Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Immoral Feelings


Blog 15 – Immoral Feelings

Feelings and emotions can be suspect from a moral point of view. Anger, jealousy, envy, sadness, and every other emotion can have blinding effects on the person who has them: they can blind us to others, to not giving them a fair hearing, to not weigh their needs and claims appropriately. There is also a long tradition in philosophy of suspecting feelings. Immanuel Kant, for example, was wary of emotions as a proper guide to what ought to be done. Even Aristotle, whose virtue ethics is considered to be a moral theory that does not shun emotions, puts them in a proper perspective. To Aristotle, the very idea of a virtue is that it is a state of character that, among other things, disposes us to correctly feel things: in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason, towards the right object, and so on.
            To many people, this might sound strange. After all, we cannot control our feelings, which seem to just happen to us. People often shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, this is just how I feel,” as if nothing can be done about it. Here, however, we have to be careful; we should distinguish between being able to change feelings on the spot, in the very short term, or by an immediate act of will, on the one hand, and between being able to change them in the long term, on the other. More importantly, we should distinguish between changing feelings and emotions (whether short or long term), on the one hand, and evaluating them, on the other. After all, even if it is true that “This is just how I feel,” it can also be true that how I feel in a particular situation is incorrect, inapt, irrational, or unjustified. For example, feeling rage at a minor mishap is not apt, and neither is feeling little or no anger at the slaughter of one’s family. Feeling jealousy is petty if prompted merely by the sight of someone else conversing with your spouse, while not feeling any jealousy at the prospect of losing your spouse to someone else indicates loss of love. Most emotions can be apt or inapt, justified or unjustified, rational or irrational, depending on the occasion, and it is up to us, as rational beings (or as ones who aspire to be rational) to evaluate them.
            Moreover, evaluating emotions and feelings is important. It is important for its own sake—to know whether our emotions are reflecting a fair or proper attitude towards others and ourselves—but also for the sake of long term change. If we want to be good people, we need to feel the proper emotions at the right times, towards the right people, for the right reasons, for the right time, and so on, as Aristotle says. And we need to feel emotions properly because emotions are not mere sensations. They are complex states that contain attitudes, beliefs, and reactions, all of which are subject to ethical criteria. For example, if I feel angry for days on end at a minor slight, my anger towards the person who slighted me would involve beliefs and attitudes: the belief that what he did to me was awful, and that I should stay angry at him, for example, and the anger would involve a negative or hostile stance (attitude) towards him. But if what he did does not merit such a reaction on my part, then feeling that kind of anger would be clearly unfair to him (and it would eat at my soul).
            So evaluating our emotions is an important moral task.
            Thus, unlike ideal (or theoretical) virtuous people, whose virtue and wisdom are complete and whose emotions are therefore rightly directed by them, the rest of us have to deal with emotions and feelings that often spring on us, demanding our attention. Moreover, many people not only have to evaluate their emotions, but they also have to evaluate the wrong emotions, emotions that come at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, towards the wrong people, and for the wrong periods of time. More often than not, we also know, or at least suspect, that we are feeling the wrong emotion. We often have to say to ourselves, “Cool it. You are making a big deal out of nothing” or, at least, “Am I right to be feeling this?” That is, we often have to subject what we feel to the scrutiny of our reason. So even if, unlike a virtuous person, we sometimes cannot help but feel an emotion, we still need to ask ourselves whether what we are feeling is apt, and, if not, negotiate with ourselves to temper or eradicate what we are feeling.
            My subject for this post is an off-shoot of the above theme, and it derives from the fact that in some types of situations there is a misguided distinction made between the impact of what someone says and the intentions behind what they said. This is a distinction—the intention of words vs. their impact—that seems to be gaining currency. We see people getting outraged at things that other people say, despite the fact that in some cases the speakers said what they did with clean intentions. Moreover, the distinction is such that, if morally mishandled, it can easily block our ability to question our feelings and thus be fair to others and decent to ourselves.
            Consider the following four examples to best bring out the distinction and its moral challenges.
            (1) The first example is real, extracted from an article by Eric Hoover in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Make Yourself Uncomfortable” (August 16, 2019, A12-A15) about ACCEPT (Admissions Community Cultivating Acceptance & Peace Today), a new group about diversifying and making sure that admissions are equitable. In September 2016, at a conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Phil Trout, the association’s departing president, referred in his opening remarks to the killing of Tyre King, an African-American teenager who had been shot by a white police officer a few days earlier in Columbus, Ohio, the same city where the conference was taking place. Trout said that the killing of King is a tragedy that “challenges us once again to remember that all lives matter.” Trout, it seems, did not know that “all lives matter” is an expression that some people use to oppose Black Lives Matter; he seems to have used it intending to “express sympathy and solidarity.” In the outrage that followed, many made the comment that despite his intentions, people were upset merely by the impact of Trout’s words.
            According to the Chronicle article, “on any given day, you might see a discussion [on the Facebook page of ACCEPT] of ‘intent vs. impact.’ OK, maybe that white person didn’t mean to offend, but his remarks did, in fact, offend a person of color. What should he do? Acknowledge his privilege and apologize. He also should acknowledge the impact of his remarks instead of describing his intentions” (A14).
            (2) The second example is fictional (but based on a real event). Suppose that we are listening to Daria, a speaker giving a talk about her experiences as a Latina young woman upon arrival to Chicago and matriculating in high school. She describes an incident in which five of her female white class mates surround her one afternoon outside school and call her a “trashy bitch” and then chant, in unison, until they hound her away, “Spic! Spic! Spic!” This word is a slur, and hearing it is no doubt jolting. On hearing Daria, we feel with her, we come close to understanding what she might have felt on that afternoon, and how that word would have cut deep into her psyche. And this feeling of ours might transform into anger at the people who put her through this experience.
            Now imagine another speaker, Jessica, a white woman, giving a talk about Daria’s experiences in the United States. She recounts the same incident and quotes the same words as Daria did. Moreover, Jessica’s intentions in doing so are clear: they are not to mock Daria, to belittle her experiences, or to call her a “snowflake,” but to inform the audience of how experiences of racism have shaped the lives many Americans. Still, upon hearing the word “Spic,” some people in the audience get angry, and they get angry not at the young women who used it to taunt Daria on that one afternoon, but at Jessica because she mentioned that word.
            Granted this is how some people actually felt, should they have felt that way? More generally, what should our reaction to hearing Jessica quoting the S-word be? Would anger at her be rational or merited?
            (3) The third example is again fictional (and based in a real event). James is a white man who teaches a Contemporary American Literature course at his college. On one particular day, he is reading a passage from an American-Asian writer, in which the narrator describes an incident in which he was called a “Chink” by other characters in the novel. After quoting this passage, James goes on to explain to his class how the word “Chink” has been used in the United States as a slur against Asians and Asian-Americans (the Chinese, specifically, though slur words have a way of glossing over differences between ethnic and cultural groups!). After class, some of his students go up to him to tell him that they were upset by his use of the word, at which point James tries to explain to them that he was not using it, but mentioning it to explain to the class its bad meaning and its use by the author in the passage he had read to convey a complex experience. This explanation, however, does not help, and those who are angry with James claim that even though James’s intentions were not to offend or hurt, the impact of his words nevertheless did and that this needs to be acknowledged.
            Is anger at James merited or justified?
            (4) Finally, a personal example. The word “manyak” in Arabic (or in some Arabic dialects) has a bad history: it refers to a guy who likes to “take it up the ass” and who is, more often than not, effeminate. It is the closest word in Arabic to the English “fag” or “faggot.” I have a few good (straight) friends in Beirut who use this word with me and I with them. That is, we often pepper our conversations with each other using this word. When we use it, we use it to mean something like, “Dude.” Yes, the word has been used in the past and continues to be used as a slur. But it has come to acquire a more neutral meaning, and that’s not how we use it with each other. (The word “marico” in Spanish is also like this: it can be used as a slur, but it can also mean something like “Dude.”) When my friends use this word with me, when they address me that using this word, I am not upset at their use of it.
            Now, imagine me walking down a street in Beirut one day and someone, a stranger, calls me “manyak” because he believes that I am gay. He does not need to call me that in a hostile or threatening way, and I might not feel any danger upon hearing him (he might be a 15-year old kid who hurls the word at me mockingly and then runs away). My reaction to this is to correctly perceive it as an insult, as a slur, as demeaning—as whatever way we typically feel when people hurl slurs at us. It offends and angers me, and rightly so.
            Have I over-reacted to the stranger’s use of the word against me? Have I under-reacted to its use by my friends? (Note that to use “over-react” and “under-react” is to ask the above-mentioned “should” question, because it is to ask whether my reactions were merited or unmerited, apt or inapt.)
            Before answering these questions, note that there is an important difference between the types of intentions in examples (1) and (4), on the one hand, and in examples (2) and (3) on the other. In (2) and (3), Daria, Jessica, and James all intended the same meaning of the slur words. They also all had the same intention in using the slur words: they intended to use them in an anti-racist way, to illustrate the evils of racism. In example (4), the kid who calls me “manyak” intended a different meaning than my friends intended; while they intended “dude,” he intended “fag.” Moreover, he intended to use the word in a demeaning way. In example (1), Trout did not intend the meaning of the expression “all lives matter” to be “contrary to what Black Lives Matter believes, all lives matter,” but to mean something like, “I am appalled by the killing of Tyre King whose life matters as everyone else’s does.” And Trout also intended to use his words to condemn the way that black people are treated.
            In general, words and intentions can cross paths in at least two ways: the intention to imbue words with a certain meaning, and the intention to use the words in a certain way, given their meaning. The first type of intention is rarely up to individual people, because the meanings of words and expressions is largely public. I cannot say “Nothing travels than the speed of light” to mean “I will love you forever” (unless it occurs in, say, a poem and the context of the poem clarifies that light and speed are being used as metaphors or similes in connection to love). This is why my friends can intend words like “manyak” and “marico” to mean “dude” only if such a meaning is public, in some form of social circulation. If no such meaning were present, and only the slur-meaning were prevalent, their use of it that way would be problematic, and their intentions to the contrary cannot so easily override its public meaning. (This is why we often tell our students in art critiques that, despite their intentions, some symbols and words can go beyond them and be taken up by their public meaning.) We can think of public meanings as a group of cats, and individual intentions as people trying to herd them and keep them in line. It might happen, but not likely.
            This is also why I wrote above that the intention to use certain words or expressions depends on their meaning. For James to intend to use “chink” in an anti-racist way, he has to rely on its public meaning as a slur. Ditto for Jessica, Daria, and the kid in Beirut. We cannot use words in a certain way unless we rely on their public meanings. Otherwise, our attempts can go seriously awry. If we go back to the Trout example, his explanation for using “all lives matter” in a non-insulting way sounds sincere precisely because this expression does mean what he intended it to mean, even though there is now a rival, insulting, meaning of it.
            Because the intention to mean something with a word or an expression is hostage to the word or expression’s public meaning, leaving little room for individual intentions in changing the meaning to suit the individual’s purposes, and because the impact vs. intention distinction depends on the pre-existence of public meanings, what follows is only about the intention in use.
            So, to return to our questions: What explains the difference in our reactions to Daria and Jessica in the second example and to James in the third example? What explains my different reactions to being called “manyak”? Should there be a difference in the reactions? The basic answer is that what explains and justifies the difference in the reactions is the attribution of a different intention to each party. This, in turn, explains why the impact of words cannot—more accurately: should not—be shorn of their intended usage. Put differently, the intention behind a word or an expression should dictate, at least to a large extent, how we react to the use of that word or expression. Thus, given the “clean” intentions of all the speakers in the above examples (except for the kid who uses the slur against me), the anger is not justified at all.
            Might one, however, be able to argue that it is? How? One argument is that slurs are ugly words with ugly histories, and that one can be easily jolted upon hearing them, regardless of the intentions, which would explain and justify people’s being upset. Slurs are hateful words based on group belonging that have been used to demean, to insult, or to put someone in their (lower) place, all on the basis of their group belonging. So that, one can argue, regardless of the intentions, these words are impactful.
            But this is not convincing. One reason that it is not convincing is that it would apply to anyone who uses these words, no matter to which race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic group they belong. Yet this does not jive with the facts, and the facts are that the anger is always directed at out-group people who use these words, especially if the people are white. Put differently, it seems that people’s reactions cut a lot of slack to members of in-groups who use the slurs in a non-demeaning way, but no slack, or barely any, to members of out-groups who also use these words in a non-demeaning way. So the ugliness of the words’ meanings does not explain the differences in reactions to who utters these words.
            The above argument also glosses over the distinction between intention-in-meaning and intention-in-use, which I already explained. It does so because it attempts to explain the negative reactions to slur words only by relying on their meanings, thus setting aside how they are used or intended to be used. I will return to this shortly.
            This leaves us with one explanation for the difference in reactions: That when members of in-groups use the words in a non-insulting way, it is acceptable, but when members of out-groups use it in a non-insulting way, it is not acceptable.
            This, however, is not a reason, let alone a good one. It is mere assertion (and one that smacks of a bad –ism of sorts: of anti-white racism, of anti-straight phobia, of anti-male sexism, etc., if such things exist). For it to go beyond mere assertion, it needs to give a reason why a slur word in the mouth of a white person who is using it with clean or anti-bigoted intentions is still somehow morally wrong. I cannot think of a single reason why it would be. And this reason, were it to exist, would have to grapple with the distinction between intention-in-meaning and intention-in-use. Without showing how even with a good intention-in-use the out-group speaker is wrong to use the word, the reason won’t go anywhere. So, questions such as the following need to be answered: Why would Jessica, who was not only informing us of the racism that Daria had been through, but also condemning it, and who was turning our attention to Daria’s experiences to show us how awful they were, be wrong to use the word as she does?
            One might argue that we can always find an adequate substitute, such as “the S-word” or “the N-word” or the “C-word.” If we can do so with no loss of meaning, why not do so? It would spare everyone a lot of strife.
            As a tactical or pragmatic argument, it is convincing. After all, if I know or highly suspect that my use of a particular word, no matter how well-intended, will offend and offend deeply, I should avoid using it. But this argument is not a good moral argument. After all, for the suggested word to be a good substitute, we need to have a reason first as to why a substitute is needed, and it is this reason that I think still needs to be supplied. Moreover, such substitutes might fail to adequately convey the horrors of what one is trying to convey. If I am quoting a passage from an anti-Arab racist, using “camel-effer” instead of “camel-fucker” to convey the hatred would not be as powerful. Absent a good reason to avoid the word, I should recount the words in an unvarnished way (as a colleague has plausibly suggested to me). I have no moral reason to step away from using certain words simply because they might offend, when the offense is premised on not taking my intentions-in-use into account and thus smacks of over-sensitivity.
            So it seems that there is no such thing as a justified or merited impact of words without a proper knowledge and evaluation of a speaker’s intentions. We need to know what a speaker intended with their words to know whether to be upset or joyed by their words. And if we are already upset by their words—if we cannot help but feel upset—we need to know their intentions in order to evaluate what we are feeling. Given that the intentions of a speaker can change the valence of a word from being negative to being positive, we cannot—it would be irrational and unjustified to—feel a certain way for or against the speaker simply upon hearing that word; we need to know how and why she used it. Only then will our feelings be apt or inapt depending on the case. To be sure, we can feel whatever we want as long as we are careful to not transform this feeling into a moral case against (or, less commonly, for) the speaker. If we are to do so, we need to take into account the speaker’s intentions-in-use.
            Therefore, those who rely only on the impact of the words and refuse to take into account the speakers’ intentions in using these words are making a moral mistake: simply put, they are being unfair to the speaker. In refusing to take into account a speaker’s intentions, and in embracing anger or rage at the speaker’s words, they are basically saying to the speaker the following: “Even though, ethically speaking, your intentions should inform how we feel about your words, we are nonetheless not going to consider them in how we feel. We are going to be angry regardless of your intentions.” This is an injustice to the speaker in two ways. First, it overrides what the speaker intended to say, treating her as a non-conversant or a non-communicator—in a sense it objectifies the speaker, reducing her mind to a mere string of words with their own meaning. Second, in doing so it makes an exception of the speaker precisely by suspending, in her case, the social and moral convention of interpreting speakers’ words in light of their intentions—it singles out the speaker for unfair treatment by refusing to apply to her the usual social and moral interactive conventions.
            But there is another ethically troubling aspect to the way impact vs. intention distinction is used, and it is one that rebounds on those who disregard the speaker’s intentions. Simply put, those who refuse to take a speaker’s intentions into account willfully deceive themselves into hearing what they want to hear. So, instead of giving themselves credit for being good inter-actors with another person, they override the intentions and hear what they want to hear. This means that they deprive themselves, willingly, of hearing a potential truth, of being open-minded, and of engaging with what they hear. These are all epistemic defects, and they are defects in the hearers themselves.
            The impact vs. intention distinction has to be handled carefully if we are to be fair to others and to ourselves. Specifically, we cannot claim that the impact of words is justified regardless of what the speaker intended in using these words. Ideally, the intentions of a speaker explain how the words have impacted the hearers via their intentions: the speaker’s intentions were racist, so the impact was hurtful. But more importantly, they justify the impact via the intentions: because Jessica’s intentions in using the slur word was not racist, I should not be upset by it (even if I happen to feel upset by it). Such evaluations of emotions allow us to be fair to others and to be better human beings.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Academia and the World's Ills


This post is about five words that I find more and more commonly used in daily communications on academic campuses—certainly in my institution, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I have been teaching for longer than I care to remember. These are words that, I conjecture, reflect a kind of mentality (that I explain at the end) and that I find worrisome, for reasons that I will also explain.

I wish to be clear that even though almost all my colleagues use these words all the time, what I have to say here is not meant to accuse any of them of willful miscommunication or bad communication. At most, the accusation can be of thoughtlessly following the crowd (which is, actually, no small accusation in a setting supposed to be all about critical thinking). Another thing to make clear is that I am by no means advocating the banning of such terminology—on principled grounds, certainly not; think instead of what I am doing as a prompt to get us to reflect more on the words that we use and why we use them.

Some of the expressions that I find troublesome are already well-discussed and I will not repeat them here. I refer to: “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “social justice,” “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” “micro-aggressions,” and “implicit bias.” Some of them (“safe spaces”) clearly do not belong on college campuses. Others (“trigger warnings” and “social justice”) are not clear. Others (“diversity, equity, and inclusion” and “micro-aggressions”) are ill-defined or not defined at all (I think, sometimes knowingly and even intentionally), and they often involve double-faced-ness (officially: “We want to include all voices and experiences”; unofficially: “Perhaps not so much members of a certain group”). Others (“implicit bias”) are not actionable (suppose I am on a search committee and I cogently argue against a candidate who happens to be gay; is this my implicit bias against gays kicking in or am I arguing from good motives? And if I have good reasons for why I reject the candidate, does it matter whether I act from implicit bias or from non-implicit bias?)

The expressions I’m after are not all as hefty, but they are indicative of the changing climate on campuses.

Here they are:

(1) “Reach out”: as in, “I’ll reach out to Richard to set up a meeting.” In the not-so-distant past, we used to use “email” and “contact,” as in: “I’ll email Richard about the meeting,” and “I will contact him and see what he says.”

Well, what’s wrong with “reach out”? Other than being technically incorrect, it connotes helplessness, need, lifting someone out of a ditch, or something along these lines. At first, I thought I was just imagining this connotation, or that it was one born out of my non-abilities as a non-native English speaker. But no, I was not imagining it; here’s the Oxford English Dictionary (on-line): “reach out [mainly North American]: seek to establish communication, with the aim of offering assistance or cooperation: his style was to reach out all the time, especially to members of his own party; anyone in need of assistance should reach out to the authorities as soon as possible.”

So there you have it. Unless by definition all our jobs in a college are miserable (which they are not), we now use an expression connoting need and assistance to communicate with each other on a university campus. This nicely belongs in the same group as “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

(2) “Share”: as in, “I’ll share this email with you” and “Can you please share this document with us?” We used to use “forward” and “email,” as in: “I’ll forward this email to you” and “Can you please email us this document?”

Well, what’s wrong with “share”? Just one thing, really: it connotes a world in which children hold hands and skip together in a field of flowers. It connotes children’s activities in kindergarten (as in: “Children, children! Please share your crayons with each other!”). It connotes breaking bread together (as in: “Let’s share a meal together soon.”)

So there you have it. Like “reach out,” “share” dips into the mentality of “Let’s all be nice to each other” which is, don’t get me wrong, a great mentality for certain contexts. But when used in a university, it symbolizes a certain way of thinking that has come to prevail (see below).

(3) “Empathy”: as in, “We need to hire an administrator who is empathetic” or “I want a department chair who shows empathy.” Now, when people use this word, do they really mean what it means?

To state the obvious, “empathy” is a specific word in the English language (duh!), and this usually means that, no matter how close it is to other words in meaning, it has its own unique one. The word to which it is closest is probably “sympathy,” but “empathy” and “sympathy” mean different things; specifically, “empathy” has a component that is missing from “sympathy,” which is sharing the emotions of the person for whom you have empathy. To empathize with someone who is feeling sad is to also feel their sadness, whereas to be sympathetic towards someone who is sad is to understand and feel some compassion for them sadness.

Now, sharing someone’s emotion by also feeling it is a feat that is very hard to pull off, and, believe me, there are some emotions and feelings that you do not want to share. But regardless of these difficulties, which of the two—sympathy and empathy—do we want our colleagues to have (especially if they are administrators)? If I have to choose one, then I choose sympathy. Why? Because, as others have pointed out, empathy is a dangerous emotion, and one of its dangers is that it can block the critical distance often necessary when dealing with a situation. A dean, say, who empathizes with a crying teacher in her office is a dean who will (at that moment at least) not be able to critically assess the teacher’s complaint. Sympathy allows for a general understanding of the situation—of where the teacher is “coming from”—but also of what needs to be done.

So why this insistence on empathy when we have a perfectly more adequate alternative?

A part of me wants to say that we are just using this word as a catch-all term for “being good.” But if so, why not just say that? Why not say, “We want someone who is decent [good, understanding, etc.]”? My hunch is that this is not the reason for the insistence on empathy. My hunch is that we are using it because it dips into that very same mentality that “reach out” and “share” dip into. I’ll get to this mentality in a bit.

(4) “Non-judgmental”: right up there with “empathy” is the insistence that we be non-judgmental. I’m never sure what this exactly means (I’m actually writing a post on it to explore it), but it seems to reflect the attitude that when we communicate with each other we suspend a certain kind of criticality and that we understand where the other person is “coming from.” It seems to call for an empathetic attitude, actually.

But the problem is that we are judgmental all the time: it is part of our fabric as human beings that we judge: we engage in artistic and aesthetic judgments (“Nature is beautiful”; “Richter is one of the best painters of the 20th century”); moral judgments (“slavery is a moral abomination”); practical judgments (“Taking the train is better than driving”); scientific judgments (“Darwin’s theory of evolution was revolutionary”); and various other types of judgments.

There is another problem with the desire to be non-judgmental, which is its sheer hypocrisy (or, to be nicer, its sheer arbitrariness). For there is never a problem making judgments in academia when it comes to certain things, things that range from the expected (e.g., tenure and promotion decisions, hiring decisions) to more politically charged questions (e.g., which values an institution espouses). However, since it is unclear what it means to be non-judgmental and in which areas, I will stop here.

(5) “Labor”: as in, “I will not do any more labor in this department” or “Once again, a woman of color has to put in labor and chair this committee.” We used to use just plain old “work,” but now we use “labor,” which conjures images of tilling the soil in sweat and heat under a boiling sun (often in fear of being caught by immigration), or images of standing in a factory line assembling things as they speedily come down a belt, or images of cleaning homes while the mistress of the house stands over your shoulder telling you that you missed a spot.

But now, full-time, tenure-track, and tenured colleagues, who have probably one of the cushiest, most comfortable jobs in the world, use the word “labor” to refer to grading papers, or running a department (though I admit that petty squabbles among academics can be its own circle of hell), or making a schedule, or attending meetings. I’m sorry, but this is not labor.

I willingly concede that part-time faculty who have to go from one college to another teaching five or six classes a semester, just to make ends meet, with little to no time for their own research, do labor. This would be labor in academia if there ever was one. But sitting in the comfort of one’s own home, with NPR in the background, and, say, grading papers, is not labor. And using this word to refer to academic work cheapens the actual labor that many others have to do, some just to barely survive.

The use of the above words betokens a certain mentality that has come to prevail in academia, stemming, I conjecture, from the idea that we live in a deeply bad world, a world that is unjust, that is racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist and anti-disabled. (Of course, I am not claiming that every time someone uses, say, “reach out,” this is what they are thinking, but that the common use of such words is explained, at least partly, by this mentality.) It is a world so bad that its badness seeps into (floods?) the workplace. The world’s unjust structures also carry over to the work place, so that just as in the real world people labor, in academia we, too, labor. Just as in the real world we need to empathize with one another, so too in academia we need to empathize with each other. Just as in the real world we have to reach out to one another, so in academia also. The academy mirrors the outside world: whatever happens out there happens in here, so whatever moral and ethical relationships we decide are fit for the outside world, they are also fit for the academy. (Not all such relationships, however, are fit for the academy: humor, which does a lot to alleviate life’s suffering, is best conducted judiciously and cautiously in the halls of academia.)

But if my diagnosis is (at least partly) correct, this mentality is unnecessary. The world is a bad place, yes (for human beings and, lest we forget, even more so for non-human animals), and I am the first in line to say this (I consider myself a philosophical pessimist). We work, however, in a college setting. We are here to educate and research, to teach and learn. We are not running a hospice. And although there used to be a time when many colleges were themselves structured by injustices, that time is not now. Today, colleges are places of general equality and fairness (even equality- and fairness-obsessed).

Of course, individually we have to deal with life’s burdens, and our students come from poverty or from broken homes or from being subjected to all sorts of isms and phobias. Still, we should not confuse a college for something else. Indeed, let’s think of college as a refuge from the world, as a place where we can suspend those ethical relationships that are based in the togetherness-of-living-in-a-world-full-of-suffering-and-injustice and replace them with ethical relationships based in the ethos of education and research (and, of course, in the ethos of basic human decency, which includes sympathy and fairness, and, please, humor). After all, being professional at the workplace does not only include not making sexual jokes, but also not treating each other as perpetual victims and oppressors.

Some readers will recoil in disbelief and dismay at the suggestion that the college can be a refuge from the world’s ills. They do so because they think that the structures of institutions (and hence colleges) reflect these ills, and because the individuals who work at and attend these institutions carry the ills with them, like unwitting Trojan humans. I reject this view. Colleges are not perfect places, but they are also not reproductions of the world’s illnesses, neither structurally nor individually, and we can try, and have tried, to ensure that they are not such places. To insist that they are is to adopt the dimmest, worst view of our abilities as human agents.

I wish to repeat that my claim is not that every time someone uses the above terms the use is indicative of the user’s wayward beliefs or intentions. No. I do not know how and to what purpose each user uses these words. My claim is that the widespread use of these terms and others is indicative of a larger mentality that is prevalent now in academia, a mentality that could very well be at odds with free inquiry.

On Pansexualism

  On Pansexualism At the time of this writing, I am 53 years old. When I was younger—in my teens, my twenties, my thirt...