Friday, September 26, 2014

The "Cool Heads" and the "Angry Mob"

Unfortunately, you know the pattern. First, a group of philosophers reacts strongly to some incident X and, then, after a while, a second group of philosophers starts complaining that the philosophers in the first group are overreacting/jumping to conclusions too fast/not in a position to know whether X ever really happened... Often philosophers in this second group start comparing philosophers in the first group to an angry mob. Let me call the philosophers in this second group 'the cool heads'. There is a few points I'd like to make about the cool heads.

First, an interesting sociological fact: anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, often, the cool heads are white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men (there are exceptions, of course). In other words, they usually are among the most privileged members of our already very privileged profession. Most of this is hardly surprising: we all know well that most professional philosophers are white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men. What makes this unsurprising fact surprising is that the philosophers in the first group are often not white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied men. To my mind, this makes the angry mob charge quite problematic, for angry mobs are usually considered irrational or non-rational. In this conversational context, the charge easily acquires sexist, racist, ableist overtones.

Second, 'angry mob' also has strongly classist overtones and, again, when used in this context, this is particularly problematic. As I mentioned, the cool heads are often among the most privileged members of our (privileged) profession, so the fact that they try to associate the philosophers in the first group as lower-class is quite telling. Perhaps, before accusing people who react strongly to X to be an angry mob, one should ask themselves 'Why am I not bothered by X as these other people are? Could it be that my own privilege prevents me from seeing what's problematic with X? Could it be that, if I were not a white, cis-heterosexual, able-bodied man (fill in as appropriate), I would find X more troublesome?' These are not easy questions to ask. They require one to acknowledge their own privileges, which can be uncomfortable especially in a profession in which people often tend to attribute their professional success to their talents and tend to discount the role their privilege has played in it.

Third, the idea, which seems to underlie much of the cool heads approach, that inaction is somehow intrinsically morally superior to action is extremely problematic. Yes, the cool heads will only reach a conclusion about X when all the evidence is in and they have thought about it carefully and they have eliminated all alternative interpretations and..., but, we are philosophers, so we know where that leads---the evil demon is a useful fiction in the philosophy classroom but it can't be the epistemic standard on which we act in the real world! The fact is that the cool heads do not realize is that their privileged position is what allows them to adopt such high epistemic standards. Because X could never happen to them! So it's easy for them to take the (supposedly) moral high ground and look down on the "angry mob" condescendingly.

The fact is that angry mobs are often the voice of the powerless against the powerful. Often angry mobs act in ways that we find reproachable but often the cause of their anger is very real and is something that needs to be addressed urgently. If it is a angry mob that forces you to confront the problems you'd rather ignore or tolerate (because they don't really affect you), then so be it...

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