Several years ago, Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose created a series of hoax papers designed to illustrate how low the bar in academic journals had gotten.
One, Fox News reported, reproduced a chapter from “Mein Kampf” and updated the problematic parts with feminist buzzwords.
Another dealt with “rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon,” according to Campus Reform.
Then there was one absurdly titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” (“Nowhere are the consequences of hypermasculine machismo braggadocio isomorphic identification with the conceptual penis more problematic than concerning the issue of climate change,” the authors wrote in the 2017 hoax paper.)
They’ve kept a high profile since the hoax papers got exposed (particularly Lindsay) so it’d be difficult for them to get away with it again. It’s not impossible, however — which is why I’m wondering whether University of Sheffield politics lecturers Alasdair Cochrane and Josh Milburn know that a thoroughly silly paper has been published under their names in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies in which they argue there ought to be hate-speech laws protecting animals because “[t]here is no in-principle reason to support the censure of racist hate speech but not the censure of speciesist hate speech.”
“Imagine a group — let us call them the ‘White Defense League’ (WDL) — who distribute leaflets in a residential area,” Cochrane and Milburn wrote in the paper, published May 31. “In their leaflets, the WDL decry the ‘propaganda’ spread by anti-racists and argue that white people are morally superior to those of other races. They further argue that white people should prioritize other white people — even if that means ignoring the exploitation, suffering and death of non-white people.”
There’s not a literate adult alive who can’t guess what the next stop on this false equivalency choo-choo is going to be:
“But now imagine a different group, which we could call the ‘Human Defense League’ (HDL). The HDL also distribute leaflets in that same residential area. In their leaflets, they decry the ‘propaganda’ spread by animal-rights and vegan activists, and argue that humans are morally superior to other animals. They further argue that humans should prioritize other humans — even if that means ignoring the exploitation, suffering and death of non-human animals.
“While the claims and arguments of the HDL are very similar to the claims and arguments of the WDL — except, of course, that they are decrying animals, rather than non-white people — the HDL would not be subject to censure under hate-speech laws in the UK or any other liberal state.”
The HDL sounds pretty dense, considering it’s pondering the moral superiority of humans over species that we’re fairly certain lack the introspective ability to consider morality. (Or, for that matter, any deeper line of thinking than whether to lick themselves, chase their tail or take a nap.)
In the United States, this is prima facie hilarious because you can’t face official state sanction for “hate speech,” all thanks to our friend the First Amendment.
However, keep in mind this paper was written and published in the United Kingdom, a country where “members of the WDL might face prosecution for the distribution of ‘written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting’, that, regardless of the intent of the distributors, is likely to stir up ‘racial hatred.'”
Thus, Cochrane and Milburn have come to the conclusion “there is no reason to believe that members of the WDL should face criminal sanction while members of the HDL should not.”
I can hear those of you who aren’t staring at your screen, agog at the fact this got published, wondering aloud how animals could take offense to so-called hate speech. They are, after all, animals.
My dog Hairy, a beloved street mongrel, would never face a moment’s obloquy from me. However, if I suddenly took to calling her a mangy, flea-bitten piece of freeway-bait every morning, she wouldn’t care so long as I scratched behind her ears, kept feeding her and took her for walkies every morning.
How do you overcome that logical hurdle? Prepare yourself for some spectacular logical prestidigitation:
“First, there are what we might call ‘false negatives’ — victims of (what seems to be) hate speech who are nonetheless not wounded. We say this because (both in fact and in theory) some targets of hate speech are not wounded by the words, but are instead unaware of them (or aware of them but merely angered, motivated, or amused),” Cochrane and Milburn wrote.
“It would be bizarre and impractical to say that wounding words are appropriately censured only if they actually wound — among other problems, this would mean that even the most egregious instances of hate speech would be permissible if, for whatever reason, no one was hurt by what was said.”
Yes, it’d be “bizarre and impractical” if hate speech codes were dependent on whether or not an entity was hurt. It’s not “bizarre and impractical” to say something isn’t hate speech if those entities couldn’t be hurt.
Let’s draw a more reasonable equivalency between horrible behaviors along these lines to show just how asinine this all is.
First, let’s say someone goes into a town entirely made up of individuals from ethnic group X and yells that members of that group should be clubbed to death in a language ethnic group X doesn’t understand. No one understands what this person is yelling — but they could if they spoke the language, and they could reasonably feel threatened.
Next, let’s say someone treks up into the arctic and starts yelling, in the midst of a host of baby seals, that they ought to be clubbed to death. Again, none of them understands what this person is yelling. However, there’s no way to translate this minatory language to baby seals because — duh — they don’t speak any human tongue.
The baby seals are infinitely more threatened by someone who wants to club them to death, but they’re just going to keep being cute and crawling around on the snow, no matter how vile your language is.
Furthermore, if this solely involves the realm of speech, there’s no threat involved when that speech can’t actively be conveyed to the species it’s threatening.
The authors neither seem particularly troubled by this nor frequently try to bridge the gap. When they do, this is the kind of drivel we get:
“We acknowledge that race and species are not the same thing — but note that the existence of difference does not undermine the possibility of making certain legitimate analogies between them. And let us remember that hate-speech laws already protect people from hateful speech targeting many different characteristics,” Cochrane and Milburn wrote.
“Depending on the jurisdiction, for instance, they may protect individuals from abuse directed at their religion, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, and so on. The pertinent question is whether there is a morally salient difference between race and species that justifies treating race, but not species, as a protected characteristic under hate-speech law. If there is, it will be due to a ‘formal’ specification of the kinds of groups that are appropriately protected by hate-speech laws.”
The “morally salient difference,” however, is that this involves species that have no conception of human morality. And that’s the thing — it’s curious, given how sensitive Cochrane and Milburn are to our animal friends, that they end up with a paper that’s entirely anthropocentric in outlook.
Let’s posit, in the absence of any evidence, that some species have developed a kind of morality. Why would we assume it’s our morality? The authors seem to be living in a “Dr. Doolittle”-like universe where long discussions about John Rawls are being had between academics and raccoons.
They’re taking an entirely human construct and grafting it onto the animal kingdom, because Cochrane and Milburn are daft, biased toward humans or were a bit too close to the “perish” end of the “publish or perish” maxim of academia.
For all we know, polar bears are morally self-aware — and happen to be raging bigots, at least by our standards.
In the end, Cochrane and Milburn “conclude that we have found no good reason to endorse the discrepancy: either there is good reason to criminalize both racist and speciesist hate speech or neither should be criminalized.”
Right. The only thing I would find less surprising than this would be to discover we were all being “Punk’d” by Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose yet again.
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