Fall 2002

The hopeful democrat

In a conversation with soundings contributing editor Orna Feldman, Professor Joshua Cohen discusses freedom of expression, campaign finance reform, and the trouble with political philosophy today.

Stepping up!

Recipients of the Spring 2002 SHASS Infinite Mile Awards were announced in May.

Science Writing Program opens its doors

MIT's new graduate program in science writing hopes to influence both the discipline of science writing and the public understanding of science and technology.

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“Disagreement isn't a failing or a sign of people being malign, foolish, or ignorant. There are lots of disagreements in human life, and it's possible to collaborate reasonably despite those disagreements.”










“I'm incurably hopeful. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism means you expect things to go well. Hope means you think they might go well, and if people make efforts to get them to go well, those efforts have a decent chance of succeeding.”

Soundings - School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT
Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen feels that contemporary political philosophy is too often removed from the actual public controversies that engage people outside of the discipline.
Photo: Graham G. Ramsay.

The hopeful democrat

Joshua Cohen, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of the Humanities, holds joint appointments in the Philosophy Section of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy and the Department of Political Science, which he has headed since 1997. Author or editor of 23 books, including Associations and Democracy (1995) and Rules of the Game (1986), both co-written with Joel Rogers, Cohen has won several teaching awards during his 24-year tenure at MIT, as well as the Harold E. Edgerton Award, the highest honor for young MIT faculty, and the Levitan Prize in the Humanities. Named Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Professor of Philosophy, Cohen is also editor-in-chief of the Boston Review. In this conversation with soundings contributing editor Orna Feldman, he discusses issues relevant to some of his key intellectual pursuits—democracy, equality, and justice—and obstacles to them.

Let's begin with freedom of expression, one of the issues of democratic theory you address in your work. If I said, "Women deserve to be raped" or "A mind is a terrible thing to waste on a nigger," does that infringe on the equality of women or blacks?

I don't think by itself it does. A large issue about freedom of expression is how people respond to assertions like those you mention. You can try to answer the person who says it or try to silence the person. A fundamental idea about freedom of expression is Justice [Louis] Brandeis' idea—there should be a presumption in favor of answering ugly, disgusting, and stupid assertions rather than silencing them.

How do you respond to the PC rules and regulations on academic campuses curbing freedom of expression?

As a general matter, I think they're a bad idea, because they give preference to silencing people as a way of preventing injuries that come from those kind of assertions, rather than promoting a culture in which people feel empowered to respond. In the end, it infantilizes people to think the only way to respond is to silence the person making the claims, rather than to instruct in the arguments on the other side and make people feel they're able to present those arguments themselves.

So you're saying people are smart enough and big enough to deal with all kinds of nasty and odious statements?

Yes, though I want to emphasize that making them smart enough and big enough—making us, it's not "them" rather than "us"—is a project. You have to make sure everybody has a forum for expressing their views in a public way. It's not okay to say, "Oh, you can answer that" to a group that's disempowered, has no resources, and doesn't have any way of getting its view out. We have an affirmative obligation to make sure people have the resources to answer those accusations and slurs.

Let's segue to pornography. You take issue with the school of feminists who want to regulate pornography because it promotes the subjugation of women. What's your argument?

As background: much of pornography doesn't represent subjugation, and when it does, it's often not representing the subjugation of women. Moreover, the relationship between people's fantasies about subjugation and real life inequality is complicated. That said, the general point I made about freedom of expression applies here. One of the consequences of some aspects of feminism has been much more willingness to talk about "private" matters like sexuality in a public way. And open contestation about inequality and gender relations is probably as good a way of answering those representations of subjugation as silencing them.

Photo: Graham G. Ramsay.

You wrote that the debate about regulating pornography is excessively legal. What should the arena of discussion be?

In the United States, large political and cultural issues often get channeled through the legal system rather than argued out. But those larger issues get lost through legal categorization. In the early '90s, the people who talked about pornography in substance were typically the people who wanted to regulate it. If you read Catherine MacKinnon—the most brilliant exponent of the view that pornography subordinates women and ought to be legally regulated—you find vivid, detailed depictions of the pornography. But the anti-regulation people tended to rely on abstract and absolutist assertions about freedom of speech, which is not a forceful argument. Some speech, after all, is regulated. When you go in to vote, somebody can talk to you about lots of topics, but they can't tell you who to vote for within 100 feet of a polling booth. There are limits on libel, at least for non-public figures. Traditionally, limits on misrepresentations in commercial speech have been greater than in political speech: You say your medicine cures all diseases and you'll get in some trouble. Say your candidate is going to solve all problems, and you sound like everybody else. So why think of pornography as like artistic or political speech, which people are less willing to regulate, rather than as like private libel or commercial speech, where there is a willingness to regulate? To address that question, I thought there needed to be less legal abstraction and more discussion about pornography—its meaning, its effects on people, why some people are attracted to it, its consequences, and to the extent it's a bad thing, how that badness might be addressed other than through legal strategies.

So your argument was not so much on the direction of their argument, but on the nuance and the richness.

It may be a professional deformation, but philosophers are worried not just about the conclusions of arguments, but also about how you arrive at those conclusions. In this case, how you arrived at the anti-regulation conclusion was extremely important.

What do you feel are the shortcomings of political philosophy as it's conducted today?

It often stands back too far from real, live, actual public controversies that engage people outside of philosophy. Like most intellectual disciplines, it tends to get wrapped up in internal disagreements and lose connection with the issues that animate people outside the profession. At the same time, it's also true that philosophers who debate issues of immediate public concern often do so without a sufficient basis of knowledge and understanding about the issues. They think abstract philosophical principles will get you much further than they actually do.

Let's talk about campaign finance reform. You've written that the discussion falls around three issues: too much money spent on elections; candidates spending too much time getting money and donors; and donors receiving quid pro quos. But you said none of these gets to the heart of the problem.

Fairness is the heart of the problem. I don't think there's a good measure of what is an appropriate amount of money to spend. And if political discussion were being well conducted and really made a difference to what happened in the country, why wouldn't it be a good idea to spend billions of dollars on political campaigns? When people say candidates are spending too much time raising money, they immediately start describing candidates going to fundraisers with wealthy donors: the problem there is not about spending time raising money, but spending time with one class of people. The big problem about campaign finance is there's a conflict between the idea of a democracy—citizens are supposed to have some kind of equal chance to hold office and affect the outcome of political life—and a system of financing elections that gives a special advantage to people who've got a lot of money. So the issue is whether we take seriously the idea that citizens are equals and should have an equal chance to play a role in political life. People's ability to influence the political life of the country should depend on their political skill, enthusiasm for the activity, and capacity to win support for their views. It shouldn't depend on their resources.

Who could argue that? Also, it seems so far from reality.

The importance of fairness and equal opportunity may have the appearance of self-evident truth, but in 1976 the Supreme Court said you can't regulate expenditures on politics to produce a level playing field. They said it's a violation of the First Amendment to regulate political speech, meaning, in this case, spending your money to finance political speech.

The idea being more spending is more speech.

Right. So they helped to make fairness far from reality. There are proposals, though, which involve public financing of elections. The idea is that if they're completely publicly financed, it frees electoral politics from that imbalance of resources we have in society more broadly. Some regulations of that kind have passed in some states, and one has passed in Massachusetts, although it's been hard to get the legislature to provide resources to implement the system.

Are you optimistic this will happen in your lifetime?

I'm incurably hopeful. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism means you expect things to go well. Hope means you think they might go well, and if people make efforts to get them to go well, those efforts have a decent chance of succeeding. Martin Luther King often used to say, "Progress doesn't roll in on the wheels of inevitability." He called it the "myth of time"—that things would improve if you just waited for them to improve. Hopefulness is the belief that if you make those efforts, the world will respond favorably.

I want to talk about the Boston Review. Tell me about your role there.

Throughout my academic career, I always tried to have some kind of non-academic political involvement. In the 1980s I was involved in anti-nuclear stuff and opposing US policies in Central America. I was part of a group called Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America, co-wrote a couple of short books for political activists, and spent some time in Nicaragua. When I took on the Boston Review in 1991, it was a continuation of these earlier efforts to maintain some non-academic involvement with American politics. The idea was to create an intellectually self-confident magazine of ideas, open-ended in who could write for it, but in which the center-of-gravity would be strongly egalitarian, with democratic participatory political commitments, and a libertarian position on freedom of expression. There wasn't any such magazine at the time. When I took the magazine over, it didn't have any political identity, or any resources. It was about to go under. So I shifted the direction, making the centerpiece a lead essay on a large political theme and responses to it, while preserving a substantial literary representation. We publish original fiction, lots of essays on contemporary fiction, and more poetry than any other general interest magazine in the country, and the poetry is as good as it gets—John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, James Tate, and Heather McHugh.

What kind of political change are you trying to effect through Boston Review?

We hope to affect policy, but more broadly we aim to improve the level and quality of public argument. The animating idea of the Boston Review is that it's important in a democracy to have mutually respecting public disagreement, in which, as the German philosopher Juergen Habermas put it, the force of the better argument is the only force that counts. The project is inspired by an idea of democracy—of a deliberative democracy—in which public reasoning plays a larger role than in conventional understandings of democracy. Much of my academic writing over the past decade has been about that idea of democracy.

What's your biggest challenge as editor?

The biggest editorial challenge is that we generally don't have professional writers writing for us. Academics write for us.

Must be a nightmare.

That's right. The writers get a venue they wouldn't ordinarily have and we do heavy editing, which makes their work more widely available. But they're not used to having very heavy editorial intervention. Some respond by saying, 'God, no content has been lost; but 5000 words have been lost.' But others are difficult about the process.

Let's talk briefly about you and MIT. What do you like about MIT?

It's unpretentious, pretty un-hierarchical, and infused more with the sensibilities of problem solving engineers than excessively high-minded literary theorists. There's an unattractively high level of arrogance, but that's a constant throughout the academy and certainly at all fancy academic institutions. But there isn't pomposity at MIT, and that's a very attractive quality.

Is it difficult to straddle philosophy and political science?

Speaking personally, it has been great to be in both. I'm a philosopher by training, but people who work in political philosophy are often inattentive to the implications of their ideas for political institutions. Having a connection to political science helps reduce the level of abstraction.

What is it like to head a department you weren't formally trained for?

Before I became head, I had been in the department for 20 years. So I have a pretty decent sense of what political science looks like as a profession. Also, in general, political science is a pretty deeply divided field intellectually, and many political science departments have imploded over the last decade as a result of serious intellectual divisions. Because of my training, I'm not so identified with any camp. That may make my job a little easier. I also like to think that there is a connection between my intellectual work—with its focus on deliberative democracy—and my role in the department and the Boston Review: I like the idea of aiming to resolve disagreements by reasoning together, with mutual toleration and respect. Disagreement isn't a failing or a sign of people being malign, foolish, or ignorant. There are lots of deep disagreements in human life, and it's possible to collaborate reasonably despite those disagreements.



Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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