I write (nonfiction)? Generally, I write for three reasons. First, I write to make
inquiries or to open up wider discussions by posing questions. Second, I write
to inform others. And, third, I write to persuade others. Sometimes, I think,
others write for different reasons. Here may be one such example.
you read the recent story about Freya, the walrus, who wandered into a
Norwegian harbour and took over a pier and some boats (which Freya damaged). A Norwegian
government agency, the Directorate of Fisheries, took the view that despite
warnings, people were engaging with Freya at too close a distance, and this posed
a danger to human life. For this reason, i.e., basically giving priority to
human life, the agency ended Freya’s life. The decision to do so was defended
by the agency’s director: Frank Bakke-Jensen.
with strong views about animal welfare/animal rights condemned the government agency’s
move. Professor Heller, a self-described vegetarian, was one such person. He wrote
a strongly worded blog post on the subject. See Kevin Jon Heller, ‘Norway
Murders Freya the Walrus,’ OpinioJuris
(Aug. 15, 2022), <http://opiniojuris.org/2022/08/15/norway-murders-freya-the-walrus/>.
The position of animals in our moral framework is contestable. I do not doubt Heller’s
sincerity. I take no position whether his view in regard to the agency’s
decision was the right one or the wrong one. He puts forward facts and explains
his reasoning for criticising the agency’s decision. And he is not alone—he is
far from alone. One might criticize Heller’s blog post’s title as extreme and also
for misusing the word “murder”—but those criticisms would be petty. People who
refrain from using strong language frequently find that their voice is not
heard over the din. Generally, his post is squarely within the realm of good (academic)
in his Opinio Juris blog post, Professor Heller also wrote:
Before getting to
the substance of [Fisheries Director Frank] Bakke-Jensen’s comments, it’s worth
noting that he is a member of Norway’s Conservative Party and a former Minister
of Defence. In other words, he’s pretty much the last person you would want
making a decision about whether to protect or kill an innocent animal.
is Heller’s point here? Is Heller expert on modern Norwegian history,
government, and parties, including Bakke-Jensen’s “Conservative Party,” and is he
telling us that this particular party is weak on animal welfare/animal rights issues? I suppose that is possible, but how is the reader to know that Heller
has such expertise? Or is Heller’s point that Bakke-Jensen is a member of a
little-c “conservative party,” and he is telling us that all (or, at least, most)
such conservative parties—and their members—are weak on animal welfare/animal rights
issues? Is that his point?
is one to make of Heller’s critiquing Bakke-Jensen for being a former Norwegian
Minister of Defense? Is Heller’s point that Norwegian ministers of defense are
weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Or is his point that all (or, at least,
most) ministers of defense world-wide (or in Scandinavia?, or in Western Europe?)
are weak on animal welfare/animal rights? Is that his point?
suppose there could be some empirical basis for Heller’s criticism of
Bakke-Jensen for being a Norwegian Conservative Party member and a former minister
of defense, but it is noteworthy that he puts nothing forward. Nothing at all. Heller’s
views here appear to be little more than personally held and strongly held
stereotypes and prejudices.
possibility is that Heller really did not mean to make either of those claims—in
the sense that he gave them any thought. Rather, his blog post was a primordial
scream baring his tortured soul for all—i.e., publicly exhibiting his pain for
the death of Freya. If the reputations of members of the Norwegian Conservative
Party or of former ministers of defense (in Norway or elsewhere) were injured
or if their feelings were hurt, so what—what is their pain compared to his
and Freya’s? After all, the real story is Freya’s death, not any
mistakes about the attribution of wrongdoing made along the way.
with this latter explanation is that it is essentially self-defeating. If Professor Heller’s claims are untrue, if Norwegian Conservative Party members are not weak on animal
welfare/animal rights, then his criticising its members in this way is unlikely to
win his cause many new supporters and might very well alienate an
important electoral and parliamentary constituency when animal welfare/animal
rights issues are being decided. The Norwegian Conservative Party was the leading
party in the prior government, which sat from 2013 to 2021, and it is now the
largest opposition party. Heller may be successfully baring his soul, but I do
not think his unsupported criticisms (prejudices?) here have limited the likelihood
of another Freya. Indeed, Heller’s blog post might have done just the opposite.
Heller might just be alienating the very people needed to change the policies which
he objects to.
suppose there is another possibility. Heller’s blog post is not indicative of prejudice.
And, it is not an attempt to persuade. Rather, it is an attempt at
self-identification to other members of the Elect. Heller is identifying
himself to other similarly minded people as one who deeply cares; he has his
heart and mind in the right place. Moreover, he wants other similar thinking
individuals to know he is one of them. That would be why his relying on unsupported
stereotypes is OK—because he is not trying to change future policy and he is not
really trying to persuade those thinking differently from what he thinks.
might be the explanation. But it is not a good approach for an academic to take.
An academic holds a safe perch, and is unlikely to lose his position merely for
announcing a few less than thoughtful and less than well-reasoned views. Reliance
on stereotypes poses little risk to most academics—particularly if the views
are shared by the majority (or even a vocal minority). The problem is that Heller’s
less sophisticated students and others will read this writing style and copy
it. Students do not enjoy the protections academics enjoy. Prospective (public
and private) employers will scan student-applicants’ social media footprints. Applicants’ writing in a style like Professor Heller’s might bar the applicants from opportunities that they might
otherwise have gained. That would be an unfortunate result, which will benefit
no one; indeed, it is not even likely to stop the Directorate of Fisheries from
killing future Freyas.
why write this way?
Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘A Response to Professor Kevin Jon Heller’s “Norway Murders Freya the Walrus”,’ New Reform Club (Aug. 16, 2022, 8:22 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/08/a-response-to-professor-kevin-jon.html>;