This continues my last post. At that post’s link (here together with the comments), the author claims that philosophy departments in America, steeped as they are in analytic philosophy, have not engaged with “questions of race, nation, empire, colonialism, violence, etc,” which is something that the other humanities departments have done. Looking at the way those other departments do things, I don’t feel that philosophy has a lot to be ashamed of. Sometimes being late to the party has its advantages, and for philosophy this means avoiding the many mistakes made by those other departments. After all, just because philosophy needs to dwell on social justice, that doesn’t mean that they have to follow those other departments down a rat hole.
Here are some ideas for how analytic philosophy would do things differently. The point here isn’t to reject the general direction of those other departments, but rather to avoid their errors.
1. We would want a politically neutral way of deciding when to use the term “hegemony” and related terms. Current practice is to call the dominant group you hate hegemonic, but to say nothing against a dominant group that you like. Obviously, that isn’t consistent. As an example, the link that inspired this post refers to the hegemony of white males in philosophy, but not to the hegemony of postmodernism in the other humanities departments.
2. We would want reasonably precise definitions of terms like “racist” and “sexist” so as to avoid using them against people who are not in fact racist or sexist. For example, the recent disclosures in Rotherham, England, revealed that a feminist from the Labour party who, as the Member of Parliament for her district back in 2002, complained about “Asian lads” sexually abusing white girls in her district was called racist for her efforts. Almost certainly a feminist from the Labour party is not a racist.
3. Since many disputes center around incidents, we would want a way to determine the facts of the incident (independently of a trial, which may never happen). Too often people will believe the first reports of an incident that they hear, without hearing about revised reports or without accepting them if they do. For example, the first news we heard about George Zimmerman was that he was white. Later on we learned that he was Hispanic, which The New York Times transformed into “white Hispanic.” It seemed like their way of fighting to keep the controversy about white racism rather than something more complex.
4. We would want to deal with oppression in a consistent fashion, unlike current practice. Current practice focuses intently on some examples of oppression, while ignoring others entirely. One person can be accused of sexism for something trivial, while another can get away with something major. For example, Larry Summers was accused of sexism for a mild remark he made, while people from North Africa can engage in genital mutilation of their daughters without getting accused of anything. Moreover, what do we say if A oppresses B, and B oppresses C (especially if A doesn’t oppress C)? Consistency would demand that we condemn A for the oppression of B and B for the oppression of C, but that is not what always happens. Sometimes, just one of these will be dealt with while the other will be ignored. For example, Israel is condemned for oppressing the Palestinians, but the Palestinians are not condemned for oppressing women and gays in their society.
5. We would want to spell out the conditions under which a person, group, or country can be blamed for an atrocity. For example, Noam Chomsky is infamous for blaming the United States for the atrocities committed in Cambodia known as the killing fields. These were of course not committed by the United States, nor even by puppets of the United States, but instead were committed by leftists, the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, no one prior to the rise of the Khmer Rouge had any idea that they would commit such terrible atrocities, so to blame the United States for this would require some very broad principles of blame, and broad principles of blame almost certainly would indict many other people and groups whom Chomsky and other leftists wouldn’t want indicted.
6. We would want to spell out the conditions under which goals have been reached. As conservatives have noted, “race hustlers” tell blacks that they will experience lots of racism in the world, but fail to tell them that there are institutions that are desperate to look diverse and would love to hire blacks. In academia, many jobs that blacks could fill go to white candidates or else to foreign blacks who were educated outside of the sphere of this kind of propaganda.
7. Finally, we would want to examine carefully the justifications that are given for the choices that the other humanities departments have made which I have called abuses. That is, they seem like abuses to me, but I am also aware of vague justifications underlying them. Analytic philosophy is good at examining such justifications in order to see to what extent they are supported by more general principles of justice that would be acceptable to most people. Analytic philosophy is also good at examining whether any given justification has implications that might be unacceptable to those using that justification. (For example, I claim that the justification for the harsh leftist treatment of Israel would also seem to demand harsh treatment of China, given their oppression of the Uighurs.) The basic question here is to what extent can the decisions made by these other departments be seen as part of a consistent and satisfying system of principles of justice and not as just a byzantine patchwork of decisions made on the basis of the emotions of the particular moment in which they were made.
These, then, are some of the problems that analytic philosophy would deal with, were it to deal in depth with social justice. The strength of analytic philosophy is in demanding precision in defining words, investigating claims of knowledge, and examining the justification of propositions. It is entirely possible that such an approach would vindicate the decisions made by the other humanities departments, but it seems more likely that analytic philosophy would come to entirely different conclusions. As I suggested above, harsh treatment of Israel might also demand harsh treatment of China. In addition, it might turn out that America and the other Western countries would appear in a better light, while some from the Third World would look a lot worse, once the analysis were completed. But that is the risk one takes in demanding that analytic philosophy engage with problems of social justice.