In Defence of Clear Speech and Clear Thinking

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In Defence of Clear Speech and Clear Thinking

I had an art teacher who told me, if you want to draw well, learn to draw with a sharpened HB pencil. Charcoal, watercolours and soft pencils make it easy to hide your mistakes in the fuzzy edges. When you draw with the exact, unforgiving line of HB you can see every mark and every glaring error. There’s no drawing tool more honest: each slip or smudge is a flaw, every misjudgement is a bug and not a feature. This advice seemed proasic at the time, but it turned out to be relevant far beyond the domain of art. Mess is fun and exciting. It can be beautiful, but when I’m unsure, when it’s important to get something right, I use an HB pencil.

It’s only possible to reject reason and consistency in certain arenas — and it’s convenient to reject them in the ones you don’t want to examine too closely.

One of the many things that I am unsure about, and one which I’m very concerned about getting right, is my argument for veganism. When I talk about it, I sketch it out in clear terms. If you:

  1. care about the suffering of others
  2. acknowledge the scientific evidence that animals experience suffering
  3. want to be ethically consistent

then a sensible choice is to minimise the products you consume that contribute to suffering. That’s it — clean, concise and exact. Putting the argument in simple terms is a way for me to be honest with the person I’m speaking to, and with myself. It lays bare the potential vulnerabilities of my position and sets the scene for a productive discussion, rather than the confusing and emotional ones that I’ve instigated when not heeding the HB rule.

Typically the conversation will branch off into the discussion of the argument’s predicates: animal consciousness, which products contribute most to animal suffering, the utility of consistency, and so forth. That’s an excellent sign – my non-vegan interlocutor has picked up the pencil, and now we can edge toward the truth together, one careful line at a time. Sometimes, though, I find myself talking to someone who doesn’t share my ambition for clarity… and I feel myself being dragged down into the postmodern rabbit hole.

Scrutinizing the Inscrutable

It may seem a bit ironic to introduce the term ‘postmodern’ in an article about the benefits of clarity. Postmodernism is notoriously hard to define and many postmodernists are happy for it to remain so: one of the central features of postmodernism is an acceptance, and often a celebration, of ambiguity. Postmodernism is not really a coherent movement* . It was, at least originally, a response to a previous philosophical movement of the late nineteenth century that encouraged and supported enlightenment values such as reason, liberty and progress. Though there are many, often contradictory, positions advanced by proponents of postmodernism, the thing they all have in common is, in the words of Jean-Francis Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, an ‘incredulity to meta-narratives’*. Meaning that postmodernists question the assumptions on which we build our understanding of the world.

Questioning assumptions is great. In fact, it sounds like it could be the first step in a manual for creating vegans. We are all incredulous of the ‘meta-narrative’ of speciesism* — that’s why we became vegan, right? But postmodernists don’t limit themselves to an injunction to think skeptically, they go on to criticise the very tools we use for skeptical inquiry. Writers like Michel Foucault insist that truth is culturally and historically relative*. Others go further and state that there is no objective truth, just a morass of perspectives*. Similarly, they might claim, the tools of reason and evidence that we use to try and apprehend the world clearly are just the preferred methods of our own culture and time, none more valid or accurate than any other*.

The claim that there is no objective truth seems like an oxymoron to me. How can it be objectively true that there is no objective truth? It’s like a Zen koan intended to invoke the destabilizing ‘great doubt’. This claim is insulated from criticism because the methods we might employ to critique it are the subject of its critique. Now, I could point out that there is no evidence to support the claim, that it is unfalsifiable and obtuse. But to a postmodernist who rejects evidence, reason and clarity, my objections are the irrelevant grumblings of simple-minded and intolerant rationalist.

Reasonable (and unreasonable) doubts

The postmodernists criticism of science has a valid origin. Some enlightenment scientists did tend towards the arrogance of Victor Frankenstein*, or the cruelty of Dr. Moreau*. Rich European men striding around in breeches telling people what to think are not particularly sympathetic characters — even when they are making some of the most important discoveries of all time. When postmodernists point out that the scientific method isn’t infallible, and the knowledge we’ve gathered with it is incomplete*, they are doing important work in humbling such scientists. Or at least they were: nowadays the Frankenstein caricature is less relevant. Contemporary scientists see the scientific method as the best way we have to understand the world, and its application as advancing the knowledge of humanity by small, careful increments. The accusation that ‘science isn’t perfect’ falls a little flat when the scientific method acknowledges it’s own weaknesses and has a built in process of re-examination and revision.

Scientific research doesn’t take place in a bubble. Though scientists aspire to objectivity, their work takes place in a social and cultural context that may affect what they study and the approaches they take. Most modern scientists acknowledge and attempt to mitigate potential biases in research, but some postmodern critics insist that this imperfect basis renders the whole scientific project useless — and that objective scientific knowledge is a social construct. It’s important to draw attention to possible flaws in scientific objectivity, but rejecting all scientific knowledge is absurd and dangerous. Based on scientific knowledge we make things that work, everywhere, for everyone. Bridges that have borne weight for centuries and vaccines that save the lives of European and African children alike. When postmodernists like Paul Feyerbend claim that science is a dogma no more valid than a religious or superstitious belief system*, I can’t help but think of people in third word countries rejecting medical aid because they believe that their local rituals are just as effective. If Feyerabend was right, there would be at least one documented case of magic performing the job of medicine. There isn’t.

Veganism is not a discourse, it is a rational moral position based on evidence.

Other postmodernists go further in their attack on science. Unsatisfied by their peers pointing out imperfections in the scientific method and claiming that it’s ‘just one system among many equally valid systems’, they tell us science is just straight up bad news. Some feminist postmodernists are particularly derogatory in their analysis of science. They see objectivity and rationality as masculine values* that have suppressed more feminine approaches to understanding, such as intuition, storytelling and social collaboration. It seems weird to me to hear feminists claiming that men are rational and women are intuitive. My feminism (and my personal experience with other women) has led me to believe that women and men are equally likely to be rational or irrational, and that we women are perfectly capable of doing science. Characterising science as inherently masculine is completely unfounded, and could have the consequence of discouraging young women from entering STEM fields. Feminists working to make STEM a more inclusive arena for women and minorities must be exasperated*. Their rational, sober criticisms and suggestions are eclipsed by claims that Newton’s Principia Mathematica is a ‘rape manual’*. Feminists, like vegans, need to embrace science because the radical notion that ‘women are human beings’* is like the radical notion that ‘humans are animals’; it’s supported by science. If we instead champion non-consistent or non-rational causes, as postmodernism does, then irrational opinions like sexism and speciesism can thrive.

Within reason

I wrote this for a site called ‘Reasonable Vegan’, so I guess it’s unsurprising that I would defend reason. Any reasonable argument consists of a series of assumptions based on empirical evidence that lead in a consistent fashion to a conclusion. If the value of logic or consistency is disputed, then such an argument cannot exist. There’s nothing more frustrating than talking to someone who admits that the argument for veganism makes perfect sense, but refuses to accept it because they don’t care that they are being inconsistent. Oh no, wait, there is something more frustrating than that: when you ask someone if your argument makes sense to them and they say ‘I don’t think there is such a thing as sense to be made’. This is philosopher David Hume’s response to this sort of remark:

Whether your scepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: we shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window.*

It’s only possible to reject reason and consistency in certain arenas — and it’s convenient to reject them in the ones you don’t want to examine too closely.

The HB rule keeps things simple. Productive discussion thrives in an environment when everyone speaks honestly and clearly because we are able to understand and engage with each others’ ideas. What sort of discourse could possibly benefit from obscurantism? The philosopher Judith Butler* took a surprising position on this question, asserting that the enigmatic writing style favoured by postmodernists was preferable to transparency. Postmodern writers are famed for their impenetrable prose. Here is a ‘far from untypical’ example sentence from Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classification can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalise’ normally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.*

Some readers assume that because the language is so complex, their incomprehension must be because of their own shortcomings. Others suspect that the texts are deliberately confusing to hide confused thinking*. The physicist Alan Sokal tested the latter theory in 1996 by submitting several essays to popular postmodern journal, Social Text*. The essays were completely nonsensical, but written in the postmodern style and referencing the work of well regarded postmodernist writers. His essays were accepted and published, demonstrating his theory that no-one, not even the publishers of Social Text, understood or attempted to analyse the legitimacy of the ideas that the postmodernists were promulgating.

Making sense

Sokal’s hoax was driven by a rationalist’s distaste for confused and confusing writing, but also by commitment to his leftist politics. In Intellectual Imposters, Sokal and his co-author Jean Bricmont quote Noam Chomsky’s concerns with the way that postmodernism discourages political action:

If you really feel, Look, it’s too hard to deal with real problems, there are lots of ways to avoid doing so. One of them is to go off on wild goose chases that don’t matter. Another is to get involved in academic cults that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a defence against dealing with the world as it actually is.*

Sokal, like many other social justice advocates, was concerned about the postmodern project because they could see how it undermined the values of freedom and liberty that they were trying to promote. Postmodernists assert that everything is subjective, including moral claims. Vegans like Gary Steiner reject this position: they see the moral imperative for veganism as absolute*. I’m more sympathetic to the relativistic position than Steiner. I agree with the postmodernists that there is no objective morality encoded into the universe, but I don’t think this means all ethical decisions are equal. Based on certain very obvious observations (like the one I start my vegan argument with — that we care about the suffering of others), I think we can build a moral structure based on reason and evidence that allows us to derive rules for ethical conduct. Postmodernists assert that morality is relative and that reason is inadequate, which leaves them unable to make moral judgements. Without the ability to evaluate what is good or bad, postmodernists are unable to campaign for social change or improvement in any coherent manner.

As vegans, we should be concerned about a movement that argues that everything is merely a discourse, and that every discourse is equally valid. Veganism is not a discourse, it is a rational moral position based on evidence. I think that’s superior to the unexamined speciesism of our society.

Now, the definition of postmodernism I gave in this article is probably inadequate. I really struggled to pin down what postmodernists are saying, and that particular difficulty doesn’t seem to be uncommon. I don’t think understanding their claims is going to get any clearer in the future, either, as the original postmodern texts are forgotten and the ideas they raised mutate and proliferate. Postmodernism has influenced so many different areas of academia, politics, social justice efforts and social media that it is becoming normal. Many conversations happening now about vitally important issues are, often unknowingly, influenced by postmodernism, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. When I see these nebulous ideas creeping into veganism it concerns me, but I feel impotent to stop them. Fighting anti-rationality, obscurantism and relativism is like fighting smoke.

The only defence against this smoke monster is with our freshly sharpened HB pencils. If we continue to make our arguments simple and clear, base them in reason and evidence, and endeavour to be consistent then we will be hard to dismiss. When confronted by a claim, ask for supporting evidence. When confronted by an elaborate confusing hunk of text, ask for clarification. It is a mark of honesty and integrity to say that something doesn’t make sense to you. And if you can’t figure out what someone’s saying it could be because they’re not saying anything at all.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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