I recall reading in Wittgenstein somewhere (Notes on Certainty?) of his fear of insanity: isn’t it possible, he asked, that one could be insane without knowing it? While Wittgenstein may have been right in point of fact to doubt his sanity (the state of his own mental health was often unclear), the general point seems underappreciated to me. We sometimes experience disagreements so bewildering that we may even be unable to locate the source of the disagreement. Such encounters leave us wondering whether the other parties to the epistemic conflict are really sane at all. By symmetry, shouldn’t we extend that doubt to ourselves?
(Attention conservation notice: long, boring, internet drama, arguably with no moral to the story)
Readers who have not personally experienced this doubt will perhaps be familiar with the “imposter syndrome”, wherein a person who has reached a status of high office will doubt whether they really belong there, or just haven’t been found out yet. If it’s possible, say, to present one’s work at a conference and wonder: “maybe they’re just being nice to me”, one might emerge from an especially protacted, fruitless debate and realize with horror: “maybe I’m the crazy one!”
This thought recurs to me after a very depressing exchange, or series of exchanges, on a well-regarded philosophy blog. Although I had decided before I finished my undergraduate studies that I wasn’t interested in pursuing the field professionally, I still find it avocationally rewarding and like to keep in touch through online communities. I think I found the Feminist Philosophers blog through their post on the death of Ruth Barcan Marcus, whose work was very significant to me when I was an undergraduate. I shared some (kind of dopey) memories of my one personal encounter with her, and followed the blog afterwards. I think gender is interesting as a philosophical topic, and the blog also made a central point of addressing the status of women in the academy, to which it encouraged me to keep a more conscious eye in my own life. For what it’s worth, I also consider myself a feminist (or feminist-ally, or feminist 3rd lieutenant junior grade, etc.) in the sense that I think most women are done substantial injustice through sexist attitudes and the denial of opportunities and privileges afforded to equivalently-situated men.
After a few exchanges in the comment threads, I was reminded of an experience of a friend. She was trained as a philosopher, and was talking to a few students in another field. She was soon surprised to find that her questions, which she intended as signals of genuine interest in their research, were interpreted as hostile aggression. Her conclusion was that philosophers are just trained differently than other folks in the humanities, and have different norms about the comparative values of signaling support and getting at the truth. I can’t help but note a parallel to the present unpleasantness on that blog: in about a month of commenting, I was denounced as a troll, quasi-banned, and backhandedly called autistic to boot.
I found the entire affair extremely disappointing for several reasons, but perhaps most so for being accused of trolling. As I understand it, the term “troll” has a very useful technical sense which denotes a specific species of internet dramatist. A troll is one who argues insincerely, provoking pointless disputes over topics about which they may not actually care, in order to inflame emotions. On one hand, needless provocation is a pitfall to which all online communities are more or less prone, and one does well to take reasonable steps to contain it. On the other, there is kind of Nietzschean danger in making accusations of trolling, as one risks growing intellectually lazy by dismissing sincere but opposing views. The reader will probably already have guessed which scenario I think more likely here.
The first significant exchange concerned the story of Barbara Johnson, a lesbian woman who was denied Communion at her mother’s funeral. For those who don’t want to relive that thread: I noted that while my sympathies were (obviously) with Johnson, and that decent people in bigoted religious institutions should either try to change or abandon them, it didn’t follow that Johnson had a moral claim to receive Communion, just because people don’t have moral claims to participate in other people’s religious rituals as a general principle. You can read the entire sorry thing here.
What dispirited me most about the ensuing conversation (besides spending an embarrassing word count repeatedly clarifying and reclarifying a pretty straightforward view) was the near-total lack of discursive traction with most of my interlocutors. With one notable exception, I sensed a radical failure to communicate and establish basic propositions, as though we were speaking through a dimensional rift, some Achewoodesque Magical Realist Payphone. I don’t believe I ever received a response to the argument that one cannot have a moral claim that other people participate in a religious ritual with them, or an acknowledgment that this, and not some latent animus against Johnson, was the core of my argument.
The second exchange was prompted by the shamefully pointless death of Trayvon Martin, a black youth in Florida who was killed in an unprovoked shooting by George Zimmerman, a white latino community watch guard. From the publicly known facts, it seems fairly patent that Zimmerman is guilty of murder and that the police-work on the case was compromised by serious racial prejudice. Zimmerman, however, was not even arrested at the scene and currently remains uncharged.
Martin’s death was a hideous, shamefully pointless crime, and I hope that it will at least occasion renewed attention to the social and legal circumstances that must have contributed to his murder and its handling by the police. It is hard to know where to begin: stricter guidelines with meaningful penalties for the procedural police-work that was mishandled might serve to counter-act the conscious or unconscious biases of the responding officers. (Although who knows whether the responding officers’ conduct is already illegal and/or tortuous?) Perhaps a mandatory arrest law for shootings, on analogy with domestic violence calls, would do good. Beyond that lie the broader and more difficult social problems that have led to the shootings of so many unarmed young black men.
Many commenters have also found fault in Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which broadens the permissible scope of deadly force in self-defense to hold that one does not have a duty to retreat from any place where one has the right to be. Opponents of the statute claimed that the law protects Zimmerman’s conduct, or at least obstructs his prosecution, and called for its repeal. One such call was re-blogged on Feminist Philosophers recently.
It is difficult to know what to make of the argument. The law’s drafters have claimed that it doesn’t apply, since one cannot claim self-defense in circumstances of one’s own provocation, such as Zimmerman’s. Though I’m not a lawyer, that sounds about right to me. If the law does protect such conduct, however unlikely, then it obviously requires amendment.
But clearly, I think, if a public appeal is made to strike the law, then it is apropos to discuss the law and consider whether it should be stricken or not. Opponents are concerned that it could enlarge the set of justifiable homicides, and therefore enable more murders and/or hinder their prosecution. Throw in a racist society, in which courts are more lenient with white murderers of black victims, and the result is a law which licenses more shootings generally, and disproportionately endangers black victims. At least, I think that’s a fair reconstruction of the argument.
I am still undecided as to the argument’s merits. One can see the prosecutorial appeal of criminalizing as many homicides as practically possible, even if it might imprison justified shooters at the margin. For example, a parent’s warning that “I don’t care who started it, next time you’re both punished!” can be effective in keeping the peace even if it risks blaming the victim of a sibling’s aggression. Paraphrasing Don Corleone, a narrow right to self-defense embodies the hope that ‘violent confrontations don’t happen to people who go to jail for violent confrontations’.
On the other hand, there are many scenarios in which the narrower right results in literal victim-blaming. Many activist groups historically have relied on the right to challenge violent intimidation with deadly force instead of retreating; resistance to rape raises a similar question. Bringing such shooters, themselves the imminent victims of crime, to court and trying to determine whether they tried hard enough to flee strikes me a poor outcome as well.
The point, at end, is that the law might be good or bad (I am still unsure, but lean towards bad.) If Martin’s death leads indirectly to the repeal of a bad law, then that is one piece of good to emerge from the tragedy. It is all but incontrovertible, though, that the law does not shield Zimmerman in this case, since Zimmerman has no claim at all to self-defense, not even a narrow one.
These are the points I tried to offer at Feminist Philosophers. Soon, comments on the same topic were deleted, and my complaint about this got me stuffed into the moderation queue.
I’m genuinely dismayed by this. I talked over beers today with my best friend from high school, now a Gender Studies Ph.D. student, and my fiancee, a former English major now teaching at a Title I school, hoping to put my Wittgenstein-style doubts about my sanity to rest. It would be pointless to repeat their testimony (“Well, my friends agree with me!…”) but I took stock in my friend’s observation that groupthink is not just what our opponents do, but a real and constant epistemic threat to which all of us are liable. I was also reminded that all three of us grew up in online communities, and variously outgrew some of them as they changed or we changed. I should remind myself that I found value even in those I left. I’m still not sure who changed this time, but I never wrote anything I can’t live with.