White Feminism

Teaching about intersectionality, and the ways that women of colour have been excluded and marginalised within feminism? You couldn’t do much better for illustration than to have a look at what’s been happening round the blogosphere lately. Amanda Marcotte, a prominent white feminist blogger, recently published a book on surviving as a feminist in politically inhospitable environments. Unfortunately, her publishers selected some pretty racist images, and both she and they somehow failed to pick up on this. (I say “somehow”, but the fact is that we all live in racist cultures, and we are all affected by this whether or not we’d like to be. Marcotte and publishers are by no means unique in being well-meaning leftists who still screw up awfully badly.) Quite reasonably, there’s been a lot of outrage. There have also been apologies. Relatedly, things have become inhospitable enough that two prominent feminist bloggers of colour have closed down their blogs. This began with a charge of plagiarism (also against Marcotte). For a list of relevant posts, go here. For brownfemipower’s last post go here. For Blackamazon’s final post go here. Confession: I have not had the time to read all of this in any level of detail, but clearly something important and disturbing is going on that feminist philosophers should be interested in. And indeed that I am interested in. But if we wait for me to get time to read all of this properly before posting….

Feminists destroy the earth!

No, we feminists don’t hate men. We just hate the stupid arguments that are sometimes wheeled out by anti-feminist men. Such as that provided by Angry Harry. Witness:

Argument for conclusion that feminists encourage traffic problems (this is a reconstruction. His far less well formulated argument can be seen in full here):

1.there is a very powerful group of dysfunctional people – feminists – whose main aim is to encourage family breakdown.

2. By living together – e.g. getting married – people can save on transport … Traffic congestion and pollution would be reduced enormously and time spent travelling would be cut.

C. By encouraging family break down, feminists are encouraging greater traffic congestion.

Introduced to this argument (at the excellent Fem08) by Damian Carnell from NDVF, as an example of the problematic men’s movements out there, Jender and I scoffed heartily. Ha ha! Why stick at that, why not add:

4. Greater traffic congestion means greater carbon emissions.

5. Greater carbon emissions contribute to global warming

6. Feminists encourage global warming.

Ha ha, reductio reductio! What a ridiculous argument.

But we underestimated Angry Harry – you’ve got to give it to him, he follows the premises through to their conclusion, and thus his bold conclusion:

Feminists Destroy the Planet!

 At least he has provided us with an excellent example to use in critical thinking classes (there’s lots more at his site). But perhaps Harry has indeed been too angered by the all those traffic jams. On yer bike Harry!

Sunday cat raccoon break

Calypso told us about Dora the adorable raccoon. Sadly, her video and her pictures can’t be copied, but you can see the video here.  If you think raccoons can’t play the piano, you really should have a look.

My sincere apologies if you cannot access the video. 
I think the owner of it regarded it as rude to link to her video without asking permission and has blocked access to it, at least from my machine.  Hopefully she has just blocked my access, but one never knows.  You might take this as a warning about linking to flickr sites, if you ever think of  doing such a thing. There’s a certain working out of strong feelings that can go on with the ‘net. I tend to try to be hyper careful just because of this sort of thing, but I had no idea of the flickr culture, apparently.

Feminist Zines

Stoat and I have spent the day at the wonderful FEM 08 Conference, the main UK feminist event of the year. Among other things, we got the chance to actually meet some of our favourite bloggers, from The F-Word and Philobiblon/Carnival of Feminists. This is the first in a series of posts we’ll be doing on all the great (and not so great) things we learned about at this conference. I’ve chosen to kick off with the London Zine Symposium because concerns something that’s happening tomorrow. Red Chidgey, of the Feminist Activist Forum, gave a fascinating talk on the world of feminist zines, which I had no idea still existed– and I’m pleased to say they’re clearly not just existing, but thriving. If you’re in London, go to the zine symposium and look for them!

Who knows what’s in your mind?

Or: Is there such a thing as repression?  (from Mixing Memory)

A thoughtful student of mind recently discovered research that bore on a way she had been treating a language-disabled child. The prescribed task was for the child to put together phonemes (basic letter-sounds) to make a word and then take words and decompose them into distinct phonemes. The child could do the first, but not the second and she remembered saying, “O you can do it. If you can put sounds together, you can take them apart.”

It turns out that she was, according to recent research, just wrong. These are very different tasks, and someone with a mis-wiring problem might well be able to do the first and not the second. Of course, the child knew he couldn’t do the decomposition task and said so, but his self-knowledge had been put in question and instead it was suggested he was unwilling to try. So in addition to his language disability, he may now worry about how he isn’t even able to be cooperative.

If you are nine or ten and are very aware that you do not fit in, you really do not need this extra burden.

There is a way to make the situation very much worse for the child. Well, probably many more ways than one. But one way is to take the now certifiably uncooperative child to a doctor who is convinced that she knows what the real problem is, and it is entirely out of the child’s consciousness. And that’s because the child has repressed all his negative feelings about his parents, which repression is producing the uncooperativeness. If everyone is very unlucky, the child will be encouraged to think that the solution to his language problems is to act on his previously entirely unknown dislike for his parents. So the family will shortly have an adolescent child who is convinced that being a loving member of the family is very harmful.

This story is not entirely a fantasy; I’ve seen a father situated as a target by his son’s psychiatrist and it is really not easy to deal with. But the question that needs to be raised is: Who really does know what’s in your mind.

The idea that some stranger whom we haven’t known for long can have better insight into our real motives and beliefs is a familiar one in some cultural circles and it forms the basis for an approach to psychotherapy. It has recently received yet another challenge in the Review of General Psychology (March 08). In addition to the empirical challenge to the truth and therapeutic effectiveness of the repression hypothesis, the article argues another important point: the empirically supported hypothesis of the unconscious in cognitive science is VERY different from that of the unconscious in Freudian theory. Here’s the abstract; the article is, unfortunately, not widely available on the web unless you have a suscription and can get it through the electronic services of your library.

Does Repression Exist? Memory, Pathogenic, Unconscious and Clinical Evidence, Yacov Rofé
The current dispute regarding the existence of repression has mainly focused on whether people remember or forget trauma. Repression, however, is a multidimensional construct, which, in addition to the memory aspect, consists of pathogenic effects on adjustment and the unconscious. Accordingly, in order to arrive at a more accurate decision regarding the existence of repression, studies relevant to all three areas are reviewed. Moreover, since psychoanalysis regards repression as a key factor in accounting for the development and treatment of neurotic disorders, relevant research from these two domains are also taken into account. This comprehensive evaluation reveals little empirical justification for maintaining the psychoanalytic concept of repression. My stress.

It is important that nothing in this says that all experiences are always remembered and so a case of recovered memory is not necessarily put in question.

Added In case you are wondering what’s feminist about this, there are a couple of things at least. (1) The ‘reality’ of recovered memories has been discussed in a lot of feminist literature; (2) feminist theory is sometimes inclined to invoke theories of repression (and so note that the theory of repression is not described as refuted); and (3) In practice, a feminist philosophy professor may find that a Freudian’s supposed insight into her unconscious is clouded by many of the factors we have discussed here, from Valian’s interpretative schemas to misunderstandings of our conversational strategies if they have been affected by our professional context.

When does pay discrimination occur?

Assume case in which there is in fact pay discrimination occurring– women have been paid less than men, for no good reason, over a period of many years. Now consider the question: When did the discrimination occur? At the time that salaries were decided, or every time men and women received unequal pay cheques? Sounds like the sort of question only a philosopher could care about. Except that it isn’t. The US has a time limit for filing discrimination claims– they must be filed within 180 days of discrimination occurring. So the question is very important. Especially when we bear in mind that it can take quite a while to find out what other people are being paid, and so quite a while to find out that something discriminatory is happening. (How many of you, in your first 180 days at a job, learned the salaries of all or even some of your colleagues?) The Supreme Court, in the Ledbetter case, ruled that discrimination occurs when the discriminatory salaries are fixed, which makes it extremely hard for a discrimination suit to ever succeed. Senate Democrats are trying to fix this, but Republicans are blocking their bill. To help get the bill through, go sign this petition. (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)

Rats! II: So how should we do philosophy?

It’s probably the case that anyone’s purporting to have the answer to that question provides a good reason for not believing what they say.  What we can do, however, is to look at one answer and consider what makes it wrong or at least incomplete.  And of course the answer is going to reflect the picture of philosophy as a blood sport, the rude philosophy discussed here (the first “Rats!”) and here.

The answer I’ll ask us to consider is one that has really been given and endorsed on at least one occasion.  That occasion was one that occurred some time ago at one of the very elite grad schools.  And here’s the rest of the story:

At August University the women graduate students in the philosophy department felt that they were under-privileged outsiders.  Their complaints became visible enough that the department called a meeting.  After a discussion of why someone might feel reluctant to speak up at a seminar, one of the male professors got up and said:

“This is the philosophical method.  Someone puts up a position and everyone else tries to knock it down.  And if women don’t like it, they should get out of philosophy.”

The impact was increased by his pounding a fist into the palm of his other hand to match the cadence of his voice. Some of the women students were in tears. One brave male graduate student said he didn’t much like getting torn apart in public either.

Now just about anyone who writes can benefit from criticism, and those of us trained in, and working within, the analytic tradition may tend especially to value having our arguments assessed and assessing those of others. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that the description of the “philosophical method” is at least incomplete.

I’m going to quote from some comments on the original “Rats!” (linked to above), but let me suggest something that in effect elaborates on a point in a number of comments. The fact of the matter is that the philosophical community as a whole values interesting and insightful ideas at least as much as good arguments. But if we look at research about how to encourage the engendering of interesting and insightful ideas, it doesn’t look as though the way to do it is to launch into attack mode the minute someone has the nerve to present a possible idea. So there’s a disconnect between the methodology of philosophy as a blood sport and at least one central value in the profession.

Well, see what you think. Here are some interesting comments on alternatives that come from the discussion in the original “Rats!”. (In fact, there are many more good comments than I’ll quote, since I’m especially looking for descriptions of alternatives. Thus I’m leaving out discussions of the effects of the dominant method.)

Noumena’s quote from Janice Moulton (my stress):

Rude and belligerent styles are developed in the name of teaching philosophy; glibness rather than careful thinking is modeled and encouraged in classes; winning arguments rather than encouraging and developing good ideas becomes the role of the teachers; and sensible people who would abhor such an interchange among normal human beings learn to admire such teachers and are even motivated to do it themselves.


In class, I try to emphasize the importance of other approaches–like building on what another person says or writes, or raising questions about it, or connecting it to the work of another. Trying these approaches is quite hard for some of them; they would prefer to go for the jugular.”

Not the fun kind:

a type of discourse that can be primarily dialogic, co-creating, cooperative building on one another’s points in intense excitement rather than beating one another down and one-upping one another …


. It’s made a huge difference to me to see that people can do philosophy collaboratively– and to be in atmosphere where that is cultivated and appreciated, and the attack-dog style is considered not just nasty but shallow and intellectually inferior.

My own tentative:

… my training at least had one look not so much at specific arguments as at the type of theory being developed, its goals and suppositions. That makes a constructive approach easier and the specific put-down often less interesting, since the goal really is increased understanding. It is not so much about a competition among the theories competing in some sub-field

What do you think?

Beauty pageant with a twist



Many feminists may view beauty pageants with a critical eye. But the BBC here reports on a pageant, in Angola, for survivors of exploding landmines left after decades of civil war (see here for more information). 

The project is aims both to raise awareness of the problem of landimes, and to promote a wider range of bodies as beautiful (see here):

(in no particular order)

* Female pride and empowerment.

* Disabled pride and empowerment.

* Global and local landmine awareness and information.

* Challenge inferiority and/or guilt complexes that hinder creativity-
historical, cultural, social, personal, African, European.

* Question established concepts of physical perfection.

* Challenge old and ingrown concepts of cultural cooperation.

* Celebrate true beauty.

* Replace the passive term ‘Victim’ with the active term ‘Survivor’

Looks like an interesting subversion of the traditional beauty pageant, and there are further plans for a similar project in Cambodia.

Though for an alternative take, see here.

Yet another rule

That mothers must adhere to, for fear of risking their children’s health. As recently as, oh, probably last week, the wisdom was that breastfeeding must be on demand rather than on a schedule– or else the milk will never be properly established. And babies must be allowed to feed on one breast until it’s emptied– otherwise they will miss out on the most nourishing milk. Now it seems the opposite is true— babies need schedules and no more than 10 minutes per breast. When I went to breastfeeding classes a couple years ago, we were taught about how people used to believe just that, and taught that this was the reason for so many breastfeeding failures in the recent, unenlightened past. Looks like the pendulum’s getting set to swing again… Just as it did with age of first solid food (Must be 4 months! Must be 6 months! Grave danger if rule not followed!). And with drinking (Must give pregnant women intravenous alcohol! Must not even have a bite of rum-flavoured ice cream!). And with fish for pregnant women (Must eat lots! Must avoid at all costs!). And peanuts (see fish rules). And co-sleeping (Terrible– potential physical and psychological disaster! Mandatory for psychological and physical health!). And pregnancy weight gain (Must be strictly minimised! Must be embraced!).

Maybe, just maybe a bit of epistemic humility is called for– an acknowledgement of uncertainty and variation, and a respect for women making their own decisions in light of ALL available information, rather than just whatever is favoured by the dogma of the time. And perhaps genuine, open discussion of all this. (My NHS midwife wasn’t even permitted to discuss the possibility that anything other than demand feeding might be worth consideration, though she found ways to implicate that.) Thanks, Mr Jender, for the link.