The fault in our contexts

Adapted from John Green's 'The Fault in Our Stars' cover.

Adapted from John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ cover.

Why does the public misunderstand the academy?

English biologist and author Richard Dawkins was in hot water recently after saying that, if given the choice, expectant mothers ought to abort their foetus if tests confirm it to have Down’s syndrome. Australian ethicist Peter Singer recently faced similar public backlash for stating a man who committed suicide to avoid prison may have been acting “rationally”.

Should we begin dismantling the ivory tower now or does this merely point to repairable structural faults? In this potential-academic’s appraisal: the fault is in our contexts.

Context was the name of the intellectual game in 1967, or at least one French philosopher thought so. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstructive criticism – an approach to the study of meaning – set course for context, and yet still managed to have his own words yanked out of it. “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” (there is no outside-text) he wrote in his seminal work, Of Grammatology. It took but a few years for critics to begin insisting he instead meant ‘Il n’y a rien en dehors du text’ (there is nothing outside of the text). Irony couldn’t have been crueler; any full reading of the quote within its context would avoid such embarrassing mistranslations or misinterpretations.

So differing contexts can even confuse discourse between individual ivory towers (the adjoining canopy is dense, no doubt). If even professional philosophers can get lost, it’s no fault of anyone’s that the public can often misinterpret the academy, and vice-versa.

“Evolution is just a theory,” some like to remind us. Religious adherents who believe that a divine being created us, and not that we evolved – along with everything – from common ancestors, often attempt to discredit the scientific theory of evolution by abusing linguistic contexts. In the academic, specifically scientific, context, a theory is something which robustly explains natural phenomena and is developed in response to overwhelming experimental evidence, whereas the common parlance ranks theory only mildly above an unsubstantiated suspicion.

When a scientist uses the phrase significant difference, they mean something quite specific in terms of statistics and probability. When a philosopher says an argument appears valid, they don’t mean its premises are true or that they agree with the conclusion, just that the conclusion logically follows if the premises are true.

Such differences are not limited to the meaning of individual words or phrases, however, often they can be in the very way an idea is articulated. In the academy, one might speak exclusively abstractly, or use a shocking analogy to prove some underlying logic or principle. The analogy might seem obscene, or the abstract argument, if taken literally, absurd, but all of that is superficial – it is the principle at work or the logic at play. Articulating concepts in this way is often necessary if sufficiently complex or counterintuitive, as many important ones are.

These clashes of context are often what drives humour, especially those lame two-liners – Never iron a four-leaf clover. You don’t want to press your luck. However when public and academic contexts collide it can be anything but funny.

Down’s syndrome is a genetic disorder which causes developmental delay and intellectual disability. Of the many resultant medical problems that can arise in the first few years of life, heart and blood diseases are the most serious and life-threatening. The majority of children with the syndrome require early and ongoing educational and medical intervention, and most do not graduate from secondary school. Independence in adulthood is varied, though many report a good quality of life.

Dawkins would rather an expectant mother abort their foetus with Down’s syndrome and attempt another pregnancy. This may seem unduly harsh, but let’s consider some reasons why we might think so.

First, we must agree that abortion – in principle – is morally acceptable. The stronger version of this argument relies on the concept of moral personhood, I think; the foetus is not a person, and lacks the same capacities (therefore status) of a person. A foetus cannot understand itself or its surroundings, for instance. (Incidentally, this sort of reasoning is transferable to the ethics of euthanasia.) Justification based on a woman’s autonomy or reproductive rights is equally common and sufficient for our purposes here, however.

Next we should decide if the future person will have a good life, and (if we are to be the parent of this child) whether or not we can financially, emotionally, and otherwise support the child. Even if we could reasonably predict that the foetus would eventually become a happy adult, we might still have reason to think abortion is preferable in order to avoid medical risks and problems, especially in early childhood. That we prevent the future potential person from ever being cannot be put as a mark against us, just like the couple who chooses to abstain from reproduction entirely does nothing wrong by preventing future potential persons to come into existence.

When Singer stated that some suicides could be rational, he also took likely future events or experiences into account. A key difference in this case, however, was that these experiences were inevitable due to the current existence of a person.

None of this is new territory for Dawkins or Singer. Most recently, in July, Dawkins weathered a similar barrage of criticism stemming from him saying act X is worse than act Y, and others mistakenly thinking this implies that one need also be saying act Y is acceptable at the same time. Not so. If I were to say that “two murders are worse than one,” does it follow that I find one murder acceptable? No, I have only said what is worse than one. The problem for Dawkins in this instance was that he (necessarily, per his chosen point) used examples of rape – hardly a non-emotive issue.

This is another common contextual hurdle for academics. They are trained in objectivity, and approach sensitive issues from a rational standpoint. Comparatively, moral knee-jerks are an in-built and natural human response; our emotions all too easily pervade our reason.

Reconciliation of these contexts won’t come easily or quickly or with anything less than the more public exposure of academic discourse. Our ultimate aim should be the altogether falsification of the dichotomy by way of education and more rigorous public debate. If that’s to happen, controversies like these won’t fade away, they’ll become more common. Academics and the public should therefore brace for impact.

Author’s note: For help or information on depression, or if you are experiencing mental distress, contact your local medical or mental health service.

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The Opinion Writing Process

I find it comes in drips and droves.

Some days I’ll be sitting, pouring through Twitter feeds and news sites for hours, contemplating story after story. What do I think about this subject? Is what I think unique? Can I articulate it the way I want to? Do I know enough about it? Is it going to be of interest to enough people?

As the ideas circle around in my head, I get dizzy. Not knowing what to do, I often just keep reading, keep watching the world. Maybe if I watch for long enough I’ll see something I can write about.

So often I find it’s the ideas which I lack. Execution can sometimes be tricky, especially if it’s a particularly contrarian or controversial argument. But sometimes it pays to be edgy.

Never edgy for edgy-ness’ sake, no, never. Your audience can always tell, I think. Fake rage is frivolous. What’s more, it’s harder to write. When you’re in a true position; have considered all the angles; really have this yearning desire to speak up, that’s when you’re ready to write.

Or, at least, when I’m ready.

My process of writing opinion typically follows an order not greatly dissimilar to this:

  1. Find an opinion –
    As mentioned, this tends to be the hardest part for me.
  2. Research that opinion –
    I’ll sometimes look up other opinion pieces on the subject to grasp an understanding of the common arguments to differentiate myself or to refute those points, but more often than that I’ll do some serious fact-finding to shore-up my position. Often, though, these facts have appeared before me when I saw a news article somewhere, so I tend to start with their quoted sources, and then move on to find competing and supplementary ones.
  3. Develop a mental plan –
    Sometimes I have too much evidence or too many points to make regarding an opinion, so it’s a matter of condensing the arguments. These are my favourite and easiest articles to write. Other times it’s the opposite, and I’ll be trying to really focus on key evidence, expanding upon it as necessary. I find this harder.
  4. Start! –
    When I’ve finally figured out my logic for the argument – what my key points are – I start writing. Unprofessionally perhaps, I don’t often dot-point or have a tangible, over-arching plan written anywhere. It’s normally just all up there in my head.
  5. Make it funny, make it stick –
    After a first draft, if I think it needs more or is a bit dry, I try to spice up paragraphs or sentences one at a time by adding hints of humour or making the phrasing more digestible. More often than not, I opt for humour. Jokes are memorable.

I hope that if you’ve happened across this blog and are keen to start sharing your ideas with the world, that I’ve given you some practical advice to do so. The best advice you’ll get most of the time, though, is from yourself, from your experience, and from your gut. Good luck.

Failure to Communicate

It’s always communication which gets in the way of the communicating.

Recently I had some good, old friends come to my home for a very casual occasion. We enjoyed the topics of morality, sex and science and the familiar company which comes with such close-knit groups. Scotch and hot food on a cold night undoubtedly enhanced the evening, though. It had been a successful night, it had seemed. That was until I received a curious phone call from a dear friend asking what on earth had happened. “Happened with what?”, I thought.

You see, herein lies the trap of implicit communication. It was made very obvious – though not obvious enough, apparently – that all others in our regular circle would only add to the occasion, much like the scotch and hot food had done, only more so. Nonetheless, and as hinted, the obviousness was less apparent to those few who were now upset they hadn’t received the invitation. None were sent to them, of course, but neither to those who had attended the evening. However they were well-aware of the event taking place, and in our minds had simply chosen to be pleased with their own plans – haphazard like our own, strangely.

An informal, all-welcome, offhand and naturally occurring celebration of life, the universe and everything had catalysed bitter crisis in the meta-context of an admittedly tumultuous group. Indeed, and ironically, the group had itself been an offshoot of one larger than this and more prone to similar sorts of drab melodrama. But chaos was bound to soon ensue, and it has.

As I write this, I am occasionally worried by the creek of the floorboards, lest they be the warning-cry to the footsteps of one seriously pissed-off individual. I made the mistake of trying to communicate the issue explicitly, you see.

And that is why I am writing to warn you, or, because there can be no avoidance of the issue, to inform you, that inherent in communication – any communication, whether implicit or explicit – is the failure of communication itself. For every person who reads this there will be a separate opinion based on my perceived tone, my use or misuse of grammar, the context of my other writings or communications, the information I omitted for reasons of privacy or morality and the fact that my personal anatomy includes a penis. And that’s what we all deal with, and, at the risk of sounding sensational, perhaps that’s all we deal with.