Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Some Free Advice for Will Wilkinson

Recently, the unjustly fired Will Wilkinson started a paid subscription blog, the ironically named Model Citizen. The initial content is available for free as of now. 

One of his first substantive posts concerns whether, having been canceled for making a funny joke, he now believes in so-called "cancel culture".  

He doesn't! He says that while he admits something got him, he doesn't know what cancel culture is, cannot define it, and cannot identify it. Neither do you, he asserts. So he can't be sure that what got him was cancel culture rather than something else. He then half-heartedly engages with Robby Soave, mostly by sneering at him but partly by offering an argument about why firing someone for a genuinely racist joke might be fine. (Whether this is an argument against the existence of cancel culture or instead a argument in defense of cancel culture, Will presumably doesn't know, because he doesn't know what cancel culture is.)

I can't comment on Will's blog because I haven't paid dues, but I'll offer him some free advice here about making arguments. Note that this is not my advice per se. Rather, this is the advice that Brian, Dan, and Chris assured me they teach students in the final 10% of the Maryland philosophy PhD program:

If someone claims concept C is meaningful, but you dispute that, to convince others that the concept is ill-defined or meaningless, it is not enough to simply state that you dispute it and to make fun of people who accept it. Instead, what you'll want to do is cite lots of other instances of smart people making good faith efforts to define C, and then show that each of these instances fails for various reasons (by suffering from paradoxes, inconsistencies, and so on). You'll want to show that your reasons for rejecting C do not also force you reject similar concepts. (Otherwise you are being too stringent or acting in a partisan way.) And you'll want to try a good faith effort to steel man arguments for C and defend it yourself before concluding the concept is nonsense. 

Will doesn't do this, and so provides his readers with no reason to doubt the existence of cancel culture. Of course, they need an independent reason to believe in it, but if you came to Will's blog thinking cancel culture is a meaningful thing, you'll find lots of pompous swagger, but not a counterargument or counter-evidence.