Why I signed the Salaita pledge

I signed the Salaita pledge last week. I thought I’d say a bit about why. Quite a few of the people I’ve seen discussing the petition online at least appear to hold the view that anything an academic says on the internet– or at least any expression of a view– should be protected by academic freedom and not subject to administrative oversight or disciplinary action. I think this view is wrong. Academics can say things online– even via the expression of views– which are instances hate speech, bullying or harassment. They can also say things which serve as evidence of serious professional wrongdoing. When an academic says something which is hate speech, bullying, harassment, or evidence of serious professional wrongdoing, universities very much should get involved and should consider and possibly take disciplinary action. I also in fact place a rather high value on civility, as readers of this blog are aware.

Despite all of this, I signed the pledge. One very important reason is that I don’t think what Salaita has done is an instance of bullying, harassment or hate speech. Bonnie Honig lays out the reasons for thinking it is not any of these better than I possibly could. I am, however, aware that others take a different view. Nonetheless– even if these others are right– it is wrong to take such an extreme action on this basis, without proper consideration and due process.

As to civility, much maligned at the moment on the left– I still value it enormously and strive to promote it on this blog and elsewhere. But its lack is clearly not a firing offence– or in fact an offence of any kind unless it rises to the severity of one of the categories already discussed.

And so– despite thinking civility is an important academic virtue, and despite thinking that what an academic says online is a legitimate matter for concern, I signed that pledge.

Women are interested in lots of things

Two caveats. First of all, I’d like to say that I love the Daily Nous, and I’m really grateful for it. Secondly, I’d like to say that the point of this post isn’t to beat up on Justin for posting something I disagree with. Rather, it’s to try to explain why I – and I expect many others – found a particular post problematic.

In this post, Justin asks for recommendations of ‘philosophical topics of interest to women’. The intention behind this request is, as far as I understand it, a really good one – it’s one way of trying to grapple with the underrepresentation of the women in philosophy. And yet. And yet I find posts – and conversations – like this frustrating. Let me explain.

1. Requests that ask us to think about ‘what women like’, ‘what women want’, ‘what women are interested in’, etc. encourage the unhelpful but common assumption that women are some sort of bizarre hive mind (and perhaps unconsciously rely on/promote gender essentialist ways of thinking). Different women are very different. Different women are interested in very different things. A white working class lesbian woman will probably have different interests from a straight upper class Asian woman. That’s how that goes. 

2. Women are often socialized – and pressured – to express interest in certain kinds of things. Uncritical discussion of ‘what women like’ or ‘what women are interested in’ can often gloss over the important social factors that shape both the interests of women and the ways in which they express those interests. It also glosses over – and perhaps contributes to – the effect of things like stereotype threat and implicit bias for women’s interest in traditionally ‘male’ areas.

3. If you say something like, e,g., ‘women like ethics, but they don’t like philosophy of language’, that doesn’t send a very nice message to the actual women who are actually doing great work on philosophy of language. Those women already have enough gender-based nonsense to deal with. They don’t need to read on the internets about how they’re working on a dude subject. 

4. It’s a common misconception of those of us who think feminist philosophy deserves a more central place in the philosophical cannon that we think feminist philosophy is really important because it (unlike, e.g., metaphysics and philosophy of language) is something women care about/are interested in. I only speak for myself here, but that’s certainly not how I see it. The importance of feminist philosophy isn’t that it’s ‘something women like’. Rather, the importance of feminist philosophy is that it emphasizes the philosophical importance of gender, and highlights how so many areas of philosophy – including things like metaphysics and philosophy of language – can be affected by considerations of gender. 

Again, I say all of this in the spirit of constructive criticism, and with deeply felt gratitude for all of Justin’s hard work. 

 

Update: Hilde Lindeman says the following in the Daily Nous comment thread:

The question [‘what philosophical topics are of interest to women?’] is a good one, and does NOT necessarily essentialize women. The fact remains that women and other marginalized social groups are woefully underrepresented in philosophy, and course content in introductory and other undergraduate courses can be part of the problem. What I think would really help is if philosophers stopped boundary-beating, and respected the work of people who are doing philosophy on topics that haven’t gotten much attention in mainstream philosophy. A lot of that work is practical: think of the departments, for instance, where bioethics gets dismissed as “not real philosophy.” Philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, philosophy of disability also easily spring to mind. If undergraduates were exposed to some of this stuff in their undergraduate courses, more of them would perhaps find something in philosophy that really speaks to them, whoever they are.

 

I agree with pretty much everything she says (including that the question doesn’t necessarily essentialize women), except the part where she says that the question is a good one. I think the issue of whether the question is a good one and the issue of diversity and boundary policing within philosophical topics are issues that can and should be kept apart. Philosophy has been primarily white, male, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, etc for a really long time. As a result, philosophy can really show its collective bias and groupthink. It’s perhaps easier to think that gender isn’t a philosophically central topic or that we can ask The Big Questions without considering gender when you’ve benefitted from male privilege your whole life. It’s perhaps easier to think that race isn’t a philosophically central topic or that we can ask The Big Questions without considering race when you’ve benefitted from white privilege your whole life. And so on. People who don’t share that same privilege may disagree – and may feel alienated as a result. But it’s a far cry from those concerns – concerns which collectively might push us to expand what we count as ‘real’ or ‘core’ philosophy and encourage us to examine philosophy’s collective biases – to thinking it’s a good idea to ask ‘what kind of philosophy do women like?’