A modest proposal

Eric Schliesser and Mark Lance have made what they call a ‘modest proposal’:

We propose a campaign in which we publicly identify keynote presenters at conferences with all or almost all male invitees who through their inaction, complacency, and indifference contribute to the sexist status quo. This involves few epistemic risks (there is no need to rely on hearsay, testimony, etc); it is also likely to be an effective way of promoting change.
We hereby commit ourselves not to accept invitations to male-only events. We call on others to join us.

As soon as I saw this, I knew it would be controversial. But I didn’t know that there would be almost instant disagreement from one of their own co-bloggers.

What do I think about this? I think (unsurprisingly) that the GCC is the right approach. But I may well be wrong. I do go a bit overboard with the Good Cop routine, I suspect.

21 thoughts on “A modest proposal

  1. Putting aside for a moment their internal dispute, I think it is wonderful that members of that blog have – now for a second time that I know of – tried to addressed some of the problems facing women in the profession. I worry a lot about Audre Lorde’s comment, “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” (quoted in an earlier post locatable by searching under her name.)

  2. At NewAPPS we have a habit of circulating controversial posts internally (for discussion, editing, etc); so Mohan had helped improve the post before he responded to it. Moreover, Mohan had been on public record against the proposed strategy long before, so his response was no surprise to us.
    I would welcome learning more if folk perceive the need for a few ‘bad cops’. I do worry that, perhaps, we may be recycling stereotypes with a gendered division of labor between the nice and more confrontational approaches.

  3. I think it’s pretty fantastic to recognize and reject the male privilege that comes in virtue of (or at the expense of) the exclusion of women. I like the idea of a stronger sense of accountability for all involved. I do wonder though if there’s a more modest approach just shy of this; perhaps a campaign for male invited keynotes, etc. to inquire about diversity and representation when they get invitations rather than necessarily reject all invitations to participate in all-male lineups. I’m not sure. I just wonder about conference organizers doing all they can, and still coming up short. It seems unfortunate that someone could work reasonably hard on putting together a good line up, still not be able to get a good mix, then lose out on a great speaker for something they couldn’t help. At the same time, something needs to give, it’s unfortunate that exclusion continues, and perhaps something like this could be another serious impetus for change.

  4. I think the call is great. The most secure and privileged are in a great position to play bad cop. Kudos.

    Mohan’s reply, otoh, is rather bad (see my comment). Maybe it’s too early in the morning for me to get it, but it just seemed utterly nonsensical and in the classic vien of “Oh nos! Justice is mean”. Cf Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

    Refusing honors as a means of protesting or changing bad behavior is a fairly normal, if rare, thing to do.

    But really, the argument is so nonexistent and the principles, in so far as they are articulated, are so easily falsifiable, I really have no idea what’s going on.

  5. Kathryn,
    One idea behind the approach of Mark and I is to shift the burden a bit from conference hosts (often fairly junior in the discipline) and on to keynoters (often privileged, senior).

  6. I can’t find any of the relevant websites through a g**gle search, strange! Or, may be not so strange

  7. To recycle a comment I just made on Facebook (just generating more visibility and discussion about these issues is great- so that’s an automatic win for the proposal!):

    My main worry is this, taken from #30 on the original proposal: “We believe that these keynoters do, in fact, contribute to the sexist status quo, even in cases where there is no “indifference.” But we construe a keynoter that attends a male-only keynoted conference as either complacent or inactive on this issue.”

    As others point out in the Matthen response, there are two different claims being made here! The first, which I think is pretty much always going to be true (and is the point of the Gendered Conference Campaign), is “You are contributing to a sexist status quo.” The second is “You are complacent or inactive (or indifferent).” I’m really worried about making this second charge. Though that may very well be true as well, I don’t think we have the epistemic or moral authority to be making those claims.

    Confrontation is in general a dangerous tool to use– though of course I think it will often be justified and necessary. I’m just not sure that it will be justified here (because it may be difficult or at least time-consuming to get the evidence needed to be epistemically justified, and without that evidence I don’t think we are morally justified in making such accusations). Partly for that reason, I doubt that confrontation will be effective here. I should say I do find it likely that most people really *are* complacent and indifferent! But I don’t think I’m justified in going around telling them so–I’d rather stick to going around telling them that they’re contributing to an unjust status quo, because that’s a very well-justified claim based on heaps of evidence.

  8. I am perfectly happy with folk clearly and publicly saying to male keynoters at male-only keynoted conferences (and the rest of us) that they are contributing to the sexist status quo (in all kinds of ways) *and that it follows from this that they should not keynote* (or some variant thereof).
    I don’t expect everybody to agree with me that folk are, in fact, (some combination of) complacent/inactive/indifferent when they do so, although I have not heard a good argument against why in the face of collective negligence contributing to the status quo isn’t sign of complacency (or worse).
    I do find the argument against confrontation a bit strange because it does not engage with the core argument of our modest proposal: we are trying to change norms that maintain the status quo and the incentives that contribute to the ongoing stability of these norms.

  9. I think everyone (at least readers on this blog) are agreed that we need to change norms that maintain the status quo; the question is how we ought to go about trying to do so. I took it, from the earlier comment, that the GCC is an example of a “nice” approach and the modest proposal is an example of a “more confrontational” approach. And I’m raising worried about whether the confrontational approach is the right one, because the bar for justification of confrontational strategies for changing the status quo is higher than the bar for nice strategies.

    There are many reasons that keynote speaker might accept or refuse an invitation. I grant that one reason for refusing an invitation could be that the conference is all or nearly all-male. But I don’t think that this reason, however important, *always* trumps every other reason there is for accepting. So it simply doesn’t follow from the fact that a person accepted such an invitation that they are indifferent, complacent, or even negligent. And since those are pretty severe accusations to be make about a person, it seems to me that we shouldn’t be making them without sufficient evidence.

    That said, since I share your belief that most people are complacent, etc, I agree that we have reason to think that accepting an invitation is some “sign of” complacency. What I really like about the proposal (among many other things!: the shift to keynote speakers is brilliant) is the move to shift the burden of proof: holding/attending an all-male conference is something that demands an excuse or justification, it’s not something that’s acceptable just as it stands. But then shouldn’t there be some clear and recognized avenues that allow people to discharge that burden? It just doesn’t seem to me the proper way to respond to a “sign of” some trait is to go blithely ahead and publicly post an individual’s name on a list that has been explicitly designated as a list of people who exhibit that trait.

  10. First, I hope the moderator does not feel I am abusing the FP space; I have my own blog, after all.
    Second, as I said, if it helps others to avoid attributing complacency or whatever to male keynoters, fine, don’t attribute anything. (I can live with disagreement about this, even though I think is rationalization of collective negligence.) Just don’t use your moral modesty to become part of the problem (collective negligence and all that).
    Third, if people get in the business of justifying why they are keynoting at an event, where all things being equal hat in doing so they contribute to the sexist status quo, we have shifted the goal-posts quite a bit. If you want to create a forum (or encourage others) where our keynoters can do that even better. (We at NewAPPS would welcome responses, too.) But…it is worth reminding yourself that the targets of this campaign are senior figures in the field–these have a lot of resources for response or (worse) retribution.
    Fourth, you may think that there are reasons that sometimes trump our proposal. But the funny thing is: you haven’t stated those reasons, and you haven’t explained why those reasons won’t, in real live, just be abused to justify doing nothing. But granted sometimes these reasons will persuade; why think that word about them won’t get out?
    Fifth, I love the GCC. I learned a lot from it–probably changed my life forever (i.e., bourgeois me has become a minor activist), and I hope it can inspire all the change we need. But I have come to the conclusion that it needs to be supplemented by other tactics. Now those other tactics don’t need to be related to our modest proposal. Feel free to suggest your own tactics.

  11. Eric, (in response to your response to my original comment) I know– and I think that’s great. My only worry was that organizers/editors might still lose out quite a bit this way, even when they do their due diligence, and that it might be nice for keynoters, etc. to not have to turn folks down in those circumstances. On further reflection, however, I decided that I think your proposal would work better than what I had in mind.

    A strict policy of non-participation in all-male line ups doesn’t (strictly speaking) have to imply anything about the intentions or practices of organizers, whereas what I had in mind would get very messy very quickly if folks were accepting invitations to participate in some all-male line ups and not others. What you and Mark have proposed is also better than what I had in mind insofar as it sends a message that effects matter regardless of intentions. So, I retract my previous hesitation.

  12. Yes, I think we want simple rules that change the pattern. Once new norms are robust, one can be more flexible again.

  13. As I expressed in another comment on that post, I find that this “argument” (that the modest proposal is morally wrong) is taken seriously or offered seriously completely perplexing.

    I read the prior post which offers some actual argument rather than unsubstantiated (and clearly wrong) claims, but it seemed even more bizarre. Maybe I’m really out of touch but “transactional superiority” sounds like nonsense or, at least, very special pleading. I certainly couldn’t map it onto any understanding of autonomy that I’m aware of and it has consequences which violate obvious conceptions of autonomy. (And it’s taken as somehow obvious or common! That non-binding advice can so easily violate autonomy itself needs a metric ton of justification!)

    Kinda makes me much less nostalgic for the profession. (Not that CS is so much better on such issues, but I don’t have this romantic notion that CS people will argue well, esp. on such matters.)

  14. Actually, I feel stupider and stupider the more I read it. It seems so transparently wrong and ill motivated that I feel like I must be missing so much. I keep expecting someone to say, “Well, if you’d only read BlahBlahBlahs Kant and Positions of Transactional Superiority you would recognize that this is a bog standard and widely accepted condition of autonomous action as shown by the famous Drowing A Baby On Mars In Twater thought experiment.”

    I’m concerned that I’ve been trained to feel this way.

  15. BJ, I do think there are severe problems with MM’s account. It doesn’t seem to me at all promising to start an account of when one has a right to protest or censure in terms of status and autonomy. That’s awfully likely to turn out a conclusion supporting the status quo.

    As in this context it does.

  16. Hmm. It’s not going well over there between Mohan and myself. Oh well.

    I’d be very interested if people thought I violated the “be nice” rule in that thread. We had a version of this discussion before about the word “gibberish”.

    Frankly, I’m not sure I want to be nice! I’m confused why everyone is taking what seems to be a standard, very boring, “the right people are all civil as we stand upon your back” line (it’s not really an argument) as if it were colorable. (And there are plenty of colorable arguments to be made! The modest proposal is not a slam dunk as several people have cogently shown.)

    (Of course, that blog’s comments are not governed by the “be nice” rule, but obviously it’s worth considering whether applying the rule generally makes sense. “Be nice” has often been used to close people off from articulating their legitimate grievances.)

    Anyway, sorry to bounce back and forth like this. I’m finding it all more upsetting than is easy.

  17. The proposal appears mostly unobjectionable, but there does seem to be a problematic case. Many conferences I’ve attended announce the keynote speakers in the call for papers – presumably to show the quality of the conference in an effort to encourage submissions for the main program.

    If the conference program isn’t in place, prospective keynotes won’t be able to employ the proposal, other than to get a commitment from the organizers. If, when the program becomes complete, the program is judged to be not sufficiently diverse – what to do then? Canceling late in the game would seem to raise moral concerns with regard to effects on both submitters and organizers.

    Getting a good faith effort from the organizers is a victory, but the proposal’s defenders aren’t primarily interested in efforts – they want results.

  18. I agree that this is a possible scenario. But why not postpone the conference in those circumstances? Our research is not so time-sensitive (yet).

  19. Postponing is indeed an option, though such decisions should be made with great care. In the current fiscal environment, many conference contributors will be paying for their own (not fully-refundable) travel. My school has a “travel ban” in place, for instance.

    (Just to be clear, by “canceling” in my previous post, I meant to refer to the keynote speakers, not the conference.)

  20. Discussion of the modest proposal now taking place on Inside Higher Ed. Some interesting comments, some predictable. I was interested that an historian and a sociologist both said that something like this took place in their disciplines some time ago.

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