Philosophy’s moral panic?

It’s been suggested, recently, that a ‘lynch mob culture’ has developed in professional philosophy, and especially in on-line discussions among philosophers. The thought, I suppose, is that philosophers are in such a moral panic about climate issues within the discipline that they are willing to condemn without trial anyone who doesn’t toe the party line.

It’s worth reminding ourselves what lynch mobs really were. Groups of white people became so afraid of encroachments against white supremacy – and so terrified of the black male bodies they had formerly been able to own – that they would ‘take matters into their own hands’ and brutalize black men. Sometimes in lieu of due process. Sometimes just to set an example. Lynch mobs were ways in which those with power (white people) reinforced the status quo (white supremacy). To call some opprobrium and ruffled feathers on blogs and social media a ‘lynch mob culture’ is as bizarre as it is racially insensitive. Unless, of course, we are referring to the discipline’s collective reaction toward black academics who gently suggest that the appalling whiteness of philosophy might be in part due to the way our discipline is structured.

I’ve also seen analogy made to the Reign of Terror. And here we might find a more fitting image for what people really have in mind. In the Dickensian depiction of the French Revolution, the underclass whip themselves into a frenzy – into a hysteria – of self-righteous rage, all at the urging of a group of women. The aristocrats are brought to the guillotine and summarily executed, without trial or defense. And all the while the women sit in the front row, watching gleefully. And knitting.

So are we, perhaps, entering philosophy’s own Reign of Terror? Let’s step back for a minute to consider the specific fallout from recent news items. A powerful, wealthy man was pushed to resign from his job, though at the behest of a private university investigation rather than any public outcry. A powerful, wealthy man was denied a raise and a named chair, though again due to internal procedures rather than any public outcry. And a philosophy department was given an external chair and told to work on their climate issues after an external report from the APA Site Visit program.

As Reigns of Terror go, philosophy’s looks rather mild so far. A resignation, a denied promotion, and an external chair – it’s hardly the stuff of legendary frenzy. So I’ll admit to being skeptical that this is philosophy’s Reign of Terror. Indeed, if we consider the metaphor more closely, we might judge that being drummed out of the profession is, in this case, philosophy’s guillotine. We’re currently in a scenario where at most one prominent male philosopher has been driven from the profession. Some students have, through non-violent sit in protests, called for the firing of another. But that’s it. We’re also, however, currently in a situation where countless individuals from under-represented groups (women, Black people, disabled people, etc) have been driven from our profession by our own culture. And we’ve sat by and watched it happen. If there’s been a Reign of Terror in philosophy, it’s been a quiet, largely subconscious one. And white men have not been the victims of its guillotine.

Finally, I’ve also seen ‘witch hunt culture’ being tossed around. But again, consider the historical context of actual witch hunts. Witch hunts were situations in which those in power incited moral panic in order to perpetuate the fear that would help keep them in power. And women were disproportionally the victims of such violence. Women were publicly executed to keep powerful men in control and keep down women who directly or – more often – indirectly threatened their power. Applying this metaphor seems just as problematic as, and perhaps even more unintentionally ironic than, talk of ‘lynch mob culture’.

Should we consider issues of due process, false accusations, etc? Yes, absolutely. Do people sometimes get carried away with their rhetoric? No doubt. And I don’t question that we need to carefully consider how we conduct discussions about climate issues, and try to figure out what’s most helpful and constructive, especially for those most at risk. But to engage in such careful consideration, we also need to work at distinguishing between moral uproar and moral panic, and between outrage and hysteria.