Job Talks: Through a glass darkly


Dear Professor Manners: 

I’m a pretty hot property on the philosophy job market this year.  I’ve had  three fly-outs and they all went very well.  I had a lot of great discussions with the faculty in each department.  Of course, I understood that the women faculty wouldn’t really be up to a discussion with someone like me, so I pretty much left them to discuss their feminism or whatever among themselves.  One or two tried to break into the guys’ discussion, but I took my cue from the faculty there and didn’t provide them with the opportunity to embarrass themselves.

Since I fit in so well with each department, I am expecting more than one offer.  What I am wondering is what is the right way to turn down an offer I know lots of people would die for?

You may have solved the problem already.  Your profession is noted for being full of people  with  few  or no social graces, and you can no longer assume that the behavior you recount means everyone agrees that women cannot do philosophy.  I understand you may be surprised and even shocked by this news, but the fact of the matter is that you may have thoroughly and visibly insulted people who have the power of deciding whether you deserve a long term job in their department. 

Even if the female professors are generous enough not to let their feelings of personal animosity toward you decide their vote on your candidacy, they may well be worried about your teaching.  It is well recognized, at least among feminist philosophers, that women undergraduates find philosophy classes less appealing than do men, and the sort of exclusionary behavior you indulged in is one of the causes of that.   

Perhaps you should get out that list of VAP’s and think of another round of applications.

not a moral issue?

There’s been much in the media, in the UK, recently about prostitution and proposed changes in the law (mostly prompted by the high profile case in which Steve Wright was convicted of the murder of five women working as prostitutes).

(Proposed revisions to the law, however, have been jettisoned for the moment, in an attempt to get the Criminal Justice Bill through Parliament as smoothly as possible. More here)

Radio 4 had a discussion about whether selling sex simpliciter is morally problematic – you can listen to the programme here (though programme may only be online until next wed. scroll down to ‘the moral maze and click listen.)

Its actually a pretty frustrating listen: many of the discussants don’t focus on the matter that is supposedly under discussion, namely of whether or not selling sex itself is morally problematic. So often they seem to be talking at cross purposes. Rather, there is discussion of the often horrific conditions that surround those working in prostitution.

Whilst this meant there was little clarity over the moral issue …

(only Michael Portillo seemed focused on this question; his claim being that when it somes to selling sex simpliciter, if both buyer and seller were informed and consenting, there was no moral issue, nor should there be a law against this (he seemed to suggest this was a thought that could generalise. But there are cases where this does not, in current law, hold: he would surely want to say (I think?) that selling and buying drugs (non-addictive ones, to remove complications about autonomy on the part of the buyer), for example, should not be legal))

… what the discussion DID seem to show, was that the moral issues surrounding selling sex should be of little relevance when considering what the legal position should be  – not least because even if it is morally wrong, this does not mean it should be illegal.

More relevant are the realities of the conditions in which many women work in prostitution, and what leads them into it. This  interesting article in today’s guardian (G2) which discusses prostitution without raising the moral issue at all.

The epistemology (and metaphysics, and ethics) of bias

Edward McClelland has an article on Salon about Obama-McCain voters– generally guys (or “dudes”, as the article puts it), who will vote for Obama if he’s the Democratic candidate but McCain if Clinton gets the Democratic nomination.  McClelland started out feeling just this inclination, and then became convinced that all his rationalisations for it were wrong, that it was sexism, and that he should vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination. What interests me is the question of how we should go about deciding in any case, including our own, whether we are motivated by an inappropriate bias or by something more respectable. It might seem obvious that every Obama-McCain voter is motivated by sexism. After all, their politics are extremely far apart (at least as far as the US political spectrum goes), and Clinton’s views are very close to Obama’s. But loads of voters don’t base their votes on detailed knowledge of candidates’ positions, and instead go by some nebulous sense of “character”. “Character” evaluations certainly make it easy for bias to come in, but surely they don’t guarantee it. Mightn’t somebody just *dislike* Clinton for non-sexist reasons, and therefore prefer Obama/McCain? Surely this is possible, and probably there’s at least one person like this. So, even if we grant that many Obama/McCain dudes are motivated by sexism, mightn’t you, or your cousin, be one who isn’t? How would you know? It’s very, very tough. You can’t point to a record of support for other women who have come close to the Presidency, as there haven’t been any.  Self-knowledge of this sort is very hard.  It’s wrong to expect that if you are influenced by sexist biases you’ll discover the belief “women suck” lurking somewhere in your subconscious.  (I think a lot of people do mistakenly assume this picture of sexism, by the way.)  If what researchers on unconscious associations and gender schemas tell is correct, *most* of us– even some of those who devote their lives to fighting sexism– are affected by sexist biases.  This may be take the form of some inferences being easier than others, or of very slight positive or negative emotions being tied to sex/gender. What McClellan realised about himself was the extent to which he associated masculinity with leadership.  

I never said to myself, “I want a man for president.” I said to myself, “I want a leader who can unite the country.” Like a lot of guys who are about to furtively nod their heads, I think of leadership as a masculine quality, so Obama and McCain seemed like the strongest candidates. I was also leery of Clinton’s association with the culture wars — I don’t want to go through that again — but she was a polarizing first lady because she was given power over healthcare before the nation was ready to see a woman in that role. (In 1994, I walked into a religious bookstore and saw an anti-Clinton biography titled “Big Sister Is Watching You.”) Ultimately, it was impossible to separate my reservations about Clinton from the fact that she’s a woman.

But realisations of this sort about oneself are hard to come by (partly because they involve admitting things we don’t want to admit, but partly just because self-knowledge is hard).  I think there’s a real epistemic problem here.  There are also some interesting issues about how to define a bias, and about how blameworthy people are for biases and actions based on biases. And, of course, these questions and phenomena are by no means confined to sexist biases.

CFP: Shulamith Firestone


2010 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the most radical manifesto of contemporary feminism. Firestone’s ‘The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution’ became a bestseller, yet unlike the other celebrated feminist polemics of that year (Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics), Firestone’s work is scarcely remembered today.  Firestone called not only for the abolition of the nuclear family and the economic and social independence of children, but for the end of pregnancy itself.  The cybernetic revolution was hailed as the technological solution to the curse of Eve and the subordination of mothers just as automation was claimed to offer an end to brutal physical labour. Today, as researchers attempt to devise a prosthetic womb, Firestone’s call seems prescient. More importantly, her philosophical challenge to the cultural significance of genital difference returns us to the unresolved question of genderdichotomy, whether this is understood as discursive, social, psychologicalor physical, and its relation to the continuing subordination of women and homosexuals.We are requesting papers of  7,000 to 9,000 words addressing The Dialectic of Sex  its argument, its reception, its salience today.  Please send 300 word synopses, together with a brief biography, to Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford at m.merck AT by April 1, 2008. 

Is female wrestling worse than stripping?

Florida, and Miami especially, has some of the laxest legislation regarding strip clubs in the States. Here, you’re allowed to touch the dancers, they can touch you, the venues can sell whatever booze as they want, and they can do so till 5 or 6am. There’s not many rules about advertising either, and one quickly becomes inured to flicking past the pages promoting establishments that offer ‘full liquor, full nudity, full friction’ in the local free sheets and listings magazines. Occasionally, though, there’s something egregious enough to startle still. This was the Miami New Times’ recommendation for how to spend Monday evening this week:

Witness the glorious return of female wrestling.

Sick of spilling cheese at the strip club? We have something better for you. Allow us to paint you a visual picture of the sights, sounds, and smells you are certain to behold when Nastie’s Female Wrestling returns tonight to Studio A. Scantily clad women will be rolling around in baby oil, pulling each other’s hair, and eventually ripping off each other’s bikinis. The oil will glisten off of their smooth skin, as testosterone-fueled onlookers chant things like “Fuck her up!” Good stuff.

The two contestants will be naked and kicking as the drooling crowd moves closer to the custom-designed wrestling ring. How do the brawls usually end during Nastie’s events? Video footage from a previous match featured a brunette putting a blonde in a head lock. Then the blonde broke free, rolled over, and sat bare-bottomed on top of her opponent. She fondled her pierced nipples as the referee counted to three. All of this awaits you.

I was first flabbergasted, then disgusted, then curious at my own reactions. Why is this enough to shake me whilst I’m complacent about the strip clubs?  (Studio A isn’t a strip club, it’s a mid-size nightclub that more normally puts on bands and DJs).  Is it just the article – the violent overtones, the horrible pack-animal imagery (drooling, chanting), the fact that a respected publication is helping to promote it? Or is there a significant ethical difference between this kind of thing and strip clubs? I’m no ethicist; my intuition is that yes, there is a difference, this stuff is worse. But I’m finding it hard to articulate why, beyond the fact that this adds stupid violence to stupid objectification. Help, anyone?

Is a clone an abomination in the eyes of God?

If we think that what occurs in nature is compatible with a divine view, then it appears She may be a bit more flexible than religious leaders sometimes think.  Not only do we have gay penguins, but now it turns out that virgin births, in which a female gives birth to genetically identical offspring, can be found in Komodo dragons and other species:

Virgin birth, known to biologists as parthenogenesis (from the Greek, “parthen” meaning virgin or maiden and “genesis,” beginning), has been seen in other species over the years. Some lizards occasionally produce offspring in this way. So do several species of fish, including a female hammerhead shark at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha that produced offspring without a male last year.

Cloning is one of many mechanisms species use to survive in a dangerous world. Indeed, the diversity of reproductive strategies seen in animals staggers the imagination. Some reptiles do not determine sexes genetically, but rely on different incubation temperatures to determine the development of males and females. Other creatures can actually switch sexes during their lifetimes, being born male and developing as females. Still others can switch sexes based on behavioral cues in the social group. There is no one way that creatures start development, grow and form sexes — there are many varied ways.

Unfortunately, humans seem to forget this fact when we find ourselves turning to nature to guide us through difficult choices, such as arguments about whether life begins at conception, or over the proper structure of the family. Or, more recently, regarding the morality of cloning. Whether we’re talking about raising bigger cattle or growing life-saving organs or trying to “live forever,” both sides like to stress their abilities to judge what is “natural.” Judging from Komodo dragons, lizards and sharks, the answer seems to be that for reproduction, almost anything goes.

Thanks to Neil Shubin for the lesson that we should not assume nature meets our sense of what is natural.  The article seems to me a good example for teachers of various philosophy courses, and I’ve stressed the parts that  describe a problematic kind of reasoning philosophy profs will find familiar and the passages with Shubin’s general challenge to it.

“Bitch is the New Black” (‘transcript’ added)

The next time you hear some assertive women described in derogatory terms, consider  saying, “Yea!  Bitches get stuff done.”

From last night’s Saturday Night Live:

Nothing is endorsed or recommended here, except the sheer pleasure of appropriating the terms of abuse.

NBC has claimed copyright violation and pulled the youtube version.  We found another version, but it may be pulled soon.  If so, you can still find it on NBC’s site here.

And the following sounds like the sound track:

From MyDD comes something close to a transcript:

FEY: And finally, the most important Women’s News item there is, we have our first serious female presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton.
And yet, women have come so far as feminists, that they don’t feel obligated to vote for a candidate just because she’s a woman.

Women today feel perfectly free to make whatever choice Oprah tells them to.

Which raises the question, why are people abandoning Hillary for Obama?

Some say that they’re put off by the fact that Hillary can’t control her husband, and that we would end up with co-presidents.

‘Cause that would be terrible, having two intelligent, qualified people working together to solve problems. Ugh.

Why would you let Starsky talk to Hutch? I wanna watch that show, Starsky.

You know, what is it, America? What is it, are you weirded out that they’re married?

‘Cause I can promise you that they are having exactly as much sex with each other as George Bush and Jeb Bush are.

Then there is the physical scrutiny of her physical appearance.

Rush Limbaugh, the Jeff Conaway of right wing radio, said that he doesn’t think America is ready to watch their president quote “turn into an old lady in front of them.” Really?

They didn’t seem to mind when Ronald Reagan did that.

Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch.

Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is.

And so am I and so is this one. (pointing to Amy Poehler)

POEHLER: Yeah, deal with it.

FEY: Know what? Bitches get stuff done.

(Amy says yeah and starts nodding her head, together they get in a rhythm, with Amy saying in response, more yeahs, uh huhs, with a ‘you go girl’ style)

Like back in grammar school,

they could have had priests teaching you but, no,

they had those tough old nuns who slept on cots

and who could hit ya and you HATED those bitches

But at the end of the school year

you sure KNEW the capital of Vermont!

So COME ON Texas and Ohio

Get on board, it’s not too late!…


Beyond dogwhistles: Bill O’Reilly

Bill O’Reilly’s latest fails to be a dogwhistle, it seems to me, because the racism is so blatant and undeniable: 

And I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that’s how she really feels — that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever — then that’s legit. We’ll track it down.

And check out his fabulous attempt at an apology:

While talking to a radio caller, I said there should be no lynching in the case — that comment off Clarence Thomas saying he was the victim of a high-tech lynching. He said that on 60 Minutes, you may remember. I’m sorry if my statement offended anybody. That, of course, was not the intention. Context is everything.

Sexual orientation

Is sexual orientation stable and fixed?  Though some religious groups support the idea that gay men can change their orientation, both common understanding and more psychological-scientific views seem to regard it as unlikely to change.

But what if the research supporting this official view was done principally on men while women are difference?  That’s what Lisa M. Diamond argues in Sexual Fluidity:  Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, just published by Harvard University Press.

The initial hypothesis, that women are different and it’s been entirely missed since the objects of subject have been principally men, is depressingly familiar and has been shown true in some very important contexts.   For me the author’s support of the hypothesis lends enough credibility to her view that I want to read the book.  Aside from that, and its quite impressive academic press,  I can’t say more about the book, except that, as Publishers Weekly apparently says, it is sure to be controversial.