Metaphysics: Just Like Victorian Marriage?

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?


Conference Attendee


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.”

18 thoughts on “Metaphysics: Just Like Victorian Marriage?

  1. I was at a summer school where a few people had used the phrase ‘wears the trousers’, including *I think* some female philosophers. I then used it too in the same context and to signal the same thing. But after my use a senior white male professor asked, without explanation, if we could refrain from using the phrase. I knew what he meant immediately, but it only then dawned on me that we should not have been using the phrase and that it was sexist. I no longer use the phrase. I’m not making any excuses for my ignorance, but sometimes people are ignorant and it just needs to be pointed out to them that their language is not innocent.

  2. On the subject of referring to a persistent questioner as a “dog”, given the number of common and germane expressions that shed light on the use of the term in that context (e.g., “to be like a dog with a bone” means to refuse to drop a subject; “to dog” means to follow someone persistently and closely; etc.), I suspect that publicly asking whether he was suggesting that the questioner was a bitch would have needlessly brought embarrassment to all three people involved (the male speaker, the persistent questioner, and the person asking for the clarification).

  3. how have we managed all these years without prof manners? i’m breathing a sigh of relief at the sudden knowledge that we have her. more please, prof manners!

  4. This is GREAT. I’m looking forward to more. This is such a useful skill; I hope I can cultivate it sooner rather than later.

  5. Thanks, everyone! Nemo, I suppose I was reading the comment in the context suggested by the other problematic remarks made by the same person. To the extent he has a penchant for remarks that sounds sexist, this is a worrisomely plausible reading of the dog remark. If he didn’t intend that, I’d expect him to abashedly disavow it, at which point, one can just innocently say, “Oh, that’s a relief! I knew you couldn’t mean ‘bitch’.”

    There’s always a worry one may have a cynical reading of a comment meant to be innocuous, but patterns are relevant and that’s why I think tilting toward cynicism here acceptable. If one is going to be a person inclined toward making sexist remarks, others’ interpreting non-sexist remarks as sexist is a risk you run more than most. Moreover, since the woman being described as a dog is junior, I incline toward erring on the side of defending her from the “bitch” reading rather than giving the senior man with tendencies toward sexist remarks a charitable pass.

  6. A ‘cynical’ reading: interesting choice of words, since the etymological source is a word meaning ‘dog-like’!
    My bet is that most (*most*) of the time a speaker refers to a questioner as a dog (the noun), it has ‘bitch’ overtones. When a verb (‘to dog’) or adjective (‘dogged persistence’) is used, the sexist connotation is *usually* absent. But these things are so contextual.

    I am slightly worried about Prof. Manners’ particular advice. I can easily imagine the audience member coming off as a bit slow, since it will seem to most that the archaic attitude toward marriage pretty obviously does not imply that the metaphysical relation of grounding is archaic. I think I, personally, might say, “wears the trousers, was that your metaphor? Wow, that’s, uh, quaint,” and then press on with the content of my question. But I freely admit that I do not generally attempt to err on the side of politeness.

  7. I might, in such a situation, ask under what conditions Chinos, for instance, might be preferable to Palazzos— “…to take this a little further.”

    There are many reasons why I love being working class. Not having to tread ever so carefully around tropes is one of those reasons. It seems to me, that positions in society that command respect and are prestigious, also require a great deal more deference to men.

  8. While I admire the politeness of the suggested comments, I think simply asking “How do you think these marriage metaphors advance your point X?” is more direct and less likely to make the questioner look confused/ignorant.

  9. Something tangential, but (I think) relevant– I’m studying a paper on the evolution of the term “autism” in psychiatry. Early childhood development “theories” (loose hypotheses and ridiculous speculation) that were born of Freudian non-sense, led to metaphors like the following:

    “Fantasies could be associated with libidinal instincts or drives as well as destructive instincts and impulses. Using evocative language, Isaacs claimed that if the child was feeling ‘desires towards his mother’, he would experience these as ‘I want to suck the nipple, to stroke her face, to eat her up, to keep her inside me, to bite the breast, to tear her to bits, to drown and burn her, to throw her out of me’…”

    Metaphors that project patriarchal hatred and dominion over women onto infants can be a result of unexamined metaphors and the assumptions embedded in them in any discipline to the detriment of society.

    Perhaps the line between professionalism and supporting or overlooking thoughtlessness (which we all engage in now and then) could be a lot less thin and could be addressed in a neutral and direct way without apology to a fellow professional who welcomes challenge in the spirit of making collective progress.

  10. Wordsmith, I didn’t know that about “cynical” though I wish I had so I would have seemed especially clever using it.

    I do see your point about the risks of seeming clueless. Maybe that makes the other responses more useful than the last (insofar as they are less prey to this).

    Part of why I like framing the response as a question rather than a comment that prefaces a separate query is just this: If I ask a question about the metaphors and only about the metaphors, the speaker is obliged to respond about them. I’m trying to be polite with these sample remarks but simultaneously provoke as in the speaker the discomfort of having to answer them as an inducement to avoid them in future. And I think a question one must answer rather than a comment one might try at least to ignore is more uncomfortable.

  11. Prof. Manners, you may be right. However, the category of “remarks that sound sexist” is a very broad one, uniting behaviours that can be highly dissimilar in other respects. Two of those would be:

    (1) Resorting, in a discussion of metaphysical grounding, to rhetorical metaphors incidentally alluding to unreconstructed notions of marriage.

    (2) Directing a just-barely-veiled insulting epithet to someone’s face.

    It seems to me that (1) and (2), while perhaps distant relatives, are in fact highly distinguishable M.O.’s. Not that there’s any reason the two behaviours couldn’t coexist, of course; it’s rather that a penchant for the former would not greatly elevate (in my view) the very low a priori probability that the same person was actually engaging in the latter by referring to a persistent questioner as a dog.

    A colleague (British, for whatever that’s worth) not infrequently tells me “You’re like a dog!” when I won’t abandon a line of questioning. Naturally, she’s referring to the idiom “a dog with a bone” which is precisely apt in that context, but (presumably on the supposition that most native English speakers will mentally supply the second part in such a case) she generally leaves off the “… with a bone.”

    I’m not sure that in the hypothetical case one can recover risk-free by innocently saying “Oh, that’s a relief! I knew you couldn’t mean ‘bitch’.” Doesn’t it invite the response, “So why did you ask?” When people ask questions to which they immediately profess to have known the answer all along, don’t we usually infer that either they were either ignorant of, or at least not at all confident of, the answer but were embarrassed to appear so, or else that they had some disingenuous reason for asking the question?

    At any rate, were I Conference Attendee, I would be somewhat disinclined to leave my peers and other bystanders to choose between deliberate obtuseness and native obtuseness as explanations for things I’ve said.

    You picked a thorny one as one of your first test cases!

    Turning back to the first incident: Cscstars9, I wonder if asking “How do you think these marriage metaphors advance your point X?” isn’t also likely to make the questioner look confused/ignorant. In this context metaphors advance a point chiefly by conveying it, so unless the questioner does not comprehend (or wishes to feign ignorance of) the ordinary meaning of the expression “wear the trousers” — which they presumably did comprehend, since they ostensibly understood what point X was — the answer to the question should already be apparent to the questioner, Q.E.D.

  12. I was at this conference. I am male. I was also uncomfortable, as were several people I talked with. None of us knew what to do or say. These posts are helpful.

  13. I was not at that talk, but I’ve been in similar situations.

    If you respond by asking a question, then there’s a dilemma. Either the question is obviously not genuine, in which case you haven’t avoided being rude and confrontational, or else it sounds like it could be genuine, in which case the questioner can sound clueless.
    I think maybe politesse must be abandoned in such cases. I realize this is a lot easier for some of us than for others.

  14. Why can’t we just speak our hearts and tell the speaker we don’t like the use of sexist or archaic metaphors and ask for more neutral one? In that way we still fit the form of the q&a. Or does that make me look stupid? Or would I be transgressing some unspoken norm? Why should we only make comments and ask questions about the immediate content of a lecture and nog about the form of it’s packaging? I don’t believe content and form are strictly separated aspects of our language use, but that might be part of the question too of course…

  15. Wwitch – interesting last point in #8. I think, though, that groups of women can also create such situations. Think of afternoon tea.

    I just read a v. Interesting piece on autism, and your comments in 10 are suggesting to me that I should post about it.

  16. I have sometimes used the “perhaps I am not understanding, but your metaphors …”. I think that just about every time, a number of people – usually mostly women – nod in clear agreement with me. I hope that still puzzles the metaphor users. I fear that the “O, now she’s being PC” has become too available.

  17. Thanks for this excellent post! When faced with this kind of sexism, I also try to find a way to turn my critique into a question that at least forces the speaker to reflect on–and preferably to answer for–their sexism. I recall in undergrad that I had a philosophy professor (a rather well-known one) who consistently referred to God as “he” (in what were very abstract philosophical arguments about the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing being–these were not arguments about the male god of any specific religion). Mid-way through the lecture, I raised my hand and asked him, “Is there a reason why you continually refer to god as ‘he’?” And unless I’m remembering incorrectly, the professor didn’t know how to respond and simply walked out of the classroom and into the hallway. He returned after a minute or two (we were wondering why he left!), and resumed lecturing. From that point on, he ceased using male pronouns to refer to God.

    I’m not sure that this was the best reply, but I had the sense that the professor had just been doing this out of habit (which didn’t make it excusable) and that my question embarrased him and made him reflect on how his language was being interpreted.

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