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Brooklyn’s Night of Philosophy: Interview with Ian Olasov

A Night of Philosophy and Ideas was an all-night marathon of philosophy, including 20-minute lectures, readings, ethical dilemma discussions, musical and dance performances, and philosophical yoga in Brooklyn in January.  I spoke with Ian Olasov–one of the organizers–about his presentation on Tinder racism, why 7,223 people attended the evening, and why events such as these are important.

Ian, you were both an organizer and a presenter at the Night of Philosophy. Can you talk a little about your organizing role and how the event came about?

I organize Brooklyn Public Philosophers, a public philosophy speaker and event series based out of the Brooklyn Public Library. So I first heard that the Night of Philosophy was coming to the library around a year ago, when the speaker series was migrating to the library’s Programs and Exhibitions department. They had approached the embassy about hosting the Night of Philosophy, and they thought it made sense to bring me on board, since I already do public philosophy at the library. As for my role in organizing the Night of Philosophy, the library eventually came to me with a list of French philosophers and asked me for other philosophers I thought would be a good fit. I sent them a pretty long list, and I’m happy they took most of my recommendations! I also organized what came to be called the Dilemma Series. I wrote a bunch of advice column-type questions that raised larger philosophical problems–questions about medical decision-making when it’s unclear whether patients can understand what’s at stake, how to talk to Trump voters, cultural appropriation, the best way to do charity, interfering in other people’s fishy parenting decisions, and so on. I then rounded up a bunch of local philosophers to give short presentations and lead discussions of the questions. It was intended to be a cozier, more intimate, more interactive counterpart to the lectures going on elsewhere in the library. And I thought it went really well! Most of the presentations in the series were literally spilling out the door. I didn’t count heads, but I’d bet that they averaged around 25 people apiece in the Dilemma Series rooms, which were the size of a small bedroom. I think a lot of people came to the Night of Philosophy to talk to philosophers and meet other philosophically curious New Yorkers. The Dilemma Series gave them an opportunity to do that in a nicely structured way.

Photo of Ian Olasov
Ian Olasov at Brooklyn’s Night of Philosophy and Ideas

What was your presentation about?

I gave myself one of the questions in the Dilemma Series, which was about whether it’s racist to swipe right–i.e. indicate your interest–only for members of certain races on the dating app Tinder. It’s an interesting question, in part because it requires us to refine the concept of racism, and in part because it’s a case where different widely used moral heuristics give us conflicting guidance. I argued, first, that you should express the sexual preferences that you actually have on Tinder and that calling racially discriminatory sexual preferences racist is unhelpful and, second, that racially discriminatory dating behavior is a serious collective action problem that the media and entertainment, and to a lesser extent each of us individually, can and should work to solve.

How did people engage with you?

The questions and comments at my presentation were focused and helpful. Several people wanted to raise the question of how similar racially discriminatory sexual and romantic preferences were to preferences that discriminate by height and weight and religion. At least one comment proposed a helpful technique for addressing the collective action problem, which I hadn’t previously considered. One comment floated a difficult kind of biological determinist challenge to my argument. The crowd was a bit rowdy and giddy, but the energy and sense of common purpose at my talk and throughout the night was really palpable.

How did people respond to the night in general?

The feedback I got was very positive. Before I spoke, I was standing outside of the room next to a poster with the text of the question I was going to discuss. A hip couple next to me were reading the poster, and the guy’s like, “That’s so intense.” I told him I’d been waiting my whole life to hear that before I gave a philosophy talk. So that was gratifying! A lot of people appreciated the format of the Dilemma Series. Wide-ranging, intimate conversations were breaking out all over the place. There were also music, dance, and theatrical performances taking place throughout the night (which were the principal draw for several people I spoke to), and those got a really positive reception. The main criticisms were that things were too crowded and it was too hard to hear the speakers at the bigger lectures. For my part, I thought the crowding made the whole thing feel more exciting, like you had a sort of obscure hobby and then you open a door and there are thousands of people standing there with the exact same hobby as you. And from a speaker’s point of view, speaking to a small room with an audience of 25 people is much more energizing than speaking to a huge lecture hall with 25 people. I also heard from some speakers that some of the audience members could be a bit rude or hog the floor. The positive spin is that these are the people we need to talk to–that they can learn from the norms of discourse that govern successful philosophical conversations, and that there’s room for progress in how they reason and manage disagreement with other people on matters of fundamental mutual concern.

Photo of Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe at Brooklyn’s Night of Philosophy and Ideas

Can you describe the experience of being there?

It was wild. I’m usually–and I suspect I’m not unlike a lot of other philosophers in this respect–horrible at just walking up to strangers and talking to them at parties. But the vibe was so invigorating, and so warm and cooperative, that after a certain point, I just wandered from room to room talking with whoever I could–about time’s arrow, the nature of the commitment undertaken when you get a tattoo, mathematical ontology and the phenomenology of mathematical practice, the Lower East Side in the early 2000s, whether philosophy of science always reacts to developments in scientific practice, comic books, and, of course, Trump. Achille Mbembe’s opening address, where he talked about the eschatological beliefs guiding the new right nationalism and the tensions between global capitalism and liberal democracy, set the stage for much of the night. It gave people a sense of the urgency of what we were doing that night–reasoning, recognizing humanity and seeking commonality in sometimes very socially distant people, figuring out where we are and where we should go. I should add that the dance and music performances were also perfect. The library and embassy people had a really good sense for how to manage people’s energy over the course of the night–when the music should be chiller or more lively, softer or louder, when to open up the dance floor. Justin Weinberg at Daily Nous has pointed out a couple of times that philosophers aren’t always the best people to figure out how to publicize philosophy, or what venues or topics or will capture people’s attention. This was a real object lesson in that department. I have fine taste in music, but I think if I’d tried to program the music for the night myself, it would have been a disaster.

How late did you stay?

I tapped out at 4:30am. The Dilemma Series was scheduled to wrap up at 4:00, but Greg Salmieri’s talk on when to unfollow people on Facebook, which had started at 2:30 (!), turned into this incredible three hour discussion. So kudos to him, but my brain was a puddle of goo at that point.

Did you manage to see any other events presentations?

I could see many of the dance and music performances, but unfortunately I didn’t see any of the other talks, since I couldn’t abandon my post at the Dilemma Series for too long. I’m particularly disappointed to have missed Saba Fatima, Lisa Miracchi, Didier Fassin, and David Chalmers, so I guess I’ll have to get them to speak at Brooklyn Public Philosophers one of these days (wink wink).

Why do you think so many people are interested in it?

My librarian friends tell me that, at the final count, 7,223 people showed up, which is just unbelievable. But yes, that’s really the $64,000 question. There are a bunch of factors that I think contribute to the event’s popularity. Part of it is that attendees get to use a beautiful, interesting, but usually somewhat buttoned up space in a chaotic, funky way. Part of it is that they advertised the night very effectively–on the public radio station WNYC, for example. Part of it is the performances, as I said above. Part of it is that French philosophers are cooler than mainstream English-language philosophers. Part of it is booze. For my part, I left the night thinking of ways of bringing together philosophy talks and performances at Brooklyn Public Philosophers–rappers and philosophers who both address gentrification, say, or philosophers and poets talking about their ancient quarrel.

What do you see as the most important benefit of such an event?

Getting people excited about reasoning. Building bridges between very different people, and making it fun. Teaching people how to form rational bases for agreement and articulate the sources of their disagreement. Giving people a space to talk earnestly but joyously about the goals and strategies for combating the current administration. Showing people all the interesting, exciting, affecting stuff that philosophers do. Slowly working to change the incentive structure of philosophy as a discipline, so that professional philosophers have more reason to engage with the general public.

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Ian Olasov is a doctoral student in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, working on how people talk about morality. He is also the founder of Brooklyn Public Philosophers.

Photos courtesy of Ian Olasov. Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

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1 thought on “Brooklyn’s Night of Philosophy: Interview with Ian Olasov

  1. What a good article about an innovative event! Kudos to everyone involved including the public and especially to Ian Olasov for pursuing these forums.

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