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“Get out your phones”: Diversity, moral courage and teaching moments

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By now you will have seen the video from the United States Air Force Academy of Lt. General Jay Silveria addressing an all too common event at institutions of higher learning, the scrawling of racist epithets in public places directed towards fellow students or other members of the community. My own institution Pacific Lutheran University in the Pacific Northwest faced this moment in 2000 when homophobic graffiti graced our Administration Building. These are difficult and traumatic ‘teaching moments.”

Lt. Gen. Silveria provided one of those moments and much of what is documented in the video are what we would hope and expect that educators say in these moments: 1) this is not okay; 2) our community rejects these messages and the bigotry and institutional and systematic racism and privilege that generated them and 3) we are stronger for our diversity.  His righteous and appropriate anger was clear, but so was his resolve on behalf of his community.

But there were two points that struck me as different and powerfully important. First, while he rejects the ideas represented by the graffiti as bad ideas, he also exhorts and asks his audience what their better ideas are. This is not just rejection of certain actions and speech but an invitation to and a demand for better. In a society where there is constant and easy criticism of everything on a daily basis (and seemingly by everyone, regardless of knowledge, expertise or experience), it is important to point out that criticism alone is not helpful. We need better ideas.

This reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s arguments about free speech in On Liberty (Chapter 2 for your homework!) where he argues that debate and understanding of all ideas (especially those that are wrong) are necessary to generate correct ideas and to know they are correct, with continual testing and examination.  The act of claiming an idea is true and beyond examination is itself as claim that should be subject to debate and examination and very often a political shortcut to avoid discussing the idea or having difficult questions raised about it. (If an idea is obviously false, it should have no trouble being refuted in the process of rigorous discussion and examination, Mill notes, and such examination is essential to understanding exactly how and why it is false so that it does not become a ‘dead dogma’.)

We need better ideas, not just criticisms of those that are wrong. How do we know they are wrong if we don’t have better ideas to weigh them against? And of course, new, interesting ideas emerge all the time. We should be open to that and always looking for better ways. This is at the heart of many an education process and hopefully, in the political project that we call democracy.

Second, Lt Gen. Silveria asked the members of the audience to take out their cell phones (a command?) and to record his statement of ‘Get out.’  This is interesting, but even more interesting is the reason why.  He acknowledged the need for corporate and communal moral courage, and that having such a recording to use and appeal to in various situations was a resources and back up. It is not often that we even acknowledge that there is such a thing as communal moral courage, focusing most often on individual moral courage against a group or authorities. However, it IS important, and even more important is the idea that we need support and resources for and education in, this kind of moral courage.

This is clearly a consummate and reflective educator and leader at work. He is not just laying out the standard and the expectations, but equipping, preparing and providing the necessary rehearsal and performance resources so that the members of his community can develop and demonstrate the moral courage to uphold this standard. It does no good to set a standard and then just expect your people to do it, as if by magic or luck. They need practice, resources and support. Those cell phone recordings may be the critical thing in a difficult moment that gives someone a tool they need to be morally courageous – knowing they are not alone in their commitment to the standard.

That is some impressive pedagogical practice, Sir. Well done.

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Dunkirk: Not a War Movie

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I went to see Dunkirk this weekend with an economist friend who is into German and Russian World War II everything – you know an average girls afternoon out! I was interested to see the film (despite all the hype,) since I teach Christopher Nolan’s film Momento in my Early Modern Philosophy class and I have had a huge crushers on Kenneth Branaugh since Dead Again and Henry V.  (He did not disappoint!) And then there is the war movie angle, especially since I regularly teach courses on ethics, violence and war.

Before going, I ran across Matt Gault’s review on War is Boring.

Ouchie! It was, I thought, a harsh review whose point seemed to be that the film was boring, lacking the traditional blood and grit of a war movie. I respect Gault, so I was intrigued by this reaction which seemed decidedly a minority view, even among the military and national security crowd I follow on social media. Having now seen the film, I can see his point. If you expect a conventional war film, this ain’t it. This is not a war movie at all.

Bear with me. Yes, I know that Dunkirk was part of World War II. Yes, I know there are soldiers, sailors and airmen and things exploding. Yes, there is some combat in the film which results in death and harm. That said, this is not a conventional war movie, at least not as Americans would expect, because it is not really about war as Americans see war. This film does a great job of conveying the experience of the historical event which takes place after a major defeat, and is the prelude to the next phase of the war. So Dunkirk is an intermission of sorts. And an intermission is a time for pause, for reflection and for preparing for the next act. And that is precisely what this film is: an existential reflection on survival, defeat and moral and existential meaning amidst all that.  It is a reflection upon the pain of war when it does not go well, when there is no decisive winning battle, when there seems no place for individual heroism, when courage seems to be about enduring and surviving.

So what do I mean: This is not a war movie? This film is about the scale and horizon of the event, with little (except intermittently) focus on characters or the enemy.  We do not have a chance to really get emotionally involved with any one character, and the enemy is only referred to in the beginning as The Enemy. The Germans are not named, they are not seen and are only felt in the harm they are inflicting upon the Dunkirk survivors. I expect that this is quite intentional. Why? I don’t actually think the Germans are The Enemy.  If this is a film about survival and endurance, then the true enemy at Dunkirk is Time; this is a race against time, against losses that will compromise the next battle. They must survive to fight another day and every minute is a life lost.

When I think of a war movie, I think of Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Patton, Enemy at the Gates, The Longest Day. The classical formula is that it is largely army especially infantry centric (though not always) with the focus on a small group of characters (the band of brothers) that we get to know and follow through the film.  There is often gritty, intense combat portrayed showing the harm and carnage of war (blood and other war porn elements) and we are invited to identify with the heroes/protagonists and feel enmity towards the enemy who are portrayed as evil, wrong, mean, cruel and all things to be despised. War movies are often intimate in this way – it is the duel or clash of two sided writ large. Good versus evil with a decisive battle or event as part of a clear narrative arch that results in redemption, victory and resolution.  Sometimes this arch is about the band of brothers, sometimes about the warring leaders (Patton and Rommel for instance) or about warring nations, but the essential conflict is the same regardless of scale.

This film has none of that. Oh there is combat, but there is little blood – although still a great deal of grit, messiness and destruction. The major scenes are the scale of the evacuation on the beaches, naval sequences and classic style air battles. There are a few moments of heroism, but they come mostly at the hands of civilians rescuing soldier, which of course upends the traditional war movie trope of civilians as victims. There are also nods to British heroism, with a bit of Shakespearean sensibility brought by Branagh as he remains behind to help evacuate the French.  There is also the matter of heroic homecoming for the soldiers of Dunkirk (who really are perplexed and so not feeling it), which is fascinating in terms of the military/civilian culture gap and the problem of defeat and military failure – for the society and their warriors.

This is not a war movie. At least not in any kind of conventional sense and so Gault is right. And his review is really interesting in that it highlights this really interesting question about what a war movie is and what it is supposed to do.  Clearly he had a particular vision of this, which he thinks the film fails spectacularly at.  However, I wonder if we need to think more deeply about what a war movie ought to be and what it ought to do?  Should it follow the standard hero/action film formula with a clear and unambiguous moral message and arc?  What level of blood and carnage (and of what kind – individual versus collective) should be present and seen? And what do these expectations say about how we want to think about war? How do these expectations then shape how we think about and experience (for those who fight) actual wars?

Dunkirk reminded me of a particular sensibility about war. It reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s writings on Vietnam, but also the great World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. It reminds me of J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors in which he uses philosophical reflection to try and make sense of his World War II experience decades later. It reminds me of Sebastian Junger’s writing on war and its impacts on those who fight and those for whom they fight. This film is a search for meaning when the standard meanings and narrative frames have utterly failed.  How do we find meaning when we are one speck on a beach just trying to get out alive, when our rescuers are attacked for trying to help us and there seems little that any individual can do to change the course of events? Even Branagh as a high ranking naval officer seems bound and stuck, just as much as the grunt.

The reading (by one of the returning soldiers) at the end of the film of Churchill’s famous speech feels mocking and stirring at the same time.  It offers up a kind of hope of the final decisive battle (or battles) in which they will prevail, but also makes clear that it will not be easy or pretty. The soldier who reads the speech has just escaped with his life and returned home to acclaim, dirty, perhaps traumatized and exhausted.  Normally that is the victorious end. But here it is only the beginning. Sisyphus must roll the rock back up the hill. Again.

Special Forces, Special Rules of Engagement? – A Thought Experiment

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As often happens, a former student asked my view on the following story about British Special Forces (SAS) accused of illegal killings of civilians in Afghanistan in 2011. BBC Story Daily Mail story  The original story appeared in the Daily Mail, and then was picked up in shorter (and less salacious versions) in the BBC and Guardian. Here is what is clear: British Special Forces are accused, and an investigation is on-going, of illegally killing non-combatants in Afghanistan.  It seems that the particular incident in these stories may be a part of a larger trend or concern, as there have been some other investigations; it is also noted in the stories that many of the accusations/cases have been found without cause or evidence for prosecution.

These kinds of stories are not unusual. Nor are the claims by those investigating that they are being stonewalled in their investigations (note comments by Scott Green in multiple outlets attesting to this), that evidence was fabricated and that there are varying degrees of complicity and/or cover up. There are the usual pronouncements by political leaders attesting to the decency and virtue of their armed forces and that a thorough investigation would be pursued.  At this stage, it is not clear what actually happened, what the evidence is and whether there will be prosecutions or further charges.

If the charges are born out, then there is also the usual legal route to deal with killings that would seem (without knowing the details, I am completely speculating) to violate IHL and possibly the rules of engagement (ROE).  Aside from the legal issues, intentionally targeting of non-combatants is immoral and it is also counter-productive in counter-insurgency operations. So if the facts are born out as reported, things seem fairly clear; another unfortunate case study to add to the list of My Lai, Haditha….

But. And there is always a but! One comment that arose from the stories as presented in the press, was the idea that SAS might operate with their own and distinct rules of engagement, within which the actions alleged were permissible. In other words, what looks like a war crime with the ROE framework of the conventional (non-elite units) of the military, might not be if (and only if) Special Forces operate according to their own rules.

This is really interesting. There is, of course, the empirical question of whether there are distinct ROE for elite forces in this (or any case) or whether there is more flexibility and nuance in how those rules are interpreted.  Does context and the kind of mission matter here? Is it possible that Special Forces has their own ROE? Or failing that, could they have their own JAG’s (legal officers, Judge Advocate General) or others who provide contextual interpretations of ROE given their missions? Floating this online to military members, and also looking at some discussion from the British side on this issue, raised more questions than it answered and revealed a wide variety of incompatible views!

So its an interesting empirical question, presumably with a correct answer. One option could be that formally there is one set of ROE, but that there are informal and formal interpretations and practices following from those interpretations that may differ and seem like different ROE.  From my work on Vietnam, one could argue this was the case there. That official policy and guidance was one thing, but what actually happened and was tolerated in the field was a different matter. Laws and norms are not always the same. (See Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai for a good discussion of this relative to My Lai.)

As an ethicist, I also wonder about the philosophical question – aside from what current practice and policy actually is – what should be the case? Is there an argument to be made for the idea that Special Forces (or other elite units) ought to have special ROE? Surely the level of training, expertise and therefore of professional judgment and discretion possessed by individuals in these units and roles exceeds the conventional military grunt? Surely this would justify another ROE standard, or at the very least substantial leeway in terms of the interpretations and permissions that would be given in executing missions?

I can imagine a plausible line of argument here, rooted in expertise, training and the development of professional judgment and discretion.  I can also imagine a whole host of problems that might arise from such a formal two (or multiple tiered) system, as well as from any kind of more informal system that instantiated different standards for treatment of POWs, targeting of non-combatants (discrimination)  or acceptable levels force (proportionality).

On one hand, if there is one set of standards or ROE, it makes things simple. These are the rules and they must be followed. But if the ROE seem problematic or impractical given a particular mission, situation or context, what happens then? Will they be abandoned and ignored completely? Tweaked but still maintained in the spirit of the moral principles?  And who will be deciding on the alterations or suspension? On what grounds? If there are multiple standards, do we not end up with the same problem?

Let the discussion begin….

Empathy, Strategy and Moral Injury

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In his book Strategy: A History Lawrence Freedman argues that empathy is an important component of strategy, “Empathy involves at least emotional sensitivity to others and at most an ability to understand another’s point of view.” (p. 5) This struck me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the reputation of military strategy in the 19th and 20th centuries as highly rationalistic and empirical in nature. So one wonders if this is, in fact, true.  When I posted this as a discussion point, the reactions were intense and diverse, much more than I expected.

First off, we need to define some terms. Empathy, following Scottish philosopher David Hume (as I do!), is the ability to enter into the sentiments of other persons.  (He calls this the sympathy principle, and sees this as the key to the moral life; one must counter-act natural self-interest and other preferences for those closer to the agent by learning to take up the General Point of View and be moral. Empathy is key to this.)  While this sounds like emotional work, Hume’s view of sentiments includes an emotion component, but also a cognitive component. (See Book III, The Treatise on Human Nature) On this view, one needs to use what we might think of as moral imagination (he does not use this term) to see the sentiments and commitments of others from their point of view, as they would see, think and feel.

This is, I think, fundamentally different from what we think of as sympathy. We typically have sympathy FOR someone and their emotions; if I have sympathy, I have feelings that are similar to those of the person I have sympathy for. My son comes home having seen a dead cat on the road and I have sympathy, in that I have been in that situation and also love cats so I am literally feeling along side him. I am sharing his emotional world as my own. Sympathy is very difficult if there is not already a shared moral world or commitment involved, and is more emotive than cognitive. It also seems to carry a certain kind of approval or endorsement of the feeling involved.

If empathy is important to strategy, I think it must be in the way that Hume suggests. Can I enter into or imagine the sentiments of the other? In the case of my son, I might be able to empathize understanding how much he loves animals, his difficulty with death and his lack of exposure to these kinds of things even if I do not share this emotion. When I punish my son for violating the rules in my house, I can enter into his sentiment of anger or sadness, I can imagine and understand why he might feel that way, even as I do not share that emotion because I think the punishment was entirely fair and just. I can imagine and understand the sentiment (emotion plus belief), but I do not feel it and do not have sympathy.

It seems that an important part of strategic work is being able to enter into the world of the party whose behavior you are trying to influence or respond to.  You must be able into enter into that world from their point of view in order to figure out how to respond and act. If you cannot imagine or enter into their world from their point of view, there is a great danger of importing and impressing your assumptions, commitments and sentiments on the other party. ISIS does not operate with the same assumptions, moral world view or experiences as a US Army Major and it would be a mistake to think so.

In the strategy literature there is an emphasis on self-interest and the idea that humans are rational actors. I tend to be skeptical of this claim, but even if it is true, that does not mean ISIS (or whomever) has the same conceptual framework of what counts as rational.  What one considers rational depends upon many assumptions, ideas and the context and if one fails to understand the starting point, a course of action can seem utterly irrational and so not to be taken seriously. So if one could understand these things from the point of view of the person who holds these views, it seems that it is easier to anticipate how the other party will act and counter-act in response to our actions. (The 2016 Presidential election seems a good case study in this, but I shall not tangent here.)

But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?

The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting.  I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?

One helpful consideration is that empathy is more relevant at the strategic level, and less so at the tactical level. Another consideration is that the distinction between empathy and sympathy may matter a great deal; empathy may be necessarily and productive, sympathy may be bad and counter-productive, especially in relation to the question of moral injury. How does one engage in empathy and not in sympathy? Does one slide naturally into the other or is it possible to maintain some clear distinction between the two? What does the work of empathy look like in current strategic contexts with high levels of bureaucracy and the dominance of a rational actor model?

Obedience and Loyalty: Dogs and Cats

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Hackiko the Loyal Dog

The story of Hackiko the Loyal Dog, who waited in the same place every day for 10 years to his master (who had died) to return, seems to embody the virtue of loyalty. But is this also a story about obedience? What is the intersection and/or overlap between loyalty and obedience?

We often think of dogs as both loyal and obedient.  Dogs (well trained of course) obey our commands and do what we ask.  (Cats, not so much!) They seem to want to please us, to protect us and show a certain kind of preference and partiality towards their owners that we could think of as loyalty.  There are many stories about dogs facing grave risks to save or protect their owners, and the story of Hachiko seems an extreme version of this.

Lets start with a definition of loyalty. In my book Warrior, Military ethics and Contemporary Warfare I argue that loyalty ‘involves privileging the moral claims of some people, groups or ideas over others on the grounds of relationship, membership or other particularity.’ (28) In addition, loyalty is not just simple habits of attachment, but involve obligations and duties. Obedience does seem important to ideas of loyalty in the military, but trust also seems bound up in it too, as we can see in discussions of moral injury that involve as sense of betrayal and breaking of trust as a violation of the virtue and expectation of loyalty.

Of course, loyalty is not that simple, as we often have conflicting loyalties. In the military context, one has obligations of loyalty to peers, to commanders/leaders, to the Constitution, to the institution of the military or the community of practice, to the Core Values or other normative structures of military professionalism, to friends and family, and to fellow citizens – to name only a few.  Given these complexities, and the desire to avoid what is termed as ‘blind obedience,’ we need to go into more depth to try and sort out the relationship between loyalty and obedience.

Can one be obedient without being loyal?  It seems that this is possible; there is a certain kind of obedience that comes from fear or self-interest. My students obey (mostly) the commands that I give in class and outlined in the course syllabus because they have to in order to be successful in the course. This is obedience in a transactional sense which may involve fear, self-interest or a judgement of the costs and benefits. Outside of the class, it is not clear that there is a relationship which would command preferential treatment or prioritizing my moral concerns above others. So we have obedience, but not necessarily loyalty.

Does it work the other way? Can one be loyal without being obedient? Can cats (as an example of non-obedient creatures) be loyal even though one might not think of them as obedient? Or selectively obedient at the very best? Can disobedience actually be seen as an expression of loyalty?

This is a tougher, less intuitive case to make. At first, it would seem that if I am loyal to my mother, then I would obey her. But on closer examination, I could argue I am disobeying her because she is giving a bad order (to harm my father, lets say only for the sake of argument!) or is asking me to do something that sacrifices shared moral commitments.  The order may be bad because its not possible to carry it out or because it violates the moral commitments of our relationship or even more likely, broader moral commitments of our family, community.  Here disobedience will involve making choices among competing loyalties and also using my own judgement and discretion about which ones take priority.  Is it possible that I have to be disobedient in order to be loyal?

Back to my cats. I would say that they are, in fact, loyal to me. From my perspective, they seem to exhibit partiality to me based upon a relationship (that I feed them and care for them more than likely.)  Do they have partiality to my moral claims ? That is a more complicated question, since they are cats and one might argue they are not capable of moral judgments.  But that brings us to an important distinction to consider. Loyalty is about relationship and the moral claims of the person or thing I am in relationship with. Obedience seems to be about actions and not about relationship per se. Obedience involves a command to DO something; loyalty seems more about being and valuing moral claims.

“Just War and other lies we tell ourselves”: A Riff

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My friend @_MikeDenny was riffing this morning on possible titles for inconvenient (read controversial and potentially unpopular) think pieces related to foreign policy and military matters and the one quoted in the title naturally struck a nerve and caught my attention. Mike kindly gave me permission to riff, and so riff I shall. (And I hope he will do the same at some point!)

First, lets talk about Just War. I think for many people, hearing the phrase ‘Just War’ means that war is moral. But, of course, what exactly does that mean? When I say that War X is Just, I am using Just in the sense of Just War Thinking which includes thinkers from St. Augustine to Michael Walzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain. In this way of thinking, ‘Just’ means morally permissible or allowed (not immoral) under certain limited circumstances, usually in pursuit of Justice (hence the term) or avoiding some serious moral wrong. This does NOT mean that we think war is a moral good, intrinsically morally or that is something that ought to be universalized as an unconditional good (to paraphrase Immanuel Kant.)  Most scholars who advocate for a Just War view argue that there is a presumption against violence and war, therefore the case for permissions, or exceptions (which is the language Michael Walzer, the dean of 20th century Just War Thinking uses) must be publicly made and debated – with a healthy amount of skepticism.

So, is Just War a lie that we tell ourselves? Since I reject Realism (read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars Chapter 1 for a start on why,) I do not think so – assuming that we are talking about Just in the sense that I have outlined above. I share the assumption of Just War Thinking that there is and ought to be a heavy presumption against war, but that we might make exceptions to the that presumption on the grounds of Justice or the Common Good.  Making such exceptions is very dangerous business, ethically speaking, and so should be done with skepticism, resistance and angst.  Too many moral harms come from war not to take this process seriously; war is not, in my view, a moral good in itself.

Second, and what in my view is the more interesting part of the riff: is the idea of ethics in war (whether in the resort to force, the conduct of war or justice after the war) a self-delusion, a lie that we tell ourselves? As an ethicist, I take this question seriously and think that very often the answer is yes. It breaks my heart to say that, but I am a pragmatist as well an ethicist. Human beings are prone to epistemological optimism and conservatism.  We believe what we want to/prefer to believe and tend to believe things that fit into the web of things we already believe; having to reassess everything you think is true is a real pain – just ask Rene Descartes. So we believe what makes life easier, what makes us feel better about ourselves and others, and what allows us to go on as we have before and not be uncomfortable.

We would prefer to think we are good people. We prefer to think that we would not inflict needless harm on others or even members of our own society. We prefer to think that there is a moral order and that war is an effective and necessary way to enforce that order and also to show others our moral commitment to Justice. We prefer to think we can fight in ways that would only kill and harm the ‘guilty/baddies’ and would spare and never harm the ‘innocent/good people.’ We prefer to think that war will be easy and that recovery after war will be easy; that the other side will surrender and see the moral errors of their ways with due contribution and be willing to rebuild and behave.  We prefer to that if we have a Just Cause and fight a war Justly that our soldiers will come home alive, whole and as heroes/heroines. We prefer to believe that war is an interruption in civil life, after which we can all go back to Normal.

I trust you see the point of the riff. These things have the potential to be lies we tell ourselves about war, using ethics and morality as a cover for other motives and to insulate ourselves from the harm and reality that is war. As an ethicist, I cannot overemphasize the danger in this. I do believe that there is a moral order, that things are objectively right or wrong. But that does not mean that humans are good at judging those things, discovering those things or more importantly, acting in accordance with that order. Add to this the problems of relativism and moral disagreement, and combine with a human tendency to self-delusion (or at least epistemological optimism) and you have a dangerous cocktail.

So these may be lies we tell ourselves. Or they may not be. But we should at least ask ourselves whether they are, and take that process of reflection and examination seriously. Its too easy to invoke ethical categories to do all kinds of horrid things, and then not feel guilty about them. Rationalization is a powerful drug. Just say no.

On Liberty, Free Speech and Civility: It’s Complicated

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In his book On Liberty, second generation utilitarian J.S. Mill famously argues for completely free speech – save to prevent imminent harm to another person.  He understands this in terms of imminent physical harm. not because (as my students sometimes posit) that he did not understand psychology and the impact of verbal, emotional and other non-physical forms of harm; rather those are difficult to quantify and thus are much more complicated and subjective in terms of the utilitarian calculus. Mill is not arguing from a natural or human rights view here. Instead he is arguing that this level of free speech (despite the harms that it will cause) is and has been in history more conducive to progress and some version of Truth over the long run of human history (Chapter 2.)

This view, of course, is interesting to talk about with students as they think they agree with Mill, until we start to get into the nitty gritty of what this view actually means.  Then the ‘…but what about…’ starts.  What about sexual harassment? What about hate speech? What about…? It gets complicated pretty fast as contemporary Americans in practice often reject Mill’s radical argument. We have moved to qualify his argument and tend to disagree with his claim that this radical free speech is best for society in the long run.

As interesting as the overall argument is, I am always struck by his argument at the very end of this chapter, which seems even more apt and complicated for our own time. “Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say that free expression of all opinions should be permitted on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.”  So free discussion ought to be civil and fair.  Who can disagree with that, especially in our own time when it seems to many that traditional norms of civil discourse are under attack or have disappeared altogether? A quick look at social media platforms seem to bear out the ways in which insults, bad arguments, name calling and bullying have come to dominate public ‘discussion.’

But, of course, its complicated. Mill’s notes that these calls for civility occur when the dominant side in a discussion is being bested by the minority view and they do not have other arguments to offer. In short, civility is used as a move of political silencing again the vulnerable and minority viewpoint by those in power. This seems born out by history as well: persons of color, women and many other minority groups trying to express their views and critique power have been told they are not being civil, that they must play by the ‘rules of the game.’  The charge of ‘respectability politics’ is one that is often heard in our public discourse when charges of incivility or coarsening of speech are leveled by dominant perspectives or groups.

In terms of Mill’s text, he is playing by the ‘rules of the game’ in constructing a philosophical argument rooted in rationality, argument and evidence, designed to appeal to the audience who presumably shares his philosophical starting point of classical liberalism (especially individual rights and free conscience.)  But what about a work like F. Fannon’s “The Fact of Blackness” Fannon which is a highly personal, emotional and literary reflection on his experience of Blackness and its implications for philosophical and other debates about race and ethnicity. One could argue (I am not!) that is not part of civil philosophical discourse and he is violating the rules of civil philosophical discussion (as the discipline of philosophy might understand it.) I expect similar arguments could be made against Nietzsche, feminist, critical race theorists and many others who use non-traditional formats and approaches to critique a dominant view.

This issue is one that I think is important to discuss with my students, since the syllabus includes MY ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom and gives them a chance to reflect on what makes for good discussion and what helps us seek after knowledge and Truth.  (IS this how we ought to run our class?) Mill himself finally comes down on the side of civility, with the acknowledgement of how ‘civility’ can be misused and asking us to be cognizant of that fact, while still arguing that fair and civil discussion has the best prospect for advancing Truth and progress in terms of knowledge.

While there are clear and systemic problems with who gets to define ‘fair and civil’ discussion and how we understand this requirement in different contexts, at the end of the day I think Mill is right on this. This is not to ignore the social, institutional and social power dynamics and privilege at work here, and we need to take seriously the question about what kinds of public discourse are most productive and allow for truly critical thought and challenging of power in our own context. We cannot ignore history or the ways in which the powerful use ‘civility’ to reinforce the status quo and prevent the very kinds of discussion that Mill thinks is so necessary.

On the other hand, we have a democratic republic. Those who are wrong (so we think) have one vote and free speech. Those who are right (or think they are) also have the same. Change requires the ability of one side or perspective to persuade the other side, or at least some part of that group, to change their minds and endorse another political course of action. It might be tempting to think that the ‘wrong’ side will just die out like dinosaurs and the ‘right’ side can just wait. It also might be tempting to engage in the fantasy that the ‘wrong’ side will be defeated, eliminated or marginalized. But in the words of the meme, That’s Not How This Works, That’s Not How Any of This Works.  At long as we *are* a democratic republic, we need public discourse and the ability to persuade our compatriots and fellow citizens (whether one likes them or not, whether one agrees with them or sees them as an existential threat) to another course of action.

And if this is right (which it might NOT be as Mill would remind us!) then I think ‘civil and fair’ discussion is the most effective in the long term. Political violence might be easier and more efficient, but that is not our system. (I suppose another system is possible…) Insults, bullying and screaming might be cathartic and satisfying (especially in a reality show, drama and attention craving culture), but its not clear what it accomplishes in terms of changing minds – except to likely ossify one’s opponents to hold to their views more strongly and make the situation worse! Compromise may be a dirty word in our political discourse, and certainly many argue that no compromise is possible with ‘evil’ and ‘wrong,’ but we should remember Mill’s point that the assertion that a position is beyond reproach, obviously correct is itself, is a political power move designed to avoid or circumvent free discussion, as much as the ‘civility’ move is.

However, this is hard to remember in the heat of fear, frustration and genuine social/political issues that need addressing and have not been addressed by those in power. So I am sympathetic to the objection Mill discusses. At the end of the day, however, I am a pragmatist. What will work? Not today, not tomorrow, but over the long term and in coherence with our generally shared moral and political values. It’s gonna be messy. I am not going to tell anyone to be quiet or not speak. I am going to speak, in ac civil and fair manner I hope, but with the understanding that it is complicated. And that I could be wrong. (Do not tell my kids…)