On Respect

We talk a lot about ‘dignity and respect’ these days, and large organisations usually have ‘dignity and respect’ policies that seek to regulate conduct among staff in regard to things such as harassment and bullying.  For instance, the University of Edinburgh Dignity and Respect Policy states:

Integrity, collegiality and inclusivity are central to the University’s values. In accordance with these values the University is committed to providing an environment in which all members of the University community treat each other with dignity and respect, and where bullying, harassment and discrimination are known to be unacceptable.

One question that arises is—what’s the difference between these two terms, as they are so often run together?  Are they not almost synonyms?  Here is one way of answering this.  ‘Dignity’ indicates a basic worth we attribute to all human beings, as human beings (hence we often refer to ‘human dignity’).  In this regard, as individuals, we are all equal, of value, and deserving of a baseline of humane treatment.  ‘Respect’ on the other hand indicates recognition of achievements.  It has to be earned.  This can be in a specific practice, e.g. as an athlete, a musician, a manager, a business person.  But it can also be in regard to personal character, a sign of recognition of someone’s integrity, honesty, fair-dealing, good judgment, and so on. 

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Moral Responsibility, History as Rhetoric, and Henry Dundas

A few months back a piece I wrote for The Spectator (9 January 2022) provoked a stream of negative and hostile reaction on Twitter from Professor Geoffery Palmer.  I was objecting to the approach and basic assumptions of the Edinburgh City Council’s Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, as revealed in a recent public poll it had taken on its proposals.  In passing, I mentioned that the way the City had handled the revision of the text on the Dundas monument in St Andrews Square did not bode well for this project, as it had mangled the historical facts.  It was this claim that seemed to draw the harshest response from Professor Palmer, with little attention to the wider point I was making.  Here I will begin by stating as succinctly as possible the problem with the new text on the monument.  But then I will go on to elaborate my reasons for arguing that it is wrong to try to attribute moral responsibility to large, ill-defined groups that are not coherent social actors, and wrong to bend history to suit such moral arguments.  I conclude with some reflections on how we learn moral lessons from history.

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Cutting the corpus callosum

I remember one of my graduate school teachers, Eric R. Wolf, describing anthropology, the discipline I was studying, as ‘the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the social sciences’ (this was a recurring theme in his writing).  I always identified with this characterisation, refusing a strong boundary between the sciences and the humanities, and believing that both were underpinned by common principles of intellectual discipline involving commitment to empirical evidence, reasoned argument, and conceptual precision.  I have always felt that middle ground to be the heart of the entire intellectual enterprise, a meeting ground, but it is disappearing, and I am becoming homeless. 

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Foucault, Marx, and pervasive power

One frequently hears the complaint about ‘identity politics’ and ‘critical race theory’ that they are obsessed with power and reduce all social relationships to power, and that this is a fundamental error, and overgeneralisation of power (see for instance, Lindsay and Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, 2020).  On the contrary, I would argue that the thesis of the pervasiveness of power is correct, that power is fundamental to all social relationships, and always present.  But a lot depends on what we mean by ‘power’.  These bodies of theory deal with power rather poorly.  Identity politics and critical race theory are complex amalgams of many elements, but the influence of two ‘dead white European males’ is often pointed to: Michele Foucault and Karl Marx.  Looking at how they have been appropriated can help us see how these bodies of theory have mishandled the question of power. 

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US Presidential Election 2020: a failure of competition?

As I write this the US is in a strange limbo.  Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the November 3rd Presidential election by news media and poll analysts, and has been recognised as the President-Elect by many foreign heads of state.  All that awaits is formal confirmation through the reporting of the electoral college.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen by fraudulent practices led by the Democratic Party, and he and his supporters continue to legally contest results at state and local levels, despite little evidence in support.  Everyone is waiting.

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The Problem of Imaginary Agents

I have often pointed out to my students a kind of conceptual error endemic in the social sciences, a tendency to imbue names for large and complex processes with an imputed agency.  A familiar example is when we talk loosely about ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalisation’ being the cause of some result we decry.  For instance, if the university becomes more economistic in its cost/benefit calculations, this is an effect of neoliberalism.  In some very general sense this may be true, but to substantiate the claim we would need to trace out actual efforts by social actors to affect institutional policies, and the wider environments shaping those actions.  The promotion of formalised ‘workload allocation models’ in universities, which seek to standardise the amount of hours staff can claim for various activities, on one hand is driven by managerial objectives of rationalising the allocation of university resources.  But it is also driven by labour unions to insure equity among staff for their work contributions.  Together these bring about the more ‘neoliberal’ approach to labour calculations, even though we might only recognise the first as motivated by neoliberal assumptions.  However, the wider point is that ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t an historical actor doing anything.  It is a broad label for a set of ideas, policies, and processes.  But we very easily slide from this understanding to one in which we are readily complaining of neoliberalism doing bad things to our lives and oppressing us, of a dark ‘neoliberal project’, whose projectors remain unspecified.  This is partly an accident of language, in which the grammatical structure for saying an agent did something (‘Bob pushed me over’) and for saying a non-agent did something (‘The wind pushed me over’) can look and feel superficially the same.  And a complex object such as neoliberalism of course includes actors and actions, though it cannot be reduced to these, which makes the elision all the easier.

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Marxists or Jacobins?

One of the most disconcerting things about public discourse these days is the running together of ideas of ‘marxism’ and ‘postmodernism’, as though they are equivalent, or that latter grows directly out of the former.  This can be found, for example, in statements by YouTube pundits Jordon B. Peterson (Prof. of Psychology at U. of Toronto) and Douglas Murray (an Editor with The Spectator)[1].  Both might be described as conservative-leaning, but also hold strongly liberal views. 

The context is the current fusion of academic social theory and social movements based on identity politics. The argument seems to be that the defining feature of Marxism is an analysis of society in terms of a fundamental opposition of power, namely between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and a political call to overturn that power relationship, so the oppressed (the proletariat) are on top, and the oppressor (the bourgeoisie) is on the bottom.  What later postmodern, postcolonial, and identity-based theories supposedly derive from Marx is this same basic analysis and problematic, of a world defined by oppressed and oppressors, and a revolutionary call to overturn the relationship.  But now the bi-polar relationships concerned have both multiplied, in terms of axes of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity (class is often weakly in the mix), and yet also amalgamated into a macro-pattern of oppressed and oppressors.  Figures like Peterson and Murray understandably express frustration with how this model tends to over simplify the world, and become an ideological banner under which people march.  Marxism persists in a new outfit. 

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Remembering Hume

My university has recently announced its intention to ‘temporarily’ rename David Hume Tower by the more harmless ‘40 George Square’,[1] in light of a recent petition calling for its renaming on the basis of objection to a notorious racist footnote in his essay ‘Of National Character’ (1753).  One can read extensive comment on the footnote and its history[2], so I will not go into it again here.  Suffice it to say that the views Hume expresses there are racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation. 

Let me start by saying I don’t have any deep commitment to the naming of buildings.  This will always reflect the times in which a building is named, or renamed, and there is not much at stake in the names of buildings (unless one is a rich benefactor wanting a building named after yourself).  But I suspect that if we did an exhaustive review of the histories of all persons with buildings names after them, we would end up working largely in numbered addresses.  Indeed, the petition in question originally proposed renaming the David Hume Tower after Edinburgh graduate Julius Nyerere until it was pointed out that he held homophobic views.

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The irreducible tension between technology and morality

My university has just announced the launch of a new Centre for Technomoral Futures.  The announcement lays out an agenda boldly.  The new centre

… focuses on integration of the technological and ethical … as a groundbreaking initiative to design more sustainable, just and ethical models of innovation. … that unifies technical and moral expertise.

The Centre’s unique mission is driven by the insight that effective design and governance of today’s increasingly complex social systems demands a fuller integration of technical and moral knowledge than is possible in traditional academic structures, where these typically develop in isolation from one another.”

However… as I was saying to a large class of first year students only a few months ago, when studying social change, the relationship between technology (and science) and morality, raises some vexing questions.  It may take more than fusing them together in the word ‘technomoral’ to really grapple with the abiding tensions between them.  But attention to those tensions may provide some insight into the actual scope of human knowledge, and the reasons that different traditions of human inquiry follow different paths.

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The culture of poverty, again…

Listening to ‘heterodox’ black American intellectuals such as Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes talk on various podcasts[1] about the current state of race politics in the US has got me thinking once again about what we mean by ‘culture’.   These thinkers are inclined to draw a line between ‘structure’ and ‘culture’ as explanatory lenses for understanding enduring poverty in black communities, and the overall wealth gap between blacks and whites in the US (black families have on average a 10th of the wealth of white families).  In a tradition of argument that traces back to earlier ‘conservative’ black intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, they are inclined to argue that too much emphasis is placed on economic and legal structures as barriers to greater racial equality, and not enough on culture, meaning values, behaviours, and such things as educational aspiration and two parent families, which are seen as weakly present in the cultures of the communities in question.  The basic message from them is that blacks need to take responsibility for their own culture to improve their circumstances and not lose their agency by relying on state assistance.

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