Friday, August 31, 2018

Is the criticism of cultural appropriation self-defeating? Thoughts on the paradox of cultural appropriation

From Tony Webster on Flickr

Do you remember Moby? When I was younger — and this probably shows my age — he was quite popular. His album Play sold millions of copies around the world and the singles from it were played endlessly on the radio. The album was unusual. It was a fusion of modern day electronica with samples of blues and gospel music, many of them recorded in the 1930s. The two styles were spliced together to create the aural template for the album. Moby made a lot of money from this album and although his subsequent albums did well he never quite scaled the same heights with his later work. The success of Play was not uncontroversial. Some people complained about Moby’s use of those blues and gospel recordings. They were what gave the album its distinctive sound. But what those African-American singers from whom they were taken? How did those recordings come into existence? Did Moby unethically appropriate their culture for his own ends?

Criticisms of cultural appropriation are everywhere nowadays. It seems like nearly every attempt by a cultural outsider to recreate or modify something from another culture is challenged on this ground. Of all the manifestations of identity politics, this is the one I struggle with the most. I am on the record as having previously said that I think there is something problematic about the tendency to ignore or suppress the cultural products of another culture unless they are ‘spoken’ to us by a member of our own. At the very least, it seems counterproductive to intercultural communication. But I also worry that there is a tendency in criticisms of cultural appropriation to assume that cultures are well-defined, ontological units that ought to be hermetically sealed off from one another. I fear that this leaves limited room for the cross-pollination of cultural ideas, and assumes that certain people have an indubitable, and unwarranted, epistemic authority to speak on behalf of an entire culture.

Erich Hatala Matthes’s paper ‘Cultural Appropriation without Cultural Essentialism?’ helps to clarify some of my unease. In this paper, Matthes argues that there is a tension at the heart of criticisms of cultural appropriation. The tension arises from the fact that any criticism of cultural appropriation must assume that there is an essential core to a culture that allows us to clearly distinguish between cultural insiders and cultural outsiders. This is problematic because it leads to cultural essentialism, which results in harms that are very similar to those caused by cultural appropriation. I will try to unpack this tension in what follows. Even though Matthes tries to resolve the tension in his paper, I’m not sure that his solution adequately addresses the problem.

1. What is Cultural Appropriation and Why is it Harmful?
Apart from Matthes, James Young is the philosopher who has probably done the most work on the topic of cultural appropriation, but Young understands the phenomenon in a particular way. For Young, cultural appropriation arises whenever one culture represents, takes or uses cultural items from another culture. When the Earl of Elgin took the marble statues from the Parthenon in Greece, he, as a representative of British culture, was appropriating something from Greek culture. When Elvis adopted the musical stylings of African-American artists, he was engaging in cultural appropriation. It’s easy to think of other examples that fit this motif.

Understood in this way, Young argues that cultural appropriation is not as big a deal as many people think. He makes this argument by considering the harms that might arise from the representation, taking or use of cultural items. He divides these harms up into different types. One harm that might arise is the harm of misrepresentation, i.e. the inaccurate or misleading portrayal of a culture by outsiders. Another is that of assimilation, i.e. the taking over of one culture by another. And yet another is the loss of economic opportunity, i.e. the profiting by the outsiders at the expense of the cultural insiders. Young then argues that these harms are less common than usually assumed, not as harmful as assumed, and, furthermore, not distinctive to the act of cultural appropriation. In other words, misrepresentation, assimilation and loss of economic opportunity are the real problems here, not cultural appropriation per se. Those harms can arise irrespective of whether there is an act of appropriation.

Matthes finds Young’s analysis lacking. He doesn’t think it captures what critics of cultural appropriation are really concerned about. If you look at the writings of people who criticise cultural appropriation you find that they are not just concerned about things like misrepresentation, loss of economic opportunity and assimilation — though they do sometimes care about those things. There is something more going on. They are concerned about structural injustices and power imbalances. This is one reason why criticisms of cultural appropriation tend to be asymmetrical in nature. It’s usually only when members of dominant cultures appropriate something from minority cultures that hackles are raised. And they are raised precisely because it is felt that cultural appropriation contributes to and consolidates those power imbalances.

Matthes goes further than this. He argues that the harm of cultural appropriation is best understood in terms of cognate harms like silencing and epistemic injustice. These are concepts that have emerged from the ethics of speech and communication in recent years. Epistemic injustice can take different forms but at its core it arises when an audience systematically fails to uptake (or hear) what is being said to them by particular speakers. For example, men who fail to take seriously women’s testimony about experiences of sexual harassment are perpetuating a form of epistemic injustice. They both ignore or downplay what it being said to them by women and encourage women to self-censor because they know they won’t be taken seriously. Matthes argues that the harm of cultural appropriation is in the same general ballpark. It contributes to the marginalisation of minority cultures. If their ideas and cultural products are only taken seriously when represented, taken or used by a member of a dominant culture, then they are denied a social ‘voice’. This is true even if the member of the dominant culture means well and accurately represents the minority culture: sometimes, in order to redress the imbalance of power, members of the dominant culture should remain silent.

This might be a more illuminating take on the harm of cultural appropriation, but it does mean that that harm is reducible to the harm of marginalisation and social oppression. Matthes, however, doesn’t see this as a problem since cultural appropriation is a specific mechanism of marginalisation and oppression. It’s worth understanding the mechanisms of harm as well as harms themselves. The means matter as well as the ends.

2. The Paradox of Cultural Essentialism
But there’s a problem with this account of cultural appropriation. As Matthes notes, if we grant that cultural appropriation is harmful then it seems to follow that we should identify it when it occurs and try to resolve it in some way. Currently popular methods of doing this including ‘calling out’ people who engage in cultural appropriation and subjecting them to criticism or shame or other condemnation. Other responses are possible too, including perhaps compensation for profiting from the culture of another, changes in representational quotas, or changes to the norms of social discourse and debate that give people from minority cultures more voice. But no matter what the response is, it seems like we need to be able to accurately identify instances of cultural appropriation and explain why they warrant that label.

And this is where the problem arises. To accurately identify instances of cultural appropriation we must reliably distinguish between cultural insiders and outsiders. After all, the representation, use and taking of the cultural products of Culture A is only ever a problem if it is done by someone from another culture, say Culture B. The problem with this is that it assumes that there are essential properties that are reliably shared by all cultural insiders that allow us to make these distinctions in an unproblematic way. So, for example, Moby’s use of African-American gospel and blues recordings is only a harmful instance of cultural appropriation if we can say with some certainty that Moby is not a member of the African-American community. Now, you might argue that this is obviously true: Moby clearly is not African-American. But other cases are less clear-cut. Is Barack Obama African-American? Well, it’s complicated. His mother was white and although his father was from Kenya (which is indeed in Africa) that means he is not a direct descendant of the former slave communities that were forcibly taken from Africa to America. So perhaps Obama is an outsider to African-American culture as it is commonly understood and so cannot be a spokesperson for the experiences of that community. And this is just the example of race-based cultures. Things get even more complicated when we look at ethnic groups and religious identity groups.

For any complex assemblage of persons, traditions and histories, it’s highly unlikely that there will be some core or essence that is reliably shared by all members of the group. So when you use a criterion (or set of criteria) for drawing the line between one culture and another, you risk arbitrarily and unjustly excluding some people from the community. What’s more, you also risk giving people within the arbitrarily defined community additional epistemic authority that they may not warrant. Suddenly they have both the power (and the burden) of speaking on behalf of an entire community, some of whom may not share all of their experiences and beliefs. And this can end up marginalising and silencing people who do not fit with the arbitrarily imposed group definition. This is the problem of cultural essentialism.

This looks like a paradox. It seems that in our effort to address the problem of social marginalisation and oppression we risk engaging in a practice that does the very same thing, albeit maybe to a different group of people (those who fall between the cracks of our defined cultural enclaves). To set out the paradox in more formal terms:

  • (1) Cultural appropriation is harmful because it contributes to the social marginalisation and oppression of certain groups of people.

  • (2) In order to police and respond to harmful instances of cultural appropriation you have to engage in cultural essentialism.

  • (3) Cultural essentialism is harmful because it contributes to the social marginalisation and oppression of certain groups of people.

  • (4) Therefore, in order to properly police the harm of cultural appropriation you have to commit the harm of cultural essentialism, which are similar kinds of harms.

Now this isn’t is pure paradox, as Matthes notes. The fact that it may be different groups of people that are being harmed by the respective practices saves cultural appropriation from complete contradiction. But it has the general whiff of paradox: it seems that instead of solving the problem we set out to solve we redistribute it instead. That can’t be what we are aiming for, can it?

3. Resolving the Paradox of Cultural Appropriation
There are several responses to this. Most of them take aim at premise (2) of the argument, though some also take issue with the claim that essentialism is harmful. Matthes investigates five of these responses, finding them all lacking. He then develops his own. I’ll consider them all in turn here.
The first response argues that we don’t need to be essentialists in order to police and respond to cultural appropriation. We can, instead, adopt a ‘family resemblance’ approach to cultural membership. In other words, members of cultures may not share one particular property, but there will be overlapping resemblances between them — just as the members of a family may not share any one distinguishing feature but nevertheless be similar enough to know that they all belong to the same family. Matthes finds this lacking because he thinks it doesn’t solve the problem of essentialism. You still have to agree on a list of overlapping properties that determine cultural membership and someone still needs to decide who belongs and who does not.

The second response argues that we don’t need to be essentialists because we can just leave it individuals to decide whether they are members or not. In other words, we can adopt a ‘self-identification’ rule for cultural membership. We already do this for some identity groupings. But it is obviously problematic insofar as it dissolves the problem of cultural appropriation. The distinction between a cultural insider and outsider becomes meaningless if people can just self-identify as belonging to a group. It’s also pretty clear that this wouldn’t work in practice since cultural insiders often resist the self-identification rule of membership when perceived outsiders claim to be part of their culture.

The third response argues that we can adopt different methods for determining cultural membership depending on the interests that are at stake. This comes from the work of Suzy Killmister who has argued for it in other contexts. The idea, as best I can tell, is that we should consider the interests that different people have in avoiding certain harmful outcome (such as the harm of systematic oppression or silencing) and then adopt a method for determining group membership that tracks their interests. The problem with this is that we can only tell if a person has an interest in avoiding the harm of cultural appropriation if we already know that they are a member of a particular group. So this puts the cart before the horse.

The fourth response argues that we can tolerate some essentialism on strategic grounds. The idea here is that there is some limited value to cultural essentialism if it allows us to stamp out the most egregious cases of cultural appropriation. We are not exactly shy or reluctant about assigning people to different cultural groups. We do this all the time and it is what leads to the harm of cultural appropriation. Why not just accept this for what it is and use it to address the problems raised by appropriation? And since different people are going to be affected by appropriation vis-a-vis essentialism this might also be justified on utilitarian or consequentialist grounds. The problem with this is that the strategic value of essentialism presupposes, to at least some extent, the descriptive accuracy of the distinctions we draw between different groups. So it’s not clear that the argument is all that strong unless we can be confident about those distinctions.

The fifth response argues that we can use lineages instead of essential properties to determine cultural membership. The idea here is that cultures and individual members of cultures are defined by their histories and origins. If you share the right lineage or historical experiences, then you are a cultural insider; if not, you are an outsider. Again, this can be problematic if those who don’t share the right lineage or set of experiences are automatically excluded (Barack Obama is again a potential example). As Matthes puts it, sharing a lineage might be a sufficient condition for cultural membership, but it would be wrong to assume that it is a necessary condition.

Having found each of these responses lacking, Matthes argues for his own. It’s a little bit like the strategic response outlined above, but with one critical difference. Matthes thinks we should accept the cultural boundaries that are already there in our social life, but that we should avoid policing specific instances of cultural appropriation in the way that we currently do. In other words, he thinks that the problem with strategic essentialism is that it can be used as a bully tactic to police and shame individuals for engaging in specific acts of appropriation. But we shouldn’t be doing this if cultural appropriation is a systematic harm. After all, if it is a systematic harm it is not something that any one individual is really responsible for, even if their behaviour reinforces it. This means we should, according to Matthes, focus less on blaming the appropriator and more on addressing the negative effects of the appropriation:

Cultural appropriation is a way that an individual can act harmfully in conjunction with systematic inequality, but we do not need to identify the agent or attribute responsibility to them in individual cases in order to understand the nature of such harms in general. Especially since harms that are a function of artistic expression and representation are ones we may be particularly hesitant about regulating, we may be better served by focusing on ameliorating the harmful effects, which is itself part of the task of combatting the ultimate harmful cause: namely, working to eliminate systematic social marginalization 
(Matthes 2016)

I think Matthes is right that we should not assign individual blame for instances of appropriation, given the problem of essentialism. But I’m not sure if this is a practicable solution to the problem. For one thing, I imagine that people are going to be very wedded to the idea of assigning individual blame in cases of alleged appropriation. The desire to punish and blame is deeply-seated in our psychologies. We want a scapegoat: someone we can criticise. When a movie studio decides to cast a white actor in a role that should (in some appropriate sense of the word should) have gone to someone from a minority group, people want to blame the actor or the studio. They want to call them out for perpetuating the systematic marginalisation of certain groups. It’s part of what makes the practice feel motivating and worthwhile. Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how we could address the effects of this marginalisation without doing something that is going to seem punitive to the appropriator. In the case of the actor, the obvious remedy is to take the part away from them and give it to an actor from the relevant community; in the case of another kinds of appropriation, the obvious solution will be to boycott, ignore, criticise or redistribute the gains of the appropriation. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t be taken personally or be felt personally. So it may be that it is simply impossible to police appropriation without some individual responsibility and punishment. Otherwise why bother? Why not just focus on correcting for systematic marginalisation more generally (i.e. without trying to identify specific cases of appropriation)?

In fairness, Matthes recognises some of these concerns and is, in the end, equivocal about his solution. Nevertheless, he doesn’t talk about one of the major concerns I have about appropriation and essentialism. That’s fine, of course: I don’t expect everything to speak to my concerns. But I want to conclude by talking a bit this concern. It has to do with the tendency for criticisms of appropriation, and the concomitant identification of cultural insiders and outsiders, to ossify cultures themselves and assign people to predefined cultural enclaves (this is something I touched on in my post about the open society and identity politics). One thing I have noticed in recent discussions of cultural appropriation is that they often carry with them (a) the assumption that an outsider can never understand or use a cultural product themselves and (b) that cultures and their products are beyond criticism and improvement. This seems counterproductive to me. If anything it encourages, rather than prevents, marginalisation and ghettoisation. It also discourages innovation and progress. I can’t imagine anything more ahistorical and culturally insensitive than that.

This brings me back to the point I made at the end of my previous post on identity politics. When it comes to something like the criticism of cultural appropriation, it’s all a matter of ‘dial adjustment’: there’s a way of doing it that is valuable, that fosters intercultural dialogue and enables cooperation, diversity and innovation; and there’s a way of doing it that isn’t, that encourages conflict and stagnation, and celebrates ignorance. It’s important to get the setting right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Episode #44 - Fleischman on Evolutionary Psychology and Sex Robots


In this episode I chat to Diana Fleischman. Diana is a senior lecturer in evolutionary psychology at the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on hormonal influences on behavior, human sexuality, disgust and, recently, the interface of evolutionary psychology and behaviorism. She is a utilitarian, a promoter of effective altruism, and a bivalvegan. We have a long and detailed chat about the evolved psychology of sex and how it may affect the social acceptance and use of sex robots. Along the way we talk about Mills and Boons novels, the connection between sexual stimulation and the brain, and other, no doubt controversial, topics.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:42 - Evolutionary Psychology and the Investment Theory of Sex
  • 5:54 - What's the evidence for the investment theory in humans?
  • 8:40 - Does the evidence for the theory hold up?
  • 11:45 - Studies on the willingness to engage in casual sex: do men and women really differ?
  • 18:33 - The ecological validity of these studies
  • 20:20 - Evolutionary psychology and the replication crisis
  • 23:29 - Are there better alternative explanations for sex differences?
  • 26:25 - Ethical criticisms of evolutionary psychology
  • 28:14 - Sex robots and evolutionary psychology
  • 29:33 - Argument 1: The rising costs of courtship will drive men into the arms of sexbots
  • 34:12 - Not all men...
  • 39:08 - Couldn't something similar be true for women?
  • 46:00 - Aren't the costs of courtship much higher for women?
  • 48:27 - Argument 2: Sex robots could be used as treatment for dangerous men
  • 51:50 - Would this stigmatise other sexbot users?
  • 53:31 - Would this embolden rather than satiate?
  • 55:53 - Could the logic of this argument be flipped, e.g. the Futurama argument?
  • 58:05 - Isn't this an ethically sub-optimal solution to the problem?
  • 1:00:42 - Argument 3: This will also impact on women's sexual behaviour
  • 1:07:01 - Do ethical objectors to sex robots underestimate the constraints of our evolved psychology?

Relevant Links

  • 'Uncanny Vulvas' in Jacobite Magazine - this is the basis for much of our discussion in the podcast


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Does Identity Politics Foster Intolerance and Irrationalism?

Identity politics is much in the news. From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, and from Incels to White Nationalists, it’s hard to get away from the idea that identity plays a critical role in modern political movements. Society seems to be fragmenting and polarising. People flock to others with whom they share some common identity (race, gender, ethnicity, religion etc) and develop rallying cries and political demands that speak to their shared experiences.

Sometimes this seems like a positive development: by bringing to light systematic abuses suffered by particular groups we can build a more just and equal society. Other times it seems less positive: by settling into our groups we become tribalistic and suspicious of outsiders. There seems to be a paradoxical tension between the aspirations and unintended consequences of identity politics. One of the most common critiques that I have come across is that identity politics leads to a kind of systematic intolerance. There are certain sacred truths about group experience and group membership that must be not be questioned or challenged. This, ironically, leads to a less progressive and fractious social life. As John McWhorter put it (commenting specifically on the concept of ‘microaggressions’) there is a danger that what passes for identity politics is ‘just bullying disguised as progressive thought’.

Is this a fair criticism? In this post I want to take a look at one attempt to put this criticism on a more rigorous, logical footing. This attempt comes from Danny Frederick’s paper ‘Identity Politics, Irrationalism, and Totalitarianism: The Relevance of Karl Popper’s Open Society’. The paper is an interesting blend of Karl Popper’s political philosophy with concerns about microaggressions, trigger warnings and multiculturalism. It helped me to think about identity politics in a new way, and although I agree with a lot of what Frederick has to say, I think he overemphasises the negative manifestations of identity politics in his critique. Although there are certain concepts and ideas employed by identity political movements that lead to a closed social order, the very same concepts and ideas can be used to create a more open society. I’ll try to explain my thinking in what follows.

1. The Open Society and its Enemies
Frederick’s argument is that identity political movements rely on a set of concepts and ideas that foster a ‘closed’ society. This is bad because an ‘open’ society is more desirable than a closed society. In saying this, Frederick leans heavily on the distinction between open and closed societies from Karl Popper’s famous work The Open Society and its Enemies.

A closed society, according to Popper, is historically synonymous with a tribalistic society.* This is a form of social organisation in which an extended kinship group are held together by some common religious myth. This myth usually involves some form of ancestor worship which is used to clearly delineate group ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The religious myth also typically comes with an irrational attitude toward social customs and practices, and an assumption that the way things are in nature is the way the gods want them to be. The result is a rigid, close-minded, and often hierarchical form of social organisation. Everyone has a predefined role in society. There is little or no scope for escaping from it. People favour irrational loyalty to traditions and customs. There is limited growth and innovation.

An open society is rather different. It is usually more individualistic than tribal and allows people to form alliances with others with whom they may share no common ancestry. There is more scope for moving freely between social groups. People are not defined by or constrained by their ancestry. There may, of course, still be religious beliefs and practices undergirding such societies, but they tend to be universalistic in nature, not tribalistic. Furthermore, rational argument and debate play a larger role in these societies. Traditions and customs are not deemed to be sacred. They can be reformed and changed. There is room for growth and innovation.

From these descriptions, it seems obvious that an open society is more desirable than a closed one. The point of Popper’s two volume work on the Open Society and its Enemies was to show how the ideas of influential philosophers like Plato and Marx lead to the closed society and away from a more open society. Popper argued that their approach to reason and rationality was central to this. Popper felt that the approach we take towards reason and rationality determines how we manage social conflict and solve important problems. He identified five different attitudes toward rationality that could be endorsed by different thinkers at different times:

Irrationalism: This is where we solve problems by appealing to intuitions, emotions, impulses and instincts. This results in a dogmatic approach to intellectual discourse (i.e. you just make pronouncements that are emotionally appealing) and an instrumentalist approach to the use of reason and argument (i.e. you make arguments when this is a useful way of persuading your opponent).

Pseudo-Rationalism: This is where we claim some special epistemic authority (intuition/communication with God etc.) that allows us to know the answer to important questions and problems. This also leads to a dogmatic approach to intellectual discourse as the appeal to epistemic authority is designed bring an end to inquiry and debate.

Uncritical Rationalism: This is where we reject anything that cannot be supported or proved to exist by rational argument and/or evidence (e.g. the philosophical view supported by the Vienna Circle). Popper and others argued that uncritical rationalism was self-defeating because the commitment to rationalism itself was unsupported by rational argument.

Fideistic Rationalism: This is where we pick a few ground truths that cannot be challenged or questioned and then develop our worldview and problem solving approach by reasoning from these ground truths. Depending on what gets included within the set of ground truths, this view can also be quite dogmatic and limiting, tending towards irrationalism, even though it avoids the mistake of uncritical rationalism.

Critical Rationalism: This is where we accept the need for some ground truths to start the process of inquiry and rational argument, but never allow these ground truths to become unquestionable articles of faith. Everything is up for grabs and subject to rational scrutiny. This is the antithesis of dogmatism.

As you might imagine from the descriptions, the irrationalist approach is most at home in the closed society. Indeed, it may be the cognitive foundation of a closed society. Contrariwise, the critical rationalist approach is most at home in the open society. It’s with the other forms of rationalism that the problems arise. They may seem, on the surface, more open-minded than outright irrationalism, but they can easily lead us back to a closed society. This is particularly true of fideistic rationalism. Different groups that adopt fideistic rationalism can appear to be quite rational in many contexts, but they will each have their sacred cows that cannot be slaughtered and so will tend towards irrationalism in certain matters.

2. The Link Between Identity Politics and the Closed Society
We are now in a position to understand Frederick’s argument. He claims that identity politics leads us to the closed society by fostering and encouraging an approach to reason that is antithetical to critical rationalism. He doesn’t spell out the argument in formal terms, but my reading of his paper suggests that the following is a reasonably accurate reconstruction of what he is trying to say:

  • (1) We ought to favour an open society over a closed society

  • (2) To create the conditions for an open society, we need to foster critical rationalism.

  • (3) Identity politics, at least in its current manifestation, is antithetical to critical rationalism (and closer to fideistic rationalism/irrationalism)

  • (4) Therefore, we ought to reject/resist identity politics, at least in its current manifestation.

Hopefully I have said enough about premises (1) and (2) in the preceding section. Admittedly, I haven’t provided a robust defence of them (Frederick says more in his paper) but I hope I’ve provided enough detail for people to see these as reasonable propositions that can be accepted for the sake of argument. This allows us to turn attention to premise (3), which is the real meat of the argument.

The first thing to note about premise (3) is its scope. It does not claim that identity politics is always and everywhere a bad thing. It simply claims that it is a bad thing as it is currently practiced. Frederick is clear about this scope limitation in the paper. He says ‘there need be nothing amiss with identity politics in principle…However, the current popular form of identity politics embraces irrationalism [via fideistic rationalism]’ (Frederick 2017, 7). So what it is about the currently popular form of identity politics that leads to this? Frederick identifies a number of concepts and ideas that are deployed by practitioners of identity politics. He thinks each of them contributes to the problem:

Multiculturalism: This is the view that cultural differences should be celebrated and respected and that society should embrace cultural diversity. The problem with this is that it stalls or prevents criticism of cultural practices that might be ethically or socially problematic.

Criticism of Cultural Appropriation: This is where cultural insiders criticise outsiders for taking, using or re-representing their cultural practices/traditions/artefacts. Taken to an extreme this can prevent cross-pollination and innovation of cultures. Furthermore, it can assume that cultural ‘insiders’ (itself a problematic notion) have some unquestioned epistemic authority or control over their practices/traditions/artefacts.

Publicising of Microaggressions: This is where people are criticised for saying or doing things that, while minor and not overtly discriminatory in themselves, are taken to contribute to an unwelcome social environment for members of recognised minority groups. Frederick thinks this is problematic because in many cases the ‘micro’ behaviour is just assumed to have a negative effect and so must be criticised and punished. In other words, emotional reactions to behaviour are favoured over rational judgments. Similarly, as in the McWhorter quote given in the introduction, critics argue that calling people out for microaggressions can be a form of ‘bullying’.

The Idea that Speech is itself a form of Violence: This is where certain speech acts are taken to be violent in and of themselves, not simply things that can provoke or incite violence. This is particularly problematic when the speech is assumed to be violent irrespective of its context. Frederick argues that this view is absurd because speech acts only take on meaning and have effects in a particular context, and yet some famous cases of people being no-platformed or prevented from speaking seem to have made this assumption (he cites some controversial cases in his paper, such as the protests of Charles Murray speaking at US universities and the withdrawal of an invitation from Richard Dawkins to speak in Berkeley).

Use of Trigger Warnings: This is where advance warnings are issued regarding the content of a movie, book, lecture (etc) on the assumption that the content might be traumatising to some people. While this practice may have some merit in its original form, Frederick says that it is now used to discourage students from dealing with challenging ideas and sacralises their emotional reactions.

Calling out of Mansplaining: ‘Mansplaining’ is when a man tries to explain something to a woman in either a condescending way or in a way that assumes, without evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence, that the woman lacks the requisite knowledge or expertise.** The ‘calling out’ of mansplaining is an attempt to gossip about, ridicule or publicly shame men for doing this. You can find many examples of this on social media (search for #mansplaining on twitter). Frederick argues that this can be problematic if it is used as an excuse to simply dismiss or ignore arguments rather than engage their substance. It could also be counterproductive to dialogue or constructive debate.

Use of the Phrase ‘Check Your Privilege’: This is similar to the publicising of microaggressions and the calling out of mansplaining. It is an attempt to get people from privileged social groups to recognise the unfair advantages they have over others. While this might be valuable in some cases, Frederick laments the fact that it can also be used as a form of ad hominem attack that gives someone an excuse to ignore or dismiss what someone from a privileged group is saying.

In addition to each of these examples, Frederick argues that embracing the tactics and beliefs of identity politics can lead to absurd or contradictory views. For example, there is often tension between the members of different identity groups — e.g. radical feminists and conservative Muslims — and yet the practitioners of identity politics tend to overlook or ignore those tensions. Frederick also uses the more controversial example of the tension between beliefs about transgender identity and feminist identity to illustrate this point.

3. Evaluating the Argument
That’s Frederick’s argument. Is it any good? I think it’s complicated. I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. There is much that I see going on in identity political movements that I find problematic and uncomfortable. I’m particularly uncomfortable about the rise of white identity politics. I’d much rather live in a world where people weren’t attracted to group identity labels and wouldn’t invest so much of their emotional energies in those identities. But I also appreciate that this is unlikely to happen any time soon and that I may be in the privileged position where I (as a white heterosexual male) have to worry less about group identity than people who are coded as belonging to a minority group and have that identity thrust upon them whether they like it or not. I think we need to be able to see things from that perspective (at least to some extent) if we are to build a more just society.

And this brings me to my concerns about Frederick’s argument. To be clear, the concepts and ideas he identifies can definitely foster irrationalism and close-mindedness. I, for one, don’t like the social media pile-ons or public-shaming or ex-communication of people for relatively innocuous behaviours. I don’t like the attempt to shut off inquiry or bully people into silence. That said, I think it is important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would defend something like multiculturalism, the use of trigger warnings, and the publicising of microaggressions. What would they say to Frederick’s argument? Assuming they aren’t in the grip of complete irrationalism, I think they would argue that each of those practices, when done right, is actually conducive to greater critical rationalism and openness in society, not antithetical to them.

It’s all a matter of dial adjustment. If you crank up the identity political dial too far, you may tip over into irrationalism and closed-mindedness; but if you get the balance right you can actually help to foster more openness and critical reflection. The way I see it is this: the defender of something like multiculturalism or the criticism of cultural appropriation believes (often with good evidence) that dominant cultures tend to silence or ignore the views of minority cultures. In other words, from their perspective, it is the dominant culture that tends towards irrationalism and closed-mindedness because it ignores or suppresses what is said or done by members of a minority culture. This kind of irrationalism needs to be protested and rectified. Members of the dominant culture need to be ‘called out’, to at least some extent, in order to help them to overcome their own tribalism and closed-mindedness. If done right, this can help in building a more open society.

Consider some examples. Although it is often ridiculed, there is clearly a sensible form of multiculturalism, one that is perfectly at home in a Popperian Open Society. As Frederick himself acknowledges, there is no such thing as a perfect culture and there are many different, permissible ways of life. We can learn something from different cultures. Through tolerance and intercultural dialogue we can grow and progress. If we are suspicious and dismissive of other cultures this will never happen. Where multiculturalism becomes problematic is when it is assumed that minority cultures can do no wrong and that they should be forever preserved in some historically contingent form. Something similar is true for the criticism of cultural appropriation. There is obviously something problematic about members of dominant cultures not taking the art, literature, music or ideas of minority cultures seriously unless they are spoken to them by a member of the dominant culture (who may then take the credit or receive the reward for re-representing these ideas). This again silences or suppresses the voices from those cultures, which is not conducive the kind of critical, free-flowing, upwardly mobile, interaction we would expect in an open society. Where it becomes problematic is where it is assumed that there can be no cross-fertilisation of culture and no possibility of intercultural understanding. A similar analysis can be performed for most of the concepts and ideas that Frederick criticises above (the one exception might be the view that speech itself is a kind of violence; I’m more with Frederick on that one but I’m not entirely sure that defenders of that idea do favour a completely de-contextualised view of the harm of speech). In each case, if you adjust the dial to the right level, you avoid irrationalism and foster openness.

And this, for me, is the problem with Frederick’s argument. Although he is clear that he does not think that identity politics is always and everywhere a bad thing, he does seem to assume the worst about the practitioners of identity politics. For example, in his conclusion he says the following about their motives:

The exponents of identity politics want to establish a closed society in which their ideological views are unchallenged, cultural traditions are ossified, a new caste system of approved identities is imposed, and respect for it is indoctrinated…The logical terminus of identity politics is the totalitarian state. 
(Frederick 2017, 11)

Ironically, this is the kind of blanket assumption about a group of people that Frederick himself criticises in the exponents of identity politics. We shouldn’t follow his lead. Maybe what he says is true for some exponents of identity politics but if I’m right a good number of them could have more sensible and progressive aims, ones that are entirely consistent with the open society. The logical terminus of identity politics is not, necessarily, the totalitarian.

What does this mean in practice? It may still be the case that many of the particular manifestations of identity politics do tend towards irrationalism. This strikes me as being an empirical matter that can be determined only on a case-by-case basis. If they are found to favour irrationalism, they should be criticised and challenged. But this does not mean that there is nothing salvageable in the concepts and ideas used by the exponents of identity politics. This too should be recognised.

* For what it is worth, I think it is important to distinguish tribal societies from hunter-gatherer societies. The latter tend to be more egalitarian and flat in nature.Tribal societies are more hierarchical and associated with the origins of agriculture. For more on this distinction, I recommend reading Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order

** Yes, I appreciate the irony in the fact that I am a man trying to explain what mansplaining is.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thomas Hobbes in Space: The Problem of Intergalactic War

In a handful of posts published earlier this year, I considered several arguments for thinking that humans ought to explore space and become an interstellar species. I looked at three in particular:

The Utopian Argument: We ought to explore space because it provides a utopian vision for the future of humanity - roughly: humanity expanding into an endless horizon of possibility.
The Moral Argument: We ought to explore space because we have a duty to ensure the future survival of ourselves (and possibly other earthbound life) and this is only going to be possible (in the long term) if we explore space.
The Intellectual Argument: We ought to explore space because doing so will expand our knowledge and understanding, both scientifically (by enabling new forms of inquiry and gathering new data) and culturally (by forcing us to interpret and manage new environments and social circumstances).

Collectively, these seem to provide a strong(ish) case for space exploration. Space barons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos might even approve. They, along with countless others, are trying to build the infrastructure that will enable full human exploration of the cosmos. Indeed, Bezos, in some of his public interviews, seems to directly echo the utopian and intellectual arguments in making the ‘pitch’ for space.

But what if space exploration has a darker side? Like, a much darker side? What if the exploration of space is likely to hasten the end of humanity and vastly increase the amount of suffering in the universe? Maybe then all the arguments in favour of space exploration ring hollow? Maybe then we ought to stop Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and all the other space enthusiasts from realising their ambitions?

That’s effectively what Phil Torres argues in his recent article ‘Space Exploration and Suffering Risks: Reassessing the “Maxipok” Rule’. Using some ideas from international relations theory and the study of war, he argues that the prospects of a catastrophic intergalactic conflict are sufficiently serious to warrant extreme caution when it comes to space exploration. As he puts it in the article’s conclusion “every second of delayed colonization [of space] should be seen as immensely desirable, and the longer the delay, the better” (Torres 2018, 84).

Is he right to be so pessimistic? I won’t offer a definitive verdict here. But I will explore the logic of his arguments in some detail.

1. The Context: Responding to the Maxipok Rule
Torres presents his argument in a particular context. In many ways, this context is irrelevant to the argument — it could be understood without it — but since it does affect some of the language Torres uses when setting it out, it will probably help if I can sketch out that context.

Torres presents his argument as a response to an earlier paper by Nick Bostrom entitled ‘Astronomical Waste: The opportunity cost of delayed technological development’. In that paper, Bostrom argued that we should hasten the exploration of space. Bostrom defended this conclusion by following a simple impartial utilitarian logic. According to this logic, we ought to maximise the number of sentient beings that can live ‘okay’ lives (i.e. lives that are, on balance, worth living). Doing this will maximise the total amount of utility in the universe. When you then realise that the potential number of future sentient beings is vast (our universe has a long time left to run out on the clock) and that we could ensure that more of them exist by colonising space (because we could then escape the carrying capacity limitations of the Earth) you reach the conclusion that we ought to start colonising space as soon as possible. Every second of delay is an astronomically wasted opportunity.

Bostrom admitted that this argument hinged on a number of assumptions. Three of them are important here. The first is that you accept impartial utilitarian principles, which are not everyone’s cup of tea; the second is that you don’t massively discount the value of future lives in your utilitarian calculus, which is something we are usually wont to do; the third is that you assume future populations can avoid existential catastrophe, i.e. some event that would wipe them out or result in significant suffering or torment. These are big assumptions, but if you accept them, Bostrom argues that you would see the wisdom in the ‘maxipok’ rule:

Maxipok Rule: We ought to act so as to maximise the possibility of an okay outcome for ourselves and future civilisations.

Torres’s paper is sceptical of this rule. At a minimum he thinks it doesn’t speak in favour of space exploration. As an alternative, he thinks we should favour a ‘maximin’ rule, which states that ought to we try to achieve the best worst-case outcome. When this is applied to the question of space colonisation, he thinks it speaks decisively against the idea. The reason for this is that significant existential catastrophes — specifically a catastrophic intergalactic war — await us in space.

2. The Intergalactic ‘Warre’ of All Against All
Torres’s pessimism about space colonisation has its roots in Thomas Hobbes’s theory of violence. In his famous work of political philosophy — Leviathan — Hobbes argued that in a state of nature (i.e. in the absence of institutions of government to keep the peace), humans would get trapped in a cycle of violence — a war of all against all. Why so? Well, Hobbes argued that there were three basic motivations for violence:

Competition: People have to compete for scarce resources and will fight each other to gain access to them.

Diffidence: People want to protect themselves and will act violently in order to ensure their own safety (and possibly the safety of others who belong to their families/tribes)

Glory: People want to develop reputations for violence in order to gain access to scarce resources and to discourage people from attacking them. This leads them to launch pre-emptive strikes in order to cultivate a reputation.

In certain environments, these motivations provide the basis for a positive feedback loop: one act of violence begets another and, before you know it, the whole thing spirals out of control.

Hobbes argued that the only way out of this cycle of violence was for everybody to lay down their arms and agree to the creation of a powerful state (a ‘Leviathan’) with a monopoly on the use of force. The state could then prevent outbreaks of violence, enforce a common rulebook of standards, and ensure productive cooperation and coordination among citizens of the state. Hobbes himself favoured an extremely authoritarian style of government — an all-powerful monarch. Most people disagree with him on this, but agree that strong institutions are needed to prevent societal breakdown. These institutions need not come in the form of the state as we now conceive it. In certain small-scale societies, social norms and informal power hierarchies could do the trick, and in some instances markets could maintain order and keep the peace (but they usually require some background set of quasi-legal norms to function well). There are nuances and complexities here, but the gist of Hobbes’s idea — that some sort of ‘Leviathan’ is needed to maintain order — seems fairly robust, particularly in larger societies.

The problem, as Torres sees it, is that there is no way we can create an interstellar Leviathan. Consequently, there is every reason to suspect that a colonised space will descend into a Hobbesian ‘warre’ of all against all. Indeed, Torres goes further and argues that a colonised space will provide conditions that are ripe for a truly apocalyptic war. Not just some minor skirmishes in the outer colonies. The argument, in its basic outline, is as follows:

  • (1) If we are to keep the peace in space (and avoid a catastrophic interstellar war), we need to have some sort of interstellar Leviathan (i.e. some set of institutions that can maintain order and prevent us slipping into the Hobbesian trap)

  • (2) It will not be possible to construct an interstellar Leviathan of any sufficient sort.

  • (3) Therefore, if we colonise space, we cannot avoid the possibility of a catastrophic interstellar war.

I’ve tried to formulate this argument in a way that respects what Torres has to say. You’ll note that the conclusion is somewhat modest: it doesn’t claim that a catastrophic war is definitely going to happen, just that we cannot stop it. I think this is the best way to understand Torres’s argument — particularly in light of his opening discussion of Bostrom and the maxipok rule — but I could be wrong about this. Sometimes it seems that Torres wants to make a stronger claim, viz. that a catastrophic interstellar war is pretty likely if we colonise space. If that’s what he is arguing, it could make his argument less persuasive. I’ll return to this later.

In the meantime, I want to consider Torres’s case for premise (2). Why will an interstellar Leviathan prove so elusive? Although he does not state this explicitly, I think Torres presents three main reasons for thinking this is likely to be the case:

  • (4) Colonial Speciation: As different human colonies spread out into space, populating several geographically isolated regions (etc), and facing different adaptive challenges and selection pressures, they will have a propensity to speciate. This will be exacerbated if we have technological control over our biology or if there is increased cyborgisation. These new human (or post-human) species and sub-species could have radically different emotional repertoires and ways of understanding and interacting with the world. This increases the potential for conflict and interspecies tension/suspicion.

  • (5) Distance and communication breakdown: The distances between space colonies will be vast. This will make it exceptionally difficult (if not impossible) to create some common institutional structure and rulebook for maintaining the intergalactic peace. What’s more, communication breakdown between the different colonies will be possible (even likely) and this could potentially stir up conflict or tension.

  • (6) Future weapons: The space colonies could create advanced weaponry that would allow them to wreak havoc at an intergalactic scale — ‘Weapons of Total Destruction’. Examples include weaponised planets, heliobeams or ‘sun guns’, weaponised particle colliders that create galaxy-swallowing blackholes, and more that we haven’t even been able to think about. The scale and reach of these weapons, combined with the problems of speciation and communication breakdown, will make it difficult to maintain a policy of deterrence or mutually assured destruction.

Torres goes into more detail on each of these three reasons and discusses some elaborate intergalactic conflict scenarios. Many of these are both interesting and provocative. For example, Torres talks about the possibility that some space colonies might, through speciation and cultural change, become gripped by extreme negative utilitarianism and want to eliminate all suffering in the universe by eliminating all suffering creatures. Their advanced, intergalactic weaponry will enable them to do so. If you want to read about more such scenarios, I encourage you to read the article in full.

Torres also discusses some counterarguments to his view. Perhaps, for example, we don’t need a ‘Leviathan’ to keep the peace. Some scholars in international relations have argued that there is no global Leviathan here on the planet earth. The international order of sovereign states is, according to one influential theory, anarchical in nature. And yet, despite this, there are ways to keep the peace. For example, some argue that democratic countries tend not to fight with each other (‘Democratic Peace Theory’) or that countries that engage in mutually beneficial trade tend not to fight with each other (‘Capitalist Peace Theory’). But Torres argues that these mechanisms are unlikely to work at an intergalactic scale because there is no guarantee that space colonies will all be democracies or that they will engage in mutually beneficial trade with one another.

If this is right, we should be wary of space colonisation.

3. Evaluating the Argument
But is it right? I certainly think it is interesting and worth taking seriously. Torres is to be commended for sketching out the possible scenarios in some detail and for thinking about the topic in a rigorous and illuminating way. Like many arguments in the ‘existential risk’ debate, however, it depends on stringing together a number of propositions about cause-and-effect, many of which are relatively far-fetched but each of which is ‘possible’ and, perhaps, minimally plausible, and then showing how they could lead to some truly catastrophic outcome. The idea is that even if this truly catastrophic outcome is highly unlikely, it would be sufficiently bad if it happened that so we should do whatever we can stop it. This is Pascalian/precautionary reasoning at its finest.

But I, for one, have never found this kind of precautionary reasoning particularly persuasive. I’ve argued on another occasion that the possibility-mongering and precautionary reasoning that Bostrom uses to defend the idea that we face an existential threat from AI can lead to problems. If you have to start taking far-fetched, but minimally plausible, possibilities into consideration when thinking about what we should do, then there are lots of other daily activities that warrant extreme caution. Indeed, precautionary reasoning of this sort seems like the perfect gateway drug to the kinds of extreme ethical philosophies that worry Torres in the article. It’s people who reason like this that are going to be most inclined to act preemptively to prevent a possible, but highly speculative, threat to their existence. So maybe instead of delaying space colonisation we should be doing everything in our power to prevent this kind of precautionary reasoning from taking root? Maybe we should encourage people to be rosy and irrational optimists? Maybe that’s what will maximise the chances of a least worse case scenario?

As I have said before, I think we need clearer modal standards in the existential risk debate. How plausible or probable must some possibility be before we have to take it seriously? Something more than minimal plausibility is obviously required but how much more and how should it be weighed against other plausible scenarios. If the scenario has to be substantially plausible then we might take a very different attitude to an argument like Torres’s. For instance, when I think about geographically isolated colonies in space, I think this is more likely to reduce the chances of a Hobbesian trap than increase it. The Hobbesian trap arises when there is conflict over scarce resources and a salient threat from some ‘Other’ who could access those resources. In geographically isolated colonies, that don’t rely on or compete for shared resources, that speciate and develop radically distinct cultures, and that don’t communicate with each other often or easily, it seems to me that the risk of conflict reduces. Why should I care about what my neighbours 200 light years away are doing? Indeed, when you think about it in these terms, staying on the earth, with its limited carrying capacity and still-growing population, seems like a less safe bet (if what we care about is avoiding a catastrophic Hobbesian ‘warre’). The fact that we may not be able to avoid the possibility of an intergalactic conflict doesn’t countermand that for me.

This is not to say that we should definitely be exploring space. There are other arguments and objections to be considered, some of which I have discussed before. It’s just that when we indulge in this kind of precautionary-reasoning, and try to factor in all the different risks we might face not just the one that happens to tickle our fancy at a particular moment in time, it gets pretty difficult to figure out what we ought to be doing and how seriously we should be taking the threat. This is why I find myself less pessimistic than Torres about the case for space colonisation.

Still, maybe I’m one of those rosy but irrational optimists. I’d recommend reading Torres’s article to see if you disagree.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Robot Sex Paperback Edition and Some Blog Updates

Now in paperback

Regular readers will have noted that things have been a bit quiet here for the past couple of months. There are several reasons for this. The main one is that I spent the majority of June and July writing a new book. The good news is that I finished it; the bad news is that this meant I had no real time or energy for blogging. I then took a two week vacation/delayed honeymoon from which I have only just returned.

I'll get back to more regular blogging soon (at least that's the plan). I'll also make an announcement about the book I've been working on closer to the time of publication (probably sometime next year). In the meantime, I think it's worth noting that my previous book (co-edited with Neil McArthur) on Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications has just been released in paperback. It is consequently much more affordable. It'll cost you about $20, €16 or £14. You can buy it from the publisher, or on Amazon US or UK. At the time of writing (and this will no doubt change pretty soon and so become unverifiable) it is about #150 in the 'Self-Help' rankings of Make of that what you will.

Also, rather fortuitously, and without any prompting, the guys over on the excellent Review the Future podcast have just released their latest episode in which they discuss the topic of robot sex, using the book as the framework for their conversation. If you want to whet your appetite for the book, and listen to a very enjoyable and erudite discussion about the social impact of sex robots, you should definitely check it out.

Finally, Slate Magazine have published an abbreviated version of one of the book's chapters, which you read to get a sense of what it is about.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Episode #43 - Elder on Friendship, Robots and Social Media

AlexisElder01222018-2 web.jpg

 In this episode I talk to Alexis Elder. Alexis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her research focuses on ethics, emerging technologies, social philosophy, metaphysics (especially social ontology), and philosophy of mind. She draws on ancient philosophy - primarily Chinese and Greek - in order to think about current problems. She is the author of a number of articles on the philosophy of friendship, and her book Friendship, Robots, and Social Media: False Friends and Second Selves, came out in January 2018. We talk about all things to do with friendship, social media and social robots.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:37 - Aristotle's theory of friendship
  • 5:00 - The idea of virtue/character friendship
  • 10:14 - The enduring appeal of Aristotle's account of friendship
  • 12: 30 - Does social media corrode friendship?
  • 16:35 - The Publicity Objection to online friendships
  • 20:40 - The Superficiality Objection to online friendships
  • 25:23 - The Commercialisation/Contamination Objection to online friendships
  • 30:34 - Deception in online friendships
  • 35:18 - Must we physically interact with our friends?
  • 39:25 - Social robots as friends (with a specific focus on elderly populations and those on the autism spectrum)
  • 46:50 - Can you be friends with a robot? The counterfeit currency analogy
  • 50:55 - Does the analogy hold up?
  • 56:13 - Why are robotic friends assumed to be fake?
  • 1:03:50 - Does the 'falseness' of robotic friends depend on the type of friendship we are interested in?
  • 1:06:38 - What about companion animals?
  • 1:08:35 - Where is this debate going?

Relevant Links