Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Risk

In the January edition of the New Yorker, there was a story ("The Hit List") about the so-called "Islamist war" on secular bloggers in Bagladesh.  It begins with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy: atheist, rationalist and advocate of scientific understanding.  (Roy: "The vaccine against religion is to build up a scientific approach.") It is a truly terrifying read for any blogger, myself included.  In my own discipline of professional Philosophy, there has been much discussion recently about the risks involved in doing digital or "public" philosophy, motivated in large part by the racist threats philosopher George Yancy received after publishing a piece in the NYT's The Stone (an op-ed section dedicated to philosophy) entitled "Dear White America." Anyone who has ever expressed an unpopular opinion in public (or anyone who has ever read Plato's Apology) knows that ideas can be dangerous.  As Sarah Vowell wrote (in one of the best opening lines to a nonfiction text ever): The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

It's still early in the semester for me right now and, because I teach my classes (for the most part) historically, I've been teaching Aristotle this week.  One of the things I've always loved about teaching Aristotle's account of character-development is his emphasis on the necessity of habituation and phronesis in the cultivation of virtue.  My go-to example in class is always the virtue of Courage, which I find particularly useful for illustrating the fact that if one is not given cause or the conditions for developing a certain virtue-- in the case of Courage, if one is never really at risk or in danger-- then one cannot cultivate that virtue.  I often say to my students that I do not consider myself "courageous," because I am not at risk or in danger frequently enough to develop the habit of being courageous.  "Probably none of you are, either," I also tend to say, though (given the student demographic at my institution) I suspect that statement is more aspirational than it is descriptively accurate. 

How much risk is sufficient to constitute being in danger, though?  It's risky to be a black or a female blogger in the world of Philosophy, to be sure, but is it as risky as being an atheist blogger in Bangladesh?  Yancy received what could reasonably be interpreted as threats of violence in response to his NYT essay, but did they rise to the level of "believable" death-threats?

Does it matter?

Last summer, a close friend and colleague of mine (who is black, female, and an academic) was targeted and viciously harassed in a coordinated assault by conservative websites (and the individual  troll-minions of those sites). Some of that harassment took the form of unambiguous threats of personal, physical and sexual assault. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a bona fide "risk" for black women to express their views in public, not only on the Internet but anywhere at all.  

I've also been the target of Internet trolls (see here), and although I've also (like almost every digitally-active woman I know) received anonymous Twitter and email threats of violence, I've never seriously worried for my IRL safety.  Even after spending a good deal of my professional academic life thinking and writing about risk and security (see here and here), I now find that these previously unambiguous categories have been significantly complicated for me by the vicissitudes of "digital life."  

I don't know how to end this post, except to say (1) that speaking in public (digitally or IRL) is, as it has ever been, immensely risky, (2) that doing so isn't as risky for some, or at least not in the same way, as it is for others, (3) that it is worth investing time and effort into distinguishing between these categories and levels of risk as well as the category of persons for whom risk is greatest, and finally (4) that there is a real danger to eliding the categories of risk and the categories of persons who suffer it.

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