Guest post: A woman of colour on Pogge letter

By A Woman Philosopher of Color

I am genuinely grateful for and impressed by the critical discussions that have taken place across the blogosphere and on Facebook (and otherwise) about Thomas Pogge’s harmful behavior. That said, I am worried that many of the voices that are being heard about this matter are those of white women (and men). With the exception of a few, such as the courageous Fernanda Lopez, women of color have largely remained quiet. This is for good reason. Given their precarious position in the discipline, it makes sense that women of color are reluctant to discuss the matter. Fear of further exclusion from the discipline runs high. When some women of color have managed to talk about the matter, they have done so only to make clear that they were not victimized by Pogge. It is unfortunate that women of color in philosophy feel the need to do this. However, it is an appropriate response in the context of some of the dialogue that is taking place.

For example, consider the letter written by Professor Melissa Williams indicting Pogge for his harmful behavior and his weak response to the allegations against him. At the end of the first page, Williams asks Pogge (to whom the letter is addressed) to engage in a thought experiment:

You do not seem to grasp how damaging your conduct has been. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a woman of color who worked with Thomas Pogge on this or that project over the years. Imagine the topic of Thomas Pogge’s conduct coming up in conversation, and eyes turning to you with the implicit question, “You too?” Imagine further that Thomas Pogge’s letter of reference for you was important in securing your current job, so that you are constantly wondering whether colleagues believe you got the job only because you slept with Thomas Pogge. I know you to be capable of imagining yourself in another’s position, and you must have imagined scenarios like this.

Williams uses this thought experiment to criticize Pogge for trying “to discredit” his accuser in his response to the initial BuzzFeed article. Though the connection to the above thought experiment is left unclear, Williams is right to call Pogge out for his poor response to the allegations. It is wrongheaded for many reasons, some of which are also discussed here. My main worry with Willilams’s argument is that it does not go far enough in its support for women of color in philosophy. After making the point about “reference letters”, Williams should have taken this opportunity to make clear that the women who do succeed in the profession are very good and that whether they did or did not get a letter from Pogge is really not a basis to evaluate them on. If this simple fact remains unacknowledged, then women of color who work in global justice are left in the position of having to prove that they were not victims or that they didn’t receive letters or jobs on the basis of letters from Pogge.

Professor Ingrid Robeyns’s post on “Why we should sign the Thomas Pogge open letter” makes other important mistakes. Roebyns argues that in deciding whether to sign the letter or not, what matters is whether one regards oneself to be a member of the relevant academic community. In Pogge’s case, the relevant academic overlapping communities are (at least): academic philosophy/political theory; the community of people working on global justice; and the universities where Pogge works or has worked, and organisations to which he is affiliated. If one is a member of any of those overlapping communities, then knowing about the Open Letter yet not signing can reasonabl[y] be seen as a statement that one believes that this is none of one’s business since (i) this is merely a matter of a person’s sexual preferences, which is a private matter; and/or (ii) the legal institutions will do their work, and we must let them do their work; and/or (iii) we don’t have all the relevant information and hence shouldn’t judge.

Robeyns goes on to convincingly argue that these are not good reasons for failing to sign the letter. However, contrary to what Robeyns suggests here, there are other reasons for not signing the open letter that should not be understood as an expression of believing that “this is none of one’s business.” Some of these reasons apply broadly, but seem especially relevant in the case of women of color in philosophy.

First, in the United States, many decisions about tenure are based on external letters. For junior professors who work in global justice and who may have little choice over who is asked to write a letter on their behalf, there is the risk that Pogge himself or some of his ardent supporters may be asked to weigh in on one’s tenure case. Pogge and/or his supporters could hold one’s signing of the letter against her (or him). This seems especially worrisome for women of color who have worked with Pogge or in global justice and where his letter or his supporters’ letters may seem natural to include.

Second, Robeyns’s post ignores the general fact that it may be especially hard for women of color – let alone junior women of color – to sign the statement, given their precarious position in the discipline. Again, the worry about negative repercussions or further exclusion runs high. There is also the worry that women of color have historically been lumped into the group of “repeat players with a track record of reckless accusations who will sign anything, regardless of the merits”.[1] Because of this history, women of color are likely to be very leery of signing an open letter of this type.

Third, there are other ways to express support of the women who have been harmed and to condemn Pogge’s actions. For example, there are many women of color and otherwise who have been working behind the scenes to, among other things, help with writing the open letter and to provide relevant information for the civil rights case. Especially when one is doing these other things, not signing the letter does not necessarily imply that one does not share in the attitudes expressed in the open letter or that one does not condemn Pogge’s actions.

It is unfortunate but understandable that women of color are reticent to speak about the Thomas Pogge matter. Because of the dynamics of this case and of those in the discipline of philosophy, this is unlikely to change for the near future. I hope that those who do have the privilege of being able to speak will work harder to take the considerations of women of color in philosophy more seriously.

[1] Note that Professor Leiter does not seem to have women of color in mind here. There is, however, a history of identifying women of color as being out to get white men (especially through false accusations of sexual harassment).

4 thoughts on “Guest post: A woman of colour on Pogge letter

  1. Dear fellow philosopher: thank you for writing this very thoughtful post. I really appreciate it. And you are entirely right about the criticism you make on my original post (some of this I already mentioned in the comments under my post, but I think it is worthwhile to repeat it). I have made the qualifications to what I tried to defend there. And there may in fact be more reasons than the ones mentioned so far (either here or at Crooked Timber) why people don’t sign. And as I say in the discussion at CT, it is not really about “signing or not signing”, but about seeing whether one has an opportunity to contribute to more justice for those who have filed complaints, and also about the relevant social norm change. In short, I agree with your criticism on my post.

  2. Thanks for this guest post! I have many concerns, not all of which I can articulate well, with the activity of drawing inferences from not-signing things online. It is helpful to read similar and further concerns from the point of view of the guest.

    Thanks to Ingrid for the response here and the excellent additions in her comment thread at #10 and #33.

  3. I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. It is spot on and voices a perspective that has received little attention so far.

  4. I’m also very grateful for this very thoughtful post. It’s a great reminder that decisions of this kind are always a matter of personal conscience. The reasons to sign are, as Ingrid Robeyns has clearly shown, the promotion of justice for some of the most vulnerable members of our philosophical community and the prevention of further predations by Pogge.
    That said, signing is differentially costly to signatories. For someone like me, who is tenured and does not work in Pogge’s area, I have little to fear in the way of professional blow-back. Things are very different for someone who is a junior woman of color working in global justice. I hope we all recognize both that not signing does not imply a lesser commitment to justice and that those of us who have comparatively less to lose have a correspondingly greater obligation to promote it.
    This leads me to another thought about differential obligations which I haven’t seen discussed, but which strikes me as an important one to air. I’d be keen to hear what others think.
    Even for a senior woman who is not looking for a new job, there can be professional consequences for speaking out. Middle-aged feminists, I’ve had occasion to notice, tend not to be popular in overwhelmingly male gatherings. This can be very isolating at conferences, which can make it difficult to benefit from philosophical discussions in the way that an otherwise well-mannered philosophy conference attendee should be able to. Having this happen almost every time you go to a conference is very, very demoralizing.
    As professional harms go, this one is comparatively small potatoes. But prominent male philosophers, I suspect, would not need to bear this cost of speaking out. And, because they cannot also be accused of special pleading or dismissed as professionally disgruntled, their speaking out can do more good. So, here is the perhaps controversial view: It strikes me that those who have the greatest obligation to create norms in our profession that do not tolerate gender injustice are well-established, male philosophers, especially white male philosophers.
    I want to give a shout-out for those who have stepped up: It gave me a lot of hope to see Steve Darwall, Charles Mills, Bob Stalnaker, Mark Schroeder and others of their standing sign the Pogge letter. And Dave Chalmers, Sandy Goldberg, and Jason Stanley have done more than their bit for promoting inclusion and justice in our profession. It would be fantastic if their example inspired more in their ranks to step up. This fight should not be left to Fernanda Lopez Aguilar and Monica Morrison and the many anonymous woman who have so much more to lose and already sacrificed more than anyone should ever be asked to. If they can give what they’ve given, won’t those of us for whom the cost is vastly less do our small bit?

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