Clarifying ‘sexual violence’

There are many forms of sexual and gender based violence. Some of them have only come to light in more recent history, and some we still tend, collectively, to fail to understand. However, the University of Michigan’s (otherwise seemingly wonderful) initiative to prevent and more effectively respond to domestic and intimate partner violence, has offered a very worrying example of sexual violence. The site reads:

Examples of sexual violence include: discounting the partner’s feelings regarding sex; criticizing the partner sexually; touching the partner sexually in inappropriate and uncomfortable ways; withholding sex and affection; always demanding sex; forcing partner to strip as a form of humiliation (maybe in front of children), to witness sexual acts, to participate in uncomfortable sex or sex after an episode of violence, to have sex with other people; and using objects and/or weapons to hurt during sex or threats to back up demands for sex.

Withholding sex and affection is not a form of sexual violence. Rather, too often, claims of failing to be sexually available and affectionate enough have historically been used to justify mistreatment of (and sometimes violence towards) partners–just think of the offensive (and mythical) stereotype of the ‘frigid wife,’ and the various ways in which it has been employed.

A clarification

I wanted to highlight a comment that Kate Norlock makes in a previous post:

I think the main reason this is all depressing to me is that at times like these, complexities in individuals are ignored for the sake of other ends. The ends are endorsed by admirable people. I hope they achieve good things. But I don’t want to forget that the conduct being argued against does not constitute the whole person.

I think Kate is absolutely right about this. So let me be completely clear: what I have been trying to do in these posts is draw attention to problematic patterns of behavior, and the negative effects those patterns can have. I make absolutely no claims about intentions, and – more importantly – about character. I’m not saying Brian Leiter is a bad person. People are really complicated, and no one deserves to have their character judged based on the small glimpse of it we see in an online persona.

Rankings and Implicit Bias

There’s some really interesting discussion starting to take place about the pros and cons of various kinds of ranking systems for philosophy. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper on the potential for implicit bias in both the PGR and the REF. I thought it might be useful for that paper to be a part of these discussions, so I’m posting the penultimate draft of it here. (Also, I can’t figure out how to use my university’s newly updated CMS. Grr!)

The paper is “Ranking Exercises in Philosophy and Implicit Bias”, in Journal of Social Philosophy, 43:3, 2012.


It was only after publishing the paper that I noticed another interesting difference between REF and PGR. I’m no great fan of the REF– it has lots of problems, but it does have the nice feature of not weighting an areas of philosophy more heavily than any others. Whatever area your work is in, it’s only ranked by people in your area, and there’s no overall ranking of departments, except in so far as various competing ones can be (and are) arrived at through the rankings of work, impact, etc. So there’s no case to be made that a department will do better in the REF by hiring an analytic metaphysician than a pragmatist. Departments are free to just go by quality and teaching/supervising needs, without worrying that they should favour particular areas for the sake of the rankings.

The CHE interviews Brian Leiter

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on this week’s events involving Brian Leiter, which includes an interview conducted with him on Thursday. Some excerpts:

Despite those steps, Mr. Leiter remained dismissive of the recent wave of criticism of him, which he attributed partly to feminist philosophers irritated by his defense of the due-process rights of scholars accused of sexual harassment, and partly to philosophers who periodically rebel against The Philosophical Gourmet because their own departments rank poorly.

. . .

Mr. Leiter attributed some of the criticism of him to a “cultural gap” that he said had developed in his argumentative field as younger philosophers had become heavily involved in social media and engaged in what he called “tone policing,” denouncing online comments they see as offensive or uncivil.

Mr. Leiter said that he had not made a decision about his continued involvement with the rankings report and that he had yet to hear a compelling argument for his stepping down. “What I am not going to do,” he said, “is capitulate to a cyber mob that is exercised about issues that are irrelevant.”


Just to be clear, this feminist is not ‘irritated’ with Brian Leiter because of anything about due process. This feminist finds bullying unacceptable, and is concerned about ways in which Brian Leiter’s role in the PGR has the potential to make his repeated acts of what I take to be bullying particularly harmful.

That’s not tone policing. I don’t object to Leiter’s tone per se. I object to the way he repeatedly says personally insulting and even threatening (in the sense of threatening legal action) things to people who are much less professionally established than he is. So yes, that amounts to ‘denouncing online [or in some cases, emailed] comments [I] see as offensive’. But that doesn’t mean it’s tone policing. That just means that I speak up when I find something offensive or unacceptable.

I can’t speak for others, and I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but I’m willing to bet that this characterization of those who are critical of Leiter is in general as inaccurate as it is in particular inaccurate of me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go grab my torch and pitchfork. . .

Is civility a professional error?

A guest post from MM McCabe

Amid the debate about academic freedom which has been in the professional news recently, there has been a parallel discussion about the nature and importance of ‘civility’. It is a category mistake (as I have argued) to take civility to be the converse of academic freedom. But some have argued that civility is still a professional error: that we may or even should use uncivil language and a hostile stance at times in dealing with opposition and criticism. And the demands for incivility are heard more acutely when we face attack on our very institutions and seem to be fighting for our academic lives.…..

Begin, however, with the ordinary case. In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside.

But civility matters practically and instrumentally, too. For discussion – not only in philosophy, but perhaps philosophy is a paradigm case – is a fragile thing. In its full sense it relies both on each party’s having the confidence to speak without hesitation or fear and on each party’s ability to listen to the other. Shouting, of course, precludes listening; and so does its behavioural counterpart, incivility – where the damage may be done at a distance, or over a length of time. For these are exercises of power; and they distort and damage and stunt each party over time. (As a young graduate student, in seminars with an array of philosophical heavyweights, I said not a word in public for years; and the sense, both of terror at speaking up, and of hubris in daring to think I have something to say, has remained with me ever since, only overcome, regrettably, by a natural garrulousness). The wielding of power is bad for each party; both the silenced and the speaking end up with a view of what they each think that comes from their squinted sense of themselves, rather than from some better assessment of what they (might have) said. That is bound to limit what we think about – since some stuff never gets said; and some gets said too much. And it is bound to limit us.

For all this has both a narrowing effect and a broadening one. Incivility relies on an assumption of being right; and that assumption itself may make a speaker risk-averse (this is the Mastermind syndrome – you too can be a specialist within a vanishingly narrow scope…) or pontifical everywhere (this is the God syndrome – to which both those who believe in a god and those who do not are prone…). Both syndromes affect both parties to a discussion where the balance of power is out of whack: but they are the assumptions of power, not of careful inquiry.

For the hearer, civility has an obvious epistemic advantage, that it does not tempt us to accept beliefs whose warrant is sustained only by force majeure; it allows us to see the limits of expertise or authority; and it encourages us to think that we too might have something to say. Moreover, in eschewing particular attack, it allows us to turn our attention better to what is impersonal and abstract; it has that instrumental value.

For the speaker (or the writer) it may be hard to remember that we might be wrong, or that we could think again, or that others might have thought about the same things too; and in the grip of a passionate conviction it is especially difficult to make oneself look at the passion from the outside, from the perspective of another, from the abstract stance of the discussion itself. But discussion gives us these other perspectives: if we are able to listen, then we can think about what we think is different ways. If we are sure we are right about something, we can surely afford the patience to listen to a different view; and if the different view is worth hearing, then perhaps we are not so right after all. But that sense of perspective arises only if the other party to our discussion is able, not only to listen, but also to speak. Listening, if you like, goes both ways; and each of us has to have courage to speak, as well as the patience to hear, if the deep intellectual benefits of discussion are to be reaped. That courage can be very hard indeed to find. Civil exchanges, where the exercise of power is absent, are one condition for finding it.

Civility is hard, though: it is easy indeed to feel oneself under threat and to respond without hesitation, seeking to defend ourselves. This escalates – one remark construed as uncivil provokes another and another; and then the history of the offence is just repeated and rehearsed. This is the rhetoric of the playground, of ‘she said, he said, she said…’, the endless recapitulation of grievance, the constant repetition of what was done, by whom, to whom, and under what provocation. Such disputes, legalistic in their detail, may be not only interminable, but utterly indeterminate, since the original offence is often lost in the retelling itself. Both parties, of course, take themselves to be in the right, and to have behaved impeccably. Either may be right. But in such a situation, remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: we are all the poorer for it (apart, perhaps, from the Court of Chancery). Return, then, to the nature of the aspiration to be civil. The prospect of restoring good will and the possibility to speak and to listen together demands that the endless detail is, at last, abandoned. The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past.

In all of our exchanges, perhaps, we fall short: civility is under construction, but it continues to be an aspiration. But there is still a question of the role of rage: are we never right to express fury, or righteous indignation? Communities, after all, are not only the place for polite discussions of an afternoon in the study, but the locus of structures of power, places where wrongs can be done and go unnoticed or unprotested. When that happens, there is another demand upon us, a different kind of courage called for – the courage to protest, to object, to stand up for one party against another – a courage that is demanded even where there is no risk of physical harm. So in counterpoint to the aspiration to civility, there is a proper demand to call out wrong, and to insist on expressing disapproval or disdain or condemnation. This may be a case, merely, of objecting to a wrong; or a protest against the improper wielding of power. (It should not, I think, for all the reasons above, simply call out an intellectual mistake – accusations of stupidity promote the wretched ‘smartness’ competition). Such a protest may indeed express other responses than civility: anger is the properly moral emotion in response to some appalling injustices. And that rage may be, not only about the content of the injustice, but directed against the perpetrator – after all, we regularly think that there is a connection, sometimes, between the views that someone holds and their moral character. As so often, there is a matter of fine judgment here between the demands of moral indignation, and the demands of attentiveness; and this, we might think, works within any community, whatever its boundaries. But once again there is a difference of category: moral indignation may be a moment or a stance against some particular offence; but it should not be a general attitude, nor a repetitive trope, nor, indeed, a policy. Instead, in general, civility serves us well; for it underpins the virtues that promote freedom of inquiry: modesty, a sense of community and intellectual courage.