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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 17, 2023

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From Quillette, an MIT professor describes the outraged reaction from fellow philosophers when he argued that a woman is an adult human female.

Back in 2019 Alex Byrne wrote one of my favorite essays on the incoherence of gender identity and as far as I can tell no one has managed to offer a solid refutation. Byrne follows up by discussing the difficulties he's had in getting a chapter and a book published on the topic, and his travails are equal parts infuriating and hilarious. For example, consider how a fellow colleague was treated once the crowd got wind that her book might be a bit too critical:

The imminent publication of Holly Lawford-Smith's Gender-Critical Feminism was announced that same month, and almost immediately no less than two petitions of complaint appeared, one from the OUP USA Guild (the union representing the New York staff of OUP), and the other from "members of the international scholarly community" with some connection to OUP. The latter petition expressed the scholars' "profound disappointment" at OUP's forthcoming publication of Lawford-Smith's book, and suggested various "measures the press could undertake to offset the harm done by the publication of this work." OUP needed to confess to a mortal sin and repent. None of the scholars had read the book that they so confidently denounced (since no copy of the book was available for them to read), but this is a mere detail.

This trend of protesting a book before anyone even reads it will never stop being funny to me. Byrne expected his book to go through several revisions and by his account he was happy to accomodate feedback. His reviewers, though, were not:

Publishers often commission reviews of a manuscript from (anonymous) experts in the relevant field, and I had to go through that time-consuming process yet again. It was also rather risky, since—as by now you are well aware—the experts in the philosophy of sex and gender tend to brook no dissent. Responding to the (hopeful) publisher’s question, “Will it make for an outstanding book in your view, or simply a work of average quality?”, one expert wrote: “Neither. It is of extremely poor quality.” Another question: “What would you highlight as the ONE feature about this book that might make you recommend it over other titles available?” “None. It shouldn’t be published.” Lastly: “Is there anything superfluous that could be left out?” “Everything—see above.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with harsh criticism; I have doled out plenty of that myself. Maybe my book deserves it. But a reviewer is expected to give reasons for her verdict—that helps both the author and the publisher. If I had made, as the reviewer said, “sweeping claims” that are “often false,” or had “seriously misunderstood” arguments on the other side, it would be a simple matter to give examples. But the reviewer supplied none: not a single quotation, page number, or chapter reference. From my experience publishing in this particular area of philosophy, this lack of engagement was par for the course. In fact, I found the reviewer’s hyperbolic report reassuring: if I had made mistakes, at least they were not easy to identify.

"What is wrong with my argument?"


"Can you be more specific?"

"Just all of it, it's just bad."

This is the kind of sophistry one would expect from random online arguments, and I'm sure you can identity similar instances even in this very forum. The take-away I'm generally left with is that Byrne's interlocutors are an amalgamation of intellectually fragile individuals. Conclusory statements rather than specifics are a transparent indication that you are aware your arguments will crumble when exposed to a light breeze. Protesting rather than arguing are a transparent indication that you are unable to defend your ideas on their own merits.

All this seems painfully obvious to me as an outsider, and I'm baffled why anyone engages in this ablution pantomime. Who could it possibly convince?

Freddie DeBoer recently put out a banger of a post called "A Conversation About Crime" about the absolute intellectual void behind the "defund the police" movement. The whole thing is worth reading in full, but I'll include the parting shot here:

Look, I’m gonna level with you here. Like the vast majority of leftists who have been minted since Occupy Wall Street, my principles, values, and policy preferences don’t stem from a coherent set of moral values, developed into an ideology, which then suggests preferred policies. At all. That requires a lot of reading and I’m busy organizing black tie fundraisers at work and bringing Kayleigh and Dakota to fencing practice. I just don’t have the time. So my politics have been bolted together in a horribly awkward process of absorbing which opinions are least likely to get me screamed at by an online activist or mocked by a podcaster. My politics are therefore really a kind of self-defensive pastiche, an odd Frankensteining of traditional leftist rhetoric and vocabulary from Ivy League humanities departments I don’t understand. I quote Marx, but I got the quote from Tumblr. I cite Gloria Anzaldua, but only because someone on TikTok did it first. I support defunding the police because in 2020, when the social and professional consequences for appearing not to accept social justice norms were enormous, that was the safest place for me to hide. I maintain a vague attachment to police and prison abolition because that still appears to be the safest place for me to hide. I vote Democrat but/and call myself a socialist because that is the safest place for me to hide. I’m not a bad person; I want freedom and equality. I want good things for everyone. But politics scare and confuse me. I just can’t stand to lose face, so I have to present all of my terribly confused ideals with maximum superficial confidence. If you probe any of my specific beliefs with minimal force, they will collapse, as those “beliefs” are simply instruments of social manipulation. I can’t take my kid to the Prospect Park carousel and tell the other parents that I don’t support police abolition. It would damage my brand and I can’t have that. And that contradiction you detected, where I support maximum forgiveness for crime but no forgiveness at all for being offensive? For me, that’s no contradiction at all. Those beliefs are not part of a functioning and internally-consistent political system but a potpourri of deracinated slogans that protect me from headaches I don’t need. I never wanted to be a leftist. I just wanted to take my justifiable but inchoate feelings of dissatisfaction with the way things are and wrap them up into part of the narrative that I tell other people about myself, the narrative that I’m a kind good worthwhile enlightened person. And hey, in college that even got me popularity/a scholarship/pussy! Now I’m an adult and I have things to protect, and well-meaning but fundamentally unserious activists have created an incentive structure that mandates that I pretend to a) understand what “social justice” means and b) have the slightest interest in working to get it. I just want to chip away at my student loan debt and not get my company’s Slack turned against me. I need my job/I need my reputation/I need to not have potential Bumble dates see anything controversial when they Google me. Can you throw me a bone? Neither I nor 99% of the self-identified socialists in this country believe that there is any chance whatsoever that we’ll ever take power, and honestly, you’re harshing our vibe. So can you please fuck off and let us hide behind the BLM signs that have been yellowing in our windows for three years?

"What is wrong with my argument?"


"Can you be more specific?"

"Just all of it, it's just bad."

At the risk of defending some really quite terrible academics, this is in fact the correct response to some texts. Here is David Stove quoting Hegel:

This is a light that breaks forth on spiritual substance, and shows absolute content and absolute form to be identical; - substance is in itself identical with knowledge. Self-consciousness thus, in the third place, recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive, - or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation. This is intellectual perception; but it is requisite in order that it should be in truth intellectual, that it should not be that merely immediate perception of the eternal and the divine which we hear of, but should be absolute knowledge. This intuitive perception which does not recognize itself is taken as starting-point as if it were absolutely presupposed; it has in itself intuitive perception only as immediate knowledge, and what it perceives it does not really know, - for, taken at its best, it consists of beautiful thoughts, but not knowledge.

There really is no way to say what is wrong with this passage other than to say, “all of it, it’s just bad”. It’s not much better in context either.

You can totally say what's wrong with this passage. Translating from Hegelian to English, Hegel is saying

Immediate perception is our direct, unreflective perceptions of the world. By contrast, intellectual perception is a higher form of knowledge that involves recognizing the unity and interconnectedness of self-consciousness and the fundamental essence of reality. Through intellectual perception, we can understand that the absolute meaning (content) of something is the same as its absolute structure or appearance (form).

Self-consciousness can be understood in three stages:

1: As a negative relation: Someone who is self-conscious can identify the part of the world that is not themselves as "other," and then define their "self" as everything that is not "other."

2: As a positive relation: Someone who is self-conscious can recognize that they exist in relation to the outside world and understand what that relationship is.

3: As a synthesis of these positive and negative relations, called "intellectual perception": Someone who is self-conscious can see that their thoughts and self-identity are both connected to and separate from the outside world. This synthesis allows them to recognize the unity of content and form, and achieve a deeper understanding of reality.

True intellectual perception goes beyond immediate knowledge derived purely from thoughts and sensory experience. It is a type of absolute knowledge.

A possible critique might look like

  1. Someone who takes a heroic dose of LSD can experience ego death. Such a person experiences a merging of their self-identity with the outside world. This proves that their "absolute knowledge" of their personal identity is contingent on their sensory experiences, and as such is not absolute knowledge.

  2. Also this writing style frankly sucks. Use simple words. Use paragraphs. If you find yourself using pronouns like "it" and "that" to refer to three or more different things in a single sentence, you should replace those pronouns with their referents.

You're doing the Lord's work

Immediate perception is our direct, unreflective perceptions of the world.

This is a perfectly sensible statement, that you can have a conversation about, but can you point to it's counterpart in the original that translates into this? I get the feeling you're engaging in poetry analysis.

The counterpart is

This intuitive perception which does not recognize itself is taken as starting-point as if it were absolutely presupposed; it has in itself intuitive perception only as immediate knowledge

I reordered the arguments because Hegel put things in a weird incomprehensible order.

I reordered the arguments because Hegel put things in a weird incomprehensible order.

Ah, I thought I was going crazy for a moment.

That is a common symptom of trying to consume unmediated Hegel.

One thing that can notably help with the task of understanding writing which is bad in this way, and which did help me here: (Chat)GPT4 is mildly superhuman at the Winograd task, which is to identify what an ambiguous pronoun refers to. As such, the prompt "replace all pronouns in the following passage with their referent, in square brackets" works wonderfully to help disentangle dense obscurantist philosopher babble.