The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.

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The Problem with Self-Satisfaction: Moral Development, Character and Authenticity

In many situations in which I have pointed out a flaw within myself people have told me that I should just accept that what I have perceived as a flaw is an inherent part of myself that should be valued, rather than denigrated. This attitude is common in post-industrial societies in which people are often told to be happy with who they are, and where people are mocked for feeling guilty about particular vices. While there is a grain of truth in this attitude it is deeply problematic as it encourages a great degree of self-satisfaction, and self-satisfaction discourages people from overcoming their vices. For the rest of this blog I will refer to the attitude suggest that we should value all elements of ourselves as the perspective of self-satisfaction.

The element of truth that the perspective of self-satisfaction expresses is that people must feel that they have worth and moral standing, regardless of their particular vices. In essence the perspective of self-satisfaction seems correct in so far as it recognize the necessity of self-respect for a well lived life. I cannot live a well lived life if I think I am worthless, and do not need to be respected by others, that is if I have no self-respect. But while self-respect requires one to see oneself as an object of value, it does not require one to see all of one’s traits as valuable. Consequently, we can be very cognizant of the importance of self-respect, while also being suspicious of self-satisfaction. For example, I see myself as a person who needs to be treated with respect, but nonetheless I still think that I suffer from the vice of timidity, and when I feel shame for having acted excessively timidly this shame is not a sign that I do see myself as having worth, but rather is a result of my failure to completely fulfill my goal of overcoming my timidity. Now, it should be noted I am not suggesting that timidity is a particularly terrible vice, but nonetheless it stands in the way of moral development by preventing a person from properly asserting themselves and pursuing their goals.

The problem with the perspective of self-satisfaction is that it discourages people from overcoming their vices or flaws. If I should be happy with who I am, then it seems that this means that I should be happy with any vices that are part of my character. Now, if I can convince myself to be happy with my vices, than I will certainly cease feeling ashamed of these vices. In this sense, the perspective of self-satisfaction may help us to alleviate our guilt and shame, but the cost of this alleviation of guilt and shame is that we do not overcome our vices. The perspective of self-satisfaction discourages us from overcoming our vices because if we become happy with the traits that were formerly regarded as vices, then we will do nothing to try to correct these vices and fully develop ourselves. Consequently, the perspective of self-satisfaction is problematic, for while it offers the promise of alleviating our guilt through putting at ease with our flaws, in so doing it will prevent us from developing and moving towards our own vision of what an admirable person is. This is particularly problematic because part of what gives humans their worth is that they can develop themselves and move towards a more admirable state of character. If humans lost their ability to develop themselves by moving towards their vision of what it means to be an excellent person, humanity would lose some of its value.

It seems that the perspective of self – satisfaction has gained its foothold within the culture of post-industrial societies because of its link to the notion of authenticity. Authenticity is simply the idea that we should be true to ourselves and pursue lives that we deem worth living and it is fundamental to the worldview of post-industrial societies. However, there are many pathologies of authenticity, and the perspective of self-satisfaction is one of them. The link between the perspective of self-satisfaction and lies in the fact that people interpret being to true oneself, as not trying to change oneself and just accepting all of one’s flaws. Consequently, they see striving to overcome vice as an inauthentic act that represents someone failing to be true to themselves. However, this viewpoint seems misguided as the person who recognizes a vice in themselves and acts to try to overcome is being true to themselves as they are acting from their own authentic judgment that they would be a better, more developed person if they overcame this vice. So, the person who overcomes a vice does not necessarily act inauthentically, and it is likely that in most cases they act authentically.

The perspective of self-satisfaction is particularly problematic, because it is attractive in its promise of helping us to escape guilt and shame. But the cost of this alleviation of guilt is the drastic diminishment of our standing, as people lose sight of the importance of overcoming vice to pursue excellence of character.

Why do we have the friends we do?

Often when considering why we are friends with someone we invoke the admirable qualities the person possesses or shared interests of some kind; however, neither of these is sufficient to explain why we have made the friends we have. There must be some other factor, or factors, that explain why we have the friends that we have.

When I consider those I am friends with I realize that I share interests with all of them, and all of them possess some qualities that I find admirable whether it be generosity, kindness, honesty, a sense of humour, or wisdom; however, I know many other people who equally possess these traits and share interests with myself who are not my friends. I have tried to become friends with many of these people, but the friendships have not formed or have not fully formed nonetheless. Consequently, if my case can be generalized, it seems that the formation of friendship cannot be explained in terms of shared interests, or the fact that the prospective friends find each other’s traits admirable, as there are people who I have tried to become friends with, who have these traits, but who have not become my friends.

In a sense, this is unsurprising as we do not choose our friends as if we were shopping for a guitar. We do not meet people and size them according to our desired specifications for a friend to figure out if we will decide to be friends with them. In fact we do not really choose our friends in the sense that we choose to wear a particular tie to work, rather we meet people and find them attractive in some regard and consequently naturally desire to spend more time with them and get to know them better. After spending time with this person we realize that we either have become friends with them or we have not, but at no point do we explicitly agree to be friends. Accordingly, at most we can try to forge a friendship with someone and choose to end a friendship.

Given the preceding, how do we best account for the formation of friendships? It seems plausible to think that the formation of friendship depends on how the persons relate to one another. In a sense this is obvious, but at the same time too often we think about our friends in terms of shared interests or admirable qualities but forget about how we relate to one another which is in reality the centrality of the friendship.

It is very difficult to conceptualize what it is about a particular person that will enable them to relate to oneself in such a way that a friendship can form. When I first met many of my closest friends there was no way I could tell that they would relate to me in such a way that an enriching friendship was possible between the two of us. As a result, I am skeptical of the idea that an adequate means exists to tell if someone who shares your interests and whose character you find admirable or attractive in some way will relate to you in such a way that an enriching friendship can form. Thus, it seems that the only way to tell if a prospective friend will work with you as a friend is to try to forge a friendship with them. Furthermore, if the preceding is accurate this means that the qualities of a prospective friend can only be understood through the practise of attempting to form a friendship, rather than assessing the prospective friend from some distanced or detached perspective.

At this point someone might nod and say I agree with what you are writing, but this seems fairly obvious and pedestrian. I would agree that to some degree the observations I have made are not particularly ground breaking, but the language of consumer choice has so infected our lexicon that many of us have begun to think about romantic relationships and friendship in terms of consumer choice. Therefore, the observations above stand as an articulation of the practise of forming friendship that displays the distance that lies between how we consume goods and form friendships. This is necessary so that we do not forget that when we are trying to forge friendships with others we are not trying to search for the best product, but rather get to know another to reveal the possible relationships that we might have.

Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value

I want to consider to what degree rewarding people with money or honours for doing some admirable act is problematic. Rewarding someone with money or honours is a form of extrinsic motivation. To be clear, acting from an extrinsic motivation means being motivated to perform an action by virtue of gaining some reward or avoiding some punishment external to the action performed. This can be contrasted with intrinsic motivation in which one is motivated to perform the act by the nature of the act itself, rather than some reward or punishment.

One reason why extrinsic motivations are problematic has been made clear by Michael Sandel, among others. This stream of criticism argues that when extrinsic motivation takes on a monetary form it will tend to crowd out intrinsic motivations. Consequently, if we pay children to read, the intrinsic motivations to read will be crowded out by the extrinsic motivation for money, such that children will only read if they are paid. Thus the way that extrinsic motivation crowds out intrinsic motivation is problematic as the effect of this “crowding out” is that people seems to be blind to the intrinsic value of an activity and reduce it to a means of making money.

If this criticism applies to monetary extrinsic motivations, there is no reason why it would not apply to non-monetary extrinsic motivations. For example, if we decided to give children awards and social prestige for reading, this too would tend to crowd out intrinsic motivation as children begin to only read if they receive recognition and prestige for doing so. Thus, if we are troubled by the negative effects of monetary extrinsic motivations, we also have reason to be troubled by the use of non-monetary extrinsic motivations.

The preceding raises many questions about a variety of social practises, but one that I would like to highlight is the use of grades. Grades are both a measure to see how well someone has understood the material for a course, and an extrinsic motivator. Many people take great pride in getting good grades, and strive to get their A, because of the positive recognition that getting the A confers. As a result the formal practise of grading may tend to crowd out the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake, as people only learn when they get the positive reinforcement and recognition that is associated with getting a grade. If this is the case then the practises of most educational institutions are pushing aside the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake.

However, the non-monetary extrinsic motivation that grades present is less problematic than a form of monetary extrinsic motivation as monetary extrinsic motivations have no connection to the meaning of education, whereas grades have a substantial connection to the meaning of education. Getting an “A” in a course can signify one, some or all of the following: diligence, intelligence, being knowledgeable, attentiveness and industriousness. All of these values are related to education. We educate ourselves to become more intelligent and knowledgeable, and we must recognize that being truly committed to educating ourselves requires that we are diligent, attentive and industrious, as there is always more we can learn. Therefore, those who are motivated by the extrinsic motivation of grades want to be seen as being intelligent, knowledgeable, industrious, attentive and diligent. Now while their desire is still only to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable etc. The fact that they want to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable shows that they esteem these values, and if they esteem these values they are more likely to esteem the value of education on its own account, because if someone esteems the value of being knowledgeable they are likely to see the quest for knowledge as something that is valuable on its own account. Thus, while this extrinsic motivation may crowd out intrinsic motivation it can also reinforce intrinsic motivation because the meaning of the extrinsic motivation is related to the intrinsic value of education. Consequently, we can see someone quite effortlessly going from being motivated to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable and diligent, to being motivated to possess these qualities as they are a constitutive element of what it means to be an educated person.

On the other hand, a person who was motivated to do well in school in order to get money does not necessarily esteem any value that is associated or connected with education. Consequently, in this particular case, while grades and monetary rewards can both crowd out intrinsic motivations, money is a much more problematic extrinsic motivation as it has a much stronger tendency to crowd out intrinsic motivation as there is no connection between having lots of money and valuing education. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but valuing one will not tend to ensure that one values the other.

The preceding tells us that non-monetary extrinsic motivation can help support, and will not necessarily, crowd out intrinsic motivation. However, this is only so when the meaning of the non-monetary extrinsic motivation is connected with the meaning of the goods intrinsic to the practise. If we gave someone a non-monetary award for doing well in a skiing competition and this award suggested that they were generous and kind, this would certainly crowd out intrinsic motivation as the award has no connection to the particular excellences of skiing. But, if the award signified that they were a fair competitor and that their landings were very clean this could tend to reinforce intrinsic motivations associated with skiing. Thus, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has a meaning that is connected with the excellences intrinsic to a particular practise it will not necessarily crowd out the intrinsic motivations of that practises. Contrastingly, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has no relation to the meaning of the practise then it will crowd out intrinsic motivation.

In light of the fact that post-industrial liberal democracies rely on monetary and non-monetary extrinsic motivation we must necessarily be careful to ensure that these do not crowd out intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, if we have to use extrinsic motivation we should rely more heavily on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that relate to the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment, and avoid spreading monetary extrinsic motivation into all spheres, or relying on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that do not connect with the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment. If intrinsic motivation is crowded out our practises become less enlivening and rich and as a consequence our own excellences will be degraded.