Brian Leiter Reports….on Clinton

Leiter’s less than insightful remarks on Clinton: She is the weakest contender, presumably in part because:

Hillary Clinton suffers from being a Clinton, as well as having one of the most unappealing public personae of a national politician in recent memory. Dick Cheney is creepier and scarier, to be sure, but “fake” is the only word that captures the impression Ms. Clinton makes every time she opens her mouth.

I’m always fascinated by the natural ability some have to assume their own reactions are fairly universally shared. What’s more depressing is that his observation seems in no way tempered by the slightest realization that there are contradictory pressures on her that may have led to what he could have seen as an overly controlled persona. Many of us thus work in a profession so thoroughly sexist that many of the power-holders have not acquired any habit of self-critical monitoring of their own negative reactions to women.  Equally, they seem untouched by the knowledge that might inform their self-monitoring,

Or  do I exaggerate?

And note that, as Jender and I have both said, it isn’t that either of us wants  to promote Clinton as the very best candidate; rather, our concern is with the sexism that her candidacy is revealing.

34 thoughts on “Brian Leiter Reports….on Clinton

  1. I don’t see any sexism in Leiter’s remarks. There’s sexism in society, to be sure, and it’s unfortunate if this has placed “contradictory pressures” on Clinton as a female candidate. But to explain her unappealing public persona is not to make it go away. If she does indeed have an “overly controlled persona”, then it seems perfectly reasonable to consider this a mark against her candidacy, no matter the ultimate cause. (Compare: “Their observations about Bush’s stupidity seem in no way tempered by the realization that he was dropped on his head as a baby.”)

  2. I think the sexism in Leiter’s remarks is not in simply pointing out some weakness in her campaign. What he says is that she has one of the most “unappealing public personae of a national politician in recent memory.” My recent memory includes a lot of bad public personae. The sexism is in the privilege of universalizing what is really a very particular gaze. (A white, male, etc. gaze.) Consider, by contrast, if I were to talk at great length about my particular perspectives as a black female, but speak about them as if everyone shared them. I don’t, for example, find HRC more “fake” than other politicians. Leiter’s personal sexism (if what I’ve said is accurate) is just an instance of a larger problem. It’s that his voice is empowered (because he has a frequented public forum from which to present his own particular view in ways that suggest it is general); entitled (as I’ve described above); and all too common. He is part of a chorus of voices that present things that may reflect male privilege as just commonsense observations. Does he find her more fake because the ways that women might play politics are more off-putting to him because they are the actions of women? We can’t even get to this part of the discussion because of the character of his comments: not that he find her fake, but that she makes the impression of being fake. It’s a small point about language, but what concerns me is the impact of this small linguistic behavior when it occurs over and over and over again.

  3. Agreed, Schreeke.

    “unappealing,” meaning–I, Brian Leiter, would not want to sleep with her?

    Geez Brian, good thing that we don’t evaluate YOU on your looks (cough, i.e. mean “appeal”).

  4. RM, is there some basis for your apparently ridiculous interpretation that I’m missing, or do you not see anything wrong with thoughtless slander?

    Schreeke – I don’t have any objection to you or anyone presenting their personal perspective and assuming that it is widely shared. They risk looking silly if it turns out they’re wrong, of course, but that’s a far cry from any kind of -ism. (And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with sex in particular.)

    This didn’t seem to be the focus of JJ’s post, though. She poked fun at “the natural ability some have to assume their own reactions are fairly universally shared”, but then moved on: “What’s more depressing is that his observation seems in no way tempered by the slightest realization that there are contradictory pressures on her that may have led to what he could have seen as an overly controlled persona.

    It’s the latter sentence which struck me as misguided, for the reasons given in my previous comment. (I’m curious to hear JJ’s thoughts.)

  5. Richie,

    What planet are you on? Women have been traditionally and indisputably judged on their sexual “appeal” and JUST their sexual “appeal.” You would have to be a moron to call a woman candidate for anything “unappealing” and not assume that it will be interpreted as sexually unappealing.

  6. Richard,
    There is a significant gap between “overly controlled” and “fake.” We have been documenting in a number of posts the fact that many people see powerful women as in various ways pretty completely unacceptable. Leiter looks like a clear case of that, given his extreme characterization of her.

    Contrast that with realizing that she is caught in a huge bind: if she shows emotion, she’s thought to be unstable (as quotes and even comments here attest); if she doesn’t, she’s bitchy, dominating, controlling, “fake” and “one of the most unappealing public personae of a national politician in recent memory.”

    I’m actually shocked that many, many supposedly well trained philosophers do not control their use of sexist cliches. I expect Leiter would recognize that to express surprise that Obama is clean and articulate, or to say that Tiger Woods can ony be stopped by being lynch is to draw on racist cliches. Ironically, Leiter has probably passed judgment on many more professional women in P&T decisions than on minorities. Would he be able to recognize that someone’s sense that a well published black man is sneaky and dishonest is possibly due to their experiences in a racist society? Maybe, but he clearly does not recognize that someone’s sense that the strongest candidate (the front runner), a woman, is weak and fake and unappealing may well be due to their experiences in a sexist society. That is, unless he is able to be more critical of others than he is of himself. One hopes that philosophical training makes such a gap less likely, but who knows in this sort of case.

  7. RM – context makes a difference. Of course there are some contexts in which talking about the “appeal” of a female would be understood to mean her sex appeal. But this – to any fair, non-obsessed, and minimally competent reader – is not one of them. (Seriously. Ask anyone with decent reading comprehension skills. They will confirm that your interpretation of the quoted passage is ludicrous and unsupportable.) Frankly, it bothers me that the other feminists on this site are willing to politely ignore your slanderous comment. It doesn’t reflect well on them.

    JJ – I can see how your explanation is possible, but there’s no specific reason in this case to impute such sinister influences. I mean, Clinton is rather notorious for being a pragmatic, unprincipled politician, willing to support unjust wars and say whatever is necessary to win votes. So I’d assume that the judgment of “fakeness” is made in response to this, i.e. her particular character, and not any kind of general sexism.

    (After all, it becomes a bit conspiracy-theoretical if we’re to automatically assume that any harsh criticism of a female candidate is necessarily a response to her being female, rather than a response to her flaws as a candidate. I really don’t think it’s appropriate to make those sorts of accusations without specific evidence to support them — if we are to take sexism seriously, then wrongful accusations of sexism are also pretty serious, to my mind.)

    N.B. I wholeheartedly agree with you when it comes to all the nonsense over Clinton showing emotion (supposedly indicating that she is “weak” or “unstable”). There’s plenty of sexism out there. I’m just not convinced that this post identifies is an instance of it, since all you’ve got is the fact that Leiter was highly critical of Clinton as a candidate (judging that she has a “fake” an unappealing public persona), and there are plenty of non-sexist reasons why one might reasonably agree with that.

  8. Richie,

    Yes, context is extremely important. In this case, the “context” is the historical characterization of women being evaluated in terms of sexual appeal. This context is always present, regardless if it is explicitly referred to or not. To not recognize this is rather short-sighted, and admits of a very literal and flat-footed interpretation. Leiter should have known better, regardless of his intentions.
    So, even if he meant “unappealing” in a very non-gendered, way (i.e. in the non-sexual sense of being “politically unappealing”) he is a fool to use the word when describing a female candidate.
    For instance, I might call you (a white male, I assume) “primitive” and not expect the word be laden with other meanings, but if I called a black man or woman primitive–with all it’s horrible, unjustified and despicable racial overtones–then I’d be, well, a moron, if I cried “Gee wiz guys, that’s not what I meant. I’m not racist.”

    PS. You write “if we are to take sexism seriously,” and then you write: “There’s plenty of sexism out there.” If am to be the literal reader that you want me to be, this suggests that you think that there is plenty of sexism out there, but you are not sure if you take it seriously or not. Very revealing.

  9. Richlet,

    This my last comment. If you feel the need to get the last word in, well, I’ll write that off to your nature.

    Have you ever heard of Modus Tollens (it’s related to Transposition)? When we have a conditional statement if A then B, and if not B is shown to be the case, we can conclude not A. This means that B not being the case can, indeed, show that A is false (or as you loosely put it, call A “into doubt”).

    In your example, B NOT being the case would be making false accusations of sexism, i.e. if we prove that there are lots of false accusations of sexism then we should not take sexism seriously.

    So, my dear boy, given that you think that Leiter has been falsely accused of being sexist, we have at least one instance of not B that could call A (taking sexism seriously) into doubt. Granted, how many more of these “false accusations” are needed before you really begin to question sexism is not clear.

    Regardless, I suggest you take a quick look at Modus Tollens. Google it. I teach it in my intro logic class.


  10. JJ and commenters, please correct me if I’m wrong. Does this sound like an accurate assessment of this discussion so far (i.e., up to comment #10):

    1) Ideally, a speaker is sufficiently aware of how their statements can be interpreted that they speak so as to avoid misinterpretations. I imagine that in day-to-day communication (i.e., unideal circumstances) it would be very difficult for any speaker to be sufficiently aware as to successfully avoid misinterpretation all the time. That would require that speakers possess an extraordinary amount of knowledge about an extraordinary amount of topics.

    2) It’s quite likely, then, that a speaker might make a statement that seems uncontroversial to them, yet is controversial to others. E.g., a reader (in this case)/hearer might take Leiter’s statements about Clinton (quoted in the OP) and think either:

    a) Clinton has an unappealing public personae; a candidate’s public appeal is an important part of their candidacy; in Clinton’s case, it is a problem for her candidacy bc her public personae is unappealing; perhaps there are unfortunate reasons (in this case, a sexist society) that contribute to the speaker’s statement; the acceptance or rejection of the statement by others should not be informed by these unfortunate reasons.

    b) A speaker’s belief and statement that Clinton has an unappealing public personae may be due, at least in part, to the speaker’s experience in a sexist society; Clinton may present a certain public personae bco her experience in the same sexist society; that the speaker is speaking from a POV of privilege within the sexist society suggests that their statement is influenced by the sexist values of the society; that the candidate may present a certain public personae suggests that her presentation is influenced by the sexist values of the society; so while the speaker may indeed believe and state that Clinton has an unappealing public personae, their audience might wish to take into consideration the context (in this case, our sexist society) in which this opinion was formed; and while Clinton may indeed present a certain public personae , her audience might wish to take into consideration the same sexist society in which the personae was developed.

    3) Speakers, especially those with influence in the public sphere, should make an effort to acquaint themselves with POVs different from, and perhaps especially, in conflict with their own POVs. Also, inform themselves as to the contexts which produced different POVs.

  11. This thread is getting nastier than I like our threads to be. How about we stop now? Thanks.

  12. Annie,

    Thanks for the question. Let me take a more basic case, but also appeal to my experience.

    If you’ve been involved in interviewing candidates for an academic leadership job, then you may well have found that the women have a particularly difficult time. If they are forceful, they are judged bitches; if they are not forceful, they are said to be too weak to leaders.

    So what do you say of someone who comes out of an interview with a forceful woman and says, “We certainly don’t want a bitch like her”? Surely, a negative reaction is justified.

    In fact, I think Hillary Clinton acts very similarly to the way I’ve seen women act who’ve had to have their candidacy tested in public meetings on questions like that of diversity and who expect fairly hostile questioning. What I say in general, and have said to a Board of Regents, a Chancellor’s cabinet and many more bastions of male privilege is that the/this/a university is fairly untouched by the discourse concerning equity that has been going on for thirty years. And that has to change.

    Does Leiter know he’s enacting a sexist cliche? Probably not. Should he? That depends on what place you think bigoted judgements have. What we’re learning over Clinton’s appointment is that the media is unaware of the sexist cliches it grabs onto. I think it is worse when a philosophy professor, who has certainly had a role in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions about women, remains so sexist in his judgments. We are supposed to be more self-critical; after all, most of our justification for getting paid is that we teach habits of critical reflection.

    BTW, in my experience, some southern and southwest universities are particularly behind the times. I’m betting Leiter has had little serious acquaintance with diversity workshops and I think that the University of Texas should do better by its actual and potential female students, staff and profs.

  13. Just to note: Jender’s comment came in as I was writing. I’d delete my last comment if it seemed to me to attack other comments/people making those comments. I’m just trying to say perhaps more clearly what the original criticism is.

  14. JJ, Thank you for your comment. I wanted to make sure I understood things correctly.

    I should also have noted in my first comment that there are probably more interpretations available than the a) and b) I mentioned, but I excluded others bco space considerations and a) and b) seemed to be the ones of interest here.

    A thought provoking topic, thanks.

  15. Annie,
    It’s the Friday Cat Blogging, I have to confess. Charlie Cat looks as though he’s closely related to a flame point siamese. I have a friend who had a semi-flame point and still misses him.

  16. [Just to set the record straight, I wrote: “if we are to take sexism seriously, then wrongful accusations of sexism are also pretty serious“. Contraposition yields the conditional that if we don’t take wrongful accusations seriously, then we don’t take sexism seriously. It does not yield RM’s suggestion: “if we prove that there are lots of false accusations of sexism then we should not take sexism seriously.” That’s just plain mistaken.]

    Okay, now back to the catblogging :-)

  17. I think you do exaggerate on this one. “Creepy”, “scary”, and “fake” are the words here; they’re not nice things to say, but I don’t see the sexism. I’m looking, and I don’t see it.

  18. Hillary gives many people the impression she is fake – in part because they are predisposed towards thinking that – Clinton is a name that seems to be associated with ‘politics’ and within politics ‘insider’. Being ‘fake” is probably something that a study of assicaitions would produce. something like this

    I expect some of that is sexism some of it is a convoluted consequence of sexism (e.g. Hillary plays into a ‘fake’ niche because others more complimentary ones are denied to her).

    He is effectively talking about pushing a liberal agenda (which includes but probably to a fairly limited degree women’s rights) and that he probably knows Hillary performs worse in head to head ( for whatever reason (which he would know includes sexism – which he may or may not care about) but the bottom line is Republicans (theoretically more likely to win. He is being a bit pragmatic (although he probably also favours Obama and Edwards on policy grounds).

    So I don’t see sexism in him saying that Hillary is unappealing (to the general public) what may however be sexist is the assumption that I share that opinion or that I should share it and that he also has it and thinks it is the right opinion to have because he has provided no evidence at all to indicate that I should have such an opinion of Hilary or that she should stand above other political figures in that regard. One then has to wonder whether he is just talking to the “foolish masses” or if he is internalizing some bad logic (sexist or not).

  19. GNZ:
    It’s important that Leiter distinguishes between HC being a Clinton and her public persona. It is his characterization of the latter that I am commenting on. It is also important that his statement about the latter is not just that it is unappealing. She’s top of the line uappealing. He further says that whenever she opens her mouth she appears fake.

    This goes way beyond a sober assessment of a candidate.

    BTW, the candidate version of the IAT is interesting; it looks to me as though it may be a more superficial probe than many of the others, since they say that typically the ranking the test reveals will coincide with one’s conscious ranking.

  20. I agree that to any objective reader, Leiter’s comments are simply a review of a politician. However, to say that describing Clinton as “Unappealing” is to say “Leiter doesn’t want to sleep with her”, and justify this assumption by claiming..

    “the “context” is the historical characterization of women being evaluated in terms of sexual appeal. This context is always present, regardless if it is explicitly referred to or not” is pretty clear that RM has lost the ability to judge comments rationally or fairly. RM appears to view the world through this feminist/victim lense, but this doesn’t mean every criticsim of a women by a male is sexism.

    Nor by isolating a term out of context and lumping dubious to rediculous connotations to the term used, beyond its literal meaning, is it fair to label someone a sexist. It is a gutter-debate.

    You are saying that the word ‘unappealing’ is off limits when describing a women politician, but i assume not if it is a male? A presidential candidate is a brand as much as an individual – i think the term unappealing a very apt word to describe a politician – when so much of whether they get votes is based on their general “appeal” to the public.

    This was from the NY Times – is it sexist? does this mean Bush chose Kerik because he wanted to sleep with him, as he found him attractive?? obviously not.

    “The senior administration official said that Mr. Bush found Mr. Kerik to be an attractive choice because of his professional experience and that the president also admired him as a self-made man and liked his forthright style.”

    Also, when male candidates are described as strong, or criticised for being weak, is this sexist against men because there is an historical context where men have to be macho and strong or they are failures?

    Military service is very important for male candidates. The fact that Kerry has purple hearts ffrom Vietnam while Bush skived was a notable issue in the 04 election. I would male candidates suffer too from sexism in this regard, to live up to traditional male stereo-types of what qualities we like in our men, with pressure to have put themselves in harms way. I bet nobody is judging Clinton on her military service…

    Despite this, Kerry (as was Kennedy) was sometimes described as a weak candidate. Is this sexist? are you an idiot if you think you can call a man weak and it not mean he is less of a man than a ‘tougher’ more masculine opponent?

    If you are constantly looking for a way to cry victim, i’m sure you will always be able to twist words, make dubious assumptions and find it.

  21. SarahG,
    Leiter does not simply say that Clinton is unappealing. At least for a large part of the discussion here, it is his hyperbolic placement of the term that is remarkable – and being remarked upon.

    Whether RM also implicitly included the hyperbolic is not entirely clear, but that feature needs to be attended to unless you are just chastising RM.

  22. For what it’s worth, my take on Leiter’s comment is that it’s both hyperbolic and unreflective. The lack of reflection is disappointing, though widespread. Personally, I wouldn’t have applied the label ‘sexist’ to his comments. I would apply it to the surrounding context of Clinton discussions, and I would also think it’s really unfortunate and damaging for people to fail to reflect on how this context may influence their views. Whether such unreflective responses deserve the label ‘sexist’ is an interesting and difficult question of definition. I wouldn’t use the label myself, though I can certainly understand why others might. I’m not sure, though, that endless discussions over exactly how to apply this label are all that rewarding.

  23. Jender,

    I’m probably not getting your point. What more would you want before you called some comment sexist?

  24. PS: I meant to say also that you’ll notice that in my original post I said it was the context that is sexist. It is, however, also true that I’d count “We don’t want a bitch like that” as sexist , for complicated reasons that I think apply also to this case. They have to do with culpability for participation in well known sexist cliches when its more than 30 years since the discourse about equity began.

    And notice that he isn’t just saying “Yuck, HC is awful.” He’s implicitly recommending actions or lack thereof.

  25. Hi JJ,

    I don’t have a definition of ‘sexist’ that I’m satisfied with, so I can’t give you a great answer. To be honest, the real reason I wouldn’t call the comment ‘sexist’ is that I’d expect people to get hung up on the contentious label and not pay enough attention to the careful critique of the comment’s causes, context, and effects. :) So, basically, it would be a strategic decision. As I said, I don’t have a definition of ‘sexist’ that I’m wholly satisfied with. And I’m deeply cynical.

    Also, you’re right that you didn’t say Leiter’s comment was sexist, which I noticed. However, the discussion was getting hung up on that issue, and I wanted to speak to that.

  26. Jender, Thanks for the clarification. It’s an interesting question. I was inclined to think the discussion has also been addressing some interesting questions about what is and what is not relevant to the question of sexism. Perhaps that’s just because I was getting the last word.

    I’m now wondering whether my use of “sexist” is due to the legal context in which I work and with which I’ve unfortunately had to deal. Women do form a protected class and behavior that is adversely discriminatory is in theory not permitted. You have to treat a woman as well as you do members of unprotected classes in professional matters. E.g., hyperbolic negative comments are in theory actionable – with the proviso that they cause one harm.

    It turns out that many women I know weren’t aware of this protection, so perhaps I should say a bit more. Suppose, for example, a woman prof is turned down for promotion, and the committee letter explaining the decision contains falsehoods in among the reasons. If it is a very sloppy committee and they get stuff about male candidates wrong also, then you don’t have a case. But if they got everything right about the male candidates and made mistakes only in the case of a female candidate, they are legally liable if she suffers harm, such as not being promoted.

    I don’t know the actual steps that have to be proven, but I do know of a case where this happened. The prof threatened legal action, but she eventually was promoted by the provost. Still, she was told that the offending committee would be much more careful in the future. Not necessarily the best outcome, since it could just mean they’ll cover their tracks better next time.

  27. Yes, there are really interesting issues here. I suspect that many people use ‘sexist’ in such a way that fairly explicit and obviously sexist beliefs (e.g. chicks are too emotional to trust with responsibility) are required before an individual counts as sexist. On that view, it’s a stretch to say that the Leiter comment shows a sexist attitude. Since this view is widespread, I think misunderstandings can easily arise when the word ‘sexist’ is used in a different way. I think the widespread view is too restrictive, but find it tricky to define one that’s less so without being vacuous. As far as discrimination goes, I often find it useful in teaching this stuff to explain that a practice can be discriminatory *even* if those carrying it out do not hold discriminatory attitudes. (E.g. A person hiring lawyers who insists on hiring only those capable of 70 hour weeks.) I guess in doing this I probably draw on the widespread narrow understanding of ‘sexist’, which may explain some of my hesitancy to apply it to Leiter’s comments.

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