Reading the thoughts of an academic can be taxing enough, but when the academic is a philosophy prof, it can be brutal. This became clear when I tried reading some of the public writings of NYU philosophy prof Avital Ronell. It wasn’t just that they weren’t good or easy to read; they were pure gibberish. I concede that I might simply not have been up to the task of appreciating philosophical genius, but I tried and failed nonetheless.
So I approach anything relating to philosophers with trepidation, including Agnes Collard’s op-ed in the New York Times. I was aware of the existential war within the academic community about signing petitions and open letters as a means of silencing heretics within their community, to shame and blame, using bulk in lieu of reason.
As with some other niches where outrage and ideology have seized control, the primary means of control had become numbers of signatories, with a few heavyweight names within the niche to add gravitas. But this was philosophy. Of all the areas of enlightenment, this was the one where thought, particularly heretical thought, should be appreciated. And yet, they couldn’t be bothered to argue why when they could instead silence ideas by wielding their numbers, their influence, like a bludgeon.
Collard’s op-ed was not merely clear and understandable, but bold.
Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position.
That it argues a position is fine, even laudable. The problem is that it does not seek to let the argument persuade, but uses the list of names to inform how many endorse it.
The problem here is not that what many believe can be false, though that is a problem. The problem is that even if it’s true, the fact that many believe it doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know.
But if enough people believe something, endorse something, who are you to disagree? This should be particularly unacceptable to philosophers.
Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.
And it should be to lawyers as well.
The idea that “the many” cannot be philosophical goes back to Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ interlocutors frequently resist his counterintuitive conclusions as violations of “common sense,” and Socrates regularly replies, “why should we care so much for what the majority (“hoi polloi”) think?” (Crito 44c.) Socrates wants to know why the view is true, not who or how many hold it.
It would be undignified for an academic to argue that the average IQ is 100, and half the people are dumber than that, but trench lawyers never let such trifles as dignity get in the way of reality. There’s a difference between determining the most popular food and the best food. That far more people eat Big Macs than duck confit doesn’t make the former haute cuisine.
Philosophical argument may not always bring about the largest number of mind-changes in your audience — the award on that front would go to mass propaganda of some kind — but it represents the kind of belief acquisition that we as philosophers are committed to: intellectually honest, conducive to knowledge, nonaggressive, inquisitive, respectful.
Granted, unlike philosophers and academics, lawyers tend to be aggressive, and “respectful” is a bit too relative and vague to serve as a guide anymore, but the idea is that it’s the validity of the argument is what matters, not how big the swarm of insipid gnats.
Also granted, it may well be that a sound, factual and logical argument will not prevail against an ideological belief, such that no argument, no amount of reason, will accomplish anything. Lawyers are, unfortunately, becoming increasingly susceptible to the influence of numbers when it comes to rationalizing outcomes they desire even though they make no sense or, worse, they are untenable.
We used to be a pretty robust bunch, willing to call bullshit when necessary. Our ranks are swiftly being overcome with useful idiots, whose beliefs are bolstered by the comfort of the approval of their fellow gnats.
There is no greater threat to intellectual culture than the thought that when it really counts, when it actually matters to us, we philosophers give up on doing philosophy. If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, no one else will either.
Presumption of innocence? Due process? Even the dreaded presumption of regularity. The hoi polloi doesn’t care much for these principles, as they get in the way of their desired outcomes, and they tolerate no argument that impairs achieving the goals they are certain must be achieved.
And lawyers are not merely failing to use their voices to explain why these foundational principles exist, why they matter, why we cannot sustain a viable society without them. They are joining the charge, leading it, and lending their weight to the insipid gnats who believe that their numbers are more important than principles.
If lawyers have given up on principles like due process, are willing to throw them under the bus if they stand in the way of their ideology, then there’s little hope that the hoi polloi won’t come to reject principles as well.
If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, no one else will either.
It may be hard to buck the swarm of insipid gnats, to challenge the orthodoxy, to hold firm to principles when all the cool kids call you a heretic. But if lawyers give up on law, then it’s lost.