Great minds and ignoble deeds

It is appalling to read about philosophers sexually harassing/assaulting vulnerable people, but is it surprising? An article in yesterday’s New York Times argues that we should not expect better.

The life of an intellectual, Mr. Ignatieff [Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic-cum-politician] claims, provides a petri dish for the universal human experiment of thinking, being and doing. It’s a lovely idea. The trouble is that intellectuals seem no better at it than anyone else. They often think great thoughts, while being ignoble characters. Maybe Mill and Berlin and John Dewey were noble characters. But Marx was a serial adulterer, Karl Popper was a pompous narcissist, and Heidegger was a fascist. Elite thinkers, maybe: but as amateurish humans as the rest of us.

I’m not so sure, but there are a lot of issues that need clarification before we’re in a good position to accept or reject the article. Still, there are some points we can make. Great achievements typically require concentration and caring. The idea of caring that extends to what one says and not at all to what one does is puzzling. One expects a great scientist to care very much about the truth of his words. But then what does that care look like if it allows lying in letters of reference to reward sexual compliance?

And isn’t philosophy, at least when it is about human life, different? On the other hand, maybe moral behavior requires more than morally apt thinking. For example, perhaps a capacity for empathy. And a love of truth in one area may co-exist with a capacity for self-deception that enables a lot of borrowing from others. E.g., plagarism.

Perhaps, then, we need to recognize that there are many character flaws that can disconnect behavior from thought. I myself would still, at least at this point in time, like to think that at least for some areas really vicious behavior will mean one does not have the capacity for some great intellectual tasks. But is that really true?

What do you think?

A remarkable example of disconnect was explained recently by Bob Dylan. I thought of him as the voice (or a voice) of a generation of protestors. But, as he has said, that’s not at all what he was doing. He was just a musician. So where did those wonderfully apposite lyrics come from? It was, he says, simply magic.

In fact, many people report a similar experience (I think). As Feymann put it, suddenly boom, boom, the answer is there. Ownership may seem tenuous, and connection with character very problematic.

An awesome sex positive safer sex campaign from Switzerland

A new campaign in Switzerland is doing a great job of promoting safer sex without pathologizing sex or moralizing about it, and with an array of wonderfully inclusive (and erotic!) messages and images. What’s more, to get to the campaign’s website, viewers need to sign on to a manifesto to love life, love their bodies and have no regrets. So far, over 54,000 people have signed on. Check it out here.

(H/t TV!)

Richardson on the stubborn influence of the sex difference paradigm

Philosopher Sarah Richardson has a great piece in Slate this week detailing how a Nature article about the discovery of twelve genes on the Y chromosome that fill the same function as similar genes on the X chromosome quickly morphed into reports in major media outlets about “a major new finding of sex difference.”

The New York Times reported that scientists had discovered 12 genes on the Y chromosome that play “high-level roles in controlling the state of the genome and the activation of other genes.” They “may represent a fundamental difference in how the cells in men’s and women’s bodies read off the information in their genomes.” TheHuffington Post quoted one of the studies’ authors as saying that these “special” genes “may play a large role in differences between males and females.”

Yet what the Nature articles actually show is the exact opposite. The 12 genes residing on the Y chromosome exist to ensure sexual similarity. The genes are “dosage-sensitive,” meaning that two copies are needed for them to function properly. We’ve long known that those 12 genes exist on X chromosomes. Females have the 12 genes active on both of their X chromosomes. If males, who have just one X, didn’t have them on the Y, they would not have a sufficient dosage of those genes. Now we know they do. Just like women.

How did a story about sex similarity become a story about sex difference? Richardson engages in “a little literary forensics” and concludes that science journalists focused on the brief, speculative bit at the end of the Nature article, rather than the article’s actual evidence and conclusions.

Part of this, no doubt, is the result of pressure on journalists (evident well beyond the realm of science journalism) to run with the most provocative story. However, over and above this common journalistic foible, is the pernicious influence of what Richardson terms the “sex difference paradigm.” In short, writes Richardson, “when it comes to sex, scientific reviewers, journals, funders, and reporters simply find similarities less interesting than differences.”

I posted last week on a different way in which our gender biases skew our understanding of biological sex. So, what is an appropriately critical scholar (or lay reader) to do? Richardson ends by plugging Stanford’s Gendered Innovations initiative, which works to show how critical thinking about  sex and gender can lead to scientific innovation.

On the “female penis” and why reproductive biologists (and everyone else!) need philosophy of sex

Last week, with the publication of Yoshizawa et al’s “Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect,” the media and the intertubes obediently leaped on the phrase “female penis,” with outlet after outlet reproducing the phrase, often with predictable jokes about penis envy and who wears the pants in the relationship.

Yoshizawa et al’s article detailed the authors’ discovery of four species of tiny Brazilian cave insects in which sexual congress involves the female inserting a long, spiny member (a gynosome) into the male’s sexual orifice and using that gynosome to slowly extract sperm and other nutrients from the male, a phenomenon the authors describe as “coupling role reversal.”

The trouble is, of course, that the described phenomenon is not a reversal of the usual sexual roles, for two main reasons: (1) in familiar penis-in-vagina intercourse, the bearer of the penis does not typically extract sperm from its partner; rather, it ejaculates sperm into its partner; and (2) while there are indeed usual sexual roles within species, it is an exaggeration to say that there are usual sex roles across species. In some species, females leave their eggs on riverbeds to be fertilized by partners who arrive later; in some species, one partner impales the other in order to transfer ejaculate into them; some species require more than two mating types. I could go on. Parthenogenesis, exploding genitals… the natural world has it all! …and that’s just the animal kingdom. Don’t get me started on plants.

Given this amazing complexity, why would Yoshizawa et al (and all of the journalists and bloggers) adopt the (arguably) oversimplified, reductivist approach to cave insect sex that they have? In her smart, trenchant take on the story, Annalee Newitz attributes the approach to anthropocentrism. In an equally thoughtful piece (although one that I don’t happen to agree with, in the main), Ed Yong replies that “penis” is used for the female cave insects’ sex organs in the same (more or less) metaphorical way that “foot” is used in “snail’s foot.” For Newitz, treating any sexual appendage as a penis disregards the rich variety of sexual phenomena. Yong disagrees, arguing that extending the term “penis” to include organs with a broad range of sexual functions properly embraces sexual variety.

Yong’s point is an interesting one, and I’m happy to know that there are folks like Yong who know their biology and who adopt thoughtful, pluralistic approaches to sexual function. However, it is implausible in the extreme to suppose that the herd of bloggers and science journalists who piled on to the “female penis” moniker did so for the principled reasons Yong elaborates. Rather, what we see in both Yoshizawa et al’s choice of descriptions, and in the swiftness with which that terminology was taken up by journalists and bloggers, is an inability to conceive of sexual phenomena as escaping the Adam/Eve, Noah’s Ark two-by-two paradigm.

One sees this over and over in biologists’ descriptions of mating behaviour among hermaphroditic species (like flatworms) and species with more than two mating types (like fire ants) — a shoe-horning of non-human sexual phenomena into a familiar human binary. Even today, and even after the revolutionary work of such feminist biologists as Joan Roughgarden and Anne Fausto-Sterling (to name just two), traditional reproductive biology still can’t get past the idea that the magical number for sex is “2”, and that every sexual function/organ is reducible to two paradigmatic ones.

Presumably, the source of all this trouble in the history of ideas is indeed religious/mythological. However, reading the gender biases of one species of evolutionarily recent bipeds onto all of the other species is bad science. It is, moreover, science that ignores what recent developments both sexual reproduction and two-sex sexual reproduction are in the history of life on Earth. Put simply, regardless of what our Sunday school tales and the aisles of our toy stores might encourage us to believe, in the world of reproduction, male and female are not axioms of the system; nor are any particular sexual organs or functions indispensable.

Reader query: how to cope with disturbing information about mentor

A reader writes:

About 6 months ago, I learned that my undergraduate mentor in philosophy routinely slept with his female students, during my time at the university and for many years beforehand. He never made any even slightly inappropriate advances towards me, and he spent an enormous amount of time and energy mentoring me and supporting me through grave doubts about my abilities as a philosopher – indeed, had it not been for him, I would never have considered graduate school, and would not now have the Assistant Professor job that I love so much. He was always exceptionally kind, supportive, and sensitive to (and indeed often a champion of) feminist concerns. Over the past six months since learning this information, though, I’ve felt deeply hurt and betrayed, and have at times started to doubt myself in all of the old ways. Was I not in fact a good philosopher in undergrad? Was he only as supportive as he was because I was young, and female, and conventionally attractive? Did my other professors take me less seriously as a philosopher because they assumed that I was sleeping with him, too? The part of me that remembers how close our relationship was believes that he would feel deep regret if he knew how his actions affected past (and present?) students like me, but the part of me with more distance doubts that anyone who routinely slept with the 20-year-olds he taught could possibly care. I’ve wanted to get in touch with him recently, to tell him how hard his behavior has been even on students like me with whom he had a fully appropriate relationship, in part because I feel a responsibility to try to get him to change his behavior if he still does this to students. But is it utterly naive to think that getting in touch with him would have any positive affect? And might there be any negative repercussions to doing so that I’m not thinking of? (He’s not a particularly successful or influential philosopher, so I don’t think that he would have any ability to harm my career.)

Please leave your thoughts in comments, but absolutely DO NOT reveal identifying information about other similar situations (or this one, for that matter).

Query: teaching SM, post-50 Shades

I haven’t taught SM in my feminism class since 50 Shades of Grey came out. Back in the pre-Shades era, the whole idea of safe words, etc was clearly news to many (though obviously not all) of my students. I knew what misconceptions I needed to correct. Am I right in suspecting it’s a different ball-game now? What are the new misconceptions to correct? Are there interesting works of philosophy I should be adding to do so?

Since this is the kind of topic where things can get heated, I’d like to ask readers to simply go with my assumption that there is no one feminist view to take on this topic. Ta.

Porn and non-Porn: not a dilemma, but something very odd

Magicalersatz drew our attention to what seems to some of us a bizarre cover for an edition of a book by Kant.  Somehow in trying to find out what was happening I found two sites that combine serious academic topics – in one case even academic papers – with porn.  In fact, there are only two so far, but I am really wondering what is going on.  Perhaps these sites are just ways of working out fantasies.  Porn, one might want to say to students, is porn, whatever other pieces in a narrative might be doing.

Before I mention the websites, a word of caution inspired by a comment in the original post.  First of all, looking at the sites at work might cause some problems.  We are talking about porn, no doubt about it.  Secondly, I think it could well be triggering.  If you have every gotten into a sexually tinged power struggle – whether or not it’s led to rape – the whole association might be very upsetting.  There’s usually a huge difference between finding intelligence sexy and finding intellectual stature provoking, where in the latter case the provocation may lead to abuse..   I think both sites might invite memories of the second sort of encounter.

The first site is by someone who at least at one point seems to have been a professional philosopher, with reviews, and maybe a book??

The second has parts of  quite solid papers in cognitive psychology/neuroscience along with thoroughly pornographic pictures some of which have a bit of a story line.  One chief character is Dr. Scienide, who is a Florida psychiatrist, he (?) says.

I have found a vaguely related discussion from about 10 years ago here.  Let us know if you know of more recent and more relevant writing.

The Genderbread Person Redux – When Activism Gets Problematic

[This post has been completely re-written, so if some of the earlier comments seem to be referring to things that aren’t here, that’s because they are. Thanks to Sam B for pointing out the plagiarism issue and to Rachel for helping me find the end of the article…because it’s been just that kind of day for me.]

This weekend I stumbled onto the site It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, and found a graphic explaining the different aspects of sex, sexuality, and gender.

It turns out that site’s creator, Sam Killermann, plagiarized that graphic, and now has thrown a bunch of intellectual property stamps on it, and has even included it in a book he made. (Though you can get the book for free. But he has still made money off of all this.)

The four original authors of the concept are: Cristina GonzálezVanessa PrellJack Rivas, and Jarrod Schwartz

As awesome as it is to have people want to be cis straight while male allies,  we have to as allies constantly keep vigilant that we are not blocking out the voices of the people we are trying to support with our own.  Otherwise we are undermining the very project we are trying to help. And one thing you notice sort of quickly from Killermann’s projects is that you see a lot of him, and hear a lot of his voice but you don’t see or hear a lot of specific people that he is advocating for.

So again, here are some of their voices, specifically on his plagiarism.  (Same link as above.)

And here is one of the earlier gingerbread persons:

Some parts of Killerman’s projects still have merit: the comment thread on this post has some good stuff in it. But I think legitimately, some people will not want to visit his websites.

As Laverne Cox said when this issue of plagiarism was brought to her attention,

“…those who lay the groundwork don’t often get the credit. The universe is trying to tell me something. We cannot silence the voices of those doing the hard work so that we can flourish.”
(Sorry I can’t find the exact tweet. This is also in the storify post linked above.)

That is, without respect for the people we are trying to support, our support is hollow.

From Cisnormativity (the Storify OP):

 Without that respect, any work done in the name of social justice isn’t actually the practice of social justice. It’s erasure. It’s a tossing of the most marginal people from the bus of acceptance, enfranchisement, and citizenship. It’s the theft of lived experiences. It’s why intersectionally marginalized people along multiple axes still cannot reach so many of their dreams, their potentials, or their hopes .