Silencing techniques are things people say to get someone to drop out of a discussion, either by leaving or becoming and remaining silent. There are a variety of forms that this can take. This post has an illuminating taxonomy with a plethora of useful examples, all of which can be changed mutatis mutandis to philosophy contexts. Inspired by the post I offer some examples:
You're only saying that because you're a woman [or black/trans*/queer/whatever].
That's exactly what I'd expect from a feminist." [Focal stress usually on the identity term.] You're just part of the feminist take-over of this department.
Well maybe if you were a philosophy major, and actually looked into the philosophy literature, you'd know this.
How much history (of philosophy) have you even read?
Unreasonable evidential standards:
Privileging one's own position:
Give me an example right now. [Silence.] Oh, that's what I thought.
What's your proof of that? Give me a citation.
Well I'm a philosophy major, so…
Saying that one is a broken record:
Oh here we go with this again. Can't you think of anything else?
I've heard all of all of these either in my own classes as a professor, or in question periods at colloquia. Haven't you? More importantly they may be happening far more often than you know because you're not noticing them. I noticed that when I'm on the look-out for these sorts of behaviours, I'm more likely to spot them.
So what? Why should we care about this behaviour in our classes?
Displays of silencing techniques should be worrying to everyone. First, shutting down discussion is anathema both to good pedagogy (particularly if it happens during class student discussion!) and good philosophy. Philosophy can sometimes seem overly combative. Silencing techniques are one of the more powerful ways of being combative and appearing to "win" an argument without actually using an argument.
Second, if we're worried about women and minorities being underrepresented in philosophy, then we should care about ways that people with more privilege and social capital often inappropriately wield their power against those with less privilege and social power--the former typically being, of course, white, cis, straight, middle class (etc.), men; the latter being women, people of colour, ctrans* people, queer people, and socioeconomically disadvantaged people (and let's not forget how these axes can intersect!). So one worry about silencing techniques is that they may play some role--however large or small--in philosophy's chilly climate for women and other people with underrepresented identities.
Here are two anecdotes graciously provided to me by a former student of mine. One just happened in her class, and the other was in one of my classes. I'm quoting:
"During class a few days ago, we were having a class discussion on Gettier cases, and whether or not intentional deception impacts whether or not a particular case is a Gettier case. One of my classmates, who is a psychology major and philosophy enthusiast (several senior courses, but not enough for a minor) brought up good points about the influence of intentionality in attribution of merit, and then asked how to use the jargon of philosophy to phrase the point she was trying to make. A male student in the class then objected to the examples she gave, saying that they were too dissimilar from the cases we were discussing. The female student then asked a deep epistemic question about intentionality and the male student responded with, "We'll if you'd look into the philosophical literature, you'd know." The female student ignored him and went on with her point as I looked over with horror at my friend (one of the few other women in the class) and we shook our heads at him.
After class, I made a point of approaching the woman who'd deflected the attempt at silencing her and telling her that I noticed what he did and I thought it was wildly disrespectful. She confessed that it annoyed her, but she let it out of her mind shortly after. Then one of the other women in the class told the story of one of her experiences with silencing. She had been in a class discussion about Aristotle and trying to express her point when a male classmate asked "Well how much history have you even read?", suggesting that she wasn't informed enough to be entitled to an opinion.
That was the point where you (Rachel) jumped in and called him out on his behaviour.
After the story, we all aired our grievances about similar situations (there was sadly no festivus pole to be found) and came to the consensus that more professors would do well to highlight and address such behaviour. Especially in classes where you have non-majors interested in the topic, but perhaps where they lack the theoretical background to grapple with the nuances of the subject matter. The silos around the academy aren't broken down by thinking that students from other disciplines can have nothing constructive to contribute to a conversation on something that affects us all. As much as it prevents the non-major student from being able to learn, it also means that the students familiar with the topic miss out on an excellent opportunity to strengthen their learning by corroborating it with another field's findings, or being pushed to new conclusions when the evidence requires we reconsider our intuitions.
I'm deeply curious to see what other students have to say about some of philosophy's deep problems. But I worry that they think their voices aren't valuable outside their native course code."
Thankfully the student was able to shake off the silencing attempt in the first anecdote, but there are so many cases where that would stop a student in their tracks. However, the behaviour wasn't called out by the professor. It rarely is. In many cases, it may not even be noticed. Having had discussions with students who've experienced silencing episodes (even if they didn't know that that's what they were), and with the profs of those classes about the incidents, I've been struck how many times the profs chalked up the behaviour to "Well, I thought they (the silencing student) were just a little aggressive or over-enthusiastic, but I didn't think it was too much of a problem," or something along those lines.
There needs to be more calling out of this bad behaviour on our part as professors and instructors. Maybe we're worried about making the discussion climate worse by calling it out, but that's not a likely outcome. When I called out this student, it made it crystal clear that there's a culture of respect and openness for discussion in my classrooms. Students weren't more afraid to speak, they were less afraid after that incident. Students also knew to be on their best behaviour when engaging in class discussion, because they knew there were consequences for abject behaviour (and silencing techniques are very bad behaviour).
In closing, the takeaway from these anecdotes is that my calling out the student's use of a silencing tactic made a lasting impression on at least one of the women in the class, and that more women students wished such behaviour would be called out more often. And perhaps if more of us as professors and instructors did that, philosophy would have a little less of a gender, race, class (etc) problem.