On the Perils of Practicing Public Philosophy
By Shane Ralston
First of all, I’d like to thank Marcus for the opportunity to share with you some ideas I have about public philosophy. My name is Shane Ralston and I’m a mid-career philosopher and faculty member at Penn State University Hazleton (for more, see my professional website and/or my Academia.edu page). I am fully aware that not all of you will agree with my claims, but I hope that we can still be respectful and supportive in our disagreement (as dictated by the Cocoon community’s mission) and of course learn from each other in the process.
For the sake of clarity, let’s start with a fairly non-controversial definition of ‘public philosophy’ offered by Jack Russell Weinstein in his essay “What Does Public Philosophy Do? (Hint: It Does not Make Better Citizens)”:
In contrast to philosophy simpliciter, public philosophy denotes the act of professional philosophers engaging with non-professionals, in a non-academic setting, with the specific goals of exploring issues philosophically. In other words, public philosophy involves getting people to think about the assumptions that govern the things they do, the controversies they are immersed in, and the experiences of their day-to-day lives by looking at those aspects that are either invisible to them or taken for granted. Public philosophy and philosophy as it is usually understood are not too far apart, although their audiences differ radically. What public philosophy need not be, however, is professionalized and refined.
Weinstein claims that “[p]ublic philosophy and philosophy as it is usually understood are not too far apart,” except that “their audiences differ radically.” Doing public philosophy is different than what we do here in a friendly community of supportive (and, to at least some degree, like-minded) fellow philosophers. Public philosophy is practiced in a world that is not always friendly to liberals or intellectuals, a world where people commonly troll, harass and bully others (and, I might add, it’s probably become worse since the election of Mr. Trump).
As public philosophers, we often discover that institutional forces do not always operate in fair or rational ways. In speaking truth to power, we can become unwitting targets of retaliation. Given this danger, early-career philosophers should be wary of doing public philosophy, particularly when it jeopardizes their career and reputation. For instance, there have been an alarming number of recent incidents in which universities retaliated against professors who tweeted controversial political messages (see here, here and here). Also, professors who are outspoken in their left-leaning political activism have been added to a “Professor Watchlist” in an attempt to tarnish their reputations (see here, here and here). I’ll return to this point about the dangers that doing public philosophy poses for early-career philosophers.
I want to say a bit about what I call the ‘romanticization of public philosophy’ narrative. Those who are heavily invested in public philosophy and its success tend to present an idealized picture of the activity as well as an inflated estimate of its worth (for examples of this, see my paper “Living Dangerously by Doing Public Philosophy”). The romanticization narrative is a great recruiting tool. It’s likely one reason why increasing numbers of philosophers have decided to practice public philosophy by writing newspaper Op-Ed pieces, contributing to online issues forums and participating in other forms of activism. Just look at the popularity of the New York Times’ section The Stone, described as “a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” In doing public philosophy, we also have plenty of philosophical heroes to look to as role models—for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Dewey. Imagine the notoriety that could be gained as a public intellectual! The American Philosophical Association (APA) has also jumped on the bandwagon, organizing a Committee on Public Philosophy (in full disclosure, I was a member from 2013-15) and hosting a special meeting on the opportunities and challenges of practicing public philosophy (the 2010 meeting report is available here).
What the romanticization narrative whitewashes is the dangerous reality of doing public philosophy. As Weinstein writes, “public philosophy need not be … professionalized and refined.” Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere. Trying to sanitize public philosophy or create safe spaces in which to practice it in a civil manner usually prove fruitless. The world outside the Ivory Tower is just too messy and unmanageable. But that hasn’t stopped the APA from trying to impose their will. A few months after George Yancy received death threats from some readers of his New York Times essay “Dear White America,” the APA and its Committee on Public Philosophy released a statement on bullying and harassment. Brian Leiter objected to it. I criticized it. Many defended it. In a nutshell, my criticism was that even hateful speech has a place in public discourse (in fact, it’s protected by the First Amendment), and if we public philosophers want to participate in that discourse, then we have to co-exist with the trolls, harassers, bigots and other hate-mongers, argue against them and hope that truth and justice, not hate and intolerance, prevail.
Debate in non-academic forums resembles what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., called a “marketplace of ideas,” where even the most repellant faiths fight for supremacy, not a well-pruned garden, where only the politically correct ideas are permitted to gain entry and bloom. Perhaps Richard Posner was right when he wrote that we academics tend to model all dialogue within a democracy after an “academic seminar” (see his essay “Smooth Sailing”). Public speech forums are nothing like academic seminars or even sessions within academic conferences—however much we would like them to be. They are also unlike the supportive community we have here at the Cocoon. They are not safe spaces.
When public discourse sinks to the level of making threats of physical harm, then we have entered upon new territory. I received death threats when two of my essays about the Sandusky scandal and Penn State Truthers were published online (see here and here). Though I decided to ignore them, I would have been within my rights to call the police and report the threats. But I could do nothing about hateful speech in the comments section of these articles, except respond with more speech. I also suffered serious professional costs I cannot describe here when I exposed a cheating scandal involving Penn State and some institutions it has connections to (see here and here).
So, my point is that doing public philosophy can be a perilous activity. For early career philosophers, it’s made even more dangerous by not having the protection of tenure. When I served on the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, one of my favorite responsibilities was refereeing submissions for an Op-Ed contest the committee sponsored. What I enjoyed most about judging the contest was reading some amazing pieces of public philosophy. Most of the Op-Eds made philosophical ideas more accessible to a lay audience. Their authors composed sophisticated and cogent arguments rarely seen in the mainstream media. I was also impressed by the courage with which these philosophers put themselves and their work out there for public criticism. While judges were not permitted to read responses to the Op-Eds, I could imagine that some readers were not too impressed. Comments on many of these articles were likely filled with personal attacks, ridicule, bigotry, hatred and anti-intellectual rants. But these are the dangers of doing public philosophy, dangers that are unfortunately so common nowadays that we should, as public philosophers, come to expect them.
Telling intolerant consumers of public philosophy or so-called ‘trolls’ (some of whom could even be fellow philosophers posting to a site anonymously) to “cease and desist” (which the APA does in its statement on bullying and harassment) accomplishes little to nothing. Also, telling public philosophers not to lower themselves to the level of bigots, bullies and harassers when debating in these public forums is equally pointless. That’s not to say that in an ideal world we shouldn’t all be more civil and less hateful. But we do not practice public philosophy in an ideal world, do we?
Again, I’m not arguing that threats of physical harm are excusable or should be tolerated. They warrant police involvement. Also, I’m not claiming that all early career philosophers should abstain from practicing public philosophy. Instead, as a prudential matter, the costs associated with its dangers (e.g. losing one’s job or reputation) should be weighed against the activity’s potential benefits. Early career philosophers might also acknowledge the inaccuracy of the romanticization narrative and the pointlessness of efforts, such as the APA’s, to sanitize public philosophy or create safe spaces in which to practice it.