Silence is complicity I: Reconsidering Henry Louis Gates

Jean Kazez made an important comment here, and it reminded me of something quoted in Maureen Dowd’s column:  Silence is complicity.  If we don’t speak out against racism, it is allowed to fester.  So what does this have to do with Henry Louis Gates?

Gates, as you will remember, “played the racism card” pretty quickly in his encounter with a Boston policeman.  I heard a number of comments against the police, including of course our President’s initial comments.  However, there has also a great deal of negative stuff/criticism of Gates.  The mildest was that he was jet lagged and just lost it.  Lots of people asserted that they had learned better than to do that, and Gates actions were foolish.  Indeed, they may be right to point out that such actions can cost one one’s life. 

So here’s this jet-lagged old  man losing control and doing stuff that no sane black person in control would do.  Or was it even worse?  Well, some people thought it was.  It just showed how above themselves and how out of touch these high-priced professors can get.  So we can add that onto the list of character problems.  And he  probably got private communication saying these sorts of things:

(a) Actions like yours set civil rights back.  You have damaged our people and behaved in a very immoral fashion. 

(b) You seem to think we are all just waiting for people like you to make some big show, but you are wrong.  Nobody is impressed by you at all.

(c)  You just want to get into the headlines.  Can’t you leave well enough alone?

This is the sort of thing friends can write.  So you can imagine what else was probably written. 

So he’s a cranky old man, arrogantly out of touch with reality, who stupidly risked his life and largely gets a storm of abuse.  What could he had been thinking of?

It seems to me possible that he has said to himself that  he has put up with experienced** over 70 years of racism and he just cannot be silence.  Perhaps he knows the  risks:  he does not really have that  much power, he may not be able to assess all situations correctly, he may be subject to a lot of criticism.  But he will not be silent and complicit.

Such thoughts might reflect an assessment of the moral quality of one’s life.  He might have thought:  I will not stand by silently, even if it kills  me.  My life  is not worth the cost of complicity.

Perhaps there’s something like an old person’s thinking going on here.  He has done wonderful things regarding race in the United States and he has conducted himself with great grace.  And he could feel that not enough has changed.  In his calling out racism, the point might not be to change much.  But it would mean that the acts of racism he experiences all get much less pleasant for their perpetrators.

Well, that’s all speculation about Henry Louis Gates, which is presumptuous surely.  But it raises the following question for us:  What if feminist philosophers, or at least some feminist philosophers, got cranky and stopped being silent or polite?  What would we do?  What if we just decided to make ignoring the plight of women in the profession much less easy and pleasant?  What could we do? 

If you want to think about this at all, you might reflect that activism has a very different dynamic.  People do not say “O what a good idea.  I guess I’ll change my mind!  Why I’ll just just share  power and it will be fun!”  And it’s time from might be very different, even if the final effects might be quite large.

Hope this makes sense.   What  do you think?   I’m not really advocating that  any try something analogous to PETA’s display posters (though now to think of it, I can imagine an insane  APA scene with what one says is  menstrual blood…never mind), but I’m wondering whether it would be beneficial to think outside our normal boxes a bit.  Perhaps the conclusion would be that there really isn’t any room for activism in academia.  Or we might think that in fact we are doing more than one might think.

**corrected in light of comment 2 below.

Campus security and personal safety: Tragic addition

Addition:  From late Sunday on the NY Times online:

The six-day search for a missing Yale graduate student ended on Sunday with the discovery of a body in the wall of a university laboratory building where she had last been seen, New Haven police said.



If anyone comes to this blog because they are searching under the name “Annie Le,” let me say that I am still hoping she will be found safe.  If she isn’t, do be sure most women reading this blog will feel an almost personal  grief at reading about her.   The possibility of being aducted and losing one’s life, supposing that happened, is part of the imagination of many, many women now.  To the extent that the possibility haunts college campuses, many of us have seen at least flickers of its presence. 

Here is the latest NY Times news about Ms Le, the Yale doctoral student who was last seen, on video camera, entering a research building at Yale.  She has been missing since early this week.  Bloody clothes have been found hidden above ceiling tiles, but there’s no confirmation that there are related.

Annie Le was to be married today.

We might share here strategies about campus safety that might lessen the number of such crimes.  What in your experience are valuable features.  Have there been significant changes on your campus?  How were faculty or students able to get actions taken?  Are you now worried or frightened on campus or going to and from campus?

Any international comparisons or lessons would also be very interesting.

I’ll start off by saying that administrators have good reasons to be concerned about campus safety.  It’s pretty well believed that safety is a factor in enrollment, and most colleges and universities are concerned about that.

So let us know your thoughts, please.

Calling it what it is: Racism

We’ve been more critical than not of Maureen Dowd.  Here’s a time when, in my opinion at least, she’s reached the right conclusion:

I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race…

But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

And the Wilson who shouted “You lie” at the president?

The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.


The Sunday Cat finds a toy for slothful cat people.

Are both you and your cat(s) slothful?   Is your vet making ugly cracks about the cats’ weight and their need for exercise?  But is the very idea of running around with cat toys on string frankly exhausting you?

Here’s a solution.  It’s a safe laser toy that runs for 15 minutes at a time.  It arrived yesterday as the “automatic cat laser toy” from  You’ll see below a variety of reactions.  Our cats were exhausted for the rest of the evening.

This starts off well:


Some cats, however, seem just too in love with sloth:

And for dog people!!!