"You're a nutcase! You're a bleedin' nutcase!"
"They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo."
"They said it of a lot of nutcases too."
Peter Cook/Dudley Moore
In 1996 the Humanist Association gave Richard Dawkins a gold star because he had done humanism better than anyone else that year. But in 2021 they asked him to send it back. The association defines humanism as "being good without God". Dawkins may score very highly in Column B but he is not so hot in column A.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
The proximate cause of Dawkins' discomendation was a Jeffcotian comment he made on Twitter about transexual people.
“In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”
Apparently, the Tweet has been "misconstrued". Dawkins was not expressing an opinion. He was asking an academic question You can tell that he was asking an academic question because he put the word "discuss" on the end of it.
This reminds me of an annoying toddler I once knew. He understood that he had to say "sorry" when he had done something naughty; and therefore started to say "sorry" before pouring orange juice over his sister's head. And also of lazy journalists who think that any calumny is magically neutralised by the addition of the word "allegedly".
Putting the word "discuss" after an offensive remark does not make it okay.
"Richard Dawkins is a cunt. Discuss."
The act of placing something on the agenda for discussion is not a neutral act; it is a political act. It implies a stance. If I say "Ginger haired people do not exist. Discuss" then I am saying that the existence or non-existence of redheads is something about which more than one point of view could reasonably exist.
Doubtless, in a debating society, you might try to defend indefensible positions:
"The world is flat. Hitler had a good point. There are no blonde women in Bognor Regis. Discuss."
I believe that some Rabbis regard it as a point of honour to be able to prove from the Torah that the Torah says things which the Torah definitely doesn't say. Nothing in the context of Dawkin's anti-trans remarks suggest that he is engaging in intellectual play of that kind. I admit that Twitter doesn't allow much scope for nuance. That is why you should be very careful about how you use it.
An examiner might perfectly well ask a candidate to discuss a deliberately controversial question:
"Ibsen was a better playwright than Shakespeare. Discuss."
The answer would be "it depends what you mean by playwright": Ibsen was better than Shakespeare at creating plots and dramatic effects; but he was nowhere near such a good writer. A Dolls House is a better play than the Taming of the Shrew, but it is not a better thing. The answer to "discuss" questions is always "it depends what you mean by".
But an examiner would probably not smuggle too many assumptions onto the paper. He would probably not write:
"The great and underrated Ibsen was an incomparably better playwright than that overrated hack Shakespeare, but anyone who dares say so will be hounded out of town by the anti-Norwegian Bard mob. Discuss."
I suppose he might possibly put a genuinely controversial quote before the student and ask them to talk about it:
"Shakespeare's name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down." (Lord Byron.) Discuss.
"Discuss" questions turn up on humanities papers more often than they do on science papers. Literary criticism and philosophy are all about the discussion process. There aren't any right answers, although there are many wrong ones. Dawkins doesn't quite believe that philosophy and lit crit are real subjects.
"Racial identity and gender identity are the same kind of thing. Discuss" might be a valid exam question; although I can't help thinking that my essay woul be quite short. ("Of course they bloody aren't".) Dawkins talk of white people "choosing" to be black and men "choosing" to be women make it pretty clear where he is coming from. And the word "vilification" gives the game away.
Richard Dawkins is a committed Jeffcotian. Spiders are better than bears, but They won't let you say that nowadays.
During the discussion of Dawkins, Mike Taylor drew my attention to this article, by a computer programmer called Paul Graham, about heresy, fashions in thought and things that one is not allowed to say. It seems to be the definitive statement of the Jeffcotian position, and it is worth looking at in some detail.
It would be quite hard to disagree with the central thrust of the argument. There are fashions in thought as well as in clothes. There are prevailing orthodoxies and received wisdoms. We didn't all independently decide that Greta Thunberg was a Good Thing in 2018, any more than we all independently decided that flares were cool in 1972. To some extent we think what we think because other people think it too. From time to time we ought to examine our beliefs and ask "Why do I think that?"
Maybe Ibsen is better than Shakespeare. Maybe being black doesn't have anything to do with the colour of your skin. Maybe Hitler did have a point. Maybe spiders are better than bears.
There is, however, a very broad streak of Jeffcotism running through the essay. Graham believes that widespread agreement about a particular subject is prima facie evidence that some powerful lobby has a vested interest in preventing us from thinking the reverse. "Everyone thinks..." leads inexorably to "Everyone is forced to think..." and to "They won't let you think..."
It is true that the centre ground, the consensus, the stuff which "everyone knows" shifts over time. If I had lived in 1750 I would probably have just kind of taken it for granted that women don't vote in elections because that's the way it has always been and why would it not be? If I had lived in 1650 I would probably have said "what are these 'elections' of which you speak?" If I had been born in, say, 1965, I would probably have found it quite hard to get my head round the idea that two males could be married to each other; but by, say, 2021, I would probably be finding it quite hard to remember what all the fuss was about.
But is this simply fashion, simply us following the herd? Is there, indeed, a sinister Gay Marriage Brigade or Suffrage Lobby telling me what to think?
Graham thinks (like Dawkins) that scientific truth is privileged. If everyone changes their mind about physics or astronomy, that's because the old point of view was just wrong and the new point of view is just right. He is correct to say that opinions about morality can't ever be definitely right or definitely wrong in the same way. But from this he makes the colossal leap that moral beliefs are simply a matter of taste: the same sort of thing as wearing skinny jeans because everyone else is.
"What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed."
"In a field like physics, if we disagree with past generations it's because we're right and they're wrong. But this becomes rapidly less true as you move away from the certainty of the hard sciences. By the time you get to social questions, many changes are just fashion. The age of consent fluctuates like hemlines."
Well, no. In the first place, people consciously want to dress fashionably, and are consciously aware that fashion changes. That is the fun of it. "What colour is 'in' this month?" they ask. "How are the ladies in the big city wearing their hair?"
In the second place, fashion is not arbitrary. When having a sun-tan suggested that you spent all day outside doing manual work, the rich put mercury on their skin to make it unnaturally pale. When a sun-tan meant that you were rich enough to go on expensive foreign holidays, and idle enough to spend hours lying around doing nothing; the rich started to sit under ultra-violet lamps to make their skins look unnaturally brown. Or, in some cases, orange. The aspirational skin-tone changed: the wish to show off your status did not.
Thirdly, changes in the law about the age of consent do not represent changes in our ideas about what is right and what is wrong. There are some moral beliefs which do not change over time: strong people shouldn't exploit weak people; you should only have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you; very young people can't give informed consent. Legislators have at different times had different opinions about how those moral beliefs should be reflected in the law of the land. I think that you should go to jail if you have sex with someone under the age of 21 (even though that means criminalising some consenting teenagers); you think that its none of the law's business what two 15 year olds get up to in private (even though it gives abusers a legal fig-leaf to hide behind).
The implication that morality is as arbitrary as taste in clothes is shockingly amoral. "We used to think that it was okay for middle aged blokes to fuck little girls; now we lock them up for it" and "We used to think platform shoes were cool; now we think they look silly" are not equivalent statements.
None of the chic set are into freedom any more. This season, wife-beating is the new philanthropy.
Graham proposes a series of spiritual exercises in order to find out which of your beliefs are your own and which are merely fashionable.
Do you have any opinions which you would be reluctant to express in public? If not, you are a conformist: you believe what you have been told to believe. If you do have some beliefs you would rather not admit to, you should ask yourself "What labels would be attached to them if I did?" Would you be called racist, or sexist, or unpatriotic? Next, ask yourself who would be calling you a racist or a commie, and for what reason. You will probably find that the person doing the name-calling represents a vested interest whose power is under threat.
You won't be vilified for saying something which is obviously not true. There were no HUAC investigations into people who thought the moon was made of green cheese, and Galileo wouldn't have been put on house arrest for thinking that pussy cats barked. The things which are called heresies are precisely the things which some powerful group are afraid might be true. And the more strongly an idea is censored, the more likely it is to be true. The Catholic Church didn't squash Galileo because they thought his view were obviously silly, but because they feared he might be right. They squashed him at that time (despite having tolerated Copernicus a generation earlier) because they felt threatened by Martin Luther.
So, I may very well be right about the need for the workers of the world to band together and seize the means of production and send Prince Charles to the guillotine, because I wouldn't dare say so in public and everyone would be awfully cross if I did. I am very probably wrong about Jimmy Saville having been a bit of a wrong'un because everyone agrees with me.
So: work out what you wouldn't dare say. And then work out what you would be called if you did say it. And then free associate and make a list of other ideas in that category. And ask yourself whether or not they might be true, and who might have a vested interest in pretending they are not.
So: here are some things which I would not say in public:
- Women shouldn't be allowed to vote.
- Rape victims have only themselves to blame
- Women should bring up the kids and leave men to earn the money
- The reason there are so few women comedians is that women just aren't funny
- That woman won an award because the judges were box ticking to show their inclusiveness
- Females are like black holes which suck the creativity out of men
- School girls should learn needle work, school boys should learn wood work
- Women's cricket is intrinsically ridiculous
If I expressed these kinds of views, I would be called "sexist". Who would call me sexist? Women. Why would women call me sexist? Because they think that their gender shouldn't prevent them from playing sport, writing books, participating in politics, and choosing who they have sex with.
I think women ought to be paid the same as men for the same work because I believe in fairness. If you say that a woman's work is worth less, I call you a "sexist" because sexism is a description of what you think. "Women are worth less than men". That's what the word sexism means.
If you really want me to, I could try to frame an argument that some of the above propositions are true, or at any rate valid. "Women should be paid less than men for doing the same work. Discuss." My only line of argument would be to argue for gender-essentialism on religious, ontological or genetic grounds. I would have to say that it is an inevitable law of nature that women raise kids and men hunt antelope -- because God said so, or because it is in our genes, or because the platonic essence of Male implies wage-earning. If the nature of Man is Wage-Earner and the nature of Woman is Cake-Baker, then it follows that women in the workplace are either single and childless, or else are earning additional bacon over and above what their Man already brings home. They are paid less because they need the money less.
This as as much as to say : "It is okay to be sexist because the universe is sexist."
Playing that kind of game is a not un-useful exercise, I admit. But I don't think it proves that I am not allowed to have sexist opinions, or that a sinister feminist claque is stopping me because they are afraid I might be right.
Most people think that it is OK to eat animals. More accurately, most people feel only a little bit uncomfortable about eating animals, and mostly just avoid thinking about it. It is perfectly possible that in ten years, or in ten thousand years, most people will say "How is it even possible that in the 20th century people ate dead baa-lambs?" But it is not true to say that you aren't allowed to speak against the meat industry. Start to sell veggie sausage rolls in your bakery and Piers Morgan might call you effeminate, but that's the extent of it.
In the early nineteenth century, most people accepted that small boys were employed as chimney sweeps. But it isn't true that prior to 1833 you weren't allowed to say that child labour was cruel. Many people did. And many more people felt guilty about it but couldn't see how else the chimneys were going to get cleaned. And many others just never thought about it, just like I don't think about who made the nice Mandalorian t-shirt I bought from Primark last week. You weren't not allowed to be a pacifist when we were at war with Hitler: the Peace Pledge Union and Vera Brittan and the Society of Friends carried on publishing their books and pamphlets. A lot of people doubtless thoughty they were cowards and they weren't given an airing on the BBC. But the idea of pacifism was on the agenda.You weren't not allowed to be in favour of women's suffrage in the Victorian era; you weren't not allowed to be in favour of gay rights in the 1970s; you aren't not allowed to want to repeal the Second Amendment in the deep south today. There are prevailing opinions. There is some censorship of the arts. "You can't say fuck on the BBC before 9pm" is not the same as "If you claim to have seen the moons of Jupiter you will be executed for heresy".
There are complicated reasons why ideas about astronomy that were unthinkable in the sixteenth century became thinkable in the seventeenth. There are complex reasons why Darwin's ideas about natural selection went from being heresies to orthodoxies in a matter of decades. But it is a gross oversimplification to say that before 1632 and 1870, a powerful force called Organized Religion prohibited people from believing in natural selection or heliocentricism because it wasn't in their interests for people to have those thoughts.
Rather than asking about what you aren't allowed to think, maybe we should ask what people think about a thing when that isn't the thing they are thinking about. Most English people of my generation take it for granted that the school day starts with a Christian hymn and a Christian prayer -- in the same way that we take it for granted that it includes a lunch break and some kind of supervised sport. All Things Bright and Beautiful has the same relationship to English schools that One Nation Indivisible does to American ones. This doesn't mean that no-one ever asked whether that kind of state-mandated worship was a great idea. This doesn't mean that no-one ever wrote jolly stiff letters to the Times about it. This doesn't mean you'd be blackballed from polite society for saying that maybe you could skip the Lord's Prayer and go straight on to the sporting fixtures and the notices. But most people didn't.
I recently attempted to read Focault, largely because Liz Truss said I shouldn't. I am not at all sure I understood very much of him, but I find the idea of episteme very useful. We all live and move and have our being inside complicated sets of assumptions and axioms and ways of reasoning, which don't so much define what we think, as how we think. Aristotle honestly thought that you could work out how many teeth a horse had from first principles: it didn't occur to him to go and count them. It wasn't that no-one before Darwin had thought of natural selection; it was that no-one could think of it. Pious IX didn't tell people that they weren't allowed to have that idea. It was impossible for anyone to think it; until, one day, it wasn't.
There are things which our generation finds literally unthinkable: but by definition, we don't know what they are yet.
I don't think that challenging orthodoxies and breaking taboos is a good thing in itself. If I shout "fuck" in a crowded theatre or show a stranger my willy on the set of Doctor Who, I am not a latter day Galileo: I am merely a very naughty boy. I suppose "Why can't I say that particular word or uncover that particular part of my body" is a vaguely interesting question for a wet Sunday afternoon. I suppose the answer is "Because it is rude". So why do we define some things as rude, and why those things and not others? I believe there are societies, and not necessarily especially religious ones, where it is okay to say "shit" but you'll be vilified or cancelled if you say "hell" or "devil". Covering up the twiddly bits is a pretty universal human trait. I don't think that puts me under any obligation to expose myself, in order to challenge the authority that would sanction me if I try it. I suppose idly wondering why it's not allowed might not be a terrible idea. I'm no naturist, but I'd be happy if changing rooms and public beaches were a bit less of a palaver
"We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose "inappropriate" to the dreaded "divisive." In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that's a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as "divisive" or "racially insensitive" instead of arguing that it's false, we should start paying attention."
So - what are the examples of words which are used to close down discussion, to tell us what we can and can't think, in the present day?
A very obvious list comes to mind.
- Virtue Signalling
- Politically Correct.
Graham's essay was written before the "woke" conspiracy theory gained much traction. But he has a good deal to say about political correctness.
If I say that we should take down statues which celebrate the slave trade; or put up a notice saying that people are free to use which ever toilet they prefer; I may very well be accused of being "politically correct". Some people may even say that political correctness has gone mad. They will probably get very cross indeed.
So: I would expect Graham to say that the people who call me "politically correct" secretly believe, or fear, that I am quite right about slavery and trans people; but that, since they cannot refute my argument they have come up with a modern form of heresy to silence me. I would expect him to ask "Who is threatened by the removal of the Colston statue?" and to give the answer "White people; nativists; the privileged; white supremacists".
This is almost exactly what he does not say.
He thinks that political correctness is a modern reincarnation of Victorian prudishness. What the nineteenth century's reluctance to talk about sex and the twentieth century's reluctance to use demeaning language to talk about minorities have in common, I couldn't quite say. Is calling a disabled person a cripple as indecent as talking about genitals in front of a respectable spinster? Or is thinking that you shouldn't call a black person a "wog" as silly as thinking you should put skirts round piano legs?
What does saying "His concern" rather than "His penis" have in common with saying "Firefighter" rather than "Fireman"?
It seems that "free speech" is Graham's great, over-riding concern. Political correctness and Victorian good manners were similar in that they said that there were some things that you ought not to say. I don't think that Graham merely thinks that there should be very few laws or criminal sanctions against the expression and circulation of ideas, even terrible ones. (Everyone would agree with him if he said that, which would mean, by his own arguments, that he was probably wrong.) I think he thinks that there should be no limits whatsoever on what anyone says; that we should all say whatever comes into our heads.
He affects to be surprised that adults teach children to avoid words that they themselves use all the time. He thinks that this is because we want children to be "cute". I think it is actually because children are not capable of understanding nuance. Most of us understand that we can say "fuck" in a saloon but not at the vicar's tea party. (Graham affects not to understand what is meant by "inappropriate".) Most of us understand that when I choose to say "fuck" I am breaking a rule. That, indeed, is why the word has power. We have plenty of neutral words for sex -- sex, coitus, copulation. But if told children that kittens come along when a mummy cat and a daddy cat fuck each other; or encouraged then to say "I want a shit" rather than "I want the toilet" then I would have made the words neutral. Saying them wouldn't be naughty, it wouldn't indicate that I was in an adults only space, it wouldn't show you that I was very cross indeed. We would have deprived ourselves of some very useful cuss-words.
And then he makes a quite astonishing admission.
He is talking about how to put forward your heretical opinion: what to do when you are right and everyone else is wrong.
"One way to do this is to ratchet the debate up one level of abstraction. If you argue against censorship in general, you can avoid being accused of whatever heresy is contained in the book or film that someone is trying to censor. You can attack labels with meta-labels: labels that refer to the use of labels to prevent discussion. The spread of the term "political correctness" meant the beginning of the end of political correctness, because it enabled one to attack the phenomenon as a whole without being accused of any of the specific heresies it sought to suppress."
Have you got that? The free speech issue is a deliberate and conscious piece of misdirection. Don't defend you view that women should be paid less than men. Instead assert that you have the right to say that women should be paid less than men if you want to. Don't respond to the person who says that women should be paid the same as men: instead, refer to his views as "politically correct". And then talk about political correctness in general as if it were a thing.
Everyone agrees that calling disabled people nasty names is not very nice. It follows that some group has a vested interest in preventing you from doing so, and therefore, you pretty much have a duty to use the demeaning term. But don't attempt to say that spastic and cripple and mong are not demeaning terms. Don't attempt to say that they are accurate descriptions. Don't say that you just happen to enjoy making fun of the disabled. That would result in you being accused of heresy -- and "maybe disabled people really are funny and inferior" is potentially as important a discovery as "maybe the sun doesn't go round the earth." Take a step back. Say you have the right to all people spastics if you want to. Say that the suggestion that some terms are offensive is an attack on free speech. Take a further step back and observe that there is a widespread phenomenon of saying that derogatory language is to be avoided. Give it a label: PC, woke, virtue signalling.
Not very many of us are prepared to come right out and say that white people are better than black people and straight people are better than gay people. But we are surprisingly willing to say that abstaining from words like n*gg*r and p**f is is politically correct; and that being political correct is a Bad Thing.
Hey presto: abusing minorities is a virtue.
Covid was caused by the direct action of Satan. Flying the Union Jack should be against the law. Princess Diana was a warmonger. David Attenboroughs; TV shows are boring patronising rubbish. Abolish prisons. Bring back hanging for a traffic offenders. It is logically impossible for a black person to play Doctor Who. Repeal the 1870 reform act and limit voting to people whose houses are worth at least £2. Make Latin compulsory in all schools. Reduce the age of consent to eleven. Sport is a waste of time. All swimming pools should have compulsory mixed gender shower facilities. Colin Baker was the best Doctor Who. Reduce the speed limit to 5 miles per hour prior to banning cars altogether. Stan Lee created the Silver Surfer. Talons of Weng Chiang is too woke for its own good. If you aren't a member of the Church of England you aren't British. Ban ITV and Netflix and give the BBC a monopoly. Barak Obama was white. Donald Trump was a liberal. Reduce the price of Freddo bars to 5p.
But you aren't allowed to say that kind of thing any more.
How do you think the unthinkable?
With an ithberg.
I took some trouble over this. If you think it was worth while, give me one dollar and forty two cents, depending on the rate of exchange.
In fairness to Paul Graham, it's not really true to say that he concludes what whatever everyone agrees is right must be wrong. What he says is that areas where everyone agrees are fruitful areas to look for examples of where they're wrong; and that doing so is of interest because it offers an opportunity to be right in a wrong culture.
Javelin and Shot-Put are the only legitimate forms of throwing sports. Discus?
Aristotle honestly thought that you could work out how many teeth a horse had from first principles: it didn't occur to him to go and count them.
A mild correction. Plato could probably be justly accused of this, but not Aristotle. Aristotle was much more empirical than almost anyone else in the Greek Enlightenment. The medieval commentators described Aristotle's philosophy as "Nihil in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu." ("Nothing in the intellect without first being in the senses.")
Aristotle was wrong about a whole lot of biology. He did say, for example, that women had fewer teeth than men. But he almost certainly believed this because he went about counting them. See here. It is fashionable nowadays to claim that Aristotle just didn't bother to count, but it's clear in the passage that he did. He just got it wrong (and probably for reasons of third molar eruption, as Mr. Hawks speculates in the link).
Aristotle is actually quite fascinating even on matters of biology since we can see an extremely powerful empirical intellect and the limitations that are placed on such by the ancient lack of access to modern tools (e.g. microscopes).
By the way, in A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking made the exact same mistake so you're in good company.
One dollar and forty-two cents = one pound? What if I'm already giving you one pound per post via Patreon (which is actually the case)?
One pound is a lovely amount of money to be giving me per post. So is one dollar, or any other amount. Thank you very much indeed.
When people first started making these comparisons between racial identity and gender identity my response was to say they are alike in many ways, but actually because both are to a large extent social constructs. A few years ago I invited a Muslim Shaykh to speak to some students. He was of Gujarati Indian origin and explained that when he lived in Egypt he was classed as white but when he came to the UK he was classed as black. So whether he was seen as black or white did not depend on the colour of his skin but on how people were choosing to see him. In the Southern USA of the nineteenth century a person with a single black great grandparent would be classed as black. So there are situations where a person who did not have black skin would find themselves regarded as black. Some people of Indian origin do opt for a black identity, some want to see their selves as distinct from that.
Mrs. Sartre pointed out that one is not born a woman, one becomes one. Gender identity is to a large extent socially constructed. It's not that racial identity has nothing to do with the colour of your skin or that gender identity has nothing to do with what genitalia you have, but there is more to it in both cases and the two cases are more similar than may first appear.
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