On trolling

Translation by Rachel Barney of a much-neglected minor writing by Aristotle.

A sample:


“The end of the troll is not in his own speech, then, but in that of the others, when
they take up his comments in as many ways as bring regret. For there is excess or
deficiency in each response, and then more again in each response to that; and every responder chooses his own words lightly but demands exactitude from the rest, and while correcting the others he introduces something new and questionable. And so resentment is built up, and the slighting begins; and the strife is the work of the troll but the origin is not clear.”


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 »

Public Philosophy, On-Line Philosophy, and “What Philosophical Work Could Be”

A post from The Splintered Mind 

“Nor need we think that philosophical work must consist of expository argumentation targeted toward disciplinary experts and students in the classroom. This, too, is a narrow and historically recent conception of philosophical work. Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections, and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. We could potentially add, too, public performances, movies, video games, political activism, and interactions with the judicial system and governmental agencies.”

“If one approaches popular writing as a means of “dumbing down” pre-existing philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one does not plan to take seriously, then, yes, that popular writing is not really research. But if the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, where philosophical ideas are explored in hopes of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking, furthering the community’s philosophical dialogue in a way that might strike professional philosophers, too, as interesting rather than merely familiar re-hashing, and if it’s done in a way that is properly intellectually responsive to the work of others, then it is every bit as much “research” as is a standard journal article. Analogously with consulting — and with Twitter feeds, TED videos, and poetry.

“I urge our discipline to conceptualize philosophical work more broadly than we typically do. A Philosophical Review article can be an amazing, awesome thing. Yes! But we should see journal articles of that style, in that type of venue, as only one of many possible forms of important, field-shaping philosophical work.”

The Black Widow Controversy

There’s a great piece up at i09 on the controversy surrounding the representation of Black Widow in Age of Ultron — I’m leaving out anything with spoilers (which means I’m leaving out most of the interesting substance), but if you’ve already seen the film, the whole piece is worth reading:

But instead of sitting down at the table of the Internet and discussing these issues like calm, collected folk, the Internet responded as only the Internet knows how: with pile-ons and death threats.

The people who criticized Whedon publicly — which may or may not have spurred Whedon leaving the Internet — are, themselves, getting death threats. It’s a snake eating its own tail.

People have been writing about the many ways that the treatment of Black Widow has sucked, but that’s all going to get lost now. Instead, everyone’s going to talk about the abuse. And about Whedon, personally, instead of the work. But that’s just playing into the Internet’s many ongoing culture wars, and it’s going to ruin everything.

So, it’s time to sit down like big boys and girls at the adult table — and talk about this, without flipping the goddamn thing over.

Bias in Wikipedia Articles Towards Men as Default Gender

“Computational Linguistics Reveals How Wikipedia Articles Are Biased Against Women” (published last week)

“It turns out that articles about women are much more likely to link to articles about men than vice versa, a finding that holds true for all six language versions of Wikipedia that the team studied.

“More serious is the difference in the way these articles refer to men and women as revealed by computational linguistics. Wagner and co studied this counting the number of words in each biographical article that emphasize the sex of the person involved.

“Wagner and co say that articles about women tend to emphasize the fact that they are about women by overusing words like “woman,” “female,” or “lady” while articles about men tend not to contain words like “man,” “masculine,” or “gentleman.” Words like “married,” “divorced,” “children,” or “family” are also much more frequently used in articles about women, they say.

“The team thinks this kind of bias is evidence for the practice among Wikipedia editors of considering maleness as the “null gender.” In other words, there is a tendency to assume an article is about a man unless otherwise stated. “This seems to be a plausible assumption due to the imbalance between articles about men and women,” they say.

“That’s an interesting study that provides evidence that the Wikimedia Foundation’s efforts to tackle gender bias are bearing fruit. But it also reveals how deep-seated gender bias can be and how hard it will be to root out.”

Responding to gender-based violence (online and elsewhere)

Many readers will recall that recently, John McAdams, a Marquette political science professor, drummed up a spurious reason to make a politically-motivated public attack on Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student of philosophy (our previous posts here and here; Daily Nous coverage here and here. Marquette is taking action against McAdams; its outcome is thus far unclear).

As a result of his actions, Abbate received hateful, misogynistic abuse, disturbing in both content and quantity, in a number of forms and forums. She has now written a blog post detailing the extent of this abuse, exploring her experiences on the receiving end, reflecting on how one should respond to it, and making it quite clear that McAdams bears responsibility for inciting it.

(For those clicking through, I reproduce Abbate’s trigger warning: “This post includes a number of reprinted misogynist and homophobic comments”. She’s not wrong).

Abbate says that she was mostly advised to ignore the abuse, but chose to expose it and draw attention to it, for a number of reasons. This was a brave decision. Abbate says the most important reason she has for speaking out is that, if we aren’t aware that such horrible abuse takes place, we can’t begin to do anything about it. This seems quite right to me. I’m unlikely to receive any misogynistic email myself, and I find it reprehensibly easy and tempting to bury my head in the sand about such things. I really shouldn’t. If someone writes about their experiences with such courage, to read and think about it is the very least I can do.


Many of us here at Feminist Philosophers blog under pseudonyms. One of my fellow pseudonymous Feminist Philosophers bloggers was outed today, by being named as the author of a particular post, on another philosophy blog. I just wanted to take a moment to say a few words about why I write under a pseudonym for those who might not understand why the privacy afforded by doing so ought to be respected.

Not very long before I was invited to become a blogger here, I had something I wrote under my own name published online (not here) that related to women’s rights. My contact information is available on my department’s website. Naturally, then, in response, I received several emails from people who had read it. Some of them were kind. Some of them were praising. Some of them respectfully expressed disagreement. Some of them just called me names. Some of them said they hoped I would be raped. Some of them said they hoped that I would die. Some of them I interpreted as threats. That wasn’t the first (or  last) time I published something on the internet under my own name, and it wasn’t the first (or last) time I received those kinds of emails in response. It was, however, what I thought about when I decided what name I wanted to blog under here.

I’m not alone. In the words of Amanda Hess, “None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection.” She details some of her own experiences in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” If you haven’t read it yet, and especially if you don’t understand why some of us prefer, justifiably, to be pseudonymous and ask that our privacy be respected, I recommend reading it in full.

The examples are too numerous to recount, but like any good journalist, I keep a running file documenting the most deranged cases. There was the local cable viewer who hunted down my email address after a television appearance to tell me I was “the ugliest woman he had ever seen.” And the group of visitors to a “men’s rights” site who pored over photographs of me and a prominent feminist activist, then discussed how they’d “spend the night with” us. (“Put em both in a gimp mask and tied to each other 69 so the bitches can’t talk or move and go round the world, any old port in a storm, any old hole,” one decided.) And the anonymous commenter who weighed in on one of my articles: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”

Some people who disagree with posts at Feminist Philosophers are kind, respectful, reasonable people (and even though I think it’s true that this extends beyond the circle of bloggers here, I’d say this even if I didn’t, as we often disagree with one another).  But some people are less kind, respectful, and reasonable, and I prefer to avoid misogynistic harassment where I can. Of course, I would prefer we lived in a world where none of this was a concern. But we don’t. So I would ask that everyone please be considerate about revealing the identities of those who are pseudonymous.

(And to those who celebrate, Merry Christmas!)

Seduction, Assault, and Consent in Western Art via The Toast

If you are not already aware of The Toast’s captioning of pictures from Western art history, it is a thing, and it is entertaining. You can find all the articles in the series here.

In one of the most recent posts, Mallory Ortberg pokes fun at what Wikimedia Commons has labeled instances of “seduction in art.”  She pulls out examples and describes how many of these cannot possibly be instances of “seduction,” unless by seduction we mean assault or harassment.

The piece does a good job of bringing out the cognitive dissonance from accepting “seduction” as aggressively pursuing someone for sex without their explicit consent, thinking that sex requires consent, and accepting seduction as a legitimate part of sex.

If you are not familiar with Ortberg’s series of posts on Western art history, you should note that some of these examples are more hyperbolic than others. She is framing many of these scenes as non-consensual where consent seems ambiguous. (Though part of her point may be, shouldn’t sex and seduction only involve people who are unambiguously excited about engaging in it?) Underneath the hyperbole and satire, Ortberg is posing a serious question: “Why does seduction look a lot like assault and not seem to require any real degree of consent? What kind of thing is seduction if these are what count as examples of it?”

She suggests, “Perhaps you have confused “pushing someone away from you” with “getting seduced.””

You can read the post here:

“Paintings That Wikimedia Commons Has Inaccurately Categorized As “Seduction In Art””

*A few of the pictures contain nudity.

Instagram account highlights online harassment of women

Alexandra Tweten created an instagram account that compiles screen shots of harassing messages directed at women in retaliation for rejection.

From Ms. Magazine:

After seeing these disturbing messages grouped together, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that our society has a misogyny problem. The same forces that taught Elliot Roger that he was justified in murdering women for rejecting him, the cultural atmosphere that says it’s OK for hundreds of men to catcall any woman in a public space, the thing that drives men to brutally injure women who ignore them are all connected to the sense of toxic entitlement some men possess.

While Bye Felipe (a take on the meme “Bye Felicia”) uses humor to take away some of the power these insults may carry, I also like to point folks to the Tumblr “When Women Refuse,” which chronicles the serious problem of actual violence women experience at the hands of men who have been rejected.

I have been asked multiple times, “What’s the answer to this? What can these dating sites do to curb this problem?” And I struggle to answer, because this is just a symptom of a larger problem. Censoring these messages may help in the short term, but the messages featured on Bye Felipe are like an immortalized version of the catcalls and threats women receive on the the street every day, just walking around and existing. Until we change the cultural atmosphere, women will continue to receive these hurtful messages online and in real life.

The instagram account is here. 

Chris Lebron Interviewed at 3:AM: “The Colour of Our Shame”

You can read the interview here.

“Chris Lebron is a philosopher who asks deep questions about theories of justice appropriate for race. He thinks about bridging the gap between abstraction and lived experiences, about American democracy and racial inequality, marginalisation and oppression, about the idea of character and how it helps explain racial inequality, about the problem of social value, about why Rawls isn’t enough, about ‘white power’, about despair and blame, about perfectionism and egalitarianism, about soulcraft politics, about three principles of racial justice and about the lamentable number of black philosophers currently working in the Academy. Give this one the time of day to sink in, then reboot…”