Philosophy’s moral panic?

It’s been suggested, recently, that a ‘lynch mob culture’ has developed in professional philosophy, and especially in on-line discussions among philosophers. The thought, I suppose, is that philosophers are in such a moral panic about climate issues within the discipline that they are willing to condemn without trial anyone who doesn’t toe the party line.

It’s worth reminding ourselves what lynch mobs really were. Groups of white people became so afraid of encroachments against white supremacy – and so terrified of the black male bodies they had formerly been able to own – that they would ‘take matters into their own hands’ and brutalize black men. Sometimes in lieu of due process. Sometimes just to set an example. Lynch mobs were ways in which those with power (white people) reinforced the status quo (white supremacy). To call some opprobrium and ruffled feathers on blogs and social media a ‘lynch mob culture’ is as bizarre as it is racially insensitive. Unless, of course, we are referring to the discipline’s collective reaction toward black academics who gently suggest that the appalling whiteness of philosophy might be in part due to the way our discipline is structured.

I’ve also seen analogy made to the Reign of Terror. And here we might find a more fitting image for what people really have in mind. In the Dickensian depiction of the French Revolution, the underclass whip themselves into a frenzy – into a hysteria – of self-righteous rage, all at the urging of a group of women. The aristocrats are brought to the guillotine and summarily executed, without trial or defense. And all the while the women sit in the front row, watching gleefully. And knitting.

So are we, perhaps, entering philosophy’s own Reign of Terror? Let’s step back for a minute to consider the specific fallout from recent news items. A powerful, wealthy man was pushed to resign from his job, though at the behest of a private university investigation rather than any public outcry. A powerful, wealthy man was denied a raise and a named chair, though again due to internal procedures rather than any public outcry. And a philosophy department was given an external chair and told to work on their climate issues after an external report from the APA Site Visit program.

As Reigns of Terror go, philosophy’s looks rather mild so far. A resignation, a denied promotion, and an external chair – it’s hardly the stuff of legendary frenzy. So I’ll admit to being skeptical that this is philosophy’s Reign of Terror. Indeed, if we consider the metaphor more closely, we might judge that being drummed out of the profession is, in this case, philosophy’s guillotine. We’re currently in a scenario where at most one prominent male philosopher has been driven from the profession. Some students have, through non-violent sit in protests, called for the firing of another. But that’s it. We’re also, however, currently in a situation where countless individuals from under-represented groups (women, Black people, disabled people, etc) have been driven from our profession by our own culture. And we’ve sat by and watched it happen. If there’s been a Reign of Terror in philosophy, it’s been a quiet, largely subconscious one. And white men have not been the victims of its guillotine.

Finally, I’ve also seen ‘witch hunt culture’ being tossed around. But again, consider the historical context of actual witch hunts. Witch hunts were situations in which those in power incited moral panic in order to perpetuate the fear that would help keep them in power. And women were disproportionally the victims of such violence. Women were publicly executed to keep powerful men in control and keep down women who directly or – more often – indirectly threatened their power. Applying this metaphor seems just as problematic as, and perhaps even more unintentionally ironic than, talk of ‘lynch mob culture’.

Should we consider issues of due process, false accusations, etc? Yes, absolutely. Do people sometimes get carried away with their rhetoric? No doubt. And I don’t question that we need to carefully consider how we conduct discussions about climate issues, and try to figure out what’s most helpful and constructive, especially for those most at risk. But to engage in such careful consideration, we also need to work at distinguishing between moral uproar and moral panic, and between outrage and hysteria.

If not allied, at least attending

My name is Kate, and I don’t always do the right thing.  It is misplaced, at times, to even call myself an ally, when I reflect on the statement reposted on The Queer Proletariat: “the term ‘ally’…presupposes you are doing a good job.”

I can’t say I offer “solidarity” to those who take risks and speak out. “Solidarity” implies I’m right there with those who take risks, but I rarely am.  I was not a member of the APA’s CSW Site Visit team who did the work they were asked to do and took poorly informed, public criticism in the blogosphere, including the questioning of their basic capacities for fairness, as Peggy DesAutels, Carla Fehr, and Valerie Hardcastle did.  I was not here on this blog when Current Student was recently told she should not join the profession.  Worse, most of us published nothing the next day when Rachel McKinnon, a junior scholar not yet begun at her first tenure-track job, was described on the highest-traffic blog in philosophy with adjectives that included “unhinged” and “crazy.”

Colleagues, we don’t have to debate whether we are allies or in a position to offer solidarity.  When philosophers take risks, and suffer from highly personal and individual criticisms, we can at least attend. These things happened. They were bad and wrong.

I’m keeping comments closed, as the function of this post is to attend and not to debate the bearing of witness. But I’m a tenured philosopher in the job I’ll probably have until I die. So I can attend.

UPDATED: Wendy Donner (Carleton University) writes to request the following addendum of support:


Kate, thank you so much for this post, which I support wholeheartedly. And thank you also to many others. I am now an Emerita Professor. My blog comments are few and far between and I am not entirely comfortable with this medium of communication. But I am much more uncomfortable with senior philosophers expressing themselves so critically to junior and vulnerable members of the philosophical community. I am searching for what I could say that would add to the courageous and eloquent stands that have been taken by others. Thank you for saying it: “When philosophers take risks, and suffer highly personal and individual criticisms, we can at least attend”. Yes, yes, yes, we can attend and we can bear witness to their efforts, and hopefully find the words to say more. Thank you Peggy DesAutels, Carla Fehr, and Valerie Hardcastle. Thank you Rachel McKinnon and Current Student. Please don’t be deterred by the criticisms, and please know that so many of us stand with you and value you as the future of our profession. Hopefully all of this upheaval signifies a long overdue sea change in academic philosophy. Hopefully it marks a serious challenge to the culture of sexual harassment that has devastated so many members of our community.








We need to make room for breaking the silence

These last few weeks have been difficult for us as a community—and rightly so—but despite all that’s come to light, still, so much remains hidden. Here, at Feminist Philosophers, we have been talking a bit about the pain of silence recently. I think if we are to come out of this stronger as a community, if we’re going to be able to move forward at all, we need to make room for people to not be silent. Sometimes it seems as though we are caught in a web of interlocking prisoners’ dilemmas: Conversations about harassment, discrimination, and assault are difficult and they are often politically risky. In the short run, if we have the luxury, it can seem easier to simply avoid them. But collectively we have the power to make them less risky.  We can create a culture in which victims are supported well enough to come forward and active bystanders are cultivated. We can do this by offering our solidarity with those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and would otherwise be ignored; by treating our colleagues with respect even when we disagree with them; by acting with compassion and understanding; by speaking and acting ourselves where possible.

To that end, I must acknowledge what happened here last week,  and say that I am thankful for the courageous and peaceful activism of the Northwestern students, for the intervention of Rachel McKinnon (and others) in a comment thread here, and to all of those who are working to make our discipline more inclusive and welcoming.

UPDATE: I also want to acknowledge that our comments policy was violated in a number of ways–and that I am not thankful for. Our ‘Be Nice’ rule is not here simply for the sake of our friends; rather, it’s here so that everyone can participate in healthy and fruitful discussion.  It’s important to note these violations even in cases where I’m very glad that something was said. I have also removed the links above.