When the NewAPPS bloggers first invited me to submit a guest post on my attention research as a graduate student, I decided to submit a post on the term "genius" instead. In the case that it was the only post I would write, I wanted the post to have maximum utility. After some thought, I decided to target the obsession with genius, thinking it a pernicious problem easily deflated. I am not alone in finding it to be a problem. In fact, I may well have been alerted to the problem by Eric Schwitzgebel's blog post on "seeming smart." Commentators on the problem have looked at everything from its impact on women and racial/ethnic minorities to its impact on child prodigies, some of whom have written against it in favor of work-based praise (and for good reason). So, I was half-right: I was right to think it is a problem, but I was wrong, of course, in thinking the problem could be easily deflated. I am going to give it another stab, this time aiming closer to the heart of what I find to be the problem--the way that the terms "genius" and "smart" are used to silence minorities. I know about this first hand--just last week Brian Leiter implied that I was not smart enough to understand a particular distinction that he felt I had overlooked.
Update (6/9/2014): I urge skeptical readers to examine these much more respectful posts, where there is no mention of intelligence, for sake of comparison: on David Marshall Miller, on Andy Carson, and again on Andy Carson. These job market analyses were perfomed after my first analysis in April 2012 and have many similar elements. Furthermore, the content of Brian Leiter's criticisms to these analyses is much the same, but without the damaging remarks about mental capacity, intention, etc.
After his post, I sent Brian the following request:
I would ask that you refrain from turning the criticisms at your blog to my mental state, capacity, etc. At least, when your post ends with " This does raise a serious question about her judgment," you appear to be making a claim about my mental capacities, in general. This also appears to be at work earlier in your post ("I would think philosophers are smart enough..."). You may not have meant to make such sweeping claims, but many of your readers will be happy to accept your authority on such points as they are stated. I am not asking that you remove the criticisms, but just that you phrase them in a way that they do not appear to reflect on my intellectual capacities. That could obviously be damaging to my career.
He then removed the phrase in which he directly questioned my judgment, but not the implication about smartness. If anything, he has only continued to cast shade in my direction by:
1) Reinstating the claim about poor judgment through a sleight of hand: "I am an egalitarian: if people say and do things in public, I respond to what they say and do, not who they are. If what they say and do suggests poor judgment, dishonesty, carelessness, ulterior motives, etc., I also say so. (Prof. Jennings took issue with some aspects of the criticism, and as a courtesy to her, I removed one part of it.)"
2) Referring to me as a "fool": "But any reader of the blog knows this statement is false: I criticize all fools the same way, and always have, without regard to status."
3) Linking to a post called "Not that smart," in which another philosopher takes aim at Justin Weinberg's attempt to shift the conversation away from smartness, calling the post "funny."
I think it reasonable from all this to suppose that Brian Leiter is calling into question my intelligence in a public forum, and inviting the reader to do likewise. Putting aside the question of whether Brian is egalitarian with such remarks, calling into question the intelligence of women has terrible consequences, whether the question is levelled against a particular woman or women in general. This has to do with the fact that such questioning is an old trick used against women to oppress and to silence them. Just about everyone who cares about justice with respect to the treatment of minorities is familiar with stereotype threat, described here. Calling into question my intelligence harms me, but it also makes it harder for all women who identify with me to continue in philosophy: "Together, these findings suggest that situations that merely lead individuals (stigmatized or not) to see themselves as a member of a targeted group or to identify with someone experiencing threat can trigger the threat-based processes discussed in our model" (from the link above). That is, this evidence shows that comments like those of Brian Leiter have the potential to "impair the domain-general executive resource needed for performance on a variety of different tasks" for all the women who read them. I suspect that questioning the intelligence of any philosopher in a public forum could trigger stereotype threat for marginalized groups and such questioning adds nothing of value to public discourse. I have already asked that Brian refrain from these damaging behaviors, and you can see the result for yourself. I ask that all who are moved by this evidence on stereotype threat refrain from such behavior. That is, I ask that questions concerning a particular philosopher's intelligence, whatever the philosopher's racial or gender identity, are replaced with questions about that person's deeds. As I have said many times, I welcome criticism. I do not welcome the use of intelligence as a criticism.
Update: An anonymous source has used the occasion of this post to allow Brian Leiter to add this to his post:
"I've not seen every twist of the CDJ issues. I saw her latest attempt at an "analysis" of placement issues and quickly saw it was a mess. I then saw her being promoted as a victim of injustice (or mistreatment of some other kind) followed by her embracing that role. I continue to be amazed that there is a segment of professional philosophers who think that junior faculty are children and highly vulnerable if criticized in any way...etc. And that these people think that inferences from "here is a good deal of bad work" to "this person is not the sharpest tool in the shed" are problematic. I *hope* this segment is relatively small and appears large only because of distortion caused by frequent blogging and loud claims of victimhood. I was treated like a child exactly once as a junior faculty member and on that occasion I firmly but politely told the person treating me that way that I was a 24 year old professional with a phd and not a high school kid."
I find fault both with the presumption that a continued discussion of my intelligence is helpful here and with the calling forth of the cult of genius in boasting about age of first employment, which happens to be fairly revealing.