Imagine Sisyphus Happy

As we announced April 23, Feminist Philosophers is shutting down. This is one of a series of posts by FP bloggers looking back on the blog and bidding it farewell.

The internet is exhausting. Academia is exhausting. Politics are exhausting. It’s a bit of a miracle—and a testament to the dedication my co-bloggers—that Feminist Philosophers had such a long run, given its subject matter and role in the discipline. It is hard to have productive conversations on the internet about anything, let alone contentious matters of deep social import. And trying to effect change in academia about things as simple as copier use, or keeping a departmental fridge clean, can leave one feeling like Sisyphus—so, when I think about how my predecessors here at Feminist Philosophers successfully shifted the status quo of the entire discipline, I am nothing less than awed with their accomplishments. I’m grateful for everything they’ve done, and it would be unfair to expect more of them. I am, though, one of those who remains optimistic about the potential for online discourse to be a real force for good in the world. I want to use my last post here at Feminist Philosophers to say something about why I think engaging in tough conversations online is still worthwhile, despite its seeming futility.

In the 1960’s, Stanley Milgram, conducted a series of well-known experiments at Yale regarding obedience to authority. If you aren’t familiar with the details, participants thought they had been randomly selected to play the role of “Teacher” in an experiment on memory. Those who were assigned the role of “Learner” were actually part of the research team, though the “Teachers” didn’t know it. The basic experimental set up was this: The Learner was supposed to learn list of words, and then recall it. If they made a mistake when reciting it, the Teacher was supposed to administer a shock to the Learner. Learners weren’t actually given shocks, but the Teachers didn’t know that either (and they were given a low-level shock themselves at the beginning, to have a sense of what it would feel like). They were told the voltage of the shocks would go up with each mistake, until it reached 450 volts. In one version of the experiment, where the Learners were hidden by a wall, once the shocks reached a certain point, they would vocalize discomfort, ask to be released, and when they weren’t, if the Teacher kept going, they’d stop responding, as if they were unconscious. If the Teacher objected, the experimenter would ask them to continue – until the Teacher objected five times, at which point the experiment would end. Roughly 2/3rds of participants continued all the way through, administering the highest voltage. In a variant condition, where Teachers and Learners were in the same room, full compliance dropped to 40%. In a condition where the Teacher needed to touch the Learner to administer the shock, compliance dropped to 30%. Proximity to others—as basic as merely being in the same room—can enable resistance, and consideration, when callous deference to the status quo would otherwise be the norm. Engaging in discourse with each other online is a way of creating cognitive and imaginative proximity when physical proximity isn’t possible.

Of course, whether online discourse is successful will depend on whether we actually talk to each other rather than past each other; and obviously, that’s actually really hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. For one, in matters of moral or political dispute, we all tend to think we’re right and the other guy’s a jerk or troll. Elif Batuman illustrates a nearby phenomenon poignantly in The Idiot:

I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo: a Disney movie about a puny, weird-looking circus elephant that everyone made fun of. As the story unfolded, I realized to my amazement that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, the ones who despised and tormented the weak and the ugly, were rooting against Dumbo’s tormentors. Over and over they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to the bullies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.

That we all tend to think we’re the good guy can make genuine discourse about controversial matters especially challenging.

Talking to each other can be hard for another reason though. Who we take to be authoritative, credible, or even legible, is not determined in a vacuum. Our beliefs are deeply interconnected. Our political views are informed by our social networks. What information we recognize as interesting, relevant, or trustworthy is shaped by our social relationships. When our friends communicate, we understand them. When we interact online with people who are very different from us, have different background evidence, different relationships, different interests, different experiences—it can feel as if we’re speaking different languages.

It’s not impossible though.

I know minds can be changed because my own has been, many times. The first feminist philosophy course I took was an independent study. I suspected feminist epistemology was nonsense, and set out, initially, with the aim of arguing as much. That research led me to this blog. I became a regular reader, then a commenter, and in graduate school, a contributor. (If you want to read a genuinely fascinating story—Megan Phelps-Roper, previously of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church—went through a radical conversion via Twitter.)

I’m not naïve. I know engaging online can take a personal toll. We all have limited time, limited energy, and too much to do. There were times during my run as a blogger here where’d I’d get hateful messages posted about me on other sites, or sent to me directly—ranging from ordinary personal insults, to violent threats. Professional philosophers would regularly tell me that, as a graduate student, it was unwise to say much of anything online. If I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘keep your head down, wait till you have tenure,’ I’d have better odds at being rich than the average graduate student has at actually landing a tenure-track job in the first place. But if we share these burdens—if we take turns engaging, if we’re generous with one another, if we intervene when we witness bad behavior—together, we can accomplish enormous things.

Imagine Sisyphus happy, not because the world is absurd, but because erosion–tedious, slow, challenging–ultimately moves mountains.

Yale’s Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore on the decision to maintain the name ‘Calhoun College’

From the New York Times:

The decision to keep Calhoun’s name overestimates his value for Yale students. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, argues that “removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” and living in Calhoun’s shadow will make students “better prepared to rise to the challenges of the present and the future.”

But Pauli Murray has more to teach Yale students, 55 percent of whom wanted to change the name of Calhoun College and who will demonstrate on campus once again.

In 1938, she applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, in her home state, only to be rejected because “members of your race are not admitted to the university.” In 1940, she went to jail in Virginia after she refused to move to the back of a Greyhound bus. During World War II, she served as head of the nonviolent protest committee in A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement. In 1943, she organized sit-ins to desegregate restaurants in Washington. A year later, as valedictorian of Howard Law School, she applied to Harvard Law School to do graduate work. It was customary for Harvard to accept the Howard valedictorian, but Harvard told Murray, “You are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.”

Instead, after three decades of civil rights leadership, Anna Pauline Murray earned the degree of doctor of juridical science from Yale Law School in 1965. While at Yale, Murray was an author of the pioneering article “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” which argued that sex discrimination resembled race discrimination and may be prohibited by the 14th Amendment.

Murray never gave up her fight for the values that sprang from her lifelong Episcopalian faith. In a moment of despair after her 1940 arrest, she wrote in her diary that it was “dangerous” to dwell on her “weaknesses.” “The great secret,” she told herself, “is not to think of yourself, of your courage, or of your despair” but of “Him for whom you journey.”

In 1973, she entered New York’s General Theological Seminary to prepare for the priesthood, a job from which she knew she would be excluded because of her gender. But in 1976, the Episcopal Church conference voted that “no one shall be denied access” to the priesthood on account of sex. In 1977, Murray became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. The Episcopal Church made her a saint in 2012.

As Murray looked back on her activism in a 1976 interview, she recalled: “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”

Some may argue that it is impossible to bind all of slavery’s wounds; after all, there are other residential colleges at Yale named for slaveholders such as George Berkeley, Timothy Dwight and Ezra Stiles. But John C. Calhoun is the only one whose fame came from his guiding role in a racial regime that enslaved people, inspired secession and formed the specious legal foundation for a century of discrimination.

Yale students of color, especially those who live in Calhoun College, and the thousands who protested last fall do not need any more teachable moments on the injustices he wrought. They feel the legacy of those injustices every day.

So did Murray.

There’s another article on this at CNN by John McWhorter, and coverage of student protests at Yale Daily News.

Firing Melissa Click was messed up, and you don’t have to like what she did to think so.

As I’m sure you already know, Melissa Click was fired from the University of Missouri on account of her conduct during the student protests last fall.  Faculty at Mizzou have already raised concerns about due process. I think those concerns are legitimate and worrisome irrespective of whether or not you think, at the end of the day, firing would have been the right thing to do.

But forget, just for a moment, about whether or not you think Click’s behavior contravened her duties as a professor, or what would have happened were her due process rights fully respected and consider this, from earlier this month, by way of contrast:

“A UCLA history professor involved in an ongoing Title IX lawsuit reached an agreement with UCLA that will allow him to return to teach.”

And what exactly is this lawsuit about? Two students accused a professor of sexual assault. Here’s what happened before UCLA decided to help him return to teaching:

[A]n earlier, independent investigation by UCLA found enough evidence to warrant a litany of punitive actions for Piterberg. Yet according to the settlement agreement that Takla and Glasgow’s lawyer released last week, Piterberg was given only a slap on the wrist – he paid the UC Board of Regents $3,000, was suspended last spring quarter and participated in a sexual harassment training session. The only other punishments set for Piterberg were just as inconsequential: He may now only speak with students during open-door office hours and cannot try to establish any romantic or otherwise inappropriate relationships with students.

But, as it turned out, the punishment was even less stringent than it sounds. Piterberg’s spring quarter suspension was spent in Europe as a fellow at the European University Institute. While it is unclear if UCLA knew of this fellowship before administering the punishment, the fact remains that a professor accused of sexually assaulting students got to spend his quarter off in Europe and return to the university 10 weeks later.

Well, that’s at UCLA, you might say — and Click was at Mizzou. Yes. But then there’s this story. And this one. And this one. Oh, and this one (I’d keep going, but this could quickly get very depressing).  As for Mizzou itself, it doesn’t have a great record of appropriately handling sexual misconduct. In the recent AAU survey, students at Mizzou reported the third highest rate of having been subject to sexual misconduct. They’ve received attention from Outside the Lines for their handling of misconduct by student athletes, including violence against women. And the university itself admitted in 2014 that it screwed up by failing to investigate the alleged rape of Sasha Menu Courey, who committed suicide a little over a year after the alleged incident. None of that resulted in a national outcry. None of that resulted in the state legislature threatening to cut the university’s budget.

In academia, students’ cameras are treated as more sacred than students’ bodies. And whether or not you think Melissa Click was in the wrong, that seems pretty messed up.

Open letter in support of George Yancy

On December 24, our valued colleague George Yancy published a piece in the New York Times Stone column. Its title was “Dear White America”. It was the culmination of 19 interviews with distinguished thinkers on the subject of race. The interview series brought philosophers into discourse with real time political events, as a new social movement took form bringing international attention to the racial injustice of the US criminal justice system.

 

Yancy’s column resulted in a storm of hate mail and calls directed his way. The emails he received included violent threats, such as “Someone needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders,” and included threats to his family. These messages were filled with racial invective, and meant to frighten and intimidate him into silence.

 

Social movements by their nature raise controversies that go to the heart of a society, whether they are social movements for women’s suffrage, or against abortion. They seek, by their nature, fundamental normative change. Discussing them therefore elicits strong emotions. But we will have no way to digest either their merits or their excesses if we do not have spaces to discuss social movements in a reasoned and respectful way,. George Yancy’s interviews provided a way for philosophers to do this. His culminating column is a call for white America to face the structural facts of injustice, and to recognize the ways individual attitudes are shaped by and contribute to the racism in our society.

 

In the media, scientific “experts” are regularly brought to bear on public debate. But scientific experts do not play the role of philosophers; the role of scientific expertise is often to put an end to debate, rather than incite it. Since its inception, the Stone has not shied away from fundamental moral and political controversy. Its participants do not pretend to be experts who resolve questions once and for all, but rather to incite debate and challenge. By bringing philosophers into public engagement, the Stone attempts to add something novel to American media engagement with events.

 

Yancy’s interview series embodies the Stone’s founding ideal: open philosophical discourse and debate about the challenging moral and political struggles of our day. Yancy’s “Dear White America” piece was his own personal message, lessons learned during the process of navigating almost two dozen philosophers through an engagement with what may very well turn out to be an iconic and historically important social movement.

 

Radical social movements in their time are always viewed as disturbances of the moral order. It is only retrospectively that social movements are viewed as speaking truth to power in ways that make moral sense. In the United States, for example, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is universally celebrated, including by citizens who share the ideology of those who despised him in his lifetime. This may be used as evidence of their success. But given persisting failures of equality in the United States, a more plausible explanation is that they have been assimilated into a rhetoric that views the polity as ever more just, the society progressively more fair and decent. The fact that social movements make retrospective moral sense does not mean that the practices that accompany them change in materially significant ways.

 

We can see in the example of the response to Yancy, that the Black Lives Matter too is viewed by some as a disturbance of the fundamental moral order, in much the same way as the Civil Rights Movement was. That the reaction to Yancy’s challenge has taken the form of vicious personal racism is, one may think, good evidence of the need for the message and the movement.

 

But one need not endorse the aims and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to deplore the reaction to Yancy’s piece. We hold that whatever side one takes on this or other debates, free philosophical discussions on matters of profound social and political importance is a central function of the Stone. We authors of the Stone believe that discussions of the sort we have in its pages are a vital component of a healthy democracy. We stand together in support of our colleague George Yancy, and strongly repudiate these attempts to silence him.

 

Sincerely yours,

Read More »

The Good Racist People

The Good Racist People In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and […]

Gender at the Egyptian protests

A really interesting article, passed on by J-Bro and David Slutsky.

This morning, the woman checking bags and body-searching demonstrators entering Cairo’s central square had quite a job on her hands. As demonstrations in Egypt’s capital entered their second week, she had volunteered to keep the rallying point safe. I’d encountered her at the same place yesterday, but today’s search was a lot more thorough.

“We heard people would be bringing knives and weapons to the square today. Bad people would try to stop us,” she explained, as she frisked women in front of a metal barricade. “They asked us to come. All of us are volunteers,” she said, though she declined to tell me her name. One woman waiting to enter puts up a fight, and the brisk, stout woman, who is a headmistress by profession, lays down the law: “I am here to protect you. The military wants us to protect you—they don’t have women, so we are here for you.”….

…Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt’s streets—any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been groped, a constant annoyance when I’m faced with large crowds in Cairo. When I pointed this out to other women in the square, we all took a moment to reflect. “I hadn’t even thought of that,” one woman in Tahrir told me. “But it’s because we’re all so focused on one goal, we’re a family here.”