From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

Dr. Khawaja and his colleague Dr. Riesbeck have a very lively discussion on the ethics of offensive behavior on his blog, which I was privileged to join and offer my thoughts.

The post and discussion are all worth reading, but for now I’ll just quote the summary I gave of both Dr. Khawaja’s and Dr. Riesbeck’s points, along with some of their comments, with edits for flow:

“As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
-The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
-The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine without intimate knowledge.
-The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
-Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park?

This idea is based on three principles, really just one:
1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
2. We must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles
3. We must do this at a minimum cost to the well-being of the other parties”

Discussion centered around several thought experiments:
1. Putting up one’s feet in Greece, where it is purportedly considered offensive.
2. Printing a picture of the prophet Muhammed in a textbook and using it in class
3. Public displays of affection.
4. Saying that Islam is false.

I’ll quote Dr. Khawaja in his response to No. 2:

“I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.”

There is plenty of room to disagree with the eudaimonistic principle, especially concerning the many exceptions that were deemed necessary to make it coherent. For example, Dr. Khawaja highlights what I will call the “asshole clause” as an exception:

“…there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second.”

With such people, we do not desire to bring out the best in them, presumably because we consider them to be irredeemably noxious individuals. The general principle to not offend is the basis for this theory of social interaction, and since it has been suspended, so too has its subordinate principles: to minimize harm to our principles, and to the sensibilities of our interlocutor. Calling an asshole an asshole to his face presents no issue, even if it is done offensively and without tact, because it may be in our best interests to retaliate more vehemently against a real ass than we would against a more sensible person.

Indeed, it might be said that doing so would do the asshole a favor. “Shocking” a person out of their bad habits through a corresponding breach of social etiquette is often an effective tactic. To cite my own experience, I once had a friend who was widely regarded as a real asshole by all the friends in his social circle, me included. Case in point: during a rainstorm he intentionally pushed me into a puddle, and then laughed as I got soaked. We eventually all told him he was an asshole and that we wouldn’t spend any more time with him. He mended his ways immediately. Dr. Riesbeck earlier credits his personal intuitions as a guide for determining the costs and benefits of giving – or not giving – offense in these cases. In general, I would agree that intuitions aren’t too far off the mark. Everyone knows an asshole when he sees one, after all.

Furthermore, even if the general principle is maintained, it will often conflict with other principles, that may have greater weight. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense (apologies for the tortured prose). To quote Dr. Khawaja one more time:

“If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)”

I enjoyed the discussion, and I would like to open it up to further comment and critique from the fine readers of NOL. What do ya’ll think?

From the Comments: Islam and Islamism

Matthew riffs off of my recent post on imperialism:

I am far too lazy at present to read the links you embedded in this article, so I will shoulder the lazy man’s burden, and provide some simple anecdotes.

A very common reaction is to blame Islam itself for the problems Islamists cause in the West, and in their own countries. I have never opened the Koran, and I have only cursorily read the statements of Islamist groups such as Hamas. I cannot honestly speak to whether Islam is at fault in toto, because I know too little about Islam’s tenets to deduce a causal relationship between Islamist extremism and the creed they espouse. What I have been noticing, however, in my brief travels in the Islamic world (I am currently in Meknes, Morocco) is the difference in practice between what I will call “media Muslims” (the straw men the media set up as representative of all Muslims) and the real, flesh and blood Muslims you meet in your every day encounters. I have met pious Muslims, who pray five times a day, and have had theological discussions over the differences between Judaism and Islam. I have not hidden my Judaism, as many Jews do out of fear for their lives – misplaced oftentimes, I would say – and have had no problems. I have met young Muslims who eat pork and drink alcohol and don’t give a jot about Allah or Muhammad. I have tried to flirt with Muslim girls and failed, probably because my only Berber words are “yaaah” (yes) and “oho” (no).

There is a very large pressure in culture and in the media to reduce everything to social forces. We must fear “Islam,” and “Communism,” and “Terror,” without considering that all of these social forces are composed of many individuals, with different ideals, and different means of pursuing them. Islam is, like everything else, a pluralistic social movement. There is Wahhabism on one end, and cultural Islam on the other, and many people fall in between. So, I do not think Islam can be blamed for the West’s problems with Muslims. A particular strain of Islam, adhered to by a particular type of individual, is one factor. Western meddling and overt racism is another.

The rest of the ‘comments’ thread is, of course, well worth the read too. I am not much of a bragger but, as I’ve repeated on here many times, the ‘comments’ threads at NOL are some of the best on the web. I look forward to Matthew’s posts teasing out what it means to be Western.

Also, Matthew, with Moroccan girls you have to feign ignorance and let them believe that they are doing the hunting and that you are the prey. (Let us know how it goes, of course.)

Federalizing the Social Sciences

A few days ago I asked whether the social sciences could benefit from being unified. The post was not meant to make an argument in favor or against unification, although I myself favor a form of unification. The post was merely me thinking out loud and asking for feedback from others. In this follow up post I argue that the social sciences are already in the process of unification and a better question is what type of unification type this will be.


What is a social science?

First though allow me to define my terms as commentator Irfan Khawaja suggested. By social sciences I mean those fields whose subjects are acting individuals. For the time being the social sciences deal with human beings, but I see no particular reason why artificial intelligence (e.g. robots in the mold of Isaac Asimov’s fiction) or other sentient beings (e.g. extraterrestrials) could not be studied under the social sciences.

The chief social sciences are:

Economics: The study of acting individuals in the marketplace.

Sociology: The study of acting individuals and the wider society they make up.

Anthropology: The study of the human race in particular.

Political Science: The study of acting individuals in political organizations.

There are of course other social sciences (e.g. Demography, Geography, Criminology) but I believe the above four are those with the strongest traditions and distinctive methodologies. Commentators are more than encouraged to propose their own listings.

In review the social sciences study acting individuals.  A social science (in the singular) is an intellectual tradition that has a differentiating methodology. Arguably the different social sciences are not sciences as much as they are different intellectual schools.


Why do I believe the social sciences will be unified? 

On paper the social sciences have boundaries among themselves.

In practice though the boundaries between the social sciences blurs quickly. Economists in particular are infamous for crossing the line that the term ‘economics imperialism‘ has been coined to refer to the application of economic theory to non-market subjects. This imperialism has arguably been successful with Economists winning the Nobel prize for applying their theory to sociology (Gary Becker), history (Douglass North, Robert Fogel), law (Ronald_Coase) and political science (James M. Buchanan). The social sciences are in the process of being unified via economic imperialism.

Imperialism is a surprisingly proper term to describe the phenomenon taking place. Economists are applying their tools to subjects outside the marketplace, but little exchange is occurring on the other end. As the “Superiority of Economists” discusses, the other social sciences are reading and citing economics journals but the economics profession itself is very insular. The other social sciences are being treated as imperial subjects who must be taught by Economists how to conduct research in their own domains.

To an extent this reflects the fact that the economics profession managed to build a rigorous methodology that can be exported abroad and, with minimal changes, be used in new applications. I think the world is richer in so far that public choice theory has been exported to political science or price theory introduced to sociology. The problem lays in that this exchange has been so unequal that the other social sciences are not taken seriously by Economists.

Sociologists, Political Scientists, and Anthropologists might have good ideas that economics could benefit from, but it is only through great difficulty that these ideas are even heard. It is harder still for these ideas to be adopted.


Towards Federalizing the Social Sciences

My answer to economic imperialism is to propose ‘federalizing’ the social sciences, that is to say to give the social sciences a common set of methodologies so that they can better communicate with one another as equals but still specialize in their respective domains.

In practice this would mean reforming undergraduate education so that social science students take at minimum principle courses in each other’s fields before taking upper division courses in their specializations. These classes would serve the dual purpose of providing a common language for communication and encouraging social interaction between the students. Hopefully social interaction with one another will cause students to respect the work of their peers and discourage any one field from creating a barrier around itself. A common language (in the sense of methodology) meanwhile should better allow students to read each other’s work without the barriers that jargon terminology and other technical tools create. It is awful when a debate devolves into a semantics fight.

Supplementary methodologies will no doubt be introduced in upper division and graduate study, reflecting the different needs that occur from specialization, but the common methodology learned early on should still form the basis.

The unification of the social science need not mean the elimination of specialization. I do however fear that unless some attempt is made in ‘federalizing’ the social sciences we will see economics swallow up its sister sciences through imperialism.

As always I more than encourage thoughts from others and am all too happy to defer to better constructed opinions.

Nationality, Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and the Importance of Citizenship for the Individual

Judging by some of the fruitful dialogues that have gone on here in the distant past and just the other day, I’d say that there is still a lot of work to do regarding a few concepts that seem to have meaning to them but are not really well-defined or well-understood.

I am writing about nationality, ethnicity, race, and culture, of course.

Dr Stocker and myself have taken aim at nationality before, and Michelangelo has taken aim at ethnicity while Jacques has taken a few cracks at race and ethnicity. Mike has some notes on ethnic identity as well. Culture has been discussed here at NOL before, but an effort to systematically define it has not been undertaken. (Update 12/8/14: Matthew has also taken a crack at ethnicity.)

The problem of these concepts can best be illustrated with a hypothetical (with apologies to Matthew!): There is a tribe in the state of Kenya known as the Maasai. In Kenya the Maasai are more than a tribe, though. The Maasai are considered by both the Maasai themselves and their neighbors to be an ethnic group. The Maasai and their neighbors within Kenya also consider themselves to be Kenyans. The Maasai have a distinct culture that sets them apart in some way from other ethnic groups in Kenya. Most Kenyans, including the Maasai, consider themselves to be racially black.

Now suppose that a single Maasai man from Kenya goes to Syria, or Belgium, or Canada, or China for a vacation. The Maasai man is suddenly no longer Maasai, for all intents and purposes. He still has a nationality, and an ethnic, a cultural, and a racial component to him, though. The Maasai man’s ethnicity suddenly becomes Kenyan rather than Maasai abroad. So, too, does his culture become Kenyan or simply African. He is still black racially. Notice, though, that these concepts mean different things in different contexts.

Suppose further that our Maasai man goes to Ghana for a vacation. Ghana is in west Africa, whereas Kenya is on the east coast. Africa is huge, and the gulfs between societies on the west coast and east coast of sub-Saharan Africa are cavernous. Nevertheless, our Maasai man is likely to be able to identify ethnically as a Maasai in Ghana. He is likely to be able to identify as part of the Kenyan nation. Culturally, though, our Maasai man is also going to be identified as Kenyan rather than Maasai.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Here is another way to confuse you. The Ashanti people of Ghana are considered by others in the region to be a nation, but not an ethnic group. The Ashanti belong, instead, to a pan-regional group of people known as the Akan, and the Akan are considered to be the ethnic group while the smaller Ashanti group is considered to be a nation. This, of course, comes into conflict with what it means to be a Ghanaian. In Europe or Asia or the New World, a member of the Ashanti nation would be considered instead as a member of the Ghanaian nation.

In sub-Saharan Africa everybody who is not black is white. So Persians, Arabs, Eskimos, Armenians, Koreans, Japanese, French, English, Dutch, and Brahmins are all racially white to Africans. Africans base their distinctions between whites on their different behavioral patterns. So a Sudanese man may be working with two groups of white people but he only distinguishes them (suppose one is Chinese and one is English) by how they behave toward each other, toward him and his associates, and in relation to the rules of the game established in Sudan. Race is the most prominent feature of foreigners in Africa, but curiosity about differences between whites abounds.

The combinations for confusion are endless. I have not even broached the topic of what is means to be ‘American’, for example.

This is where the importance of viewing the world as made up of individuals comes into play. This is where the abstract legal notion of individual rights becomes an important component of good governance and internationalism.

I think we could all agree that is does no good to ignore these confusing identities and attempting instead to cram them into a specific framework (“Western individualism”). This is where economists go wrong, but paradoxically it’s also where they are most right.

As I noted a couple of days ago, economics as a discipline tends to be more hierarchical but also more successful than the other social science disciplines. I didn’t have enough space to note there that this hierarchy is limited to a very small segment of society. Is it at all possible to establish a hierarchy of sorts, a unified code of laws that protects the individual but prevent this hierarchy of last resort from becoming the norm in other ways? A hierarchy that leaves plenty of space for independent networks and fragmented communities of choice?

I don’t even know how these question tie in to my title. I simply know that they do. Somehow.

From the Comments: What *are* the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

Rick answers my question:

Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

*Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.

From the Comments: Race Consciousness and Stubborn Old Dudes

I like to brag about NOL‘s ‘comments’ threads to people who pretend to be interested in hearing about what I have been up to post-graduation, but lately I’ve been overwhelmed by the bad assery that’s showed up here. For instance, Dr Khawaja’s take on left-wing race consciousness:

One of the absurdities of the whole conversation is the reflexive assumption that the woman in the video IS white. She’s walking at a fast clip, often past the people who are walking in the reverse direction. It wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to anyone what her “race” was. She could be Hispanic. Is that “white”? She could be of mixed race. Is that “white”? Hard to know, hard to tell, and in my case, hard to care. Frankly, if I went by the vicissitudes of left-wing race consciousness, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what “race” I myself am. Some days I’m an off-white beneficiary of white privilege. Some days I’m a brown victim of Islamophobia. They just seem to make up whatever rubbish suits them at a given moment, and it becomes the race-wisdom du jour. One of the great things about left-wing race consciousness is that it demands consciousness of something while questioning the existence of the very thing we’re supposed to be conscious of–and then reprimands us for not being sufficiently conscious of “it.” Wouldn’t it just be easier to stop obsessing over it?

He’s got more, too, on the video’s implications for libertarian and liberal (‘social democrat’ for all you non-North Americans) dogmas. I’d quote it all but there wouldn’t be enough room for the pep talk Dr Amburgey gave me after I flipped out on Dr Delacroix:

I can understand that it torques you. I just think you should be realistic [dare I say pragmatic?]. Jacques is sometimes intellectually dishonest. He is always lazy. He’s also old; he’s older than me and I’m older than dirt. He’s not going to change. When he says something untrue point it out, make fun of him for a bit and then move on.

Spend your energy on more worthwhile topics. Explain why it is that progressives vehemently object to the surveillance apparatus under George W. Bush but don’t have a problem when it’s run by Barack Obama.

Fair enough Dr A. Fair enough. And thanks.

Speaking of ‘comments’ threads, Dr Khawaja’s consortium, Policy of Truth, has some great ones as well. Check out their latest thread and then hang your heads in shame.

From the Comments: Delacroix’s New Book, Kindle, and the Android App

I don’t do Kindle. I’m an old-fashioned bastard (and Delacroix was kind enough to send me a paperback copy of I Used to Be French…), but here is Dr Amburgey explaining how people without a Kindle can still read the book electronically:

A quick note. The ebook version of Jacques’ book is for Kindles. However there is a free Kindle app available for Android devices. So even if you don’t have a Kindle [like me] you can still purchase it at Amazon for a paltry $7 [like me] and download it for reading on an Android phone or tablet.

The book is awesome.

The book is indeed awesome (although I’ve only read a little less than a quarter so far). Maybe I can entice Dr A to write up a review for NOL. In the mean time, you can still get a paperback copy of Delacroix’s book by emailing iusedtobefrench@gmail.com. You can get the electronic version at Amazon here.