On Being Wounded by Injustice: A Response to Stephen Hicks

Stephen Hicks offers this analysis (a few weeks back) of being wounded by racist talk. To be blunt, his argument strikes me as wildly off base. I’ve numbered each move in the argument for ease of reference.

(1) For someone’s opinion to hurt, you first have to value their opinion.

(2) Think of it this way: If you think someone is a moron, then you don’t value their opinion and their moronic views don’t hurt you. And racism is moronic. So why be hurt by a racist’s insults?

(3) If a baboon could talk and said you looked ugly, that would say more about the baboon than about your looks.

The entire argument turns on the truth of (1), but (1) strikes me as either misleadingly phrased or obviously false. In explaining why racist talk (or injustice generally) is wounding, the relevant issue is not the victim’s valuation of the beliefs of the perpetrator, but the expectations we all bring to human relations. As a basic background fact, when we deal with others, we expect them to show us a certain minimally decent degree of respect for our humanity. When they violate this expectation, they wound us, and we feel pain.

To explain: It’s painful for any expectation to be violated, whether the expectation is justified or not. The more minimal the expectation involved in the expectation, and the more egregious the violation, the greater the pain caused by violation of the expectation. If the expectation is justified, then the pain experienced will itself be justified; it will have been caused by a real wound. Putting this together: if I’m on the receiving end of an egregious violation of a relatively minimal but wholly justified moral expectation, I will justifiably feel pain at the violation of my expectation, because I will really have been wounded.

Given this, X’s racist talk, aimed at Y, can be expected to cause Y pain: it egregiously violates a relatively modest expectation of respect that X owes Y. And given the justifiability of Y’s expectations, it follows that Y’s pain is itself justified.

Now, X’s aiming the talk at Y is the paradigm case of injustice, but not the only one. If bystander Z overhears the exchange between X and Y, she too might feel pain at hearing it, not because it’s aimed at her (ex hypothesi, it isn’t), but because it so egregiously violates her expectations of how people should interact with each other that she becomes collateral damage of X’s injustice.

So Hicks’s argument not only doesn’t secure its conclusion, but is almost entirely beside the point.  Claim (1) is beside the point partly because the claim is itself false, and partly because it focuses attention on the wrong issue (or, perhaps, focuses on the right issue in the wrong way). Claim (2) is beside the point because it presupposes (1), and because the rhetorical question posed at the end of it is not nearly as hard to answer as Hicks suggests it is (I’ve just answered it above). And claim (3) is irrelevant because we have moral expectations of persons, not of baboons. A thought-experiment based on what talking baboons would say is neither here nor there, unless we stipulate that the baboons are the moral equivalent of persons–in which case, making them baboons adds nothing of significance to the thought-experiment. (Baboons may strike us as ugly from a human perspective, but probably don’t strike one another as ugly from their own. And even if a demonstrably ugly baboon called you ugly, the hypocrisy involved would be irrelevant to the deeper injustice involved.)

Ku Klux Klan Photos and Premium High Res Pictures - Getty Images
Pay no attention to the man in the silly hood

I find Hicks’s argument frankly astonishing. The issue, after all, is broader than racist talk or even racism, but applies to injustice generally. Are we only emotionally wounded by injustice if we value the beliefs or character of the perpetrator? The claim seems preposterous–at least as preposterous as any claim one finds in the writings of those supposed avatars of absurdity, the post-Modernists. Think of how much injustice comes to us from strangers about whose beliefs and character we ex hypothesi have no beliefs. Are we not wounded by any of this?

Suppose that you go through life systematically being mistreated: wherever you go, people treat you with disrespect, and fail to give you what you deserve–through little or no fault of your own. Suppose, further, that these people are strangers at the time of the initial mistreatment, so that the issue of valuing their beliefs and character doesn’t apply (only becoming negative after the initial mistreatment).

Hicks’s view implies that you the victim should in no sense be wounded by this string of events. Here, I think, we confront an ambiguity in the word “wounded.” It’s probably true that you shouldn’t be wounded by injustice in the sense of letting others’ mistreatment of you adversely affect your self-estimate, self-respect, or self-esteem, but surely there are ways of being wounded by someone’s behavior that leave your self-estimate and the like intact but still cause pain.

What kind of pain? It seems to me that systematic mistreatment might, depending on circumstances, produce a sense of disappointment, resentment, anger, grief, righteous indignation, and even rage in its victims. It also seems plausible to think that every one of these emotions is, in its proper time and place, appropriate to the victims’ circumstances. (Stoics may disagree, but I disagree with Stoicism.) To belabor the obvious, each of the preceding emotions is painful to experience. What’s painful to experience is experienced as a wound because there’s a sense in which it is one: one feels pain because one has been wounded. To belabor the obvious once again: injustice wounds the victim, even when it involves no physical violence or force. Emotional wounds are, under appropriate circumstances, both real and justifiably felt.

Consider an example from a somewhat different sphere of life. A female friend of mine told me the following story from her childhood: When she was maybe eight or nine, her school celebrated Valentine’s Day by having the children in her class exchange “secret surprises,” i.e., gifts exchanged where the recipient would not know the identity of the giver. When it became my friend’s turn to open her gift, she did so with eager, breathless excitement, only to discover that someone had, as a terribly ill-conceived joke, given her dog biscuits–the implication being that she was as ugly as a dog. She burst into tears, and wouldn’t stop crying. Eventually, her mother had to be called to take her home.

The point is not simply that she burst out in tears at the age of eight or nine, but that she felt pain at the incident when she told me about it decades later, as I did on her behalf. Nor is the relevant issue whether she agreed (however subconsciously) with the pranksters’ estimate of her looks, whether at age nine or decades later. She didn’t. Nor would it be helpful to tell her to regard the pranksters, counterfactually, as gift-giving baboons. They weren’t. The issue is that when one expects better of other moral agents, it is painful to receive much less from them than one had expected (to put it mildly), especially when what one expected was not so difficult to give. And when one deserves better, the pain one feels at receiving much less is a moralized form of rationally justified resentment–not “Nietzschean ressentiment,” as is often off-handedly asserted, but the righteous indignation that makes for survival, resistance, and the will to fight injustice in a hostile world.

Hicks’s view has no way of explaining the preceding, childish case of garden-variety injustice. At best, his view entails that my friend should have treated the pranksters as baboons, and dismissed the whole matter as a mere irrelevance, to be forgotten as soon as it happened. But they weren’t baboons. They were people, and when people commit injustice, it’s entirely natural and justifiable to feel pain at the sight or thought of it. Nor is moral amnesia in the face of injustice the self-evidently obvious course of action that Hicks takes it to be. Only those who remember injustice when they experience it, and make it real, fully grasp its nature over time, and retain a commitment to fight it in a counterfactually stable way, across decades, against the vicissitudes of fortune. To miss these facts  is to operate with a moral psychology and phenomenology too impoverished to be rolled out into the real world. My own advice to Hicks and the entire anti-cancel-culture industry he’s spearheaded would be to stop the roll out, and re-think the nature of justice and injustice from scratch.

33 thoughts on “On Being Wounded by Injustice: A Response to Stephen Hicks

  1. “her school celebrated Valentine’s Day by having the children in her class exchange ‘secret surprises,’ i.e., gifts exchanged where the recipient would not know the identity of the giver.”

    The dangers of this experiment were predictable. Anyone with any memory of what (many) kids are like at that age would not have offered them the chance to hurt each other anonymously and so without consequence.

    Liked by 3 people

    • In the introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand credits her husband with helping her to maintain an unbroken spirit “over a long span of years when there was nothing around us but a gray desert of people and events that evoked nothing but contempt and revulsion.” On Hicks’ view, why would she need such help? Would Hicks say that Rand was being irrational in letting her spirit be affected by people for whom she felt only “contempt and revulsion”?

      Likewise, in her obituary for Marilyn Monroe, Rand describes how, as she sees it, Monroe’s spirit was broken by the “swamp of malice” she encountered. She doesn’t say “why did she care about the malice of vicious idiots?” Instead she asked: “How long do you think a human being could stand it?” Would Hicks say Rand’s sympathy for Monroe was irrational?


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      • On the view Stephen is defending, I think your questions have straightforward answers: Rand should not have needed any help whatsoever, and Rand’s sympathy for Marilyn Monroe was irrational (as was Marilyn Monroe herself).

        One of the amazing things about the right-wing campaign against the Left is that while they keep telling us that they’re fighting the Left in the name of reason, reality, and justice, every battle they wage seems to require a more radical departure from just those things. My problem with Stephen’s view is not just that I happen to disagree with this particular position he’s taken on this particular issue, but that the position he’s taken on this is part of a wider crusade which just seems to me be getting wilder and wilder with each passing day.

        I don’t think that anyone within the right– Objectivist/libertarian movement really grasps how crazy their views sound to the rest of us. They keep going on and on about the irrational excesses of post-Modernism, but I honestly, sincerely don’t see how their views are any better than those they’re criticizing–and I’m not saying that simply to score some cheap polemical point, or settle old scores. I really don’t get what the hell they’re doing, or what they think they’ve been doing for the last twenty years. Virtually everything they say strikes me as an outright subversion of morality and rationality. I never thought I’d say that, but now I can’t seem to escape it.


        • I’ve griped similarly about how many Randians claim that only initiations of physical force count as oppressive or as objectionable forms of power, when the whole plot of The Fountainhead is about mostly non-force-involving forms of oppression (which Roark overcomes through superhuman effort, but which drives other positive characters like Steven Mallory and Henry Cameron to depression, alienation, and alcoholism), and the main form of power explored and critiqued in the novel is not government, but rather the mostly-non-force-involving power of a newspaper magnate (Wynand) or a newspaper columnist (Toohey).

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        • If you really don’t like “wider crusades which just seems to me be getting wilder and wilder with each passing day”, then why do you appear so sympathetic to post-Modernists?

          Your comment, “no one in the right– Objectivist/libertarian movement really grasps how crazy their views sound to the rest of us”, is wrong, if only because some of us can see that it’s just a rehash of what Rand called the Argument from Intimidation (i.e. anyone who believes X is crazy, bigoted evil, etc).

          When you say, I really don’t get what the hell they’re doing, or what they think they’ve been doing for the last twenty years, shouldn’t that be some clue that you may not be completely objective about it, if you can’t even consider that we’re not being evil for evil’s sake?

          My actual issue is that post-Modernism is a religion in every meaningful way (privilege as original sin, the experiences of different “oppressed” groups as separate realities, the determinism of Marxist historical certainty, etc) and it’s even fooled some of the libertarian left into incanting the new dogmas. 

          To me, the new religion on the rise is more dangerous than the traditional religions, so I’m trying to act as a counter-balance by leaning right, and not continuously selling-out my libertarian views to stay ahead of the woke mobs.  But I suspect that motivation would never have occurred to most academics.

          You finish off by saying virtually everything we say strikes you as an outright subversion of morality and rationality. That is only coincidentally the same language that violent lefties like Antifa use to talk about who they want to eliminate from their “oppression-free” utopia.

          Stephen Hicks ain’t the problem.


          • Your comment is way, way off topic. But let me answer it anyway.

            If you really don’t like “wider crusades which just seems to me be getting wilder and wilder with each passing day”, then why do you appear so sympathetic to post-Modernists?

            I’m not particularly sympathetic to post-Modernism, and can’t explain why I would appear that way to anyone.

            Your comment, “no one in the right– Objectivist/libertarian movement really grasps how crazy their views sound to the rest of us”, is wrong, if only because some of us can see that it’s just a rehash of what Rand called the Argument from Intimidation (i.e. anyone who believes X is crazy, bigoted evil, etc).

            My comment is not an instance of the argument from intimidation precisely because it was not an argument at all. It was an off-hand comment, on a peripheral topic, to someone who was likely to agree with me. It wasn’t offered as an argument in the context of disagreement with someone who might be intimidated. So it’s not an argument from intimidation.

            When you say, I really don’t get what the hell they’re doing, or what they think they’ve been doing for the last twenty years, shouldn’t that be some clue that you may not be completely objective about it, if you can’t even consider that we’re not being evil for evil’s sake?

            I didn’t say you were being evil for evil’s sake. An expression of exasperated bafflement is not necessarily a clue that the person expressing it is failing to be objective. People often get exasperated by exasperating things. When they do, they’re being objective. That’s kind of what I think about my own bafflement on this topic.

            I’m going to skip a paragraph and come back to it. In your last paragraph, you say:

            You finish off by saying virtually everything we say strikes you as an outright subversion of morality and rationality. That is only coincidentally the same language that violent lefties like Antifa use to talk about who they want to eliminate from their “oppression-free” utopia.

            I agree that it’s merely a coincidence, if that. I’ve often been accused of wanting to kill people, but so far, no one has made the accusation stick, and they’ve certainly done a better job of it than you have.

            None of this bears, even in an indirect way, on anything I said about the actual topic of the post. You’re fixating on off-hand comments at the expense of the post itself. This is what I mean when I say that Objectivists are at least as bad as post-Modernists. Post-Modernists are notoriously accused of giving implausibly convoluted, acontextual readings of simple texts. How are Objectivists like you any better?

            Finally, to take one paragraph out of order:

            To me, the new religion on the rise is more dangerous than the traditional religions, so I’m trying to act as a counter-balance by leaning right, and not continuously selling-out my libertarian views to stay ahead of the woke mobs. But I suspect that motivation would never have occurred to most academics.

            First of all, I don’t know why you’re bringing up what “would never have occurred to most academics.” I’m not an academic. I have two jobs. I work in hospital revenue cycle management, and I’m a janitor in a hospital operating room. My white collar job is as capitalist as any job can get, and my blue collar job is as blue collar as any job can be. No one can at this point pin the “would never have occurred to academics” BS on me. I spend my days maximizing revenue and cleaning blood and shit off the OR floor. There’s nothing “academic” about either thing.

            But if you want to see religion at work, I would suggest taking a good, long look in the mirror. Your descriptions of post-Modernism are a classic example of demonology. Post-Modernism is a vague, ephemeral, fundamentally irrelevant phenomenon, marginal even in academia, what to speak of the wider world beyond higher education. For whatever reason, you’ve turned it into an all-purpose explanation for all the evil in the world–that is, into a theodicy–and an all-purpose Satan to execrate and fear.

            The problem is, it has literally zero to do with the topic under discussion. Say what you want about them, but Derrida, Foucault et al do not concern themselves with mundane questions like, “Does injustice wound its victim, even if the victim’s self-esteem remains in tact?” That’s the question I’m addressing. I didn’t invoke post-Modernists to answer it. I just gave my own answer to it, which happens to be “yes.” What’s remarkable is that you haven’t addressed the question at all. You’ve just used a discussion of it as an occasion to bring up total irrelevancies.

            Bringing up irrelevancies is the hallmark of religious fideism: You bring up topic X for discussion, and a religious person brings up God or the Devil, however irrelevant to X God or the Devil may be. The problem with Objectivism is that over time, it’s gone from ill-developed philosophy to full-blown religious faith. At this point, virtually the only thing that sustains it is its anti-Left demonology. That’s thin gruel even by religious standards, and not long for this world.

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            • “Post-Modernism is a vague, ephemeral, fundamentally irrelevant phenomenon, marginal even in academia, [not] to speak of the wider world beyond higher education. For whatever reason, you’ve turned it into an all-purpose explanation for all the evil in the world–that is, into a theodicy–and an all-purpose Satan to execrate and fear.” Correct.

              Liked by 3 people

            • I consider myself more of an Ayn Rand fan rather than an Objectivist. I even did a show about it.

              When you say, “Post-Modernism is a vague, ephemeral, fundamentally irrelevant phenomenon, marginal even in academia” that’s a way of saying, “so there’s no need to repudiate it”

              As far as not being sympathetic to post-Modernism, do you repudiate their armed-wing, Antifa?


              • Correct, I see no need to repudiate post-Modernism, any more than I see a need to repudiate Lucifer. I leave such things to people with more time on their hands than I have.

                I don’t regard Antifa as the “armed wing” of “post-Modernism.” In any case, I wouldn’t repudiate them any more than I would repudiate General Eisenhower. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I like Antifa about as much as I like Ike, and for similar reasons. I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out.

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    • I don’t think of myself as morally naive, but until I heard the “dog biscuit” story, it had never occurred to me that someone might give someone a malicious Valentine’s Day gift. My mind was stuck at the level of the rather less fundamental question, “What if you forgot to bring a gift on the relevant day? Wouldn’t you then be free-riding?”

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  2. You are fundamentally right here and Stephen is fundamentally wrong. However, I think it is important to distinguish injustices that themselves presuppose some sort of more-basic harm to the patient/victim (e.g., you harming me gratuitously) and those that do not (or that, more specifically, are constituted by one being thought of or spoken of in a demeaning way, especially publicly). It is the latter sort of thing that is relevant to the injustice — and harm — of racist or otherwise unjust speech.

    Perhaps the hallmark of any injustice is the appropriateness of reactive attitudes (like resentment) on the part of the patient/victim (along with correspondingly appropriate speech-acts or other behaviors, like objecting or demanding apology or remediation). And also: the appropriateness of similar responses from observers and the appropriateness of agents having guilt and avoidance response to the appropriateness of the requisite patient/victim and observer responses. Because being done injustice typically involves emotional pain, and because this is an appropriate response, we typically treat injustices as harms (even if there is a narrow sense of ‘harm’ in which this is not literally true; one, from a certain position of emotional security and strength, think “but that person is an idiot” and have an appropriate response of non-painful anger or moral outrage — so that there is no emotional pain and no harm in the narrow sense). But even if we use ‘harm’ in the narrow sense, injustice (and even unjust, demeaning speech) typically causes harm and, in any case, is met with appropriate reactive attitude and behavior (corrective, remediating, punitive, etc.).

    A better “sticks and stones” line is this: as is often reflected in the law, remediating, corrective or punishing behavior is impractical and so one should, in a broad range of cases, not focus on the emotional pain (or its appropriateness) and instead train oneself to have “thicker skin.” You would have to fill in some of the variables here in order to get specific enough, but my guess is that, when you do so and isolate the relevant sorts of cases, there are good reasons for and against such a stance and policy. But we don’t want to be blind to cases like the dog biscuits on Valentine’s Day and the good reasons to go ahead with the corrective, remediating or punitive measures in such cases. It is pretty obvious that much of the “sticks and stones” advice on that one is bad (or, at best, addresses only part — and the smaller part — of what needs to be addressed).

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    • @ Michael: I don’t think I quite follow the distinction you’re trying to make at the outset.

      Both your comment and Roderick’s remind me that I stipulated in my response that as far as the cases I had in mind, injustice causes pain without affecting the victim’s self-estimate. But of course, injustice sometimes does affect the victim’s self-estimate. People internalize the attitudes of their oppressors. It’s an interesting question how to conceptualize these cases. On the one hand, I think we want to preserve the ideal of the victim of injustice whose self-estimate remains intact through virtually any act of injustice.

      On the other hand, we need a way of understanding the failing involved (if and when it is one) when a victim’s self-estimate falls as a response to injustice he suffers. Is it always just a blameless error, or can it be a culpable violation of some duty to self, or a culpable defect of self-love? If it’s culpable, the culpability involved seems qualitatively different from the culpability of the unjust person. Does that remain so if someone internalizes a self-estimate that is much worse than that implied by the injustice? Think of cases in which people commit suicide in despair over childish slights, as might be imagined in the dog biscuit example. Victims of child abuse are particularly susceptible to internalizing the message of their abusers. When, if ever, does the internalization become culpable? And how?

      Stephen’s view doesn’t make contact with this issue. It implies that anyone who internalizes the message of their oppressor has made a trivially silly mistake, easily diagnosed and easily corrected. But that’s really implausible.

      Rand seems to be suggesting that Roark is the ideal. But though I once regarded Roark as a moral ideal, I no longer do. Yes, his self-estimate is maximally stable despite the abuse he gets. But that invulnerability comes at the cost of a kind of aloof indifference to others. One puzzle of the novel is why he’s friends with Keating even to the small extent that he is. He manages to stay “friends” with Keating by cultivating almost complete indifference to anything Keating says or does. That just seems motivationally incoherent. I also don’t find the Roark-Wynand friendship, or the Roark-Dominique romance, entirely credible. So at the end of the day, Roark strikes me as more machine than man.

      One reason why Hank Rearden is an interesting character is that at first, he internalizes the injustice imposed on him, but later, he manages to break free of it. It’s interesting that Rand portrays him as vaguely culpable for having internalized the false beliefs of his oppressors. That also seems to be why Eddie Willers gets his ass kicked at the end of Atlas Shrugged. Something vaguely similar is true of Dominique in The Fountainhead and Leo Kovalesky in We the Living. Dominique doesn’t get her ass kicked, and Leo gets his ass kicked for very different reasons. But both act self-destructively because they’ve somehow internalized the message of their oppressors.

      But I think there are more nuanced depictions of the phenomenon out there than Rand’s. So maybe we should be focusing there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “there are more nuanced depictions of the phenomenon out there than Rand’s”

        Maybe so — but since Hicks is a Randian, it’s worth noting that he’s ignoring resources and nuances that are available within his own paradigm.

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      • My focus had not been on the pains or harms of negative self-estimate, but this seems central to how you @Irfan (and Rand) think of these matters. It is not central to mine, at least in this sense: I suspect that one appropriately feels hurt and resentment upon being done injustice and that this need not be a function of having a negative self-estimate. (I could be wrong. Maybe there is always an implicit or “fasting thinking” negative self-evaluation that causes the emotional pain?) In any case, the worst things that happen from these sorts of what-others-think-of-me injustices involve taking on, exaggerating and stewing in the negative evaluation — the ruined lives, the suicides — are very real. Whatever we think of the immediate pain that demeaning others (including merely through speech) can cause, the potentially horrific tragedies involve this being internalized by the victim. This kind of harm to be figured into any “thick skin” ideal that makes sense.

        (My initial distinction: (i) I intentionally shove you to the ground to get where I am going (this is unjust in part due to the injustice-independent harm caused), (ii) I refer to you with a racial slur and you appropriately feel hurt and resentful (the harm — the emotional pain — is a function of the injustice; specifically, your hurt and resentment, supposing this is the reaction, fits with the standards of appropriate attitude-type response to being done injustice). There might be similar injustice-response-related harm, some hurt and resentment, in the first case as well, but it is distinct from the harm of your being shoved to the ground. Is that clearer? I’ve been re-reading Scanlon’s “What We Owe To Each Other,” and, along the way, developing some similar-to-Scanlonian-contractualism ideas about the justice-y or normative-claim-on-others part of morality, ideas that revolve around our reactive attitudes and the standards that, like the standards inherent in belief, apply to or are constitutive of them. My framing here reflects these ideas and so might be unfamiliar — and maybe also a little half-baked!)


        • I’ll have to think about that, but I hadn’t meant to ascribe any view to you about the harms or pains of negative self-estimate. I just meant that your invocation of the “sticks and stones” phrase in your previous comment brought the issue to mind. The old adage says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I didn’t mean to suggest that you were defending the adage; I just meant that the adage prompts the question of how we judge those who are hurt by names. It’s a complicated subject, and I don’t have clear answers off-hand.

          Liked by 1 person

        • By the way, your reference to the Scanlon book reminds me that I’d like to resurrect our old book discussion group. I was thinking we might start with Scanlon’s book, or Sher’s on Desert. More on that by email, so watch for an email from me.

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        • For now, I’ll just say that I reject the parenthetical thought in the first paragraph of your comment. I don’t see any reason to think that a negative self-evaluation is necessary for the victim of injustice to feel pain at the injustice.

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  3. Thanks for this response, Irfan.
    At my website, I had posted this note to Roderick before seeing your response-article:
    ‘One’s estimations of others lie along a spectrum, esteeming more highly the good people and less highly or not at all the bad people. Of course that is not easy to do accurately, especially if one has a generalized optimistic view of humans and wants benevolent relations with them. So one will make mistakes: hoping for benevolence from others and being surprised and hurt when some of them are malevolent. So the point of my suggestion is as a corrective in such cases: remember that you’re the good person and that the malevolent one has the problem. That person needs to be relocated much lower on your estimation spectrum.
    ‘Zora Neale Hurston expressed it perfectly: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” [Source: “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928).]’
    To return to your response, Irfan. Please note that you’re responding to a highly compressed meme. In unpacking, I think you’re right that this element is key: [Quoting Irfan]: “the relevant issue is not the victim’s valuation of the beliefs of the perpetrator, but the expectations we all bring to human relations. As a basic background fact, when we deal with others, we expect them to show us a certain minimally decent degree of respect for our humanity.” That’s in the area, but still not quite right, as we have to integrate two facts: (1) We want to expect minimal respect for our humanity, but (2) We know very well we live in a world with lots of people who don’t do that. So, being morally healthy people but no longer being naive children, how do we go forth into the world? My suggestion, captured in the meme, is to build into your self-esteem a more-or-less automated response to anyone who fails to live up to your expectations: It’s their problem, not yours.
    That is to say, *both* your generalized expectations for how humanity treats you *and* you-as-victim’s valuation of the perpetrator are relevant — but when those clash you-as-hurt-victim has a semi-automated response ready to go that minimizes the hurt and makes it less likely you will make the same mistake again.

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    • I don’t think that response really responds to my critique. I also think you’re making a large number of question-begging, and questionable assumptions from the outset.

      The issue raised by the meme is whether racist talk hurts the object of the talk, whom I’ll call the victim. The meme implies that it can only do so by the victim’s acceptance (tacit, subconscious, etc.) of the assumptions of the racist. But that is flatly false, and I’ve explained at length why. Take a case in which the victim has high self-esteem and doesn’t at all accept the assumptions of the racist. He might still be wounded by racist talk in just the way, and for just the reasons I outlined.

      No matter how compressed the meme is, the preceding fact rebuts whatever claim it is trying to make. If you can be wounded without valuing the beliefs or character of the person doing you an injustice, and without lowering your self-estimate, and without buying into his premises, the meme has nothing truthful or valuable to say. It treats the wounds inflicted by injustice as the fault of the victim. I can’t think of a clearer, more obvious, and more offensive instance of victim blaming than that. It overlooks obvious counter-examples, then proceeds to a particular case–the case in which the victim tacitly agrees with the racist, or buys into the racist’s estimate–treating that case as the paradigm of all cases.

      I opened my criticism by saying that the meme’s basic claim was either obviously false or misleading. I think it’s more obviously false than misleading, but the compressed nature of the meme raises a question: if the topic is this fraught and complex, should we be discussing it by means of compressed memes? I think the answer is, “no.” The problem is that this meme has simply become a weapon in the war over “cancel culture.” Oversimplification is practically its purpose. But oversimplification subverts moral knowledge.

      One of the assumptions you seem to be making is that when a victim encounters a racist, and becomes a victim of the racist’s racism, the victim has of necessity made an error of some kind. I don’t see why. You seem to be envisioning an entirely happenstance encounter in which X misjudges Y, Y turns out to be a racist, and Y says racist things. Chagrined, X departs the scene, vowing to do better in judging people in the future. Well ,that’s one kind of encounter. There are others–many others. Nothing about X’s being the victim of Y’s racism requires us to think that X has made a mistake of any kind. Y’s proximity to X could be unavoidable. The proximity of Y-type people could be unavoidable. Etc. There are many similar iterations. Where the situation-type is unavoidable, your advice is completely out of place. It’s not a matter of “doing better next time.” It’s a matter of figuring out how to deal with racists, conceived as a recurring phenomenon. That task is a painful one, one that the meme dismisses as though no one had ever encountered it. But many people encounter it, and have to deal with it, despite the meme’s cavalier dismissal of their situation.

      Yes, there are situations in which someone’s racism (or injustice generally) is their problem rather than yours. But there are equally situations in which the reverse is true: their injustice has become your problem. When that happens, you have an obligation to see it for what it is. But doing so is an immensely painful task.

      I don’t agree with the Zora Neale Hurston quote, or at least, don’t agree that it rebuts the point I was making. Hurston professed herself “astonished” at racism. But a profession of astonishment is just a confession of ignorance as to its nature. What you don’t know may not hurt you. But we have an epistemic obligation to understand the world around us, including its unsavory aspects. Once one comes to understand it, the understanding is unavoidably painful.

      As I said in the post, the point I was making generalizes beyond racism to injustice as such. I hadn’t meant to confine the issue to racism.

      But this disagreement underscores my broader disagreement with right-wing criticisms of “cancel culture.” The critics, in my view, have not taken victimization as seriously as have the so-called “social justice warriors.” Put another way, I’d say they’ve trivialized victimization as a phenomenon, and downplayed its frequency in the world. Reactions to the meme are, I suspect, a proxy for reactions to this latter fact. If so, I’m with the social justice warriors.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen, though considerations of self-esteem are often tied up with such hurtful verbal or other hurtful symbolic attacks, it seems there’s something else more primitive in the psyche about it. If I respond with hurtful verbal rage against the attacker, I doubt it’s only about keeping my self-esteem (were I the victim) or helping someone else with theirs (were someone else the victim).

      I’m delighted with the economic boycotting that is going on, (which nowadays is often derided by the label “cancel-culture”—Madison Avenue, you know—like coining inheritance tax as a “death tax”). Sometimes boycotts succeed in inducing change in public behaviors of persons or firms, and sometimes not. But the counters by boycott are one of the peaceful, commercial options open in a free society, and the back and forth and back in this way is part of the way of the market.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “Delighted”? So for example, this law professor was fired from her job for wrongspeak, and you’re delighted about that? Is that what you mean?


        Or is it only the atmosphere of intimidation on campus that delights you? And maybe events like that prof being fired are just the eggs that have to be broken to make this beautiful omelet?


        Liked by 1 person

        • No, I was just thinking of boycotts such as with various companies, though there too, I imagine people might lose their job for some public statement they made. There has never been freedom of speech in private companies, and there, as you know, it is no political right.

          I was thinking of recent parallels to when we gay people boycotted Coors, and it had enough impact for the company to change their public (and political) song (against gay people, including civil rights of gay people). In recent years, many gay people boycott Chick(something or other), and I bet it is without much economic impact or change of the objectionable political activities of company bigwigs. The companies or proprietors can choose what response to make to such boycott responses. It all continues to be private economic venture, whether or not anyone likes THAT.

          The case you mention, David, in academia, reminds me of when gay people were not permitted to work in nuclear power. That was official regulation, and regulation and practice only began to change in the late 80’s and early 90’s. And of course in employment throughout the country, one’s gayness was long something for you to keep your mouth shut about (somewhat like being atheist for employees outside of academia to this day?).

          I’d think that different sorts of academic institutions (and other schools like DeVry) would try (within the law) various sorts of policy concerning freedom of speech, and see what is best for their niche. I doubt the firings you mentioned are building anything constructive or significant or lasting. Same old merry-go-round of hatreds and power-seeking, I imagine.

          I recall in around 1970 a new philosophy professor being gotten rid of (somehow or other) because he was expressly a Marxist. This was at University of Oklahoma. He was to be our Hegel man, as the old one had retired. The pastor at our campus church was a right-winger, yet he invited the Marxist prof to come and speak before our college youths at the church. That was nice, an occasion of “let’s discourse” I found delightful. I’ve never been able to decide, though, whether getting rid of the fellow was right from the standpoint of the taxpayers supporting this public university. Around the state, our school was widely referred to as “that hotbed of communism” at the time. And of course the citizens were overwhelmingly opposed to communism.

          Overwhelmingly at our school, political concerns were not what was being chased by the students, notwithstanding the impression folk back home would get by watching TV (today, also by looking to handy places online). I was just trying to stay afloat with my own studies and aims; no football games; no attending visitor political speakers on campus; nose to grindstone; “if you’re not studying, you should be sleeping”. I think my style did not turn out a bad person that is me or a bad life that is mine. Worked well for others also. I’ve gotten the impression that about half the people in colleges today should not be there and should get a job. (Yes, at the bottom, if necessary—that’s where I started after earning a degree in physics: at a fast-food place.) Physics and philosophy were good for MY soul, but I think making some money would be better for most souls after high school.

          I don’t mean to say I never wasted precious life-time on political matters. But that came after college. For the first 15 years, in my off-work hours, I promoted the libertarian cause through the Party, wrote letters to editors and Congress, and marched in demonstrations. From this individual’s standpoint, that was contrary my best interests. There are whole masses of individuals sucked into such political passions around the world, pretty sure (and more d’jour than libertarian concerns). The more profitable thing I should have been doing in those years was learning partial differential equations and so forth. That would have made a difference for me in the next steps of life I’d be trying.

          Sure, I still have cheap beer-talk. My two-cents is that all the culture-wars stuff is inflammatory distraction from the real threat building these last couple of decades for the future of our country, which is massive deficit federal budget year after year. The few political leaders who have tried to make it their priority issue (2020) got nowhere with voters. And all around talk of regular folks on the internet, it just is not a common or loud drumbeat.

          Liked by 1 person

          • PS – One thing sure does seem a big turnaround since I was first in college. The really big threat was not to professors, but to the male students. If you flunked out or dropped out, you were going to be drafted for Vietnam (this was before the lottery). That was serious, and naturally, by comparison, I’ve no sympathy for most of the boo-hoo’s much talked about in connection with colleges today. Nor in the commercial sector today, such as the for the poor little dears who couldn’t get their same-sex wedding cake made by a particular shop in CO or that shop, which lost half its customers by their subsequent boycott. Perspective over the arc from those late-60’s college experiences coming to me today from a recent look back with my own good fortune and labor to now: https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2937296843175865&set=a.1383739591864939&notif_id=1624328780429739&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic&ref=notif

            Liked by 2 people

          • Well, when you use the term “cancel culture,” that does not imply boycotting a business when you don’t like their ad campaign or the owner’s politics. It implies campaigning to deprive someone of their livelihood because of their views on politics or on some social question or because they said something you think people should not be permitted to say.

            This is nothing new, of course. People with the power have done such things from time out of mind. Only there is a new enthusiasm for it now, and in some surprising places, such as leftwing activists who claim to care about justice and who used to vociferously defend the principle of free expression. I think the shift in their attitude reflects a shift in the true power dynamics more than anything. People have a way of defending “principles” that support their objectives and abandoning those principles when they obstruct them.

            What we need is a culture in which people can speak and be heard, even if what they say is unwelcome to those who can get them fired. I don’t think saying “they can have free speech at DeVry if they want” is adequate.

            I appreciate your message about keeping perspective. I try to do this, but it’s hard sometimes. 🙂 Really, the problem currently is restricted to race and certain other areas of identity politics. And perhaps the practical impact will not amount to much. But I can think of two ways in which it has already made a noticeable difference. One is that we are near the point, if we have not reached it already, where inequality of outcomes is taken to be definitive of racism, not merely evidence for it. I don’t think this would be the outcome of an honest conversation about race, if it were possible to have one, which in the current environment, it isn’t. The second is the Trump presidency. After spending a considerable time puzzling over how that happened, I finally concluded that the most important single factor was the culture wars. I don’t know many Trump voters, but the ones I do know say the same thing: “At least he fights back.” Without a de-escalation of the culture wars, I doubt there’s much hope of restoring sanity to our politics.

            Liked by 2 people

        • That comment (your first one) seems to me a classic case of a straw man fallacy. Stephen was defending the ideal of using boycotts as a means of promoting justice, and you’ve assumed that what he’s defending is the most degenerate and indefensible instance of the general category. This is a bit like attacking a defender of motor vehicles by pointing to examples of drunk, careless, and reckless driving.

          I find the attacks on “cancel culture” misconceived and over-wrought, but wouldn’t it be unfair of me to reduce them all to the grandstanding involved in this episode?


          I’ve spent the last 26 years of my life teaching at ten institutions, and have encountered no generalized “atmosphere of intimidation” at any campus at which I’ve taught, or any at which I’ve spent appreciable time. The only exceptions were when I taught abroad. In Pakistan, campus was menaced by the Taliban, and in Palestine, by the Israelis. But that’s about it. I don’t mean to dispute that there is an atmosphere of intimidation at some places. What I mean is that one can’t treat such generalizations as uncontroversial. I would challenge anyone making them to offer some credible empirical evidence supporting the generalization. I’m skeptical that there’s any to be found. And I’m also very skeptical that one can pin the atmosphere in “the academic Left” as is so often done. There is no left-wing equivalent of right-wing attempts to ban Critical Race Theory in the schools, or to make support for BDS illegal.


          One reason I’m skeptical is that I spent my undergraduate years as an intern for the National Association of Scholars, whose existence was predicated on the threat of “political correctness.” The organization’s entire shtick consisted in convincing people that left-wing “PC” was a ubiquitous threat to “the academy”–without ever providing empirical evidence that such a threat existed (in the form they asserted it did). They recycled the same tired anecdotes over and over, exaggerating them in the telling, until everyone was convinced that academics inhabited some left-wing dystopia. But it was all a marketing ploy, designed to keep the enterprise flush. And it did, for awhile. But did anyone ever prove that the threat was what NAS claimed it was? No. Will they? No. The same, I think, is true of right-wing fulminations over “cancel culture.”

          NAS is still at it, by the way. I just got another one of their unreadable marketing letters in the mail. Why should I send them money? Because of the threats posed by “cancel culture.”


          Liked by 1 person

          • “Stephen was defending the ideal of using boycotts as a means of promoting justice”

            How do you know, aside from his subsequent statements? I explained why I took it that way in my own later reply.

            Every institution of higher learning I’ve been connected with since grad school has had an atmosphere that denigrated and marginalized people who are conservative or otherwise don’t sign on to leftwing orthodoxies. There are various ways to deal with it, and different people choose different paths. Most people, in my experience, just keep quiet and endure the offensive jokes and other slights. That’s always been my path, for better or worse.

            Every semester at my current institution begins with a day of faculty meetings the week before instruction begins. This past semester, the Chancellor’s keynote address was a 20 minute lecture on how our college is racist. This was the amuse bouche to an hour long presentation by a (well paid) guest speaker on the same theme. Naturally, not everyone agrees with these claims. Indeed, I am certain that quite a few of my fellow faculty members disagree with them and think they are ridiculous. Yet not a murmur of dissent was expressed by anybody in public that I saw. Why ever would that be?

            Empirical evidence of a hostile environment and discrimination against conservatives in academia is easy to find. Here is a recent example.


            “And I’m also very skeptical that one can pin the atmosphere in “the academic Left” as is so often done.”

            This is a strange remark, isn’t it, Irfan? If it is accepted that the phenomenon exists at all, who else could possibly be responsible?

            “There is no left-wing equivalent of right-wing attempts to ban Critical Race Theory in the schools, or to make support for BDS illegal.”

            Yes, the right is certainly guilty of its own attempts to impose its views by force. Jeffrey Sachs spends time on Twitter—or used to; I got off Twitter and no longer know what goes on there—compiling lists of academics fired on the basis of right wing complaints. And I have already acknowledged that we are talking about a human foible, not the sin of one party alone. But I would make two observations. First, legislative attempts to ban CRT are external to academia. So are all of the Sachs examples of professors dismissed or disciplined as the result of right wing complaints. But I thought we were talking about what goes on inside academia.

            Second, at least what the right attempts to suppress is outside the Overton window, or close to it. The average American would be astonished at many of the claims of CRT. How does that compare with, say, suggesting that hiring and admissions decisions at the University of Chicago should be based on merit? I think the average American would suppose that that opinion is entirely respectable, if not simply obvious. Yet Prof. Dorian Abbot was attacked for it by the usual sort of hysterical mob. So, one of the more disturbing elements of cancel culture (sorry) is how often its targets have not said anything the average person would find objectionable, much less worthy of a campaign of abuse and denunciation.


            Liked by 1 person

            • The claims made about “cancel culture” are not claims about the academy. They’re claims about “the culture” as such. Even if I granted your claim about academia–and I wouldn’t, except ex hypothesi, even for a minute–what follows is simply that academia has a distinctive sub-culture of left-wing intimidation. But neither the broader topic raised by the original post, nor Stephen Boydstun’s comment, focused on academia. You were the one who (illicitly) narrowed the topic to “cancel culture in academia.”

              So I can’t make sense of your question how I knew that Stephen was referring more broadly to boycotts, and not to academia as such. No one was referring specifically to cancel culture within academia until you decided to do so. Stephen Hicks’s post was generally about racial injustice. My response to Stephen Hicks was likewise general. And Stephen Boydstun’s comment on my comment was likewise general. So it was natural to infer that Stephen Boydstun was discussing boycotts to promote justice generally. Until your comment, that was the context of the entire discussion. Boydstun’s subsequent comments confirmed that. They’re not a matter of my somehow reading “the answers” back into comments that were otherwise impossible to interpret. The point he was making was obvious from the outset.

              Even if academia were home to some distinctive left-wing sub-culture, isn’t there a wider world beyond academia? Put aside the fact that I’ve been in academia for 26 years, and have not seen what you claim to see there. And for the moment, I’ll put aside the fact that I was forced out of academia by a Trump-supporting donor to my university. Is there any evidence at all that “cancel culture” has dominated the culture beyond academia? It just seems ad hoc to say that right-wing threats to tolerance and free speech come from outside of the academy, hence are not part of “cancel culture”–which is what you are saying, correct? The phrase “cancel culture” just seems an ad hoc attempt to turn left-wing malfeasances into a “culture,” then to use that term as an explanatory variable for a supposedly ubiquitous phenomenon, and then to infer that we are all under threat from this phenomenon. Pressed for empirical evidence as to the ubiquity of the phenomenon, we’re told that it exists…in academia. Well, that’s not every ubiquitous, unless we somehow imagine academia itself to dominate the whole culture.

              Notice that it would make no sense to try to explain the rise of the Trump presidency as a matter of “fighting back” unless you were saying that what you claim to have witnessed within academia settings was somehow true of the whole culture. It just isn’t plausible to imagine that people went to the polls in 2016 to elect Donald Trump to fight rearguard battles in academia–as though, only by electing Donald Trump could we finally get universities to hire on the basis of merit. The thesis of “cancel culture” only makes sense as a thesis about American culture as such. But construed as such a claim, it’s frankly preposterous. People were describing “cancel culture” as an overwhelming left-wing threat to the United States at a a time Trump Republicans held the White House, dominated Congress, held the majority in most of the state legislatures, had a majority of the governor’s offices in this country, and commanded the allegiance of the national association of the Fraternal Order of Police and the military. But yes, let’s cower in fear at cancel culture.

              Imagine that I identified an unsavory feature of hospital culture, then inferred that what was true of hospitals was true of everything. No one would take that inference seriously. But somehow, substitute universities for hospitals, and the inference is supposed to acquire plausibility.

              As for the Overton Window, consider what it means for BDS to be outside of the Overton Window. It means that a 50+ year military occupation of about 4 million people, under apartheid conditions, financed by almost $4 billion/year of US foreign aid, should simply be taken for granted as falling well within the norms of respectable opinion–in a country that prides itself on winning independence through open warfare as a response to a two-year military occupation of a single city. The legislatures that want to make BDS illegal want the Overton Window to stay at that setting forever, as though leaving it there for 50 years wasn’t enough.

              So what is the relevance of saying that “at least” what the right suppresses is outside of the Overton Window? What the Right wants is an open, explicit, unapologetic commitment to brutality imposed on the entire country by coercive fiat. No matter how false or absurd CRT gets, it’s not comparable to that. No state legislature is demanding loyalty oaths to a foreign country in the name of CRT. The advocates of CRT are not training police departments in tactics learned from an occupation army. Nor are they passing legislation to criminalize peaceful behavior, like boycotts. It’s a remarkable inversion of moral reality to see so intense and ubiquitous a threat from the academic Left and see virtually nothing anywhere else. But the truth is, once you look at the threats coming from elsewhere, the supposed threats coming from left-wing “cancel culture” recede into insignificance. Not only have I not encountered them (in the exaggerated form in which they’re habitually described) in 26 years in academia, but I haven’t encountered them anywhere else–not in the ordinary workplace, not in mixed company, not on the street. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve encountered the very threats that cancel culture warriors oppose: power-wielding right-wingers, unreconstructed racists, unapologetic sexists, and people who seem to revel in the glories of America’s militaristic brutality for its own sake. As I said to Stephen Hicks, given all that, I’m with the cancel culture warriors. Their enemies are my enemies. And we have a long way to go until victory.


              • I never restricted the idea of cancel culture to academia. It is of course a wider phenomenon, supported by a relentless string of stories. Here’s one about a choral music composer who was recently unpersoned in Nashville.


                I’m not sure how you got the idea I wanted to narrow the topic to academia. This is especially perplexing, because why would I want to minimize its scope? My example of what you call “the most degenerate and indefensible instance” of cancellation came from academia, but it was only an example, as Stephen evidently understood. Another possible source of misinterpretation might be my reply to your example of legislative attempts to ban Critical Race Theory in schools as showing that an atmosphere of intimidation is not all due to the academic left. One point I made in reply was that state legislators are not part of academia. But I was only responding to what you seemed to be talking about. That paragraph begins with your relating your experience of 26 years teaching in academia and was exclusively concerned with the supposed atmosphere of intimidation in academia. But then you’re suddenly talking about state legislators trying to legislate what is taught. My point was only that whatever atmosphere of intimidation exists in academia can’t possibly be due in any substantial way to Republican legislators. They are not the people who run academia. Academia is almost entirely in the hands of the left, and the higher you go in the hierarchy, the more that is true. The atmosphere that prevails there is down to them.

                Your interpretation of the state legislature point is odd anyway. You say I claim that since right-wing threats to free speech come from outside academia, they don’t count as cancel culture. But I said the opposite. They do count, obviously, as do the right-wing attempts I mentioned to get left-wing professors fired. That was the point of my bringing that up. What I am saying is that campaigns of character assassination, cancellation, threats, and intimidation against those who disagree with you are wrong. Such behavior is indecent and even immoral. And the idea that justice will somehow be served by treating people this way for having ideas different from your own is laughable. Furthermore, I don’t believe that a person who actually believed in the justice of his cause would think he had to treat people that way to achieve the justice he claims to care about. All this goes for right-wingers the same as for everybody else.

                I am sorry to hear that you were driven out of academia by a Trump-supporting donor. I am unacquainted with why you left your position. That’s horrible. But it also seems to me that, this being the case, you should be able to appreciate what I am saying.

                Legislative meddling in academia for political purposes is not the exclusive preserve of Republicans, of course.


                Cancel culture is not about boycotts. The word “boycott” implies refusing to buy Nike shoes or shop at Hobby Lobby or Dominoes Pizza or Krispy Kreme, and trying to organize others to do likewise, because you don’t like the owners’ politics or policies or whatever. Cancel culture is mainly about signing open letters or petitions or otherwise taking mob action to get someone fired or deplatformed or removed from some office or even ostracizing them completely from society to punish them for wrongthink. In nearly all contexts where I see the term employed, it’s individuals that are the targets of the mobbing. Sometimes it seems to me the term could be applicable to small businesses, though, as in the case of this (formerly) popular Bay Area (Sonoma) restaurant. (This was/is a really great place, and I hope it survives its ordeal.)


                Social media has been a huge enabler of cancel culture, because viral messages concentrate a large number of eyes on a single cause and because “clicktivism” is so cheap and easy, but it’s not just a matter of mobs of ignorant dolts on social media. The University of Chicago grad students and professors referenced earlier in this thread make a nice corrective to this misconception. The fact seems to be that getting together to threaten and intimidate someone for expressing the “wrong” opinions has become a “thing,” something it’s now considered appropriate and even good to do.

                The point about the Overton window is not that anything outside it should be fair game for oppressing and silencing, and anything within it should be treated with respect. I myself believe plenty of things that are way outside the Overton window (such as that the public school system should be abolished). And plenty of things within the Overton windows are terrible ideas. But what is within the Overton window is, by definition, within the realm of socially acceptable political discourse—arguable and potentially achievable. Therefore, you’d think that people saying things within the Overton window would be argued with, not threatened and intimidated. And after all, that is a common defense of cancel culture. “Well, if people don’t want Nazis around, are you surprised?” Think of the xkcd cartoon: “your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.” Haha! Zing! Except that’s not what’s actually happening, is it? When a person is getting deprived of his livelihood for saying that BLM rioters shouldn’t burn down a building, it is evident who the real assholes are.

                Trying to win political arguments by force and intimidation is thug behavior. Saying the people you oppose are “the real thugs” does not change that. It’s important to remember that everybody thinks they are fighting for justice and what is right and good. Yes, Trump supporters too. Trying to determine who is right by thuggery will lead to a spiral of retribution that won’t end until we burn the system down. The end result will not be justice.

                Liked by 1 person

    • Hot take! Stephen seems to have retreated from the first sentence of the post that Irfan is responding to: there is indeed pain caused by hateful (denigrating, demeaning) speech, the pain here is not (simply) a function of what you think of what the person said and what you think of the person who said it. If I were in Stephen’s shoes, I would (a) acknowledge this error (perhaps a function of “compression” to express a pithy thought, but an error nonetheless) and (b) say something to defend what is, in fact, a *strategy* for dealing with the pain caused by hateful speech directed toward oneself or toward an identifiable group that one is a part of or identifies with (roughly the strategy is: dismiss or downplay the part of the hurt that is simply from the hateful speech and train oneself to focus on the effects that are due to one’s evaluation of the statements and of the person making them; there are lots of good, intuitive ideals of being thick-skinned and this appearing quite virtuous to draw on, here). Answering on Irfan’s behalf, I’d say: sure, but, in a surprisingly large number of cases, the pain from being insulted or demeaned will not go away and gets internalized (“trauma damage”); and, in any case, when practical, it is good to remediate, correct or punish such hateful speech.

      I agree with the thrust of both of these perspectives and think that the Devil is in the details, mainly of social causation, but also in the development of virtue.

      (I tend to come down a bit more on Stephen’s side than Irfan’s, mainly due to the dangers, at the collective level of custom and law, of epistemic and moralistic overreach in attempts to correct, remediate, punish. People predictably will focus on narrow dogmas, not obviously unacceptable behavior, and get caught up, for many of the wrong reasons, in denouncing and ostracizing. But I think one should have nothing in principle against correcting, remediating and punishing obviously demeaning speech-acts. It is more difficult, and perhaps more to the point, to wonder about correcting, remediating and punishing a social consensus that, in somewhat subtle but nevertheless not-unimportant ways, overlooks or denies aspects of the humanity and perspective of certain groups of people. This is a hard question and we need real discussion and respect across the divide.)


      • (Responding to Michael):

        I think you’re slightly over-reading my argument. Really, all that the original post asserts is that Stephen Hicks’s claim (1) is false. As you say, I think SH has implicitly conceded that. If SH took the advice you offer in (a), he’d have to concede that the meme’s fundamental claim was false. In a sense, I’m content to leave matters there.

        I wouldn’t hold SH (or anyone else) responsible for coming up with what you suggest in (b), a strategy for dealing with the pain caused by hateful speech. All I would say is that we should do what it takes to avoid complicity in demonstrable injustice. That can, in some cases, mean canceling or de-platforming racists or fascists as an organized matter. Cancellation etc shouldn’t be done lightly, and shouldn’t be done indiscriminately, but we also don’t have the luxury of sitting around with our hands in our pockets, watching as outright fascists re-group to take over the country.

        What I’ve just described is a different task than healing the wounds of people’s psychic pain. I doubt there’s any strategy available for achieving the latter thing. I don’t have one, and I wouldn’t demand that SH produce one, either. Some of the attempts to do this, often on the Left, are grotesque and silly, and deserve derision. (That’s not to say that they’re the kind of threat to us that David Potts has made of them, but I don’t have much enthusiasm for much of what passes for racial piety on the Left. Though the US has a traumatic racial past, I also think the Left is too mired in race for its own good, and should find other things to focus on and talk about every now and then.)

        I think I’ve said what I wanted to say on this topic in my post on Cancel Culture from the fall.

        Cancel Culture and the Discourse of Ad Hoc-ery

        And for every indiscriminate abuse of cancel culture out there, there are some campaigns for justice that seem so obviously right that it’s hard to imagine what conceivable objection anyone could have to them. For all the hand-wringing about the evils of cancel culture, does anyone remember this campaign of cancellation?

        PornHub: Cancel and Destroy

        Well, Ms Mickelwait & Co have not been nearly as idle as the critics of cancel culture. Here’s what they’ve accomplished since my last post, in October:


        This is as much an instance of “cancel culture” as anything else is. If so, no one can say that cancel culture is an idle left-wing academic pastime, fixated on race, and a threat to rationality, merit, and free speech. The campaign against PornHub is none of those things, and yet for some reason, it’s invisible to all of the critics of cancel culture, whose cherry-picking script it doesn’t fit–whatever other significance it may have.


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