The ASA: mansplaining, whitesplaining, othering, silencing

AND sexual harassment.  All at the recent American Society for aesthetics.  Three attendees describe what went on here, and there is another discussion of it here  One example:  an African-American artist was asked to discuss his recent work on urban youth.  The audience’s questions, in contrast, focused on the exotic features of the unknown culture.  Such as the risks of baggy pants falling down.

If you don’t quite get this example, think of giving a talk about poverty in Uganda and receiving mostly questions about the styles of women’s hair.

One cause of the situation may well be, as various writers suggest, the Society’s rapid movement toward diversity and inclusion.  The effects of the efforts have left some members unsocialized, at least as fas as dealing with a mixed program goes.

There may well be another problem:  members of introspective fields are ill-positioned to detect how socially out of it they are. [West, R. F., Russell J. Meserve, and Keith E. Stanovich. (2012). Cognitive Sophistication Does Not Attenuate the Bias Blind Spot. Journal of personality and social psychology, Online First Publication. ].

Further, a fair number of our colleagues may doubt that being with-it brings any epistemic advantages.  This might not be so bad but for the profession’s long term view, as it seems to me, that nothing distinctive about the excluded groups could be of professional interest to philosophers.

So what to do when one efforts at inclusion means that members of ill-represented groups are treated in ways reflecting too familiar racist and/or sexist clichés?  Let me make one suggestion:  one could try implementing something like bystander intervention.  I’ve seen this done fairly recently a couple of times and it is a way of alerting a whole meeting to a problem.  In effect one says during the Q&A, hopefully as nicely as one can, something like “Let me express a concern that so far questions are not bringing what our speaker really has to offer.  Let’s try to address instead his art and its … “.  There are probably at most conferences enough people interested in promoting diversity to change at least some of the meetings.

One warning, though:  don’t be too surprised to find out that you may not initially have much support.

6 thoughts on “The ASA: mansplaining, whitesplaining, othering, silencing

  1. “If you don’t quite get this example, think of giving a talk about poverty in Uganda and receiving mostly questions about the styles of women’s hair.”

    Isn’t the analogy a bad one? The artist in question has done a lot of work that depicts urban youth and their attire. And the talk itself was in part about that work, and included some discussion of the social content of the work.

    The questions were highly inappropriate and indicative of bias and certainly amount to unfair treatment of the speaker. But your diagnosis seems off base. Why would such an analogy be at all helpful here? Doesn’t it simplify the case too much?

  2. PM, I’m not sure what you see as particularly faulty. Let me say that what I took the comments at Daily Nous to indicate was that a number of people couldn’t see what went wrong in the session. But past experiece, what the objectors were saying and what those unhappy with the session were saying suggested to me principally that comments were based on the audience’s interest in the exotic and not the arist’s work. I thought the contrast between being interested in poverty and wanting to ask about African hair captured that. I probably should have explained it more.

  3. I just meant that a lot of the complaints from people not seeing a problem looked like this. “Wait, the artist in question paints urban youth wearing sagging pants. Why isn’t question about this fashion choice a legitimate question for Q&A?”

    And the answer shouldn’t be “That’s just as obvious as why you shouldn’t ask about Ugandan hairstyles in a talk about poverty in Uganda.” Because the relation between paintings of X and X might seem closer than the relation between poverty and hairstyles.

    I agree that the questions asked at the ASA were not appropriate, but the explanation is more subtle than this analogy would suggest. Glossing over this subtlety doesn’t seem like a good way of getting people to recognize it.

  4. PM, Did you read the posts by Anne Eaton and Paul Taylor? I think that helps to see why Anne J’s remarks are appropriate. I deeply appreciate the posts by Eaton, Taylor and the leadership of the ASA.

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