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 "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.)