Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A bad epistemic approach is anti-humanist, unwise, and unkind

I’ve been writing about the debate, such as it is, surrounding the alleged racism – of intent or neglect – of Charlie Hebdo.

I’ll repeat briefly the major point I’ve been making for the past several days: that I hate the approach that many people with basically good motives seem to be taking, which consists of a hostile-prosecutorial attitude that begins by assuming the worst, even on the basis of the most skeletal evidence and biased reports, and proceeds through various stages of half-listening to and then minimizing or dismissing evidence that contradicts or at least challenges the original impression.

Not the history of the publication and its political commitments or those of its staff, not the statements of the people who created and published the images, not their courage in defending blasphemy and going after the Right and numerous sacred cows, not the local context in which the images were created or viewed, not the history of French satire, not CH’s public reputation which would shape people’s interpretations, not films in which the artists describe their intent in producing particular images and the efforts to preclude their misuse,* not indications of the critic’s own ignorance – nothing, it seems, is enough for the self-appointed judges to pull back on their determination to smear Charlie Hebdo. The goalposts are moved again and again: from actively and openly racist to neglectfully employing racist tropes without concern for who might be hurt to insufficient efforts to make it impossible for others to misrepresent the images or use them in a harmful way. This last is simply an impossible standard, especially for a satirical magazine with a small circulation which works within local traditions and comments on current events.

I’m angry about this because it’s callous and disrespectful toward people who were killed for defending blasphemy and who stood for many of the same leftwing values as those attacking them – opposition to racism, challenging the powerful and the sacred, freedom of expression,… I’m also angry, and this is related, because it’s an epistemic affront. Any assessment of this sort should begin from a neutral position and rely on the totality of the evidence, evaluated fairly and reasonably. (I shouldn’t have to say, but annoyingly I’m sure I do, that this doesn’t mean approaching every situation as though we have no knowledge. In many cases, we have extensive knowledge of people’s motives and past actions and their context. But this is just my point: whether we have preexisting knowledge or have to discover it, our evaluations have to be based on evidence. This is equally true in cases in which we conclude that something is racist or sexist and those in which we conclude the opposite.)

We should always acknowledge our level of ignorance. If this is insufficient to form a conclusion, the answer isn’t to jump to one on the basis of the limited and probably biased information we do have, but to remain silent while we make an effort to get more, which we’ll also evaluate fairly. And we should be especially scrupulous when characterizing people who aren’t around to defend themselves. I think we’d all hope that this would be the approach taken to evaluating our own public statements.

It seems to me that I and some others are sort of caught between two camps, one which is trying to claim us or exploit our arguments and with which I want nothing to do, and one which I generally consider “my” camp but which is showing some confusion in this instance and responding to legitimate concerns in a counterproductive and disrespectful way. In the first camp are the people who not only claim to defend the right to free speech but view the debate as one between truth-speaking free-speech defenders and the forces of political correctness, the SJWs (that’s Social Justice Warriors, for those who don’t have their Bigot’s Guide to Pejoratives handy). These people don’t care particularly whether CH is racist in intent or effect, and are even happy if it is. They want to use the debate as a club to bash social-justice advocates and to push the point that all forms of speech anyone finds offensive, and therefore all objections to offensive speech – be they from feminists, anti-racists, far-Right Catholics, or Islamists - are basically the same.

They also have an interest in distracting from and pushing the discussion away from a reasoned analysis of the evidence. Indeed, in many cases, they are not arguing in good faith. As Sartre described “the anti-Semite” in “Portrait of the Antisemite”:
The antisemite has chosen hate because hate is a religion: he has originally chosen to devaluate words and reasons. Since he then feels at ease, since discussions about the right of the Jew appear futile and empty to him, he has at the outset placed himself on another level. If out of courtesy he consents momentarily to defend his point of view, he lends himself without giving himself; he simply tries to project his intuitive certainty onto the field of speech.

…Do not think that antisemites are completely unaware of the absurdity of these answers. They know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because while putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good argument but of intimidating or disorienting. If you insist too much, they close up, they point out with one superb word that the time to argue has passed. Not that they are afraid of being convinced: their only fear is that they will look ridiculous or that their embarrassment will make a bad impression on a third party whom they want to get on their side.
This is an important issue, because we waste time and energy if we try to argue in good faith with people who are playing like this, and go awry when we allow their approach to determine our own. They’ll make claims they don’t believe if they think it will help them to score points. They’ll intentionally take the words of social-justice advocates out of context to misrepresent them. They’ll mockingly twist ideas like “intent isn’t magic” to smear people as racists, sexists, and so on. They’ll also argue that stated intent is absolutely true and all-important if that better suits their purpose.

On the other side are the people who do actually care about bigotry and its effects. Unfortunately, I think this group has begun to take a path that distracts them and helps the bigots. There are probably a few reasons for this wrong turn: One is that social-justice advocates are generally the victims of bigotry or their defenders. Moreover, in many of these instances, bigots have publicly made false claims about their motives and these have been believed – and magnified in importance - by the ignorant and credulous. Third, arguments about limits on the significance of intent, dog whistles, collateral harm, social location and privilege have proved useful in helping people understand some of the dynamics of racism and other forms of bigotry. And finally, there is the correct recognition of the dangers posed by the group described above.

Being in this position in so many cases can, I believe, make it more difficult over time to see things from the point of view of someone facing accusations of bigotry. I’ve seen glib, callous, dismissive responses to attempts to show the people at Charlie Hebdo as thoughtful, complex human beings concerned about social justice, even if those pieces of information are relevant to the topic of discussion. Recent history has led people to assume a certain dishonesty and evasiveness among those accused of bigotry and their defenders, and often to read explanations of intent and context as defenses of bigotry. While this is often the case, it can’t be assumed, and should be avoided in those instances in which we either don’t know much about the people accused or have good evidence that they oppose bigotry.

It can also make people forget that such accusations are serious and can do real harm to real people (in this case to people’s legacy and to their colleagues and families). Even if you haven’t had the terrible experience of being falsely accused of something (as I have – and I still appreciate those who came to my defense not because we were on the same side but because they recognized the charges as empirically false), you can try to imagine how it might feel. At the absolute least, if you make an accusation which you later learn was false or greatly exaggerated, it’s just basic decency to acknowledge that fact, apologize, and try to stop reaching conclusions before you have enough evidence, rather than simply to change the subject. I think most of us would want that for ourselves.

With regard to the more general arguments, while useful in many cases, they aren’t always applicable or useful. Sometimes they’re downright strange. To present an image as racist and then immediately conjure up “intent isn’t magic” when it’s pointed out that the image was a criticism of racists is silly. To assume the point of view of a hypothetical person viewing an image without any knowledge of context or intent and assume that person would be harmed is seriously biased against any producers of satire or sarcastic writers. It reminds me of the accusations gnu atheists have been dealing with for years, and of the similarly excessive demands to demonstrate beyond a doubt the strong effectiveness and lack of negative effects of our efforts while faitheists aren’t held to the same standards, and the similar lack of recognition of the harm of what we’re contesting.

The danger, and thus the fear, in this and other cases is that our arguments will be turned against us and used to support bigotry. I think this is a real and not an imagined danger, especially given the history of the bigots. Political communication is vulnerable enough to misinterpretation, and cynical and unscrupulous people can and do exploit that vulnerability. CH’s humor has clearly been misunderstood and misrepresented, and it’s evident that people who produce words and images have the responsibility to try to obstruct the worst misreadings. And I’ve already seen people trying to appropriate my arguments for their anti-social-justice agenda, and heard people suggest that the concepts behind catchphrases like splash damage, intent isn’t magic, and so on are invalid. I believe that people who engage in these debates also need to try to avoid having our own arguments appropriated in this way.

Again, the fear of this appropriation and misrepresentation is reasonable. However, some of the attempts people have made to avoid it rest on a false impression of my approach. Neither I nor anyone else I’ve seen making similar good-faith arguments is suggesting that concerns about unintended effects or collateral harm are bogus or irrelevant; that the stated intent is always the real intent; that the author’s stated intent is the sole determining factor of the impact of a work of art; that no one should critically assess CH; that the people of CH are perfect beyond reproach; that everyone is required to reproduce the cartoons or to declare their solidarity; or that our solidarity indicates that we agree with every single thing every single person at CH has ever done.

What I am saying is that we owe the people at Charlie Hebdo an approach based on fairness and a genuine attempt to understand; to learn more about their work, their choices, and the images in context and to resist the tendency to jump to conclusions based on weak evidence. I think that’s what we’d all hope for ourselves.

In an important sense it’s a lot like the problem with “moderate” and social-justice-oriented religion. Superficially it seems a valuable approach even for nonbelievers. But a bad epistemic approach will always come back and bite you in the ass; in the long term such an approach never serves humanist goals. It might appear in any individual case that a biased and accusatorial approach protects you against credulousness and appropriation by bigots, but in the long run it will always work in their favor. And in this case it’s unkind.

* As has been described in several places for example, Cabu, in drawing the “It’s hard being loved by jerks” cover, intentionally bled the text “Mohammed, overwhelmed by Islamists” into his headwear so as to make it harder for people to cut out the text in order to misrepresent the cartoon. Of course, some people still did, and with full knowledge of what they were doing. There’s no way you can protect any satirical image from this sort of misuse, and these images have been vulnerable, as we’ve seen, both to Islamist provocateurs and rightwing racist provocateurs. Even in context some people will misunderstand or see what they want to see, and one of the more poignant moments in the film is when a text message arrives declaring “Kill the jerks.” But this is not evidence of negligent racism. The evidence is overwhelming that they weren’t negligent in this case, but very thoughtful and careful.


  1. Thank you for this awesome piece.

  2. I want to thank you for this intelligent and well-articulated post. Many people I've seen on the internet are far, FAR too quick to jump to conclusions and label CH as racist bigots. They fail to see the context of CH, as a relatively small satirical magazine, borne out of the 1968 student riots and as part of a larger French tradition.

    I have also seen this trend of saying "intent isn't magic", as if intent does not matter at all. Of course intent matters, if it does not it means that a publication must take into account every possible reader of the publication to not offend any one, which is a dubious goal in itself. It's clearly an absurd line of reasoning. Anyone that writes in a public space knows the community being written to, what is tolerated and what the audience will understand.

    Like you, I have found myself stuck between those who defend CH but fires up under the flame of xenophobia, and left-inclined people that are anti-racist but condemn CH as a racist, bigoted publication. The intelligent people of CH have been portrayed as loudmouthed, low-brow opressors by certain debaters!