Cem Erkli defends his pro paper in a corner of the AQ

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Summer Term News from SFU Philosophy

September 30, 2020
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Another academic year, another term, and we’re still in virtual land. The department has seen digital defenses and virtual conferences, waved farewell to grads and waved Zoom hellos to the new MA program students. We’ve even had a couple of new profs in quarantine. Welcome to Nic Bommarito and Alex King, two new professors in the department who have been through the mandatory quarantine required for travelers arriving in Canada these days.

Defense by Zoom! Congratulations all round.

Defences and Awards

Congratulations to Schuyler Pringle, Lutfi Shoufi, Varsha Pai, Somayeh Tohidi and Cem Erkli who successfully defended their pro papers this summer. On top of remote classes, virtual TA and tutorial duties and social distancing, our MA grads rose above the odd times we’re in. We wish them well in their future adventures. 

Awards news congratulations to Lisa Shapiro, who also completed her term as FASS Associate Dean earlier this year. The Extending New Narratives Project involving SFU Philosophy and 11 partner institutions around the world received a major SSHRC Partnership grant.

The department also congratulates undergrad Helen Luo, who graduates this October with Joint Majors in Philosophy and Political Science, on receiving the Robert C. Brown Award.

The Horban Undergraduate Essay Prize was won by two Jacobs this year—Jacob Gebrewold and Jacob Stewart, and the Graduate Research Award went to Yan Chen and Kesavan Thangopal . Congratulations!

We'd also like to congratulate MA grads, Daniel Polillo and Jenna Yuzwa on their SSHRC scholarship award sucess too.

Conference News and Reviews

MA Program grad student, Jenna Yuzwa, presented a paper she wrote for Chelsea Rosenthal's Privacy seminar (PHIL 825) this past spring. "Private Politics: Should We Be Concealing More and Exposing Less of Our Political Views on Social Media in the Name of Civility?" was accepted for the thirteenth annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Conference (University of Colorado Boulder) held virtually in August. You can read her abstract below.

Abstract: Civility in the United States is considered to be a major problem according to 69% of Americans, and more than a third have experienced incivility while on social media as of 2018. In 2019, nearly half of adult social media users indicated that they felt ‘worn out’ by the quantity of political posts and discussions they encountered on social media. How might we address incivility on these platforms? And, should individuals reconsider before posting political related content on social media?

To address these concerns I turn to Thomas Nagel’s “Concealment and Exposure” and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I examine Nagel’s claim that preserving the boundary between what we do and do not reveal publicly and having some degree of control over that boundary is crucial to our humanity and since it is linked to concealment, is also a necessary condition for civilization. I find that his argument is remarkably prescient and applicable to incivility regarding American politics on social media.

Next, I analyze two particular assertions Mill provides for the importance of liberty of thought and discussion: that truth is often found in the middle of two conflicting positions and that a given position determined to be true must continually be freely discussed to prevent it from becoming ‘dead dogma.’ Drawing on the arguments of these two thinkers, I contend that on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter specifically, ‘discussions’ – as they are colloquially referred to – are characterized by three central features:

(i) Lack of reciprocity among users – that is, unlike face-to-face conversations there is no expectation that interlocutors respond to or listen to one another. Agents may post content, but some of these posts may never be viewed.
(ii) Anonymity and dehumanization of interlocutors make it easier to treat other users with an especially acute degree of cruelty online compared with face-to-face interactions.
(iii) Personalization or customization of content only reaffirms rather than challenges agents’ views.

Given these features, I suggest that exchanges regarding politics on social media are incredibly deficient forms of engagement – indeed they are a type of pseudo-engagement because while they have allowed a greater plurality of individuals than ever before to express their viewpoints, these platforms are not conducive to, nor do they facilitate listening among interlocutors.

  • Nic DePaula et al., “Challenges for Social Media: Misinformation, Free Speech, Civic Engagement, and Data Regulations,” Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology 55, no. 1 (2018): 2–3, https://doi.org/10.1002/pra2.2018.14505501076.
  • “46% of Social Media Users Worn out by Political Posts, Discussions,” Pew Research Center, accessed February 18, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/08/46-of-u-s-social-media-users-say-they-are-worn-out-by-political-posts-and-discussions/.

Since we’re all relatively new to this online conference world, Jenna has very helpfully reviewed her experience.

“Attending RoME XIII was an intellectually invigorating experience in which I had the pleasure to partake in a variety of sessions concerning ethics broadly construed.

In light of current events, the conference was held virtually rather than in person. Given the online format one could not always see their fellow interlocutors, but this did not hamper our discussions; our conversations were lively and extensive – often spilling over from the session into the break! Moreover, one benefit of the conference being virtual was that audience members would type their questions in the chat box which presenters could then save and return to later when they revise their work. Overall, it was a wonderful weekend of engaging in philosophy collaboratively.

Having this opportunity allowed me learn more about the intriguing work other scholars are doing in moral philosophy and to ask questions about their research. I’m grateful for the abundance of insightful and excellently constructive feedback and comments I received on my own work which will ultimately further facilitate my development as a professional philosopher!”