Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Robert McLiam Wilson and the Right to Form an Opinion

I sometimes get the sense that our society is plumbing new depths in terms of irrationality, and I have to remind myself that things have been much worse in the past.

Today Caleb Crain published a tweet linking to a piece by Robert McLiam Wilson in the New Statesman. The headline/subheadline of the piece is: "If you don't speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist? Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner are among the writers who chose to boycott a PEN gala in honour of Charlie Hebdo. But are they in any position to pass judgement?"

This is an argument about who is entitled to form an opinion on Charlie Hebdo.  Wilson's position is:  French-speakers only.  People who don't speak the French language simply aren't equipped to judge the merits of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo.  They aren't entitled to form an opinion.

This strikes me as dangerously misguided.  In fact I think it is almost always dangerous to disqualify people's opinions because of who they are.  (Of course it is legitimate to "consider the source"—but that is a question of assessing motives, not excluding people from the discourse because of their identity.)

By Wilson's logic, most of the world would be disqualified from forming an opinion on foreign affairs.  Is it offensive for senior Japanese officials to visit the Yasukuni Shrine?  Wilson would presumably say that unless you are steeped in Japanese culture and language, you must simply remain neutral on this question.  If a (non-Japanese-speaking) Korean woman who was a victim of sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese Empire ventured to express an opinion on the matter, Wilson might take to the pages of the New Statesman to instruct us to ignore her.  She simply doesn't have the right to pass judgment.  She is permitted to form opinions only about matters within her own cultural and linguistic tradition (presumably Korean, though she may have learned other languages as well).

Or imagine a judge who is considering whether to grant asylum to an immigrant.  The immigrant claims that as a homosexual he is subject to severe prejudice, harassment, and violence in his home country.  But here's the thing:  he makes his case through a translator, because the judge doesn't speak the immigrant's native language and the immigrant doesn't speak English.  Let's say the immigrant produces evidence in the form of death threats he has received (again, written in his native language).  The translator assures the judge (who can't read the evidence) that the death threats are terrifying.  What I think Wilson would tell us is that the judge shouldn't grant asylum on these facts, and the immigrant should be sent back to his country to face the music.  Why?  Because if you don't speak the language, how can you judge if the letters are death threats?  The judge is not competent to pass judgment.

I hope I've made it clear that I don't agree.  I think non-Japanese-speakers are entitled to express views on the Yasukuni Shrine, and I think judges should be permitted to grant asylum on the basis of translated testimony and evidence.  I can't imagine how else we could run our society.

Why do arguments like Wilson's get any traction whatsoever?  I genuinely don't know.  Hilary Putnam has written about the idea that you can never understand another person's meaning unless you share that person's worldview (so, for instance, modern humans can't pass judgment on the accuracy of medieval beliefs about, say, astronomy).  The idea is strangely popular despite having (as Putnam demonstrates) rather odd implications.

I think some people understand Wilson to be making the much more reasonable argument that Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness is exaggerated in the English-speaking world due to cultural misunderstandings.  Of course, if that's what Wilson thinks, then that is what he should write.  And indeed, Wilson argues that in one instance, the caption to a Charlie Hebdo cartoon exculpates the publication from charges of racism.  (The cartoon depicted Christiane Taubira, the French minister of justice and a black woman, as a monkey.  The caption read "Racist Blue Rally," which pokes fun at a far-right French political party's slogan.  So, obviously, the cartoon wasn't offensive.)

The problem here is that it is very hard to imagine that Charlie Hebdo, in its hundreds or maybe thousands of facially racist cartoons, managed to avoid actually expressing racist ideas by its skillful use of French-language captioning.  It is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely.  It's a hard case to make.  So rather than making that case, Wilson opted to "go nuclear" and simply declare that non-French-speakers can't form legitimate opinions on the matter.  Thinking people should recognize his scurrilous tactic for what it is and give it the derision it deserves.

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ولانها الشركة الرائدة والمشهود لها بالكفائه العاليه بما فعلته من

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9:43 AM  

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