The Fan Meta Reader

“In Which Amal Puts Her Philosophy Teacher Hat On,” by Amal Nahurriyeh

Curator’s Note: This week, we’re looking at meta that discusses inter-fandom conflict and debate, beginning with amalnahurriyeh’s piece on the dynamics of argumentation within fandom.

I’m a philosopher. (Well, a theorist. Well, it’s complicated. Anyway.) I tend to think of the world in the terms of social theory, because those are terms I understand. And, in any case, I engage in the world this way because I find it useful. So, when I watch people arguing with each other over everyday sorts of questions, I find certain philosophical categories useful for disentangling what’s being done, what folks are saying, and (often) why conversations are failing.

I started writing this post in response to ongoing conversations about RPF that seem to be quite internal to the XF fandom (where RPF is talked about differently than in current panfandom, I think). As I wrote it, I realized some of it was relevant to the RaceFail! of 2009. I have thoughts on both topics, but this isn’t about the substance of either sets of claims/arguments. Instead, it’s about the way we argue, the way we have these conversations, and what can come of them. These terms may be useful to you. They may not. In any case, I offer them up for whatever purposes you have.

1.  Morality and Ethics: The Right vs. The Good

We often use the terms “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably in everyday language: someone has “good morals” or “good ethics,” an action is “immoral” or “unethical” to take, something like that. Both terms, in our everyday usage, pertain to the rightness or wrongness of an action. A moral/ethical action is right; an immoral/unethical one is wrong. We should do what is moral/ethical, and not do what is immoral/unethical.

In philosophy, particularly that strain of liberalism that comes down to us from Kant (and which is most alive today in the work of the intellectual children of Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls), the two terms do not mean the same thing; in fact, they refer to completely different spheres of life. To sketch roughly, morality has to do with the right, whereas ethics has to do with the good. The moral sphere is the domain of justice: what one deserve to receive, what one has a right to demand. It is universal and pertains to everyone. A moral judgment is one that applies to all individuals in a certain circumstance, and represents a total and complete injunction against the action. The demands of justice are absolute. Ethics, however, has to do with what is good. In the contemporary Kantian tradition, the good is always decided at the individual level. I decide what is good for me; I take rational actions to enact that good. Others may have different ideas of the good, and they, therefore, plan their lives differently.

For Kantians, the relationship between the right and the good is that the right is prior, which means that you cannot claim that something is good for you if it is immoral. Always, one must obey the demands of justice. At the same time, however, you have a moral right to be able to do what is good for you, within those limits.

What happens in many real-world discussions of morality and ethics is that these two spheres become blurred by the fact that we use the same language to describe them everyday. This is a common conversation on the internet:

Person 1: X is wrong.
Person 2: So don’t do X, or don’t interact with people X.
Person 1:  No, YOU should stop doing X.
Person 2:  Fuck you, you can’t tell me what to do.

Let me diagram this conversation using the terms as I defined them above:

Person 1: It is immoral that X is done.
Person 2: You feel it is unethical that X is done; I feel it is ethical; let us behave accordingly.
Person 1: You are violating a fundamental principle of right (to not do X), which is immoral.
Person 2: You are violating a fundamental principle of right (to not prevent people from doing what is ethical for themselves), which is immoral.

The two folks involved are completely talking past each other, and they don’t know it, because they are using the same words to mean different things. This is the problem with the “Against abortion/gay marriage? Don’t have one” line that (I admit) I am enamored of. For the people who are really against abortions/gay marriages, they are immoral; that they exist at all is a violation of a fundamental principle of right. For those who are in support of them, they reference the principle of right that says people need to be able to find their own good, and try to move the conversation into the realm of ethics. So, it’s a sentiment I’m sympathetic to, but it doesn’t work as an argument until you can get everyone to agree whether the original question is a moral or an ethical one.

2. Polemics vs. Dialogue

Michel Foucault gave an interview shortly before he died, in which he talked about his feelings on polemics; it’s published in the Foucault Reader as Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations, because Paul Rabinow is cutesy like that. I’m going to quote it at length, and then I’m going to do the Foucault-to-human translation, and then just pose a few thoughts.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each personal are in some sense immanant in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has ben given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, etc. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a write that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse he is tied to the questioning of the other. Questions and answers depend on a game–a game that is at once pleasant and difficult–in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from an possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring out the triumph of the just cause he as been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

The way I would explain this (although it’s a sign that I’ve spent too long in classrooms that this makes perfect sense to me as written) is that there are two types of political speech we can engage in. One of those is dialogue, and the other is polemics. In these two difference speech situations, there are different rules. In discourse, there are a set of rules that are entirely internal (immanent, in theory-speak) to the discourse itself; the person presenting her case has the right to present it, the other person has the right to question and disagree, and the original person has the right to respond to those questions and disagreements. There is no reference to any rights or powers that anyone has outside of the conversation, only the powers they have within that space. (Why, yes, this is Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Someone, please, explain to me why those two could never get along.  They make perfect sense together in my head.)

The other sort of political speech is polemics. Polemics does not engage in this ideal speech act. Instead, the speaker aims to use power that is external to the dialogue to force a certain outcome. They control the space in which the conversation is happening; they are older/more experienced/smarter/better trained than others; they have some sort of social power (gender/race/class/language/etc); whatever. In polemics, there isn’t going to be an equal exchange of ideas that will lead to a conversation where both parties seek the truth (even if, in the end, they can’t agree on such a truth). The first speaker states a position; that’s the position, and it’s right, and there is no arguing with it. If you disagree, you’re wrong.

Foucault says, “if I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of ‘infantile leftism,’ I shut it again right away.” He chooses not to engage in polemics, either in the writing of them or the reading of them. It’s just not what interests him. In my view, polemics serve a certain role in politics; they have their purpose and function, and it’s not always in the service of evil, and I don’t think it’s worth trying to ban them, or to make “polemicist” a bad word we can call each other when we’re fighting.

Instead, much like with the question of ethics and morals, I want to make sure when we know which speech situation we’re entering. When I state a position somewhere, am I asking to be treated as a polemicist or a dialogue partner? If I see a position someone else has taken, are they creating a speech situation of polemics or dialogue? If I enter into a space and begin behaving as a dialogue partner, will I be received as such? If I know I won’t, why am I entering into that space? What am I hoping to achieve? There are also broader, non-individual-level questions about the relationship to the two: when [if ever] may one engage in polemics legitimately?  What duties does one have to engage in dialogue?

To be very clear in the following discussion: I am attempting to engage in a speech situation of dialogue, not polemics; I will attempt to treat all comers as dialogue partners, and would request that others behave likewise. I consider the questions of dialogue vs polemics to be in part a moral distinction, and in part an ethical one, though I haven’t totally determined my position on the line between them. If folks want to reason through arguments they have made elsewhere in these terms, they may absolutely use this space to do so. If they want to characterize others’ actions, they may, but I ask that you recognize that those others have a right to characterize their own actions as well (i.e., that you treat others as dialogue partners).

If anything I have said doesn’t make sense, and you want me to explain it further, I will; I often have trouble explaining these things to others, because they’ve become second nature to me. But I believe everyone has the ability to interpret these questions for themselves, so, you can engage me as a dialogue partner on that, too.

In Which Amal Puts Her Philosophy Teacher Hat On” ©Amal Nahurriyeh, originally posted on Feb. 20, 2009

2 comments on ““In Which Amal Puts Her Philosophy Teacher Hat On,” by Amal Nahurriyeh

  1. luvtheheaven
    November 15, 2014

    This blog has so many posts I’ve been enjoying reading. 😉 I’m so happy to have discovered it.


  2. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2014 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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