like Realist Conservatism, whose advocates might be a certain-reading-of Thucydides, Han Fei, or Carl Schmitt. The underlying thought here is something like -- the world is a fundamentally amoral place, one has simply to act effectively to achieve one's goals in a more or less ruthless fashion without any expectation that righteousness or justice shall be rewarded or even noticed. The problem for me is that I have never really understood why this is associated with the right; certainly there have been conservative proponents of it, but I don't think it is such a stretch to put Lenin or Mao in this tradition either (I think Mao actually was a fan of the `legalist' tradition that Han Fei fits into?) and I think that telling. 

Fourth, I do not claim that the above typologies represent the underlying psychological bases of adhering to any of these positions. I think it quite possible that desire to maintain certain gender relations, for instance, is highly significant in determining people's thought towards Risk Averse Conservatism -- but I think there is none the less a difference between the role this plays in that kind of defence of conservatism and, say, the role it plays in Western Civ conservatism, where it can often be an explicit part of the platform. I am trying to track that difference in ideological form, rather than make a claim about political psychology.

Fifth, there is something interesting about the fact that Risk Averse and Libertarian Conservatism are not straightforwardly tied to a particular cultural form, whereas Western Civ is obviously so linked -- though I left it vague what exactly the Western Civ people see as ever so valuable in, well, Western Civ; this because I have not yet been sure myself from reading their stuff. I am focussing on stuff one encounters in the British and American academy or broader society because that's where I know, but I think one can generate analogous arguments to the Western Civ conservatism in other places. Indeed, from what I know of Confucianism and its role in modern China (which in both cases but especially the latter is very limited!) my impression is that not only can one generate some notable equivalencies, but that even the division between (a) and (b) types might reoccur. Note that I said that the first two are `not straightforwardly' tied to a cultural form rather than just ruling out because: one might think that attitude to risk or the value placed on non-coercion are themselves culturally determined, or subtle expressions of cultural conditioning. 

Sixth, I think that it is overwhelmingly Western Civ, and especially but not only type (a), that people are complaining about when they talk about Conservative under-representation or repression in the academy. This for two reasons: in one direction, I think it is the form most likely to actually get one shouted down or cast under social suspicion for advocating. While I don't think Risk Averse Conservatism is well represented, I would be shocked if one got in serious social trouble for arguing that after all social reform is difficult and we should be very careful when we change this that or the other law -- whereas I would not be surprised if one is not so welcome in polite society for trying to advocate that one just so happens to be part of the master race. In the other direction, I do think it is just that kind of disaffected übermensch stuff that people most often point to when they want to say that conservatism is under-represented (I've seen a surprising number of apparently sincere people engage in things that I am barely parodying when I summarise it as: ``The untermench are mean to me when I try and point out that maybe I am the master race!'' One can't help but feel that if they were really that über of a mensch they probably wouldn't be so easily thwarted by tepid statements from the American Philosophical Association.) 

And the problem here is that Western Civ, unlike the other two, rests much more heavily on contentious empirical claims. I think that a lot of people on the left (and many also on the right in its other forms) think that they are justified in not crediting Western Civ (a) especially for just the same reason that they are justified in not giving creationism more representation in biology departments -- it rests upon refuted empirical claims, and the academy simply has no general duty to take seriously demonstrably false claims. All the more so, one supposes, when said claims tend to result in serious harm towards people, since there is at least some reason to think there is a historical link between advocating Western Civ positions and genocide and colonialism, and I see relatively little recognition of that or clear differentiation from such murderous projects among people online advocating for Western Civ type (a) or (b). I think it is for similar reasons, for instance, that one finds very few academics advocating Stalinism or Maoism, and one suspects that they would soon find themselves unwelcome in polite society if they did so. I think if members of this group want to be taken more seriously they would do well to first focus on the latter project of differentiating themselves from historical projects of mass murder, since it will be hard to gain a hearing while people see Leopold's Congo somewhere downstream of one's position.

(A friend of mine points out to me that Western Civ (b) type gets some representation in legal theory through this text being required reading, and that Divinity faculties may also contain plenty of people who would agree with Western Civ (b) type. Good points both, and even further complicates the notion that Conservatives do not have representation in the academy!)

So there we go. I think that ``Conservatives are under-represented or repressed in the academy'' is neither straight forwardly true nor false, and must rather be evaluated against a more fine grained under-standing of what conservatism amounts to. Once one does so one sees that the point at which it is most plausible that there is repression is the point at which one might think it is reasonable given general academic norms, but that is not to say I have no sympathy for the position that we ought to take more seriously certain strands of conservative thought.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Schlick's Utopia

Moritz Schlick--  "The 11th
Doctor stole my look."
Sometimes, when philosophers are bored, we get to describing Utopia. A little known fact about one of my philosophical faves (#NoFaves?) is that he indulged in this pass-time.  Shortly before he was murdered in 1936, Schlick had prepared a manuscript for what was to be the basis of a book on social and political philosophy. Drawing entirely from the work of Hubert Schleichert, I'll give a quick summary of Schlick's views on the perfect society. I think it reveals a very different side of Schlick to the one philosophers are familiar with. (How on earth would you verify these propositions!?) Note that I am describing without endorsing - I'll say a bit about what I think of it at the end. It's a long post today!

Schlick starts from the assertion that
There is nothing in our European civilisation that causes more grief than the state. Under it we suffer most.
He then tries to analyse why this is and what we could do to make it better. He has two main reasons for thinking that the state is the source of so much misery:
  1.  It is very difficult to disassociate yourself from a nation state you do not approve of or which is oppressing you. We are forced by the historical accident of where we are born to suffer things which we would never willingly endorse.
  2. The organisation of the world into different territorial states makes war far more likely - we are primed to think of those within our borders as co-citizens, whereas the state is protecting us from those without the borders. They, the foreigners,  must therefore be our enemies.
The first of these reasons is a familiar reaction to what is known as the "social contract" tradition in philosophy. A common philosophical thought has been that a just state is one that rational adults would agree to have govern them - a state is good just in case, all things considered, we all agree it is in our best interests to keep it around. Well, as many many people have gone on to point out, maybe we don't endorse the states which actually exist at all! Nobody ever actually gives us the chance to accept or reject the existence of the state we live under. Even in democracies all we get to have some say over is: who runs the state, not: should there be a state at all? So if what it takes for the state to be justified is that we reflectively endorse it, doesn't that mean that all the states which presently exist are unjustified?

The second of these reasons, though, is a bit less familiar. Per Schleichert's interpretation, Schlick is also responding to the social contract tradition here. A benefit the state is often argued to confer is protecting us from the inevitable chaos which is supposed to follow life without a state. The classical statement of this comes from Hobbes' Leviathon:
Hobbes - "You got the wrong guy!" 
"During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. 
To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues. 
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The state (a "common power to keep [us] all in awe") is meant to solve this by doing violence to anybody who would upset the common peace, or at least credibly threatening to do as much. Since the state will crush anybody who steps out of line, we can all go about our business confident that the threat of anarchic war of all against all has been avoided. So in so far as we all want to avoid "continual fear, and danger of violent death", and in so far as we'd prefer our lives not to be "solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short", we'd all do well to reflectively endorse the state which protects us from this.

However, Schlick was not satisfied with this. Because he noted that not only is the state meant to protect us from those who would do violence against us at home, but it is also meant to meant to protect us from those in other states. Foreigners, after all, are people who have not entered into our social contract - they are precisely the sort of person who state is mean to guard against, per the social contract theory. So just as the state maintains the peace at home, it must prepare for war abroad - and all the peoples of the world who were not born within the same territory as us are reduced to potential enemies. Against this, Schlick noted:
Terrible as they are, one has to acknowledge the fact that civil wars usually do not claim as many victims as wars between states with separate territories have, i.e. between hostile countries.
So, Schlick concluded, we would not endorse states as they exist now on grounds of security. Sure it makes civil wars less likely - but they also make foreign wars possible (and also likely), and those tend to be far more destructive when they do occur.

The solution Schlick proposed was "territory-less states". The common problem in (1) and (2), Schlick felt, was the fact that nation states are tied up with particular territorial areas. This allows for a clear boundary to be drawn between "us" and "them" - this leads to the mutual suspicion which underlies (2). It also means we are grouped together on an arbitrary basis, and it makes it costly and difficult to change state, which is the problem in (1). So, Schlick proposes, we should all organise ourselves into states on some basis other than physical territory. For instance, on the basis of political convictions. In his own words:
In such a case there would be no countries in the usual case, but political organisations, the members of which would live scattered over all continents. Each of these invisible communities could have its own laws and costumes, its courts, police and state form. There could be invisible republics and monarchies, but the presidents and kings would not rule over territories, but only such people as voluntarily belong to their state. Since human convictions can change, it follows from the very principle that one can at any given time move from one organisation to another.
... What does that mean?

Well, since he never got round to actually writing the book on account of being murdered, it's kind of hard to know what Schlick had in mind. Schleichert offers as an example of groups that might be like this the Catholic Church and the Jewish diaspora (though neither are perfect examples). There are rules and rituals associated with participating in these groups, there are even penalties which people will pay despite their being no external control. It's not quite so easy to associate or disassociate with these groups as Schlick imagined for his ideal states, but we can at least imagine something close to them where somebody could join and leave at will. Another good example might be political parties - most of my readers live in nations with different political parties which strongly disagree about how we should govern thins, but which (for the most part) manage to mingle together in peace. In Schlick's utopia, all the socialists could live under their own rule, so could all the capitalists, so could all the fascists, and the theocrats.... etc. They wouldn't have to separate out and live apart, just make it clear who belongs to what state, and associate with each other appropriately within a shared space. It's very vague - but, hey, getting shot to death by Nazi-sympathising students can do that to your clarity, so I don't blame Schlick for the idea not being fleshed out.

So, what do I think of this idea? Well, surely the first thing that comes to mind is how impractical it sounds. What happens if two groups disagree about who gets to use a particular building at a particular time? Schlick, apparently, loosely gestured towards there being a world government for settling disputes between nations - but nothing about the League of Nations (or its successor the UN) gives me much faith in that idea for maintaining peace. And securing peace and co-operation between peoples seems to pretty clearly be Schlick's main goal here. What's more - sure (I'll grant) wars between states are worse than civil wars, but the fact that civil war seems much more likely to afflict me than wars between nations seems to be a relevant consideration that Schlick didn't consider. Finally, much of what drives Schlick seems to be an anticipation of what is now called the "contact hypothesis". This is the idea that if you spend a lot of time mingling with people from groups you wouldn't normally like you come to appreciate their humanity more, and so become less prejudices and hostile towards them. As Schlick put it himself:
Attempts at secession and isolation prevent peace and the development of an international morality. Morality is always a product of living together.
But from what I know the evidence regarding the contact hypothesis has been mixed at best; so this is far from a secure foundation upon which to build utopia.

So I think Schlick's idea is not really implementable and founded on some questionable sociology. Despite this, though, I must admit I have some sympathy for it. Schlick, writing in 1930s central Europe, came to the conclusion that belligerent nationalism and group-identities founded on arbitrary properties like ethnicity were an evil that should be got rid of. In his own words
Living together on the same territory, taken to the principle of belonging together, gives rise to all such evils which dog our divided world the most.
Will I not prefer a thousand times more to cooperate with a reliable Chinese of good character than with an egoistic, insincere European? 
Given how things turned out, who can blame him for the sentiment? And Schlick sometimes expressed himself in passages which seem vaguely mystical, but are for that rather inspiring:
Only good will can be the ultimate principle of unification; the state that is established in this way is the true state of god. 
People of good character, the kind and peaceful, belong together "by nature"; they form the invisible state of god, civitas dei.
Sure, it's vague and seems very naive. But it's also a beautiful sentiment. It surely becomes a philosopher to dream such dreams aloud.

(I spoke about the philosophical tradition of Utopianism. But it should be noted that Utopian thinking also has strong, and far older, roots in the Jewish religious tradition. This tradition has been taken up by Christianity - and, I would presume though I know less, Islam. Various texts in the Scriptures describe a world where where the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. We will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with us. There will be fair judgement between the nations and the peaceful resolution of disputes for all peoples. Swords will be beat into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will we train for war anymore... etc. I think the imagery in the religious tradition is more striking and more beautiful than the philosophical tradition, with the possible exception of Plato, has tended to be.)

Augustine - "I am in the religious tradition mentioned,
and Schlick is referencing me with talk of "civitas dei""

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Intersectional Alienation

Anna Cooper - ``Liam is a fan of how
generally disappointed with everyone &
everything I seem to be in this photo.''
A long time ago me and some comrades -- the magnificent Dan Malinsky and the terrific Morgan Thompson -- got together to discuss intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory is a set of ideas that has recently gained prominence after influential work by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the origins of which is often traced back to work by Anna Julia Cooper. It stresses the various ways in which the fact that we simultaneously occupy multiple demographic categories can complicate or undermine social theories that attempt to focus on the consequences of just one demographic category at the time. Examples of allegedly insufficiently intersectional approaches to studying social life are feminist theories of patriarchy, or Marxist theories of class oppression -- the charge of the intersectionality theorist is that something very important is missed out by neglecting the fact that we are not just workers, or women. We are, say, African-American working class women, or Japanese upper-bourgeois immigrant transmen, or.... etc. (In fact the charge is often more specifically that: what happens in non-intersectional theorising is that the most privileged sub groups within the relevant category end up having their perspective and needs taken as representative of the whole: so the slogan goes that when theorising about race and gender, we end up acting like ``all the women are white and and all the blacks are men''.)  What is more, there is usually an eye to policy or activism (often especially as it pertains to the oppression of black women) in light of our knowledge; it is a branch of theorising with a distinctly pragmatic or political bent -- the point is not just to understand the world but to change it.

Malinsky - ``Liam is very very confident
that I am not going to be happy with the fact
that Liam described me as `terrific' above.
But if I don't like it I should probably just
start my own blog or maybe stop always
being so generally terrific, so it's not like I
really have grounds upon which to complain.''
Well, my comrades and I are all broadly interested in methodology in the human sciences, and are interested in various matters relating to social or political organisation. Morgan Thompson brought to our attention the fact that for certain intersectional claims, ones that she was interested in testing in spheres of mutual interest, there was no agreed upon methodology for testing them on large data sets. What is worse, as we looked around the sociological literature, it became apparent that intersectionality theorists have often been charged with failing to offer a coherent methodological perspective, and there are even claims out there to the effect that this methodological slipperiness is effectively letting intersectionality theorists dodge falsification of some of their characteristic claims. So, we thought, here was a chance for us to advance our own research and also use our skills in a way that might be beneficial, and we produced a paper outlining means of adapting certain statistical tools so that they are appropriate for represent and test characteristic claims of intersectionality theory. The paper was eventually published earlier this year, it's called `Causally Interpreting Intersectionality Theory' (CIIT), and it's available here if anyone wants to give it a read.
Morgan Thompson - ``OK, but how would
it even help if we had our own blogs
 though? How would that stop you writing
awkward effervescent praise? That doesn't
even begin to make any sense, Liam.''

A couple of citations to CIIT have recently caught my attention and made me think about our relationship to how our work is received. The first of these is in a paper in a journal that focusses on gender relations in the sociology of work and organisations. A section of the paper is dedicated to looking at ways of `operationalizing' intersectionality theory. They set up the problem of the section we feature in as follows:
For scholars in work and organizations, this challenge can be daunting as we need to address the two thorny issues inherent in all intersectional research design. First, to translate intersectionality theory into concrete methodologies (Christensen and Jensen, 2012) and, second, to develop analyses that interrogate intersectional paradoxes insightfully while capturing the simultaneous interrelations between the subjective and the structural. In addition, as scholars in work and organizations, we also need to engage with the reality that our discipline is dominated by a functionalist epistemology and positivist methods... 
And go on to discuss a number of methods of dealing with it. Our work features in the following way:
Recently, some scholars (e.g. Martinez Dy et al., 2014; Woodhams et al., 2015a, 2015b) have drawn on a critical realist positioning to expand both the methodological understanding as well as the empirical study of intersectionality in work and organizations. Empirical works following this approach have used quantitative analyses of large data sets to measure identities as variables, determining their interrelationships and ultimate impact on different material realities (e.g. employment outcomes). They argue that quantitative methods allow scholars to test empirical hypotheses and relationships among variables, have the potential to offer definitive evidence of causal relations, and account for non-additive relationships (Bright et al., 2016). For example, Bright et al (2016) argue that interventionism and causal graphical modelling using Bayesian statistics may provide a means for testing claims based on the intersection of certain variables. The argument for positivist, quantitative approaches is bolstered by the legitimacy and authority afforded to them in what counts as rigorous and legitimate knowledge production in the field of work and organizations.
Liam Kofi Bright - ``Yo dawg
I heard you like recursion...''
So we don't quite advocate Bayesian statistics but this isn't bad. We do indeed provide arguments for (a particular set of) quantitative approaches to studying intersectionality. And I am happy to hear that an additional benefit thereof will be helping people gain legitimacy in their field when they engage in such studies. Among the coauthors of CIIT there would probably be differences in opinion as to how we would want to relate to positivism -- but we ourselves describe our project as one of explication, so it's not entirely off. Also I strongly suspect that in the relevant disciplines ``positivist'' just means ``uses statistics'' or something close to this, so this was less an acknowledgement of our shout out to Carnap and more just a way of saying we do stats. In any case, upon reading this I was largely happy that our work had been understood, and even virtues that I had not fully realised it possessed were appreciated.

Nothing so nice, alas, can be said regarding our place in the second paper of interest. Here we play the villain. The author sets up a contrast as such:
....intersectionality has been used either radically, when it acknowledges lived experiences and context to advance transformative politics against domination, or ornamentally, to accommodate other theoretical frameworks, subsequently depoliticising and limiting its transformative scope.... This distinction is akin to debates within intersectionality over its methodology: we can identify the contrast between an additive model of political inclusion (‘adding up’ identities, differences, and experiences to ‘include’ them into a schema -1), and a politics of radical change, which dismisses boundaries and mere counting.
The `-1' in that is a footnote, which leads to CIIT's citation: ``Intersectionality has even been coupled with ‘graphical causal modelling’ – see Bright et. al. (2016)''. So here, it seems, our use of intersectionality is an especially striking example of the ornamental, merely additive, depoliticised, limited, maybe some kind of boundary enforcing, but in any case `mere counting', use of intersectionality. Not so good.

Naturally, of course, I don't agree! We actually expend a great deal of effort in the paper ensuring that the picture of intersectionality one gets is not one of merely additive difference made by considering various demographic categories; we have an extended discussion (section 5 of CIIT) about the advantages our model confers in planning policy or action designed to change the world rather than just study it; we are explicit at multiple points that we are not arguing against more qualitative methods, we are not involved in boundary policing them away. Indeed, who is boundary policing who, given that the complaint seems to amount to that we are using quantitive methods (we are among the `mere counters') in a domain in which the author does not approve of them, coupled with an objection to accommodating various theoretical frameworks?

Such, at least, was my first reaction. But when I thought about it, I came to see it in a different way. The second citation is, in some sense, the pessimistic mirror image of the first. The first cites us thankfully, thinking that by showing that intersectional theorising can be done with the kind of `positivist' methods folk in their part of gender studies value we shall therefore boost the esteem of intersectionality theory, encouraging more people to work on it and take it seriously. The second cites us scornfully, apparently taking us as just an especially outlandish warning sign of the gentrification to come, wherein intersectionality will suffer a kind of death by kindness. Sure people increasingly will pay lipservice to intersectionality, but this is at the cost of losing sight of the original theoretical goals and values that underlay it. Both papers, then, predict that intersectionality theory's fortunes-in-terms-of-popularity are waxing, and both papers cite us as exemplary of (and maybe even causally relevant to) this turn of events. But the difference between them is what they think shall result from increased popularity; pessimistically, will intersectionality theory be hollowed out, become ornamental, a mere buzzword? Or optimistically, will it be strengthened, renewed, developed to new heights?

It is much closer to our intent, of course, that our paper should bolster or advance intersectional theorising, and we ourselves do try and maintain solidarity with its original spirit by offering pragmatic defences of our explication, in terms of the benefits that may be accrued to helping guide political action. We came to praise intersectionality, not to bury it. But what these two responses to CIIT really drove home to me is just how powerless we are in this regard. The content of our paper, the specifics of the arguments we gave, seem to me just not the kind of thing that will make a difference as to whether the world goes in either of those directions. If the optimistic scenario comes about, I really doubt it will be even a little bit because people were convinced by our arguments. Whereas if the pessimistic scenario comes about, I don't think anything we have done or said in the paper will prevent our work being used in a way that renders the intersectional theorising a mere ornament. Now the paper is out there, how it is received, which (if either) of these futures shall be realised, is to some very significant extent beyond our control. Perhaps to more experienced scholars this is old hat, and in any case if I reflect on the fact-value distinction, or inductive risk, or the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification then I can probably make this salient to myself by such a priori means. But I am a junior scholar, and this was striking to me. The alienation of labour under capitalism extends even into the rarified world of academic intellectual production.

Before closing, I thought I'd just note a nice coda to all this. In that first paper, wherein we are discussed in a manner that is mostly coincident with our intent, I am listed in the bibliography as L. F. Bright. My middle name is in fact `Kofi'. The author is well and truly dead.