Guest Post: Imaginative Resistance and the Woody Allen Problem – Kathleen Stock

This post was originally posted at the Thinking About Fiction blog, here.

I have a problem. I love mid-period Woody Allen films. In no particular order, I love: the jokes, the affection, the humanity, the characterisation, the depiction of family life, the locations, the performances, the references to other films, books and poetry, the clothes, the music, the titles.. and most of all I love the character of the neurotic narcissist and unashamed enthusiast that Allen plays in all of them. Yet, given the well-publicised accusations about Allen and paedophilia, it’s becoming less and less acceptable to say this in polite society (by which I mean impolite society; by which I mean Twitter, obviously). I’m not alone in my problem: if you have formerly loved Louis C.K., you’re very probably now also in the club, for different reasons.

A stubborn part of me refuses to give up my love for Allen films. Isn’t it traditional for great artists and thinkers to be arseholes? Another of my great loves, Evelyn Waugh, was a bigoted, reactionary snob. And didn’t Gauguin infect half the teenage population of Tahiti with syphilis? Didn’t Schopenhauer push his landlady down the stairs? Haven’t we all had a bad day? The prospect of a glorious future where, on pain of social death, we have to make our cultural enthusiasms match up with our morals (by which I mean, what Twitter tells us to feel) fills me with horror. Next thing you know, we’ll all be reading Rupi Kaur poems to each other and listening to Joanna Newsom whilst eating vegan food and knitting. I dunno about you, but that’s my idea of Guantanamo, right there.  (For that reason, I completely relish this interview with radical feminist Julie Bindel about her love of Snoop Dogg).

Being a philosopher, however, I don’t just have stubbornness on my side; I have reason. In other words, having thought about it, I think there is a way I can continue to unashamedly and justifiably like most Woody Allen films whilst acknowledging that the man may well be a total pervert.

The solution to the problem is, to my mind, connected to an issue that philosophers of fiction often discuss: “the puzzle of imaginative resistance”. This is the question of why, in response to certain fictional passages, readers tend to report “resistance” or “blockage” in imagining what they are asked to. Most obvious cases involve fictional passages which ask readers to imagine that certain moral evaluations obtain: for instance, in the example of Kendall Walton “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all it was a girl”. But you can get arguably non-moral cases too: for instance “Ian patiently explained to Claire that there was no such thing as global warning”; or even “Jonathan wears pink trousers. He’s gay”. Assuming that the former is presented in a fiction non-ironically and with the implicit support of the author, and that the latter implies a generalised causal relation between the two sentences, then many readers will report resistance in encountering each of these.

On the face of it, there’s something strange about imaginative resistance: after all, if we can imagine that people are wizards, do magic, fly, shape-shift, and time-travel, why can’t we imagine that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right? Loads of different explanations have been offered. I don’t need to tell you about those, though; only about the right one. On this explanation, we resist certain fictional passages when we are led to think, via accompanying pragmatic markers in the text or their assumed presence, that those passages are asking us to engage in a specific kind of imagining (or if you’d rather: imagining with a particular function). This is counterfactual imagining. Counterfactual imagining is imagining in the service of believing what would or could or might be the case, were some given imagined scenario also the case. As such, counterfactual imagining is directed towards the having of certain beliefs. Some fictions are intentionally directed towards this sort of imagining, and moreover they intentionally steer us towards certain counterfactual conclusions, intended by the author to be believed by readers. We tend to read Walton’s example as steering us towards the belief that, generally, were someone such as Giselda to exist, and who killed her baby because it was a girl, this would be the right thing for her to do. We tend to read my last example as steering readers towards the belief that generally, if someone wears pink trousers, that means they are gay. It is when the examples are pragmatically read this way, as being accompanied by these intentions on the part of an author (admittedly, not the real author in either of these invented examples), that readers tend to resist imagining them. If you can’t believe  (because you haven’t been presented with any good evidence to think) that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right, or that wearing a certain colour of trouser makes you gay, you will experience resistance in relation to these passages.

However, had these passages been placed in a different wider fictional context, where the intention that readers counterfactually imagine not been detectable or ascribable to an author, then, on my view, resistance would not have occurred. If it is clear from surrounding context that the character Giselda lives in a fantastic world where the moral norms are different to ours, so that there is no implication about what readers should believe about their own situation, then resistance falls away. If it’s clear from context that Jonathan lives in a repressive society unlike ours, where gay people are forced to wear pink trousers, here too resistance will be absent. And so on.

What’s this got to do with Allen? Well, arguably (with the possible exception of Manhattan, which I avoid discussing for the sake of not ruining my argument), there is no serious implication in any of his films, intended to be believed by the viewer, that paedophilia is acceptable or in any way permissible. There is nothing about paedophilia whatsoever, in fact. Hence there is no genuine possibility of interpreting those films as inviting, via imagining, some endorsement of a counterfactual about it. Of course, the films might well indirectly endorse some other conclusions, intended to be believed, which the viewer might vigorously reject (about the desirability of a certain liberal, middle-class, white perspective, for instance. Just don’t tell me about it because I’m not listening right now, I’m reading e.e. cummings and listening to Bach).

Incidentally, the situation might not be as clear cut with Louis C.K., whose comedy material arguably can now retrospectively be seen as some kind of  a positive defence of his tendency to masturbate in front of people who “admire” him. An additional complicating factor here is that the persona of a stand-up comic tends to be much closer to that of the real person playing him/her, with knock-on effects for our ability to distinguish the statements of one from the other, or assess their epistemic weight. (Yes, I know Woody used to be a stand-up. I KNOW).

If this is right, then what we are left with is an ability to distinguish, in a lot of cases,  the content of the work from the content of the author’s values. As long as those values aren’t being intentionally promoted in the work as things to be believed by readers and viewers, then we can feel less compromised in liking the work. (This leaves out what we say about cases where the values are being unintentionally promoted, which I can’t tackle here).

Of course, there will be people who think we should cast aside certain works simply in virtue of their being produced by morally deviant artists, irrespective of whether that deviance is advocated for or presented as permissible in the works in question. This might be to do with a reluctance to send royalties to these people; or just a fear of contamination by association. The former worry is legitimate, perhaps (piracy, anyone?); but the latter is ill-founded, as long as we can agree that people can be complex, have differing and even contrastive personality characteristics, and that even people with very bad characteristics can sometimes make and produce enjoyable, pleasant, good, true, or otherwise life-enhancing things.

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in the philosophy department at the University of Sussex. Some of her thoughts on the imagination, fiction, and related issues can be found at her blog, Thinking About Imagination.


Saudi Reform and the Assault on Yemen

There’s been a flurry of recent news coverage tentatively hailing a possible new era of a liberally reformed Saudi Arabia. The tentativity is appropriate; puff pieces casting various Saudi Royals as the next great reformers have featured in anglophone press outlets for years (David Ignatius, anyone?).

The coverage includes a segment on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. In the introductory segment, presenter Evan Davis remarked that “the vicious war in Yemen might be seen as just one sign that the country is not close to a humane presence in the region”, a “humane presence” being shorthand for the kinds of liberal reforms under discussion. And Davis later posed the following question to one of his guests, Abeer Mishkhas: “Yemen is a blot on the Saudi copy-book of a serious, serious kind. Should we trust the guy who is, kind of, behind that to be the reformer?”

I give credit to Davis’ frank, if brief, description of the moral catastrophe that is the Saudi-coalition’s assault on Yemen. To give only the broadest sense of its severity, their intense bombing, one third of which has struck civilian targets, including an attack on a funeral that killed 140 people; blocking and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including 49 hospitals and schools by 2015 alone; and blocking of fuel to UN humanitarian flights, have left some 17 million Yemenis food insecure, 6.8 million acutely so, and created 2 million internally displaced Yemenis as of March this year; exacerbated a cholera epidemic that has now affected over 820,000 people; and led to around 10,000 deaths by preventing Yemenis from getting necessary medical treatment abroad.

Whether Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen is reason to doubt the latest imminent reform PR struck me as a strange line of questioning. The kinds of largely economic reforms the programme considered—”liberat[ing] the economic power of Saudi Arabia”, as another panelist put it—are clearly compatible with the unconscionable attack on Yemen. After all, as is widely known, the US and UK are supplying vast amounts of weaponry with which it is being carried out. Less known, they are also helping in the day to day operations of bombing Yemen. The US had a large staff tasked with assisting the Saudi bombing campaign, including sitting in the command and control centres from which the war is conducted. This was reduced to only five personnel in 2016, not because of accusations of Saudi war crimes, but because Saudi Arabia hadn’t requested more assistance. Similarly, the UK has  deployed military personnel to Saudi control rooms, providing training and assistance to those running bombing raids. The US is refuelling the very planes with which many of the bombing raids are being conducted, ramping this assistance up in 2017 and has contributed some of the bombing directly.  The US is also conducting interrogations at facilities in Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates (also allies in the Saudi-led war) where prisoners are tortured by UAE-directed personnel. To top it all, the UK has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in impeding attempts to investigate the extent to which war crimes have been committed in Yemen.

Assuming the US and UK embody the kinds of liberal economic and social policies that the Newsnight panellists wish for Saudi Arabia, then evidently, prosecuting the horrendous war in Yemen is no obstacle to Saudi reform at all. After all, we in the US and UK are prosecuting it too. The temptation to think otherwise is, I suggest, rooted in the widely held and historically inaccurate assumption that broadly liberal societies don’t commit atrocities, at home or abroad.

Immigration, Population, and Public Services

In yesterday’s BBC leaders’ debate for the upcoming UK general election, in response to a question about immigration, the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) leader Paul Nuttall raised the well-known concerns of his party.

Last week it was announced that a city the size of Hull came to this country, net. […] That’s going to be a Birmingham over a five year period. It’s unsustainable. What we need to do is we need to reduce immigration, and we do it by having an Australian points-based system, so if you’ve got the skills that this country needs: yes, please come here and work. But beyond that, beyond that, we have to get the population under control because if we carry on on the road we’re on, we’ll have a population of 80 million by the middle of this century. Now you just think what’ll happen. There’ll have to be a huge school building programme; there’ll have to be new hospitals, new motorways, a new rail network, new houses–we’re already having to build a house every seven minutes just to keep up with the numbers of people coming into this country.

According to Nuttall’s claims, UKIP are concerned about the contribution immigration makes to population growth and the strain this allegedly places on public infrastructure and other resources, and therefore wish to further curb it. Other parties, including the UK’s Conservative party, have made the same arguments.

These parties like to invoke worries about strained public services, as well as gluts in the labour market, as a way of addressing immigration. Doing so helps them avoid the appearance of relying on any xenophobic premise. Resource concerns provide a rhetorically powerful veneer, for those wishing to shed a xenophobic image, of an ideological neutrality acceptable to many voters uneasy with other forms of anti-immigrant discourse.

Luckily, there seems to be a way to test whether this discourse truly reflects an abandonment of xenophobic premises, or merely provides cover for them. You can do so by comparing the attention given to immigration and any similar phenomenon that would place public resources under comparable strain (granting, for the sake of argument, that immigration places any strain on public services in the first place).

Nuttall is correct that net immigration to the UK per year is equivalent to about the population of Hull—248,000 people in 2016. Interestingly, when you compare domestic, non-immigrant population growth—by subtracting deaths from live births in the UK (for the last year for which I could find UK-wide data, 2008)—you get a similar figure: 214,703. A Portsmouth rather than a Hull. Yet, one does not hear Nuttall or UKIP demanding action on domestic population control. This appears to reveal an inconsistency suggesting something other than a concern for public services underlies the desire to further curb immigration to the UK.

Of course, the cases are different. One question concerns the rights of foreigners to settle in the UK; the other concerns the rights of citizens to reproduce and pass that right onto their offspring. And granting (though I take no position on this issue here), that nation states have a right to grant citizens rights that they deny to foreigners on grounds of sovereignty, it may seem simply obvious why laws prohibiting foreigners’ freedom of settlement are more acceptable than laws restricting citizens’ reproductive rights.

However, this reply is only a temporary fix.  First, granting the legitimacy of distributing rights differently to foreigners and citizens, this differential distribution must obey some ethical constraints, however loose. It might be okay to require foreigners but not citizens to apply for a visa; but it’s not okay, for instance, to permit the torture of foreigners entering the country, while forbidding the torture of citizens. In short, foreigners cannot have all rights afforded to citizens forfeited simply for being foreign. So, for any given case, there is a live question as to whether denying entry to the foreigner in question is acceptable or not given these constraints—i.e. it doesn’t simply follow from national sovereignty that the receiving country can do as it pleases with foreigners.

Second, relatedly, denying the very fundamental freedom to any foreigner to settle where she pleases requires justification—the burden is on whoever wishes to restrict the freedom, not on whoever wishes to exercise it. This justification may be forthcoming on the grounds, for instance, of strained public services. But if so, part of this justification for denying the foreigner her liberty must include the fact that strained public services cannot be avoided in less draconian ways. For instance, to take a fanciful example, if the UK denied settlement to Germans on the grounds that the UK’s data entry systems couldn’t handle the umlauts in German names, then the obvious fix would be to either change the data entry system or ignore the bureaucratic requirement for exact spelling. Denying Germans the liberty to settle in the UK on such grounds would be unjustified. So, any claim that denying freedom of settlement to foreigners is less severe a denial of freedom than denying the freedom of citizens to reproduce, or reproduce as much, requires support, even if it’s easy to come by (the same applies if we consider the choice as between granting settlement to foreigners and granting it to citizens’ unborn children). Again, favouring the citizens’ freedoms over foreigners’ doesn’t simply follow once we grant national sovereignty.

But third, and most crucially, these worries only apply to the severe case of introducing legal prohibitions, whether on settlement of a foreigner, or on the reproductive rights of a citizen. But, of course, acting to control the UK’s domestic population need not take the form of legal prohibitions; it might take the form of informal measures such as more comprehensive reproductive health education, publically funded advocacy for living with no or fewer children, an easier adoption process, expanded access to contraceptives or abortions, or reduced prices for such, etc. Indeed, given the difficulty the UK government has had with its repeated attempts to reduce immigration, even with the severe instruments of legal prohibition at its disposal, I’m far more confident in the potential of informal measures to reduce the ratio of domestic live births to deaths in a way that preserves rights and freedoms than I am in their potential to similarly reduce immigration.

Assuming this is right, the large amount of attention given to immigration as a source of alleged strain on public services, and the total lack of attention given to domestic population control, calls out for explanation. Here’s my preferred explanation: UKIP, the Conservatives, etc. don’t really care about the number of people in the country; they care about the number of foreign people in the country (I submit as further evidence this highly xenophobically framed article on the same topic by former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage). Or, more cynically, they care about neither but recognize on pragmatic grounds that they must appear to care about them.

So, former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband may have been right to claim that it’s not prejudiced to be concerned about immigration. But, if I’m right, as long as your concern is framed in terms of population pressures, it probably is prejudiced to be concerned about immigration while remaining unconcerned about domestic rates of reproduction.

Terrorism and Responsibility

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of blaming the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and attacks like it on the U.K.’s foreign policy. The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Britain’s Wars to Blame for Manchester Suicide Bombing’; the normally more sympathetic Independent went with ‘Jeremy Corbyn Blames Terrorist Attacks such as Manchester Bombing on UK Foreign Policy’. Less subtly, Prime Minister, and Conservative Party rival, Theresa May claimed that “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault“.

To those who listened to or read Corbyn’s speech, these claims will have appeared at best uncharitable, at worst, dishonest. What exactly did Corbyn say on this topic? He said:

Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

Corbyn is quite clear: among the causes of terrorism is the U.K.’s foreign policy. However, he is equally eager to stress that this fact “in no way reduces the guilt” of the perpetrators of terrorism and that the “the blame is with the terrorists”, sentiments he repeated when pressed in a BBC interview after the speech (alternative link here).

But if foreign policy decisions cause terrorism, are they not to blame for terrorism? The question is a little tricky because being ‘to blame’ is ambiguous between a causal and a moral reading. Dissecting this ambiguity is the best way to understand Corbyn’s claim. Though he doesn’t put it this way, I think Corbyn’s claim is that U.K. foreign policy is (partly) causally but not morally responsible for an increased risk of terrorism in the U.K.

On the morning of the 19th September, 1985, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Michoacán, Mexico, killing over 5,000 people in Mexico City. The earthquake was causally responsible for those deaths. But it was obviously not morally responsible for them—earthquakes aren’t capable of moral agency.

Consider another horrible case. Suppose we are having a water fight. Unbeknownst to you, I replace the water in your gun with lethal chemicals. You fire at a friend, killing her unwittingly. You are causally responsible for her death. But, to the extent that your firing the chemicals at her wasn’t the result of negligence, culpable ignorance, or malicious motives, you are clearly not morally responsible for her death.

In much the same way, if U.K foreign policy (relevant aspects of it, anyway) does on the whole raise the probability of terrorist attacks (a claim for which there is considerable evidence; see e.g. here, here, and here), then this fact alone does not mean that the U.K. is morally responsible for such an increased risk, even if it is (partly) causally responsible for it.

It’s worth noting in closing that just because someone’s actions are (partly) causally responsible for an awful outcome, this need not provide sufficient, or indeed any, grounds to refrain from those actions. Someone may be more likely to be mugged in virtue of leaving the house, for instance. We might even list leaving the house as among the mugging’s causes. But given that such a person should not have to alter this perfectly acceptable behaviour to avoid such an horrific outcome, we may deny that such a risk gives the person any reason to not leave the house, except perhaps a merely pragmatic one. Indeed, it may give her a reason to leave the house—as an act of defiance, say (those who have thought about victim blaming in other contexts will see connections here).

Similarly, that a foreign policy causes the harm of increased domestic terrorism may not by itself provide a compelling reason to conduct that foreign policy in a different way. If the foreign policy is just and the response it triggers wholly unreasonable, then the all-things-considered thing to do may, like the person leaving her house, be to continue in the same vein, especially if there are no equally just, risk-decreasing alternatives. So any demand that the U.K. change its foreign policy can’t merely hang on the increased risk of terrorism; it also needs to consider whether that policy is just, and the other kinds of outcomes it causes. Luckily for Corbyn, criticisms addressing these other considerations aren’t hard to come by.

Trump, Russia, and Causation

There’s an NBC Meet the Press report doing the rounds on social media today purporting to establish an interesting causal connection between reporting on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media. In the video, Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd draws on the following evidence:

It’s a tactic with a pattern. The president’s attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia. On January 5th, NBC News reported on the intelligence community’s report on Russian influence in the election. On January 6th, President-Elect Trump tweeted, “I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top-secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.” On February 13th, 14th, and 15th, news outlets reported on Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. On February 16th, President Trump spent much of a 77-minute news conference attacking the press

The video then goes on to point out ways in which White House officials cajoled FBI officials and conservative lawmakers into trying to snuff out the ongoing news story concerning Trump’s connection to Russia.

That one kind of event frequently follows another is not of course definitive proof of  direct or indirect causation. There are coincidences, for one, and sometimes the events will be independently caused by a third factor. In the northern hemisphere, there’s a strong incidence of people dressing up warmly shortly after birds migrate south; but it’s implausible to think that bird migration causes this sartorial behaviour; instead, both are caused, in part, by the changing seasons.

The repeated succession of two types of events is, however, defeasible evidence of a casual connection and at first sight, the timing of news stories about alleged connections between Russia and the Trump administration, on the one hand, and Trump’s attacks on the media, on the other, looks quite alarming. This appearance disappears, however, once one comes to appreciate that both kinds of events–the reporting and the attacks–are incessant.

What Todd’s report misses is that the mainstream media have reported on ties between Russia and the Trump administration, either explicitly or by innuendo, every single day in recent weeks. This reporting and editorializing spans the breadth of the corporate news media. Below is a non-exhaustive sample of reporting on this theme since Trump’s inauguration.

January 20th: Vanity Fair, Salon

January 21st: Politico, Financial Times

January 22nd: Salon, Huffington Post

January 23rd: CNN, CBS, NPR

January 24th: Newsweek

January 25th: Politico,

January 26th: NPR, NPR

January 27th: New York Times, GQ, Business Insider

January 28th: Politico

January 29th: Huffington Post

January 30th: The Atlantic

January 31st: Voice of America, The Daily Beast

February 1st: Wall Street Journal

February 2nd: The Hill

February 3rd: GQ

February 4th: NPR

February 5th: The Hill, NBC

February 6th: ABC

February 7th: CNN

February 8th: Washington Post

February 9th: New York Times,

February 10th: NPR, Boston Globe

February 11th: NPR, Business Insider

February 12th: Washington Post, Washington Times

February 13th: The Hill, LA Times

February 14th: New York Times, CNBC

February 15th: The Independent,

February 16th: MSNBC, The Atlantic

February 17th: Fortune, Bloomberg

February 18th: Miami Herald, Reuters

February 19th: LA Times, New York Times

February 20th: Vanity Fair, MSNBC

February 21st: PBS, Slate, Newsweek, New York Times

February 22nd: Vox, Reuters

February 23rd: Vox, Politico

February 24th: NPR, Guardian

February 25th: The Guardian

February 26th: Newsweek, The Guardian

This makes the claim that Trump’s attacks against the media come directly after reports connecting him to Russia trivially true, because any time at all comes directly after such  reports. That those attacks have “escalated” recently, as Todd puts it in the same segment, conceding that they have, is also poor evidence of any interesting connection for the same reason.

It’s worth mentioning that Trump’s attacks on the media are also a virtually daily occurrence, even if we restrict our attention to his Twitter feed and ignore the various speeches he has given and comments he has made to the same effect. Provided there were sufficient news stories connecting Trump to Russia to make sense of “repeatedly” (a presupposition of Todd’s claim), this would also make Todd’s claim that Trump’s “attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia” trivial.

So the fact that Trump’s attacks on the media follow reports on his administration’s alleged ties to Russia appears to be either a coincidence (in the broadest sense of the word), or else derivative of a more plausible causal relationship. For instance, it seems likely that a causal relation exists between the media’s (mostly justified) general antipathy toward Trump and Trump’s criticisms of the media. This more general claim is supported at least by the fact that Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” accusations respond to a number of news themes, not just those concerning Russia.

I suppose that, in some sense, this more plausible causal connection would entail the one Todd means to establish, since the reports connecting Trump to Russia are an instance of the news media’s more general antipathy toward Trump. But the point of Todd’s claim is to distinguish the Russia-focussed reporting as uniquely reliable in eliciting Trump’s ire, since this is a way of supporting the claim that Trump is working on behalf of the Russian government (because, presumably, he would be especially sensitive to reporting that would reveal this fact). But there’s nothing here to support that unique causal relationship, even if it is true.

Humour and Solidarity

On his HBO show that aired on Friday the 17th February, Bill Maher interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at reactionary news outlet Breitbart. The interview attracted some attention not only because of Yiannopoulos’ far-right views, but also because invited guest Jeremy Scahill had declined to feature in the broadcast for this very reason.

There were many things to object to in the interview. Among them was one exchange in which Yiannopoulos discussed the way humour brings people together, arguing that this is a fundamental truth about human psychology that the modern progressive left has forgotten.

Milo Yiannopoulos: It’s a characteristic of the modern left, I think, requiring, you know, this absolute consistency and forgetting that people are messy and complicated and forgetting also some obvious other, um, human truths, I think, some realities of human psychology. Like, for instance, you know the reason they want to police humour, you know, which is very important to both of us, is that they can’t control it. Because the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter, because they can’t control what people find funny.

Bill Maher: And also because when people laugh they know it’s true. Because laughter…

Yiannopoulos: Yeah, of course. Nothing annoys people or amuses people like the truth

Maher: …laughter is involuntary.

Yiannopoulos: Exactly, exactly…

Maher: When you laugh, even if you don’t really agree and that kind of part of your mind goes ‘holy shit’…

Yiannopoulos: …exactly, exactly, and so at my college talks you’ve got the professors at the front who are there to kind of monitor me, to make sure I don’t go off the rails, and I make a joke about Ted Cruz or something and they’re, like, [makes snickering sound]. You know, you can see it, you can see it. And the other thing, the other thing that’s really important is not just, um, is not just that. The other thing is, you know, humour isn’t how you drive people apart. You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart. And these basic, you know, fundamental human psychological insights the… the progressive left has just forgotten.

The discussion was interesting for mobilizing two popular tropes about the cultural left that Maher did not question. First, that the cultural left will sacrifice the truth for ideological reasons. A recurring idea is that certain “facts” (about purported racial or gender differences, say) are inconvenient to those committed to substantive forms of egalitarianism, and cause them to deny these “facts” on political grounds—including “facts” about what is and isn’t funny. The second (which lurks in the background of the interview, if not said outright, and which is in some tension with the first) is that members of the cultural left are humourless authoritarians who, not understanding what’s funny themselves, wish to police humour to bully those using it into conformity.

I don’t deny that there are people who identify themselves with the progressive left who fit these stereotypes, deaf to countervailing evidence and ham-fistedly domineering in their cultural criticism, including of humour. That said, the progressive left has no monopoly on these traits. Take, for instance, Republican Reps. Martha Roby and Susan Brooks’ insistence that brief moments of light-heartedness during the extremely long 2015 Benghazi hearing with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not funny. And cases of the political right’s ignoring or denying claims on spurious ideological grounds are too abundant to list (the current U.S. administration furnishes us with many examples). But more importantly, the focus on these cases is unfortunate in that it involves attacking a straw-man version of serious left-wing criticism that is sometimes directed at humour. The result is that since the poorest weapons suffice to knock down a pile of straw, the arguments directed at mischaracterized positions tend to be pretty weak. Yiannopoulos’ interview offers a case in point.

Take this claim:

You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart.

Yiannopoulos is here turning the tables on leftist critics of certain humour, arguing that in their attempt to include people and bring them together by “policing” humour they do the opposite, since “humour is what brings people together not what drives them apart”. This last claim has the air of the kind of homespun wisdom one might find on a Hallmark greeting card. It feels true, acceptable, but disguises something much darker (a metaphor for Yiannopoulos’ appearance on the show if ever there was one). Even conceding the point that humour brings people together—which is probably true of some people in most deployments of humour—this point overlooks the fact that this “bringing together” is not just a primitive fact or an unanalysable fuzzy feeling; it consists in fostering a sense of togetherness around something, be it an agreed upon claim, an attitude, a weltanschauung, whatever. And among the things around which one can foster a chuckling comradery —and here the darkness comes in—is the exclusion, denigration, and hatred of others.

So, when one of Yiannopoulos’ readers jokes to another:

Why do blacks have white under their feet and palms?

– Because everyone has some good in them.

This may help “build a bridge” between them. But it only does so by unjustly dismantling millions of other bridges, if they were ever standing to begin with. And like any other immoral act, telling such a joke in such a context merits criticism. So, the claim that criticizing it as unethical or offensive must reveal some failure to understand a fundamental tenet of human psychology, prudishness, or an authoritarian desire to compel conformity is quite obviously false.

Maher’s point that laughter betrays a (sometimes reluctant) recognition of the truth is also implausible as a general claim. The two people laughing at the above joke (told in that context) don’t recognize a truth; they both merely acknowledge a claim about how racial essences relate to virtue that they take to be true, but which is false. And many jokes require no recognition of a truth so much as a recognition of a joke-internal convention. Someone who has no distinguishable opinions about English, Scottish, and Irish people might laugh at an Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman joke because they understand—in spite of its falsity—that a convention is in play according to which the Irishman is dense.

A final thought: criticizing such uses of humour, even as being “not funny”, does not even require the critic to find the joke unfunny. She may admire its structural features or cleverness in spite of its flaws. This is not merely because some other tellings of the same joke are funny (that is, as philosopher Noël Carroll argues, it is joke tokens and not types that often ought to be the object of evaluation). Sometimes, saying that something is “not funny” is akin to saying that Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will has no beauty; as philosopher Kendall Walton points out, it can be an oblique, figurative way of saying that the joke is unethical or flawed in some other way that may or may not redound to its merits as humour.