14 thoughts on “What might a bystander say?

  1. It happened in a student conference I attended a few years ago. My friend (M.A. student, female) was doing a conference on discrimination of women in philosophy, and as she was setting things up, a well known (well, locally) philosopher (and keynote for this conference) made a similar remark. My friend took the ball on the hop and explained how this humour contributed to exclusion of women from philosophers’ circles. (The well known philosopher protested, but he looked stupid.)

    There’s inherent risk in voicing such concerns, but I think the risk is smaller if you’re male. But it probably helps if you can explain why it’s nocive as well as she did.

  2. I think this sort of situation is very difficult if one is not quick in complex situations. I might hope to say loudly, ‘o no! Not another one’. At least it indicates something is wrong, and most people will figure it out.’

  3. I’m not sure why this comment is regarded as inappropriate, except if on the grounds that it is not funny.

  4. One thing that really, really helps, is when your colleagues acknowledge your “WTF?!” face, even if in private, and after the fact. I remember a while ago, I think Heidi posted something about reaching out to women in departments where scandals of one kind or another were going on. Reach out, just to say, “I know something is wrong, and I’m thinking of you.” I thought that was such a good point, and I think this is in the same wheelhouse. If you see something weird happen, and your female colleagues are there, you don’t necessarily have to throw yourself on the tracks. But later, in private, and as a friend, it *really* helps to have someone say, “I noticed that too, and I thought it was wrong.”

  5. A bystander should say nothing in this case. It is the responsibility of the famous female philosophers to defend herself against the famous male philosopher for the joke. Perhaps she found it funny. Additionally, I would not answer difficult questions or objections for a female philosopher, famous or not, who was on stage, and I certainly don’t think anyone else should either.

    Even if the female philosopher were a junior member of the profession, she should have the skills and resources to defend herself intellectually while giving a talk. It’s her stage, she should be in charge similar to comics who are heckled. Deal with it just like you would deal with a difficult objection or other issue. It’s your stage. Take charge.

    If, however, the situation were such that a female student in my class was presenting, and a student heckled her, I would step in rather quickly. Then it is my responsibility to rescue the student, female or not, from this situation. As a teaching moment. For other professional philosophers, however, I don’t have such a rescue obligation. Believing I have such an obligation to rescue women undermines women in a way that we should be trying to avoid.

  6. @Happy, it’s inappropriate because it makes women feel like sex-objects. It’s not too much to ask for the appropriate amount of respect and recognition for being something other than a sex-object in a professional setting.

    I suspect that you won’t like that answer, but that’s my two cents.

  7. HappyPhilosopher: It’s the context. In my social life, on my own time, I might make the same joke. But in a conference setting, calling attention to oneself with a wocka-wocka joke about sex during a colleague’s professional presentation on her scholarship is a crummy move. It signals that we are not to focus on the content of the presenter’s work, or on her role in the meeting, because there’s a Lighthearted And Funny Person in the room who wants us all to agree how Lighthearted And Funny he or she is! When this kind of crummy move is committed by anyone, it’s somewhat unethical (it is, at least, less than ideal), and when it is done by a man at the expense of a woman, it has the additional gendered freight of undermining a representative of a minority in the profession.

    That’s the problem with the “joke.”

  8. Kate, that makes a lot more sense; thanks. I didn’t realize that the presenter was a woman; the impression I got from that link was that people were just objecting to the comment per se.

  9. To Bystander:
    First of all, thanks for asking! Second, don’t feel bad that you missed this one. It’s hard to maintain a constant state of readiness, and these things can come out of nowhere. (I speak from experience.)

    But to your question: a lot depends on your position. You seem concerned about the repercussions of speaking out, so I assume that there is something about your social or professional position that makes you feel vulnerable. Without in any way minimizing the social costs of being the one to “spoil the party,” I would encourage you to examine that feeling of vulnerability: what is it that you are afraid might happen? And would it be so terrible if it did?
    That said — there is safety in numbers. Gather two – thirty allies, go up to the offending philosopher after the talk and say, calmly, “that was an inappropriate thing to say at a professional presentation.” If the offending philosopher starts to argue, hand it off to one of your allies (and repeat, as necessary). But given the odds (3-31:1) it’s unlikely the offending philosopher will argue.

    Alternatively, find an ally who’s a match for the offending philosopher with respect to whatever properties are the ones that make you nervous, and ask that person to speak to the offending philosopher.

    The main aim should be to attach social costs to that sort of behavior. Ideally, a comment like that would garner a loud chorus of spontaneous groans and jeers. Maybe someday.

  10. As a woman I would be furious if someone intervened on my behalf in such a situation. That sort of action/attitude indicates the person intervening doesn’t think I’m capable of running my own talk. It’s actually much worse than an innocuous, juvenile (but funny) quip. In fact, were someone to intervene the focus would then be on their ideological platform as opposed to the content of my talk.

  11. I agree with CP and Trixie that intervening would imply that the female presenter requires rescuing and is incapable of defending herself. The inappropriate comment sounds really sophomoric, so the man who made it has drawn attention to the fact that he is a moronic ass. I also doubt it would be a good idea for the presenter to interrupt her talk to respond to this ass, as this would have the effect of helping him derail the talk. Afterwards, I would approach the speaker and, after asking whatever genuine questions or making remarks on the substance of her talk, I would note that the interruption was unfortunate. If others are present, they would probably show solidarity on this point.

  12. I disagree that intervening somehow undermines the authority of the presenter. Dealing with grossly inappropriate comments during a talk is not what professors are expected to do at colloquia; this is the kind of thing where members of the host institution are at least entitled, if not obligated, to step in (just as members of the host institution would be entitled to step in if the lecture hall suddenly got flooded, or barn animals started wandering through). Guest speakers are invited to talk philosophy, not deal with this sort of thing.

  13. I also strongly disagree that intervening shows disrespect for the speaker. Maybe that’s how some people would interpret it, but I hope that that changes over time. We can’t always expect the person affected to stand up for themselves, and to do so alone. We’re a community: we should help each other.

    If I were the speaker, the guy said that, and someone piped up and said: “Come on, that’s not appropriate.” I’d say ‘Thank you’ (and really mean it), all the while knowing that I’m perfectly capable of saying something, too. Heck, *I’ve done it.* I’ve had to stop a presentation because someone audibly muttered, “That’s such bullshit” to something I was explaining. But each time I have to decide whether it’s worth engaging, and roughly calculate the potential costs of speaking up…all the while trying to focus on what I’m really there to think and talk about. So I appreciate someone coming in and relieving me of these burdens.

  14. If a professional philosopher has spent any time at all in front of a class of unruly teenagers (i.e. a college classroom), then he or she should be fully capable of dealing with interruptions, bad behavior, sophomoric comments, and the like. Here’a story for you…a male philosopher was teaching a class on logic and he referred to property “P” (p-ness). A young woman quipped, “I like P-ness.” That was simply a logic class, but there are other classes, are there not, where the subject matter lends itself to off-color student commentary? My point being that the daily work is sufficient training ground for any philosopher (especially a senior philosopher as in this case) to practice and hone dealing with hecklers. If you can’t do that, you may be in the wrong profession. I’ll also stick by my initial comment that it would be disrespectful to step in during another person’s talk. I doubt anyone would feel the need to defend many male philosophers were they to be the recipient of such comments (who have surely dealt with disruptive and irrelevant comments). So, as for me…I’ll take my presentation the way I take anything else…equally. One name: Ruth Barcan Marcus.

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