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Brewing Academic Controversy:

This poster, and the event it describes, appears to be causing a ruckus. The poster advertises the 2007 Veroni Memorial Lecture in Philosophy and the Humanities, to be delivered by Peter French, Lincoln Chair in Ethics, and Director, Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University. The talk's title is On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories, and the paragraph-long description reads:

During the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Serbian men described themselves as compelled to rape and murder Kosovar women and children. This felt necessity was provoked and sustained by collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries. The basic question I hope to answer is whether group members caught in the throes of collective memories should be held responsible for their actions when they "can do no other."
One person e-mailed me asking how this may create a legally actionable "hostile work environment" for people of Serbian extraction; a serbianna.com "activism" Web page reasons that "Peter French starts from a premise that Serbs are rapists and killers because, according to French, Serbian morality is handicapped by collective memory that was nurtured in Serbs. In other words, French believes that Serbs are morally deviant people because of a false collective memory of their past in Kosovo and as a result of their own delusion have collectively accepted morality of a rapist and a killer."

As I read the poster, French is not arguing that all Serbian men feel compelled to rape and murder, or even that most do. Rather, he is discussing a particular set of Serbian men who did rape and murder, and who supposedly gave "collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries" as an explanation for that argument. This is reinforced by the fact that the next sentence is hardly an anti-Serb rant, but a question about whether group members should be held responsible for their actions, which is obviously a question about those group members who actually acted.

This is much like, if we wrote, "During the L.A. riots, Korean shopkeepers armed themselves to defend their stores against rioters; this felt necessity was provoked and sustained by their sense of being embattled and victimized by crime," we likely wouldn't be talking about all Korean shopkeepers or even most, but about those Korean shopkeepers who did arm themselves. I think arming oneself to defend oneself and one store during a riot is generally more proper, and rape and murder of course is not, but my point here is that the term "Serbian men" or "Korean shopkeepers" may in some situations refer to those particular Serbian men or Korean shopkeepers that the rest of the paragraph describes.

Perhaps given the bad acts being described, the poster author should have put things more carefully, to avoid the risk of misunderstanding. But while philosophers have a reputation for being very precise writers, a reputation especially easy to nurture when you have a whole paper — nursed over months or years — in which to be precise, quickly boiling things down to three sentences (something that may well have been done not by Prof. French but by someone else) may indeed sometimes produce misunderstandings.

I anticipate that the speech will indeed go as I conjecture, and I hope the controversy will then fizzle. Still, it does seem like a brewing academic controversy, so I thought I'd note it. And of course I naturally think that even if Peter French is a raving anti-Serb bigot, his speech should be constitutionally protected, including against a "hostile work environment" lawsuit. (If the speech were raving anti-Serb bigotry, the university would have the power not to invite him to give a special university-promoted lecture on the subject, and should exercise that power; but that's a separate matter.)

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Cancellation of the Lecture That Was Objected to by Some Serbian-Americans:

Last week I blogged about what struck me as an unjustified fracas over a forthcoming moral philosophy lecture by Prof. Peter French at Kent State University; some Serb-Americans apparently objected to it, on grounds that struck me as likely unsound.

The lecture has been called off; when I e-mailed Prof. French to ask for an explanation, he kindly responded. He told me that "Kent State wanted me to go on with the lecture and promised security at the event, but my family insisted that it was not worth it," and also passed along the following (some paragraph breaks added):

I was scheduled to give a lecture at Kent State University of March 7, 2007, as a part of the Veroni Memorial Lecture Series. The title of my lecture was to be "On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories." I intended to discuss how collective memories (what some have called heritage stories) can be seen as a potential source of a type of moral impairment that I call "being morally challenged."

The paper that I would have read has three parts. In the first part of the paper I distinguish between being morally incompetent and being morally challenged in terms of an account of moderate moral reasons responsiveness combined with the Frankfurt conception of volitional necessity. In the second part, I provide a sketch of different types of memory and offer an account of what collective memories are.

I conclude in the third section with an attempt to provide a convincing account of how collective memories can cause volitional necessity leading to moral challenges for some individuals in group situations. The primary point I make at the conclusion of the paper is that though collective memories may engender what Harry Frankfurt called volitional necessity in some group members and render those individuals morally challenged in certain circumstances with regard to doing the right thing, they do not convert those group members into moral incompetents with respect to whom moral responsibility assessment is inappropriate.

This all undoubtedly sounds highly philosophical and probably rather dull to most people. However, in the third section I offer a few examples of how I believe certain individuals may have been morally challenged when elements of their heritage or collective memories were used by their leaders to incite untoward actions. One of the examples I use is that of the speeches of Slobodan Milosevic that recalled the 1389 battle on the Field of Blackbirds as a way of motivating Serbs against Kosovo/Albanian Muslims. This example is discussed in two brief paragraphs of a paper that is about 20 pages long. It is in no way the focus of the paper.

Nowhere in my examples, nor anywhere else in my paper, do I make any claims about the morality of the Serbian people. However, after event organizers generated a poster with a blurb citing the Serbian/Kosovo example to announce the lecture and displayed it on the Kent State University campus and website, there arose an outcry of complaints and accusations regarding my supposed views about Serbs.

This escalated into an outrageously false (and I believe libelous) article posted on a website (www.serbianna.com) in which my views are grossly mischaracterized. This website wrongly attributes to me the claim that "Serbian people are rapist and killers because they are delusional about their history during the time they lived under the Islamic Law in Kosovo." I make no such claim. Nor do I make any of the other wild claims now attributed to me in emails and elsewhere. I do not think the Serbian people are or were delusional and I was not going to say so in the lecture. Nor do I think the Serbian people are rapists and killers (although individual Serbs have raped and murdered, as have members of every ethnic group on Earth).

I have written extensively on the complex issues of individual and collective responsibility, and I am the last person to make unsophisticated, sweeping statements about the morality of any ethnic group or to make assumptions about the morality of an individual based solely on his or her ethnicity. The website article goes on to quote Susan Ilievski, a person I have never met. She says, "This man is out of his mind. Whatever French says is a fiction or was he paid to say that, who knows." This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Ms. Ilievski has no idea what I say in the paper because I have not given it and I have not provided a copy of it to anyone at Kent State. It is most irresponsible for anyone to make incendiary claims about someone's views based solely on an advertising blurb created to excite audience interest.

Unfortunately, the audience interest that was incited was poisonous and most unsettling. I have received a large number of harassing emails from within the U.S. and from abroad, accusing me of racism, being a closet Islamist, collaborating with those who would destroy Western Civilization, and much more. I was told to expect a very unpleasant experience at Kent State should I dare to give the paper. After consultation with my family and my attorney I decided that traveling to Kent to give this somewhat technical philosophical paper in such a hostile climate (and at my age) was unwise.

Philosophical discourse is all that interests me. The utter irrationality and vituperative rhetoric of the attacks I have endured is astounding and depressing. Hearing from so many hate-filled people who have no idea of the actual philosophical points that are in my paper and clearly have no desire to engage intellectually with me made it clear that this visit would not be a worthwhile philosophical experience.

With reluctance, I decided to cancel my talk. I had hoped that my talk would provide an opportunity to engage the Kent community in an interesting discussion of a complex philosophical concept. It is astounding and tragic that a simple academic exchange could spiral into such a controversy.

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Serbian Government's Planned Demand for Federal Investigation of Supposedly Anti-Serb "Racist Remarks":

I blogged over the last several days about the planned philosophy lecture at Kent State — the 2007 Veroni Memorial Lecture in Philosophy and the Humanities, to be delivered by Peter French, Lincoln Chair in Ethics, and Director, Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University — which was titled On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories, and had the following blurb:

During the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Serbian men described themselves as compelled to rape and murder Kosovar women and children. This felt necessity was provoked and sustained by collective memories nurtured in Serbs for seven centuries. The basic question I hope to answer is whether group members caught in the throes of collective memories should be held responsible for their actions when they "can do no other."

Here's a copy of a fax from the Serbian consulate that was sent before the lecture was called off:

CONSULATE GENERAL OF THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA
201 E. Ohio Street, Suite 200, Chicago, IL. 60611
Tel: 312/670-6707; Fax: 312/670-6787
www.scgchicago.org

Friday, March 02, 2007

David W. Odell-Scott, Chair Philosophy Department
Kent State University
P.O. Box 5190
Kent, OH 44242-0001

VIA FACSIMILE: 330-672-4867

Dear Professor Scott;

It has come to our attention that the Philosophy Department at Kent State University is sponsoring a lecture "On Being Morally Challenged by Collective Memories" to be held on March 7, 2007 featuring Peter French as the speaker.

After reviewing the promotional materials concerning Mr. French's speech, we are deeply disturbed and shocked. We view these remarks as racist and hateful, and feel compelled to react. My Consulate is responsible to inform the Serbian Government of such anti-Serbian rhetoric, as well as US authorities about possible legal violations.

If this lecture is allowed to proceed, we will demand from the Office of the US Attorney in Cleveland an investigation about racist remarks and demand an explanation from the State of Ohio, regarding State sponsored hate speech. We are very sorry that no one at your School recognized this shameful conduct and did not react to prevent its announcement.

Respectfully,

Desko Nikitovic
Consul General
Cc: Kent State President Lester A. Leftonfax

CONSULATE GENERAL OF THE REPUBLIC OF SERBIA
201 E. Ohio Street, Suite 200, Chicago, IL. 60611
Tel: 312/670-6707; Fax: 312/670-6787

Fortunately, in America the U.S. Attorney does not investigate allegedly racist remarks by scholars (plus, as I noted before, the allegations were based on some very thin evidence). Let's hope it stays that way, and European norms of speech restriction — whether from Serbia, France, England, or elsewhere — do not make their way to the U.S.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Serbian Government's Planned Demand for Federal Investigation of Supposedly Anti-Serb "Racist Remarks":
  2. Cancellation of the Lecture That Was Objected to by Some Serbian-Americans:
  3. Brewing Academic Controversy:
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