What’s up with philosophy departments?

So some time ago the philosopher Colin McGinn resigned after complaints of sexual harassment were made by one of his female grad students. This has sparked an amount of buzz over the status of women in philosophy – notably a five part series of posts on an NYT blog.

This is a frustrating issue, because while I do think there are genuine grievances, identity politics quickly jumps in and we wind up with a vicious dichotomy: if I think that these ladies might have a point or two, then I must be some sort of emasculated pee cee leftist; if I have my own criticisms of them, then I must be some sort of lecherous mysogynist, or at least an apologist for them.

So, there’s a blog called, What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? which is chock full of stories of men behaving in repulsive fashion toward women. It does seem to be the case that there’s a lot of lechery and misogyny in philosophy, and that it’s viewed as the norm. This is not acceptable, this is not something that can be passed off as “oh, boys will be boys”.  Admitting that there might be problems is not the equivalent of bowing down to your ideological opponents. In fact, being cavalier about these things is the best way to squander whatever moral authority you might command. And again, this is where the dichotomy comes into play: to point out that there seems to be a problem will inevitably be interpreted by some as an act of treason.

One of the topics here which strikes me as very important, but which I haven’t seen pop up, is chastity. I think that a culture which has swallowed the sexual liberation pill wholesale is in part responsible for creating and enabling men like this. Not all men who have problems with chastity view the opposite sex entirely in terms of objectification and exploitation, but all those that do are unchaste. The idea that watering the ethical dimension of sexual expression down to consent can co-exist with a society that does not have sexually exploitative and oppressive elements strikes me as a fantastically Rousseauian view of human nature. The most that this ethic can offer to these men is, “hands off and keep your dirty mind to yourself”, which is like telling a man who has anger issues that he’s ok as long as he’s not actually physically or verbally abusing people. In both cases, the proper response is to nip the problem in the bud through a successful interior integration of one’s passions according to right reason, which in the case of sexuality means giving up on the whole ‘lust’ thing altogether, in thought and in deed. But that’s kind of a killjoy.

(Granted, men have historically been given more of a free pass than women when it comes to unchastity, and that’s a problem.)

Moving on, Sally Haslanger‘s article says this:

The numbers of philosophers of color, especially women of color, is even more appalling. The 2003 number quoted above of 16.6 percent full-time women philosophy instructors includes zero women of color. Apparently there was insufficient data for any racial group of women other than white women to report. The A.P.A. Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers and the Society of Young Black Philosophers reports that currently in the United States there are 156 blacks in philosophy, including doctoral students and philosophy Ph.D.’s in academic positions; this includes a total of 55 black women, 31 of whom hold tenured or tenure-track positions. Assuming that there are still 13,000 full-time philosophy instructors in the United States, the representation of scholars of color is plausibly worse than in any other field in the academy, including not only physics, but also engineering. Inexcusable.

With these numbers, you don’t need sexual harassment or racial harassment to prevent women and minorities from succeeding, for alienation, loneliness, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggression, and outright discrimination will do the job. But in a world of such small numbers, harassment and bullying is easy.

“Bad actors” are a problem, but the deeper problem is the context that gives “bad actors” power. Change needs to happen on multiple fronts for us to make progress. Philosophy lacks the infrastructure that other disciplines have to bring about systematic change. We don’t have the funding or the clout of anything like the National Science Foundation.

Here’s where the identity politics comes in to swing: the real problem is, as always, that philosophy isn’t diverse enough.

But I don’t really see how the demographic ratios of a particular discipline indicate, one way or the other, how good or poorly a discipline is doing. It’s more just the fact that certain activities are going to attract some demographics more than others. I’m sure that there are some women who avoid philosophy because of some of the disgusting behaviors they’ve seen, and that’s a shame. I think that women who have an interest and aptitude in philosophy should be encouraged, and not have to face discrimination or harassment. But I’m also sure that there are a lot who genuinely just don’t have any interest.

Most people with my last name, I’m guessing, are at least culturally Jewish, with the minority of them being practicing Catholics. That doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church necessarily discriminates against people with my name. It just means that generally most people with my name are not culturally/religiously connected to Catholicism in some fashion. So I’m not exactly fuming when someone wishes me a Happy Hannukah, or expresses surprise at me being a Catholic. If they started making Jewish jokes I might be.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, black women are a statistical outlier in philosophy departments generally doesn’t cause me concern. If there are situations where they are encountering racism or misogyny, then we have problems that need to be dealt with.

It seems to me that there is a misogyny problem in a lot of disciplines, and that it’s not limited to higher ed. It should be tackled; I just don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have a diversity axe to grind.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, higher education, Politics as Opium, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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