Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Some UVa Students, Faculty "Deeply Offended" By Quoting Jefferson

This should come as...well...not a surprise at all to anyone actually.
   And really, when you think about it, isn't UVA itself, in its entirety, irredeemably flawed by its history? Shouldn't the whole thing be razed? Ditto all of Western civilization and its works, intellectual and material?
   Better take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
   Actually, as loathsome as I find these people and their crackpottery, I honestly don't know how to respond to them in a fully satisfactory way. Which means I'm not sure that they're as dumb and as wrong as I think they are.
   I mean shit, man...slavery.  I take a back seat to no one in my starry-eyed, childlike adulation of Mr. Jefferson...but damn.
   Yet, somehow, I still manage to feel unbridled contempt for the PCs on this one.
   I'm a complicated person.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost no one adores Thomas Jefferson qua racist slave owner. Almost everyone who adores Thomas Jefferson, adores Thomas Jefferson qua the founder father, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president, etc..

To endorse Mr. Jefferson, in most contexts, by most people, is not to endorse a racist character. The people who adore him are in awe of his contributions to the establishment of the United States.

If you ask nearly any American who is inspired by Thomas Jefferson (or any other seminal figure who had some detrimental moral flaw to his or her character), I guarantee you'll find that most people disavow his ownership of slaves. Most people admire Jefferson's *ideas* Or rather, they might take interest in Jefferson as a person, but without Jefferson's contributions and ideas, no one would care about Jefferson at all, I take it.

The PCs try to construe one's adoration for a particular man's ideas as an endorsement of racism, but the remedy for this conclusion *is to talk to people and ask them if they're endorsing racism* You're going to find that most people will answer in the negative. That's all the evidence you really need in this case. Of course, it's an indicator of a sad time indeed when I must prescribe that we ask people in the 21st century if they're endorsing racism, when we already know that most people aren't racist.

I'm really not sure what the PCs are upset about here. A fifth grader could figure out that people aren't endorsing Jefferson's racism.

I can't believe that I just typed all this out. It seems so...trivial.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I guess it does seem trivial in a way, A, but it helped me, anyway.

What is clear to one person is not necessarily clear to another. What seems trivial when you see it seems baffling when you don't...

So suppose our PC friends respond:

Ok, so you aren't quoting him out of a love of racism.

But he was, in point of fact, a *slave-owner*. That's like being a murderer or a rapist.
Ergo it's reasonable for me to object to your quoting him.
I understand that your motives are fine, but I object to this as a semi-official action of our shared institution--quoting enslavers--and your motives don't matter there.

I mean...I'm just thinking my way through this...as you probably realize, I' skeptical of this kind of line even as it troubles me...

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, okay you're right. I shouldn't be so quick to disparage. I'm just hazy from the election and this stuff irritates me so much.

Anyway, I suppose that I would respond to the PC that in quoting Jefferson, or anyone else, is more like quoting a particular set of ideas. The attribution to Jefferson is correct in the sense that he is the arbiter of these ideas; he penned the ideas to paper, but also the attribution serves as a convenient umbrella that picks out a set of ideas that has particular historical or social relevance, and that cohere in some manner such that its pertinent or at least morally permissible to use the umbrella as a "semi-official action..."

So it in some sense divorces Jefferson the person from his ideas. But as humans are wont to do, we lionize a particular individual for his achievements and begin with the hero-worship. It seems that humans have some profound need to fix ideas within a particular person and tradition is important to people, so we use a morally repugnant person to represent the ideas. However, I don't think that this, in itself, whitewashes the deplorable acts of such a person.

Maybe the PCs are right in that we should just go all the way and revere people who have good ideas and who were good people. This does seems more consistent, but I dunno..

Is this at all plausible? This actually seems like kind of a stretch. I'm admittedly less certain now that I've put more thought into it. I'm not entirely sure that the moral permissibility follows from this argument.

Thanks for keeping me sane here.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No yeah
(why do we--or I--say that?)

I feel ya.

I'm not sure what to say right now while preparing to lecture on Kripkenstein...but this is helpful to me, and seems promising...

It's harder than it initially seems.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Eli Barnett said...

A lot of this flows directly from the halo effect - people are deeply uncomfortable with accepting people as "partly good" and "partly bad," and this includes historical figures. We have a drive to sort people into "good" or "bad" buckets, because not being able to do this causes us cognitive dissonance, which is extremely unpleasant.

And, so, when you endorse Jefferson's ideas, in the minds of many people you are sorting Jefferson into the "good" bucket. And of course this includes *all* of Jefferson, since you can't put half of a person in one bucket and half in another.

To get anywhere with people who are offended by this, you have to first attack the notion that people need to be fundamentally good or bad, and get them to agree that it's alright to speak only of part of a person - and that is a long process that is way outside the scope of any given exchange.

What bothers me about what you call the "PC left" (though honestly I think that the term "PC" has been irreparably damaged and we'd be better off abandoning it) is not that their hearts are in the wrong place - it is not a bad thing to want to call attention to the fact that Jefferson was a racist - but rather their refusal to admit any subtlety in any issue they feel strongly about. Their sole measure of rhetoric has become "how does this make me feel," and not "how accurate is this" or "how convincing does this seem from the least-charitable reasonable viewpoint I can imagine?" This is not intellectually healthy.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

I agree with Eli.

Part 1: black and white thinking generally bad.
Part 2: beware of reductionism run amok.

So while we can generally admit that people (and ideas, policies etc.) are not 100% good or bad, we should not let that lead us astray into relativism whereby nothing is really *true* anymore, we can't be reasonable certain about some things, absolute subjectivism etc.

Because 9 times out of 10 when I argue part 1 with someone, I get back in response that I am insufficiently anchored to any core belief and unwilling to defend any firm principles. It drives me barking mad.

So while, as Eli says, the black and white thinking of PC (or insert preferred term here), is not intellectually healthy, neither is the false dichotomy of either 1) believing dogmatically/zealously or 2)having no firm beliefs.

Believing tentatively/admitting fallibility is just not allowed into the discussion. And contrary to Russell's description of what a true 'liberal' is.

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

actually last line meant to say NOT believing tentatively/admitting fallibility is contrary to Russell's description of what a true 'liberal' is.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Eli Barnett said...

Yeah, it's certainly important to make sure that, in striving to maintain integrative complexity, we don't neglect to actually have actionable beliefs, else the whole endeavor is for naught. But I do think there's nothing wrong with maintaining large error bars around those beliefs - one can (in fact, must) still be willing to act on something that they admit might be totally wrong.

The other big issue I see, which people often talk about but (in my opinion) usually not with sufficient clarity, is horrendous over-generalization of certain sociological heuristics.

I understand (and, to a large extent, agree with) the motivation behind the use of "privilege" and related language. In some situations, it is a very handy heuristic that allows you to state a fairly nuanced argument in much more tractable terms. But that's a double-edged sword: when you hide the nuance behind shorthand language, it's very easy to lose sight of when you've strayed from the situation in which your heuristic works. Heuristic can never do away with nuance - only keep it temporarily out of sight.

For example, when we call an action "racist" in a sociological sense, that can be a very useful shorthand for "the action contributes to societal dynamics that cause material harm to a group of people." But it also allows us to import the power of this argument to situations in which it no longer applies without it being obvious that is the case; it is much easier to provide a narrative that demonstrates a (often vague) conceptual link between a given action to said dynamics than to demonstrate an actual causal chain that leads from said action to material harm to a person or group of people - and, even if we can demonstrate a plausible causal chain, it is harder still to demonstrate that it is a correct description of what actually happens (the problem of "just-so stories").

I'm not sure what can be done about this, as I'm not sure to what extent this is due to people genuinely not understanding the heuristic nature of the language (and thus attaching some sort of ontological import to terms that really have no such thing), or is instead just due to people not thinking carefully enough about their arguments. There's also, of course, the issue of said language being used in bad faith as a convenient way to shame people into shutting up, but that's a separate issue entirely.

I think it's worth noting that this sort of confusion about/over-generalization of heuristic language is hardly specific to this subject - the use of teleological language in various sciences (notably, evolutionary biology) is basically analogous and suffers from many of the same problems.

10:19 PM  

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