It’s not a taboo unless it’s also a taboo to question the taboo. I get that. But it’s not a violation of a law or a rule or a policy to question that law or rule or policy. If you want to make the questioning of it a violation you have to either include that prohibition in the law or rule or policy, or else you have to enact another law or rule or policy to prohibit the questioning of it. And then yet another to prohibit the questioning of that one, and so on ad infinitum. You can do that. Many regimes do. But if you do you probably need to be removed from office. Or, under dire enough circumstances, ‘removed’ from office. As, in fact, many such ‘legislators’ are. 

University administrators know this, which is why they might insist on our complying with university policy, but they tend to hold back from prohibiting criticizing university policy. 

Of course sometimes administrators are too thick to appreciate the difference. For example, at the University of Lethbridge we’re told to “honour the Blackfoot people and their traditional ways of knowing in caring for this land.” Well, let’s see now. Yes, some Blackfoot people believe things that others do not. And some Blackfoot people know things that others do not. But I’m on record calling bullshit on the notion that they can have different ways of knowing. So it’s hard for me to honour this putatively different way of knowing anything, let alone this different way of knowing how to care for this land. 

In calling bullshit on it, am I refusing to comply with this nonsense or merely questioning it? The Administration has yet to call me on the carpet for my pedantry, and I suspect it never will. Why? Because it knows the policy is just shameless virtue-signalling, and it doesn’t want to be publicly called out for it. But who knows? It’s not that it hasn’t yielded to the pitchfork-brandishing mob before. 

But to be fair, sometimes asking an otherwise innocent question just is to deny the official answer to it. Suppose, for example, I’m asking, as in fact I have, whether trans-women are women. To ask the question is to suppose it’s an open one. For it to be open is to suppose they might not be women. To suppose they might not be women is not to suggest they’re not. But imagine you’re a trans student being expected to sit dispassionately in my classroom and deliberate on the issue. 

If, like me, you’re not sure what to think about this, try replacing ‘trans-woman’ with ‘black’. and ‘woman’ with ‘human’. I suspect we’re of a mind that it would be beyond inappropriate to have a class discussion on whether its black members are human. So why can I ask whether my trans students are women? Because, dammit, the two cases are different. But how different?

Certain discussions are not to be had because they invade someone’s privacy. I get that. But what about her dignity? It’s not a secret that Jane is obese, so let’s discuss it in class. Uh … no. So insofar as certain discussions are not to be had, it follows that neither are certain questions to be asked. I get that too. But what remains unclear to me – and I suspect to you too – is how we’re to decide on which questions can be asked and which cannot.

One might suppose, as did Thomas Hobbes, that the line can be drawn at  questions the asking of which are likely to threaten the peace. In his day the casus belli of the Civil War was ecclesiastical, i.e. Catholicism versus Protestantism. So in the wake of the war Hobbes thought “it [should be] annexed to the sovereign to be judge of what opinions and doctrines are conducing to peace … and therefore fit to be taught.” But with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, England decided instead that, in matters of faith at least, governments are better advised to live and let live, a decision which, thankfully, has largely endured to this day in most of our Western liberal democracies. 

But there are still elements that have declined to sign on. Charlie Hebdo knew it was asking for trouble. Was it ‘good trouble’, in the John Lewis sense? Or was it just trouble for trouble’s sake?

Rosa Parks would have been just as comfortable sitting at the back of the bus. But she was trying to make a point. The same can be said of Charlie Hebdo. As subsequent events have made clear, neither act was conducive to peace. But we think both were laudable nonetheless. So peace can at most be among the considerata for askability. Another, it seems, is justice. Is it unjust to question whether trans-women are women?

The injustice of racial discrimination is a res judicata. The injustice of sexual orientation discrimination is not. How not? Because pedophilia is no less a sexual orientation than homosexuality, and yet the injustice of discrimination against pedophiles isn’t even on the table yet. That trans-women are women lies somewhere between this no-longer-an-issue and this not-yet-one. 

Notwithstanding I’m Jewish, I’m not at all clear on what it is to be an anti-Semite. Notwithstanding I’m white – well, kinda – I’m not sure what it is to be a white supremacist. But I’m told – and why would anyone lie about this? – that anti-Semites and white supremacists threaten the personal safety of Jews and Blacks respectively. I get that. But I’m highly doubtful this is the case with denying that a trans-woman is a woman. 

Still, we’ve long since expanded Mill’s Harm Principle to include one’s feelings. And rightly so. But who’s feelings? And what feelings? I have no doubt that calling a pedophile vile hurts his feelings. And that telling a student she’s not yet ready for a fourth-year class hurts hers. So just as there are protected properties in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – race, religion, disability, and now certain sexual orientations – what are the feelings we think warrant protection?

All is permitted save what is prohibited is extensionally equivalent to all is prohibited save what is permitted. So if the question is too difficult as it stands, perhaps we can ask instead whose and what feelings don’t warrant protection. The pedophile’s because we think he’s vile? The underprepared student because she’ll thank us in the long run?

It might be thought – and this is probably right – that there’s no principled answer to these questions. Protection, or lack thereof, is the product of a political process, which in turn hangs on what cause can muster the best PR. Post-Holocaust Jews have a juggernaut lobby at their disposal; pedophiles do not. As we speak dissertations are being written on how the trans community, which numbers less than that of people who’ve been abducted by aliens, managed to come from a Huh?! to the lead story in every campus newspaper. 

Who and what gets protected, and who and what doesn’t, is indeed a political rather than principled process. But that doesn’t mean arguments play no role in that process. They do, but they’re all fatuous. They’re fatuous because every argument by analogy can be parried with an oh-but-that’s different. And that claiming this ‘difference’ is invariably partisan. Trans-women have friends in much the way that pedophiles do not.

Let me finish up with a test case. There are at my university lower standards of admission for First Nations students than for other applicants. That’s acceptable under section 15 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But that’s an old saw. What’s not an old saw is whether it would or would not be appropriate to allow a debate on this policy in a Social and Political Philosophy class. And would it matter whether there are or are not First Nations students in the class? 

Truth to tell, these are among the questions I agonize over. A little input from my readers would not go unappreciated.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. De gustibus non est disputandum.


  2. To discuss your test case, it would be necessary for me to know if the U. of Lethbridge would be able to fill its first-year admissions class if all applicants had to meet the same high standards. If there would be empty places at that cut-off, then lowering the standards to let some people in who would be desirable for non-academic reasons, despite lack of academic achievement, could be defended. They bring dollars that would be lost if the places went empty. The other applicants who couldn’t make the grade either but were still excluded (because of being less non-academically desirable) would feel resentful but couldn’t claim they had been unfairly denied admission — they themselves weren’t up to standard.

    On the other hand, if the U. of Lethbridge is a competitive university, at which everyone who gets offered a place far exceeds the minimum cut-off standard, then to admit applicants on the basis of race who fail even to meet that de jure cut-off, much less the de facto cut-off that the the competitive applicants exceed, necessarily requires that the University must exclude some very-high achieving applicants in order to admit the low-achieving First Nations applicants. This would be much harder to defend, as smart people rightly resent being denied, on the basis of their race, higher education at a competitive school of their first choice, graduation from which provides important momentum to their careers and allows advantageous assortative mating.

    Far from Alberta, there are only so many lobsters, which all the fisherfolk must share. Allowing one group to take what they want, out of season, is to play a zero-sum game with a common resource. (Actually a less-than-zero-sum game if the lobster fishery declines owing to the taking of egg-laden females during the breeding season, and if the university learning environment declines from having people who are hopelessly over their heads but can’t be told to seek other opportunities.)

    The University should also be prepared to present evidence about the academic success of the “sub-standard” First Nations students? How many flunk out in December and leave the spaces vacant, which could have gone to better qualified applicants, even other sub-standard ones? With some compensatory guidance and support (how much?, and does it include exemption from grading standards in the same spirit as the standards they were exempted from meeting at admission?) how many can be nurtured to graduation? And how many are quick studies who rapidly compensate for a blighted home and school environment and catch up with their non-indigenous peers? Most fair-minded people would agree that the system ought to take a chance on people who are determined to better themselves against obstacles, even ones created by their own earlier choices, and even if some better-qualified applicants are disadvantaged (as long as it’s not too many and as long as none of them is my kid. Kantian I am not.) Evidence of “bettering” would carry weight. There is a lot at stake.


  3. So, yes, it would be appropriate to encourage debate on the policy in a Social and Political Philosophy class, regardless of the presence of absence of First-Nation students. I think the ground rules of the debate would be different depending on the facts applying to the university where the debate was taking place, as I tried to lay out. You would have to really want to, though.


  4. Any topics can be discussed anywhere in a presence of anyone if people under consideration lives in truly just, democratic and free society or dictatorship providing that the topic you want to discuss is in line with dictatorship policies.
    I think one needs to truthfully answer oneself which society we are living in.


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