Episode 14 -Ian Olasov - Black Lives Matter, Ecological Control and Philosophers during the Pandemic



Sahana: Hi everyone! Welcome to In Limbo Conversations! Today, we have with us Ian Olasov. He teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College and studies philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center. His work is primarily on applied philosophy of language, social epistemology, and public philosophy. He is also the founder and organizer of Brooklyn Public Philosophers which is a public philosophy event series for a general audience. One of the interesting events they have been organizing for quite a few years now is Ask A Philosopher and Ian recently published his experiences at Ask A Philosopher booths in form of a book which came out in mid-September. For more information about his research and his public philosophy work, please click here. Thank you so much for joining me, Ian!


Ian: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really looking forward to this.


Sahana: Ian's doctoral research is on Speech in the Public Interest and I thought we could focus on the second essay which has sort of come alive and has become very relevant during this pandemic time- the Movement for Black Lives which is MBL and in this essay, you present four newly characteristic forms of speech associated with MBL and how they address the challenges that the movement faces.

So these four new forms were hashtag and slogan #BlackLivesMatter, videos of police violence, naming the victim and what you have called ‘stereotype engineering’- so, could you tell us about a few concrete pandemic related instances where you have come across these forms and also how this sort of fits into your overall research? And if you want to focus on any one of the forms, that would be cool too!


Ian: Sure! We can go through them one by one. So obviously, the form of speech or the string of words which is most closely associated with the Movement for Black Lives is just the phrase "Black Lives Matter" which originated as a hashtag and became a kind of slogan for the movement. Hashtags and slogans are two different sorts of things and to combine them into one string of words has some interesting consequences.


A hashtag can be used to categorize social media posts in a way that makes them searchable and in that way, discoverable or visible to people outside of the poster's own social network.. So, you click on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and you don't just see your friends' BLM posts- you see everybody else's..Slogans have to do with group solidarity and appealing to the sort of moral authority or credibility that comes with a group..


A hashtag can be used in any number of ways but the central use for which they were designed is to categorize social media posts in a way that makes them searchable and in that way, discoverable or visible to people outside of the poster's own social network, right? So, you click on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and you don't just see your friends' BLM posts- you see everybody else's and by doing that, you can do any number of things. In the case of Black Lives Matter, one thing that makes it a little bit sort of unique or distinct from other sorts of hashtags is that while other hashtags, say the hashtag #Dogs or #DogsofInstagram or something like that- people, before they saw the hashtag #Dogs knew what dogs were- they could recognize dogs before people saw the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter- they might not have realized that the instances of police and vigilante violence which are aggregated under the hashtag are instances of people not caring about black lives, people feeling as if black lives don't matter-so unlike the hashtag #DogsofInstagram, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter gives people awareness of a new phenomenon or a new way of thinking about or explaining a phenomenon of which they might have previously been aware.

Slogans, on the other hand, are things which- when you compare slogans with their nearby non-slogan counterparts, the ways in which they differ sort of most obviously or in the most salient ways are that slogans have to do with group solidarity and appealing to the sort of moral authority or credibility that comes with a group. I think one really interesting example for me is the slogan ‘Stop the Violence’ which was from a short-lived movement or campaign from the late 80s and early 90s, mostly associated with the rapper KRS-1 and it was a sort of movement or campaign revolving around violence within the black community and within hip-hop fans in particular and I think there's something really interesting- if you compare the slogans "Stop the Violence" with a nearby non-slogan counterpart, something like ‘Black people and hip-hop fans in particular should stop hurting each other’ but notice when I say that, as I mean frankly, especially as a white guy- that sounds kind of racist- frankly , I feel uncomfortable saying it out loud, just even for as using it as an example. Of course, when KRS-1 says "Stop the Violence", it doesn't come off as racist because he's appealing to the solidarity with this group which people would not have mistaken for racist because it was a group that was yet led by this rapper who's known for being socially conscious and it's a group which was led by black people- so, the charge of anti-black racism isn't going to stick in the same way that it would for a non-slogan counterpart. I think something similar is going on with Black Lives Matter- when people use the slogan, they appeal to the moral authority of the movement and they express solidarity with the movement.

There are all sorts of things which are interesting and important here strategically. One thing that I have pointed out in the past is that the fact that ‘Black lives matter’ is a slogan helps explain this otherwise bizarre circular disagreement between people who say Black Lives Matter and people who say All Lives Matter- Black Lives Matter is a logical consequence of the phrase All Lives Matter. It's hard to see how, without noticing that there's slogans that are attached to different groups- it's hard to see how or why people who adopt the one phrase would disagree with people who adopt the other and then you realize, it has to do with sort of richer set of you know affiliations and political identity that is attached to those two groups.

Now, I'll say something about stereotype engineering. Philosophers, in recent years, have been really interested explicitly with the project of conceptual engineering and I think philosophers have done this for as long as people have been doing philosophy- but we're doing it self-consciously in a way that we haven't done in the past or are reflecting in a meta way about it in a way that we have it in the past but typically, I think, when people focus on conceptual engineering- they think about- on the one hand, either creating new concepts for, where there's some sort of conceptual lacuna, some conceptual job or they think of fixing a concept by massaging its meaning or its extension massaging or changing the things that it applies to or say, the mode of presentation under which it presents the things it applies to. There's of course nothing wrong with those types of conceptual engineering but if we're thinking about what it would mean to fix a concept in order for it to do its job better- well, you could fix its meaning or fix its extension but of course, concepts have other properties besides meanings and extensions in particular- they have associated stereotypes.

To get down to brass tacks, to get down to concrete examples, I think stereotype engineering is something that you can see at work in recent uses of the phrase "white supremacy" and in recent uses of the phrase "ethnic cleansing". Take the stereotype of a white supremacist for many people in the United State- it's like a member of the Ku Klux Klan rolls off the tongue and the stereotype of ethnic cleansing might be something like the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. But if you understand these phrases in their sort of literal compositional senses, they apply to many things that are pretty distant from that stereotype. A white supremacist is anyone who thinks that white people are, in some respect, supreme or superior to other racial groups and of course, not just it's not just Klan members who think that- it's perhaps the vast majority of white people in the United States who believe in white supremacy in that sense. A well-meaning liberal white person might think that- like Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a historical example- who might think that there's something wrong with black families, that there's something sort of culturally or morally defective about how black families are organized and you think- "Yeah well. I guess, you know, you're not a Klan member and you're not violently racist but you sure are a white supremacist."- if you believe that and so, the more we use these phrases like white supremacists to apply to things that the phrase already literally applies to but which don't fit the stereotype associated with the phrase well, you massage the stereotype- you do something to shift the stereotype- the more we use the phrase 'white supremacists' to apply to liberal democrats for example in the United States, the more liberal democrats are going to become stereotypical for the concept of a white supremacist. While there are, of course, Klan members and violently racist white supremacists in the United States, you know, cross-burning psychopaths and all that, the most insidious and the most powerful forms of white supremacy often don't fit this the existing stereotypes. The Klan isn't the social force that it was in the 100 years ago- it just doesn't matter that much as as it used to and so, the forms of white supremacy that we need to target- the ones that we really have to deal with in an everyday way are distant from the sort of actually existing or previously existing stereotypes- so, stereotype engineering can help us recognize accurately and quickly forms of white supremacy which otherwise would have been invisible to us in other ways so-that's a very long answer to a short question- but there you go!




While there are, of course, Klan members and violently racist white supremacists in the United States, you know, cross-burning psychopaths and all that, the most insidious and the most powerful forms of white supremacy often don't fit this the existing stereotypes....stereotype engineering can help us recognize accurately and quickly forms of white supremacy which otherwise would have been invisible to us in other ways..




Sahana: So, in some sense, it traces the development of certain stereotypes through time, right?

In the article that you had written for Slate, you talked about how ‘All Lives Matter’ has come to oppose ‘Black Lives Matter’. You had mentioned two insights from philosophy of language which could apply to that case and you had talked about, amongst other points, you had talked about the difference between how the term 'matter' in these slogans can play out in the normative-descriptive sense and also we had talked about quantity implicature, which is broadly, the idea that generally in cooperative conversations, we give as much information as is required by the goals of the conversation. So if you feel up to it, could you tell us a bit more about the points that you found interesting in this opposition between them? And you know, how you sort of came to be them?


Ian: Sure! I think there's a kind of point about quantity implicature- first there's a kind of, frankly I think disingenuous, but maybe some people actually believe that criticism of the phrase Black Lives Matter, according to which, people who use the phrase think that only black lives matter- they think, because if you say "Black lives matter", you must be making a quantity implicature. You must be saying it in the same way that- for example, if I have twenty dollars in my pocket and I say that I have ten dollars in my pocket well- of course, it's literally true that I have ten dollars in my pocket because you know, I might have a ten dollar bill there but the quantity implicature is that I have no more than ten dollars in my pocket. So, you might think that or people sometimes accuse the BLM supporters of thinking that only black lives matter because if you say that black lives matter, it's like saying you have ten dollars in your pocket, if you thought that all lives mattered, you would say that all lives matter. But I think this doesn't hold up to scrutiny- on the one hand, I think the main reason it doesn't hold up to scrutiny is that the reason why people say that black lives matter is because it's particularly relevant- there are social problems in the United States which can be explained in terms of people not realizing that black lives matter- it’s not a social problem in general that people in the United States fail to recognize that white lives matter or that rich people's lives matter or the college professors lives matter. While all of those lives matter, it's not especially relevant to point that out- both because people already believe it- it's not an informative thing to tell people and because there's no practically urgent social problem that we have that we have to deal with on that front. So you know that's a very brief explanation of how I think the idea of a quantity implicature and using a little bit of Grice and philosophy of language can help us to sort out this perhaps disingenuous sort of debate that takes place in public.


…people sometimes accuse the BLM supporters of thinking that only black lives matter because if you thought that all lives mattered, you would say that all lives matter...But I think this doesn't hold up to scrutiny...While all of those lives matter, it's not especially relevant to point that out- both because people already believe it- it's not an informative thing to tell people and because there's no practically urgent social problem that we have that we have to deal with on that front...


As for the claim that mattering is either ambiguous or at least people use it in two very different ways- I think that's sort of interesting and it's worth making explicit. If we're going to talk about the slogan- to say that something matters- you might think that- you might roughly that people actually care about it or that you actually care about it or roughly the people should care about it. There is an odd tension in the use of that which is not necessarily a problem. It is a tension in the use of the "Black Lives Matter" slogan which is that black lives matter in that sort of normative sense- that they should matter to people- people should care about them but the whole reason for using the slogan is that they in fact don't matter to large numbers of people around the world- they don't matter to the Derrick Chauvins and the George Zimmermans and the white supremacist murderers who are going around killing mostly unarmed black men.


Sahana: I'll come back to one of the points in the last question after this one. At a more personal level, like in your post "Some notes on Social Distancing" in Gotham Philosophical Society's website, you had shared your experience of walking your dog while the lockdown was underway, of writing on your laptop in the apartment, Jen being there in the other room- so you had said that "what goes on in our heads is determined by what goes on outside of them in some surprising ways" and you have discussed the idea of ecological control by Andy Clark where you had said "the more we rely on robust reliable sources of relevant order outside of our bodies, the less capable we are when that external order breaks down"- so could you tell me about some of the ways in which you have seen this idea of ecological control play out during the pandemic?


Ian: Sure I think this is pretty speculative and frankly I have a hard time thinking straight about this stuff but I'll toss some ideas out there and maybe other people can pick them up or reason more clearly than I can. So, the idea of ecological control is that it's a sort of strategy for problem solving that an organism can use or that an artificial intelligence could use I suppose that instead of, to speak, explicitly mentally representing some order or feature of the world, the organism relies on that order outside of the creature's brain or outside of their body. A metronome is a very good example- you can keep time in your own head- it's not that's not hard- you could also keep time in your own feet, you can tap your feet or clap your hands- but you can also have a metronome which helps keep time for you. We are creatures who use ecological control and rely on, for our own sort of competent skilful management of our relationships with the external world, these relevant sources of external order. So, then the question is when you have something that sort of really completely disrupts everyday life in the way that our experience of lockdown has perhaps- I should note, I wrote that post I think like in late March, wrote it in the very beginning of the- worst times of the pandemic so far, in New York city where I live- so maybe take it with a grain of salt or bear in mind that things have changed since then.








..the idea of ecological control is, instead of explicitly mentally representing some order or feature of the world, the organism relies on that order outside of the creature's brain or outside of their body...for our competent skilful management of our relationships with the external world..






So at the time at least, the sort of relevant sources of external order that had broken down- they might have included my daily routine- I was teaching online, I was no longer going into work, I wasn't riding the bus, I wasn't leaving the house for the same reasons, I wasn't going to the same restaurants and so on- I think our transactions with other people might also be relevant sources of external order- whether this is a matter of ecological control or something else is hard to say but I think we've all had the experience of having our sense of our own competence or our own identity sort of depend on some kind of external validation or reminder from other people, right? So that's like- my sense of, you know, when I've gone through semesters where I haven't taught philosophy, my sense of myself as a competent philosopher, it's like very tenuous, right? I can be very easily sort of convinced that I'm not the real thing, that I'm an imposter or whatever it is if I don't get some kind of constant validation from other people and you know maybe that's just me but but it is me. So among other things- the sort of competencies or skills or abilities that we have that might be, I'm not sure that they are, but that might be sort of undermined by the loss of relevant external sources of order could be our sense of time through the changes in routine- I mean I'm pretty sure that's the case because everybody's reported that their sort of subjective perception of time has just been completely thrown off, right, in the last few months? But it could also be something deep or something like your identity, something like your sense of your own skilfulness or competence as a philosopher or is, you know whatever professional identity you might have. I'm lucky enough to still be employed but of course, the United States is experiencing massive unemployment right now and certainly your sense of of yourself as a useful or skilled person is, for many people, tied to being employed- so those are some suggestions about some ways in which the concept of ecological control might help us sort of explain or describe the you know vertigo or discomfort or disorientation that people have felt for the last little while- but this is all quite speculative. I'm not entirely sure of how much mileage you can get out of the idea although I think you can get some.


Sahana: Yeah- I feel like- So I'll just get to the last question but I had an observation. I think that the panic buying of toilet papers was one of the most explicit examples of things being so uncertain and fixating on this one thing where you feel like, "Okay I certainly need this" because everything is breaking down and people should not be going out at all but they find a reason to go out very specifically, even though they're not..


Ian: Yeah, that's really interesting. Yeah, panic buying is, among other things, in response to the loss of your routines, of when you need to purchase whatever the product is. Yeah we ordinarily have to buy toilet paper at such and such a rate because we're using toilet paper outside of our houses and now we're not, and so yeah, that's a really interesting example.


Sahana: So, okay. In the end I want to ask you about your experience as a public philosopher- which could also be related to getting people to see that the opposition between All Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter might be more about quantity implicature or linguistic than the actual socio-political phenomena. In your 2018 blog post for APA, you had talked about two years of experience of hosting "Ask A Philosopher" and had mentioned that ‘philosophy is for many people an interstitial activity and we need to do real creative work to draw people into it’. So could you tell us how you conceive philosophy to be interstitial and what kind of creative work do you feel we can do virtually to bring philosophy to people in a more digestible form? And how do we get people to see, given the Black Lives Matter which is very is a very emotional issue, of how philosophers could try to sort of put it out in a way which is sensitive and yet get across the point? And if you feel up to it, maybe you can tell us how the "Ask A Philosopher" book came about in that process?


Ian: Okay, yeah. Sure, I'll try to take those one at a time. Let's see, we've got the role of philosophers in BLM, we've got the Ask A Philosopher book and we've got the sort of interstitial nature of philosophy for many people.

When professional philosophers engage in philosophy, I think, our paradigms for philosophical activity are things like writing papers, having lengthy discussions, and reading long-form pieces of writing. There are relatively few academic journals which publish pieces that are less than a few thousand words. That should give you a sense of the types of philosophical engagement that philosophers think of as sort of characteristic or worthwhile. But, you know, most people aren't going to engage in philosophy in that way. It's just- it's that they've got things to do in their lives. They're not going to spend 100 hours writing a philosophy paper or five hours reading one, or something like that. I don't know, maybe you're a faster reader than me, but it takes me a long time to read journal articles. So, if we are going to sort of find ways of inserting philosophy into people's lives or creating philosophy that can work its way into people's lives one way or another, we're going to have to find the cracks and people's attention, you know, between work and their family lives and their personal lives and everything else that they're seeing on social media or the news or whatever. So, the Ask A Philosopher booth is one way of doing this.



..we set up these (Ask a Philosopher) booths around New York City, in parks and street fairs..and a handful of professional philosophers and graduate students, will sit there and talk with people about their philosophical questions and ideas...some people visit the booth intentionally but most people just stumble on its..so we've found a way to, in this relatively small scale, create an opportunity for people to do philosophy in their comings and goings...


The basic idea is that we set up these booths around - not these days during the pandemic but you know in the past - we've set up these booths around New York City, in parks and street fairs and things like that. And a handful of professional philosophers and graduate students, will sit there and talk with people about their philosophical questions and ideas. Some people visit the booth intentionally but most people just stumble on it. And some people have been able to- they've had some free time and they stick around for a couple of hours, but often people stick around for a couple of minutes at a time. And so we've found a way to, in this relatively small scale, create an opportunity for people to do philosophy in their comings and goings. You know, they're usually between activities. But there are other ways of doing this too.

I think memes are one way of doing this. So, philosophy memes, can whatever else you think about philosophy memes, maybe you think they're glib or they're low brow or they're bad or they're unserious in one way or another - but I think it's possible for people to engage with philosophy through memes and you know that engagement will often be relatively brief. Where do you find a meme? You find it on social media, you find it on Reddit and that's going to naturally occur in between all the other things that you pay attention to on social media or on reddit. So, memes are one way of doing this, you know.

People have suggested- I think I first heard the suggestion from my old teacher David Shine- that you could have advertisements on- well not advertisements exactly - but little chunks of philosophical text or philosophical prompts on buses or on subways or something like that, in New York City. And in the past, there was a series - maybe it's still going on - but it was canceled at least for a few years. There was a series called "Poetry in Motion" where there would be little- in the spaces- where ads are normally displayed on subways and buses, there would be like a little poem right and but why not do that with little chunks of philosophy? Why not do that with a little piece of Epicurus or some thought experiment or some chunk of Aristotle or Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis- take your pick. There are all sorts of philosophers where you can find a paragraph that is provocative and useful and that people are going to engage with. So, I think those are some different models for sort of making philosophy fit into the- how do you pronounce it in- interstices- the interstitial.


Sahana: I googled that before this! So- interstitial.


Ian: Not a word I say out loud everyday.

You know, there are ways of making that work.

Okay. So, on the subject of the role of philosophers in the movement for Black Lives. Well, of course, we can participate in the same ways that everybody else can - we can show up to rallies, we can talk about it, we can share posts, that kind of thing. But what sort of special or characteristic contributions do philosophers have to make to the movement? I mean one answer - I don't think this is necessarily a complete answer - but one answer is to say that movements occur on multiple fronts. Movements create different sorts of conversations or are promoted or defended in different spaces. And one sort of front on which a movement unfolds is a theoretical one. You know, where we try to offer sort of the best possible arguments that we can for the demands of the movement, where we settle or work through disputes about what those demands should be. And philosophers have a role to play in this. So I'm thinking of the work that philosopher Femi Taiwo has done on community control of policing. So should we be demand, since the murder of George Floyd, one of the sort of discussions has been around the Abolition and Defunding demands. So what does it mean to abolish the police? Is that the right demand? What sort of defunding would work well for defunding the police? Where would that funding go? And so you know- Femi Taiwo has sort of contributed to this discussion by offering this roughly alternative approach to abolition, in terms of community control. Vanessa Wills had some great work on the function of the police and whether the police brutality is - and racist police brutality in particular- is sort of dysfunction or proper function. Whether this is what police exist to do in the United States or not and you know, you can imagine how that argument might unfold. So, you know, those are some examples of theoretical work that people can do, that the philosophers can do to defend the central claims of the movement or differences about, you know, the proper demands of the movement.



...you could have little chunks of philosophical text or philosophical prompts on buses or on subways...like the series called "Poetry in Motion"...Why not do that with a little piece of Epicurus or some thought experiment or some chunk of Aristotle or Hannah Arendt, Angela Davis- take your pick...



My work on philosophy of language isn't so much about defending the central claims of the movement as it is sort of understanding what the movement is and what and how it demands and how movements work in general, because movements are in part constituted by or closely related to their sort of characteristic speech. And so, you know, there's a role for philosophers to play in, not so much defending the movement, but in understanding the movement and its strategic strengths and weaknesses. So, there's room for philosophers there too.

Yeah, as for the Ask Philosopher Book process- I'll make this brief- just to take up the third question that you had. It’s been out for a few weeks now. I'm really really happy to see it out in the world. I'm really happy to see how people responded to it. I mean the basic idea of the book which came from a conversation between me and my editor at St. Martin's was at - the publisher - was to collect the best questions we'd received at the booth and my attempts to answer them in some sort of stories or vignettes about memorable or affecting or thought-provoking moments from the booth. So, it covers this. One thing that I'm happy with about how the book came out, is that it covers a very wide range of questions and there's sort of big picture, very theoretical questions about the fundamental structure of the universe and there's sometimes goofy or light-hearted sort of questions which wouldn't necessarily naturally occur to you. So- why is there something rather than nothing? How do we learn mathematical truths? What's the meaning of life? those sorts of things and then- can plants think? and is ketchup a smoothie? And, if we colonized Mars who should own the land? Those sorts of more left-field questions. That was the goal for the book - to give people a sense of sort of breadth of philosophy and to try to find, maybe not every aspect or question or problem or idea and philosophy is going to sort of resonate with you, but hopefully we can find some way of making philosophy work for everybody.



What is the meaning of life?

One thing that I'm happy with about how the book came out, is that it covers a very wide range of questions and there's sort of big picture, very theoretical questions about the fundamental structure of the universe and there's sometimes goofy or light-hearted sort of questions which wouldn't necessarily naturally occur to you. So- why is there something rather than nothing? How do we learn mathematical truths? What's the meaning of life? those sorts of things and then- can plants think? and is ketchup a smoothie? And, if we colonized Mars who should own the land?


Sahana: Okay, that sounds really interesting. Congrats on that!

That sort of wraps up the questions I wanted to ask you. Thank you so much Ian for taking out time to do this with me. It's really helpful.


Ian: Thank you! This has just been an absolute pleasure.


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