The dangers of uncontroversial ideas

The first number of the Journal of Controversial Ideas is online.  It promises rigorous treatment of views that, as the masthead says, ‘might be regarded by many people as morally, socially, or ideologically objectionable or offensive.’ 

The journal’s appearance proved controversial. But I can’t see why. No one who reads this sort of work thinks controversial ideas should not be aired, and those who do think it don’t read this sort of work.  Some people seemed indignant at the presupposition that such a journal is needed.  So maybe it isn’t needed; maybe it is just handy, or harmless.  The world can tolerate another academic journal.

This journal does, however, publish anonymous content—I can see why that policy might be controversial.  In the social media, anonymity enables defamation, incitement, harassment, cruelty, and ostentatious ignorance.  But nothing like that is likely to get by this editorial board. So far, the signed and anonymous pieces here seem on a par.

At the same time, there is not much here that ‘many people’ regard as seriously objectionable or offensive: for example, the kind of thing that might actually get you fired, harassed, or shunned by your friends and colleagues. (Admittedly, the editors only promise work that ‘might be regarded’ as offensive. In one sense of ‘might’, I suppose that anything might. I return to this at the end.)

Of the ten papers in the first issue, only three strike me as pot-stirring, whether in method or substance. Alex Byrne’s ‘Gender Muddle’ is typically sharp and helpful, as is a pseudonymous writer’s reply to Byrne. If one of these fails to provoke, the other might.  Read both.  More courageous, though, is Bouke De Vries’ essay on black-face.   It argues that some racial impersonations (e.g. in the New Orleans ‘Zulu Parade’ ) are morally permissible while others, including Zwarte Piete, are not.  Legal philosophers can learn from De Vries’ distinction between gratuitous and non-gratuitous offence, and from the attention to real examples—as opposed to the toy ‘examples’ with which philosophers often work.

The other papers are tame. One pseudonymous author pretends to controversy with the claim that some people hold the denial of inter-group differences in IQ as if it were a ‘sacred idea’—a bit like creationism.  This is not a paper whose approach or ideas risk offending.  It is a paper about why some people do not risk offending. The author’s conjecture on that point is hardly controversial.  Any view, true or false, may be held dogmatically, and things held dogmatically are a bit like sacred ideas in (dogmatic) religions.  But ‘X is a bit like Y’ is rarely worth mentioning: Utilitarianism is a bit like accounting. Penalties are a bit like taxes.

The other papers wholly fail to offend (me). They do have interesting things to say: on self-sacrificing altruism, on violence in defence of animals, and on a couple of possibly sad things (the extinction or humanity, the meaninglessness of life).  Michael Veber offers a sensible reason against ‘no-platforming’ in universities.  In my neighbourhood, you need to defend no-platforming if you plan to attract any controversy or risk any reprisals.

Christopher Belshaw’s paper does produce a momentary frisson with the suggestion that we might force some convicts into medically induced comas.  It turns out, however, that Belshaw only means we might have a better case for that than we have for some of the awful things the law already does to offenders. Nothing shocking there, for anyone familiar with the criminal justice system.  

One challenge in organizing a journal around things that ‘might be regarded by many people’ as immoral or offensive, is that opinions shift and vary.  Even currently toxic debates about race and gender are localized in certain cultures and disciplines.  Perhaps, then, we need a journal whose mission is to make us see why certain things ought to be regarded as immoral and outrageous, things that ought to be controversial, things that ‘many people’ now regard with equanimity, or to which they give no thought at all.  

There are immoral and outrageous ideas that cause no public controversy whatever, raise no twitter-storms: ideas that not only don’t put your job at risk, but that actually lead to promotions, salary increases, and fellowships in our academies.  As we learned from Gramsci—and Mill—there is as much danger in these as there is in transitory, popular controversies.  Perhaps we need a Journal of Hegemonically Uncontroversial Ideas.

7 thoughts on “The dangers of uncontroversial ideas

  1. I think the Journal of Controversial Ideas is supposed to publish notions that go contrary to Hegemonically Uncontroversial Ideas. Though from what you say seven out of ten papers in the inaugural issue fall short of this.

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    • Hi Mothan: I wasn’t sure what the plan was–though yours sounds like a good one. My impression was that it was to be a haven for people writing about current issues so toxic that even doing so might expose one to backlash, reprisals, etc. Few of the papers write about such issues. But, as I say, another journal, especially if online-only, is not something for anyone to complain about. And most of the papers here are pretty good–though not really taking risks. Perhaps authors, and editors, will get braver as time goes on?

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  2. Thanks Les. Another point, a little late.

    Having spent a little time with it (though not nearly enough), I slightly disagree with your assessment of the lead paper, on “Cognitive Creationism.” The idea that “evolutionary forces have shaped humanity only below the neck, while our minds are blank slates controlled by cultural and social influences” was once very influential in left-wing circles. E.O. Wilson got badly bashed for denying it, for example, and so did Dan Dennett. The paper is “controversial” because it implicitly criticizes once-influential figures like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Gould who dogmatically (and personally) attacked all forms of IQ-heritability simply because proponents of racial differences in IQ are committed to it. (The quote from Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin on p 13 is, to my mind, an example of the dishonesty of some of these critiques.)

    Such criticism hasn’t been employment-fatal recently, but it used to be back in the eighties and nineties. I can easily imagine the danger of the idea cropping up again. Publishing the paper pseudonymously might be a prudent decision.

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