Monday, July 4, 2011

A Philosopher Attacks Fox News

You may not believe it, but I appreciate the New York Times for showing us what the other side is thinking. Ten or so days ago it offered a column by Rutgers philosophy professor Jason Stanley.

This highly credentialed philosopher screwed up his wisdom and declared that Fox News was responsible for destroying rational debate because it had turned political discourse into propaganda.

Given the ill-disguised leftist mania about shutting down Fox News, you have to give Stanley some credit for offering a novel reason, one that no one has suggested before. Instead of joining those who say that Fox News is purveying hate speech, he is arguing that Fox News is silencing all rational political debate.

I will give Stanley credit for originality, but let’s keep in mind that some thoughts are original because no one else has been dumb enough to take them seriously.

If this is the state of academic philosophy today, I would advise college students to avoid it like the proverbial plague.

If anything, Jason Stanley demonstrates that one can become a professor of philosophy in an important American university without knowing the difference between philosophy and sophistry.

Jason Stanley is practicing pure sophistry.He is trotting out a bunch of specious arguments, making them look like philosophy, luring people into taking them seriously, and arriving at an absurd conclusion.

Today’s Americans are so impressed with credentials that they tend to give credence to this kind of mental swill.

Stanley is not the only sophist out there. The academy seems to have been minting them.

Here’s the thinking of Jennifer Hornsby, summarized by Stanley: “Suppose that men are led to believe that when women refuse a sexual advance they don’t mean it. Women, then, will not be understood to be refusing, even when they are. If certain kinds of pornography lead men to think that women are not sincere when they utter the word 'no,' and women are aware that men think this, those kinds of pornography would rob women of the ability to refuse.”

The conclusion would be that pornography facilitates rape.

Let’s examine the premises behind this argument.

First, the authors assume that rape occurs because a man believes that when a woman says No she does not mean it.

In truth, I would be hard put to say that every time a woman says No she means the same thing, because otherwise we would be saying that the word No always means the same thing, regardless of context or tone of voice or intonation.

But that is not the salient point. Rapists understand perfectly well that No means No. There is no real ambiguity about the fact that she does not want to be raped. The real problem is that a sexual psychopath does not respond to language the way a normal man does. For him her No produces arousal. It functions as a fetish. Sometimes it becomes a more powerful fetish if she seems more sincere.

Second, why do the authors think that pornography is filled with images of women saying No and not meaning it. I am hardly an expert in the field, but most pornography shows women saying Yes, again and again and again.

Pornography portrays women as fully in touch with their sexual desires and willing to give them free expression again and again.

Third, while it is fairly common for sex offenders (and feminists) to blame pornography for their psychopathic behavior, we should understand that they are simply gaming the system, indulging the trendiest excuse, and evading responsibility for their crimes. Why would anyone take the word of a psychopath as face value?

Fourth,  if the sophists are correct, then the massive increase of the amount of pornography available over the internet should have produced a correlated increase in the amount of rape and other sex crimes.

In fact, just the opposite has occurred. According to a Chapman University study, since 1993 there have been 72% fewer rapes in the United States.

So far, this argument is not so good.

Undeterred, Jason Stanley continues: “Using ‘no’ to refuse a sexual advance is what is known as a speech act — a way of doing something by using words.”

Let’s be charitable and assume that today’s sophists have redefined the term, “speech act.” Normally, it refers to any verbal utterance, not just those that do something.

I hope that Stanley and his colleagues know that the proper philosophical term for doing things with words is: performative utterance. The term was coined by the eminent British philosopher, J. L. Austin in his book: How to Do Things With Words.

Classical examples of performative utterances are: I take this woman to be my wedded wife; I now pronounce you man and wife; I christen this ship Queen Elizabeth; I bet you five dollars.

Each of these sentences is, in itself, an action.

If that is the correct definition of a performative utterance, when a woman refuses a sexual advance by saying No, she is not using a performative utterance.

Pronouncing the word No is not intended and does not function as an action. Its purpose is to elicit a specific action, or better, a cessation of  action.

Either Stanley and his colleagues do not understand performative utterances or they are engaging in a specious argument.

From there Stanley moves to slander and character assassination. Here he is on firmer ground. He claims that when people say that Barack Obama is a “secret Islamist agent, born in Kenya,” they are trying to cast aspersion on his motives.

In Stanley’s words: “The function of disseminating such claims about the president is not to object to his specific arguments or agenda. It is to undermine the public’s trust in him, so that nothing he says can be taken at face value.”

Ignore the fact that these sentences are poorly written. And let’s ignore the fact that one may say that Obama is a secret Islamist to draw attention to some of his policy decisions.

The real issue is, aside from the fact that Stanley idolizes Obama, this is nothing other than politics as usual.

How many times were George Bush and Dick Cheney maligned, slandered and excoriated as stooges of the oil industry or the military industrial complex? How many times was George Bush called a liar? Didn’t liberal Democrats keep repeating these charges because they were trying to undermine the public trust in George Bush, the better to ensure that nothing he said could be taken at face value?

Of course, they were. It’s called American politics. But given the nature of our free market in ideas-- the very one that Jason Stanley wants to shut down-- people who are subject to this kind of vilification have recourse. They can fight back; they can answer the charges; they can defend their integrity.

A public figure has recourse to the media. A private figure has recourse to litigation.

Next, Stanley resorts to the common liberal technique for silencing conservatives: the argumentum ad Hitlerum.  Thereby, he suggests that American conservatives are just Nazis in disguise, because they are mimicking the propaganda techniques used by the Third Reich.

Stanley compares the way the Nazis used the word “heroisch” to the way Republicans use the word “freedom.” He writes: “Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is difficult to have a reasoned debate about its costs and benefits when the invasion itself is called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.”

In truth, America did have a reasoned debate over the invasion of Iraq. It had an extensive Congressional debate. In the end the people’s representatives voted to approve the invasion. And that did not stop the debate.

As for the assertion that the people who thought up the name, Operation Iraqi Freedom, were cynical operators who were misusing the word freedom, one can make the argument that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and that his overthrow might lead to the formation of a freer, more democratic society. What is wrong with using the word freedom in that context?

As for Stanley’s next claim, regarding the debate about Obamacare and taxes, it does not hold up any better. In his words: “It is difficult to have a reasoned debate about the costs and benefits of a policy when one side has seized control of the linguistic means to express all the positive claims.”

How absurd is this? Do you really imagine that the president has been silenced, that he has lost control of his discourse, that he can no longer present a cogent argument defending his health care proposal because Sarah Palin coined the phrase: death panels?

That makes Sarah Palin very powerful, don’t you think?

You would have thought that with all the brain power on the American left, with all of the media organs they control, that they could have prevented right thinking people from seizing control of the language.

Let’s call this argument by its proper name: it’s whining.

But, Stanley is not finished. He has been preparing us for his assault on Fox News.Unfortunately, Stanley seems himself to be a stranger to rational debate. He is certainly out of touch with reality. 

He explains: “The Fox channel engages in silencing when it describes itself as ‘fair and balanced’ to an audience that is perfectly aware that it is neither. The effect is to suggest that there is no such thing as fair and balanced — that there is no possibility of balanced news, only propaganda. The result is the silencing of every news organ, by suggesting a generalized gross insincerity.”

How, pray tell, does Jason Stanley know what the Fox News audience thinks? Does he know that the viewership of Fox News is about equally divided between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents? Probably not.

Does Stanley know that recent polling has shown that the American public considers Fox News to be fair and balanced in its presentation of the news? Does he think that Americans are just a nation of dupes? If so, why did they vote for Barack Obama in 2008?

And then, does Stanley think that Fox News is less fair and balanced than, say, NPR?
Wasn’t it NPR that tried to silence Juan Williams? Didn’t Fox News give him a prominent position on all of their newscasts? Who was really trying to silence a liberal voice? And Juan Williams is hardly the only liberal who appears often on Fox News. How many conservatives appear regularly on NPR or on MSNBC? 
And isn't Stanley giving Fox News far too much credit? Does any intelligent person believe that the way Fox uses the slogan "fair and balanced" makes it impossible for the New York Times to report the news objectively? Is Stanley really trying to tell us that the Times is just another propaganda organ, but one that is not responsible for the way it reports the news? So, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes control the New York Times and NPR... who knew?

1 comment:

Hellen said...

It won't truly have success, I believe so.