Friday, March 29, 2019

Debate After Tragic Events

Alexandra Couto and Guy Kahane have a nice summary at "Practical Ethics" of their paper "Disaster and Debate". In it they argue that early debate after tragic events is permissible, contrary to what people often say. It's a good example, actually, of the value that summarizing philosophy papers can sometimes have; I think it's easier to see the overall force of their argument through the directness of the summary than in the sort of unavoidable ramble through different possibilities a journal article requires. Nonetheless, I think their argument fails, for a large number of reasons. Some of my reasons for thinking so depend on substantive positions that are perhaps controvertible, but some of them I think are at least partly structural, and I'll focus on the latter.

(1) Their argument against the cynical reading is poor. In the paper they spend a small amount of time discussing what they call the 'cynical reading' of the 'It's too soon' or 'Now is not the time' objection to debate after tragic events; I take it that 'cynical' here indicates not that the reading is cynical but that the objection is taken to be expressive of cynicism. The idea is that early debate after a tragedy is (at least likely) opportunistic and an active attempt to manipulate people.. As they rightly recognize, the issue is that calls for debate in the midst of a tragedy* strike many people as being in bad faith. It's not done (one might say) because you actually want a debate; it's done because you think the tragic landscape favors you so that your opponents can't debate you, or because you think people, seized by unusual emotions, can be stampeded in the direction you want them to go.

Couto and Kahane do not do justice to this understanding of the complaint at all. From what they say, it sounds very much like they are regarding it as simply an ad hominem. But while it could perhaps be used in such a way in some circumstances, the essential point is quite general: in politics there is a lot of bad faith, a lot of manipulative action. And there are two concerns here: one, you don't want major social actions to be taken largely because someone's manipulative, bad-faith scheme happened to succeed because people were distraught; and two, you don't really want to be seen as the sort of slimy political opportunist who seizes on people's distress in order to con them. Now, I've no doubt that sometimes when people make the 'It's too soon' complaint they are not doing it with saintly intentions but in order to imply that in fact the people who are raising points are slimy political opportunists. But the reason this works is that there is a genuine, and general, issue here: manipulative political opportunism is a genuine phenomenon, and it's bad enough for everyone that most people regard it as reasonable to take basic steps to avoid even the appearance of it.

The essential argument that Couto and Kahane give does not really address this point at all -- again, because they seem to read it as merely an ad hominem rather than as making a general point about the need for safeguards. Their primary argument in the paper is that the complaint is self-defeating:

The cynical reading, however, is self-defeating since the accusation of ‘unsavoury opportunism’ (Bruni) it makes against those who wish to engage in debate can easily be also directed against attempts to shut down debate, deflating any normative force it may have at first seemed to have. Worse, by so readily imputing false motives to others, this understanding of the complaint risks undermining political debate more generally since the imputation of bad faith is on the table, it can be easily enough applied across the board.

But this fails completely, for three reasons. First, this identifies no form of self-defeat at all. If I accuse you of being a liar, it's true that this is an accusation anyone could make about anyone -- there's nothing about any kind of accusation that prevents anyone from accusing anyone of anything. But this has no relevance to the question of whether lying is bad and something we should be avoiding; it doesn't 'deflate the normative force' of the claim that lying is bad and should be avoided, nor does it change the fact that you should perhaps not be doing what you are doing if there is reason to think that you are in fact lying. Likewise, the fact that anyone can be accused of bad faith doesn't change the fact that bad faith is bad and that you should be hesitant to do things that people can reasonably interpret as bad faith. Second, the response depends crucially on the assumption that there is an imputation of motive. (Hence my point about their reading it as an ad hominem.) But this is not in fact required: it is making a general point about the unsavoriness of seizing on tragedy to try to manipulate others into agreeing with you, and this is unaffected by any question of what motives are actually involved. To appear to be acting badly, even from good motive, in at least many circumstances requires the justification of necessity, and even then sometimes will require an honest apology for having had to do the sort of thing that often indicates a bad motive. Thus the question of imputing motive, while it might be relevant to particular cases, is not relevant to the point of the complaint.

Third, and I think most seriously, the argument quite clearly fails because it would make identification of bad faith useless in political situations, and this is a disastrous result. Debate after a tragic event is not the only situation in which people worry about political bad faith, but Couto and Kahane have given an argument that, if it were viable, could be used in every such case. Consider for instance the classical justification of civil disobedience in matters of civil rights. What justifies a citizen, qua citizen (and thus responsible for upholding the law and order in their society), engaging in active disobedience to the laws, rather than negotiating through instruments of law? The usual answer given is that of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: It is indeed better to negotiate than to disobey laws, but sometimes the people you're negotiating with are doing so in bad faith; their actions are not rational disagreement, which can be worked out by discussion, but attempts to stall and stonewall so that there is no real discussion at all. In such a case, the point of civil disobedience is to establish conclusively that they cannot get away with this and must in fact negotiate honestly and fairly for mutual benefit. The argument of Couto and Kahane, however, would rule out this justification, in which protest involving civil disobedience is understood as itself an expression of the view that negotiation cannot be done due to the bad faith of an opposing side. Nor is this the only situation in which being able to identify something as bad faith is valuable in political life; to lose this ability is a very high cost.

(2) Their argument against the epistemic reading is inadequate. On the epistemic reading, the problem with early debate is that it distorts deliberation -- either because there is not enough information, or because emotions are running too hot, or because the kinds of emotions on which we tend to act in the wake of tragic events tend toward bad judgment. Given that they place such emphasis on deliberation, one would think that this would require some close attention, but most of what Couto and Kahane say in response to this is vague and incomplete. For instance, this is their argument in the summary against the idea that you tend not to have all the information in the aftermath of a tragic event:

However, in very many cases we know enough fairly soon. And starting debate early needn’t mean that its conclusions must be hasty—when we start debate, and when we end it, so to speak, are different issues. In any event, one often hears the complaint that ‘now is not the time’ even when all the relevant facts are known. So the complaint couldn’t be just the banal advice to wait till enough information is in.

The paper adds a few minor nuances to this. But very notably, nowhere is it ever shown that this is true. In particular, we would need to know why we should think that "in very many cases" we know soon enough that it counts as early debate, such that it is "often" the case that "all the relevant facts are known" -- and, what Couto and Kahane glide over, all this known in such a way as to be appropriate to public debate, that is, widely known and in such a way that it can be identified as known at the time. Couto and Kahane never defend this assertion that we often have all the information we need early, and on the face of it, it is at least controvertible. Moreover, contrary to what the summary suggests, waiting until enough information is in is not "banal advice" but is generally regarded as one of the constituent features of most forms of rational discussion. So it seems odd, at least, and perhaps question-begging, just to assume that the information is usually in very quickly when the whole complaint being addressed shows that there are plenty of people who do not think this is true. What is more, thinking about a number of major tragedies, I'm not convinced that the evidence holds up the assertion here. In dealing with disasters, there is a common phenomenon of early information being incorrect or crucially incomplete, investigations can take a very long time to do properly, especially since what needs to be investigated is not just the tragic event itself but the whole lead-up to the tragic event, and the distribution of information is subject to many failings. One of the kinds of tragic events that Couto and Kahane point to is shooting massacres; these are tragic events that in the recent past have led pell-mell into early debates, but there seems to be no evidence at all that they result in the spread of the kind of information needed for informed debate.

Likewise, they note that anger and grief can sometimes focus the mind for practical deliberation and thinking through the issues. This is true, but there is an obvious gap here between thinking something through yourself and having a public debate about it; it's a long road between 'Individual deliberation can sometimes be focused and made more rational by anger and grief' and 'Public debate can sometimes be focused and made more rational by anger and grief'. For one thing, most people, unlike Couto and Kahane, are going to be very skeptical of the latter. If we take a tragic event that does not seem to be the kind that Couto and Kahane have in mind -- someone who is in the country in violation of immigration laws murders a couple of kids, or a policeman guns down a black teenager on flimsy grounds -- large numbers of people will worry that anger over this matter will lead people to favor positions in public debate that they would not favor in a calmer moment, and that the options for action will be distorted by this anger. Now, whether or not they happen to be right in that particular case, I don't see anything in the argument given by Couto and Kahane that really shows why the worry can be dismissed. Individual anger may well focus the mind, make one see what one did not before, and be a learning moment, changing your view; but why is it such a problem to insist that public debate should be left to cooler heads? Couto and Kahane try to separate public debate from immediate action, but early public debate is an immediate action. In public debate after tragic events, people regularly put on the table options and possibilities for action that would not have been considered earlier, or try to press for options and possibilities for action that require significant changes. In public debate people are actively trying to change both the actions that are possible and those that will be preferred -- that's the whole point of public debate.

The primary problem, though, is that while Couto and Kahane focus on the possible contributions of emotion to thinking things through, they don't really have an adequate answer to the question, "Why should these emotions be expressed in public debate rather than in the very large number of other possible ways they could be expressed?" Why public debate rather than contemplative reflection? That's not an absurd question; engaging, as a public, in contemplative reflection is a standard part of civilized society. It's why we have memorial services and memorial holidays and days of fasting or thanksgiving. The whole question is why debate should get a priority here as an expression of what we are going through rather than something else, like pause or mutual learning, given that it's widely recognized that anger, grief, and the like can lead to the deterioration of public debate and public deliberation. They briefly address something like this worry in response to an anonymous reviewer, and concede that sometimes this might be legitimate, but then dismiss it as something that will not be common -- another controversial and potentially question-begging claim for which they give no evidence whatsoever. They also have an argument based on division of moral labor, but I honestly don't see how it gets the conclusion, "Public debate is a permissible response early in a tragedy" rather than "If public debate is a permissible response early in a tragedy, then such occasions are particularly important for public debate." Perhaps the gap between the two would be easier to jump (although it is still a gap) if their responses to the three readings were conclusive, but they don't seem to be.

(3) Their response to the ethical reading is inconsistent with distinctions they themselves make. I find it somewhat misleading to call it the 'ethical reading', since all the readings are ethical in some way, but what Couto and Kahane mean is taking the complaint to be that early public debate is inconsistent with the kinds of moral obligations that tragic events create. A major issue is that people often think that there is something disrespectful about making the aftermath of a tragic event about one's preferred politics rather than about supporting the victims. Couto and Kahane's argument seems to run together a distinction they recognize elsewhere, between the beginning of a debate and its end. In the summary, they say:

However—and building on our responses to the previous objections—failure to tie a tragedy to the larger issues may itself be disrespectful to the victims. If the tragedy is due to great injustice, then pure grief may be incomplete; it should be accompanied by anger or outrage. As we said above, a proper understanding of the tragedy requires a grasp of its significance. In other words, by tying an event to something larger, we can increase, rather reduce, its individual meaning. We make it matter more.

In the paper they say:

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, failure to tie a tragedy to the larger issues may itself be disrespectful to the victims, and compromise our emotional response to the event. If the tragedy is due to great injustice, then pure grief may be incomplete, it should be accompanied by anger or outrage. Often the most active campaigners of a cause are those who lost a loved one through an injustice. And sometimes it is actually those closest to the victims who wish to tie to broader debate and draw general lessons from the tragedy.

Both of these ways of stating the argument seem to confuse the initiation of the debate with its culmination. The claim about disrespect is that one should wait to debate, not that one should never "tie a tragedy to the larger issues". Couto and Kahane regularly recognize this in opposing the epistemic reading; but their entire response to the ethical reading consistently fails to appreciate that the same point could be made to their own argument. They do seem to recognize something like the problem, but their way of handling it is to claim that if you say something like that, it just collapses into the claim that you should leave space for grief -- which is quite clearly false, since saying you should leave space for grief is very different from saying that you would be disrespecting the victims. (Our obligations to those grieving overlap but are not equivalent to our obligations to victims. Couto and Kahane also do not clearly distinguish these obligations from our obligations to society at large, although all three are distinct.) Despite the fact that the ethical reading is characterized by moral obligations, or at least something like moral obligations, they do not consider how the specific obligations might directly require responses inconsistent with public debate, despite the fact they consider how other specific obligations might require public debate as a response.

It's entirely possible, though, that I've misunderstood their intended argument on the ethical reading; I had difficulty following the structure of the argument, and difficulty relating some of the structure of this part of the argument in their paper to the way they present it in their summary.


As I noted, I have other problems with the argument. I think, for instance, that it is a mistake to think in terms of 'readings' -- these aren't really different readings of a claim, but multiple reasons for accepting it. And as has often been pointed out, that an objection can be made against one argument for a conclusion, and another objection can be made against another argument for it, and so on, does not always mean that the arguments for the reason fail. It may mean that they shouldn't be considered one by one, because they address different problems. In Swinburne's famous metaphor, a bucket with a hole may not hold water, but if you take a bucket with a hole, and put another bucket tightly in it with a hole in a different place, and so forth, the redundancies may well give you a bucket that holds water. If we were dealing with rigorous refutation it would be one thing, but Couto and Kahane often are giving arguments that are based on what often happens, what usually happens, and so forth, since the kinds of worries they are addressing pretty obviously have merit at least sometimes. But different kinds of 'at least sometimes' can add up eventually to 'enough'. This goes both ways, of course, but I think treating these as different readings rather than different reasons lets Couto and Kahane treat them as separate when they are probably mutually reinforcing. I also think their positive argument conflates public debate and public deliberation, which overlap but should not be conflated. But these and other reasons are related to substantive views I hold that could possibly be controverted; the above seem to me to identify structural problems with who Couto and Kahane build their argument.


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* I say 'in the midst of the tragedy' because that is what in fact we are talking about here: the aftermath of a tragic event is still part of the tragedy. When the World Trade Center towers fell, that was a tragic event; but the aftermath was not any less of a tragedy -- people struggling to sort out their lives in the wake of the event is still part of the tragedy and what makes it a tragedy. In other words, we should distinguish between the aftermath of the tragic event (which is still part of the tragedy, the tragic event working itself out tragically), and the aftermath of the tragedy (in which we are generally dealing only with second-generation issues arising from the aftermath of the tragic event, and which may last for a long time after).

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