Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Unbelievable


Occasionally, for my sins, I spend a bit of time with some work to which I am fundamentally unsympathetic. This paper, "The Unbelievable Truth About Morality" by Bart Streumer, has been my most recent act of atonement.

Streumer's site mentions that it is "written for students", and indeed it is lacking a certain tediousness (or fastidiousness, if I'm feeling generous) that often characterizes the hair-splitting gotchas one often finds among the analytic clan. It is a very short precis of a book called Unbelievable Errors, which (to give my own gloss*) defends the claim that all (!!!) normative claims are effectively false (I would have said "meaningless," if I were playing the author's game, and this may or may not be important) because there are no "normative properties" and therefore normative claims cannot ever truly ascribe such properties to any acts. This claim is literally unbelievable (he says), because among normative claims one finds not only such sentences as "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" or "Act such that the maxim upon which you act could be willed to be a universal maxim," but also things like "You should believe this because...". Streumer engages, in short, in cheerfully sawing off his branch; but then he goes on to argue (!!!!!) that this unbelievability should count as evidence for his account being true. And he thinks this unbelievability is a good thing (no, I'm not kidding, he says "we should welcome it", which is a normative claim on (arguably) two counts) because it prevents the theory -- wait for it -- from undermining morality.

Yes, those are normative words in that last clause -- "should," "count", "evidence".... and oh yes, "true" and "good" as well. Yes, this is also my summary, but it is effectively what he writes.

In short, the paper irritated me. But the damndest thing kept happening, as I sat with my irritation. I kept thinking about it. I couldn't just set it aside, or (better) crumple it up. Nor was it just that I needed to nail down every last bit of what was irritating, in a sort of someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet bout of can't-let-it-go. For all that it made me scribble "No!" and "What?!" and "Is this coherent?" in the margins (and I am very sparing with accusations of "incoherence" -- one of the most over-used critiques in the business), I couldn't help but feel the paper was doing something right -- in the very moves that were irritating me, but more in the very esprit of the thing. (Yes, even analytic philosophy has esprit.) To be sure, one can pick apart the moves like "moral claims ascribe 'properties' (e.g., "wrongness")...", or say that these already miss the point, so that once you've begun this game, you are bound to wind up saying something perverse. I think that's true too -- but that's also not really the issue I was getting at. Perhaps a bit perversely myself, I felt as if Streumer has actually come weirdly close to something apt.

This is not just because of certain moves he makes along the way with which I am in agreement (e.g., he argues against non-congnitivism in morals -- he insists that a claim like "theft is wrong" means more than just a hearty and insistent emotional disapproval of theft -- as if it was thoroughly paraphrasable by something like "Theft -- ugh! how could one?!") I do agree with such moves, but that is just as incidental as my disagreement with others. He says something close to what Wittgenstein says in the Lecture on Ethics -- effectively, that ethics can't state meaningful propositions -- but he seems to say this in a blithely blasé way, as unlike the spirit of Wittgenstein -- the most morally serious of 20th c thinkers -- as I can imagine. I'm maddened by this but also feel driven to keep looking at it. Streumer in effect shows how -- on his premises -- the entire space of reasons implodes, leaving one with an inarticulate shrug -- and then he says, "huh!" And goes back to.... spinning reasons. I'm down with pressing philosophy to the point of the unsayable -- Wittgenstein again -- but the spectacle of Streumer whistling past the graveyard makes me crazy -- and yet, again, sort of fascinated. It's a remarkable instance of philosophy going wrong. There's something I admire about it, even -- the way I admired Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A hugely ambitious project of showing how ones project need not be undertaken, and yet everything just keeps going along.

Obviously, I do not think things can be left here; but, sophistry or not, there is something about the strong counter-intuitiveness that I like, even if I feel the conclusions (including that there can be no "conclusions") clearly cannot stand. You don't have to agree -- Streumer after all says you cannot -- but when paradox gets this spelled out, there's something fascinating going on. ("Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense," Ralph Barton Perry wrote, "let us make the most of it.") Streumer concludes -- again, in my own gloss, which he might take issue with -- that we hold whatever conclusions we hold for no reason, because there can be no "reasons". This "for no reason" conclusion of Streumer is an epistemological cousin of more than one ontological claim. Meillassoux holds the same thing about "why is there something rather than nothing," and one recalls as well Heidegger's citation (in The Principle of Reason) of Angelus Silesius -- "the rose blooms without a why". This is also what the SS guard told Primo Levi at Auschwitz -- "here, there is no why" (Survival in Auschwitz p 29). I am not the first to note this parallel, but it ought to give us pause -- the fact that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao should not lead us into embracing just any absence of names. Philosophy must strive to rightly apportion our articulation and our inarticulateness -- which means, also, our struggle with the question of "right apportionment."

* Obviously my depiction of Streumer's project is, let us say, tendentious. And obviously I'm not walking anyone through the actual steps of his argument here. You want that, you'll have to read the book, or at least the paper. But while I have not worried much about giving every little nuance, I hope that I am not misrepresenting anything.

Friday, October 5, 2018

What I hope I would say


After enduring the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing last Thursday and Friday, with its ghastly and endless train of grandstanding, bluster, frothing indignation, tawdry scrounging and manipulation, all following one of the most painful and obviously heartfelt accounts of trauma I'd ever heard (and I used to volunteer on the Rape Crisis Line), I tried to shake it off -- it was one of those awful feelings for which the phrase I feel like I need a shower was made -- and headed to work at school. In the hallway, heading to the classroom, I bumped into a coworker. I always like talking with J. She's wise and deep and is very well apprised of the costs of trying to do your best. A veteran of many personal and political struggles for a decent society and a better deal for people who are left out, she has seen her share of setbacks and small victories, and knows what the long haul looks like. "How's it going?" I asked her as we passed in the hall. J. takes her time with most questions, but it seemed to me she was extra deliberate about answering this one. "Well...," she said at last. "I'm OK. Considering." There was no question what was being considered. But I was unprepared for what happened when she asked me, "And how are you?"

I said, "I'm -- ". That was all that could come out of my mouth. Suddenly my throat clenched, my eyes stung. I stammered and tried to form words, and then just looked at her helplessly, tears coming down my cheeks. Until that moment, I had had no idea those tears were even there. I was so grateful to her for being a person who I knew intuitively, without ever having thought about it, that I could show that to -- so that I could feel it myself. I'd known I was appalled. I hadn't known I was so sad.

This is what hasn't lifted in the days since -- an unremitting sorrow for the whole wretched mess. What Christine Blasey Ford showed us is just how broken and tangled and sharp and many are the pieces of what had been a working system of governance. How? By stepping in front of a committee that was one-half hostile, one-half eager to have her story for its own purposes, and saying:
"It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell the truth."
In other words: I'm not going to do your job for you; I'm just going say what happened.

As I thought back on her testimony -- what even those who would most like her to just go away have been forced to accept as transparently credible -- and on Judge Kavanaugh's statement of denial and his subsequent answers to questions, I found myself coming back to variations on this phrase of Kavanaugh's:
"Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time, but I have never done this to her or to anyone."
This is certainly what Republican leadership is retreating to: casting it all as a case of mistaken identity. And it is astonishing how quickly it took hold. For the first short while after Dr. Ford testified, it was evident from the reactions of even the pundits on Fox News that everyone had felt the force of her quiet self-possession and honesty. Within a day or so, though, this “we-believe-something-happened-but-just-not-like-that” narrative had taken root and driven out the emotional connection. To find this line even remotely believable, you have to dismiss the calm “One hundred percent” certainty with which Dr. Ford identified her assaulter. To reject it, you just have to ask yourself: what are the chances of a woman forgetting who attacked her? Really?

But the scenario kept worrying me -- as clearly it is meant to. It sows the seeds of "plausible deniability" for those who need to look (to voters? To themselves?) like they are listening to women and care, no really they care, while still getting the confirmation they want. To work, it doesn't need to be believable: it just needs to insinuate doubt, to provide cover. This supposed plausible deniability is what I want to seriously interrogate, by a thought-experiment.

Many think that Kavanaugh's obvious indignation and anger have disqualified him by showing him to be somehow not judicially impartial enough. I'm less sympathetic to this argument (on its own), because innocence has a right to indignation -- the argument casts Kavanaugh in an unwinnable situation -- but one hopes, in anyone of maturity, for a capacity to measure their real anger with real responsibility. Much stronger, but also much less spelled-out, is the argument that what we saw and heard in that statement and in those answers just did not look or sound like the stance of someone innocent. "Stronger," because it relies on what everyone can experience for themselves in re-watching the testimony; but also, obviously, subjective, and fraught with danger. Neither such judgment, nor any evidence that has been publicly produced, is sufficient to convict in a court of law. That's a good thing; and of course we need not be trying here to establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." Still, a growing chorus is saying, Look, the man just sounds guilty. I can and do share this judgment; but I'm also troubled by it. (Almost without exception it correlates with ideological opposition to Kavanaugh, which just overthrows any possibility of impartiality.) How do I know what guilt "looks like"? And what am I comparing it to? What would someone who was innocent actually sound like? What could such a statement be? I kept wondering.

So I tried to write one.

I've tried to imagine the raw and frightened but still responsible maturity that could say, This is false, but it must mean something that it has been said, and tries to engage, without reactivity, in light of that. It is a frankly Utopian exercise. But if Judge Kavanaugh had said something like this, things might feel differently now -- less broken, less vicious, less sad.

False accusations of assault are rare. I am entertaining a counterfactual, but not because I consider the scenario plausible. It beggars the imagination to try to come up with what could motivate Dr. Ford to lie, and the line that Republicans have retreated to -- “she's got the wrong guy” -- is a last, desperate, disingenuous defense. But concluding this implies that I can answer the question, OK, but what would count as a plausible statement from a wrongly-accused defendant? If you can hear Judge Kavanaugh's answers and say, That just doesn't sound innocent, there must be something you have in mind that those answers are not doing. That's what I have tried to imagine.

I wrote the first draft of this at white heat, and it's still not perfect. Probably it is not perfectible. I thank the women who have been my sounding-board and sometimes strongly cautioning editors as I thought out some revisions. A lot wound up, well-lost, on the cutting room floor. I should acknowledge that for some, including for three of the friends I asked, the very idea of someone "falsely accused" is itself just plain wrong as a hypothesis for this moment. Worries about this and other possible objections made an earlier draft of this introduction three times as long, but I'm trying not to be preemptively defensive.

The piece is also counterfactual in other senses -- in particular, as one friend who read it said, the speaker seems impossible. "There is no such person,” she said; “you've written a kind of woke saint." That may be; but if this post has any relevance beyond its occasion, it's in this picture. For the record: I am in no way as "woke," or as "saintly" (if those are the right words), as the speaker in this piece. Probably I share his faults, though.

*

Mr./ Madam Chairman, members of the committee,

With your permission I would like to address the bulk of my remarks primarily to N., who has named me as her assailant.

N.,

What happened to you was awful and unacceptable. You may not believe this coming from me, but it has to be said and cannot be said enough. You should not have had to endure that -- the fear, the shame (completely unwarranted yet real), the ongoing effects of trauma. You should not have to be reliving it now. No one should. You may not feel that I have the right to say this to you, but I feel it so strongly: I am so sorry that that happened.

I am not the person who assaulted you. I don't know who was. I so badly wish I did.

If I were that person, I don't know if I would have the courage to face you. I would be ashamed, and afraid. Even as it is, I am afraid, and confused, and, strangely, I also feel a kind of shame, for the ways in which I am implicated in a world where this happens. I don't know exactly what to do.

I am not your assailant. But I know that I'm part of the society where you were assaulted. It's a society that says -- and believes it means -- that this is not OK; and yet churns out a continuous stream of stories and pictures and songs that objectify women, glorify male sexual prowess, and eroticize violence, on scales large and small; that rewards men with sexual access to and dominance over women, and punishes women for complaint. And like that wider culture, I myself have both criticized this message, and yet benefited from it; there are ways in which I've even worked with it. Many people know on some level that it is wrong, and yet we feel somehow powerless to reverse it.

I do not believe that we can make our society perfect, or perfectly safe; but we have been woefully negligent, in part because we lack the courage or imagination to try to change it; in part because its arrangements profit some people (and I am such a person in some ways); and in part because we've looked away from the costs. The costs are real, and borne by real people. You are one of them. The assault you endured is an unacceptable cost.

I never imagined that the sexual violence of our culture, both real and sublimated, would one day put me in this position. It is a rude awakening; and to be sure, this sort of thing happens rarely enough. But what happened to you is different. Although it could not have been precisely predicted, its general likelihood could have been foreseen. It is part of a pattern that has gone on for generations and is reinforced by media, social and cultural mores, and convenient selective ignorance. This is what makes assaults like what you endured inevitable; why they are continuing; why they will happen today, this same day I am talking.

I know that you understand the gravity of the charge you've made; that you aren't gratuitously attacking me or trying to ruin my life. You are as sure as you can be that you are telling the truth, and doing the right thing.

You should not have to be quiet about being assaulted; and you shouldn't have to apologize for coming forward now. And if it is hard for you to believe what I am saying -- or maybe even frightening for you to hear it, or impossible for you to take it in -- I hope that you will be able to later. In the same way that you have to say, "This happened to me and he did it," I have to say, "I did not do it." Not "I'm not that kind of person," just, I didn't do that. I do have to say this -- even though it won't make a difference to many, many people.

After this, my name is going to be under a cloud, likely for the rest of my life, and possibly after my death. A few people will stand by me unquestioningly, to my astounded and infinite gratitude. But most people, even people who know me and respect me, are going to wonder,
Did he do that to her? Some of them will never say this aloud to me and I won't know, but I will wonder too. Others will cut me off forever, politely or not. I am likely to be denied many opportunities, starting with this job; and I'll be turned away from things I have hitherto enjoyed. I don't think you are bringing this about maliciously, casually, or unthinkingly, but it is true.

I don't think that this is fair, but it doesn't have to be fair. What happened to you was not fair. You've lived with it every day since then, and it must have had an incalculable effect on you -- I suspect that it's wrenched the way you could trust other people, what you say and don't say, how you hear songs and see movies and laugh or don't, at jokes. It's affected your decisions about what to wear, where to go, how late to stay out, what to eat or drink, how you feel when you are alone. You must have been blindsided by the memory of it over and over again.

It is so strange and saddening to me to think that in all of those memories of yours, my name and my face has been mixed up.

I did not do this thing to you, but I am angry that someone did, and I want to help you if I can. Since I am possibly the last person you want help from or could accept help from now, I have to put my efforts to work at bettering myself, and society at large, and leave any offer to you open without expectations. But even though I didn't ask for this to happen, chance has put me in your way, and this brings me a responsibility, as surely as if I happened past a frozen lake where you had fallen in. I don't know just how to face this duty to you carefully and responsibly, but I know that just being indignant is useless and will make things worse for both of us.

I want to understand why you think the person who assaulted you was me. I am not perfect -- I have sometimes treated others badly, and I have sometimes been selfish, and sexually selfish, in my treatment of women. To them I apologize, again, right now. But I still have to ask myself whether something I have done has made it possible for
you to see me as the likely culprit. I ought to learn from that if I can. It's very frightening to think about. I don't like looking at it; but it's part of the work that is ahead of me.

If you ever think you can face me in person, I will agree to meet you under circumstances of your choosing, with whatever other parties. If you just need me to hear you speak and not answer, I'll do that. I hope that you can also hear me speak to you but I won't assume that. This is a standing offer -- and request -- freely made.

Now I want also to address the person who did this to N. You may not know who you are; but if you are watching these hearings, I think you might be wondering, and able to guess. Maybe you know very well. Whoever you are, I know that, unless you have no feelings at all, you are experiencing something complicated, confusing, and frightening. Probably you are feeling stunned right now, like me, but also very, very differently from me -- a mixture of terror and relief, guilt and disbelief, and terrible shame.

You know that what's going on now is not right; that I ought not to be standing here accused of this. But much, much more, you know that what happened then, so many years ago, was not right. On some level, even if you have successfully "forgotten" it, it's been burdening you ever since.

You didn't mean for this to happen. But something can still be saved from it all. I promise you that if you reach out to me, the first thing I will say is
Thank you for being brave. No one else needs to be publicly shamed. We can work out the truth away from political agendas and media scrutiny. It will take a lot of hard work and good will. N. has been doing that work for years and years now. Don't you think it's time you got to it? I know you know what is the right thing to do.

To everyone else: About the job. Yes, I really, really wanted that job. Yes, I am sorry, frustrated, shocked, and at a loss. If you were hoping to see me appointed to this position, if you are disappointed too, I assure you, you are not as disappointed as me. I ask you, please, find some other outlet for your disappointment than belittling of those who report sexual assault; something other than spouting venom at your political opponents. If you want to make sure this doesn't happen again, please put your efforts towards addressing the cultural premises that make sexual assault so common. Our culture is deeply dysfunctional. None of us are entirely blameless. But sometimes there are victims whose experience is out of all proportion, and in this situation, I am
by definition not the first of these. There are other ways and other roles in which I can do my best. In any case, the job is very far from the most important thing here, for me. It was a great honor to be considered; but there are other good people for the job; I'm the only person who can do this.

To those of you who remain by my side not out of political affiliation but just because you believe me and love me -- or are with me regardless, or even have decided to forgive me for what you think I might have done -- Thank you. I don't blame you if you wonder, if you have your moments of doubt. But I am so grateful for your loyalty, beyond my expectations or deserving. Thank you -- an inadequate-sounding response for an impossible-to-ask support. Probably you do not know how much I depend upon you in this hour and beyond.

N., I hope you hear me; I hope in time you will believe me. I did not do the thing you say I did, but I hope you will keep healing from the trauma you've undergone. I hope we can reconcile, and I hope we can find out the truth; but I know I cannot make that happen by myself. Above all, I hope that we -- all of us -- can keep doing the difficult and real and crucial work, work that is hard but ultimately rewarding and repairing, of overcoming the conditions of culture that make sexual violence so common. As a nation, we can do better than that. Human beings can do better than that. I'm going to do my best to look to what I
can do.