Symbolic Conscription

I’ve watched the last few days as philosophy social media and now blogs lit up with the crisis at Hypatia over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on transracialism. (Summary of some of the commentary here.) Throughout, I have been dismayed by the way that people I respect or whose work I admire have taken out after each other, engaging in pugilistic, hostile, sneering interactions that now apparently pass for debate. Along the way I acquired a more current insult vocabulary by osmosis. I learned that calling someone “Becky” is an insult, among other things.

There are a host of thorny and complex issues attached to the debates raging on social media and blogs elsewhere. I do not want to engage those here. But here is something I do want to say, a plea, if you will… And, given the heat that surrounds all of this, I feel obliged to render explicit that I here speak only for myself, not for any other bloggers on this site.

The profession of philosophy has a host of problems that are amply in evidence in all of these debates. This list would, in my opinion, include: a long history of exclusionary practices coupled with free theorizing about lives utterly unlike those led by people allowed into the professional guild; self-serving myths about quality control and the quality of arguments, a set of standards we regularly fail to fulfill even as we suspiciously trot them out whenever something new (to “us”) comes down the pike; demographic narrowness that should provoke serious worry that our efforts to address philosophical issues is compromised by homogenous experiences, epistemic patterns, and social situation; journal practices that are sub-optimal in more ways than can readily be summarized; quasi-professional spaces – social media and blogs – that operate like the wild west and leave many misanthropic and alienated, and too often target the vulnerable; failures to address or acknowledge how philosophy and activism can intersect or, at the very least, how philosophical commitments and activism legitimately operate in a recursive loop for at least some philosophers; how dubious gate-keeping practices are a perennial phenomenon within the profession and one we too often refrain from analyzing carefully, much less address coherently; a climate in which philosophers across the spectrum of values and identities attest to be fearful of the ire and contempt of peers, of being subject to conversational and professional practices that savage; and… there is more.

Here, then, is my plea: Please stop symbolically conscripting Rebecca Tuvel into the role of personifying all of these systemic issues that attach to the profession at large. I here do not wish to weigh in on the quality of Tuvel’s scholarship; what I want is to urge that we cease treating her article and her as the personification of issues that are all over the discipline. I here issue no judgment of Tuvel’s work but ask that we all recognize this: Even if you judge Tuvel to have done all of the things that have been laid at her door, she would not be unique in any of them. The problems that have been attached to her, that she has come to singularly personify in all these debates, are ones that her own critics would, I think, freely acknowledge exist all over the discipline. Yet she has been uniquely singled out for public opprobrium.

Behaving as if solving the “Tuvel problem” will alter the deep problems we have conscripted her into personifying is, I believe, to wrong her. But even if you disagree with me about that and imagine that what she has likely endured the last few days is wholly warranted by what she wrote, consider the litany of problems above, consider the litany of systemic problems we have conscripted her into personifying and ask whether addressing her solves any of those problems. I don’t think it does. Worse, it risks certifying as acceptable laying the mountain of our profession’s problems on one untenured scholar. To be clear, we heap burdens on scholars in inequitable ways with a disturbing frequency – our professional gate-keeping is one iteration of how we do this. Treating one scholar, one untenured woman scholar, as the symbolic personification of the profession’s ills – raising petitions against her work, engaging in public insult of her (see: Becky), and so forth – will not fix what ails us. It is a symptom of what ails us. And what ails us is legion.

Dear Fellow White Dudes…

Ethan Mills has a post, “Dear Fellow White Dudes” on his Unexamined Worlds blog.  Mills begins his post by noting, “Man, it’s pretty awesome to be a white dude!  But you’d never know it if you listened to a lot of white dudes these days, which as a white dude myself I find kind of weird.”

He then explores and addresses the contradictions, tensions, and confusions underwriting a particular stance toward the world – he calls it being a “white dude,” but it may cover both less and more than that on the reasoning that not all whites dudes sign on to the culture he describes and more than white dudes may do so.  That’s neither here nor there.  The main thing is to point you to the post itself, which is well worth a read and very astute about the strange cultural moment we occupy.  Mills writes with sympathy and sensitivity, even as he critiques.   Read it here.

Syllabi and Diversity

Luvell Anderson and Verena Erlenbusch have a really useful article, “Modeling Inclusive Pedagogy: Five Approaches,” appearing in the Journal of Social Philosophy. In it, they canvass five conceptually distinct approaches to making syllabi, and thereby course content, more diverse. Their taxonomy of approaches clarifies the advantages and disadvantages of each, but also illuminates the metaphilosophical aspects of diversifying courses. E.g., are diverse practitioners principally being employed as critics of the standard fare and approaches? Is the conceptual architecture itself reflective of diverse philosophical concerns or are diverse voices being brought to bear on a traditional core set of questions?

The essay as a whole does much to clarify what sorts of embedded assumptions or concerns can render diversifying a syllabus challenging. Anderson and Erlenbusch don’t provide any quick or easy resolution to these challenges, but that’s sort of the point. This is one of those cases where simply mapping out the landscape of possibilities and naming the rough terrain in each helps a lot. Do check it out!

Bright on Inconsistency

Liam Kofi Bright has a blog post from November that seems useful to raise today in light of some of the responses to newly publicized allegations regarding sexual harassment against John Searle (story here). Originally posted to register how concerns regarding racism in the US election were addressed, Bright’s post also captures the way responses to sexual harrassment allegations too often transpire, particularly in the philosophy blogosphere.

Informal Omega Inconsistency is when people agree to a general claim but will stubbornly deny or remain absurdly sceptical as to every particular instance of it you produce. So, somebody may well agree that there are bad drivers in Pennsylvania — but every time one points to a particularly erratic person on the road in the state they will say that, no no, this is not a bad driver, this is somebody whose car has suddenly and inexplicably stopped working, or is cursed, or at least they will not believe it is a bad driver till these possibilities have been ruled out, or… whatever. Just for some reason every instance that might witness the existential claim granted turns out not to be granted as an actual instance, no matter what lengths must be gone to deny as much.

Sounds wacky, right? Maybe, but I think it will be easily recognised as a very common by anybody who has ever argued about racism. Of course everybody will agree there are racists, certainly, it’s still a terrible problem and there are lots of liberal pieties I could complete this list with that would gain equally near universal assent in my social circles. But this or that particular instance? Oh no, you have to understand, he’s a very kind soul, you must be misinterpreting what he meant by “All coloureds must die” — maybe he was talking about a novel method of rendering crayons reusable? And, look, he really likes dress up even months after halloween, so that was probably just a ghost costume, and of course he’s a very devout man so he likes to build crosses wherever he goes, but alas he’s a smoker (nobody’s perfect!) so he probably was getting his lighter out then he tripped and fell and it just happened to set the cross ablaze, and….

I parody, but not by as much as you’d like. Lots of people are Informally Omega Inconsistent and it’s super annoying. I think what prevents more general recognition of this fallacy is two things. First, it’s a fallacy that is only recognisable in aggregate. On any one occasion it’s consistent to deny that this witnesses one’s general claim — it only becomes Informal Omega Inconsitency once it’s apparent that this is a matter of policy, that this is how the person always responds to apparent instances of the general claim being made. Second, for reasons that are a bit opaque to me, we tend to think that people `want’ to make the strongest claim they can, so it seems that if somebody wanted to make the general claim they’d be only too happy to grant some instances — but not so, as this experience has taught me.


A Tentative Explanation of “the kids today”

In Cheshire Calhoun’s “The Virtue of Civility,” she articulates a standard for civil conduct that I think is remarkably useful: We ought be civil to views that social consensus has not yet taken “off the table” – i.e., views that we collectively via consensus have not yet settled. This makes practicing civility quite experientially hard of course – there will be many views I personally think ought to be settled that are not – but its logic resides in recognizing the areas where we need very much to keep talking. Civility is the mechanism that keeps dialogue going and can enable persuasion. Implicit in this is that a social-moral goal is consensus seeking, with a priority on recognizing that none of us are well equipped to sort things out on our own, using only our own moral frameworks. So we display respect and toleration for views we can’t endorse in an effort to maintain humility and engage in the long, arduous persuasive work social-moral progress would require.

In teaching Calhoun in the current political atmosphere, it seems increasingly to me that there is something of a crisis in consensus formation. It isn’t simply that we do not enjoy consensus but that many are foundationally cynical about what consensus means. “Consensus” is perceived by many to belong to them, to some group of people other than me and mine. Because of this, uncivil conduct and speech is not simply protesting views with which I disagree, but protesting the systems by which views get “settled” or “taken off the table.” Here’s a little of what I mean.Read More »

The Work (again)

Eric Schliesser has taken another pass at discussing philosophy with reference to The Work – that is, with reference to the seriousness with which we take philosophy. I agree wholeheartedly with what he says here and find his irony especially cheering. But I also want to set out a little more plainly what I meant in distinguishing between “a bit of work” and “The Work.” People’s responses made me think this through more, and more carefully, for whatever it’s worth.

Most of the reactions to my earlier post and to Eric’s were, I think, responding in part to the ambiguity attached to discussion of “philosophy.” There is a) philosophy qua profession and academic discipline; b) philosophy qua historically situated tradition of reflection, investigation, and reasoning; and c) a form of philosophy that transcends even history – call it the “love of wisdom.”

These overlap experientially for some, and for some likely more easily than others. My own sensibilities regarding philosophy not being The Work (for me) have to do with how the a) version often experientially swamps the b) and c) versions and can seem quite incompatible with them. Some of this is a matter of earning a living: working in the a) version entails much scutwork, to be sure, but it also entails engaging with institutional structures that, for my own part, are ill-fitting, often alienating and demoralizing.

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The Work or a bit of work

Eric Schliesser has lovely post ruminating on how to orient oneself toward research, writing, and scholarly production. It is happily not a work/life balance post – I at least tire of these since they inevitably make me feel like achieving a work/life balance is, well, one more bit of work I’m meant to do. Instead, Schliesser creates a taxonomy regarding the ways people orient themselves toward academic work, describing 3 types and focusing on the last:

A: It pays the bills; work is work.

B: It’s a fun and challenging way to earn a decent salary, but there is more to living.

C: It’s the best form of escapism from the rest of reality (recall here) and (let’s stipulate), luckily, it is also justified by way of the best available argument.

I think it would be consistent with what Schliesser offers to understand C with a little broader latitude and include not just escapism but perhaps what he intimates later in the piece, deriving (some significant measure of) well-being via one’s contributions to scholarly conversations one finds meaningful and valuable. Maybe what matters most for my purposes is that Schliesser’s C is what I think of as the “all in” attitude, the orientation we take when, on the whole if not every day, we identify scholarly work as an enormously prominent life priority or life-governing project.

Schliesser’s post is largely concerned with what sorts of strategies can bring a C-orientation together with other important life goods and projects. I don’t want to summarize what he offers – please do go read it! Instead, I want to make what I think sometimes gets treated as a shameful confession: I’m a B person. Rather, I have over time become a B person. And I suspect there are other B people out there who, like me, feel a bit sheepish about it. The sheepishness is why I’m writing this post, since I circumspectly think it unwarranted and wish it were a more commonplace admission (assuming there are in fact other B people out there).Read More »

Social Class, Gender, and Bias

A new study on law school internship hiring has yielded interesting and dismaying results regarding the influence of both social class and gender on hiring. A c.v. study found that call back rates for men track class indicators, with men having c.v.s indicating lower class origins markedly disfavored relative to men with markers for higher class origins. The beneficial effects of higher class origins disappear for women, however, and women with markers for higher class origins received the lower callback rates than their lower class peers. A follow up study suggests that these women were perceived as the greatest “flight risk”:

Attorneys cited “family” as a primary reason these women would leave. Parenting strategies vary between social classes, and the intensive style of mothering that is more popular among the affluent was seen as conflicting with the “all or nothing” nature of work as a Big Law associate. One female attorney we interviewed described this negative view of higher-class women, which she observed while working on her firm’s hiring committee. The perception, she said, was that higher-class women do not need a job because they “have enough money,” are “married to somebody rich,” or are “going to end up being a helicopter mom.” This commitment penalty that higher-class women faced negated any advantages they received on account of their social class.

The study itself is disturbing in multiple ways, not least because the class penalties emerge in response to what would otherwise be laudatory information (e.g., working as a peer-mentor for first generation college students) or benign information (e.g., liking country music or sports with low cost). Moreover, the benefits accrued to higher class men relative to both women and their lower class male peers were dramatic: The higher class man “had a callback rate more than four times of other applicants and received more invitations to interview than all other applicants in our study combined.”


Yale Gives up Calhoun for Murray

Calhoun College at Yale University will no longer be named for ardent slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.  The College will now bear the name of Grace Murray Hopper:

A trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant, Hopper received a master’s degree in mathematics (1930) and a Ph.D. in mathematics and mathematical physics (1934) from Yale. She taught mathematics at Vassar for nearly a decade before enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where she used her mathematical knowledge to fight fascism during World War II. A collaborator on the earliest computers, Hopper made her greatest contributions in the realm of software. In 1952 she and her team developed the first computer language “compiler,” which would make it possible to write programs for multiple computers rather than a single machine. Hopper then pioneered the development of word-based computer languages, and she was instrumental in developing COBOL, the most widely used computer language in the world by the 1970s. Hopper’s groundbreaking work helped make computers more accessible to a wider range of users and vastly expanded their application. A naval reservist for 20 years, she was recalled to active service at the age of 60. Hopper retired as a rear admiral at the age of 79, the oldest serving officer in the U.S. armed forces at that time.

In addition to the overdue re-naming of Calhoun College, Yale developed a set of principles for re-consideration of named institutions and entities at the university.  Read more about all of it here.