Petition: Chronicle Column Suggests Eliminating Black Studies

UPDATED May 7, 2012 [profbigk]:  I am genuinely surprised to be able to post this update, but the CHE editor has apologized for previous editor’s comments, and announced the imminent departure of the blogger who wrote the post (“The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations”) in question.  It’s fascinating to read.  Not only is the editor’s “Note to Readers” responsive to the many criticisms leveled at the CHE and the OP, but the note specifically observes that the invitation to debate mistakenly elevated the post “to the level of informed opinion, which it was not.”

Over 6,400 people signed the petition calling for the blogger’s removal.  Wow.

 

UPDATED AGAIN by profbigk: The author and the editor of the “Brainstorm” blog-section of CHE have both added replies, but a comment under the editor’s unctuous invitation to us to “take part” — or drive traffic, whichever — is more interesting to me than the blogpage-editor’s chiding; the commenter says,

Please join me and send an e-mail of complaint to Philip Semas, President and Editor in Chief of the CHE at philsemas@chronicle. I also sent one to editor@chronicle.com

UPDATE May 3, 2012: The Chronicle is now hosting, also on their Blogs page, “Grad Students Respond to Riley Post on African-American Studies.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a truly appalling attack on Black Studies, [UPDATED to add: but if you don’t want to increase the author’s traffic at the Chronicle site by clicking over there, then instead, see this outstanding blog-post for excerpts and criticism!] of a stunningly ignorant sort (the author bases her argument on her knowledge of the titles of a few dissertations in the area, and says remarkably vicious things).

You can sign a petition criticising the Chronicle’s decision to publish this here.

66 thoughts on “Petition: Chronicle Column Suggests Eliminating Black Studies

  1. For the sake of accuracy, Naomi Schaefer Riley was not basing this on “her knowledge of the titles of a few dissertations in the area”; she was basing it on the Chronicle’s recent profile of the dissertations and their authors, which included roughly as much information as a journal article abstract on each.

    One thing Riley wrote was “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.” Without concurring in her assessment of the specific dissertation topics in question, I will say that each year, the proportion of dissertation abstracts I read, across a range of liberal-arts disciplines, that provoke a similar sentiment increases.

    Regarding the update, doesn’t encouraging people to sign petitions about things without reading the original in context run afoul of one of the very criticisms some people are making about Riley?

  2. I’m the one who added the update, so criticism should be in my direction. But heck, the original IS contextualized in the update! It’s contextualized by criticism!

    In all seriousness, Nemo, I did debate what you say: whether it’s fair to post excerpts off-site and simultaneously encourage petition-signing. But I suggest that increasing traffic to the Chronic post (yes, I call it The Chronic) boosts the blogger’s numbers in a way which plays into her deliberately fire-starting and, I aver, highly manipulative ends.

    If you read the off-site post, it offers decently sized excerpts. They are quite representative of the original.

  3. I agree, the excerpts are in this case decently sized and fairly representative (but in order to know that, you and I had to read the original).

  4. But you didn’t compliment me on calling it the Chronic. I am crushed. Had I feelings, they would be hurt. (<– kidding)

  5. It is the derisive tone of the article that is so offensive to me, in addition to the belittling disregard for the dissertation topics chosen by the respective students and their academic major professors and committees. I wonder if, to be fair, the author of the CHE article has looked over dissertation topics from other disciplines as well, for fair comparison? I doubt it. This means it is race -based.

  6. Sophia, I wondered the same thing! After all, I’ve read studies of midwives in particular centuries and whatnot, that also must have originated as somewhat narrow research endeavors, esp. in history, cultural studies, and English. What makes particular studies of white midwives non-trivial, and studies of black midwives trivial? Hence my somewhat sympathetic agreement with Nemo’s comment: One could read dissertation descriptions from across the disciplines and conclude, “Gosh, that’s a lot of obscure, narrowly focused, etc. stuff that very few people will read.” So why pick on one field in particular?

  7. Reading the Chronic’s article made me realize how very little I know about black history. In my case, it could be argued that black studies have already been eliminated. (Education Level: Bachelor of Science) I actually read a few books on “natural birth”. Maybe the author may not be interested, but I know a lot of people that are very interested in that topic. If the non-white natural childbirth experience differs to the white experience, then I would have found that additional view very helpful at the time. I find the trendy “natural birth” literature sets birthers-to-be up for disappointment.

  8. OK, the “Chronic” joke was funny. Puts “higher” education in a new light.

    Regarding increasingly obscure, etc., dissertation topics, maybe it’s just getting incrementally more difficult to advance academic knowledge in the liberal arts in a meaningful way. Perhaps there are also too many people writing dissertations. Maybe we’ve overcultivated and need to develop the graduate research equivalent of crop rotation.

    That said, I don’t think Riley was simply criticising the dissertation topics as *obscure*; her beef with them as exemplifying an aspect of what she thinks has gone wrong in “race studies” departments seems to go beyond that. I take her also to be suggesting that (as she sees it) only through a hyper-racialised, politically partisan and intellectually solipsistic lens could these dissertation topics be viewed as ripe for dissertation-calibre knowledge advancement.

  9. Black studies is not “race studies” (scare quotes or otherwise). Your reduction of Black studies to race in your attempt to rephrase Riley’s piece means you missed something important about the existence and continuance of Black studies, which Riley misses as well. I am not a huge blogger, so I will not try to defend black studies here, though I believe it can be easily defended once one does not collapse black cultures and racial cultures together.

    My only point is to ask you to please, not make this mistake again. Blackness, for many of black people, is far more than a racial designation. It should not be reduced to the idea of “race,” without some acknowledgement that that position is contestable. Thanks!

  10. Kristie, I regret the shortcomings of that shorthand; still, don’t assume I missed anything. The quotation marks are intended to aknowledge a possible semantic problem without getting into it. I take it as a given that “black” is more than a racial designation (though I suppose it’s true, as you say, that the position, as well as every other position alluded to there, is contestable). Still, thanks for pointing it out just in case.

  11. “I regret the shortcomings of that shorthand; still, don’t assume I missed anything.”

    We are supposed to believe that your substitution of “race” for “Black” in “Black Studies” was merely a one-letter shorthand? To be clear, that is a rhetorical question.

  12. I updated the post again to reflect the responses by both the OP author and the editor of the blog-section at CHE. It bothers me to no end that I assist in any way to drive traffic to their site, but this is now, as well as a question of racism and libel, a matter of what the lead trade publication in Higher Ed thinks it is doing!

    Brian Leiter seems to agree, and eloquently:
    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/brainless-storm-naomi-schaefer-riley-strikes-again.html

  13. My theory, which belongs to me, is mine, and is that Schaefer Riley is *trying* to get fired, so she can drive up her lecture fee on the “woe is me, the liberals have deprived me of my First Amendment rights” circuit as well as ditch the Chronic for the greener pastures of Fox News.

    Hey, it worked for Juan Williams, didn’t it?

  14. Oh, light-bulb-moment. I like John P’s theory.

    I know this is a very white male perspective, but what struck me about the Riley column (or blog entry, whatever) was not the race angle at all, but just how dumb, superficial, anti-intellectual and anti-curiousity it is. It’s just like those congressional stump speeches in which research is ridiculed by reading off its title in a snarky tone of voice.

    I don’t read CHE anymore (except the Lingua Franca section, which is a guilty pleasure).

  15. Indeed, I’ve been of the same mind as J.Protevi right along. Alas, we do contribute to making her a conservative talk-show darling, but the alternatives are worse. She’ll be richer as a result of all this, but at least Black-Studies students will know that the higher ed community called bullshit on their be..halfs? behalves? I never say that right.

  16. Just ‘behalf’; it doesn’t have a plural. All together they share a single behalf.

    :-)

  17. To Jamie’s comment about “behalf”, I’d add that the exception to that rule, where the otherwise obsolete concept of several “behalves” is preserved, is in legal usage, though even there it’s rare enough nowadays. Google, e.g., “respective behalves”, and legal documents are mostly what comes up. Presumably the justification is that this is one context where a lot rides on whether an interest is truly joint and collective or not.

  18. I hadn’t had a chance to check in on Feminist Philosophers recently — I am an _occasional_ lurker, after all — but I see not much has changed since the last time I chimed in. The very first comment I see here on my return is, of course, Nemo again defending bigotry – in this case, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s vicious, ignorant rant. Such a casuistic defense (this time: she was only saying hateful things about those three grad students because the Chronicle had profiled them!) may in this case be a species of chivalry, but I don’t at all see how it contributes to making this blog a feminist space.

  19. I’ll say not much has changed.
    People still check in with no object other than lambasting Nemo — and by making derogatory cracks, not giving arguments. (Not just occasional lurker — anon “sr” philosopher did the same thing.)

    The ‘Be Nice’ rule, as always, only requires being nice to the favored commenters.

  20. The blog is also a philosophical space. It’s quite typical for philosophers to analyze whether or not those they may disagree with are accurately representing a depiction.

    I do not understand summing up a week’s worth of posts and comments by holding up one commenter’s sentence as representative of how little has changed. I thought it was quite a busy week on the blog.

  21. Actually, lois210, I deleted anon”sr”phil’s comment. I’m not sure why it reappeared. I’m just going to keep repeating this: Please try to exercise the principle of charity here. Full-time instructors are the ‘mods’ and do their best, but will not do perfectly. There is no need to assume we play favorites. Frankly, I’m not wild about everything that either Nemo or occasional lurker say. Clearly I am therefore not playing favorites, and I’m one of a dozen bloggers.

  22. It is important to know that we do disagree with each other. Some of us feel it is important that we can tolerate the disagreement that Nemo’s comments represent; others of us feel that they often do not belong on a feminist blog. Whose view prevails is really a matter of meta-compromise, and involves much more views about one another than anything about favorites.

  23. I actually “reappeared” the comment, but when it disappeared, I realized that it must have been the OP’s decision originally, for various reasons.

  24. Nemo’s Law of Feminist Philosophers: the longer a thread goes, the probability of it turning to a discussion of Nemo rather than the original topic approaches 1.0. Alas. (I don’t think this violates “play nice”: it’s not a criticism of Nemo. But it does illustrate, on a meta-level, the truth of the Law.)

  25. If this isn’t already the most-read philosophy blog, Nemo will make it that.

    Maybe he attracts clicks for the “wrong” reasons, but readers take a look at Nemo’s latest “outrage” and then read the other stuff too.

  26. swallerstein,

    I do treasure your presence on this blog, but I want to point out that your comment here is pure conjecture and I suspect wrong. I could actually check on this, but honestly I don’t have the time now.

    We have access to a site that keeps track of visits to posts.

  27. I just checked the easily available background stats. The meat post is ahead of the black studies post. One would expect that, given the meat post is more recent, but it does strongly suggest people are not checking back to follow the dialogue, such as it is.

  28. Hello Anne:

    What you say might just show that more people on a feminist blog are interested in whether women thinkers are included in a discussion about eating meat than are interested in a discussion about black studies. After all, this is a feminist blog, not a black studies one and one might assume that in a feminist blog, people are more motivated by feminist issues than by ones about black studies.

    However, my point is that in my experience, online and working in conventional publication many years ago, a bit of “intelligent” controversy generally stimulates the interest of readers.

    It’s probably due to biology, but our interest in anything seems to light up, to be stimulated when there’s conflict. In this case, the person who brings conflict, Nemo, is polite, non-sexist (although he may defend seemingly sexist causes), learned and follows the rules, which is another plus.

  29. @profbigk, you’re right – it was a busy week on the blog and my comment above did not credit that. My apologies. But it really was the case that this was the first thread that I got caught up on and so I commented then. Now that I’m fully caught up, I can still maintain that things haven’t changed much. Witness the “How To Be An Ally” thread, which swiftly got derailed by people getting defensive about how the exclusion of feminist works from their syllabi doesn’t make them a bad feminist, OK? Which is kind of a funny thing to have happen on a thread about how to be an ally, whatever the merits of the claim.

    Anyway, I take the point made by @annejjacobson at #24 about disagreement. I have been assuming that this blog is intended for feminist philosophers, but it is plainly not. It is instead a place where many philosophers – some sympathetic, others hostile – are discovering feminism for the first time and having all the standard reactions that go along with that encounter. That serves an important function, but for someone who’d actually like to talk to other feminist philosophers, it’s a bit wearying; many of these discussions revolve around exactly the same issues that come up in conversations with first-year undergraduates new to the very ideas of power, identity, and so on (in fact, these exchanges are often less productive than those conversations because we philosophers are so much better are rationalizing things than most students). Perhaps Nemo’s Law could be avoided if the blog more forthrightly acknowledged the function that it has actually ended up serving, even if that function wasn’t what the mods originally intended.

  30. I think there’s value to be had in many different kinds of conversations, and a great thing about a blog is that you can just ignore the ones that don’t interest you.

    And I must say that top of my list of non-interesting topics is debates about our moderation policies.

  31. occasional lurker raises an interesting point about the kinds of questions that can be legitimately entertained on a feminist blog. This has been discussed before, and I wouldn’t mind hearing the thoughts of others.

    For instance, is it anti-feminist to entertain the question of whether African-American studies, as practiced at the institutional level, is of significant enough academic worth as to be deserving of continued (or expanded) funding? It seems like this same question can (and has, on this blog) been asked about philosophy in general. And it would seem that if it can be asked about philosophy, it can be asked about any discipline.

    Of course, the above and the issue of whether the author of the CHE article was biased, or careless, or bigoted in her analysis are different.

  32. “I actually “reappeared” the comment, but when it disappeared, I realized that it must have been the OP’s decision originally, for various reasons.”

    Is profbigk also Jender? I ask because, as I’ve made my policy here, I’d like to comply with an OP’s interpretation of the “Be Nice” rule. When an OP has a very different understanding than I do about what such a rule should entail, I’d rather simply avoid commenting on that OP’s posts–regardless of how condescending, diversionary, or offensive I happen to find some of the discussion.

    I have no idea why my comment did not appropriately “extend [profbigk’s] principle of charity,” but I am not asking for an explanation. I was trying to be Kristie’s ally.

  33. Nope, I’m not Jender, I’m a whole separate cat.

    A comment that explicitly says it is purely rhetorical and asks if a particular commenter expects us to believe X is not charitable. This does not seem to me to be a particularly quirky interpretation of a policy that says “try to be as charitable as possible”. The principle of charity in philosophy involves taking a statement on its strongest possible interpretation. Therefore, explicitly rhetorical questions with the implication that no one could be expected to believe something are not charitable.

    If this explanation is not clear, feel free to email me: profbigk [at] gmail [dot] com.

  34. While I am no doubt a bit slow, your explanation is clear to me.

    Not at all clear to me, however, is what a charitable “strongest possible interpretation” in this case could be. I could not think of any such interpretation — other than the one I proposed. Perhaps this was because I was unduly under the influence of what seemed to me the condescending and diversionary nature of the reply, as it were, to Kristie.

    Since you have taken exception to my characterization of my question as rhetorical, I apologetically withdraw that characterization. Still, the substance of my question remains. Given the apparently greater concern about my uncharitable manner than the exchange that triggered the question, I am now inclined to believe that there are more charitable possibilities for what the “shorthand” substitution in this case was shorthand for.

    I like to think of myself as having some expertise, philosophically and experientially, about color-related matters — especially regarding Black Americans. Yet I realize that I have much to learn. Perhaps you, profbigk, or anyone else with an idea would be kind enough to share your thoughts about the substance of the issue. If not, no worries.

  35. My I respectfully query whether our “be nice” rule does invoke the idea that “The principle of charity in philosophy involves taking a statement on its strongest possible interpretation.”

    That condition requires much more than I am capable of on at least four days of the week.

  36. Occasional Lurker wrote: “The very first comment I see here on my return is, of course, Nemo again defending bigotry – in this case, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s vicious, ignorant rant. Such a casuistic defense (this time: she was only saying hateful things about those three grad students because the Chronicle had profiled them!) may in this case be a species of chivalry, but I don’t at all see how it contributes to making this blog a feminist space.”

    OL, my comment wasn’t a defense of anything Riley wrote about those scholars. It contributed one minor factual correction to the OP (which had indicated that Riley was only reading the titles of the dissertations, instead of the slightly more informative descriptions of them that had earlier been published in the Chronic (h/t pbk)). That’s obviously not a defense of bigotry. And I specifically indicated in the same post that I wasn’t agreeing with Riley’s assessment of these dissertations. But let’s imagine, counterfactually, that I *had* defended Riley against an allegation of bigotry. That would still be distinguishable from “defending bigotry”.

    Anyhow, if there exists a “Nemo’s Law”, my admittedly subjective opinion is that it owes its existence to nothing so much as its self-fulfilling enforcement by a couple of other commenters. This thread had begun, civilly and genially, to go gentle into that good night. Now suddenly it’s been revived with belated comments about me. Thanks, OL, but no thanks.

  37. annejjacobson, you’re right, of course: On some days, *possible* is the operative word!

    The new update is so surprising to me, but I’m happy to add it: CHE is dropping the blogger who wrote the “Just Read the Dissertations” post (without, of course, reading them).

  38. I found Robert Oscar Lopez’ comment to the CHE announcement particularly good. In sum, there’s hardly anyone in the Brainstorm dugout who doesn’t deserve to be sacked under the standard ostensibly applied to Schaefer Riley.

  39. @Jender and @Nemo, thanks for your replies, but I’m hesitant to engage in this discussion further until my previous question is answered. That is, should I and others regard the blog as itself a space *for* feminist philosophers? Or is it a space predominantly *about* feminist philosophers, where that topic is discussed by many people, including those critical of or new to feminist philosophy? If it is the former, then I would respond in one way, but if it’s the latter, then I’d respond differently since very different norms would be relevant, very different things could be taken for granted among participants, and so on (or, to be honest, maybe I wouldn’t bother, since as I said above, I have those conversations often enough elsewhere).

    I had been engaging on the assumption that FP was a space *for* feminist philosophers, since the motto is “News feminist philosophers can use,” but I’ve come to see that that assumption may have been a naive one (Let me also add, to ward off misunderstanding, that being a space *for* feminist philosophers would not necessarily mean that only feminist philosophers would be expected to speak, but that guests who do not share those assumptions would engage with the understanding that they are guests in a space where certain feminist views are assumed).

  40. Not naive, occasional lurker, but difficult to achieve as long as we’re set up the way we are. This is a wide open, public site which doesn’t require registration, comments to be approved before appearing, or even a valid email address; the ‘mods’ are just a bunch of people with full-time jobs who come here in their spare time and belatedly check to see if policy violations are abounding, and who don’t always agree with each other about aspects of the blog.

    Sometimes that’s okay, because we see the dynamic and difficult aspects as fruitful sites of discussion and difference, but that’s also not okay, because we can’t do what an individual blogger like Brian Leiter can do. We’re not one decision-making brain, we don’t pre-approve comments to create exactly the space one person wants, and we don’t even interpret our own commenting policies in identical ways, as annejjacobson and I amply demonstrate!

    At least WordPress blocks and filters the most egregious spam, the breathtakingly evil people who sometimes roll by and spew hate, and the blocked IP addresses. But this is the best we’ll be able to do for the foreseeable future.

  41. One feminist’s assumptions are not necessarily another’s. Remember Walt Whitman: “Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Feminism is large and contains multitudes. Second-wave and third-wave feminisms; liberal, conservative, socialist, and individualist feminisms; post-structuralist and post-colonialist feminisms and ainsi de suite … (which reminds me – as in most areas of human thought and endeavour, there’s also a special category for “French”).

    So one could assume that FP is, broadly speaking, a space chiefly *for* feminist philosophers (or philosophers who are feminists), without assuming that the feminists who comment here (and I count both occasional_lurker and myself among them, just to convey the Whitmanian scope of the thing) are going to reach the same or even consistent conclusions on a given philosophical, moral or political question.

  42. Nemo, there are very few regular visitors to this blog whom I would instruct about the varieties of feminism; probably close to zero. I am concerned that you seem not to grasp the epistemic position of those who comment on this blog. That is, as the English say, you are trying to tell your grandmother how to suck eggs.

    It is quite possible that you use the term “feminist” more widely than any of us do. Whether that is true, speaking as though “conservative feminist” is unproblematic is highly problematic.

    I note that you have recently suggested that the term “homophobic” is should be replaced because it suggests that the opinions of what we call ‘the homophobe’ are irrational. I would be interested in what you think is the rational, feminist part of what we call “homophobia.” Do you think that opposition to same-sex unions can be rationally defended within what anyone would recognize as a feminist perspective?

    While my request might seem to change the topic, I think your assumption that “conservative feminists” form a recognizable and legitimate category needs to be queried.

  43. This is just the rub. Some here would suggest that the point about homophobia can’t be defended on feminist grounds. I think it can. Say, for instance, you believe that calling it a phobia is excuse-making, since people are usually taken to be not responsible for having a psychological disorder, and instead that we should call it what it is, a defect in character.

    I’m sure others here would object to the very notion that a feminist could criticize affirmative action policies. Yet, one could seemingly object on the grounds that such policies promote stereotypes about the inferiority of blacks and women, and that this is bad for blacks and women, over and above the benefits of affirmative action itself.

    The point isn’t that these are necessarily good arguments. Perhaps they should be rejected on their merits. But I worry that OL is applying an “I know an unassailable feminist position when I see it” standard. Family resemblance issues aside, I’d love to see a “Five core principles feminist philosophers accept” (though in some corners, the asking for principles is non-feminst).

  44. I myself have known conservative feminists, women who were pro-choice, pro-women’s rights, and not homophobic, but very pro-free market, against the welfare state, with an individualist libertarian orientation and who voted for rightwing parties.

  45. Anne, I wasn’t trying to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs. I was directing that in response to occasional lurker; of course, s/he, also, is probably as aware of how to suck eggs as I. Nevertheless, I thought my observation was germane and responsive to occasional lurker’s comment. Stating what is already widely understood by one’s audience runs the risk of appearing condescending, as we know, but there is a legitimate place for it. It’s not to “school” each other, but to restate agreed premises for the purpose of suggesting inferences therefrom. I apologize to anyone whom I made feel condescended-to there.

    Re “conservative feminist”, one can certainly adduce reasons why the positions of conservative feminists are problematic from the perspective of, say, liberal feminists, and vice-versa. In addition, joining a non-monolithic term like “feminist” to another non-monolithic term like “conservative” (or “liberal”, or “progressive”) multiplies the possibilities for disagreement. Indeed, some people question those labels to begin with, or at least disagree with each other, or with the conventional wisdom, about which of two (or more) incompatible viewpoints on an issue is properly described as the more progressive or liberal one, or for that matter the pro-woman or the pro-equality one.

    A.J. Kreider makes a very good point in this regard in his comment above: one person’s feminism (as they experience it in the light of their other philosophical precepts, personal experiences, and so forth) might lead them to support affirmative action, another’s might lead them to oppose it and even to view such opposition as properly progressive. Same goes for many other social and political issues. This is a fortiori true the more granular and means-specific the question becomes (e.g., once we have identified a social ill or problem from a feminist perspective, what is the best political solution or strategy to remedy it)? From credible feminist premises, people can defensibly reason their way to rather different conclusions. Witness the great diversity of feminist viewpoint both as to normative claims and as to descriptive claims.

    Re “homophobia”, A.J. Kreider also makes a second a good point. It’s not the easiest thing to respond to your queries, though. The question of whether the term homophobia can or ought to be applied in a non-pathological context is distinct from the question of whether someone who opposes same-sex unions is ipso facto a homophobe. I do think opposition to same-sex unions (or at least to removing the gender diversity element from civil marriage) can and has been *rationally* defended; something feminist proponents of SSM can certainly acknowledge (see, e.g., Mary Ann Case) without agreeing. As for whether it has been rationally defended specifically “within what anyone would recognize as a feminist perspective” is yet another question (who’s anyone?). I would say at least that it is possible to do so in a way that is not *inimical* to *some* feminist perspectives (though it might be to *other* feminist perspectives).

    I also think it’s not objectionable from a feminist perspective for a rational feminist to apply criteria in addition to specifically feminist criteria to, say, a decision about the net benefits of a particular public policy (for example). One example of that might be a philosopher who is a feminist taking into account feminist insights as well as other philosophical considerations with regard to forming a view of an issue, which is something I expect we all do to a greater or lesser extent.

  46. ajkreider; I’d hardly count those reasons as conservative. It is unlikely that those nemo was referring to think they themselves have a character defect in opposing homosexual unions.

    In any case, I think I argued a similar point recently with regard to homophobia; if we pathologize it, we are too close to excusing it.

    SW: I realized my words weren’t clear. I don’t mean by “conservative feminist” someone who is a feminist and, say, an economic conservative. I think/thought that the standard idea of a conservative feminist is someone who purports to be a feminist while supporting conservative social policies: We’ve discussed this some here. And I was being swift in a way that could be problematic. I doubt anyone wants to say, e.g., a feminist has to be pro-choice. A feminist might think welfare is damaging and state supported programs breed a bad dependence. But I think that anyone who thinks that a feminist can support the full conservative agenda of the US ought to go explain why to magicalersatz in the post on NC’s vote.

  47. Nemo, I finally looked up “Herek” and apologize for my interpretation of your reference.

  48. Anne:

    Actually, the woman in question lives and votes in Chile, not in the U.S.: there are sectors of the Chilean rightwing, generally referred to as the “liberal right”, which are liberal on social issues and liberal on economic issues, in the sense that
    the Economist is a liberal publication (that is, very pro-free market), not in the sense that The Nation is a liberal publication. Things get confusing because the word “liberal” is used in the U.S. in a way that it is not used anywhere else in the world as far as I know.

    The woman in question worked as an engineer in a very male environment and was noted for standing up for and defending the rights and dignity of her few female colleagues and so I would call her a feminist and a courageous one.

    She emphasized individual responsibility and that it was up to each person to take charge of his or her life, that leftwing ideology is just about excusing and justifying failure and irresponsibility. I had some arguments with her, but she was honest and articulate in defending her point of view, unlike so many people.

  49. No worries Anne.

    By the way, I think there is a not-insignificant number of people, some of them anti-feminists and others feminists, who are quite invested in the idea that feminism entails being pro-choice.

  50. I have to say, following this thread has only deepened my confusion. So far, I’ve been told that one can be an anti-choice, anti-welfare homophobe and still be a feminist. For those who hold this view, please enlightenment – does a feminist politics have any content at all? Or is just something people get to call themselves when doing so conveniently helps them defend their political views? Is being assertive at work really a sufficient condition for being a feminist?

  51. Anyone, who in 1994 or so in Santiago de Chile, in the engineering department of a large bureaucratic organization, where no one does nothing for nobody, stands up for the dignity of women, protesting, among other things, about sexist photos and remarks in the cubicles of male engineers, without expecting anything in return, except to be called “humorless”, “puritanical” and “bitchy”, instead of doing the usual “feminine” thing (to make a “cute” joke about the subject), deserves not only the honor of being called “feminist”, but also our applause and admiration.

    Feminism (like any set of values which is worth it) is shown in day to day practice under real conditions in the real world.

  52. @swallerstein, I have no doubt whatever that your friend’s actions are deserving of applause and admiration, but much that is admirable is not therefore feminist. Perhaps actions of that kind are necessary conditions for being a feminist, but it’s not clear to me that they are sufficient. For one thing, you have not said that *she* ever described herself as a feminist. For another, you’ve also told us that another part of her “day to day practice under conditions in the real world” is advocating for anti-welfare policies that hurt many other women and, indeed, also includes blaming those women for being poor.

  53. She did consider herself to be a feminist.

    She can speak for herself, but she probably would say that welfare state policies do not really benefit poor women in the long term. Rather they reinforce their powerlessness and dependency.

    I don’t agree with most of the assumptions behind that argument myself, but it’s a feminist argument as far as I can see.

    However, I’m sure that she would be more eloquent and persuasive arguing her own case.

  54. I can’t believe I missed this thread! Have my Google alerts failed me? No one thought to drop me a note? I’m crushed! But I’ll resist the meta-discussion so near and dear to my heart!

    One thing Riley wrote was “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.” Without concurring in her assessment of the specific dissertation topics in question, I will say that each year, the proportion of dissertation abstracts I read, across a range of liberal-arts disciplines, that provoke a similar sentiment increases.

    It’s not better when you do this, Nemo, than when Riley does it. Who cares what your random reaction is? How is that meaningful data about the work? (Rhetorical, it isn’t.) Even if were a justifiable coding of those abstracts, it still says very little about the field of study (if only that it doesn’t address the proportion and what a reasonable proportion of such work should be to identify a successful/worthwhile research program).

    Aside from its inherent problems, this sort of line is a standard (and standardly lazy) anti-intellectual (predominantly right win) trope. (Animal rights activist have, if they are not careful, lapsed into this. There, of course, the argument on the value of the research typically has higher stakes.)

    Thus, your attempt to distance yourself from Riley’s instance of application of this trope doesn’t defend your comment from its (weak, typically passive aggressive) bolstering of that trope.

  55. OL, I’m in part responsible for the ‘confusion,’ and probably ended up conceding way too much.
    It might be worth asking what the concept of a feminist is like. It might be a kind of cluster concept. There are possible disagreements about positions we might expect feminists to hold. But that doesn’t mean someone can reject a significant number of those positions and still be a feminist.
    Compare: there might be 6 accomplishments that qualify one for a degree at school X and lots of qualifying people lack one of two of them, with some lacking # 1 and #3; others lacking #2 and #4. And so on. But that doesn’t mean one could lack 1, 2, 3 and 4 and still qualify.

  56. Anne,

    The other issue is which accounts are criteriological and which are evaluative (yay for that phil of art class!): For example, there’s an increasing consensus that neglecting or being bad on racial issues (the way a good deal of 2nd wave feminism did) is not just bad but bad feminism. Similarly, anti-trans radical feminism is slowly becoming seen not just as bad feminism, but non-feminist. (The evaluative and the criteriological are not wholly independent.)

    So, I can imagine various sorts of anti-choice arguments which are criteriologically feminist, though I really think most would be rather poor arguments (e.g., reliant on factual error; this may be a failure of my knowledge or imagination, of course). (E.g., if abortion was harmful to women in the way it is sometimes claimed, I could imagine arguing that liberal abortion regimes allow governments to give up on social structures that either provide better control over pregnancy or better support for keeping children). But if someone argues from an Aristotelian conception of female human psychology that it is better for women to have lots of babies or inhabit a classically subordinate role, I’m going to roll my eyes at any suggestion that this is feminist. I would similarly roll my eyes at any suggestion that an argument that “But sanctioning the homosexual lifestyle hurts gays by failing to support their resistent to their self-harming ways!” is pro-gay.

    I’d be interested to know how present day feminist regard female superiority arguments a la Gould Davis in the The First Sex (of which I have a copy somewhere!).

    (I’d contrast The First Sex argument for matriarchy with the more sophisticated political arguments of Hoagland (Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Values) and Mohr (“Knights, Young Men, and Boys”: Masculine Worlds and Democratic Values). Mohr is particularly interesting since he’s arguing that gay male relationships (of certain kinds) are exemplary models for (certain kinds of) democratic societies. That’s quite a trick without being straight up patriarchical (which I think he manages to avoid).

    I’d love to see a class on, hmm, not sure what to call it…political utopian models rooted in specific subgroups? The Republic and philosopher kings being the obvious starting point. Obviously, there are TONS of very evil texts in this space. And some which are purely aspirational without necessarily being good political theory.

    Ooops, now I’ve wandered way off topic :)

  57. Bijan,

    That’s really complicated, maybe in part current accounts of concepts tend more toward “typical traits” rather than criteriological. E.g., wings are typical of birds (in various places), but that doesn’t mean ostriches are bad birds. It’s also the case that I’m not sure about the inference from “bad feminism” to “bad feminist,” but in any case, a bad feminist is (probably?) still a feminist.

    I am wondering whether anyone has written about this. It does seem to me we can think in terms of whether someone is a good feminist, but in my mind that’s more tied to action than to what beliefs the person has, supposing we can separate them.

    I’m not sure I can talk sensibly about this. I think I’d want to know why we’re drawing the distinction and also what we think is the use of talking in terms of “feminist.” Is it a kind of evaluation?

  58. E.g., it might be that we should avoid arguments about whether or not someone is a feminist except in quite limited ways. Not sure.

  59. Hello Bijan, glad you found us. I know you’ve been busy.

    It’s not better when you do this, Nemo, than when Riley does it. Who cares what your random reaction is?

    It’s not clear to me that my “this” was the same as Riley’s “it”, so I should think that would be hard to say, but perhaps I’m not understanding you right there. As for “Who cares what your random reaction is” – er, that’s the Internet for you. The number of people who care about your or my reactions, including our reactions to one another’s reactions, is no doubt vanishingly small and may at times exclude either one or the other of us. Still, doesn’t the “who cares” come across as a little less than affable?

    How is that meaningful data about the work? (Rhetorical, it isn’t.) Even if were a justifiable coding of those abstracts, it still says very little about the field of study (if only that it doesn’t address the proportion and what a reasonable proportion of such work should be to identify a successful/worthwhile research program).

    Riley’s certainly seems, I agree, like an unwarranted extrapolation just from that data (even if one were to assume for the sake of argument that she was correct about the dissertations), as loads of people have pointed out. I have the sense that Riley was interpreting her anecdotal impressions of the dissertation descriptions in the context of a much broader ongoing polemic about the merits of the academic discipline in question. I doubt she really thought that those dissertations alone made a formally sufficient “case for eliminating the discipline” (as she put it). That struck me more as a rhetorical, I-rest-my-case flourish of the sort people will, often enough, make informally when they encounter data they think tends to confirm that of which they’ve already essentially been persuaded on other grounds.

    Aside from its inherent problems, this sort of line is a standard (and standardly lazy) anti-intellectual (predominantly right win) trope. …

    Thus, your attempt to distance yourself from Riley’s instance of application of this trope doesn’t defend your comment from its (weak, typically passive aggressive) bolstering of that trope.

    If it is, as you say, a trope, that doesn’t mean that every reflection along those lines is a tropical application (heh, sounds like sun cream). Nor is it intrinsically anti-intellectual, even if it might be used as such in a given instance – e.g., possibly, by Riley. It never occurred to my that my distancing (not *attempting* to distance; that’s odd) myself from Riley’s observation would serve to defend my comment from a charge of bolstering an anti-intellectual trope; I think it very plain that no defense is necessary.

  60. Favorite tweet of the day:

    Ta-Nehisi Coates ‏ @tanehisi
    Your research bores me, and therefore must be unimportant.

  61. The other issue is which accounts are criteriological and which are evaluative (yay for that phil of art class!): For example, there’s an increasing consensus that neglecting or being bad on racial issues (the way a good deal of 2nd wave feminism did) is not just bad but bad feminism. Similarly, anti-trans radical feminism is slowly becoming seen not just as bad feminism, but non-feminist. (The evaluative and the criteriological are not wholly independent.)

    Bijan, that’s an interesting point. I believe contemporary pro-life feminism is, somewhat similarly, premised on arguments that that support for legalised abortion is not just bad but bad feminism (I’m recalling here Sidney Callahan’s “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda”, but I’m not very familiar with the literature in general).

  62. It’s not clear to me that my “this” was the same as Riley’s “it”, so I should think that would be hard to say, but perhaps I’m not understanding you right there.

    You linked them. She read titles and abstracts and went “only good thing about ’em is that they won’t be read”. You do a similar thing. You don’t generalize from that the way Riley does, but that’s a different sin.

    As for “Who cares what your random reaction is” – er, that’s the Internet for you.

    That’s a snarky way of saying, “This has no evidential weight about anything other than your taste.” Thus, Riley is very wrong to use it as evidence of the crappibility of a field and you are fairly wrong to use your instantiation of it as some sort of mitigation of what Riley did. I’m sure you’ll take issue with that, but c’mon!

    That struck me more as a rhetorical, I-rest-my-case flourish of the sort people will, often enough, make informally when they encounter data they think tends to confirm that of which they’ve already essentially been persuaded on other grounds.

    Sure. I’m not sure it mitigates. It would be crappy if she had a good case and it’s crappy given her crappy case. That she crappily applied her crappy examination makes it all the junkier.

    If it is, as you say, a trope, that doesn’t mean that every reflection along those lines is a tropical application (heh, sounds like sun cream).

    Nope, but it does mean that it’s non-trivial to avoid tropeicality. You didn’t make the effort and thus you reap the tropeical storm.

    Nor is it intrinsically anti-intellectual, even if it might be used as such in a given instance – e.g., possibly, by Riley.

    It’s hard to see how it isn’t. Not everyone who does it is a systematic anti-intellectual, but the instances where it is, itself, robustly pro-intellectual are pretty few and need careful work. (For example, I have no trouble with people not liking stuff, thinking it’s boring, or silly or whathaveyou. We all need sorting mechanisms. But our taste introduces major cognitive biases and failing to deal with that, worse elevating it, is definitely anti-intellectual, esp. when directed against intellectual things.)

    It never occurred to my that my distancing (not *attempting* to distance; that’s odd) myself from Riley’s observation would serve to defend my comment from a charge of bolstering an anti-intellectual trope; I think it very plain that no defense is necessary.

    Lost me here. You distanced yourself from the content but not the form. The form is problematic. You took no note of that. Seems problematic enough to me.

    Not unfamiliar, eh?

  63. You linked them. She read titles and abstracts and went “only good thing about ‘em is that they won’t be read”. You do a similar thing. You don’t generalize from that the way Riley does, but that’s a different sin.

    Bijan, why was *mine* a sin?

    Bear in mind, to the extent relevant, that I was talking about reading actual abstracts (not puff-piece blurbs). So let’s say I read an abstract as I have countless times. Based on the abstract, I make an assessment of the practical or theoretical significance of the problem examined, how needed and valuable the new knowledge is, how sound the methodological approach described seems, etc. etc. (If the abstract is written to normal standards, it ought to do a passable job of helping me make such assessments.) I may also make an assessment of the likely readership of the full dissertation. And let’s say I conclude, in a particular hypothetical case, that the problem considered is not especially weighty, or the contribution of new knowledge is not very meaningful or material, or the argument seems frivolous or otherwise flawed. (Or perhaps I think it might make for a passable article in a very narrowly focused publication but is ill-suited to be the basis of an entire dissertation. And finally let’s say I also observe that (as Anne said she has found) “Gosh, that’s a lot of obscure, narrowly focused, etc. stuff that very few people will read.” Now – have I sinned in this example? If so, what was the sin? (Not referring here to what Riley did.)

    It’s hard to see how it isn’t. Not everyone who does it is a systematic anti-intellectual, but the instances where it is, itself, robustly pro-intellectual are pretty few and need careful work. (For example, I have no trouble with people not liking stuff, thinking it’s boring, or silly or whathaveyou. We all need sorting mechanisms. But our taste introduces major cognitive biases and failing to deal with that, worse elevating it, is definitely anti-intellectual, esp. when directed against intellectual things.)

    I’m not talking about stuff we simply don’t like, or aren’t good at, find dull or pointless, have no time for, and so forth based on taste. I’d hate to think that’s the chief kind of sorting I’m doing when I read a dissertation abstract, at least in a liberal arts discipline.

    No doubt, we all sometimes ascribe fault-status to differences of taste. But I’m talking about applying intellectual standards to intellectual things for a pro-intellectual goal. If I critique, say, a dissertation proposal on the basis that it’s too narrow, addresses a knowledge gap that is too trivial, etc., etc., I rather think I’m faulting it in a sense for not being *sufficiently* intellectual (that is, I’m essentially objecting to what I perceive as the proposal’s substandard intellectual aspirations that will lead to a substandard intellectual achievement in the dissertation). It’s why if given the opportunity I would counsel a student to modify or pursue alternatives.

    That’s the form you think is hard to see as other than intrinsically anti-intellectual?

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