*He defended slavery and opposed the notion of human equality. But he is not our enemy.
By Agnes Callard
Ms. Callard is a philosopher and professor.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle did not merely condone slavery, he defended it; he did not merely defend it, but defended it as beneficial to the slave. His view was that some people are, by nature, unable to pursue their own good, and best suited to be “living tools” for use by other people: “The slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame.”
Aristotle’s anti-liberalism does not stop there. He believed that women were incapable of authoritative decision making. And he decreed that manual laborers, despite being neither slaves nor women, were nonetheless prohibited from citizenship or education in his ideal city.
Of course Aristotle is not alone: Kant and Hume made racist comments, Frege made anti-Semitic ones, and Wittgenstein was bracingly upfront about his sexism. Should readers set aside or ignore such remarks, focusing attention on valuable ideas to be found elsewhere in their work?
This pick-and-choose strategy may work in the case of Kant, Hume, Frege and Wittgenstein, on the grounds that their core philosophical contributions are unrelated to their prejudices, but I do not think it applies so well to Aristotle: His inegalitarianism runs deep.
Aristotle thought that the value or worth of a human being — his virtue — was something that he acquired in growing up. It follows that people who can’t (women, slaves) or simply don’t (manual laborers) acquire that virtue have no grounds for demanding equal respect or recognition with those who do.
As I read him, Aristotle not only did not believe in the conception of intrinsic human dignity that grounds our modern commitment to human rights, he has a philosophy that cannot be squared with it. Aristotle’s inegalitarianism is less like Kant and Hume’s racism and more like Descartes’s views on nonhuman animals: The fact that Descartes characterizes nonhuman animals as soulless automata is a direct consequence of his rationalist dualism. His comments on animals cannot be treated as “stray remarks.”
If cancellation is removal from a position of prominence on the basis of an ideological crime, it might appear that there is a case to be made for canceling Aristotle. He has much prominence: Thousands of years after his death, his ethical works continue to be taught as part of the basic philosophy curriculum offered in colleges and universities around the world.
And Aristotle’s mistake was serious enough that he comes off badly even when compared to the various “bad guys” of history who sought to justify the exclusion of certain groups — women, Black people, Jews, gays, atheists — from the sheltering umbrella of human dignity. Because Aristotle went so far as to think there was no umbrella.
Yet I would defend Aristotle, and his place on philosophy syllabuses, by pointing to the benefits of engaging with him. He can help us identify the grounds of our own egalitarian commitments; and his ethical system may capture truths — for instance, about the importance of aiming for extraordinary excellence — that we have yet to incorporate into our own.
And I want to go a step further, and make an even stronger claim on behalf of Aristotle. It is not only that the benefits of reading Aristotle counteract the costs, but that there are no costs. In fact we have no reason at all to cancel Aristotle. Aristotle is simply not our enemy.
I, like Aristotle, am a philosopher, and we philosophers must countenance the possibility of radical disagreement on the most fundamental questions. Philosophers hold up as an ideal the aim of never treating our interlocutor as a hostile combatant. But if someone puts forward views that directly contradict your moral sensibilities, how can you avoid hostility? The answer is to take him literally — which is to say, read his words purely as vehicles for the contents of his beliefs.
There is a kind of speech that it would be a mistake to take literally, because its function is some kind of messaging. Advertising and political oratory are examples of messaging, as is much that falls under the rubric of “making a statement,” like boycotting, protesting or publicly apologizing.
Such words exist to perform some extra-communicative task; in messaging speech, some aim other than truth-seeking is always at play. One way to turn literal speech into messaging is to attach a list of names: a petition is an example of nonliteral speech, because more people believing something does not make it more true.
Whereas literal speech employs systematically truth-directed methods of persuasion — argument and evidence — messaging exerts some kind of nonrational pressure on its recipient. For example, a public apology can often exert social pressure on the injured party to forgive, or at any rate to perform a show of forgiveness. Messaging is often situated within some kind of power struggle. In a highly charged political climate, more and more speech becomes magnetically attracted into messaging; one can hardly say anything without arousing suspicion that one is making a move in the game, one that might call for a countermove.
For example, the words “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” have been implicated in our political power struggle in such a way as to prevent anyone familiar with that struggle from using, or hearing, them literally. But if an alien from outer space, unfamiliar with this context, came to us and said either phrase, it would be hard to imagine that anyone would find it objectionable; the context in which we now use those phrases would be removed.
In fact, I can imagine circumstances under which an alien could say women are inferior to men without arousing offense in me. Suppose this alien had no gender on their planet, and drew the conclusion of female inferiority from time spent observing ours. As long as the alien spoke to me respectfully, I would not only be willing to hear them out but even interested to learn their argument.
I read Aristotle as such an “alien.” His approach to ethics was empirical — that is, it was based on observation — and when he looked around him he saw a world of slavery and of the subjugation of women and manual laborers, a situation he then inscribed into his ethical theory.
When I read him, I see that view of the world — and that’s all. I do not read an evil intent or ulterior motive behind his words; I do not interpret them as a mark of his bad character, or as attempting to convey a dangerous message that I might need to combat or silence in order to protect the vulnerable. Of course in one sense it is hard to imagine a more dangerous idea than the one that he articulated and argued for — but dangerousness, I have been arguing, is less a matter of literal content than messaging context.
What makes speech truly free is the possibility of disagreement without enmity, and this is less a matter of what we can say, than how we can say it. “Cancel culture” is merely the logical extension of what we might call “messaging culture,” in which every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to. In such a context, even the cry for “free speech” invites a nonliteral interpretation, as being nothing but the most efficient way for its advocates to acquire or consolidate power.
I will admit that Aristotle’s vast temporal distance from us makes it artificially easy to treat him as an “alien.” One of the reasons I gravitate to the study of ancient ethics is precisely that it is difficult to entangle those authors in contemporary power struggles. When we turn to disagreement on highly charged contemporary ethical questions, such as debates about gender identity, we find suspicion, second-guessing of motives, petitioning — the hallmarks of messaging culture — even among philosophers.
I do not claim that the possibility of friendly disagreement with Aristotle offers any direct guidance on how to improve our much more difficult disagreements with our contemporaries, but I do think considering the case of Aristotle reveals something about what the target of such improvements would be. What we want, when we want free speech, is the freedom to speak literally.
Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard), an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and the author of “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming,” writes about public philosophy at The Point magazine.
I have struggled for a long, long time with the concept of “cancel culture.” Not in the sense that I don’t understand it; on the contrary, I think I understand it pretty well. Someone says or does something that a few people think is “problematic,” those few, offended people rally their troops, and then they dog-pile onto this person in a way that does not invite reasoned conversation, a logical airing of concerns, or even simple dignity to either party, but evokes more the image of a guillotine or, in some cases (like August Ames), a verbal and psychological gang rape with hundreds of thousands of perpetrators. All done in the name of “protecting the powerless,” with either genuine or deliberate ignorance of the idea that there is power in numbers.
No, my struggle with “cancel culture” is the fact that it has a 99% failure rate, and yet, social media -especially Twitter- still insists that canceling works. For those of you here who think it does, or that cancel culture is a net positive, can I pose a challenge to you? Well, I’m going to anyway: Name THREE male celebrities who have been “cancelled” -besides Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Bill Cosby- whose careers have ended permanently.
Louis CK? Nope. His career isn’t what it used to be, certainly, but he’s gone on tour and is still making money from his comedy. Hell, the only other, prominent, male comedian I know who’s publicly disavowed CK, dropped him like a hot potato, and still refuses to associate with him is Patton Oswalt, whose influence is clearly not enough to get CK really and truly off the scene.
Bryan Singer? Nope. He gets cancelled at least once every few months, and for very good reasons (he’s known to rape, or attempt to, young male actors, on the same “if you do this, I’ll catapult your career like none other!” promise that Weinstein gave young women), but he’s still getting directing jobs and his movies are still being given wide distribution.
Chris Rock? Nope. For starters, his cancellation was done because he let Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK say the “n-word” around him (Dear Gen-Z’ers/Cancel Brigade of Twitter: Do you know, like, anything about Chris Rock?), and… That’s basically it. That’s why he was cancelled.
Ricky Gervais? Nope. He’s another one who gets cancelled on the reg, but again, it doesn’t impact his revenue or his popularity. I don’t even like Ricky Gervais (or anyone on this list, besides Chris Rock, really), but if I see “#rickygervaisisover” trending one more time, I will scream loud enough for every member of the Twitter Cancel Brigade to hear.
Jeffree Starr? Nope. He’s still in control of a multi-million dollar makeup empire. He will be for a long, long time, trashy and classless though he may be. (I do not follow Jeffree Starr, or any YouTube beauty gurus. My beauty guru is Morticia Addams.)
James Gunn? Nope. First of all, I think people realized that social media ten years ago was just everyone trying to be the edgiest of the edgelords, and because of that, posting the most shit-awful things that crossed their minds. (Example: I don’t know how many of you were on the Meez forums back in the day, but within twenty-four hours of Barack Obama being elected president, there were entire threads on the Meez forums devoted to calling him “Black Hitler,” saying he should be lynched, and calling Americorps “Obama’s Hitler Youth”. That was real shit. That happened. I saw it, I was there. And when I reported these threads? I was blocked, and one of the mods even called me a skinhead because I’d used the word “oy” in response to someone else’s incredibly fucking racist post. Which, yeah; I’m of Jewish descent, and people of Jewish descent, unless they harbor some epic self-hatred, REALLY don’t like being called “skinhead,” for what I hope are obvious reasons.) Second, he had moved well past that part of his life, had changed, started addressing the issues that had caused him to be so hateful, and used his own experiences to write Rocket Raccoon’s character arc. I’m not saying I think he’s a good person because of all of that, but I am saying that people should be allowed to learn, grow, and change. Which James Gunn did.
So, no, cancelling doesn’t work, especially when the target is a powerful man. It doesn’t even seem to have much of any negative effect on them, either. And you know something? In cases where a powerful man really was cancelled, it came only after DECADES of allegations, their career being on a downward trajectory already, and a loss of public support the likes of which can only be attributed to a falling star. R. Kelly hadn’t had a hit in years before he was cancelled. Bill Cosby hadn’t had a top-rated sitcom for decades, before he was cancelled. Weinstein’s production company had been losing its prestige for at least a few years, before he was cancelled. And, in every single one of their cases, their transgressions were an open secret for as long as they had careers.
“Being cancelled” didn’t end R. Kelly or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein. It just thrust their crimes into the spotlight and hastened their downfalls, and they were on the way out already.
Let me give you an example of why I cannot possibly, as a responsible, semi-mature, experienced adult, support cancel culture, in any way, shape, or form. Last week, when checking the trending topics on Twitter, I noticed one, “#sebastianstanisoverparty”. Sebastian Stan, for those of you who don’t know, is the actor who plays Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier in the MCU. And what, pray tell, was his crime? Did one of his co-stars accuse him of sexual harassment or assault? Was he caught calling people racist epithets? Was he caught intentionally misgendering a trans person? No, nothing like that. So why was he being “cancelled?”
…Because his girlfriend posted pictures on her Instagram, which people thought appropriated Asian culture. (Because no one in the Cancel Brigade understands that there is not one “Asian culture,” but hundreds of Asian cultures, so hey, nice racism you got there, Cancel Brigade.) And he didn’t either (a) break up with her “problematic” ass immediately, (b) (publicly) ask her to delete the photos, (c) join in the chorus to publicly condemn her, or (d) not block the people who sent him (surely abusive and overly aggressive) messages about it.
Now, those of you who are my age or older, or didn’t need convinced that cancel culture is at best ineffective and at worst harmful: How many of you read about Mr. Stan’s “transgression” and thought, possibly with a sigh, “And exactly how is what his girlfriend posts on her own social media pages ANY of his responsibility?” Which is exactly the question I asked myself. But apparently the Cancel Brigade doesn’t understand the concept of a person being responsible for only their own behaviors. For them, and for anyone of any age who participates in cancel culture, “guilt by association” is very real and alive. And it doesn’t have to be a close association, either: As YouTube’s Contrapoints pointed out in her video on cancelling, when she got it, people who didn’t know her were being canceled, just for responding to tweets from people who do know her (like Lindsay Ellis, PhilosophyTube, and hbomberguy). At what point, and after how many people with the vaguest of associations with the person in the social media stocks, will these wannabe-Robespierres even start to be happy?
I don’t worry about Sebastian Stan; he’ll be okay. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s young, white, male, rich, and unspeakably gorgeous. He didn’t lose his role in the MCU. He didn’t lose any other roles in any other movies. I’m pretty sure he and his girlfriend are still together. He’s fine, he’ll be fine, no matter what.
But I do worry about the small creators who get cancelled. I worry about the sex workers who get cancelled. I worry about the trans people who get cancelled. I worry about the teenagers and pre-teens who get cancelled. The people who are genuinely powerless, who are already members of incredibly marginalized and despised groups, whose support groups are either small or non-existent. I wasn’t just mashing words together for maximum shock value when I said that “cancelling” is more tantamount to “verbal and psychological gang rape, with hundreds of thousands of perpetrators.” Rape is done to someone, to subjugate, humiliate, disempower, harm, and destroy them, and that’s also the main MO, as far as I can see, behind canceling. If canceling was only done to powerful, rich, white men, then no, I wouldn’t think about it like that. But when I see way too many small creators, sex workers, trans people, and kids having the dogs sent after them like that, then no, I can’t possibly think of canceling as anything good, or even marginally helpful. And, as I pointed out with August Ames, cancelling someone can result in their suicide. And if you participate in it, then yes, their blood is on your hands.
That’s cancel culture, folks. Maybe you still support it, maybe not. I don’t. If you can’t abide that, I won’t try to convince you or keep you around. And if you absolutely have to cancel me over this, just keep this in mind: I am fueled entirely by caffeine and spite, so no, you won’t destroy me or lead me to suicide. The worst you’ll do is piss me off, and the point of canceling someone isn’t to piss them off. It’s your call to make.
Someone brought this up to me in a private note, but a big aspect of cancel culture is the idea that once you do something cancel-worthy, you are an irredeemably terrible person who can never change or grow, which pushes people towards radicalization. That’s is a very good point, and of all the other things that concern me about cancel culture, this is right at the top. As I said to this person, “How can you claim to believe in justice when you refuse to believe in redemption, the very foundation of justice?”
Last updated July 21, 2020