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Powers ’15: Gettin’ frisky

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Opinions Columnist

In preparation for Spring Weekend, student entrepreneurs are marketing a colorful array of festive tank tops. Most make reference to the headlining artists slated to perform in April. There is one, however, that has seemingly caught everyone’s attention. Its plain white background sports a bright purple image of former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly with the words “Gettin’ Frisky” written underneath.

While wearing such a top certainly isn’t legally contentious — we fortunately have yet to completely demolish free speech — many were quick to announce their outrage, using words such as “racist,” “insensitive” and “offensive.” Others defended the design, noting that, given the context, it was only a joke and should not deserve such condemnation. While this specific issue is particularly relevant to Brown, it is part of a larger campaign against all such offensive jokes.

It’s useful here to examine our use of the word “offensive.” Many people have the view that something deemed offensive is necessarily bad. And this denunciation goes beyond considerations of personal preference or taste. Making jokes that offend a group of people is considered a moral crime.

But this view has absurd consequences. For the vast majority of history, gay people have been demonized by the majority of the population. Those on the American right voiced fears that such “alternative lifestyles” would destroy America’s conservative religious culture. To a large degree, I think that actually did happen. I also don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me that those who fought for the enfranchisement of this and other such oppressed groups were not committing a moral crime, even though they certainly offended many people.

Comedian Ricky Gervais put it more eloquently than I ever could: “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.” I want to be clear. An emotional response to a set of sounds or series of images is an awful measure of morality with terrible ramifications. Among other things, if we want to believe supporting homosexuality — especially when it wasn’t popular — was ethically justified, then we have to do away with this moral relativism. It’s not logically incoherent to hold onto this view, but it’s much more palatable to throw it out than to accept its unsavory consequences in full.

Last month, I wrote a column (“Powers ’15: Principles of American ethics,” Feb. 13) detailing the problems that arise when one does not rigorously formulate one’s ethical foundations. There seem to be many people who think being offended puts them on the moral high ground, while refusing to embrace the conclusions this view entails.

This is exactly what happens when people attempt to retroactively justify their feelings on individual issues rather than working from the ground up. There is an obvious logical inconsistency that very brief introspection would reveal. It’s intellectually irresponsible to be so loud, confident and imposing while clearly not having put any substantive thought into the issue.

So where does this leave us? Well for starters, it’s disingenuous to use the word “offensive” to create a connotation of immorality to vilify individuals. The term is not a sufficient — and I think not even a necessary — condition for such a judgment. If we want to condemn certain jokes or behaviors in general, we need to appeal to an objective sense of morality.

Long story short, this isn’t a fruitful approach either. On many ethical issues — including this one — there are countless intelligent individuals supporting every possible view, which should make us extremely unconfident in our views.

Imagine you and a friend are at a restaurant and plan to split the bill. The check comes and you both calculate a 20 percent tip in your heads. Just as with moral considerations, most of the time you get the same answer. Analogously, both of you come to the conclusion that murder, rape and cannibalism are morally reprehensible.

But every once in a while the two of you get a different answer. One of you believes we should raise taxes, while the other believes we should lower taxes. In the case of morality, it’s quite possible for both of us to check our work without finding any glaring issues. Such intractable disagreement should make us less certain of our original conclusion.

It’s the arrogant individuals who stubbornly cling to their controversial moral opinions. They don’t seriously consider the possibility that the people on the other side of the disagreement could be as intelligent or well-informed as they are. In their view, when your friend calculates a different tip than you, it’s probably just because he’s just not as bright. Beyond being obnoxious, this interpretation doesn’t seem justified, as there are usually plenty of smart people on both sides of any moral dispute, including the one at hand.

What individuals should take away from this is that they should be more morally permissive and slower to moral judgment. It might superficially sound like a hypocritical statement — criticizing others while asking them not to criticize. To reiterate, my claim is that we should make fewer moral judgments. This judgment is not a moral one, but rather one of rationality. It’s not wrong — ethically — to censure offensive jokes or to use whatever justification you want to do so. You can say two plus two equals five all day. But you should understand the irrationality involved in doing so.

And honestly, the tank is pretty clever.

Andrew Powers ’15 can be reached at andrew_powers@brown.edu.

39 Comments

  1. terrible thing says:

    “It’s intellectually irresponsible to be so loud, confident and imposing while clearly not having put any substantive thought into the issue.”

    It’s intellectually irresponsible for one so young to be such a tool.

    “And honestly, the tank is pretty clever.”

    Eat sh!t, Powers.

    • Wikileaked says:

      wikipedia.org/wiki/ad_hominem

      • terrible thing says:

        Yikes! We’re got ourselves a parliamentarian! One who knows s/himself some Latin. This “Wikileaked” is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

        I think you misunderstand my point. Ad hominem, as your source (Wikipedia) tells us, is a fallacy “in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument.”

        But in fact, it is the other way around. I suggest not that this piece is misguided and wrongheaded because Powers is a tool and a sh!t-eater (though he may well be) (he is). Rather, Powers is a tool specifically because of the peace, and I suggest that he literally eat his own feces as punishment for being such a tool.

        To wit: for a man such as Powers, who will never, ever be frisked, to spend untold paragraphs ridiculing people for taking offense to the image of a man responsible for some seriously brutal racial policing, and to then claim that such an image is “clever”, is a truly egregious crime against both Morality and the Queen.

        Thus, it is recommended that Powers immediately take a bag of his own personal poop and gobble it right up. Only then can he begin to make amends for being a total, unrepentant wang. Yes, he’ll probably still be an insufferable blowhard who thinks Ricky Gervais is profound, but I think a learned man of Latin such as yourself, “Wikileaked”, would agree that it’s a start.

        • Intrigued onlooker says:

          I don’t think he’s ridiculing people for taking offense to the image, my understanding is that he’s raising the point that an individual (or even individuals) being offended doesn’t necessarily mean that that something morally wrong has taken place. My own thought about it is occasionally being uncomfortable is a worthwhile price to pay for being able to express oneself however they want.

        • smart person says:

          gets called out for ad hominem, continues to use ad hominem

      • smart person says:

        well done on this comment.

    • Buttz Henderson says:

      my favorite authors are the ones who conflate “intellectualism” with “masturbation” and only cite themselves and ricky gervais. “objective moralism” is too funny. is stupidity a moral judgement?

      • angry comment section regular says:

        have u seen his abortion piece? http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/04/15/powers-15-on-abortion

        spoiler, here’s the last paragraph:

        “Personally, I believe the argument I’ve presented above is unsound. But as it would be prohibitively easy and meaningless to write a pro-choice piece at Brown, I thought I’d just share some of the issue’s more interesting considerations to make people question their assumptions for once.”

        ………………….
        please.

    • I never understand posts like yours. You sound pretty sharp, you obviously have something of substance to say, but what do you do? You insult the author, and leave it at that.

      Look, it’s a great way to get upvotes, sure. Powers blows his horn, you blow yours, and everyone talks past each other.

      The worst part is, I agree with where you’re coming from, for the most part. That’s why it’s so damn frustrating. You could advance the conversation, you could educate people, you could write something insightful. But instead, we wind up with a thread with lots of sharp sound-bites, little actual analysis.

      And I get it: it’s not your job to educate others on the internet. Maybe you feel it’s a waste of time. But wouldn’t it be really nice — like sunshine-and-rainbows nice — if we could, I don’t know, learn from each other?

      But I’m probably expecting too much from a comments section.

      • Yeah, definitely expecting too much from a comments section. Just hope I’m not expecting too much from Brown.

      • eat sh!t powers says:

        So this is matters and is worth discussing (unlike the turd sandwich above). Cool.

        Many of us are here (Brown/Prov/Earth) to Make Change. There are several ways to Make Change, i.e. to leverage power, to gather people to a cause and exert them on the proper levers. The “left” at Brown is generally okay at this–our investments are less awful, our workers better paid, our financial aid better, our classes less dumb thanks to a collection of lefty efforts over the years, though we’ve got a long way to go.

        In terms of winning hearts’n’minds–actions, teach-ins, conversations spurred by actions and teach-ins are generally where it’s at. When you’re acting against injustice, the conversation tends to be more productive and more useful. Someone more militant than me would say that we’re fighting a class war, and the debate is how to do that, not whether such a class war exists; I’d say that in general, the productive conversations (what kind of society do we want, how to we deal with the racism and classism and sexism inherent in our own) happen in an activist environment.

        It’s not “right versus left.” The sixties (civil/womens/enviro) didn’t happen because the right and the left talked to each other and the left won; it’s because the left got its collective sh*t together and the righteousness of its cause became apparent to a lot of people who were moved to action.

        This isn’t to say that everyone who isn’t drinking the leftist Kool-Aid has no place in the room. Tea Party/Occupy convos were often productive and (once in a while) led to real action because at least honest-to-god TPers were often talking about and fighting the same injustices and classism we were talking about, and many on the left recognized the way to beat the racism inherent in the movement was to show that it was part and parcel of the class war they and we were both trying to fight

        But debating upper-class entitled provocateurs like Andrew Powers isn’t a good use of anyone’s time because that’s not how change happens. This is often hard for Brown righties and “centrists” to hear, but they don’t really matter that much. They’re 1) part of the elite we’re fighting and 2) have no interest in joining the fight. They’re not important. They just suck.

        Being a Brown student doesn’t inherently make you a good person. This is the real world. There are bad people here, our age, who are going to graduate and do bad people things. The world isn’t a big Oxford Debating Union, and neither is Brown.

        Mean comments are a lower-watt equivalent of pieing Tom Friedman or throwing your shoe at Bush. Privileged light-skinned boy writes a dumb article and caps it with a good laugh about old-fashioned racist police brutality? I’m not gonna give him a 5-paragraph essay. I’m going to give myself and others who have to deal with this bullsh!t day in and day out a little bit of catharsis, and I’m gonna ask Andy P to get bent.

        Maybe someone’s vision of paradise is a nice sit-down and let’s-learn-from-each-other with a bunch of insufferable Ivy League pricks. But it’s not mine.

        • terrible thing says:

          So you dismiss people solely based on their political views?

        • Andrew Powers Andrew Powers says:

          Blind activism certainly makes change. But not necessarily for the better.

          Humans aren’t gifted with the omniscience to simply know when they’re right. The Nazis didn’t come to power because the righteousness of their cause became apparent and people were moved to action. They came to power because people were interested in listening to nationalistic, racist platitudes that made them feel good and didn’t actually consider where Hitler was taking them.

          I think it became apparent during the Ray Kelly protests that there are some people here who explicitly consider themselves to be infallible. Every part of your argument circularly relies on the assumption that you’re right, yet you’re unwilling to engage in discourse. If this logic were an acceptable standard, we could argue in favor of any activist cause as long as someone could get emotional about it.

          It’s this lack of desire for dialogue that creates much of the negative change in the world.

        • I really think your style of argument here (which I saw a lot of) is the most disturbing part of the whole Ray Kelly event. What bothers me so much about it is that I could take your argument, and the arguments of many others, and put it almost word for word into the mouth of a white supremacist, member of the westboro baptist church, or any other hateful group (example: “debating [gay, low-class, asian, black, etc.] entitled provocateurs like you isn’t a good use of anyone’s time because that’s not how change happens. They’re part of the filth we’re fighting. They’re not important. They just suck”) . I don’t see how you can use that style of (or lack of) reasoning so confidently when its used by the very worst kind of people you’re railing against.

          • Browntown '14 says:

            The thing that’s always weirded me out the most about centrists is that they actually believe this–that the problems with hate groups isn’t that they’re hate groups, it’s that they’re passionate.

            Yup, a left radical will sound a look more like a righty radical than David Brooks. It’s a complicated world.

          • Browntown '14 says:

            Also: not a shocker that a Brown kid would equate “f*ck the rich” with “f*ck the gays”, although it is pretty sickening.

          • smart person says:

            “passionate”=stifle all discussion

  2. angry comment section regular says:

    yeah i’m also put off by the extreme pc-ness here/nowadays. i think anything can be funny in the right light. those tanks def are.

    i do think that everyone should try to make those around them feel comfortable, and i will go out of my way to cater my speech to my audience. so i don’t think the problem is people saying that saying x is wrong b/c it’s offensive–it is “wrong” in some sense, the sense that you’re being a dick to people around you–but instead the problem is that it’s cool in liberal culture to be offended by pretty much everything.

    i would never dream of making e.g. a race-related joke around someone it may upset (so like, anyone other than very close friends whom i know have a callous sense of humor like mine) perhaps because it hurts them to hear someone taking racism, a very real problem, lightly.

    but when i call something “retarded” and my perfectly able friend, who has no family or close friends affected by mental disability, responds with, “um, that is not okay”… it’s like, really?? like, yes, words have power, but in no way am i perpetuating any type of hatred by using the word “retarded” around my friend. is she really upset or is that just a knee-jerk reaction to hearing a non-pc word? pretty sure it’s the latter.

    so in some sense i actually think that the visceral reaction is the important thing here. again, not because it means something is morally wrong to say, but because it’s a dick move to knowingly make other people uncomfortable.

    so on the ray kelly tanks… i dunno. i mean, stop and frisk is a not-funny reality, of course. but is it hurting anyone to make a joke about it, or are people just freaking out because modern liberalism is increasingly an intellectual exercise in getting outraged and jumping through hoops to justify it?? i honestly don’t know. and (unfortunately?) you have to be safe with this kind of thing. if there’s a chance it’ll hurt someone, you should just not say it. :/

    • some thoughts says:

      I kind of agree AND disagree with you here, particularly regarding your example of using the term “retarded”. I get the gist of your general stance, and I do agree to some extent that political coolness has rather just become something “cool”. However, I disagree that you are “in no way … perpetuating any type of hatred”. In such case, you’re normalizing/trivializing the term that may actually offend people with relevant issues/disabilities. You may not be directly offending them, but you’re in some sense “promoting” an environment in which people can just casually use such term, which some way or another is likely to result in someone being offended. (Putting aside the whole other story about how it is difficult to judge from the outside whether or not someone has relevant issues, e.g. whether or not someone has a non-visible disability, whether or not they know someone close affected, etc) I think people often underestimate the (often harmful) power of trivialization via language.

      • angry comment section regular says:

        yeah i definitely see your concern. (and it’s related to what i said in my other comment, which is that normalization of hateful speech can result in normalization of hateful behavior.) i guess my immediate response would be, like, “hey, give me some credit, i know myself and my friend well enough to know that there’s no harm in this. we’re progressive, compassionate people and we know we’re just using a word lightly in private.” so yeah, i think we pretty much agree there; it’s just that your application of “cater to your audience”/”be safe with this kind of thing” is more cautious than mine.

        but i’ll also add in a counterbalancing worry about trivialization: i’m often afraid we trivialize serious hate speech (/hateful behavior) by overreacting to small offenses. i’ve definitely seen a certain response to pc-ness from the right: people will get so mad about militant pc-ness that they’ll just totally forget that there are underlying issues motivating it. for example, someone will get so annoyed at fuss over gender pronouns that they’ll forget that transphobia is a serious issue in society. they’ll just throw up their hands and say, you know, “this is just mass hysteria over nothing”… which is counterproductive when you’re trying to get across a message about the marginalization of some group.

  3. angry comment section regular says:

    oh, and on your borderline incomprehensible homosexuality argument… come on, andrew powers ’15, you’re smarter than this.

    ok, so you have this “moral relativism” parallel (or what you say is a parallel): ‘homosexuality is wrong because it grosses people out’ and ‘certain speech is wrong because it hurts people’. even if we granted that these were similar enough for your argument (debatable), what i think you want to say here is that people in both cases are making moral judgments on the basis of their emotional responses, right? so on your view, when homophobes talk about the possible consequences of homosexuality for society–the reason they are ostensibly against it–that’s merely a rationalization, because their real judgment is based on their visceral reaction. but when you actually talk about homophobia’s consequences for society, you say that hey, they were right (but that’s not a bad thing).

    so this is already a little weird. i mean, what are you going to say, that they made this judgment on emotional grounds but happened to be right when they talked about the consequences? or that the important thing is that they were wrong about the moral judgment? either way you’re on shaky grounds because even invoking the consequences leaves a hole in your argument…

    cuz you don’t even mention the possible consequences in the speech case: that speech has the power to normalize bad (prejudiced/hateful/discriminatory) views in society. (like i said, i don’t think that’s often the case; i think people mostly just get upset cuz they enjoy being outraged. but it’s a real possibility in some cases.) when you throw that in, it’s clear that the latter group has more of a case for their judgments, especially with your acknowledgment that the result of accepting homosexuality as a society (namely, normalizing an alternate lifestyle) wasn’t a bad thing. you don’t want to say that normalizing hateful views in society isn’t a bad thing, right? so you have to explain why it isn’t the case that offensive speech does so. but it’s already “intellectually irresponsible”, to use one of your favorite phrases, to fail to address this part of your analogy.

    xoxo
    hope this helps

    • Andrew Powers Andrew Powers says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not really trying to draw an analogy here so much as to provide a counterexample to the conditional: if offensive behavior occurs, then immorality occurs. I also think you’ve ascribed a much stronger conclusion to my column, namely that offensiveness is irrelevant in making moral judgments.

      I’m very sympathetic to the utilitarianism, so I think it’s reasonable to say that offensiveness should be taken into account when making moral judgments; however, it’s just not a sufficient condition for immorality like some people seem to think it is.

      I’m not sure if you saw comments people were making about the tank on facebook, but some explicitly stated the mere fact that they were offended meant the tank was morally bad.

      With respect to your other comment, I think I have a similar view to the one you describe.

      Apologies for any lack of clarity on my part. I hope this clears things up.

      • angry comment section regular says:

        yeah that does clear things up. i definitely tend to extract too-strong views from your columns b/c u are so deliberately contrary all the time (see: the post where i thought u were subtly advocating eugenics).

        of course one could argue that they were using “I’M OFFENDED, SO THIS IS BAD” as shorthand for a more reasonable thought process (“i’m offended [that this trivializes xxx], so this is bad”, or perhaps “[i have good reason to think that this trivializes xxx because] i’m offended, so this is bad”, or “i’m offended [which makes me think that this is likely to be hurtful to a much larger group of students], so this is bad”)… and it might be a good idea to assume that, since these are our intelligent brown classmates.

        but regardless of what was going on in this situation, you’re right that people do sometimes make moral judgments based on their feelings, and that those judgments don’t necessarily hold up to any scrutiny. (yeah so i guess the homosexuality example was a decent one on that level… still don’t understand why u started talking about the consequences for society, but w/e.) and i’m with u that it is a good idea, if u wanna convince people that something is wrong, to at least give a hint as to why. (i am so sick of “that is not okay”–what an empty way of expressing that something strikes you as bad but you don’t know how or don’t want to bother to articulate what’s actually bad about it.)

        to be fair, there was a bluestockings article written which presented some of the concerns in more concrete language: http://bluestockingsmag.com/2014/03/14/racism-is-not-boldly-controversial-its-just-racist

        anyway, i guess none of this really addresses what u say in the last para was the main thesis of the article… i don’t have a lot to say about that (in the context of the article) because i think it’s just too broad a generalization of the point about offensiveness

  4. 440 Dead in Chiraq says:

    as Rust Cohle said, “We construct our identities by making value judgments. Everybody judges, all the time. Now, if you have a problem with that, you’re not living right.”

  5. @andrew_powers:disqus: I think you misunderstand why exactly people are upset by these tank tops.

    It’s not that people thought to themselves, “These tank tops offend some people, and therefore they are bad.” Rather, they thought, “These tank tops offend me (or people I care about), and that is bad.”

    See, it’s not that Brown students adhere to some principle which says that anything offensive to anyone is bad. In fact, I think many Brown liberals (of which I am one) would delight in offending or upsetting racists or homophobes.

    As an aside, by the way, do you really think that it’s possible to “rigorously formulate one’s ethical foundations”? I’d love to be able to do that, but I just don’t think things are that simple.

    Finally, I hope you’re aware that your tone comes across as coldly scientific and preachy, like a professor who has spent too much time in an ivory tower, and is disconnected from the reality on the ground. (Yes, mine is often similar.)

    I mention this because, as a writer, you know better than anyone that many (maybe most) will respond more to the quality of your tone than to the quality of your arguments — and so I hope that the tone you end up using is really the one that you want.

    • angry comment section regular says:

      good post.

      did u read his ‘principles of american ethics’ column? basically he took an intro to poli sci class and is now armed with the ability to smugly proclaim things like, “I’m very sympathetic to utilitarianism.”

      • Andrew Powers Andrew Powers says:

        I’ve never taken any political science class. I’m a philosophy concentrator, so I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying these issues in depth.

        • angry comment section regular says:

          sorry, i stand corrected. i suppose that column was more of an expository thing than a “LOOK WHAT I JUST LEARNED GUYS”

          (edit: i mean, the expository part of the column…)

        • angry comment section regular says:

          anywayz u should let me proofread your columns and tell u where you’re coming across as more of a dick than u intend to be (or not enough of a dick, idk what u go for)

    • Andrew Powers Andrew Powers says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t really understand what you mean by “bad” in this context. This could be in a moral sense or in a sense of “this makes me unhappy.”

      It seems to me that a moral claim is being made here. No one’s saying “I don’t like this, but it’s ok that you do.” It seems to be more than just a matter of taste.

      But I’m not sure how you’d like this parsed out as a moral view. It seems like a privileged moral reference frame to say that what offends me as an individual is a sufficient criterion for immorality. I doubt this is a view anyone explicitly believes, but I don’t see well-defined alternative interpretations of what you’re saying.

      To your question, I think yes. The difficult part is justifying the framework, but constructing it isn’t particularly challenging. For example utilitarianism is an extremely simple and easy to describe moral view.

      I’d like readers to accept my arguments and conclusions on purely logical grounds, not because what I say makes them feel good inside. It’s possible to get the correct answer to a math question using bad reasoning, but it seems like you haven’t really learned anything then. Quality of tone is useful from a rhetorical perspective, but it has nothing to do with “getting it right,” which is what I primarily care about.

  6. RebeccaCityofLadies says:

    Without really commenting on the substance of the piece – uh, if two people calculate 20% of a number and get different answers, then unless we’re talking different numbers of sig.fig.s, one of them is wrong. This was not the best example. If you meant approximately 20%, you should have said approximately 20% because that’s subjective, but it would still have been a bad example.

    • angry comment section regular says:

      powers doesn’t quite do it justice, but the mental math example is from our own david christensen’s work in epistemology, examining the question of if/how you should modify your beliefs/confidence when your ‘epistemic peers’ (people equally qualified, intelligent, experienced, and so on) disagree with you about something. it’s actually a more interesting question in cases like the tip one, where there is definitely a precise, correct answer. see http://fitelson.org/seminar/christensen.pdf for an accessible overview of the different viewpoints

    • Andrew Powers Andrew Powers says:

      Your first interpretation is accurate. I put this example after noting we would need to make an argument on the grounds of “an objective sense of morality,” so it’s supposed to be the case that one person is, in fact, wrong. The only difference is that it seems like there’s not way to find out conclusively who’s wrong in this case, so we just have to be satisfied with both individuals becoming less confident in their respective conclusions.

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