To Explain is not to Excuse

Scott Alexander recently posted his thoughts on the merits of social shaming of explainable sociopsychological phenomena. Beginning his discourse with the new hyperprogressive idea that “lazy-shaming” should be ended, Alexander counters that

I imagine [an anti-Lazy shamer] believing he has a fundamental value difference with people who use the term “lazy”. They think that some people are just bad and should be condemned, whereas he wisely believes that everything has a cause and people who have issues with motivation should be helped. But it’s not clear to me that this is a real difference.

Alexander’s dialogue goes in a more semiotic and semantic direction than I would think about this subject from, but nonetheless touches on an important idea that should perhaps be one of the cores of neomodernism: being able to explain the origins or nature of problem does not necessarily excuse it. We should strive to explain and understand as much as possible. But once explained and understood, we must then strive to decide which things are good or bad, and encourage those things which are good and reduce those things which are bad. Body image/weight/fat-shaming discourses fall into the same category as the Lazy-shaming discourse above. There are many reasons that people gain excess weight – social, psychological, emotional, genetic, habitual, economic – the list goes on. No one should ever be bullied or abused for their physical condition. Yet at the end of the day, obesity is an extremely deleterious condition that is for the most part correctable – and to the end that it is correctable, social carrots and sticks must continue to demonstrate that obesity is condition to be escaped and avoided.

To some extent, I am a supporter of the to explain is to excuse mindset with regard to socioeconomic conditions. A person who grew up and lives in a “poor” community may be subject to many socioeconomic memes that influence his or her behaviors in ways that are not conducive to his or her socioeconomic advancement. This is not that person’s fault, and thus, to some extent, we should not poor-shame on the personal level. On the one hand, it is simply, unarguably, better not to be “poor”, and in some aspects this is a correctable condition based on some changes such as saving (do more), spending (fewer depreciable and consumable assets), and behavioral (don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol) habits. And then on the other hand, in other aspects (the majority of aspects, likely), there are areas of this that are completely uncorrectable by individual means (educational background, job availability, level of income).

With laziness as discussed by Alexander, there are many similarities – often, laziness is simply the result of bad memetic input: people have learned the wrong habits, have not learned the right habits, etc. But there is a difference between explaining how or why someone becomes lazy and condoning or accepting it as a should.

Neomodernism must avoid the pitfalls of modernism: the anti-human, unexplaining, undeterred drive to some form of grand betterment.  But it must too avoid the excesses of postmodernism: the all-accepting particularism that sees no difference between the is and the should be. It’s important to break the perception that explanation and condemnation are some kind of substitutes for one another and that they exist on the same spectrum. Rather, one can ideally strive to explain everything and then figure out what to condemn after the fact, and not let the status quo become synonymous with the should.

Applicability to Academic Freedom/Freedom of Inquiry

There is another aspect to this Explain/Excuse relationship: often, seeking to academically explain or research a topic, or to publish information on a topic, is seen as apologetics or excuse for heinous things. People who interview or research terrorists, KKK members, pedophiles, etc., may all be shamed for even engaging in such practices. “How can you even listen to what this person has to say? You’re giving them a platform! You’re validating them!” This was often the case with Trump supporters, for example, in the lead up to the 2016 election.

This enters into murky waters. On the one hand, freedom of inquiry and expression means very little if it does not grant the ability to research topics that offend and disgust us. On the other hand, there are some highly offensive fringe views or objective behaviors that do get amplified and normalized by their publication and repetition.

What do we say to this dilemma?

The answer, I think, is to research and publish these ideas, but to do so from an objective, neomodern lens (“these people have their own reasons to believe these things, but they are factually wrong”), and never from a relativist postmodern perspective (“these people believe these things, and how do we really know that their truths are less valid than our own?”). I contend that a core problem with modern academia, journalism, and other sorts of “publicative/promotional” media is not bias, but rather the fact that in attempting to avoid bias, journalism has cultivated a relativism and apathy toward objective fact. There is a difference between apathy to valid opinion based on objective fact (whether, given racial socioeconomic discrepancies, there should be affirmative action programs, for example), and apathy toward the basic facts themselves (whether or not significant portions of welfare recipients are lying and manipulating the system to receive free money).

This is what a neomodern research and journalism should be about: understanding the perspective of others, understanding that different interpretations exist, but being firm and unyielding in the face of abuse or falsification of objective fact. To Explain is not to Excuse.