Feminist Philosophers

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Is civility a professional error? September 26, 2014

Filed under: academia,free speech,improving the climate,language — jennysaul @ 7:25 am

A guest post from MM McCabe

Amid the debate about academic freedom which has been in the professional news recently, there has been a parallel discussion about the nature and importance of ‘civility’. It is a category mistake (as I have argued) to take civility to be the converse of academic freedom. But some have argued that civility is still a professional error: that we may or even should use uncivil language and a hostile stance at times in dealing with opposition and criticism. And the demands for incivility are heard more acutely when we face attack on our very institutions and seem to be fighting for our academic lives.…..

Begin, however, with the ordinary case. In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside.

But civility matters practically and instrumentally, too. For discussion – not only in philosophy, but perhaps philosophy is a paradigm case – is a fragile thing. In its full sense it relies both on each party’s having the confidence to speak without hesitation or fear and on each party’s ability to listen to the other. Shouting, of course, precludes listening; and so does its behavioural counterpart, incivility – where the damage may be done at a distance, or over a length of time. For these are exercises of power; and they distort and damage and stunt each party over time. (As a young graduate student, in seminars with an array of philosophical heavyweights, I said not a word in public for years; and the sense, both of terror at speaking up, and of hubris in daring to think I have something to say, has remained with me ever since, only overcome, regrettably, by a natural garrulousness). The wielding of power is bad for each party; both the silenced and the speaking end up with a view of what they each think that comes from their squinted sense of themselves, rather than from some better assessment of what they (might have) said. That is bound to limit what we think about – since some stuff never gets said; and some gets said too much. And it is bound to limit us.

For all this has both a narrowing effect and a broadening one. Incivility relies on an assumption of being right; and that assumption itself may make a speaker risk-averse (this is the Mastermind syndrome – you too can be a specialist within a vanishingly narrow scope…) or pontifical everywhere (this is the God syndrome – to which both those who believe in a god and those who do not are prone…). Both syndromes affect both parties to a discussion where the balance of power is out of whack: but they are the assumptions of power, not of careful inquiry.

For the hearer, civility has an obvious epistemic advantage, that it does not tempt us to accept beliefs whose warrant is sustained only by force majeure; it allows us to see the limits of expertise or authority; and it encourages us to think that we too might have something to say. Moreover, in eschewing particular attack, it allows us to turn our attention better to what is impersonal and abstract; it has that instrumental value.

For the speaker (or the writer) it may be hard to remember that we might be wrong, or that we could think again, or that others might have thought about the same things too; and in the grip of a passionate conviction it is especially difficult to make oneself look at the passion from the outside, from the perspective of another, from the abstract stance of the discussion itself. But discussion gives us these other perspectives: if we are able to listen, then we can think about what we think is different ways. If we are sure we are right about something, we can surely afford the patience to listen to a different view; and if the different view is worth hearing, then perhaps we are not so right after all. But that sense of perspective arises only if the other party to our discussion is able, not only to listen, but also to speak. Listening, if you like, goes both ways; and each of us has to have courage to speak, as well as the patience to hear, if the deep intellectual benefits of discussion are to be reaped. That courage can be very hard indeed to find. Civil exchanges, where the exercise of power is absent, are one condition for finding it.

Civility is hard, though: it is easy indeed to feel oneself under threat and to respond without hesitation, seeking to defend ourselves. This escalates – one remark construed as uncivil provokes another and another; and then the history of the offence is just repeated and rehearsed. This is the rhetoric of the playground, of ‘she said, he said, she said…’, the endless recapitulation of grievance, the constant repetition of what was done, by whom, to whom, and under what provocation. Such disputes, legalistic in their detail, may be not only interminable, but utterly indeterminate, since the original offence is often lost in the retelling itself. Both parties, of course, take themselves to be in the right, and to have behaved impeccably. Either may be right. But in such a situation, remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: we are all the poorer for it (apart, perhaps, from the Court of Chancery). Return, then, to the nature of the aspiration to be civil. The prospect of restoring good will and the possibility to speak and to listen together demands that the endless detail is, at last, abandoned. The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past.

In all of our exchanges, perhaps, we fall short: civility is under construction, but it continues to be an aspiration. But there is still a question of the role of rage: are we never right to express fury, or righteous indignation? Communities, after all, are not only the place for polite discussions of an afternoon in the study, but the locus of structures of power, places where wrongs can be done and go unnoticed or unprotested. When that happens, there is another demand upon us, a different kind of courage called for – the courage to protest, to object, to stand up for one party against another – a courage that is demanded even where there is no risk of physical harm. So in counterpoint to the aspiration to civility, there is a proper demand to call out wrong, and to insist on expressing disapproval or disdain or condemnation. This may be a case, merely, of objecting to a wrong; or a protest against the improper wielding of power. (It should not, I think, for all the reasons above, simply call out an intellectual mistake – accusations of stupidity promote the wretched ‘smartness’ competition). Such a protest may indeed express other responses than civility: anger is the properly moral emotion in response to some appalling injustices. And that rage may be, not only about the content of the injustice, but directed against the perpetrator – after all, we regularly think that there is a connection, sometimes, between the views that someone holds and their moral character. As so often, there is a matter of fine judgment here between the demands of moral indignation, and the demands of attentiveness; and this, we might think, works within any community, whatever its boundaries. But once again there is a difference of category: moral indignation may be a moment or a stance against some particular offence; but it should not be a general attitude, nor a repetitive trope, nor, indeed, a policy. Instead, in general, civility serves us well; for it underpins the virtues that promote freedom of inquiry: modesty, a sense of community and intellectual courage.

 

Academic free speech and the academy: an informative approach September 16, 2014

Filed under: academia,civility,free speech — annejjacobson @ 7:01 pm

Mary Margaret McCabe has a thoughtful post on free speech and civility. She argues that there is a pragmatic inconsistency in letting civility trump free speech in the academy.

If academic institutions exist for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, whether alone, or with colleagues, or with students, such inquiry does not say in advance what may or may not be thought, or considered or assumed or believed. Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument where it leads is surely the right one: inquiry is not constrained by canons of what can or cannot be said or thought. This is true, at whatever level the inquiry occurs. So an inquiry into inquiry is similarly unconstrained. Equally, an inquiry into how inquiry should be institutionalized is free in the same way. The context of inquiry, that is, is a suitable topic for inquiry too – the openness runs across fields and up the orders, to include, of course, the inquiry into academic freedom itself.

If that is right, then the basis of academic freedom is internal to the nature of academic business.

What about civility? Aside from cases of the impossible interlocutor, one who will not listen, civility is something to which we academics should aspire:

Civility is an important aspiration in the context of inquiry that is free in the sense I outlined. For free inquiry occurs between and among people; and people are over and over affected not only by the content of what is said, or even the general import of what is said, but also by its manner and its tone. Loud and fierce declarations of opinion often force an interlocutor to be silent, or to be afraid; in such cases civility is clearly conducive to an effective and productive exchange of ideas.

 

Who Really Has Academic Freedom? September 9, 2014

Filed under: academia,free speech,Uncategorized — phrynefisher @ 9:49 pm

The concept of free speech is an abstraction worth defending, certainly. But what does free speech mean when nearly everyone who has actually gained any kind of a degree understands fully that the freedom to academic expression is contingent upon any number of factors, including race, class origins, gender, and ethnicity, to name just a few? …

Perspective from Yasmin Nair.

 

 

Why I signed the Salaita pledge August 25, 2014

Filed under: academia,free speech — jennysaul @ 8:35 pm

I signed the Salaita pledge last week. I thought I’d say a bit about why. Quite a few of the people I’ve seen discussing the petition online at least appear to hold the view that anything an academic says on the internet– or at least any expression of a view– should be protected by academic freedom and not subject to administrative oversight or disciplinary action. I think this view is wrong. Academics can say things online– even via the expression of views– which are instances hate speech, bullying or harassment. They can also say things which serve as evidence of serious professional wrongdoing. When an academic says something which is hate speech, bullying, harassment, or evidence of serious professional wrongdoing, universities very much should get involved and should consider and possibly take disciplinary action. I also in fact place a rather high value on civility, as readers of this blog are aware.

Despite all of this, I signed the pledge. One very important reason is that I don’t think what Salaita has done is an instance of bullying, harassment or hate speech. Bonnie Honig lays out the reasons for thinking it is not any of these better than I possibly could. I am, however, aware that others take a different view. Nonetheless– even if these others are right– it is wrong to take such an extreme action on this basis, without proper consideration and due process.

As to civility, much maligned at the moment on the left– I still value it enormously and strive to promote it on this blog and elsewhere. But its lack is clearly not a firing offence– or in fact an offence of any kind unless it rises to the severity of one of the categories already discussed.

And so– despite thinking civility is an important academic virtue, and despite thinking that what an academic says online is a legitimate matter for concern, I signed that pledge.

 

CU Boulder students say tenured faculty member being forced out over a lecture on prostitution December 15, 2013

Filed under: academia,free speech,prostitution,sex work,teaching,women in academia — philodaria @ 2:19 am

At Thursday’s 2 to 3 p.m. class inside the Cristol Chemistry and Biochemistry auditorium, or “chem 140″ as it’s called by students, Adler lectured for about 20 minutes before telling students she would not return in the spring.

Students said Adler then told the class that she was being forced into retirement because the administration thought her lecture on prostitution was inappropriate, degrading to women and offensive to some minority communities.

The prostitution lecture is given as a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes.

Students said Adler told them the administration heard a complaint about the skit. On the day of the lecture, several people who did not appear to be students attended the skit and took lots of notes, students said.

Adler told her students she tried to negotiate with the administration about leaving the skit off the syllabus. Administrators allegedly told Adler that in the era of sex scandals at schools like Penn State University, they couldn’t let her keep teaching.

From here. 

 

Indian cartoonist arrested on sedition charges after criticizing government corruption September 10, 2012

Filed under: free speech,human rights — David Slutsky @ 8:46 am

Indian cartoonist arrested on sedition charges after criticizing government corruption

“India police have arrested a political cartoonist on sedition charges after his drawings criticizing government corruption irked the ruling Congress party…”

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Police had no grounds to arrest cartoonist Aseem Trivedi: Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil

“… ‘If telling the truth makes me [a] traitor then I am one… if I am booked under sedition for doing service to the nation then I will continue to do so.’…”

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Sedition: does it have any place in modern India? [pertinent info here - is it accurate?]

India Against Corruption (IAC) Statement on Aseem Trivedi issue

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Cartoons Against Corruption‎ [what's up with/what about the "Gang Rape of Mother India" cartoon?]

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see also former post on:

Does Criticizing India Count as Sedition? Arundhati Roy Will Find Out

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http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/does-criticizing-india-count-as-sedition-arundhati-roy-will-find-out/

 

Open letter to Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi November 19, 2011

Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons, hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.

What happened next?

Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.

What happened next?

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

This is what happened. You are responsible for it.

Read the full account of what happened with links to further photos here.

 

political protests then and now September 27, 2011

Filed under: English riots,free speech,human rights,politics,Uncategorized — annejjacobson @ 7:59 pm

Then there were the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. If you look past the pundits you can see, among other things, tear gass and beatings.

Or the recent student riots in London with police charging on horseback:

These pictures make the police reactions to the Wall Street protestors seem certainly more moderate, if in some instances incredibly painful.  But those very painful incidents do not seem to provide enough contrast to  justify the Nation’s recent explanation of the low turn out for the protests:

The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police … And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.

It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.

Now, imagine you have a job you can’t get time off from, or kids. Are you going to risk that precious job security, or the safety of your children, to go protest in an event that may—if you’re really lucky—get some dismissive coverage in the New York Times?

There was a time when individuals cast aside those fears because they had union-protected jobs, and unions organized events with tens of thousands of confidence-inspiring fellow members in attendance. While those events do still occur, they’re a rarity these days as union membership dwindles, the privatization of the country continues and the establishment media still don’t grant them fair coverage when they do occur. Not one of the young people I spoke to at the Occupy Wall Street protest said they were union members. 

I don’t know what the difference between the 1960”s and protectors today in the US is, but police brutality does not seem to be it.  Nor, for those who remember the initial reporting of student protects, is it the sort of  belittling journalism that the NY Times indulged in, and the Nation is criticizing; there was plenty of that then.

Perhaps one difference is that the  protects before were coming from universities, and students were well versed in getting into groups and planning things.  Here’s an interesting clip about the planning before the Chicago riots:

 

Nottinghamshire police pay £20,000 to student arrested over research material September 16, 2011

In 2008, Rizwaan Sabir – an MA student at the University of Nottingham – was reported to the police by the university for downloading a copy of the al-Quaeda training manual and emailing it to his friend, Hich Yezza, who worked as an administrator. Yezza was helping Sabir put together a PhD proposal on counter-terrorism. He downloaded the manual from a US government site. A longer version, containing more material, can be purchased from any bookshop. However, when another administrator found the manual on Yezza’s computer, the university immediately called the police, who arrested Sabir and Yezza. Sabir was held for seven days before being released without charge. However, despite his innocence, information was kept on record, and as a result, he endured various forms of harassment from the authorities. (Yezza’s treatment was even worse: he was imprisoned for several months in an immigration holding unit as the UK tried to deport him. It took two years, and thousands of pounds in legal proceedings to halt the deportation and win back his residency papers. Again, he was completely innocent of any connection with terrorism.)

The Nottinghamshire police have now paid Sabir £20,000 in an out of court settlement, over their handling of the affair. Let’s hope this changes the way that such cases are dealt with in the future. You can read more here.

 

Writing about discrimination against Iranian Women June 8, 2011

Here is a seemingly important article on “Iran’s women footballers banned from Olympics because of Islamic strip“.

This [Iran-women-Olympic-strip] article/news story involves a very important matter as regards individual Islamic women (or teams of them) who cannot do something such as play a sport because of how they choose to dress, especially if that dress is something as important to them as their understanding of their religion. Perhaps some significant percentage of the women do not choose this form of dress, as Iran requires something like it. We do not know because the article appears not to say or to address this issue of choice. (Even oppressed women who have internalized sexist norms in a great many cases nonetheless have substantial autonomy and agentic skills.)

I regret that this news story is cast in terms of a focus on Iran. Perhaps a focus on Iran is required for the story to use the Olympics as a main example. The problem with that use, however, is that Islamic women in many places suffer discrimination for using this kind of dress in all kinds of sports venues besides the Olympics – I can think of many unfortunate cases of female high school athletes in the U.S., for instance.

Of course, I wish more people would read and understand Irshad Manji on such matters. One might think that my two paragraphs above are not sufficiently feminist because of how sexist the Islamic religion is. However, all forms of western monotheism are incredibly sexist (among other bad things) and I really do not see Islam as particularly bad for western religions as regards feminist concerns.

Ideally, if I were writing newspaper stories/articles I would write about how Iran massively oppresses women. I would also write about the oppression of women with regard to discrimination against them in the field of sports.

What I would NEVER do is write a story/article about Iranian athletes that does not even seem to mention, let alone strongly emphasize, how badly the Iran state treats women. (People go to jail all the time in Iran just for signing a peaceful petition saying that they support democratic reforms! And the lawyers in Iran who represent people who go to jail in Iran for doing something like signing a peaceful petition in support of democratic reforms are themselves sent to jail or worse.) It pains me to read the article with which this post began given the concern expressed in this paragraph and in the context of this entire post.

For related comments threads to two posts that document Iran state oppression of women, see:

What Do Iran And The U.S. Have In Common?

interested readers might especially want to check out comments numbered 12 through 20 at the post above

and

Urgent Petition To Save Sakineh

interested readers might want especially to check out comments numbered 5, 6, 8, 18, 19, 39, 45, 46, and 49 at the post above

 

 
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