Fairness and Fish

by John Holbo on March 19, 2012

I’m teaching a chapter from Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress [amazon]. This passage gives some sense of the argument:

Why should our capacity to reason require anything more than disinterestedness within one’s own group? Since the interests of my group will often be better served by ignoring the interests of members of other groups, the need for a public justification of conduct should require no more than this. Indeed, shouldn’t we rather expect the need for public justification to prohibit justifications which give the interests of my group no more weight than the interests of other groups? This suggestion overlooks the autonomy of reasoning – the feature I have pictured as an escalator. If we do not understand what an escalator is, we might get on it intending to go a few meters, only to find that once we are on, it is difficult to avoid going all the way to the end. Similarly, once reasoning has got started it is hard to tell where it will stop. The idea of a disinterested defense of one’s conduct emerges because of the social nature of human beings and the requirements of group living, but in the thought of reasoning beings, it takes on a logic of its own which leads to its extension beyond the bounds of the group.

I think it’s fair to say that Stanley Fish is shaky on the concept of an escalator, in Peter Singer’s sense.

Here’s a bit of Gunnar Myrdal Singer quotes. What do you think of this general line?

The individual … does not act in moral isolation. He is not left alone to manage his rationalizations as he pleases, without interference from outside. His valuations will, instead, be questioned and disputed. Democracy is a “government by discussion,” and so, in fact, are other forms of government, though to a lesser degree. Moral discussion goes on in all groups from the intimate family circle to the international conference table …. In this process of moral criticism which men make upon each other, the valuations on the higher and more general planes – referring to all human beings and not to specific small groups – are regularly invoked by one party or the other, simply because they are held in common among all groups in society, and also because of the supreme prestige they are traditionally awarded. By this democratic process of open discussion there is started a tendency which constantly forces a larger and larger part of the valuation sphere into conscious attention. More is made conscious than any single person or group would on his own initiative find it advantageous to bring forward at the particular moment. … The feeling of need for logical consistency within the hierarchy of moral valuations – and the embarrassed and sometimes distressed feeling that the moral order is shaky – is, in its modern intensity, a rather new phenomenon. With less mobility, less intellectual communication, and less public discussion, there was in previous generations less exposure of one another’s valuation conflicts. The leeway for false beliefs, which makes rationalizations of valuations more perfect for their purpose, was also greater in an age when science was less developed and education less extensive. These historical differentials can be observed today within our own society among the different social layers with varying degrees of education and communication with the larger society, stretching all the way from the tradition-bound, inarticulate, quasi-folk societies in isolated backward regions to the intellectuals of the cultural centers. When one moves from the former groups to the latter, the sphere of moral valuations becomes less rigid, more ambiguous and also more translucent. At the same time the more general valuations increasingly gain power over the ones bound to traditional peculiarities of regions, classes, or other smaller groups. One of the surest generalizations is that society, in its entirety, is rapidly moving in the direction of the more general valuations.

Then again, there’s Stanley Fish. I keep thinking he can’t get any more Stanley Fish-like than he already was. But then he goes and does it. Oh, and there’s RedState.

{ 75 comments }

1

Bruce Baugh 03.19.12 at 8:00 am

I am really pleased with the “escalator” concept – that fits my experience of the world to a T, and gives it a nice compact label. That’s Singer doing one of the things he does well.

Myrdal makes some excellent points too, though I’m leery of claiming too much tolerable ignorance for the past. There have been times when more serious engagement with ideas was more widespread through more classes than it is now in the US, certainly, and even in societies where this kind of debate was the domain of relatively few, that doesn’t mean there was less challenge to foundations among them. (Why yes, I have been reading some overview history of late antiquity and the Middle Ages lately.)

But that doesn’t at all undermine my appreciation of More is made conscious than any single person or group would on his own initiative find it advantageous to bring forward at the particular moment. , which strikes me as true and very important to understanding the ways unfolding debates shape and push us.

2

Phil 03.19.12 at 10:02 am

I’m enough of a Pragmatist to think Fish is making a valid point, although it’s not necessarily the point he thinks he’s making. In fact what he says is horribly confused & self-contradicting, but I don’t think it’s actually nonsense. (I’m available for blurbs and book jacket quotes.)

Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break? There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance.

The confused bit is in bold. And again:

Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.

“Won’t wash” appears to be code for “There’s a turning up ahead signposted Valid And Interesting Ways To Stand Up My Intuitions… oh, I’ve missed it. Maybe I should have slowed down. Never mind.”

There are ways – and they really aren’t difficult or obscure ways – of associating political positions with fundamental principles: we could talk about gender equality and minimum standards of living, and we could also talk about representative political platforms and clarity of public discourse. It’s really not that hard, given a few fairly simple ethical principles, to demonstrate that Limbaugh and Palin are doing bad things & trying to make life worse. And there are ways – again, not particularly obscure ways – of bringing power into the picture, and factoring in the huge difference between hateful words spoken to the powerful and spoken to the powerless.

All of this is tribal, as Rorty argued, but in complex ways. Being a member of a ‘Left tribe’ brings with it the belief that Limbaugh is an ignorant bully, but it also brings certain kinds of principles and arguments – having to do with power and discourse as well as social equality – with which that intuition could be grounded. And, I’d argue, those are good principles and arguments that could usefully be developed. The principles and arguments on the pro-Limbaugh side – well, have you seen that Red State post?

When Fish talks about being deliberately unfair he confuses his own issue. We want to give Fluke no more than she deserves (i.e. more than she’s getting), and Limbaugh no more than he deserves (i.e. much less). The true universalism is all on our side.

3

John Quiggin 03.19.12 at 10:13 am

Fish is now in my Frank Bruni category. I feel as if every reading of either costs me IQ points, so I no longer bother, even when the title and write-off look potentially interesting.

4

Marc 03.19.12 at 12:32 pm

It doesn’t help, of course, that there is a difference between the cases being discussed by Fish. If there was a liberal media person who spent three days lying about something that a conservative said before congress, and making up a series of personal attacks on her character, you would have an actual case of equivalence. But you don’t, and that’s the point. Fish is so anxious to defend his (republican) tribe that any form of false equivalence is sufficient. Unfortunately for him, even the high priest of sophistry runs into cases where his word games can’t overcome common decency.

5

Bloix 03.19.12 at 2:27 pm

Schultz and Maher used offensive language in an obviously metaphorical sense. Schultz called Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut” and a “talk slut” with the obvious meaning that she is a hack, a political operative who works for money, not conviction. Maher called Palin a “cunt” and a “dumb twat,” words that are wholly metaphorical. The words were offensive and misogynist and they deserved condemnation.

But they don’t compare in any way to what Limbaugh did. He spent three full days attacking Fluke, not metaphorically, but saying that she is literally a person who seeks to be paid for having sex, who is a literal prostitute.

I don’t see why we are dignifying the equivalency argument with learned discussions of Peter Singer and Gunnar Myrdal.

6

straightwood 03.19.12 at 2:28 pm

One of the most depressing aspects of the Internet age is the removal of the excuse of ignorance for the persistence of irrational behavior. It is now clearly established that even formally educated people will refuse to accept rational proof that contradicts their prejudices. This is a serious challenge to the idea of democracy, and it will require some radical re-thinking of how to achieve good governance in a world where people simply refuse to believe, and act on, inconvenient truths.

7

CJColucci 03.19.12 at 3:31 pm

There’s a very simple principle separatting Limbaugh on one side and Maher/Schultz (who was, after all, suspended) on the other: Pick on someone your own size.

8

Jerry Vinokurov 03.19.12 at 3:45 pm

There’s absolutely no need to defend either Maher or Schultz. Their knee-jerk misogyny is, while not quite as gross as Limbaugh’s, still in fact pretty gross. The feminist blogosphere has been all over this, repeatedly. There’s no need to excuse their bad conduct or ignore people who have taken them to task for it.

9

Tom Bach 03.19.12 at 3:48 pm

marc is right. It seems to me that the lying and using vile language against someone you have just lied about is the sop for “cultural warriors.”

10

geo 03.19.12 at 4:08 pm

Phil @9: fascinating comment. More, please. In particular, if

There are ways – and they really aren’t difficult or obscure ways – of associating political positions with fundamental principles: we could talk about gender equality and minimum standards of living, and we could also talk about representative political platforms and clarity of public discourse. It’s really not that hard, given a few fairly simple ethical principles, to demonstrate that Limbaugh and Palin are doing bad things & trying to make life worse. And there are ways – again, not particularly obscure ways – of bringing power into the picture, and factoring in the huge difference between hateful words spoken to the powerful and spoken to the powerless.

well, if it’s not really difficult to bring power into the picture and associate our political positions with fundamental principles, maybe you could oblige your busy comrades and show us how?

11

Bruce Wilder 03.19.12 at 4:25 pm

Using profanity in slandering others works, as a rhetorical tactic. It works, and because it works, and to make it work, we have a social convention, which prohibits or deprecates the use of profanity in slandering others.

You have to be something of an idiot to confuse the social convention regarding the use of profane language with a high ethical principle. And, the only thing Enlightenment liberalism, as a moral philosophy, has to say on the subject is to point out that the taboo on profanity is not morally substantial. People should not go to jail or be hanged for blasphemy, seditious libel, etc. That was the contribution of the Enlightenment.

In-group, out-groups and procedural fairness belong to another realm, and there are profound ambiguities in that realm, which make nonsense of any escalator metaphor.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.19.12 at 4:35 pm

The elevator thing is about reasoning, but what’s being discussed here (the insults and so on) is not so much reasoning, but rhetoric, polemics. And as far as polemics is concerned, perhaps Fish has a point there. Reasoning is a different story.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.19.12 at 4:36 pm

Ah, I see Bruce said it already.

14

geo 03.19.12 at 4:55 pm

Like JQ@3, I find Fish consistently exasperating. This seems, though, like the best possible reason to continue reading him. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, exasperation over another’s views is an infallible indicator of lack of confidence in one’s own.

15

Kenny Easwaran 03.19.12 at 5:11 pm

First of all, Jerry is right (and I don’t just say this because I know him) – Maher and Schultz are definitely in the wrong for what they said.

Still, there are several points where Fish is wrong, including some that I think haven’t been mentioned here yet.

Fish says:
So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.
and then later:
If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy.
However, it seems to me that the liberal can perfectly well say that the things Schultz and Maher said on that one occasion are just as bad as the things that Limbaugh said on that one occasion, and yet also say that generally Schultz and Maher generally say things that aren’t as bad as the things that Limbaugh generally says. Procedural fairness doesn’t mean that if someone says something bad once, you must immediately completely disown them and everything they have ever done – it just says you should treat different people the same for the same conduct. And this is perfectly compatible with treating them differently when they have histories of different conduct.

Of course, as Jerry points out, Bill Maher really isn’t deserving of protection or respect. He really does appear to side with progressives and democrats purely out of tribal loyalty and not out of any substantive commitment to principles of fairness and equality. (I don’t know Ed Schultz as much – I hear Rachel Maddow talk about him all the time, which makes me think good things about him, but she’s probably just contractually obligated to this, just as she used to be for Keith Olbermann.)

16

js. 03.19.12 at 5:13 pm

Just read the Fish piece. I really want the last five minutes of my life back.

And JV at 8 is exactly right.

17

Kenny Easwaran 03.19.12 at 5:13 pm

Also, I’m surprised to hear that Frank Bruni is in the Stanley Fish category! I think of Bruni as a food writer that’s sometimes over his head in writing about other things now, while Fish put himself in this position.

18

Patrick 03.19.12 at 5:15 pm

What’s continually infuriating about this is the lie it depends on: “The left [which on most right wing accounts, includes feminists] didn’t condemn Maher and Schultz.” As #8 points out, Pandagon, Shakespeare’s Sister, and others were all over the liberal misogynists, as they were all over the Obama campaign’s occasional lapses into misogynist with respect to Senator Clinton.

What’s really irritating about this particular false equivalence is not only that the equivalence is false, but that so many lies are being told to make it seem less false. (I don’t know what happens at Georgetown, but where I and my partner work, we pay for our health insurance, not my employer, nor the government. The Pill has medical uses beyond contraception. Many on the left rebuke misogynists. And on, and on.)

Also, linking to Red State on a feminist issue? I read it, and I feel soiled, and I’ll probably feel that way all day.

19

Tim Wilkinson 03.19.12 at 5:27 pm

What’s ‘procedural’ about it anyway?

I suppose mere ‘procedural’ fairness (which is something to do with featherbedding terrorists, isn’t it?) is easier to dismiss than just plain ‘fairness’ (equal treatment, universality, objectivity etc.)

20

Sebastian H 03.19.12 at 5:47 pm

“As #8 points out, Pandagon, Shakespeare’s Sister, and others were all over the liberal misogynists, as they were all over the Obama campaign’s occasional lapses into misogynist with respect to Senator Clinton.”

It is a matter of scale. ‘All over’ covers a wide possibility of ground. The scale of the reaction to the liberal misogynists was not as big as the scale of the reaction to Limbaugh. Which makes sense on a tribal, human level: it is way easier for us to attack people we don’t like and tone it down for people we do like. And sometimes we do so much as to make excuses for them.

That said, on the flip side, Limbaughs vile statements in this instance are also a matter of scale/propriety. He attacked a bit figure who can’t conveniently fight back, on a scale including days of attacks. Part of that is the nature of radio (quips get repeated as radio is a very repetitive format compared to TV), but it was still really nasty.

But from an intellectual inquiry point of view, I think it is safe to say that it is very easy to come to lazy defences of people you like, and lazy attacks of people you don’t. Often that laziness ends up infecting your thinking in ways that don’t really hold up well under examination.

21

js. 03.19.12 at 5:48 pm

Phil:
Being a member of a ‘Left tribe’ brings with it the belief that Limbaugh is an ignorant bully, but it also brings certain kinds of principles and arguments – having to do with power and discourse as well as social equality – with which that intuition could be grounded. And, I’d argue, those are good principles and arguments that could usefully be developed.

But this Rorty line is equally hopeless. If someone who self-conceives as of “the Left tribe” just as such adopts the belief that Limbaugh is an ignorant bully, then they’re doing something wrong (sorry if I misunderstand, but I dont; see how else to read “brings with it” in the above). It’s surely rather that a sane English speaker should, when presented with the evidence, acquire the knowledge that RL is an ignorant bully (and worse). Their assumed sanity, with further rational reflection on social conditions (really, just the escalator) should move them to the Left.

22

Bloix 03.19.12 at 5:54 pm

“Fish says:
So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line;”

But they have not “crossed the same line” and to say that they have is to reveal oneself as a member of the Republican noise machine. Fish may not be a card-carrying member but he’s certainly a fellow-traveler.

“it seems to me that the liberal can perfectly well say that the things Schultz and Maher said on that one occasion are just as bad as the things that Limbaugh said on that one occasion,”

Any “liberal’ who said anything like that would be an even-the-liberal of the sort who writes for the New Republic, because we are not talking about Limbaugh saying a bad word or two on “one occasion,” we are talking about a campaign of intimidation that would have continued indefinitely if his advertisers hadn’t begun to pull out on day three.

It’s fine, I suppose, to be making philosophical arguments in the air about hypothetical commentators A, B, and C, but it’s a mistake to label them as “Limbaugh,” “Maher,” and “Schultz” because someone might think that you are talking about real people.

23

Sebastian H 03.19.12 at 6:02 pm

A good example of it on the left side is the neck breaking change of rhetoric by extremely prominent feminists on power dynamics and the appropriateness of fucking interns, as well as the proper punishment for an authority figure who does so, when it was revealed that Clinton was the one doing it.

Also remember that before the DNA evidence on the dress was revealed, Clinton’s team lied about Lewinsky attempting to portray her as a nutty slut who just wanted Clinton.

Similarly, even now the “we believe women who report rape” rubric doesn’t apply evenly to Juanita Broaddrick who gave a very credible story that she was raped by President Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.

It is really hard to attack people that we perceive being on our side, even when they go well into the territory that we would easily attack our opponents for.

24

geo 03.19.12 at 6:14 pm

I wonder whether Sebastian’s history is accurate. Did extremely prominent feminists ignore or condone Clinton’s sexual antics, or did they just object to the Republicans’ transparent attempt to sabotage the Democratic agenda altogether by insanely inappropriate impeachment proceedings that hijacked Congressional and public attention for months on end? Surely there’s a difference?

25

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.19.12 at 6:25 pm

Maher called Palin a “cunt” and a “dumb twat,” words that are wholly metaphorical.

Lol. Anyway, I don’t remember any American calling someone a twat, but the Brits I know use this word all the time. What’s the matter with Maher’s writers, are they British?

26

Uncle Kvetch 03.19.12 at 6:32 pm

I don’t remember any American calling someone a twat, but the Brits I know use this word all the time.

Different pronunciations and vastly different meanings, Henri. They’re in no way equivalent.

27

Substance McGravitas 03.19.12 at 6:40 pm

It is a matter of scale. ‘All over’ covers a wide possibility of ground. The scale of the reaction to the liberal misogynists

In cases like this we have to remember the right-wing folk wisdom that says “any institution that is not explicitly right wing will become left wing over time” and understand that the dominant players in media are taken to be an arm of the Democratic Party (which is totally leftist I swear).

28

MS 03.19.12 at 6:54 pm

Hume? Did Singer forget about him or am I misreading this as an explanation of ever greater universalizing in moral reasoning?

If it is not an explanation, never mind. If it is, Hume’s is better.

29

Bruce Wilder 03.19.12 at 6:57 pm

HV@25

Maher used the word, “twat,” as a synecdoche, relying on its common American usage to refer to a part of the female anatomy. The British use “twat” as a kind of superlative of their “twit”, both words refering to a fool.

30

Bruce Wilder 03.19.12 at 7:08 pm

Bloix @ 22

Fish is playing the same basic game as Jonathan Haidt, whose op-ed was the subject of the previous post, “All culture wars, all the time”. He’s a Centrist Critic, out to subtly undermine and de-legitimize liberalism, or, perhaps, even reason itself — primarily it seems by bad example. It is not accidental that Quiggin feels Fish is shaving the reader’s IQ with every essay.

31

geo 03.19.12 at 8:03 pm

I’m mystified that anyone thinks reading Fish can make you dumber. I’m not a great fan of his myself, but anyone who thinks he’s simply dismissable or ignorable seems to me like a very young child playing with a very sharp scimitar.

32

Patrick 03.19.12 at 9:19 pm

As far as I can tell, Sebastian H doesn’t read feminist blogs. It seems to me he reads “they both do it” news stories about liberal and conservative discourse and believes them, or affects to do so. See this: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2008/04/its-time-to-get-obama-skeptical.html. One example among many.

Also, #24.

33

Marc 03.19.12 at 9:33 pm

@23: Christ almighty. First of all, Sebastian is conveniently ignoring some essential background. There was a massive attack on Clinton, complete with claims that he had murdered dozens of people, fathered black children out of wedlock (even worse than the first item!), and claim after claim after claim about corruption. These accusations ranged from outlandish (the murder accusations) to drastically overblown (the financial ones.) So the Lewinsky case played out against a background where Clinton had repeatedly been accused of absurd and false things. Sebastian is making believe that none of these lies ever happened; you can’t make sense of how the impeachment case played out unless you recognize the foul motives involved. And he is still peddling discredited cases two decades after the fact.

Then, of course, there is the matter that Lewinsky didn’t make a complaint – she was basically tricked into keeping physical evidence and forced to provide it. This is more than a little different than having her make a complaint against Clinton and not being believed. Consent is relevant, a concept that conservatives seem not to understand.

34

John Quiggin 03.19.12 at 10:14 pm

@geo I should say that I’m only referring to his NYT columns. For all I know, his academic work is excellent. Similarly, I only just learned from this thread that Frank Bruni got his Op-Ed gig by way of being a food critic – he may well have been great in that capacity.

Can you give me an example of something he’s written in the NYT that’s worth the time taken to read it? Surely not the piece being discussed in this thread.

35

Marc 03.19.12 at 10:52 pm

Before he was a food critic Bruni was the reporter who “covered” the Bush campaign in 2000 for the New York Times. He was noted for his shallow and fawning treatment of Bush, and wrote a painfully un-self aware book about it. See

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/05/ta_052611.html

for a summary of his character, or lack thereof.

36

Phil 03.19.12 at 10:57 pm

geo – not sure if I’m being complimented or trolled…

Basically I think Pragmatism has a lot to teach us. (Possibly even Rorty. I thought he was an annoying twit, but I’m uncomfortably aware that I’ve gained insights from Dewey after finding him first trivial & then irritating, so…)

There’s an odd sort of reaching for objective facts-of-the-matter that goes on in cases like this, with the tacit understanding that political facts-of-the-matter should be put to one side. This, I think, is where the worries about fairness start, and it’s why people fall into the tu quoque elephant-trap: as if we’d all woken up this morning behind the veil of ignorance, and every line spoken by Limbaugh or Bill Maher or anyone else had to be weighed up in isolation.

I’m suggesting that ‘we’ (in the leftish tribe, including many or most of the commenters above) know damn well that Limbaugh is an obnoxious bully with a bad political project and nasty ways of advancing it, and – more to the point – that if pressed we can stand up every one of those adjectives, relating them to things we hold to be bad & by extension values we prize. And those associations, and those values, set the context for the evaluation of whatever today’s bad news is. (It’s true that we believe that our values, and the beliefs & evaluations that follow from them, can be spread by rational discourse; it doesn’t follow that our beliefs are rational, any more than it follows that they’re an appropriate response to objective truth.)

It follows that there’s no conceivable equivalence between “bad person with reactionary project says bad thing” and “good person with progressive project says bad thing” – Fish is right about that – and that you don’t need objective definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to make that distinction. Not everyone is going to agree with the definition you use, but when did everyone agree about anything?

Where I think Fish does go wrong is in advocating unfairness. The point is not to see fairness and turn away from it, but to realise that the liberal, veil-of-ignorance idea of fairness isn’t the best way of thinking about justice.

37

Helen 03.19.12 at 11:13 pm

Fish:

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair.

This is written from the point of view of a “liberalism” which presupposes all actors are male. Some of us think misogyny is misogyny, whether it comes from the right or the left.

Phil:

It’s really not that hard, given a few fairly simple ethical principles, to demonstrate that Limbaugh and Palin are doing bad things & trying to make life worse. And there are ways – again, not particularly obscure ways – of bringing power into the picture, and factoring in the huge difference between hateful words spoken to the powerful and spoken to the powerless.

Again, it depends what the “hateful words” are. If you are saying Palin and Limbaugh are ignorant, bigoted and corrupt, then absolutely. But if you’re calling Palin or Ingraham a slut or a bimbo (or a “cunt” or a “dumb twat”), that’s misogyny, and you’re not just directing hateful words at Palin. That’s the bit which Fish completely misses.
Bloix has a point but it is ultimately hair-splitting. Misogynist language is misogynist language.

As Patrick @18 points out, Shakespeare’s sister and other quality feminist blogs take great pains to be consistent in this way, which is one of the reasons why they are as good as they are.

As Bloix points out, Limbaugh’s case was objectively worse because he was engaging in a full-on campaign of intimidation. That’s a separate issue.

John Q:

I feel as if every reading of [Fish] costs me IQ points

I hadn’t read much Fish before, and can only agree.

38

Helen 03.19.12 at 11:15 pm

Lots of HTML fail there, sorry. I blame the reading of Fish and associated loss of IQ points.

39

geo 03.19.12 at 11:47 pm

JQ @34: Yes, his literary criticism is excellent, and so is his legal/political criticism: http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1994/01/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-s.html
http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/2000/04/the-trouble-with-principle-by.html.
I disagree with most of what he writes in the NY Times, but I almost invariably have the damnedest time actually trying to rebut it — I take off my hat to those who have a much easier time of it. I don’t think the piece JH cites in the OP is at all silly. “Fairness,” like “freedom,” is in the last analysis an incoherent notion. Very few people ever get to the last analysis, and Fish is one of them. The reason I often disagree with him is that there’s generally no need to invoke the ultimate philosophical incoherence of “fairness” or “freedom”; the rough-and-ready coherence of our everyday notions will do the left/liberal job just fine, and Fish seems puzzlingly (pedantically?) reluctant to acknowledge in practice what he’s always insisting on in theory: that philosophy has no consequences.

Phil: complimented, definitely. And I find my judgment vindicated when you say @36: It follows that there’s no conceivable equivalence between “bad person with reactionary project says bad thing” and “good person with progressive project says bad thing” – Fish is right about that – and that you don’t need objective definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to make that distinction. Not everyone is going to agree with the definition you use, but when did everyone agree about anything? I too am a Pragmatist (unlike you, an adorer of Rorty). I posed the question I did because I thought, perhaps wrongly, that you were saying that, contra Fish and Rorty, political positions could indeed be derived from and justified by “fundamental principles” — “fundamental” meaning here, “without regard to consequences.” That would be a most unpragmatic thing to say.

40

Consumatopia 03.19.12 at 11:52 pm

What all three of these dudes said was horrible, but Schultz at least fully apologized and got suspended. Limbaugh gave a non-apology apology, and so far as I know, Maher hasn’t apologized at all (but did stick up for Limbaugh!)

It’s reasonable to argue that Schultz should have been booted off the air–if you can’t stop yourself from calling women sluts on live broadcasts you probably aren’t fit for live broadcasts–but he’s not in the same class as the other two who are, more or less, unrepentant.

I do find it a bit unfortunate to hear Obama’s team dismiss calls to return Maher’s donation on the grounds that what Maher said is different from what Limbaugh said. Sure, what Limbaugh said was worse, but what Maher said was still unacceptable. I don’t know what ethical principles should guide an organization in taking money from people who say reprehensible things, but whatever that principle is, it ought to apply to both Limbaugh and Maher.

41

Phil 03.20.12 at 12:16 am

that’s misogyny, and you’re not just directing hateful words at Palin. That’s the bit which Fish completely misses

I’m not convinced. I think Fish was taking it as read that both Limbaugh and Maher were using hate speech, attacking somebody as a woman & hence attacking women generally.* The question then becomes, “should we treat an ally who says something unforgivably vile while attacking somebody much more prominent and powerful than himself, just the same as an enemy who says something unforgivably vile while attacking somebody much less prominent and powerful than himself?” I think we – and I don’t just mean people who aren’t in the group being attacked – do tend to differentiate between those two cases. And, like Fish, I think we’re basically right to do so – not because it’s right to be “unfair”, but because it’s right to differentiate between progress & reaction, and between power & powerlessness.

Put it another way, we can condemn Bill Maher on our own time (and it sounds as if many people already have done, without any prompting from the Right being needed).

*There may be nuances here I’m not getting – I can see how both ‘twat’ and ‘cunt’ could be quite nasty gendered insults, but in British English they just aren’t; they have quite specific (non-sexual) meanings, and they’re mostly used by men of other men.

42

John Quiggin 03.20.12 at 12:22 am

@Geo I have much the same immediate reaction as you to Fish’s NYT stuff, “not right, but it’s hard to say exactly how it’s wrong”. The difference, I think, is in the prior expectations we bring to bear.

You know him as a deep and subtle thinker, and impute the problem to subtle errors of reasoning, requiring a subtle counter-analysis. To the extent I knew of him before he joined the NYT, it was as a character in a David Lodge novel. So, my reaction is “another silly-clever contrarian, not even wrong”. I think his NYT output, considered in isolation, justifies my reaction more than yours.

43

Phil 03.20.12 at 12:34 am

geo – I thought, perhaps wrongly, that you were saying that, contra Fish and Rorty, political positions could indeed be derived from and justified by “fundamental principles”

Ah. I’m thinking more of digging down until the digging stops – till you get to what Rorty called the “final vocabulary”. Which will be a network of concepts & associations not identical with, say, yours (or we’d be the same person) but not entirely dissimilar either (or we couldn’t hold a conversation).

I’m more of a fan of Schutz’s phenomenology than I am of the Pragmatists, although I don’t think they’re incompatible. On fundamentals, objective truths & so on, I think the phenomenological move to focus on consciousness & belief is really useful – as if to say, there are certain things which I believe to be unchallengeably true, but I know at the same time that the only fact of the matter I have access to is the fact that I hold that belief. Schutz: “I am afraid I do not exactly know what reality is, and my only comfort in this unpleasant situation is that I share my ignorance with the greatest philosophers of all time.”

44

Sebastian H 03.20.12 at 1:01 am

Marc are you saying that Broaddrick’s rape allegations were discredited? I’m not aware of that at all. I believe they were denied by the accused rapist, but from a feminist perspective that isn’t exactly the end of the discussion. Her friends reported that she was extremely distraught at about that time. The main allegation ‘discrediting’ Broaddrick was that she attended a fund raiser afterwards, which any feminist will tell you doesn’t mean that the rape was ficticious when the rapist has economic power over you (as Clinton did over Broaddrick’s bussiness at the time). The story also had various similarities with the Paula Jones allegations, which is what you would expect from a serial sex offender.

And the telling bit isn’t that feminists took the accusations as non-credible because of the context of anti-Clintonism. It is that they changed their story about what counted as acceptable behaviour from a man in power to his subordinates. In the early 90’s the story was that any such sexual contact was inherently abusive because of the power dynamic and the effect it would have on the women who were NOT willing to engage in fucking around with the boss. The story at the time was that such contact was bad, even if the woman allegedly wanted it. Right before the Clinton allegations were revealed, the feminist critique of boss-employee sexual relations was at the high water mark, and the reversal with Clinton was extreme.

Patrick, I don’t hang out at Shakespeare’s sister much, but I’m at amptoons all the time, which is very similar. And that post you linked supports the position that we find it easier to attack our enemies rather than our friends, the post-writer is writing an anti-Obama post *at the time when she supports Clinton in the primary against Obama*. But if you want to talk about Bill Clinton and feminists, you should look for some talking about his bad behavior in 1996 or 1997 of 1998 or 1999. You can find critiques now that he is a decade out of office, maybe. But they are a lot scarcer when it would have mattered.

And yes, we are all fully aware that nasty conservatives do it all the time too. The McCain principled objections to torture got really muddy under Bush II. The reason I’m mentioning the feminist/Clinton problem is because it is important (as in the original post) to see that the impulse doesn’t just exist in your enemies *it exists in you too*.

45

geo 03.20.12 at 2:57 am

JQ: But even Morris Zapp was more clever than silly, no?

Phil: Thanks for the reference to Schutz; didn’t know him.

46

John Holbo 03.20.12 at 4:17 am

For the record: I am very much of the view that Fish is more silly than clever.

47

John Quiggin 03.20.12 at 5:04 am

@Phil (from the link) what if he goes, buys the comic for himself and returns your money saying they were out of stock?

48

John Holbo 03.20.12 at 5:21 am

Schutz on Transcendental Intersubjectivity is quite interesting. I posted about him – and Stanley Fish! – sometime ago.

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/theres_no_such_thing_as_transcendental_intersubjectivity_and_its_a_good_thi/

49

geo 03.20.12 at 5:52 am

JH @46 — Off the record: I stick out my tongue at you!

50

Meredith 03.20.12 at 6:02 am

For what it’s worth. A million years ago (I was maybe 26 or 27, a fledgling assistant prof.), Stanley Fish and I and two other people sat and talked for hours over drinks and dinner, after Stanley had given a very shake-‘em-up public lecture. The two others present: first, a middle-aged, die-hard New Critic of very respectable academic stature, a man of noble heart who generously ventured to engage the intellectual “enemy,” that is, the “critical theory” world that Stanley, with his good friend Edward Said (among a few others in the US, mostly in French) was adventurously creating and advancing; and second, a fellow asst. prof. who had studied in one of the first critical theory summer seminars with Stanley and Edward (and who was drawn more to the latter’s views, though he charted his own course overall). (It’s hard to imagine now, but the very idea of holding summer seminars for grad students and new asst. prof’s and such was very new. “Critical theory” was terribly bold. [Hence Lodge’s wonderful parodies.] New Critics were accustomed to being the rebels, not the establishment.) The year was maybe 1978. (Rorty and such were still years away from joining this battle.)

Literally in front of a restaurant dining-room’s roaring fire on a cold cold snowy snowy New England night, as I sit young and naive and (for me) quiet and, as a classicist of that era, largely a foreigner to these (very masulins) very English-department disputes, these three men have it out about what-not (that other asst. prof, for many years now my husband, was accustomed to disagreeing with Stanley, who welcomed all argument). Suddenly Stanley turns to me ( his question is somehow relevant to the conversation): So what do you want your students to learn from studying the Iliad with you? And I say, in the earnestness of my youth, that I hope they’ll take to heart the exchange between Achilles and Priam near poem’s end. “Good luck to that,” says Stanley. I’m pretty sure the quotation marks are justified, but it was his tone that stung. (Btw, in the lightness of my older age I nurture the same hope. I dwell even more than I did then on all that precedes and touch only lightly on that Priam and Achilles scene, which only gets more painful as I get older. And it all ends with the burial of Hector, something I didn’t fully appreciate then.)

But even when I was so young, I thought I heard in the vehemence of Stanley’s rejection a certain tender understanding of what I hoped students would respond to. Perhaps he even shared my hope, but maybe assumed I was heavy-handed in my teaching? No, I don’t think he made unfounded assumptions of that kind. Something else was afoot.

Stanley Fish may talk the Thrasymachus line, but only because he takes for granted that pity will figure prominently in others’ discourse? Or because he is nervous about pity, specifically, about unearned pity (that is, the unearned act of pitying)? I suspect the latter. (Pitying, true pitying, is a contrarian mode, weirdly,no?) And that’s why I keep listening to Stanley Fish, maddening though he so often be.

51

Phil 03.20.12 at 8:03 am

@JQ: that’s an interesting case in my terms – I was essentially ranking insults on a scale of increasing commitment to selfishness & refusal of dialogue, so it’s not immediately obvious where a false dialogue belongs. I think the blatantness of the last scenario still fits the top level of ‘c___'; what you describe is more at the higher end of ‘bastard’ (the phrase ‘sneaky f_____g bastard’ springs to mind).

@JH – I haven’t read that essay, but then I haven’t read any of the Husserl Schutz was engaging with. The odd thing is that Schutz is wonderful on [appropriate adjective here] intersubjectivity, the kind that does exist & in which we all start; what he called the ‘we’-relation as distinct from the ‘they’-relation of social life.

“since human beings are born of mothers and not concocted in retorts, the experience of the existence of other human beings and of the meaning of their actions is certainly the first and most original empirical observation man makes”

52

Marc 03.20.12 at 12:27 pm

Read the insulting review of Sarah Palins biography by Stanley Fish.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/sarah-palin-is-coming-to-town/

Really, read it. Read the series of anti-intellectual insults at those decadent coastal elites. Read the backflips and word games used to promote this mediocrity. Read http://whiskeyfire.typepad.com/whiskey_fire/2009/12/nausea.html if you want to dig more deeply into what is wrong with it, and wrong with Fish.

Read sentences like “My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts.” Why would we expect a book review to consider whether the statements in a non-fiction book are true?

53

bianca steele 03.20.12 at 1:03 pm

When I’m tempted to be as charitable as geo, I remember that this is a blog post in a mass market newspaper. Strong academic charitable readings have no place there. He’s saying exactly what he appears to be saying.

Oh okay, so I guess Fish thinks the only readers of the Times are (or should be—so put down that paper, you!) advanced degree holding members of the policy elite. He is the stickler for “professional correctness” after all: the standards of small communities of people with a common project, and all that.

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Jerry Vinokurov 03.20.12 at 3:57 pm

I defer to geo’s reviews when it comes to the two books he linked to above, given that I have not read them; like JQ, my experience with Fish’s writing stems largely (but not exclusively) from his NYT column.

The “not exclusively” refers to the fact that, like Meredith, I was once part of a discussion with Fish, although in a slightly more formal (and depersonalized) setting. Namely, my graduate institution had a series of dinner conversations where they invited grad students to dinner and some notable figure would give a brief talk and then we’d basically have Q&A, chatter, discussion, and so forth. Fish was one of the speakers invited to this thing.

I don’t want to misrepresent what happened because memory is fallible and the details of the conversation are no longer with me, save for the theme. And the theme that Fish was promulgating was: ideas don’t matter. Your research (whatever it might be) is just your research, to be evaluated within whatever professional context exist in your discipline, and has no wider relevance. Moreover, any assumption that it does (and here I venture into a somewhat poetic interpretation of Fish’s point) is a mistake and you’re really just better off living in your little niche and not poking your head outside of it.

The crowd, it should be noted, was pretty diverse. I was in grad school for physics and I was with a bunch of biologists. There were people from sociology, economics, and public health, at least, and here was Fish telling all of us that our work had no external relevance and we should really stop pretending that it did. He had one good point, which is that when the administrators come for your department, you’re going to have a hard time justifying your existence on their terms, so you should justify it on yours, but outside of that his whole position struck me as a sort of academic solipsism; pretend nothing outside your professional competence exists, as it were. We had a mildly combative back-and-forth but I didn’t want to be that guy so in the end I confined my feh to my dinner companions.

I will be honest that I do not know how to respond to solipsism other than with a raised eyebrow. In my view, it’s not a position that merits refutation or argument, so when someone’s message to me is “ideas don’t matter,” the only response that makes sense is “so why are you here?” What I find tiresome about Fish is that I get the feeling that he simply views the whole enterprise as a sort of game, an intellectual exercise in which nothing real is at stake. Maybe that’s a good approach to criticism; I wouldn’t know (though I suspect not). But it’s a terrible approach to running a society. You don’t have to be a titan of political theory to look at the past 30, 40, 50 years and see the rightward drift in America driven, in part, by a concerted ideological effort. Maybe since Fish really has been living in an ivory tower all this time, and since he’s pretty old, he has the luxury of adopting this stance. I think it’s deplorable, personally, and I wish the Times hadn’t given him a forum in which to propagate his nonsense.

55

Peter Erwin 03.20.12 at 5:16 pm

geo @ 39:

I disagree with most of what he writes in the NY Times, but I almost invariably have the damnedest time actually trying to rebut it

Well… as Mark Liberman pointed out, when Fish made assertions about Barack Obama’s alleged “overuse” of the first person singular pronoun in speeches, he wasn’t just engaging in amateur-hour psychoanalysis, he was flat-out factually wrong. (In addition to engaging in some seriously dubious rhetorical analysis.)

So sometimes it’s quite easy to rebut Fish.

56

geo 03.20.12 at 5:23 pm

What Fish is trying to raise questions about is the politicization of scholarship. Especially in the humanities and law (his specialties), there has been a vast amount of tendentious and mediocre work produced by liberals and leftists (his interlocutors and comrades) in imagined service to humane and enlightened goals that he shares (racial and sexual equality, secular humanism). Like John Stuart Mill, Fish thinks that the rigorous and dispassionate pursuit of truth (as arbitrated and refereed by a community of fellow inquirers) is the best possible service to his or anyone’s goals that any intellectual can offer. Disinterestedness — not absolute, which is a fiction, but provisional, contingent, and responsive to the criticism of one’s disciplinary peers — is his shtick. It’s a noble one. I do think, however, that his sermons on this text in his Times column are often poorly executed. Partly, I suspect, that’s a result of personal failings, chiefly vanity. (Also a vulgar appetite for leather-upholstered Jaguars.) But partly it’s the result of having to fit complex arguments into 800-word intellectual snacks for busy Times readers. By all means ignore his Times columns. But his essays in Doing What Comes Naturally, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and The Trouble With Principle are for the ages.

57

bianca steele 03.20.12 at 5:25 pm

The problem with pragmatism, it occurs to me, is that in discussing it, it is treated as a left thing (as is postmodernism), in practice (among academics, say, in history) it is often an interest of those who tend toward partisanship of the right.

Maybe that is what Phil meant above when he spoke of dogwhistles (as it were) that permit a person to tell who they’re talking to, though I don’t understand what he meant, either.

58

Hidden Heart 03.20.12 at 6:03 pm

I don’t see much sign that Fish is, these days, committed to racial or sexual equality or secular humanism. (I never did see much sign that he was aware of or interested in women’s lives outside of the books that interested him.) He’s spending a lot of time and effort explaining why those of us trying to promote those things should lay off the people working to undermine them, and as Jerry says, trying to convince us that whatever research the scholars among us are doing in the service of ideals including those just doesn’t really matter.

He might like to have those things but he doesn’t want to actually work for them, nor does he want any of the rest of us to, or to want them in any way stronger than “I like them.” Some people like forcing doctors to lie to and assault their female patients, some people like women secure in access to good health care. Who’s to say, really? Not Fish. It’s all just whatever to him.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.20.12 at 6:29 pm

It seems to me, if you’re mad at someone who views the whole enterprise as a sort of game, an intellectual exercise in which nothing real is at stake, then, indeed, you’re the one who’s shaky on Peter Singer’s concept of an escalator that starts from ‘disinterestedness’ and takes you up there somewhere, far away.

60

geo 03.20.12 at 7:39 pm

HH: Fish is happy to see you or anyone work your ass off for your political ideals as a citizen. (And for all I know, or you know, he’s doing just that himself in his spare time. And in any case, whether he is or isn’t doesn’t matter a fig for the purposes of his argument.) But he’s seen (or claims to have seen — it’s enough for the moment just to get straight what Fish is saying without trying to decide whether his premises are empirically valid) enough mediocre academic work passed off as politically useful to think it worth reminding his comrades of the paramount intellectual virtues of rigor and dispassion. He’s not disparaging activism, just trying to keep it honest.

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geo 03.20.12 at 7:41 pm

Hope a couple of judicious asterisks will spring this comment from moderation.

HH: Fish is happy to see you or anyone work your a** off for your political ideals as a citizen. (And for all I know, or you know, he’s doing just that himself in his spare time. And in any case, whether he is or isn’t doesn’t matter a fig for the purposes of his argument.) But he’s seen (or claims to have seen—it’s enough for the moment just to get straight what Fish is saying without trying to decide whether his premises are empirically valid) enough mediocre academic work passed off as politically useful to think it worth reminding his comrades of the paramount intellectual virtues of rigor and dispassion. He’s not disparaging activism, just trying to keep it honest.

.

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Phil 03.20.12 at 7:52 pm

Maybe that is what Phil meant above when he spoke of dogwhistles (as it were) that permit a person to tell who they’re talking to

I don’t think I did. What I’m objecting to (with Fish, I think) is the liberal idea that politics is a kind of semi-instinctual tribalistic affair that sits on top of a real world of rational discourse among formal equals, so that if we’re evaluating whether somebody is acting like a jerk we should completely set aside any consideration of which side that person is on or what stake they have in political contests that matter to us, just as we would set aside their waist measurement or star sign. I think this is backwards: my political concerns matter to me because they follow directly from my beliefs about how the world is. Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke was repulsive for almost exactly the same reasons as Limbaugh’s political platform is repulsive.

It would be good to have a liberal public realm of civilised discourse among equals – Habermas is big on this, as I remember – but it’s something that remains to be achieved. I don’t see that any useful purpose is served by acting as if it already existed and pretending our enemies were part of it.

63

Patrick 03.20.12 at 8:03 pm

Sebastian, I didn’t know that when you said, “The scale of the reaction to the liberal misogynists was not as big as the scale of the reaction to Limbaugh. Which makes sense on a tribal, human level: it is way easier for us to attack people we don’t like and tone it down for people we do like. And sometimes we do so much as to make excuses for them,” you meant, “liberals are required to excoriate all liberal misogyny as vigorously as they do Limbaugh’s because I’ve decided it’s equivalent.” If you want to see a (tribal?) delusion, notice that you equate the head of the conservative movement’s behavior, repeated over three days, with that of two assholes one of whom apologized and the other of whom is widely reviled in feminist circles because, well, he’s a misogynist asshole.

As for the Clinton examples, I’m pretty sure that most feminists understood that what was at stake was an unprecedented conservative coup d’etat. That the ground was chosen precisely to conflict them was a brilliant move. Say what you like about conservatives, they make outstanding trolls. But strategically speaking, if you believe that women have rights, choosing between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton isn’t difficult, even if you think Clinton is a horrible person. (Barbara Ehrenreich summed it up best at the time, “I will drag myself to the polling place to vote for Clinton. When I return home, I will wash my hands thoroughly.”)

How about Shakesville on President Obama last month: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2012/02/obama-blinks-on-birth-control.html. Yep, tribal loyalty compels her to say that conservatives got President Obama to blink, and “throw women’s healthcare and equality under the bus again.” I think the “again” speaks volumes.

I expect you’ll move the goalposts again. Go ahead. I’m done.

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Typhoon Jim 03.20.12 at 9:01 pm

This discussion is worth having if and only if you’re willing to accede to the point that Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher and who the hell ever are hydra-heads of a greater monster. If you do not believe this, or believe that there is more than one page in the bestiary, talking past one another commences immediately.

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John Quiggin 03.20.12 at 9:14 pm

Fish certainly invites refutation in the mode of Dr Johnson.

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js. 03.20.12 at 9:15 pm

Patrick,

Do you have a link for the Ehrenreich quote? Sounds worth reading. Cheers.

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bianca steele 03.20.12 at 10:50 pm

Phil,
I don’t know what Fish thinks politics is. Most of his writing on politics (Professional Correctness aside, and I haven’t read any of his books since How Milton Works, except for How to Write a Sentence, which was not enticing) is actually writing on the law, or more exactly (so far as I can make out) on the reasoning processes of (US, primarily constitutional) lawyers, and the reasoning processes that underlie “the law” in the US. He concludes, IIRC, that liberal theory does not actually underlie the Constitution and constitutional reasoning, and I have no idea how correct any of what he says is. The rest tends to take off from Milton’s essays on freedom of speech, and even the legal essays tend to be about freedom of speech and First Amendment law.

In the blog, he seems to have moved from “there is no principle of free speech in the Constitution because there are special situations that override the First Amendment” to something close to “there is never a situation that does not override the First Amendment.” I find this grating.

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Jerry Vinokurov 03.21.12 at 12:02 am

geo,

What Fish is trying to raise questions about is the politicization of scholarship. Especially in the humanities and law (his specialties), there has been a vast amount of tendentious and mediocre work produced by liberals and leftists (his interlocutors and comrades) in imagined service to humane and enlightened goals that he shares (racial and sexual equality, secular humanism).

Does anyone doubt this? I feel like if the point is that you shouldn’t compromise your scholarship to make political hay, you could just say that. This isn’t a complicated position to hold and in fact lots of people who aren’t Fish (like myself, even!) hold it.

Like John Stuart Mill, Fish thinks that the rigorous and dispassionate pursuit of truth (as arbitrated and refereed by a community of fellow inquirers) is the best possible service to his or anyone’s goals that any intellectual can offer. Disinterestedness—not absolute, which is a fiction, but provisional, contingent, and responsive to the criticism of one’s disciplinary peers—is his shtick.

But sometimes disinterestedness isn’t really possible. I mean, again, an example from my personal life: I used to be a grad student in physics, working in cosmology (I have since graduated and am no longer in the field). Within the context of the field’s professional standards, of course I should operate according to the standards of disinterestedness and responsiveness to criticism. But if (and again, real life example) I get into an argument with someone who doesn’t believe in the Big Bang out of religious conviction, then all my disinterestedness goes out the window. I can’t be “disinterested” in whether someone does or does not respect the truth (or if we’re being provisional, what we currently and contingently hold to be the truth on good evidence). And that’s in a discipline which, honestly, has minimal effect on anything; no one is going to be directly affected by which cosmological model turns out to be true. If we ever get down to things that really matter (drug policy, civil rights, whatever), then our interests really begin to matter because they inform how we see and understand the data.

I mean, this whole blog is at least partially dedicated to discussions of economic philosophy, which I don’t think can be meaningfully had unless we know what we mean when we use words like “efficiency” and “rationality.” And our definitions of those words, and the commitments that flow from our conclusions about their use, are not “disinterested” in any way. They do, in fact, stem from all sorts of real interests, and I’m not convinced that playing the dispassionate academic is the best way to cope with that. I would much prefer that those foundational assumptions be made explicit so we can see whether or not they hold up.

None of this means that we shouldn’t be rigorous, or be willing to follow the data possibly against our intuitions if it comes to that. But that’s a sort of commonplace scientific realism (in the non-philosophical sense) that most academics pretty much accept already. Yes, we should do good work and not hack it up for political purposes. But when our work has a direct bearing on society (e.g. “this is what should be taught as science in schools,” “these are the consequences of mass incarceration,” etc.) I don’t think we should be shy about those implications.

My strong feeling, engendered perhaps unjustly by what exposure I have had to Fish, is that his goals are not nearly that simple. If they were, why would he devote tens of thousands of words to them? Why bother writing so much when all you mean to say is “don’t be a hack?” The explanation that seems most plausible to me is because he’s got a project of some sort that he wants to advance. Which is fine, we’ve all got projects, but I don’t know why I should feel charitable towards his; he certainly doesn’t seem like he’d feel charitable towards mine.

It’s a noble one. I do think, however, that his sermons on this text in his Times column are often poorly executed. Partly, I suspect, that’s a result of personal failings, chiefly vanity. (Also a vulgar appetite for leather-upholstered Jaguars.) But partly it’s the result of having to fit complex arguments into 800-word intellectual snacks for busy Times readers. By all means ignore his Times columns. But his essays in Doing What Comes Naturally, There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and The Trouble With Principle are for the ages.

Having not read these books, I take you word for it that there’s something worthwhile in them (although for a contrary view see this review by Eagleton which may or may not be accurate or fair). I’m unlikely to get to them any time soon though, but if individual essays are floating around in the internet ether somewhere, I might try and track them down.

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Jerry Vinokurov 03.21.12 at 12:03 am

And, while I’m here, let me just a) say thanks for the good discussion, and b) apologize for my prolixity. I tend to get around to writing something down at only long intervals and a lot comes out.

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Bloix 03.21.12 at 4:36 am

worth reading the false equivalence of Limbaugh and Maher:
http://whiskeyfire.typepad.com/whiskey_fire/2012/03/aw-but-we-lurves-you-fluffy.html

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Uncle Kvetch 03.21.12 at 12:24 pm

the false equivalence of Limbaugh and Maher

If anybody’s still paying attention, commenter BradP at Lawyers, Guns & Money summed it up very nicely, IMO:

“If Sarah Palin were a man, Maher would have had no trouble finding the words to convey a similar sentiment.

If Fluke were a man, Rush loses not only the motivation to insult him/her, but he would lose his vocabulary to do it.”

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engels 03.21.12 at 4:43 pm

I thought this was going to be a post applying John Rawls’ principles to feeding time at Sea World.

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Patrick 03.21.12 at 5:54 pm

Alas, I don’t have a direct link. I found the statement quoted. I remembered reading it in 1996, I believe, and had thought it was Molly Ivins until I checked. Ehrenreich had a column in a magazine I bought occasionally at the time (Z? The Atlantic? Harpers?) in which she talked about the quandary of being a voter in a party system the entirety of which was to her right.

It was a column–so it was amusing, but I expect you can find equivalent laments about the sorry state of American political discourse and the necessity of keeping in mind the lesser of two evils in any presidential year.

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white collar crime kills 03.22.12 at 12:07 pm

“Oh, and there’s RedState”
I took a look. there are:
A few rational posters.
A lot of mindless regurgitated insults (aka ‘CF’)
And a long thread branch of bible quotations (which may as well be klingon limericks)

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white collar crime kills 03.22.12 at 12:17 pm

Sarah Palin were a man, Maher would have had no trouble finding the words to convey a similar sentiment…
True, but Maher could easily call a man a slut.
Soon after rushbeau’s ‘kerflushfull’, people were saying rushbeau is a slut because he performs distasteful and demeaning acts for remuneration. So calling a male a slut is easily plausible (though it might leave teaheads disoriented).
Offtopic. interestingly rather honest NPR interview with gingrich about campaign and convention .. at about h:10 of the hour. (but… gingrich later makes fatally flawed comparison between supply vs prices of oil and same of natural gas.)

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