How to (not?) defend the humanities!

The British Academy host a conference on “the humanities under threat“, featuring a “distinguished panel” of seven male speakers.

No women.

Now, I welcome the organising of such events. But isn’t it precisely the study of humanities that should (also) teach us the value of diversity????? Shouldn’t such a conference set an example of what the study of humanities involves, not merely discuss what it should be? Walk the walk, not merely talk the talk?

Why oh why was this overlooked — again?

rant over.

8 thoughts on “How to (not?) defend the humanities!

  1. Ah – you beat me to it! I was going to moan about this, but glad to see you’ve done some moaning for us already!

  2. I hope this post isn’t too old and far down your main page for comments to be seen. My first time on this blog, btw.

    Anyways, I often question the motive behind complaints like this. It often seems like as soon as you see a list of keynote speakers at a conference (or for that matter any other list of names for anything else), you just scan it for female monickers and, if there are none, file your complaint.

    Is there some sort of expectation that every single group will include women? If so, why exactly? This is related to another sort of argument I often see, where any group (e.g. profession, organization, etc.) is expected to show in its demographic at least a rough correlation to that of the population as a whole.

    I wonder why I never see people complaining about the low number of male nurses, social workers, and especially any profession that deals mostly with infants or young children. The fact that there might be, as a percentage, less men interested in these professions compared with total number of men in the population (for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter why) is never brought up. How about the fact that there is a hugely disproportionate number of black athletes in professional sports? This one isn’t brought up because it’s (for the most part, where huge amounts of money are at stake) the best athletes that are chosen, regardless of color.

    My point is that there could be many reasons for any one group; an organization, whole profession, or list of keynote speakers; not having its demographic correlate with that of the entire population.

    I don’t disagree with you if you tell me that there is a sexism problem in philosophy as a profession.

    But where does the idea come from that every list of names needs to include a woman? If there were a conference on (for example) the color orange, and the top 5 experts on that color were all men and were the keynote speakers, the Women’s Orange Blog would likely throw up a post asking why there are no female speakers at the con.

    I love women. I want you to be included. I hate that I have to include this disclaimer because I expect the fact that I am raising this issue to provoke accusations of sexism.

    But when you include a list, and say, “Look: no women!”, why don’t you include an explanation of why there should in fact be any? For example, if a woman had written an influential paper on the same topic the conference was dealing with, or was one of the best scholars in that field, etc. Instead, it just looks like you want at least a token woman in every single list of names you can find. A reasoned objection is great. But “Look: no women!” is not reasoned at all.

  3. Kevin, if you are new here, then see the “Gendered Conference Campaign” tab at the top of the page and the 61 posts included in the label of the same name (in the pull-down categories menu), for answers to your questions. We did not include an explanation of why women should be at conferences in this post, because we have included them in years’ worth of past posts.

    I understand hating that you have to include the disclaimer, btw. Depressing, isn’t it?

    But exercise the principle of charity, and assume we’ve reasoned. Then, go see our reasons.

  4. I did read your Gendered Conference page. I also see the claim in this particular post that a conference on the Humanities should include women (which is a more specific argument and probably holds much more weight than the general one).

    I’d still like to know your response to the broader inquiry that was the point of my original comment. I.e:

    Is it your position that women should be included in every conference just so that there is at least one woman? You can say that a woman should be there to prevent the spread of stereotypes and bias throughout the profession, but that still doesn’t quite do. It could be said that at least one representative of every race should be included then, as well. Conferences could become like WalMart fashion advertisements or TV commercials for milk, where for some reason there always just happens to be a group of three people including a white, a black, and an asian person, and at least one of them is female. It’s so pretentious and fake. “Why aren’t there more American Indians in philosophy!? The American Indian Philosopher’s Blog to the rescue!” I don’t mean [only] to make fun. In fact, I’ll even allow that women as a gender have more of a case here than groups identified by their ethnicity. Gender is the most basic sort of way we can divide the human species as a whole. Also, it’s important to hear what women think about things because the human condition exists in two genders and there are fundamental differences in experience that should be explored. It’s all very fascinating!

    But still, I want to know: do you say that women should be included because they are women only, regardless of anything else that might come into the equation? Example: A conference on (let’s say) Early Stoicism is to be held. Five keynote speakers are to appear. The top 5 scholars in this area all want to speak, and they are all men. Should one of them be turned down in favor of a woman, so that there is a woman in the line-up?

    When a woman is given a position because she is a woman and not because she has more merit/ ability/ etc. than her competitors, it is wrong. Maintaining that there should always be women, as an end in itself, is well, Bullshit, frankly. And in the end it could hurt your cause. It would be worse at conferences to have a female speaker and everyone saying, “Look, she’s here just because she’s a woman. Dr. Manly wanted to speak here, and his latest work has been amazing, but he got dropped so that she could speak instead.” than it would be to have no women speakers at all.

    Would people say things like that even if this girl’s material was as good or even better than that of “Dr. Manly”? Maybe some would. Not all. I still think that it is by merit that women should succeed, not by free passes on the I’m-a-woman! Card. Do you really disagree with that?

  5. How is it that fulfilling some minutely abstract inclusionary requirement for the presence of women in a discussion panel is somehow representative of alleged equality between man and woman in any field?

    Is it not misogynist/sexist/anti-female to include women just for the sake of including women?

    You’re also commenting on a panel that includes 7 people. That’s a pretty small sample size to drone on about alleged imbalances in what I’ll just call the “trade” of philosophy. You can’t rail against something simply because of a lack of women participating. It doesn’t do male, female or the human race any good. It’s pointless.

    What if an amazing new technology was invented… say time travel, and it was powered by a new process involving chemical reduction of certain alloys and there were literally 3 people who knew and understood the process and they were holding a panel to discuss the implications of it all. Is there somehow something wrong with it because they happened to be three males? Should they include a forth who isn’t really appropriate for the event just because they are female?

    “Feminist” and “philosophy” are two very contradictory claims to stake, along with most of your platform. Why make it about gender at all? Why not just pursue what you want to pursue and let others do the same? We do not live in an age where females are told to sit down and shut up. We ARE equals… we have equal expectation to present something useful to be deemed useful and have the same opportunities.

  6. Adam, it is not clear what you think our platform is. We have a GCC because we find that women are rarely included on panels like this “distinguished panel,” whether or not they have distinguished themselves. We publicize the GCC not because we have a notion that women are told to sit down and shut up, but because we have good past evidence, including evidence from previous all-male-panel organizers, that they simply hand-picked the first people they thought of, which were men, because the schema of a distinguished scholar in their head is a masculine one and not because no woman merited inclusion. Please see the previous 61 posts on this if you would like to know more about why we’d make something of gender at conferences. You are also welcome to search on the term ‘schema’ on this blog.

    I don’t know what to make of either comment’s questions as to whether the GCC avers that women should be included ‘just because’ they are women. This is bizarrely acontextual in a situation in which so many more are called to philosophy than are singled out for any recognition, and in which those of us who have organized dozens of affairs would invite scholars with relevant knowledge. No one is invited to anything ‘just because,’ and the GCC does not say anyone should be invited ‘just’ because of one characteristic. The very circularity of examples in which ‘the top 5 specialists in a field are men’ is just a stumper, as what it means to be ‘the top five’ is question-begging. If ‘top’ refers to prestige or reputation, then being invited to participate in a distinguished panel would seem to create the very quality being ascribed. If you’re assuming the ‘top’ refers to merit, then please consider that for anyone to know your work has merit, someone first has to pay attention to the fact that you’ve done the work, which would require some sort of attending, such as making a point of inviting you to speak on the topic of your publication(s).

    I appreciate the respectful presentation of your views, Kevin, but I’m just baffled at the statement, “When a woman is given a position because she is a woman and not because she has more merit/ ability/ etc. than her competitors, it is wrong. Maintaining that there should always be women, as an end in itself, is well, Bullshit, frankly.” In a field in which only 17% of full-time professors are female despite being half again as much of the available Ph.D. pool, in a sexist context in which organizers repeatedly affirm that they utterly neglect to even think of well-qualified women because of long-standing sexist traditions, why does a woman have to have MORE merit than her competitors to be accorded distinguished notice? Maintaining that there should always be an excess of merit to gain a minimum amount of recognition, that’s bullshit. On the other hand, maintaining that deliberately including an equally qualified woman adds to the multiple perspectives, to the diversity of the profession, to the mental furniture of those whose schema of distinction is entirely masculine, and to the experience of the few women in the audience who feel isolated and obtrusive, is not bullshit. This is well-covered territory and, once again, I encourage the reading of the previous 61 posts on this topic.

  7. Thanks, probigk. May I add that since quality alone does not justify the many, many conferences that are all male, it looks as though somehow gender is presently being selected for. There is a male privilege operating, though just how it does work is still a matter being researched.

  8. @profbigk:

    Well said, then. Thanks.

    I’ve seen it happen on different occasions that when an organization starts to adopt any kind of “affirmative action” style policy, women and ethnic minorities often get preferential treatment. It ends up in a state where being a woman or minority is an advantage, which it shouldn’t be. And, in my own experience at least, this has led to notoriously under-qualified women and minorities holding positions they never should have. Obviously this won’t happen in every case, but it is something that can and sometimes does happen when a group tries to rapidly rectify a perceived issue of bias. And the effect, if this sort of thing is allowed, is harmful to the profession/ organization and to the group fighting for inclusion. That’s the only thing that worries me whenever I see this old debate come up.

    Haha, I really like this though:

    “The very circularity of examples in which ‘the top 5 specialists in a field are men’ is just a stumper, as what it means to be ‘the top five’ is question-begging. If ‘top’ refers to prestige or reputation, then being invited to participate in a distinguished panel would seem to create the very quality being ascribed.”

    You’re right and it’s a good point =) I suppose there can be no real objectivity about who is top dog.

    Best of luck.

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