Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.
If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?
Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.
How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).
This question was posed after I posted The dancer from the dance. Perhaps that’s a coincidence.
Be that as it may, I’ll say how I answer the question. How should one react? It depends. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on who is asking or demanding, and what that who has said in the past, and whether that who has or seems to have an agenda other than the stated one. It depends on the situation, and the reasons given, and one’s own understanding of all those.
In a sense, of course one should ask all those questions. Of course, if the demand has any merit, one should take it into consideration. That’s almost tautological. If someone has good reasons, then one should pay attention to the reasons. You bet.
But it’s also true that sometimes one already knows the request or demand has no merit. Sometimes one has already seen and discussed the request or demand; one has asked for merit; one has examined the concerns; one has considered their legitimacy; and one has determined, to the best of one’s ability, that they have little or no merit. One is in such cases not assuming that the requests or demands are without merit, one is concluding that they are, based on reasons.
And the burden is not only on the person being told to shut up. That part got left out of the questions. It’s a very intrusive request or demand, telling other people what and how to write. There’s a large presumption against it, because we value free expression and free inquiry. The people being told to shut up or tone it down are not the only ones who have to do some careful thinking and question-asking.
We (the two authors of Does God Hate Women?) have experience of this ourselves. There was a time when it looked as though the publisher might decide to shut up by not publishing it after all. That didn’t happen, and the publisher behaved beautifully, but it was an issue for a few days, and I can tell you, we did not think the request or demand had any merit.
So, in short, I don’t agree with the conclusion. I think that sometimes, even often, one does get to think – not assume, but think – that people who are telling you to shut up or tone it down are indeed doing a wrong thing (to translate “beyond the moral pale” into terms I recognize).
And now I have to go make the plum pudding. Happy Saturnalia.