Silence is complicity I: Reconsidering Henry Louis Gates

Jean Kazez made an important comment here, and it reminded me of something quoted in Maureen Dowd’s column:  Silence is complicity.  If we don’t speak out against racism, it is allowed to fester.  So what does this have to do with Henry Louis Gates?

Gates, as you will remember, “played the racism card” pretty quickly in his encounter with a Boston policeman.  I heard a number of comments against the police, including of course our President’s initial comments.  However, there has also a great deal of negative stuff/criticism of Gates.  The mildest was that he was jet lagged and just lost it.  Lots of people asserted that they had learned better than to do that, and Gates actions were foolish.  Indeed, they may be right to point out that such actions can cost one one’s life. 

So here’s this jet-lagged old  man losing control and doing stuff that no sane black person in control would do.  Or was it even worse?  Well, some people thought it was.  It just showed how above themselves and how out of touch these high-priced professors can get.  So we can add that onto the list of character problems.  And he  probably got private communication saying these sorts of things:

(a) Actions like yours set civil rights back.  You have damaged our people and behaved in a very immoral fashion. 

(b) You seem to think we are all just waiting for people like you to make some big show, but you are wrong.  Nobody is impressed by you at all.

(c)  You just want to get into the headlines.  Can’t you leave well enough alone?

This is the sort of thing friends can write.  So you can imagine what else was probably written. 

So he’s a cranky old man, arrogantly out of touch with reality, who stupidly risked his life and largely gets a storm of abuse.  What could he had been thinking of?

It seems to me possible that he has said to himself that  he has put up with experienced** over 70 years of racism and he just cannot be silence.  Perhaps he knows the  risks:  he does not really have that  much power, he may not be able to assess all situations correctly, he may be subject to a lot of criticism.  But he will not be silent and complicit.

Such thoughts might reflect an assessment of the moral quality of one’s life.  He might have thought:  I will not stand by silently, even if it kills  me.  My life  is not worth the cost of complicity.

Perhaps there’s something like an old person’s thinking going on here.  He has done wonderful things regarding race in the United States and he has conducted himself with great grace.  And he could feel that not enough has changed.  In his calling out racism, the point might not be to change much.  But it would mean that the acts of racism he experiences all get much less pleasant for their perpetrators.

Well, that’s all speculation about Henry Louis Gates, which is presumptuous surely.  But it raises the following question for us:  What if feminist philosophers, or at least some feminist philosophers, got cranky and stopped being silent or polite?  What would we do?  What if we just decided to make ignoring the plight of women in the profession much less easy and pleasant?  What could we do? 

If you want to think about this at all, you might reflect that activism has a very different dynamic.  People do not say “O what a good idea.  I guess I’ll change my mind!  Why I’ll just just share  power and it will be fun!”  And it’s time from might be very different, even if the final effects might be quite large.

Hope this makes sense.   What  do you think?   I’m not really advocating that  any try something analogous to PETA’s display posters (though now to think of it, I can imagine an insane  APA scene with what one says is  menstrual blood…never mind), but I’m wondering whether it would be beneficial to think outside our normal boxes a bit.  Perhaps the conclusion would be that there really isn’t any room for activism in academia.  Or we might think that in fact we are doing more than one might think.

**corrected in light of comment 2 below.

Calling it what it is: Racism

We’ve been more critical than not of Maureen Dowd.  Here’s a time when, in my opinion at least, she’s reached the right conclusion:

I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race…

But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.

And the Wilson who shouted “You lie” at the president?

The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.


So who’s out of touch? Dennis Prager on liberals and bias

Suppose you are driving around to charge up your iphone, and to combat the utter boredom, you decide to listen to some talk radio.**  Now if the only way you can charge up your cell phone is by driving, then you might just be in a Gulf State where IKE blew out the power for hundreds of square miles.  And then one of the better people you might listen to is:  Dennis Prager!  At least one doesn’t get much ranting from him.  Quoting imprecisely from memory, I think here’s the sort of thing you might hear:

Ladies  and gentlemen, do you honestly know anyone who thinks  that Obama and McCain are equally good candidates, but they’re going to vote for McCain because Obama is black?  Of course not.  But liberals think that’s the way people vote.  Ladies and gentlemen, that is how out of touch liberals are.  They don’t have any contact with ordinary people and so they honest to God are completely ignorant of how you and I think.

Well, no. Some liberals may not know how prejudice works, but anyone who has looked into it – and at least some liberals have – knows that it is more subtle.  Much prejudice tends to be indirect; bias leads one to perceive equally qualified people as qualified differently.  As a very interesting WaPo article on implicit bias says:

In perhaps the most dramatic real-world correlate of the bias tests, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago recently sent out 5,000 résumés to 1,250 employers who had help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. The résumés were culled from Internet Web sites and mailed out with one crucial change: Some applicants were given stereotypically white-sounding names such as Greg; others were given black-sounding names such as Tyrone.

Interviews beforehand with human resources managers at many companies in Boston and Chicago had led the economists to believe that black applicants would be more likely to get interview calls: Employers said they were hungry for qualified minorities and were aggressively seeking diversity. Every employer got four résumés: an average white applicant, an average black applicant, a highly skilled white applicant and a highly skilled black applicant.

The economists measured only one outcome: Which résumés triggered callbacks?

To the economists’ surprise, the résumés with white-sounding names triggered 50 percent more callbacks than résumés with black-sounding names. Furthermore, the researchers found that the high-quality black résumés drew no more calls than the average black résumés. Highly skilled candidates with white names got more calls than average white candidates, but lower-skilled candidates with white names got many more callbacks than even highly skilled black applicants.

For employers who think they want to hire minority workers, an average white applicant can seem better than a highly qualified minority candidate.  As Maureen Dowd reports on a women in Palin’s home town:

I talked to a Wal-Mart mom, Betty Necas, 39, wearing sweatpants and tattoos on her wrists.

She said she’s never voted, and was a teenage mom “like Bristol.” She likes Sarah because she’s “down home” but said Obama “gives me the creeps. Nothing to do with the fact that he’s black. He just seems snotty, and he looks weaselly.”

So who’s out of touch, Mr. Prager?  Maybe it is you, if you have no idea of how prejudice works, and it is very likely to be a heavy influence in our upcoming election.


** Everyone knows that, speaking generally, a woman reading a book while sitting in a running car in a parking lot is endangering herself?


Gov. Sarah Palin

Gov. Palin, McCain’s choice for running mate, is a woman of many accomplishments.  Some of them, such as her being a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and a hunter, along with her winning “Miss Congeniality” in a “Miss Alaska” beauty contest, are ones that one might see as negative.  And, of course, she has the conservative agenda that gets called “pro-life” which McCain advocates.  Even all taken together, they do not amount to adequate qualifications for the job, Democratic commentators are claiming.  Nonetheless, she looks to be very bright, assertive and an excellent debater.

Among the questions her candidacy raises are some that do not bear directly on her ability to take over the presidency of the  US, should McCain win but not fill out his term.   One we can think about here is what will be its impact on discourse about professional female politicians in the United States.  Having seen the outrageous misogyny that Hillary Clinton faced, and that many, many people deny, I think the discourse about Palin may be revealing.  Some random observations/questions:

 – Does anyone have any ideas about what to predict regarding the appearance of sexism in the press?  Of course, we can expect conservative commentators not to go after her with such  glee, can’t we? 

–  I’m not expecting all those guys in the press, along with Maureen Dowd and some other women, will necessarily indulge themselves.  In fact, I’m betting that they’ll have seen that the country has had a lesson in what is sexist and, despite the wide-spread denials by the public, people are ready to play “gotcha” this time around.  This view might be wildly optimistic.

–  Nonetheless, understanding what is sexist really involves confronting such things as gender schemas and implicit associations.  How much failure to understand them will show up this time? 

–  Was she chosen in significant part because she’s an attractive young woman?  If so, is it different from all the ways in which being an attractive young man have gotten men all sort of places?

– Finally, What Do You Think?

Hillary and Sexism, continued

Gotta balance that Maureen Dowd out with someone more thoughtful, articulate, and generally worthy of our time, Melissa McEwan:

I’m not sad because Obama’s the nominee.

I’m sad because there are women at this blog, in my personal life, across this nation, and—if my inbox is any indication—across the globe, women of all races and sexualities and socio-economic classes, many of whom weren’t even Hillary Clinton supporters, many of whom voted for Obama in the primary, who have watched with horror the seething hatred directed at Hillary Clinton just because she is a woman.

I’m an Obama supporter, and I’m sad too.  


Some have called for Obama to give “The Gender Speech”, along the lines of “The Race Speech” given before.  It would be great to see his eloquence put in the service of feminism, but I doubt that he’d have the same sort of insight on the topic.  Still many are saying that he will need to really reach out to women.  I sure as hell hope it’s not just the usual “Hey, gals, ya gotta vote for me because of THE SUPREME COURT.”  

Hillary and Sexism

Many in the mainstream media are now busily denying that there was any sexism, or at least much of it, in their comments on the campaign just ended. They are wrong. This blog has called them on it a large number of times, here and here and here, to take a few examples. We have to stop pretending that the US is too fair and just a country to tolerate that outpouring of hate. But this is a task for a later time, I suspect, when the election’s outcome is clearer.

In the meantime, we might all pause for a minute to look at Maureen Dowd’s latest and horrifying (to me, at least) remark:**

Of course, powerful women evoke sexism, and the attacks are more personal and slights can be grating. But it’s counterproductive to dwell on it, magnify it and exploit it during a campaign — especially when you’re getting all that love from Joe Sixpack. (My stress)

It is just too possible that this is how it goes. Mention the attacks a few times over hundreds of appearances and you appear obsessed. Someone says there are whispers from your staff about sexism, and even though it is the sexists saying it, it’s highly believable. What you should do is just enjoy the winks from the boys at the back of the hall. And if you don’t, there really is only one good word for you. And it isn’t “witch.”

Well, gee, thanks MD.

Maybe I’ll get me a “bitch is the new black” t-shirt to wear. Yeal, like anyone will think that is funny.

And what about this blog?  And our readers?  Yikes!


**Many thanks to Calypso for bringing the article to my attention.

Stanley Fish gets it right…almost!

Stanley Fish has not been singled out here as the commentator to believe, as you can see from here and here.  In fact, the first is a reaction to an essay of his which makes the current one in the NY Times still more surprising.  For from someone who seems unable to discern how priviledged his life has been we have a very strong  and thorough denouncing of the Hillary-haters, inside and outside the press.

The hatred is not news.  Fish is using the appearance of an article by Jason Horowitz at, which investigates Hillary-haters, to point out how “looney-tunes” it has become.  He emphasizes the extent to which it has entered the mainstream media:

Respected political commentators devote precious network time to deep analyses of her laugh. Everyone blames her for what her husband does or for what he doesn’t do. (This is what the compound “Billary” is all about.) If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she’s dowdy. If she doesn’t, she’s inappropriately provocative.

None of those who say and write these things is an official Hillary Clinton-hater (some profess to like and admire her), but they are surely doing the group’s work.

In his most damning remark, he compares Hillary Clinton-hating to anti-semitism – not in its scale of damage, but in its utter disconnection with the facts.

So what is lacking in Fish’s comments?  It is in his account of its cause:

Horowitz observes that there is an “inexhaustible fertile market of Clinton hostility,” but that “the search for a unifying theory of what drives Hillary’s most fanatical opponents is a futile one.” The reason is that nothing drives it; it is that most sought-after thing, a self-replenishing, perpetual-energy machine.

And this comment leads him to his comparison with anti-semitism. But the two are radically disanalogous in the following way: We do not yet understand why groups of people get declared outside the boundary of those a dominant group accepts. It’s clear groups of human beings are capable of declaring other groups unacceptable as human beings, but we do not understand sufficiently how deeply it goes and whether this capacity is inborn or not. But we do have a very good idea of at least part of what is driving Hillary Clinton’s haters, beyond her obvious connection with her hated 60’s-type husband. She is a strong and brilliant woman whose current quest for power is extremely threatening and entirely unwomanly.

And the theorists who would have foreseen this outburst of villification?   Feminists.

So what happened?

Unlike the sadly vitriolic Maureen Dowd, some of us hope that Clinton’s win means in part that some of the electorate can question and reject the sexist reporting that has surrounded her candidacy.  Whether or not one supports her, feminists are unlikely to want her to lose because powerful women cannot be tolerated.

For another interesting take, you might like the three minute-plus video on today’s Guardian.  Watching it is a bit like going for a walk with an intelligent friend.  More questions than answers, but some nice observations.  To see it, click here.

Fallacies for feminist philosophers

Can you share a favorite case of a fallacy-for-feminist-philosophers?  Or add something to the tentative discussion below of the ‘second kind’ of fallacy?  If so, please join in with a comment.

There are lots of times when a good fallacy comes in handy.  Critical thinking classes are one, but in most philosophy classes I  teach, it’s necessary at some point to discuss a fallacy and often to go a bit more generally into fallacies and fallacious reasoning.  I assume others find this true.

There are two kinds of examples of fallacies for feminists that I can think of.  One kind is a perfectly ordinary, standard kind of fallacy, but the specific example illustrates a  feminist point.   The other kind includes the fallacies that show up in reasoning about women (and sometimes others), but which may not have a standard name. 

For example, I think this post is concerned  with a common fallacy-of-composition-PLUS-fallacy-of-equivocation that is rampant in science popularizations.   It would be great to have a name for  it.   Maureen Dowd’s recent piece on Hillary Clinton –  discussed in an earlier piece today –  is an extended use of a fallacy that is showing up a lot in conservative writing about HC, and in some more liberal writers too.  And, of course, it’s applied to lots of other women.  It might  be  nice to be able to say when one hears this stuff, “Well, that’s just the same old fallacy of X.”

Supposing it’s true that these last two cases don’t have names and should, I’ll suggest a candidate for each.   Please bring in alternatives if you want.

For the first: The fallacy of cognitive displacement.  E.g., assuming women think with their ovaries.

For the second:  The fallacy of gendered projection:  E.g., assuming that one’s problems with powerful women reveal important facets of other people.

(I’m not completely happy with either of these; the second seems particularly hard to name.)

If we start to find enough of these unnamed fallacies,  we could adapt a recommendation of Calypso’s and call them the  fallacies of pernicious effect.  The effect being at least the further spreading of sexist attitudes.

Please add anything you like!

“Never let him think you are smarter”

Grandmother’s advice?  Not necessarily, Maureen Dowd tells us today.  Ray Fisher, a Columbia economics prof, conducted a two-year study which led him to conclude:

It isn’t exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter — but only up to a point … It turns out that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition — a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.

… So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own.

Dowd goes on to recount the recent bad news for successful, intelligent women that the NY Times has been recording, some of it covered on this blog. And the news about having a zaftig figure (big hips = smarter kids) comes as no surprise after this post.

One has to wonder how one’s very bright friends ever ‘find a man.’  Hmmmmm.