The Journal of hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaaaa
These men are committed to liberal speech norms, there's nothing to be afraid of.
What feels like many internets ago, a favorite “get a load of this!” past time of mine was pulling up articles from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics with titles like “Sex with corpses might be philosophically cool. But it’s still not a good idea” (which I don’t even disagree with, but, come on) and “Enhanced punishment: can technology make life sentences longer?” and, more recently, “The Ethics of Gently Electrifying Prisoners’ Brains.”
I sort of regret this now. Not because the articles aren’t funny (they are), or because I think it’s wrong to privately make fun of whatever they’re doing over there (it’s not), but because the future was not something where philosophers explored bizarre or repulsive scenarios for professional reasons and every once in a while I read these pieces for my own amusement, but where people log on and do the equivalent every day, for no reason. There is an entire twitter account that mostly runs polls that are offensive questions, including about euthanizing the disabled. (I am not going to link to it, because I do not want to drive harassment toward anybody.) So now I feel nostalgic about the Practical Ethics blog, which was (and is) self-contained thing you had to go look up, not people deciding that today is the day they’re going to go to fight for eugenics or what have you, with a Frankenstein’s monster of premises and arguments, and a constantly shifting online context that makes argument impossible anyway.
I thought about Uehiro while browsing the first issue of the, uh, pardon me, Journal of Controversial Ideas, in which there is a paper about how “we should consider enforced coma as a procedure having many advantages over the more familiar methods of delivering a penalty.” Why is it always stuff we’re doing to prisoners, by the way…? (Controversial idea: prisoners are human beings.) I mean yes, the article is about “punishment,” but I am allowed to find people talking at length about how to punish some abstract category of people a bit weird.
I don’t hate every article in this publication, I guess I should say. (I liked this one.) And in quoting the abstract from the one about enforced comas, I am certainly participating in the dynamic the editors single out as their reason for starting the journal:
Yet what is widely shared over the internet is often neither genuine academic work, nor popularized but accurate accounts of academic work, but instead the conclusions of academic articles taken out of context and stripped of the reasons for holding them. These distorted conclusions are then circulated to people who are liable to respond with outrage, and this outraged response then proliferates in the manner typical of social media.
Fair enough, I suppose, even if the pious invocation of “Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei” as people who “were considered so dangerous that authorities tried to silence them” is a little eye-rolling (here’s a controversial idea for you: “the execution of Socrates was justified,” I mean I don’t agree with it, but surely it gets the people going). It is certainly possible, even likely, that people find Peter Singer’s ideas outrageous because they are, not because he’s been taken out of context.
However, I think my basic question about something like the Journal of Controversial Ideas really lies in this other line in the opening editorial: “By introducing fellow academics and the lay public to a healthy and lively debate about ideas that are genuinely controversial, we seek to foster appreciation of reasoned discussion and pave the way for more fruitful public and academic debate.”
I find this a little odd, even condescending. They are very different types of publications, but it reminds me of my issue with having a magazine titled Persuasion: what does it mean to celebrate debate or persuasion in general, as opposed to debate (over something) or persuasion (of a particular person). Persuasion is quite hard but I think highly unlikely to be successful if you can tell the person talking to you is trying to pantomime “persuasiveness” to an audience of strangers at the same time.
This is one of my problems with the proliferation of “scripts” for interpersonal situations: people can usually tell when they’re being emotionally managed and treated as a problem and they are (probably) going to resent it. (The frequently highly annoying de-escalating “!” in online exchanges probably deserves a whole piece of its own.) Now that’s not a problem if you don’t really have a relationship with that person but it is a problem, or can be, if you are friends or lovers or family.
If I’m having what I think is a normal argument with somebody and they end the argument by saying something like “nice to have a civil argument, it’s so rare these days!” I instantly hate them. Not forever, just in the moment. It makes me feel like a chump for thinking we both had some sort of skin in the conversation.
What does it mean for an idea to be controversial? Surely this differs by context, and also by phrasing (hard to get people to support eugenics, which has fairly bad PR, but you can, probably, get them to endorse eugenics by another name if you’re clever about it). Perhaps I am friends with a more ideologically diverse crew of people than most, but it’s difficult for me to think of an idea that is across-the-board controversial or across-the-board accepted.1
Defending a controversial idea or publishing it could be an act connected to several virtues (intellectual clarity, bravery, etc), but controversy-qua-controversy seems like a bad way to find those virtues. Similarly you might do a good thing for venal reasons (publish something controversial to attract attention, but remain indifferent to its truth). Another way of putting this is that the list of martyrs to controversy were not doing anything as silly as celebrating controversy for its own sake.
All this said, the (sigh) Journal of Controversial Ideas is more like Uehiro than random twitter users, so I guess I welcome it to some degree, even if I think it’s a dumb project. May the pursuit of the inflammatory and trivial go back to academic conversations, where it belongs. And I am (actually) a fan of liberal speech norms, enjoy an argument, all the rest. But still. I think it’s pretty stupid.
I think most people are thinking of their own context when they evaluate what is and is not controversial, so I think the answer would probably have to do with the culture of academic philosophy, about which I know nothing and care even less. But fair enough!