Dear Professor Manners,
During a recent conference presentation, a senior white male academic made several metaphorical remarks about what “wears the trousers” (used to mean: has priority) according to certain philosophical views.
At one point he considered the whether the answer might be “as in a PC marriage, nobody”.
He also used an example in which a man who said sexist things was retaliated against by a woman who turned physically violent towards him.
There was no good philosophical reason for any of this. He was discussing metaphysical grounding.
I was only an audience member and didn’t do or say anything, although I wanted to. The tone of all three things struck me as deeply unpleasant and I was made uncomfortable by them.
In the past, the same person has referred to a much more junior female academic as “a dog” on account of her persistent questioning during a Q&A.
Should I have done or said something on either occasion? What?
Dear Conference Attendee,
I became briefly but metaphysically ungrounded by this. Now recovered, I note that this seems a sadly common problem in the discipline, the gratuitous invocation of stereotyping gender tropes in service to a completely unrelated point.
I do think it’s good and useful to say something, principally because in a public talk, others are present and these others may include students, graduate students, or junior faculty, people whose study and work lives can be compromised by this sort of nonsense floating unchecked in the general atmosphere. Or worse, there may be people present tempted to emulate this sort of thing in a mistaken view that it’s acceptable and so it’s best to discourage that.
The trouble (or one trouble among the legion) in responding to such remarks is that in a formal presentation, there is a reasonable desire not to disrupt the event and not to shame the speaker. I suspect this will be contentious but I think these impulses are generally laudatory.
The worry I have is that if we disrupt or shame (even where righteously warranted), we risk encouraging this as a wider practice and not all of what people take as provocations to disruption or shaming will be well warranted. Moreover, I think there is often already a pugilistic atmosphere in the way many talks and Q & A sessions operate. I wish it weren’t so, but hope not to add to it. Finally, my hope in any response would be to convey my dismay in such a way that others would incline toward joining me in it. Purely strategically, I doubt that’s best done through disruption or shaming. So, what to do then?
I’d aim for a response that registers the problem but allows the speaker (graceless though he may be) a graceful retreat from his own comments. Here are some examples, not all equally gentle but all trying to be polite but pointed:
“I believe I understand your point about X, but the stereotyping nature of your examples regarding marriage and sexism seems a distraction that risks muddying the waters. Could you re-frame the point without these for the sake of clarity?”
“The metaphors invoking marriage you use appear to rely on a inegalitarian model of marriage being preferable so I worry that I’ve mistaken the point at which the metaphors aim. Could you clarify just how these metaphors about marriage are meant to work?”
“The metaphors invoking marriage you use seem to rely on an inegalitarian model of marriage being preferable. Given that this is typically seen as archaic, would you say that looking for a metaphysical grounding that ‘wears the trousers’ is similarly archaic?”
All of these indirectly encourage the speaker to drop the obnoxious metaphors and examples. He may of course dig the hole deeper in response, but if so, the hole he’s in is all the more likely to become apparent to all present and that in itself is valuable. The longer hope is that if speakers who casually deploy such examples find themselves queried about the examples, they’ll soon seek better ones. (Who wants to give a talk on metaphysical grounding only to have to defend his views of marriage!?!)
I hasten to acknowledge that these possible responses have a similar pattern that entails some risk, particularly if the one responding is a woman. They each in some measure have the questioner behaving as if she needs a (presumably relatively clear) point clarified, rarely a good spot for women in the discipline. Still, the clearer the original point was, the less risky this will be, for others present are likely to see the query for what it is, an effort to politely critique gratuitously offensive examples and metaphors.
Finally, I think it worth noting that micromessaging can be very useful as a strategy as well, especially where the aim is to communicate to others present that examples or metaphors are offensive. I often despair of how micromessaging operates in the discipline, with conference rooms full of people adopting their best pinched-faced, skeptical philosopher look. It’s enough to make me wish they’d text instead. But body language can speak volumes and especially where one is known by others to be generally polite, a pinched, pained look can be useful in signaling disapproval and dissent.
As for the dog remark, I think I’d say, “I’m sorry, but do you mean to suggest that she’s a bitch? I worry that that’s what it sounds like, but I’m certain that’s not what you could mean.”