A Puzzle About (Feminist And Other) Belief
Jamie's piece cited one spot down-blog mostly isn't argumentation, but this is a very important point:
Don't expect a word of protest [about a Taliban propaganda official's admission to Yale] from our feminist and gay groups, who now have in their midst a live remnant of one of the most misogynistic and homophobic regimes ever. They're busy hunting bogeymen like frat parties and single-sex bathrooms.I don't think I've ever read an adherent of, e.g., current left-feminist orthodoxy directly engage with the problem that Taliban-like phenomena pose for their beliefs. (There's no shortage of indirect engagements by means of subject changing.)
For all the good reasons to dislike the administration, and lord knows there are a lot of them, some of which are intuitive even to non-movement leftists, nothing the administration has done is comparable to the predations of the Taliban; well, the torture policy actually is comparable though (I'm guessing) the Taliban still comes out worse. But at least as far as treatment of women goes, the West and Sharia totalitarianisms can't really be discussed in the same theoretical language. (Look at what happens when people try to do so; you get arguments that, well, women are oppressed here and there, so how can we say that one's better or worse. By saying so. Similarity (i.e. imperfect similarity) and identity are not the same property; in fact, they're incompatible. Everything is identical to itself, not similar to itself, not identical to anything else, and similar to a degree to everything else. When two instances of oppression are not, in fact, identical, they are not in fact identical. And that means that it is possible to compare one to the other.)
But the puzzle Jamie's getting at goes a lot deeper than equivocation over equivalence terms. It's a glaring, potentially fatal inconsistency in the kinds of leftist orthodoxies he's describing. That is --- let's just take orthodox left-feminism as a paradigm, and assume it's accurately characterized by those self described leftist feminists at say, Yale University, who are more radical about this stuff than an anarcho-libertarian like me who thinks that rights attach equally to all bearers of a personhood predicate and no one else, nor ever inequitably, and not quite as far in their radicalism as some usual suspects --- there are two propositions contained in their theory that appear to be incompatible. The first is that governmental assignment by fiat and enforcement of unequal rights based on sex is always wrong. The other is that --- through a long dialectial chain I've never really understood, and I hope you'll believe I've tried --- something to do with patriarchal society makes it the case that it is wrong under circumstances subject to very elusive conditionals to take intervening action in cultures with value-systems different than yours, even in order to prevent governmental enforcement of sex-based inequality of rights. (Note that the second proposition, by using the word "prevent," is designed to cover only on-going oppressions. No need to worry about retributive actions for past oppression; I want to cull these arguments at the intuitive peaks.) Okay, it's obvious where this is going. If women's rights concerns are central to your politics, and just in case you're not an absolute pacifist, there are conditions under which you'd assent to military action to prevent the violation of women's rights. Very well, and what was going on under the Taliban wasn't enough? How about a hypothetical regime that oppressed women as severely as it is possible to do without inflicting direct physical violence on them. Would it have to take something like a genocide --- which will always do the trick, regardless of the identity of the victims --- to justify humanitarian intervention? But then, how can it be the case that in your own subjective conceptual framework, women's rights have a special place at all? In other words, if there aren't conditions justifying intervention in their defense that are distinct from the conditions for all other cases, aren't you really just laboring under a self-delusion about being, in the robust sense of having the courage of your convictions, a feminist?
I don't see how to resolve this problem without abandoning one of the two beliefs, i.e., either cease being a feminist or change positions on intervention for women's rights. If both are analytic constituents of feminism --- that is, if a theory that did not include both could not be a feminist theory --- then feminism is just doomed. But no need to panic yet, I'm not even slightly moved to that conclusion; nothing about feminism itself plausibly warrants the second belief. What I dismissed as a dialectical tangle above, really, is a kind of handwaving. I know there's loads of seductive jargon going around, I get it. And I know it's no fun, it can even be traumatic, to be an apostate --- better for peace of mind, though perhaps not long-term wisdom, never to have joined up than to question a party line --- but there's a simple answer for how to be a feminist without believing in these hundredth-hand plagiarized assertion-like incoherences. The answer is: just be one. If a group of bearded patriarchal nutcases takes over a country and claims its women as private property, speak the hell up and don't qualify your speech for one moment if the misogynist bullies happen to be anti-American or anti-capitalist. That doesn't commit you to advocating military action; pragmatic concerns, to cite just one timely example, can rule that out. But it does commit you to rejecting intervention a posteriori if you're in fact going to do it.
It does commit you to preferring, were you a being who could set truth values at worlds, to inhabit a world in which the regime is overthrown over one in which it's not. And it also probably commits you to orienting your concern to those geographic regions in which violations of women's rights are most severe: to choosing, say, to help women in Iran live as freely as possible without facing reprisal for their sins against God instead of, say, debating against yourself, not to do intellectual house-cleaning but to make a public spectacle of your own self-righteousness, over whether you can do more to destroy Yale though external activism against it or by gaining an internal position providing you with Yale's own resources, so that the more ironical it will be when you discharge your moral duties by poisoining from the inside out the institution that wrongs the world so severely by its existing and occasionally extending individuals like, say, you, profound generosity. None of these commitments sound to me like they involve prohibitive theoretical prices, but I don't presume any privileged knowledge about how the metatheory market works in other minds than my own.
All the same, I just can't figure out how the notion of feminism's necessary entailment of the second belief has any intuitive pull for anyone, let alone in the numbers it does. I mean, the only causal explanation I can come up with is that huge numbers of even the subpopulation at the highest regions of intelligence curves just don't have any reflective moments for years at a time. That is, how could anyone possibly suppress the intuition that any regime under which the status of women fits a description matching the description of women's status under the Taliban is a regime whose overthrow by possibly restricted, possibly unrestricted means, it is a feminist's duty to support, and where possible without incurring an unacceptable burden, actively aid such overthrow. No, all I've got is that that thought just never occurs to a large number of ostensibly intellectually engaged people.
Here's another way of putting the puzzle: is it possible to truly have the first belief if one has the second; in other words, might it not be the case that anyone who in fact holds the second belief gives a mistaken belief report anytime she claims to also hold the first? That passes the plausibility test, I think.
All of the foregoing, even if it seems at times dismissive or a mere rhetorical exercise, is not. (Where such appearances are present, it's because I really have devoted energy to thinking about this, and have tried to the best of my ability and failed to construe certain positions in a way that has any intuitive hook on me at least; and I'm my only test subject.) It's all offered in the spirit of inquiry and discourse; I really want to know what people think, because, for one thing, I want to be a feminist but can't if the second belief is essential to it, and more fundamentally, because I don't think any set of beliefs has any sort of privilege of any kind that exempts it from the most strenuous possible scrutiny. That includes my own; if someone disagrees with me, I want to be told; there's a good chance hearing about it will clarify why I hold a particular belief, and possibly get me to change my mind. If some large scale theory I uphold seems to someone to involve an irresolveable tension like what I'm suggesting here, then I really need to hear about it. The point is, there are helpful answers and unhelpful ones. Claiming that I've caused offense or am bad or am a reactionary achieves...what? All that could be true and this puzzle is either a real problem for an orthodoxy or not. So a helpful answer would be one about whether there's some feature of the beliefs I'm missing that resolves the apparent tension, whether my construal is correct but the apparent tension doesn't exist anyway, which of the beliefs or both or neither is essential to a theory being feminist...etc.
I'm not in a perfect position since I have no statistics---though I doubt there are relevant stastics---but the fact that the beliefs I'm laying out for inspection do track a certain kind of orthodoxy in leftist feminism is one I'm pretty confident in. Likewise that responses to iterations of the puzzle---I didn't invent it, Jamie's got one, so do lots of other people---strongly tend towards evasion rather than engagement. In Jamie's case, indeed, I've personally seen recourse to a kind of artificial reasoning shortcut along the lines of, well his views are so repugnant that I'm going to talk about how repugnant they are rather than listen to and respond to him. Who's better off for such a tactic? Certainly not his interlocutor; if the puzzle poses a serious challenge to his or her beliefs, avoiding recognition of that fact impoverishes him or her intellectually.
And just to clarify one more point. This phenomenon of argumentative evasion isn't a function of left-feminism or left-feminists having something uniquely wrong/intellectually dishonest about them. Quite the contrary. One way to demarcate West and East is to draw a line between those societies whose members are most deeply invested emotionally in political beliefs, and those whose members are invested most deeply in religious beliefs. When it seems in the West that big movements like political Evangelicalism are primarily about religious beliefs, what's actually going on is that they have political beliefs whose subject matter is partly religious (partly, often largely not---there's nothing remotely religious about positive or negative attitudes towards gay people). To borrow Quine's web of belief metaphor---it's really enormously useful---most members of Western society place political beliefs closer than any others to the center of the web. Religion can be nearby, but loyalty to major sports teams is surely more central than religion in significantly many cases, and self-interest is very near but not dead center. Practical ethical beliefs, aesthetic beliefs, long-term intentions and desires are farther still, and then only at the periphery are you likely to find beliefs about the sorts of things I'm most interested in, like, e.g., the difference between a dispositional property and a categorical property. And since most people the world over are both dumb and uneducated, it's not a surprise that they react viscerally when you tug at beliefs in the center of the web.
Central beliefs also are vitally important for giving the web its structure; they're weight-bearing beliefs. Take them away and the whole goddamn thing is liable to fall apart; nobody wants to rebuild a web of belief; ideally, the one you start out with is perfectly suited to accomodate your total life experience, but for most people, it's enough to keep knocking down superfluous walls, buying up adjacent property, and rearranging and replacing the furniture of one and the same web. The likeliest candidates for cases of true demolition and rebuilding are a certain kind of political conversion, but not all such conversions. David Horowitz, for example, was a Stalinist on the left and is still a Stalinist on the right. And paranoid and boring and inarticulate and really rather strange, etc. etc. Somebody like Whittaker Chambers, on the other hand---he's certainly a very ambivalent figure, but the conclusion that best fits the evidence about him is that he really did genuinely change his mind, and in doing so, fundamentally reoriented himself. Whereas Horowitz just replaced the value of a lonely variable somewhere in there, and then trimmed around the edges as necessary, Chambers seems to have actually pulled up the foundation stone, gathered the raw materials he had left, and started to build again. The rebuilt web still had plenty objectionable to it---less than the original though---but it's the rebuilding that's fascinating. I've certainly never done it, although I've gone through significant and (you'll have to take my word on this) sincere political change over say, the past 6 years or so. But I never had to junk my belief-web and start over, because I'm the wierdo whose political beliefs, though not along the perimeter, just aren't weight-bearing. I don't know why, and I don't deserve credit for it. Now, if you could show me that non-reductive physicalism is false, I'd been a world of pain.
So what's going on phenomenogically with avoidance of this puzzle and others like it in orthodox left currents (there are essentially one-to-one analogues of the puzzle for any left ideology centered on the kinds of property identities that have been historically important, i.e. gays and racial minorities, not bald men, even though modal realists like myself are sure there are possible worlds in which bald men have historically been subject to greater persecution than any other group---i.e., no need to consider a wider scope of convention than the actual)? The same thing is happening among evasive leftists that's going on when Bush apologists choose to deny objective reality rather than just concede truths that are not difficult to grasp and maximally publicly accessible. Internally, they're acting on a calculation that too much depends on not weakening the beliefs targeted by such challenges. Does that get Bush apologists or self-contradicting leftists off the hook? No, because they're failing in their epistemic duties regarding self-scrutiny and criticism. The difficulty or risk in meeting those duties for a central belief can't be excused by its centrality, since anyone else could have the same belief at the edge of his web, and therefore would have an obligation to resolve a conflict between it and another belief. All beliefs are subject to a categorical imperative for epistemology. (Are there limiting cases? The maximum loss that fulfilling all obligations could entail is something like what Chambers went through. That doesn't sound on first blush like a limiting case.) So it's not the case that, although it seemed like Bush apologists should be reprimanded for their ostrich-poses, it turns out that they're acting out of understandable, indeed excusable, concern for themselves; rather, the magnitude of their normative error is just what it seems to be, but counterintutively, its location is further back in metatheory than prima facie appearances indicate.
What could be the subject of a very interesting discussion is the possibility that people can get those calculations wrong. Troy Cross, for example, said at an informal talk a few years ago that one of the things that kept him holding onto religious beliefs after his direct faith in them had faltered was the fear that his moral intuitions would fall away too. But he did let go of religion, and none of his other beliefs were the worse for it. So it's possible, and here's anecdotal testimony that it's happened before, that people mistake which beliefs are weight-bearing and which not. The inexactness of the metaphor bites back here; there are ways of shifting beliefs around, moving some closer to the center and others farther away, like what must have been the case in my experience, on the assumption that it's not the case that my central beliefs in kindergarten included beliefs about the metaphysics of modality, only I didn't know it. Such movements of belief do jeopardize the overall structure. What enabled Troy to give up religion was that it drifted or was pushed away from the center, so that the beliefs with which it was incompatible came to occupy a more central position.
That incidentally, is what intellectual house-cleaning means: recognition that two or more of one's beliefs are incompatible, and rectifying the problem by repudiating one of them, or both; but the epistemic obligation is only to lose one. What will determine which one survives is their location relative to the center. And although it would be nice to think that the weighing of empirical evidence is an indepedent determining factor, the potential for it to have causal interactions with beliefs depends on the presence of various metabeliefs about, e.g., recourse to empiricism. (That's nothing but Hume's Treatise, by the way.) The balance ends up awfully complicated, with some function of the centrality of one contesting belief along with metabeliefs and others related to it by some subjunctive conditionals, weighing against a parallel function of the other contesting belief. But even on this complicated picture, the sources of any vectors on either side of the balance are at least supervenient on the position relative to center of the opposed beliefs.
The Bush apologists are a useful example again. How can the cream of the National Review crowd, at this advanced date, still deny that officials in the highest strata of the administration deliberately constructed a prisoner detainment policy that involved torture and general violations of human rights? Willful wickedness is a tempting, but unilluminating answer. A more contentful answer is that, given even infinitely many assertions to the contrary, belief in realism about the external world is just not centrally located enough to outstrip the exertions of a cluster of beliefs about the president, his political opposition, and loyalty to country. How do we know that resultant offended protests are false that claim that so-and-so is certainly a realist about the external world and has never said a word against the theory? Because if it were true that so and so is an external world realist (in the robust sense of having conviction in it), so-and-so could not deny facts about the external worlds that enjoy serious publicity and which have specifically been presented to so-and-so on multiple occasions. There could be some buffering mechanism that allows so-and-so to uphold an anti-realism entailing loyalty and a belief in realism, but it is one that only allows so-and-so to uphold both for as long as so-and-so is mistaken about the content of his beliefs. That's the best situation for a torture apologist to be in epistemically, since it would mean that he speaks truly when he claims to believe in external world-realism, and that upon having the buffer removed---a true friend is one who deprives us of such devices---he would recognize what's amiss in his beliefs. Alternatively, so-and-so could just be mistaken about believing in world-realism; he believes he has that belief, but he doesn't. So his reports of having the belief involve honest mistakes, not lies, and also some paradoxical truths. E.g., if p is external world realism, and q is the proposition that s believes p, r is the proposition that s believes q, r can be true when q is false: [s believes (s believes q)] is true even though ~(s believes q); introduce self-referential pronouns and there's something going on similar to Moore's paradox. (Such paradoxes are not exculpatory to be sure. See a few paragraphs up on why an honest mistake isn't an excuse, and merely pushes normative error from theory into metatheory.) Or, a final alternative, so-and-so could just be lying, having privately made peace with anti-realism but continuing for pragmatic reasons to say otherwise publicly (Straussianism!).
I suspect that what happened in the interesting relevant cases, those of middle-rank officials in communist bloc states paradigmatically, is a synthesis of deliberate dishonesty and honest mistaken belief report; that, I suppose, is what the phenomenon of doublethink was fundamentally, a bifurcation of the mind that allows the following propositions to all be true: that I believe I believe in realism about the external world, that I know I believe I believe in realism about the external world, that I don't believe I believe in realism about the external world, and that I know I don't believe I believe in realism about the external world. The cognitive science going on is pretty fascinating; you have essentially a mind partially and asymetrically divided to enable the cohabitation of beliefs that would be intolerable in an undivided mind with the same level of self-knowledge of its beliefs. This divided mind is not subject to a schizophrenic pathology however; it is only divided at certain points, and the division allows it to maintain cognitive function roughly equivalent for most purposes to that of an undivided mind. The division is one strongly shaped by the intentional states of the mind in question; division occurs at the points where the inconsistent beliefs would converge, and nowhere else (there are failures of course, and loads of cases of doublethinkers going bonkers after decades of such self-willed and subtly structured psychopathology).
But I think I've drifted far enough in speculative epistemology for the time being.