The Death of Socrates and the Apathy of Philosophy

What do we talk about when we speak of “facts?” For those involved or interested in scientific, or more broadly, empirically-rooted fields, it is a thing that is indisputable; for instance, that gravity is a force that exists that keeps each and every one of us, as well as all other material things, rooted to the surface of the planet Earth. In these cases, facts are things that have been rigorously tested and examined and been found overwhelmingly to be the case; to this, we bind facts with the necessity of being true; there is no such thing as a fact that is not also true. So, while it is a fact that gravity exists and affects all of us, it is not a fact that unicorns exist, for the former has more than ample evidence for its existence, and the latter does not.

In philosophy, though, unless a member of the field is an adherent of the Vienna Circle, we find it harder to discern truth than those I have just briefly described. Particularly when our discipline takes up questions of ethics and morality, truth becomes a thing that is ultimately near impossible to ascertain given the metrics and rubrics of the sciences. The history of philosophy is ultimately one of the evolution and debate between certain men (and, occasionally, like a desperately needed breath of fresh air, women) over how it is best to think, and then later based upon that thinking, act. We are incessantly concerned with the thoughts of those long dead and buried unlike almost any other discipline; departments across the globe make hiring decisions based upon whether one focuses upon Kant rather than Hume, Aristotle versus Cicero, or Heidegger as opposed to Carnap. How well one is deemed to understand the writings of those deemed important by some and worthless by others determines entire careers, and to publish a philosophical text means to ceaselessly call back to our forbears in order to legitimize our own claims.

Yet, this understanding that is so highly valued is a kind of knowledge that is scorned outright by many in the sciences; we engaged with philosophy necessarily must think in abstract, changeable, evolving manners that must essentially spit in the face of notions of what constitutes factuality. If one person declares x thing about a passage of Spinoza, another will eventually come along and argue that said passage actually says something quite different, and the argument over which is the truth of Spinoza’s writing will span centuries, and likely never end.

However, the one absolute, concrete thing that all philosophers seem to universally call back to as a justification for what they do is the death of Socrates. The event occupies a special place in our minds; it is given special emphasis in near all of our classes, a legendary event that cemented our discipline’s ethos for all time. The great one, the true instigator of it all, we are told, willingly committed suicide by hemlock in 399 BCE because he wished to die for his ideas, his ethics, his moral code. He could not bow to the indignities demanded by small-minded government, for to do so would as well kill him as would the poison he drank. Whether we are to compromise our very being or die, the tale of Socrates tells us, the proper path is to drink deep; this preserves us, for all time.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates.” 1787. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Since his death, times have changed drastically, and ultimately so has how philosophy goes about its way in the world. Our discipline is not particularly brave, and to claim that as a whole it ever was is questionable to say the least. Certainly, there are many philosophers who have famously fought against injustice and oppression, and have written books on the subject, but most of us are perfectly content to ignore the problems of the world, and make a life of inventing arguments as to why philosophy is special, existing outside the purview of the everyday, that only the most rarefied and excellent minds should ever be able to engage with us, and until the government comes breaking down department doors, we can safely ignore the affronts to free speech and human rights that occur all around us.

I recognize that this is a position that is, to say the least, controversial. And indeed, I should make clear that I personally do not oppose the ability of scholars to study things that are impractical and have little relevance for a wider community; were I to do so, I would be arguing essentially for the end of academia as it has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this paper, I’m not going to propose anything so drastic as that. In a series of posts to come, I will present a critique of philosophy that claims itself privileged, above the everyday, and argue for a sort of more ethical thinking that is tied with a realization of the necessity for action, a philosophy that is a part of, rather than a bystander, in the world.

Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression

[trigger warning for transphobia, transmisogny, discussion of gendered violence]

Over the weekend, a giant shitstorm erupted in feminist circles over an article by Suzanne Moore, a British writer, who, in a column for the New Statesman, which is most of the time one of the best news outlets in the world in this blogger’s opinion, made the following comment while talking about discrimination against women:

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.

Now, the rest of the piece being quite good, it’s entirely possible that it was just a case of using an easy stereotype to get a point across. Which still isn’t okay, but it would be miles better than what actually happened. What actually happened was that she doubled down on her bigotry, and she double down hard. From Nico Lang, who recaps the three ways she responded to her critics on Twitter:

1. On using the problematic “transsexual” instead of trans or transgender: “I use the word transexual. I use lots of ‘offensive’ words. If you want to be offended it your prerogative.”

2. When asked why her work doesn’t recognize the intersectionality at hand: “I dont even accept the word transphobia any more than Islamaphobia You are using ‘intersectionality’ to shut down debate. Its bollocks.”

3. When she’s run out of things to say, FTW: “People can just f**k off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.”

Then, it got even worse. Julie Burchill, another well-known British feminist, took it upon herself to defend Moore in a hate-filled screed that is more fitting for a right-wing message board than anything, much less The Observer, a reputable British paper whose editors clearly left their reading glasses at home that day. I’d recommend caution clicking that link above, because it is truly, truly appalling. So much so that The Observer took it off their webpage. And, hopefully, they’ll be hiring new copy editors sometime soon.

The worst thing about this whole debacle isn’t just that it happened in the first place, and in some of the most reputable progressive news outlets in the world, but the fact that it is nothing new. In fact, Burchill has a twenty-year long history of transphobia. This kind of demonization of trans* and non-binary people is a constant fixture of our society. Trans* women in particular are used as punchlines as a matter of course throughout media, as Nico recently explored in the show New Normal. They are exploited for their otherness, made objects, never given their own agency in our societal discourse. And this has an impact.

All in all, trans* people are completely ostracized from our conception, existing in a space outside the norms, where the wider world views them at best as objects of curiosity, at worst subhumans only worthy of exploitation and violence. Even with the passing into law of the Matthew Shepard Act, trans* people face overwhelming amounts of violence and abuse. It was estimated by the William and Mary Law Review in 2000 that murders of trans people worldwide are reported about every three days, and that it is highly probable that many more murders go unreported.* Especially in Brazil, the murder rate for trans* women is staggering, making Moore’s initial comment all the more awful. Furthermore, there are very few places where trans* people are allowed to exist at all, in any way approaching humane; in the US, only a few states and cities have set up laws to specifically prevent discrmination on the basis of gender identity, and most countries have none at all. In many cases, violence against trans* people comes not from the average citizens, but from the police.

I have no idea whether Moore and Burchill know anything about what trans* women face on a daily basis. I suspect they don’t give a damn. And that is a problem, and it’s one those of you reading this who are interested in social justice, and, hope against hope, those who generally are not can realize is one that needs solving.

See, when I came to Chicago three and a half years ago now, I had no idea any of this was going on. I wouldn’t call myself a transphobe or anything like that then, but I definitely had no conception of what transgender really meant, much less did I ever think about the issues involved or that trans* people even really existed. It just wasn’t something that I ever really thought about, nor had I ever received any kind of education on the matter. That in my second year of studying at DePaul, when I was introduced by my best friend here to a group of wonderful people who proceeded to completely change my worldview with their stories, their evidence, their resources, their voices. Old concerns, like those still tightly clung to by the mainstream atheist set who deride the idea of secular involvement in social justice activism,  now, as presented, with only the lense of Western secularism, seem naive and uninformed.

I would argue that there is a distinction to be made between discrmination on the one hand and systemic oppression on the other. Atheists and secular people are certainly not viewed with a great deal of positivity in the US or in most of the world; as Greta lays out, discrimination against atheists has recently turned violent in many parts of the globe, particulary in the Middle East. In every case she lists, it is the police or state criminal justice system that is responsible for the punishment of atheists. In the cases of Alexander Aan and Albert Saber, the police turned a blind eye to violence inflicted upon them by civilians, arresting not a single one of either man’s attackers.

Haven’t we heard something like that before? Systemic violence and incarceration of a dehumanized group? Oh yes, right, when I was discussing trans* oppression a few paragraphs ago.

I would put forth that those like Maria Maltseva who are up in arms over the fact that they Totally Suffer Really Awful Oppression by being atheists in America are out of their damn minds. Yeah, religious people are the majority in this country, and Christian interests in particular exert a huge and unwieldy influence over our politicians. But honestly, to look at the kinds of things that are happening to women, people of color, and trans* people on a daily basis in this country and, frankly, everywhere else around the world, and insist that that Nativity scene on the lawn is a Real Problem, but then not lift a hand to fight against the oppression and war against entire groups of people by our police and criminal justice system is unethical at best, criminally negligent at worst.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

* Frye, Phyllis (Fall 2000). “The International Bill of Gender Rights vs. The Cide House Rules: Transgenders struggle with the courts over what clothing they are allowed to wear on the job, which restroom they are allowed to use on the job, their right to marry, and the very definition of their sex”. William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law 7: 139–145