Sunday, April 22, 2007

De Re, De Dicto and '-isms'

This weekend, I went to an event at which I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Norman C. Francis speak. I have heard quite a few things about this gentleman over the years, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. It is also the fact that he has the rare distinction of being the longest serving University President in the country, at the present time.

Dr. Francis spoke extremely well. He kept his words quite brief. He made sure to give his audience a clear road map of the topics that he would cover at the beginning, so we had an idea where he was. He made several interesting and thought provoking points. Although Dr. Francis clearly has had a lot of practice at making speeches, it is seldom that one comes across a speaker who is so naturally gifted at public speaking. His style was lively, although slightly informal, though not in an offensive manner. He was relaxed and amusing at times. I really enjoyed listening to him.

One of the topic he discussed was race relations. Perhaps surprisingly, he argued against raising the topic of race and racism. What was interesting about this was that the audience was largely African-American. While Francis admitted that racism and other forms of discrimination were a problem, he was not in favour of the move of 'playing the race card' as a method of addressing these problems.

He pointed that actually making this kind of rhetorical move, in many instances, often worked against the interests of those that needed support and could end up hurting the people that were intended to be helped. His point was underwritten by the observation that people are different and come in all sorts of varieties. However, if one group is selected to have a special rhetorical move all of their own, which can be invoked whenever a difficulty, or a problem is encountered, then these people could come to rely upon this rhetorical move, instead addressing their own issues. Dr. Francis thus advocated education as a better solution to these kinds of problems, for both for racists and their victims. I thought that this was an interesting insight.

Some time ago, I noticed that there was an interesting phenomenon that roughly corresponded to the De Re and De Dicto distinction which is sometimes invoked about propositional attitudes and belief attribution claims. Roughly speaking, the De Re/De Dicto distinction can be thought of as distinguishing 'what is' from 'what is said' (note, this way of using these terms does considerable violence to the subtleties of the technical notions) for current purposes.

When it comes to contentious matters, such as race, gender, sexual orientation and the like, certain classes of people who have concerns about these matters can be divided into two camps. The first camp, which I think of as being the De Re camp, actually attempt to take concrete steps to ameliorate problematic situations. The other camp, which I think of as the De Dicto camp, spend a great deal of time talking, name calling and denouncing, but do very little else. I think that this distinction can be usefully applied to Dr. Francis' comments. Folks who follow his advice would fall into the De Re camp, while those who too frequently and indiscriminately 'play the race card' fall into the De Dicto camp. Of course, there is a fine line here. For example, those who write on these matters could fall in either camp. However, it would seem that folks who publish their thoughts on such matters in respectable refereed journals, would fall into the De Re camp, much more naturally than the De Dicto one.

One reason this is of interest in the current context is that, if one looks around the world of blogs, it appears that there are many blogs that fall into the De Dicto camp, while offering precious little evidence of any actual practical (that is to say De Re) activity. Other bloggers also seem to have noticed this phenomenon and have made suitably amusing comments on the matter (see here for an example -- it is worth reading the posts in reverse order to see the development). Further examples would be welcome.

The point though that I think is interesting is that the Francis style approach appears to apply to a much broader range of topics and situations than just racism. We have all probably at some point in our lives come across a student, co-worker, or some other individual, who cannot stand to be disagreed with. Whenever something they interpret as being negative is said about them, or done to them, they immediately start making accusations of racism, gender bias, orientation bias, or generally screaming and shouting about so-called 'abuse'. When we are faced with such situations, we should keep Francis' advice in mind. Each such claim should be judged solely on its merits. They should not be automatically accepted as being valid.

There are many '-isms' that people can get upset about. It seems to me that this advice applies equally to all. It is important to keep in mind that words are cheap and actions speak much louder than words.

The CP

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