Anyone working on epistemologies of ignorance?

Lots to work with lately.  Just in the last 24 hours, we’ve got the Wall Street Journal claiming the Charleston Massacre proves that institutional racism is dead.

And of course Jeb Bush’s remarkable claim not to know whether the shooting was racially motivated– despite the explicit declarations of the gunman.

And the refusal to call it terrorism, accompanied by the demonisation of mental illness.

16 thoughts on “Anyone working on epistemologies of ignorance?

  1. Isn’t it genuinely a bit subtle as to whether to call acts like this terrorism? From this perspective, the shooting seems closely analogous to the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. In both cases, the shooter was clearly motivated to kill by ideology; in neither case does the shooter appear to have been part of a larger organised plan, nor to have been in communication with identifiable superiors. I think you can call it either way as to whether “terrorism” is a useful label here; I think it probably depends on context. For instance, if you’re considering military-style action (a la Al-Qaeda), or explicit negotiation with leaders (a la the IRA) in response to, or to prevent, terrorism, Fort Hood/Charleston style atrocities aren’t even prima facie cases where that might work (without prejudice to whether either actually works in more organised large-scale cases).

    Now granted, it’s weirdly inconsistent (and frankly kind of telling) if some conservatives are shying away from “terrorism” in this case even while they called for “terrorism” to be applied to Fort Hood. (I suspect some conservatives are doing this, though I haven’t seen any actual examples and I’m wary of the “A is a conservative and believes X, B is a conservative and believes not-X, so conservatives are inconsistent” strategy that often gets deployed mutatis mutandis against liberals.) But plenty of people, including the Obama administration, conspicuously avoided calling Fort Hood a terrorist attack; they had good reasons to do so, and consistency suggests that they should avoid calling Charleston a terrorist attack too.

    (Not calling the attach racially-motivated, on the other hand, is surreal. Jon Chait (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/06/why-cant-republicans-admit-roof-was-racist.html) is also good on this.)

  2. I hadn’t been taking it to be necessary for terrorism that one be part of an organised group. I had been (with many others calling for the application of the term) assuming a definition that turned on politically motivated violence. But I can see that your usage is clearly one of those out there, and would make this is a less clear case. However, it’s also clear that plenty of people who don’t call this ‘terrorism’ would be happy to call a Muslim acting alone a terrorist.

    There’s also this more nuanced discussions of the complexities of the term: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/06/19/refusal-call-charleston-shootings-terrorism-shows-meaningless-propaganda-term/.

  3. Well, per federal statutory law, terrorism is only a federal crime, if it appears to be intended to alter the conduct of the federal government, or to retaliate for actions of the federal government, by, say, attacking a federal building or officers. So, the Charleston shooting is not terrorism by that definition.

    But, the U.S.C. also defines “terrorism” as appearing to intend to terrorize a civilian population. That would seem to clearly apply to the Charleston shooting.

    In law school, I was taught that for an act to be terrorism, it must be intended to influence the government, not merely intended to terrorize a population.

    So, it seems that it’s appropriate to call the Charleston shooting an act of terrorism, as long as you don’t mean to imply that the shooter thereby committed a crime. But, I think that most people do intend to mean that he thereby committed a crime, a hate crime, and they mean to bolster their claim that the shooter perpetrated a hate crime by claiming that his was an act of terrorism.

    I think it may be dangerous to conflate federal hate crime legislation with the federal crime of terrorism.

    So, per federal statutory law, and common legal usage, it could be appropriate to say that the Fort Hood shooter was a terrorist, but the Charleston shooter was not.

    See here for the statutory language:

    https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition

    I’m not trying to make any strong claims. But, I think that those who are throwing around a lot of invective regarding those who refrain from calling the Charleston shooter a terrorist should probably hold back a bit.

  4. In large part, you’re looking for is agnotology, the study of socially-produced ignorance. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnotology, and also consider such debates as:

    -Does a lax gun regulation regime lead to higher amounts of gun violence?
    -Is global warming happening?
    -Are humans causing global warming?
    -Is fracking associated with polluted water/earthquakes/etc.?
    -Is privilege a real thing/is any given person privileged (see e.g. http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2013/03/privilege-again.html)?

    And so on and so forth. You may also want to take up Steven Johnson’s call for a “sociology of error” (The Ghost Map, pg. 14 or so depending on your edition).

    At any rate, I’ve written on this myself, and there are any number of things you could say about this case. Obviously, there’s a political component, which is why some people explain their ignorance on racial issues using arguments that they readily reject in other, less politically inconvenient contexts (see http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2014/12/links.html). This also likely explains why people are happier to blame vulnerable/despised populations (e.g. people with mental illnesses) than to indict privileged people or the social systems that create and maintain privilege.

    There’s also a sociological-dialogical component. Our society (and the intellectual left in particular) values “open” or “free” debate, and that approach makes it difficult to firmly call out and eject people who are arguing in bad faith (or who simply refuse to accept certain kinds of evidence). So long as someone argues using the proper forms of openness – one of which is a cautious, finely-parsed agnosticism – our cultural mores leave us fairly helpless, even when the same person repeatedly uses the same bad arguments (see http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2013/08/you-are-not-haberdasher-do-not-try-to.html).

    Similarly, our intellectual society puts (in my opinion) too much emphasis on finding knock-down, airtight arguments-for-change. That is, whenever someone wants to propose an idea that’s outside of a status quo, the defenders of that status quo are allowed to undermine that new idea using even the most minor, most minimally plausible objections, such as the asinine idea that Roof was anti-Christian rather than anti-black (this pattern goes back a ways; see http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2015/03/artificial-memetic-selection-again.html). If we required objectors to meet a standard that’s even half as high as the standard we enforce on the people who advance ideas to begin with, we wouldn’t have this problem. (Think also of our obsession with “fair” or “balanced” news coverage.)

    As well, it’s likely that there’s an anti-emotional element at work here. As we know, anti-oppression movements are often accused of being overly emotional, which serves to disempower those movements. One way of working that process is to say that we shouldn’t “politicize” a given event and that we mustn’t comment on it until we have the opportunity to reflect on it and cool our heads. The implication, of course, is that our anger or grief is a distorting factor and that a feeling of being at a remove will a produce better, more objective analysis (even though that feeling is also a feeling; see http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2008/07/on-hindsight.html).

    …so that’s a start, I guess.

  5. Anon grad student: your link includes, “… to intimidate or coerce a civilian population …” I wonder if the stress on gov’t in your law school was due to the difficulty of successfully prosecuting terrorism charges. It might be that unless there is some evidence of targeting a gov’t body, the further evidence needed for the charge to stick is likely to be weak.

  6. googling ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ also turns up a lot of entries. A now nearly classic text is:
    Sullivan, Shannon and Nancy Tuana. 2007. Race and the Epistemologies of Ignorance Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
    I’m not sure a text can be classic after only 8 years, but it is and will be a great resource.

  7. My thoughts here are much like David Wallace’s. I’m not sure if this case is properly counted as “terrorism”. Things can be done to “terrorize” a group of people that would not be properly counted as “terrorism”, in the relevant respect. (I hope that’s not too controversial.) And, the use of “terrorism” as a label has itself become very wide-spread and, to my mind, clearly over-applied (including to activists of various sorts.) I think we should be very hesitant to apply it in non-clear cases. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t apply here, but we should not rush to this, not even if doing so would fit with our political sympathies. We should also not let the fact that certain other people are being hypocrites in their application of the term “terrorism” lead us into miss-applying it or rushing to apply it in less than clear cases, given the harm an expansive definition can bring.(*) I should note that it’s honestly not clear to me whether the term “terrorism” should apply here or not. I don’t think it’s at all implausible to call the Klan a terrorist organization, but whether the actions here are close enough to that to count, I just don’t know. To my mind, that cautions against applying the term, at least in a quick way.

    Also, of course, mental illness and terrorism need not be exclusive options. At the very least, it seems that one reason why there are so few successful terrorist attacks is that the people who are able to do them are serious outliers from most people as far as their mental states and attitudes go. Whether that counts as “mental illness” is not something I feel certain about, but it does seem that there are not all that many people who can and will do what most “terrorists” do, at least when they are putting themselves in grave danger.

    (*) One area of the law I work in is immigration law. There are serious immigration consequences for having been involved, even in minor ways and sometimes even when the involvement was not of one’s own free will, with “designated terrorists organizations”. The cavalier and expansive use of the term “terrorism” here has caused very serious problems for people it should not have. For this reason (among others), I am very hesitant to see the term applied widely.

  8. On the question of what constitutes terrorism, here’s a thought-provoking, short talk by Louise Richardson, delivered just a couple of weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing

    http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Terrorism-at-St-Andrews-Princip

    She puts forward six characteristic properties of terrorism. I think it’s genuinely arguable whether the Charleston shooting qualifies according to these. (My first instinct was that it wasn’t, but on reflection, having revisited Richardson’s video, I’m not so sure.) But I share her concerns about the risk of applying the label too widely.

  9. See, this is exactly what I was talking about. It’s unlikely that any hard-right activists have commented on this post, yet there’s still been a great deal of pushback against the idea that the concept of terrorism applies to this case.

    In particular, what we’re seeing is the very same sort of delaying tactics that the hard-right has learned to use: appeals to subtlety (which presume that this is a subtle case), appeals to not getting it wrong (as if agnosticism is never wrong), appeals to the effect that we shouldn’t prematurely close the debate (with little to no consideration that we might be keeping the debate open past its shelf life), appeals to highly refined abstract principles (that pointedly ignore the political realities on the ground), appeals to frankly irrelevant technicalities, appeals to innocent potential victims (on only one side of the issue), and so on. Indeed, I think that this very comment thread is a perfect example of the epistemology of ignorance to which I referred earlier.

    (Specific examples follow at the end, but I’m going straight to the main point so as to not dilute people’s attention spans.)

    What we’re witnessing in this comment thread is an epistemology of propriety. Some people in this very thread have come out against “invective” and “strong claims”; they don’t want to be “too controversial”; they think that the best course is to “hold back” and be “very hesitant.” In a word, they’re “wary.” Even when making a strong, direct claim (e.g. “the Klan is a terrorist organization”), it’s best to make that claim in a weak, indirect, even slightly apologetic way (“I don’t think it’s at all implausible to call the Klan a terrorist organization”). Against such a background – which, I contend, is the dominant discursive background in the US today – how could we not end up defaulting to positions of ignorance? By definition, to accuse another person of terrorism is to engage in invective. It’s a strong, controversial claim. Ergo, any but the most clear-cut, most blatant instances of terrorism will fall prey to our cultural wariness and hesitancy.

    Now, maybe there’s a discussion to be had about the value of this epistemology of propriety. Philosophers sure seem to like it, what with their constant invocations of ideas like “charity” and “civility.” And there are more than a few people who contend that a diverse society like ours would be impossible if people ceased to disagree with one another respectfully (i.e., in a way that upholds the rules of propriety). On the flip side, though, there’s the fact that language isn’t made up of clear, sharp-edged concepts that either 100% fit or 100% do not fit a given case. So we know that the word “terrorism” is often applied as a rhetorical cudgel. Very well – but are there not ideas and actions that deserve to be rhetorically cudgeled? Isn’t that, in fact, a significant basis of political reform and progress?

    Or think about it this way: propriety is just one value and it certainly is not a purely rational value. Who (i.e., which type of person), then, does propriety benefit? Who does it harm? Even if it’s the correct choice for a default or starting epistemological paradigm (which is questionable), perhaps there are contexts or situations that call for an epistemology that operates according to a different value structure. Et cetera and so on.

    So there’s an epistemology of ignorance that might bear some deeper investigation.

    (For example: why would we want to compare this to the Ft. Hood shooting? To begin with, plenty of people called that attack “terrorism,” up to and including members of the Obama administration (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Fort_Hood_shooting#Reaction). Moreover, the “good reasons” for holding back in that case don’t apply in this case: with Ft. Hood, using a loaded word like “terrorism” risked further legitimizing the war on terror and further bolstering the idea that Muslims are an Other in our society. With Charleston, on the other hand, using the word “terrorism” would serve to redirect our attention to problems that we can actually fix and would send the message that racism (rather than Islam) is unacceptable in the US. In short, once you discount the leftist/intellectual impulse to interrogate/challenge/complicate blunt and powerful statements, it makes very little sense to compare the reactions to Ft. Hood and Charleston. (Moreover, Ft. Hood is a cherry-picked example to begin with; see, for a contrasting counterexample, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/22/1395457/-White-racist-kills-state-senator-8-others-Not-terrorism-Black-man-threatens-whites-terrorism or see jennysaul’s firstlook link, which nobody else appears to have visited.)

    Similarly, it borders on pedantry to insist that we stick to the strictest legal definitions of the term. Certainly that’s not how normal discourse works, and it’s incredibly unlikely that most politicians (let alone journalists, etc.) hold themselves to that standard. (The Salon article doesn’t seem to have any such pretensions, and I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the original poster didn’t mean the word to carry any specific, technical legal meaning.) So while it’s certainly good in some sense to be concerned about e.g. the relevant immigration law, it’s very hard to see how such a consideration could possibly bear on this particular case, which focuses on someone who isn’t going to be facing any immigration challenges any time soon.

    Finally, annejjacobson, that looks like it’d be a good read – unfortunately, my public library doesn’t carry it and I’ve been out of academia for several years. I’ll hunt around for it, though, to see if I can get a hold of a copy without paying 90 bucks for it.)

  10. I think that people have real concerns that we not undermine the legal definitions of the terms “terrorism” and “federal crime of terrorism,” because undermining these definitions undermines the rule of law and our substantive and procedural due process constitutional protections. It has nothing to do with propriety. And these concerns are anything but irrelevant.

    And, allow me to be clear, the invective to which I was referring is the invective being directed towards those who have real concerns that we not undermine the legal definitions of these terms. I was NOT referring to the use of the terms, as they are being applied to the Charleston shooting, as invective.

    I think that we do need to study the epistemology of ignorance.

  11. Okay, let’s talk about that counter-example. (Sliding over the implication that I cherry-picked my own example, for what supposed reason I’ve no idea.) The Daily Kos story objects to the fact that a foiled black-on-white mass shooting is called “terrorism” while a white-on-black mass shooting isn’t. And it’s absolutely correct to do so. But the right response to that isn’t to say “the foiled black-on-white mass shooting *isn’t* terrorism; the white-on-black mass shooting is”. It’s to say “both are, or neither are.” I think there is a good case for “neither”: in an era where the US government, rightly or wrongly, treats terrorism as a form of warfare to be responded to militarily, it’s potentially dangerous to use it as a catch-all for lone-shooter events like these. But you can argue cogently for “both”.

    But Eli isn’t doing so. S/he writes:

    with Ft. Hood, using a loaded word like “terrorism” risked further legitimizing the war on terror and further bolstering the idea that Muslims are an Other in our society. With Charleston, on the other hand, using the word “terrorism” would serve to redirect our attention to problems that we can actually fix and would send the message that racism (rather than Islam) is unacceptable in the US.

    That just seems to be a mirror image of the setup to which Daily Kos objects: whether something is called terrorism doesn’t depend on objective criteria about the act performed, but about one’s take on the broader politics around the incident and the political advantages of so-calling it. A conservative might equally well write:

    with Charleston, using a loaded word like “terrorism” risks further inflaming racial tensions and further legitimating the idea of a black-vs-white war in the US. With Fort Hood, on the other hand, using the word “terrorism” would serve to redirect our attention to the vital military struggle against Islamic terrorism, and would send the message that Islamist extremism (rather than responsible gun ownership) is unacceptable in the US.

    We might be more sympathetic with the first set of political positions, but if the very word “terrorism” is going to mean different things uttered by people with different political opinions, it’s going to be kind of hard to have a conversation. Glenn Greenwald calls “terrorism” a meaningless propaganda term, and he has a point, but I’m not sure the solution to that is to deploy it in equally propagandist ways towards a different political goal.

    To put the point more pragmatically: do you think it’s a good thing that the Obama administration mostly took care to avoid using “terrorism” to describe Fort Hood? I do: I think it’s part of the administration’s attempt to dial down the rhetoric on the “war on terror”, and to separate the quite specific military conflict with Al-Qaeda from the messianic idea of a war without end and the related idea that Islam is the enemy, and I think that attempt is really important. (And I think people of good will can agree that it’s important whether or not they approve of that military conflict.) But if you want to support that de-escalation, that support – which will have to speak to liberal-to-centrist Democrats like Obama and Clinton (and me) – isn’t going to proceed via a mirror image of the Right’s double standards on the T-word.

  12. Anon grad student —

    Why should we expect or desire our general-purpose usage of the term ‘terrorism’ precisely to track the US federal statutory definition? It seems quite normal that criminal statutes involve an element of stipulative definition — often quite gerrymandered stipulative definition, since they subserve purposes other than classifying acts in a way that carves at the joints. What is important is that we be careful not to slide between claims involving ‘terrorism’ in a general-purpose sense and claims about legal facts. But just as we wouldn’t expect an historian or sociologist studying genocide to hew to 18 U.S.C. §1091, we shouldn’t necessarily expect philosophical or sociopolitical discussion about terrorism to follow statutory usage.

  13. David:

    “…whether something is called terrorism doesn’t depend on objective criteria about the act performed, but about one’s take on the broader politics around the incident and the political advantages of so-calling it. A conservative might equally well write…”

    See my earlier point about the nature of language. It’s not just a matter of figuring out that you have a square peg and therefore your concept fits in any and all square holes. Furthermore, I absolutely did NOT say that language “doesn’t depend on objective criteria.” (Without a doubt and for objective reasons, it would be inaccurate to refer to (e.g.) a handshake as an instance of terrorism.) My position is that the proper use of language does not depend ONLY on “objective” (i.e., non-political, non-normative) criteria. Or, in other words, my position is that there’s a normative component that helps to determine the proper usage of language.

    Furthermore, speaking of objective reasons:

    “…the vital military struggle against Islamic terrorism…”

    That, as you know, is a fictitious entity; there is no such “vital” struggle. So even if you’re going to say that the word “terrorism” has to correspond only to “objective” (again, non-political) reality, you should still prefer to apply it to Charleston over Ft. Hood.

    “We might be more sympathetic with the first set of political positions, but if the very word “terrorism” is going to mean different things uttered by people with different political opinions, it’s going to be kind of hard to have a conversation.”***

    That’s not up to me, David. Conservatives get to decide when to use the word, too, and I simply cannot control their usage of it. Moreover, surely you’ve noticed by now that we (conservatives and liberals) tend to have different ideas of what lots of words mean – freedom, justice, fairness, opportunity, equality, nature, reason, etc. etc. etc. While I commend your desire “to have a conversation,” I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that that can only happen once we all agree to use words in the exact same way – and I’m even more skeptical of the idea that, just for the sake of a conversation, one side should depoliticize its own speech while another side continues to use words in loaded, emotionally charged ways.

    “To put the point more pragmatically: do you think it’s a good thing that the Obama administration mostly took care to avoid using “terrorism” to describe Fort Hood? I do: I think it’s part of the administration’s attempt to dial down the rhetoric on the “war on terror”, and to separate the quite specific military conflict with Al-Qaeda from the messianic idea of a war without end and the related idea that Islam is the enemy, and I think that attempt is really important.”

    …isn’t that what I said? Like, almost exactly word-for-word what I said? Yes, I agree. (And, in fact, I’ll take it one step further: I think that the war with Al-Qaeda is practically a hoax and that we shouldn’t even be involved with that part of it.)

    “But if you want to support that de-escalation, that support – which will have to speak to liberal-to-centrist Democrats like Obama and Clinton (and me) – isn’t going to proceed via a mirror image of the Right’s double standards on the T-word.”

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. Are you seriously saying that, because I want to apply the word “terrorism” to Charleston, you are going to all of a sudden start promoting the war on terror? Or that you’re going to just tune out altogether? Because it sounds like you’re saying that your “support [for] de-escalation” depends on me not using “the T-word” in this case. If that’s really true – which I very, very, very, very much doubt – then I submit that you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. Which, I mean, it’s your face, but…

    ***Note to anyone who’s still trying to track the epistemology of ignorance component of this conversation: it’s important that David’s goal here is to have a conversation. On an abstract level, it should be clear that having-a-conversation is a different goal than speaking-the-truth or finding-the-truth. Thus, on a pragmatic level, we should expect that there will be some cases in which the having-a-conversation ethos leads a person to act as though they’re more ignorant than they are (or would otherwise be if they held a different ethos). I don’t think that David is doing that in this case, necessarily, but it’s something that you can easily notice in other cases (especially professional philosophy) if you start to look for it.

  14. That is precisely my concern, as I mention above. Do you actually believe that people are using the term terrorist, but don’t mean to imply that the shooter thereby committed a crime?

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