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"Problematic" words speak louder than actions
Peter Singer is arguably one of the most moral people in the world – at least from a left-wing atheist point of view. He’s dedicated his career to reducing animal suffering and helping people in the developing world.
His 1975 book Animal Liberation is considered one of the founding texts of that movement (Singer prefers to speak of animals’ interests than of their rights). And his 1971 essay ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ – which argued that citizens of wealthy countries have a moral obligation to help those in poorer countries by supporting humanitarian causes – has proved highly influential.
He expanded on this thesis in his 2009 book The Life You Can Save, arguing that citizens of wealthy countries should donate at least 1% of their income to charity. After the book’s release, he founded an organisation of the same name, which has since encouraged thousands of people to donate.
It would be fair to say that Singer’s academic work and public advocacy have had a tangible positive impact on the lives of sentient beings. Though Christians would strongly contest the stances he’s taken on abortion and euthanasia, you’d expect most left-wing atheists – a category that includes the vast majority of academics – to recognise his achievements and extoll his example.
But that doesn’t appear to be happening. Singer’s first problem is that he’s white and male – characteristics that just aren’t fashionable in the Current Year. His second problem is that he’s long been an advocate of untrammelled free speech – something that, like his race and gender, has fallen out of favour on the academic left. And his third problem is that he recently co-founded (with Francesca Minerva and Jeff McMahan) the Journal of Controversial Ideas – which has not been warmly received by all left-wing academics.
Since the journal published its first issue last week, there have been a number of rather malicious (and suspiciously timed) tweets about Singer – who is the most famous of the three co-founders. As Claire Lehmann commented:
Philosopher Peter Singer has launched a new journal which will allow scholars to explore contentious ideas under pseudonyms, protecting them from mobbings & career harm. As if on cue, academics on Twitter are now trying to destroy his reputation
I assume these catty remarks are water off a duck’s back for Singer, who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, and in any case has never shied away from controversy.
What’s notable is that Singer’s detractors don’t seem to care about his lifelong commitment to animal welfare and humanitarianism. As I noted on Twitter, “It doesn't matter if you dedicate your career to reducing animal suffering and helping people in the developing world. What matters is if you hold fashionable opinions on the issues that exercise left-wing academics.”
For Singer’s critics, it seems, living a moral life needn’t involve going out of one’s way to help other sentient beings. Rather, it involves expressing the right opinions on hot-button issues, and labelling people who hold the opposite opinions with unflattering epithets. “Oh you persuaded thousands of people to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation? Well, I called someone out for problematic language. And I cited five Scholars of Colour in my last paper.”
Even if you don’t agree with him – and many do not – you have to admit that Singer is a rigorous scholar who puts his money where his mouth is. The fact that his outsize contributions have not protected him against snide attacks on Twitter (from those who have contributed far less) is testament to the sorry state of contemporary academia.
Image: Arthur Streeton, The Creek, 1925
Democratic cancel culture
It’s always amusing when a commentator says something that we all know to be true, but which many other commentators have assured us definitely isn’t true. In a recent interview with Vox, the Democratic political strategist James Carville said two such things.
Asked whether he had a problem with “wokeness”, Carville replied, “Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it. It’s hard to talk to anybody today — and I talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party — who doesn’t say this. But they don’t want to say it out loud.” Why not? “Because they’ll get clobbered or canceled.”
Here Carville (who actually seems to care about winning elections) punctures two rather pervasive myths: the myth that ‘woke’ is just a right-wing cudgel with no clear meaning; and the myth that there’s no such thing as cancel culture. (“You’re just being held accountable!”) In fact, both wokeness and cancel culture are very real. Of course, we already knew this, but it’s good to hear someone like Carville saying it.
Another amusing quote from the interview concerns what Carville calls “faculty lounge” politics. “You ever get the sense”, asks Carville, “that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that.”
Many of us have been wondering the same thing. As the political scientist Zach Goldberg has shown, basically no-one used the term ‘people of colour’ until the mid-2010s, when it suddenly became the Establishment’s default way of referring to non-white people. (Yet there’s no term for people who aren’t black or people who aren’t Asian; only for people who aren’t white.)
I don’t know much about Carville, but his remarks suggest there’s at least one voice of sanity left in the Democratic Party.
The Neil Thin affair
Another week, another academic defenestration. This time it was the turn of Neil Thin, a social anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh. Students have complained that he is “racist”, “sexist”, “misogynistic”, “transphobic” and “bigoted”, based on various things he’s said on Twitter. You can read the supposedly incriminating tweets here. None of them comes anywhere close to justifying action on the part of the university, which unfortunately has ensued. (Thin has been suspended, and will face an “investigation”.)
The action against Thin was apparently prompted by an anonymous letter sent to his head of department. This letter upbraids Thin for supporting “transphobic figures such as J.K. Rowling”, and asks, “How can students, especially black and minority ethnic and female students, feel safe at this university with a member of the institution openly contesting feminist issues and engaging with racist rhetoric?” He openly contested feminist issues? What a monster!
The letter ends with the typically Orwellian claim, “This is not an attempted “cancellation” or a denial of freedom of speech”. No, of course it isn’t. (“We’re not denying your freedom of speech; we just want you to face serious professional sanctions for things you’ve said.”) I assume Thin will come out of this episode in one piece, but the fact that he’s being investigated at all is a scandal.
I’ve written three more short posts since last time. The first notes that case numbers do not always decline after lockdowns, and gives six examples where they did not. The second reviews a new paper arguing that the costs of Canada’s lockdown far outweighed the benefits. And the third suggests that we are being kept in partial lockdown because of status quo bias.
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