Sunday, November 23, 2008

The sources of anger and other responses.

This post is a response to Clive's reply to my rather barbed attack on his credibility as a public intellectual.

I do need to apologise for certain mistakes I made, particularly in drawing attention to one of his trivial mistakes in parsing an article. I knew at the time he had made a mistake, perhaps because he hadn't read the paragraphs carefully enough. I had rather cynical rhetorical reasons for drawing attention to it - and I did so deliberately in full knowledge it was cheap shot. However, I do now acknowledge it was a cheap shot and not really indicative of any significant failing on Clive's part. I should also apologise for using the term intellectually shoddy. I should have used the term intellectually unsound.

That said, that cheap shot was merely 1-arm of 3-armed argument that led to the conclusion that Clive was "displaying contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate". I am not going to withdraw that accusation at this point in time because I believe the accusation can be sustained on the basis of the other 2-arms of the argument alone. I will expand on this point below.

I am also not going to withdraw the charge of intellectual dishonesty unless Clive admits that his dichotomy is false and that it was an honest mistake. If he does that, we will have come a long way in this debate. It should be noted that he still believes his dichotomy is valid. I still disagree for reasons I will explain later.

I am also not going to withdraw the charge of Clive arguing in a manner that brings disgrace not only on himself but on the entire profession of public intellectual unless and until Clive ceases to imply or suggest that net libertarians are in some way sympathetic to the view that people should have an unconstrained right to view illegal material such as child pornography. We are not. We never have been. Any attempt to twist our arguments to suggest that we are will always remain intellectually disgraceful and I will not resile from naming it as such.

In his reply, Clive asked a very good question:

I wonder whether you ever reflect one why you become so enraged about proposals to regulate the internet?

This question is very easy to answer. There is the personal explanation that relates to my psyche and there is my answer as one of those much denigrated net libertarians.

First, the personal answer. I get angry when I perceive others are behaving irrationally when claiming to be rational. I get angry about this because I think logic should be enough to persuade another of the correctness of my view point. However, logic alone doesn't work in the face of irrationality - it can never work. This reveals itself as frustration and then anger on my part. Sometimes I am the one who is wrong about some axiom and when I eventually realise that I feel a little bit sheepish about getting so upset - sorry Dad - but sometimes other people really are behaving irrationally. It is perhaps a fortunate thing indeed that I thus far have never been a violent person - who knows what the next (first) brain injury will do! Instead, as I have got older I have started to appreciate the value of rhetoric as tool when dialectic has failed. My rhetoric certainly has an element of the bully to it, and that undoubtedly can be tied back to elements in my psyche. C'est la vie. ps: If anyone chooses to quote this paragraph, please do it in full.

But that's me. Why do we as a class - the net libertarians - get angry? We get angry because from day one of this phase of the argument (30/12/2007), our opponents have consistently tried to misrepresent our arguments against net censorship as arguments for child pornography. There should be no further need of explanation about why that makes us angry.

To Clive's specific points. I have already apologised for the cheap shot. The second arm of the argument was the point about the selective quotation, the third arm was the point about implying by omission.

Clive stated that his point about "individuals who live in cyberland often display a contempt for social rules and moral norms that would put post-modern academics to shame" could be sustained on the basis of Hackett's comment "We live in a world of multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid." alone.

I would agree with Clive if Hackett had been referring to a world which included the views of NAMBLA and Zen Buddhists and one is comparing these systems with another system of morality, such as that of secular humanists. With respect to secular humanism, the views of NAMBLA very definitely are not equally valid. However, Hackett wasn't talking about that world. He was talking about a world that included: Anglo Saxon protestants, Muslims and people who hate Scientologists. There is very definitely a sense in which these systems are equally valid. A Chinese Australian of the Buddhist faith probably regards them as equally valid alternatives to his own choice. It is not the choice he has made, for sure, but in terms of choices other people might make, they are equally valid.

Neither Hackett, Malone or myself are French post-modernists for whom I do have contempt [ they abandoned anything resembling rationality long ago - see Sokal and Bricmont ]. By omitting to put the full context of the quote into his article, Clive left open the possibility that he thought we were arguing like French post-modernists. That's insulting enough. But it gets worse, since we are involved in a debate where terms like beastialty, rape and child pornography get thrown about with homosexual abandon, Clive left open the charge that we believe that NAMBLA has an equally valid morality. Let's be clear: we are geeks, not French post-modernists and we are definitely not NAMBLA supporters. As far as I am concerned the charge that Clive "displayed contempt for principled, honest and logical intellectual debate" still stands.

As far as Clive's second point in defence of the statement:

Logic without moral clarity is not logic at all.

The confusion here lies with the way Clive used the term logic. If Clive had said:

A logical system without moral clarity is not a logical system at all

I would would have objected because some logical systems contain no moral view point - for example, arithmetic.

If Clive had said:

A system of morality without moral clarity is not a system of morality at all.

I might have quibbled that it was not a useful system of morality, but it was still a system of morality.

But that's not what Clive said, he said:

Logic without moral clarity is not logic at all.

Let's clarify what I mean by logic. Logic is the set of rules of a logical system. By rules, I mean the way propositions of the system are combined to produce new propositions. I do not mean the axioms or resulting theorems themselves. In the Western tradition, the rules of logic have been known for a very long time and are not in dispute. If the logical system is a system of ethics, then the axioms and conclusions may or may not have "moral clarity" (what does that term mean, anyway?) but the rules of the ethical system themselves are value free. An implication is still an implication, even if it leads to a morally ambiguous conclusion.

I think Clive could help clarify this question greatly if he could explain exactly what he means by the terms: "logic" and "moral clarity". Until then, I believe the charge of unsound intellectualism still stands.

I completely reject Clive's third point. The position: "It is a problem, the Government should do something, but that something is not net censorship" is part of the "should not filter" case and is not a part of the "we should filter, but we can't so let's do something else" case. It simply isn't, and unless Clive accepts this point I may well get angry.

So, let's be very clear. There is a valid position in the "should not filter" case which is this.

  • there is a problem
  • the Government should do something
  • we should not use mandatory ISP filtering, even if we could
  • we do not believe people should access child pornography

This is certainly my position and it is easy to defend. If Clive really believes I need to do so, I will do so in another post. But let's be clear, this position is not in anyway equivalent to this very different (and objectionable) position:

  • there really is no problem
  • there should be no mandatory ISP filter
  • we believe people should be able to access child pornography with out any form of social restraint

The problem with Clive's position is that he believes that if we can do it, we should do it. That's a valid position, but it is not our position. We believe the unintended consequence of giving the Government control of a net censorship apparatus is simply too great a price to pay. I would contend that everyone involved has a price for "protecting the children" which is too high to pay - that is ours.

Perhaps Clive does not agree that this is an acceptable position to take, and Clive is free to argue that case. However, it is definitely a position in the "should not filter" group and as such by omitting it Clive was presenting a false dichotomy.

So, unless Clive admits he made a mistake and that his dichotomy was actually false, the charge of intellectual dishonesty still stands.

Finally, it should be made clear that I was using the term "barbarian" in a figurative sense. I don't really believe Clive is a barbarian. I was using the term "public intellectual" in the literal sense but Clive is free to correct me on this if he believes that is incorrect.

Yep, that was a cheap shot. Sorry.


Dan Buzzard said...

What sort of person actually calls themselves an "Intellectual", you have to wonder what they are trying to prove.


Geordie Guy said...

@Dan: Clive Hamilton is from the Australia Institute, he has a bunch of jobs at a bunch of Universities but primarily his job is to work with the institute on policy discourse - he's not being a dork when he refers to himself as an intellectual - it's actually his job.

He's unfortunately the type of intellectual who says things that are patently wrong, baits heated responses like Jon's, then replies pointing out all the heat but ignoring the response.

I don't know if you had much to clarify here Jon but you clarified it well. Perhaps Clive will understand why you fired up now, and focus on responding to the facts instead of silly accusations of "Temper temper!".

Jon Seymour said...

I hope I have demonstrated with this post that with the anger removed, all my arguments and my conclusion still stand - Hamilton's defence of the ALP policy he authored is intellectually bankrupt.

Unless someone else can mount a stronger defence of it, one has to seriously question the integrity of the policy itself - a policy without credible defence is no policy at all.

Anonymous said...

I may be wrong here, but it seems as if the government is tooting the "Clive Hamilton agrees with us, so therefore we are right! HAH!" horn.

Congratulations Jon Seymour, your rebuttal was superb, exposing the logical fallacies and intellectually dishonest practices presented within Hamilton's argument. It was also highly readable, thanks to the work's razor-sharp wit.

It bothers me that this sort of reply will not receive the same amount of public, academic and media attention that Hamilton's argument/s will.

Jon Seymour said...


Thanks for your generous words - you are too kind.

Seasons greetings to you.