Over on the most excellent Feminist Philosophers blog, there was an extended thread wherein some aspects of one commenter’s (Nemo) contributions seemed (to me and several others) to be problematic from some feminist points of view. In a prior thread, I asked whether Nemo was trolling and was assured the contrary. In this thread, other people felt that Nemo was, in fact, trolling from an anti-feminist perspective. At this point, the train clearly was in the ditch. A bit later, I tried to recount my experience of the earlier parts of the thread wherein I was trying to keep charity toward Nemo at least in my behavor, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was off. The key bit:
That bit raises some interesting questions about niceness (perhaps another thread?), but also about credulity. Just as we might consider that Johnson’s normative expectations might influence her predictive expectations (esp. if she habitually lives in a situation where they are aligned or if commonly held beliefs about appropriate behavior around funerals were strong enough to dominate), I think that our assessment of the plausibility of explanations for her behavior also are strongly guided by our normative expectations. So, for example, a pretty basic normative expectation in many feminist contexts is treating women’s claims as good evidence, being inclined to non-insanity readings of their behavior, and not neglecting the surrounding context including not taking e.g., male behavior as by default unproblematic. My interpretation of Nemo’s mental model lying behind the “wondering what she was thinking” — backed up by the interactions we had — strongly suggest to me that these expectations are met. At least, I have a hard time explaining the exchange without giving up all three.
Nemo replied in a way that makes me want to explicate the bits of their posts that led me to my mental model. But I don’t want to do it in that thread (since I’ve dominated that enough). But I have a blog! Win-win! So, here goes. Hi Nemo! You wrote:
Bijan, I would like to say that I’m unaware of any grounds for inferring that I accorded any less evidentiary value to Johnson’s claims on account of her sex or her sexual orientation as such, or for that matter her posture as the complainant here. I would be very vexed to discover that I had done so.
I didn’t say that you accorded any less evidentiary value to Johnson’s claims on account of her sex or her sexual orientation as such. I said, “treating women’s claims as good evidence”. It’s very clear, I hope you agree, that you did not treat her claim about her own psychological state as good evidence for her psychological state. Indeed, your skepticism about her claims survived a huge amount (in my estimation, of course) of contrary evidence.
In may be that e.g., you’re cynical about human motivations or e.g., you think that people normally obsessively think about the rules of institutions they encounter or e.g., you think that lesbian Catholics in the US encounter enough Catholic harassment that they normally are hypersensitized to the possibilities of more harassment. Of course, you didn’t clarify any of this. Nor, when people pointed out that many lay Catholics have contrary expectations of how these things were handled did you incorporate that into your range of “reasonably” credible possibilites. Heck, perhaps she was a canon lawyer type and thought that the priest would behave accordingly, thus though that she could get away with “flaunting” her sexual orientation!
So, it seems unquestionable that you were not treating her own claim about her own psychological state as good evidence of her psychological state. In context, it seems not unreasonable to wonder why. I’ll accept your contention that it was not due to her sex “as such”, but given how easily such bias can creep in (from context, even if an agent is internally scrupulous), I hope you’ll forgive me when I suggest that it’s at least plausible that you were doing so. If you’d like to avoid confusing me on this point, a few more markers would be pretty helpful.
I am most definitely inclined to non-insanity readings of women’s (and men’s) behavior; indeed, I thought the implication of my (more colloquial than clinical) reference to insanity – namely, that I did *not* believe Johnson was insane – was relatively clear, but I may have erred there.
I think so, though not merely with the quip. You set up a structure wherein the alternatives were that she was lying (or misreported) or overwhelmed by grief to the point of insanity. The simpler explanation — that she had done what she said she had done, to wit, never considered that it would be a problem — is hardly outre. People “don’t think” all the time! She hardly need to be insane with grief to be fairly seriously distracted. She could easily have shared the common belief that the church is and should be lenient about Communion at “important” events. Etc. etc. etc.
I was saying I found it implausible that she would not have considered the eventual outcome as a possibility, which, I hasten to add, insinuates neither that Johnson was culpable nor that the priest’s culpability, whatever it may have been, was in any respect diminished.
Note that this is, again, weaker than your earlier claim. “I found it implausible” vs. “it strains reasonable credulity”. Given that we have no first hand knowledge and some inconsistent and partial reports, I don’t think it’s completely out of line to find other accounts plausible (esp. if, as I expect, you are extrapolating from your own mindset). (For me, a line like, “I find it difficult to imagine that if I were in her shoes that I wouldn’t have at least considered the possibility that the priest would deny me communion.” is both reasonable, avoids challenging her epistemic authority with respect to her own psychological states, and makes the point.)
Given all the people who were writing on the web that Johnson was trying to provoke or torment the priest and afterwards trying to exploit the situation, I think it would be helpful to mark explicitly (as you do here) your distance from such views.
I am not certain of the respect(s) in which, in your view, I was neglecting the surrounding context; I didn’t do so in any way obvious to me even in the light of your contributions to our exchange.
That questioning Johnson’s honesty was commonly done by people seeking to discredit her (morally speaking) is part of the surrounding context. Similarly, that she claimed to be heavily involved with Catholism and that the canon lawyer, the response of the archdiocese, and the numerous accounts about the expectations of the Catholic laity seems to support that it was reasonable not to expect him to deny her communion. (I.e., there’s a policy implication in the Archdiocese’s apology and as an active Catholic it’s as reasonable to suppose she was aware of that as suppose that she was aware of the Canon. If you meant that she should have expected that some priest would, against policy, misapply the canon at her mother’s funeral…well, that’s hard for me to extract from what you wrote.)
I don’t think any inference from my remarks that the priest’s behaviour was unproblematic by default would be warranted.
That’s because you neglect the context I mentioned above, to wit, that at that time your sort of questioning unleavened by any indication of your moral judgments was standard by people condemning her. Similarly, if it’s normal for priests not to deny communion (and policy and canon law support that not denial), then I don’t know why you’d think:
Unless she were momentarily insane with grief, I think she must have known that presenting herself for Communion under those specific circumstances was at least somewhat likely to lead to a denial or else to induce the priest to do something she knew *he’d* feel he was not permitted to do. That strikes me as an unusual thing to do even – and perhaps especially – at a religious ritual in honor of your late pious mother.
If she thought that the priest would be wrong to (or just wouldn’t) deny communion, why would she care, or even think about, whether the priest would be happy about it? Why would she care if the priest was going to be (wrongly, in her view) unhappy at her mother’s funeral? I guess I can parse this as “Why would she risk a priest being a jerk at her mom’s funeral?” but that certainly seems like a very strained reading considering your earlier “we should respect the rules set by the institution”.
In the end, I guess you have to ask yourself whether the fact that you can find a parsing that is compatible with the principles I enunciated (or like ones) is sufficient in your own mind to counteract the impression I (and others) took away and the readings we made.
If you would sprinkle a few more markers in your comments, I’d personally be grateful. I’ll also continue to try to read you more charitably.
I can see what you’re getting at in #72, but if you will indulge me I hope I can offer a reasoned and reasonable demonstration that what you cited there is not, in fact, an example of what you or Bijan initially took it to exemplify.
I think part of the problem is that Nemo generally relies on “defeating (or defending) in detail”. While not a Gish Gallop per se, it can bear similarities. (I say this as someone who is very prone toward being overwhelming…one very difficult thing I struggle with is knowing when to let go of a subsubsubsubpoint, and actually doing so.)
I think this is an important point: It’s not always about you or what you’ve precisely said or what you exactly meant or thought. It can be how what you wrote seems in context. Consider a skillful abuser who plays mind games with their abusee by never saying anything categorically over the line. To torment without making any particular act specifically wrong is the game. Since it’s much easier to rebut something that is specifically wrong than to rebut a complex circumstance (“What did I say? Did I say you were wrong? DId I say you were ugly? I was just reflecting on how beauty works! Why do you mishear me that way?” <–This is hard to deal with!)
Now, suppose that someone is not an abuser but enacts a subset of that pattern, whether by happenstances or by a quirk of their personality. It’s not hard to see that that might, and might reasonably, be seen as part of an abusive pattern. Note that defending each bit (i.e., defending in detail) will tend to confirm the undesired interpretation.
Doesn’t this just screw Nemo, though? I.e., neither being right (and non-offensive) nor showing that their are right (and non-offense) get them off the hook! Eek! Or does this just show that I don’t care about substance but only about surface?
I don’t think so. Let us presume for a moment that we want interpretative charity, intellectual honesty, and respect for argument and evidence as general regulative ideals for a given intellectual community. (I certainly want those things.) We can also easily acknowledge that participants in the community are bounded in all sorts of ways: e.g., background knowledge and various capabilities (e.g., I’m better than average at mathematical thinking but much worse than many). So a core question is whether the 3 regulative principles I list above are sufficient to fairly and efficiently lead to good intellectual outcomes for the group. As generally understood, I think they don’t precisely because they don’t usefully account for unpleasant patterns (whether normatively unpleasant or just difficult in some way, e.g., while I have a fairly robust stamina for minute arguments, lots of other people find them overwhelmingly tiresome).
To see how this works out in the current situation, let’s presume (contrary to my belief) that every comment of Nemo’s in that thread was content-wise perfectly acceptable, given the correct reading. Now consider the difference between
- having to perform a really close, literal reading while also shutting down standard interpretative heuristics that are ordinarily quite reliable in order to correctly assess the content, and
- all readings (however sloppy) plus normal heuristics lead us to roughly the correct assessment.
So, this suggests other ideals: friendly helpfulness, perhaps, or audience sensitive clarity. “Supporting the general intellectual welfare”? I’m not sure how to put it.
I’ll note that one thing that lead me to less rather than greater charity is that (not unnaturally) it seemed to me that Nemo was more charitable to their own comments than e.g., to mine. For example, I wrote:
Perhaps she normally is not around homophobic catholics, after all. Including non-homophobic priests.
To which Nemo replied:
I expect that she is not. And since it is perfectly possible that a Catholic priest, at least one without great pastoral sensibility, could act likewise whether he were homophobic or not, I don’t think we can conclude, pace your implication, that this priest is homophobic.
Note that I did not technically imply that that priest was homophobic. Here’s a reading of what I wrote: Johnson normally never encounters homophobic Catholics and, indeed, her circle are all supportive. Plus, she hangs around with canon lawyers and Catholic policy makers who all have assured her that merely identifying her partner is not sufficient to get denied communion, esp. at funerals. (I strengthened it to the far fetched deliberately.) This easily explains her not thinking that her sexuality would be a problem. It does not require the denying priest to be homophobic. Thus, since there is one model of my claim wherein the priest is not homophobic, I did not imply that they were homophobic.
Of course, one can also reasonably surmise that one condition of being not-homophobic is not relentlessly (yet mistakenly!) enforcing homophobic rules (i.e., engaging ones pastoral discretion). With this, fairly natural from a feminist point of view, reading, then (I should think) that an inference that the priest is homophobic would be correct.
Notice that the actual reading cuts away at Johnson and of me, esp. in combination with standard heterosexist heuristics. To read Nemo sufficiently charitably here requires lowering defences against standard heterosexist heuristics, which I’m rather unwilling to do esp. when similar charity, or even as much charity as Nemo demands for their own comments, seems to be lacking on Nemo’s side.
Note also that I offered outs, e.g., asking Nemo to personalize rather than generalize their lack of credulity. Saying, “I can’t imagine not being on my guard were I in her shoes” is, for me, a lot easier to deal with than, “It strains a reasonable person’s credulity that her account is literally correct.”
Update 2: Nemo was unable to comment here because I had commenting privileges set rather tightly (i.e., to required login). I’ve today (March 5, 2012) liberalized the permissions (I hope) sufficiently.
I don’t know how active I can be in the next two weeks. The next few days are rather hectic for me and then I’m travelling. I’ll endeavour to respond sufficiently and in a timely fashion.