The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

“Now Online, 2015 Interview with NPR Affiliate, Clinton School Presents”
by Nikolai Dipippa, with Dr. Eric Thomas Weber

Sorry, listening to the audio on this website requires Flash support in your browser. You can try playing the MP3 file directly by clicking here.

Eric Thomas Weber, author of "Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South" speaks at Sturgis Hall October 19, 2015. Photo Credit: Jacob Slaton

Weber speaking in Sturgis Hall on October 19, 2015. Photo Credit: Jacob Slaton

From the “Clinton School Presents” Web site:

Interview with Eric Thomas Weber for NPR affiliate KUAR on Clinton School Presents, a weekly dialogue of distinguished guests that visit the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nikolai DiPippa, Clinton School Director of Public Programs, sat down with Eric Thomas Weber, associate professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and executive director of the Society of Philosophers in America. His book, Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South, applies a new, philosophically informed theory of democratic leadership to Mississippi’s challenges.

If the audio player above does not work on your platform or device, click here to hear the interview on the Clinton School’s site.

The recording runs 23 minutes long.

If you are interested in a speaker on the subjects of leadership, ethics, or democracy, visit my “Speaking” and “Contact” pages and be in touch.

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

End Corporal Punishment in Public Schools

First published in The Herald Leader (Lexington, KY), Sunday, 9/25/16, 4-5C.

Logo of the Lexington Herald-Leader.On September 4th, The Herald Leader of Lexington, KY, published an in-depth news article on the subject of corporal punishment in public schools. It was still early in the school year, which makes such topics timely. I had written a draft to send them on the subject, but the news article offered many specifics to address in considering the kinds of justifications people raise for continuing corporal punishment in public schools.

Here is the news article to which I was responding, titled “The Paddle Is Still Wielded in Kentucky Schools, but in Declining Numbers.” The piece covers quite an array of reasons people give for the continued practice of corporal punishment. I believe philosophers have a lot to offer when it comes to analyzing arguments, clarifying concerns, and cataloguing reasons for or against a matter. So, I updated my initial draft for the Herald Leader and it came out yesterday in the Sunday issue.

Photo of the header of my op-ed on corporal punishment. Clicking on the link in the image takes you to the full scan of the printed article, available on Academia.edu.

My original title was “End Corporal Punishment in Schools,” but the editors found one of the lines from the piece stronger. So in print and online, the op-ed is titled “Prisoners Better Protected from Corporal Punishment than Students.” That link takes you to the HTML version of the piece online. I’ve also scanned in the printed version which you can view on Academia.edu here or by clicking the image here above.

Invited talk at the University of Kentucky Law School’s faculty lounge, on “Culture, Law, & Justice: On Expression vs. Cultivation in Speech.” It will focus on freedom of speech and government speech, along with their limits.

Date: September 26, 2016
Time: 12:00-01:00 p.m.
Event: Invited talk on "Culture, Law, & Justice: On Expression vs. Cultivation in Speech"
Topic: Culture, Law, & Justice: On Expression vs. Cultivation in Speech
Sponsor: The University of Kentucky School of Law
Venue: The Faculty Lounge
859.257.1678
Location: 620 S. Limestone
Lexington, KY 40506-0048
USA
Public: Public

March 2016 Interview on MS Flag

The Commercial Appeal, March 12, 2016

I now recall giving an interview that I had completely forgotten about. As I had written on the MS state flag, a reporter called me from The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN’s major newspaper. To those not from the region, Memphis is the closest big city for many folks living in northern Mississippi. In fact, lots of people live in DeSoto, MS, and commute across the state border to work in Memphis. So, lots of Memphis readers are Mississippians.

Photo of the piece from the Commercial Appeal.In the effort to change the MS state flag, one approach that arose came in the form of a lawsuit. Here’s the piece that draws on the interview I gave.

Still no change to the MS state flag. It bears an emblem of the Confederate Battle Flag in its canton, even though the state of Mississippi joined the Confederacy explicitly for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery. Go on, read it. Please.

Here’s the article in The Commercial Appeal about the lawsuit.

Photo of Weber with a class at the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, January 2016.

When asked to help out with Dr. Neil Manson’s exciting Wintersession course on Bioethics at the University of Mississippi, I was hesitant at first. I have tried hard to protect my writing time, which is very easy to give up. When I learned of the need for help, though, and the fact that the class would not make without a colleague’s help, I accepted. I joined the Study USA folks at the University of Mississippi, including Dr. Laura Antonow, and Seth Waite, a helpful graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. We spent a week in D.C. visiting all kinds of great groups and organizations to talk about bioethics. Dr. Antonow took this photo and kindly gave me permission to post it here. It was a fun trip and a good group of students.

Beyond the fun visits for the class, the highlights of the trip were the five or six outings I got to take with former students and with colleagues living and working in D.C. I must have met up with over 20 former students and three or four current ones, interning in D.C. Thanks for the photo, Laura!

Interview on Science & Religion in The Tehran Times

This piece was originally published on August 1, 2016, pages 1 and 9.

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be interviewed for The Tehran Times. I am especially grateful that the put the very philosophical interview I gave on the front page of the newspaper. The Tehran Times is Iran’s major English language newspaper. I have had the opportunity to talk quite a few times about philosophy and democracy. Here’s photo of the interview, which links to the full Adobe PDF file for the day’s newspaper (August 1st, 2016). My piece is on pages 1 and 9:

This is a photo of a cut out of the front page interview I gave for The Tehran Times on science and religion.

I got a lot of positive feedback about this piece, as well as some interesting comments and questions on Facebook. In case you want to see those, here’s the post – sorry for the repeat image. I’ve not embedded a Facebook post on this site before, so here’s a test:

I’m honored to see my piece on the front page of the Tehran Times again. How cool is that? (See pgs 1 & 9): http://media.mehrnews.com/d/2016/07/31/0/2156798.pdf
Posted by Eric Thomas Weber, author on Sunday, July 31, 2016

 

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Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power [Essay]

Journal of Speculative Philosophy 30, Issue 1 (2016): 45-63.

My regular, public writing is starting up again, as we’re getting settled in. Over the course of a few busy months, some of my pieces have come out in academic outlets, like the essay I posted last week. Here’s a further piece published this year (2016) in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s titled “Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power: On Protection, Self-Affirmation, and Harm in the Charge of ‘Acting White’.” Here’s a pic of it:

Photo of my essay, 'Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power.'

I seek permission to post my full articles on my Academia.edu page, and I either am given it or have at least given a good faith effort to get that permission. In this case, though, this copy of the paper is the only one I have with my final edits and it’s plastered with JSTOR info (online journal database) and policies stuff. Given that, I’m posting a link to the JSTOR page for my paper instead of to a scan on my Academia.edu profile. If you have academic library access to such stuff, you can probably open the paper or manage to get access to it here (the “static” page for the on JSTOR).

This essay is one of the steps in my overarching project on culture and justice. For now, I can share my abstract for the paper:

In the liberal tradition, self-respect is most often associated with Kantian moral philosophy, which suggests a focus on individual responsibility. While the individual plays a part in the development of his or her self-respect, so, too, do his or her environmental and cultural conditions. In this essay, I distinguish between conceptions of self-respect, especially those that focus on it as a duty to oneself, and having a “sense of one’s own positive power,” a Deweyan educational ideal. A sense of positive power is partly directed by the individual but is also clearly conditioned by the ways in which one’s culture treats and reacts to one’s efforts. Thus, a sense of positive power, as a concept, reveals the powerful role of one’s wider culture in frustrating or enabling a vital element of personal growth necessary for justice. I test the distinction with respect to the difficult and harmful charge of “acting white,” which concerns self-respect and the role of oppressive forces conditioning people’s senses of their power in an unjust society.

If I can figure out a way to share the full paper without violating relevant policies, I will. In general, scholars as editors want you to share your work. A journal is better known the more it’s read. I do understand that there’s a system to this, however, and I try to always seek permission to share my work as much as I can.

John Dewey, standing.

Despite this hurdle, I’m especially happy to have work come out in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s a classic outlet in American philosophy. John Dewey published in it as early as 1882. Also, Charles Pierce published one of his classic pieces in the journal as early as 1868 (free to access, unlike my paper). A few of Dewey’s early papers there are available for free as well, such as this one on Kant that was very helpful for my dissertation.

If you can’t access this paper and want to know more about it, let me know that. At the very least, that’ll tell me that I should probably consider a newspaper piece on the subject. For now, I’m working on an op-ed on education and another on the Presidential election.

Reach out if you’re interested and follow or “like” my pages on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook.com/EricThomasWeberAuthor.