Nathan Robinson, (NO_ITEM_DATA:robinsonTherePrincipledDistinctionRefusingWatchAmericanSniperRefusingReadFun)


Here is my own summary of an argument I saw today that seems well worth considering:

It is hypocrisy for liberals to laugh at and criticize the Duke students who have objected to their summer reading book (a) due to its sexual and homosexual themes. They didn’t seem to react similarly when students at other universities tried to get screenings of American Sniper cancelled (a). If you say the Duke students should open their minds and consume things they disagree with, you should say the same thing about the students who boycotted American Sniper. Otherwise, you do not really have a principled belief that people should respect and take in other opinions, you just believe they should respect and take in your own opinions. How can you think in one case the students are close-minded and sheltered, but in the other think they are open-minded and tolerant? What principled distinction is there that allows you to condemn one and praise the other, other than believing people who agree with you are better?

I think that is an important and difficult question, and that anyone who does condemn the Duke students but is fine with the American Sniper ones should take it very seriously. I also disapprove of both the attempts to cancel the film screenings and the refusals to read a lesbian-themed graphic novel.

But I want to address the question of whether a principled distinction can be drawn between the two; i.e. whethere it is possible to be consistent in your beliefs if you oppose one and support the other. Whether or not such a distinction ought to be drawn, I believe it can be drawn.

If a person says “I think people should take in all kinds of material, even if they disagree with it” and then says “I also think students should refuse to attend screenings of American Sniper because it is offensive,” that person’s second proposition appears to contradict their first. If we should take in material we disagree with, but we shouldn’t take in American Sniper because we disagree with it, we’re hypocrites.

But that’s not quite what a person who holds both positions is saying. What they are actually saying is: “Generally I think we should take in lots of material, even that with which we disagree, but I also believe we shouldn’t financially support things that are racist or valorize mass murder.” Those two propositions are technically consistent.

Let’s first leave aside the question of whether American Sniper is in fact racist or a valorization of mass murder. Clint Eastwood has said he intended the film to be anti-war, and there has been much suggestion that those who are critical of it do not understand its complexities, and speak ignorantly based on what they’ve heard about it. I can’t weigh in on that because I haven’t seen it, but I’m not interested in that question. (I do, however, think Chris Kyle himself was a racist mass murderer, which is a position you do not have to have seen the film in order to believe.)

In response to my assertion that the two principles are consistent, someone might say: “Yes, but you’ve just restated the central problem: you have a general principle that people should take in a diverse array of viewpoints, but you specifically exclude from that the viewpoints that you disagree with. So the principle is worthless. It means ‘I take in and appreciate all views except those I do not hold,’ which just means ‘I only appreciate my own views.’”

I don’t believe that’s quite the case. While it is possible that “I take in a wide variety of things, except for X” draws the category of X to exactly correspond to the things one dislikes, it is also possible to have a category of X where one’s exceptions are narrowly limited to a set of true extremes.

But one of the problems here is that everything is being reduced to the vague phrase “material they find disagreeable.” As I’ve mentioned, this covers a wide set of things, and I do not think any of those questions can be answered affirmatively or negatively without further specifying the nature of the “material” we’re talking about. For each, the answer is “it depends.” After all, there is a distinction that could be drawn between a book about lesbianism and a (again, for the sake of argument) racist propaganda film. Racist propaganda hurts people, while lesbianism does not. There. A principled distinction.

“But,” comes the immediate reply, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man (a). The Christians see it in precisely the opposite way. To countenance lesbianism would be in violation of their moral code, just as the portrayal of Muslims in American Sniper might be in violation of yours. Thus, we must adopt a general principle that can be applied in both cases, or else you’re back to “things you agree with.” "

Now, I think this perspective is quite radical in its relativism. It’s radical in its relativism because it believes that neither liberal nor conservative values are superior. Liberalism is just “the stuff I agree with” and conservatism is just “the stuff you agree with.” Neither is better or worse, they are just two competing factions, the red team and the blue team.

Nobody who is either a liberal or a conservative can agree to this perspective. To accept either liberal or conservative values means believing they are something more than arbitrary. I don’t think radical relativism is a tenable position, because to accept the position “Racism is bad and should be stopped” and “All views on racism are equal” seems flatly contradictory. Unless, of course, you’re saying “I don’t personally like racism, but that has no more justification than my liking chocolate ice cream, and someone who does like racism is not any worse than me. The difference between being a racist and not being one is the difference between liking different ice creams.”

Related: Fallacy of gray.

But what of slippery slopes? Once we admit that we have to impose some of our values (even if it’s just the value of pluralism and open debate!), how do we keep from just imposing all of our values? This is what people are afraid “political correctness” does. First, liberals decide that speech calling for murder is their one exception to their general rule that speech should be free. Then, they reason that spewing racial invective is not really any better than calling for murder, so outright racism becomes an exception to the rule and is not permitted on campus. Then, saying things that are coded racism doesn’t really seem to be any better than saying things that are overtly racist, so things that are intended as coded racism are banned. Then, we realize that it’s effect more than intent that matters. If we’re interested in harmful speech, surely we should be concerned with how the listener takes something rather than how the speaker meant it. And thus can a free-speech liberal find themselves producing a speech code prohibiting any speech that could be construed as racist.

Because I fear this, too, I agree that the liberal objection to American Sniper and the conservative objection to Fun Home should be treated equally when we consider whether to either ban the thing or allow students to opt-out. But I actually disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t impose all of our values on other people, that we should only impose the essential ones that most enable the proliferation of values. Instead, I believe we should impose all of our values, but that those should just be better values. Thus, I believe there is a principled distinction between American Sniper and Fun Home, because I am a leftist, and I believe that there are good reasons why racism is worse than lesbianism. I think people who disagree with me don’t “just disagree,” but have a set of beliefs that hurt people in ways I find objectionable. And yet I have more than one moral value. I also believe that debate is good, and that the best way to deal with opposing perspectives is to hear them out, and that when we encounter different things we learn from each other. And that value is superior in my personal hierarchy when it comes to deciding what to do about American Sniper and Fun Home. By saying both should be treated equally, I’m still imposing all of my values, but I have a set of values that values freedom and anti-racism, as compared with someone whose values are limited solely to anti-racism. People shouldn’t refrain from imposing their values on others, they should just get some better values that don’t countenance totalitarian speech-policing.

I think Robinson gets it right here, with one exception. I seem to be more favorable to policies which align with limiting intolerant speech and actions (see Paradox of tolerance).

So, to go back to the opposing argument I summarized at the beginning: I think the arguer is wrong to say that we cannot draw any distinctions between the two cases. We can. One thing that is correct is that we cannot draw a distinction and be a radical relativist, which is what causes some liberal hypocrisy on this issue. I have seen it said that because liberals have made so many things off-limits for discussion, they have cleared the ground for conservatives now to do the same. If everyone is entitled to personally decide what’s offensive, then liberals have no argument when conservatives say they personally find liberalism offensive. But that’s a function not of liberals “imposing their values” but of their imposing their values on a pseudo-relativist framework, and refusing to defend the superiority of those values. If I say “Racist speech is banned because I find it offensive,” and then you say “Well, now LGBT speech is banned because I find that offensive,” then I am stuck. But if I say “Racist speech is banned because racism is harmful,” then I do have a response to you, since LGBT speech isn’t harmful.

I think it’s useful to phrase objections in ways which are defensible and its best to favor those which are more defensible. That said, I don’t think the hypothetical argument being had between the pro-racist and the pro-LGBT people is “winnable” in the way Robinson seems to present it. The winning move for the pro-LGBT person isn’t to find the right words to say. Presenting the objection that “Racist speech is banned becasue racism is harmful” and countering against the response with “LGBT speech isn’t harmful, so we shouldn’t ban it” doesn’t land, in practice, with the pro-racist. They’ll counter with “Yes, it is harmful <insert more here>”. They’ll always have a counterargument which concludes that we need to ban LGBT speech because, as I’ve seen it in most cases, the argument isn’t about finding truth based on shared underlying moral frameworks but rather in using argument as a tool to advance an agenda and the agenda (see Never play defense and the Alt-right Playbook in general), in this case, is pro-racism and anti-LGBT. Hell no.

Not to say that the right is the only team using this and similar techniques. However, like Robinson, I agree with certain political and moral positions and think it’d be best if we went in those directions.