The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the craft store chain is suing for exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. According to Hobby Lobby, it has religious objections to certain forms of contraception, and so should be exempt from the mandate on First Amendment grounds. According to Dahlia Lithwick – who is usually pretty good at this sort of analysis – the oral argument didn’t go well for the government. Conservatives on the court were signaling their support of Hobby Lobby, and Justice Roberts even has a way to apply the case narrowly (by declaring that only tightly-controlled or family-run companies can make the religious-objection argument). This case has broader implications than it might look like on the surface.
The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84. I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion. Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation. And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind. Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment. Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims of Phelps' quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.
I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.
Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.
Jonathan Martin - the player for the Miami Dolphins who left football, at least temporarily, as a result of relentless locker room bullying - has prompted some voluminous soul-searching. (Whether it leads to meaningful action remains to be seen.) I want to suggest that there have been two profoundly wrong assumptions made in most coverage of this case, and end with a conclusion about how we, and he, should think of Jonathan's Martin's own behavior.
Trigger alert: discussions of misogyny, abuse, bullying, etc. below.
Earlier today, the campus announced that Professor Andy Cowell will head our philosophy department at CU-Boulder. Professor Cowell is a professor of French literature and a former chair of two departments, French and Italian and linguistics. This change was made to improve the climate in philosophy for our faculty, staff and students and, specifically, to improve the climate for women.
We have made these changes based upon the recommendations of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in a recent report that we are making public today, as well as on evidence gathered from faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students in the department. That evidence points directly to the need to create a stronger, more inclusive environment in the department for women as scholars and students, that prevents acts of sexual harassment and discrimination, and that allows faculty to work together in a collegial environment of mutual respect.
This article by Laurie Penny on women and short hair, which in turn is a response to another article claiming that women with short hair are ‘damaged’, has been making the rounds on the internet (H/T Gillian Russell on Facebook). It makes a number of very important points concerning ideals of femininity, and the kind of policing that women are submitted to, by men and women alike, concerning their appearance.
Wearing your hair short, or making any other personal life choice that works against the imperative to be as conventionally attractive and appealing to patriarchy as possible, is a political statement. And the threat that if we don’t behave, if we don’t play the game, we will end up alone and unloved is still a strategy of control.
(There is a lot of serious, interesting scholarship on hair out there (not only restricted to hair that grows in heads), which I am not able to address here – but do go check it out, for example this book).
I’ve had fairly long hair for most of my life, but when I was 17 and a bit of a capoeira fanatic I had my hair cut really short (I felt all that hair was in the way for my capoeira moves). Reactions were mostly positive (including my boyfriend at the time), but one comment I got was epic. The guard at my high school (!!) deemed himself in the right to comment on my new haircut, in fact to ask a question: “Is this a penitence?” Why else would any woman want to wear her hair so short?
After a recent move and going through my storage facility, I came across the following memo (below the fold--click to enlarge) among some of my late mother’s things. The date is February 19th, 1958, and the author is Nobel Prize winner Polykarp Kush. My mother was then a graduate student in Physics at Columbia University. Do read it for yourself in all its blue mimeographed glory, but the money line is, of course, “If your personal lives are of such complexity that they require a continuing contact with family and friends in time that should be devoted to a serious concern with physics, I very much doubt that you have the makings of a good physicist.” I heard my mother joke about seeing this memo posted in her lab at least a half-dozen times, but I never knew she kept a copy of the memo for fifty years! She left physics with a Masters degree and returned to graduate school to get her PhD in data analysis in the late 70s. She always told the memo-story as if it were a knee-slapper (“Physicists in those days were such characters!”) and she never really mentioned the climate for women as a reason why she left Physics.
Exactly one year ago I finished off my blogging year with a post on gendered atrocities, focusing in particular on the Newtown shooting and the widely discussed gang rape in India. At that point, the hope was that these two events would at least not have been in vain, and that they would stir changes in the right direction. It seems that this did in fact happen in India, where the horridness of rape was given much more attention in the aftermath of the event, which triggered a firestorm of protest. (As for mass shootings and gun control in the US, to my knowledge nothing much seems to have changed since last year...)
And now, looking back on 2013, what strikes me as an absolute lowlight of the year is again something gender-related, at first sight of a much lesser degree of gravity – but only at first sight. One of the biggest hits of the year, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, is nothing short of a badly concealed rape apology (read the lyrics for yourself here). That millions and millions of young (and not-so-young) impressionable people should be exposed to the truly disturbing message of the song is very, very worrisome. The catchiness of the song (yes, I’ll admit to its catchiness, which is really the merit of singer, co-writer and producer Pharrell Williams -- who, unlike Thicke, is a talented musician) only makes it worse, as it results in millions of kids singing ‘I know you want it’, ‘good girl’, and other horrific bits of the text. (It is particularly surprising that the three singers all seem fairly adjusted, family-oriented people; but what doesn’t one do for success…) The video is equally appalling, featuring three scantily clad female models interacting in unflattering ways with the three fully clad male singers (I’ll just mention hair-pulling and puffing smoke on one of the women’s face – see the video for yourself if you have to. Oh, and there is also an uncensored version!).
There is a serious gender problem in philosophy in the Netherlands. In the 11 departments of philosophy the numbers of permanent staff members are roughly the following: assistant professors: 110, of which 25 are women; associate professors: 45, of which 5 are women; full professors: 65, of which 7 are women (I have not included part-time professors; this data is based on the websites of the departments). You may think that this just indicates that women have to work harder to get advanced positions at Dutch universities (i.e. that the problem is only theirs). But there is sufficient evidence now that a gender bias is built into the system. This implies that men are part of the problem and that they will have to take their responsibility. The solution is not easy though. It requires a package of measures. What can we do?
It is always good to raise awareness, but what really helps is to move beyond awareness-raising with a few very simple institutional measures that can be implemented right away. Why not make it a rule that 30% of all invited speakers at conferences are women, or that 30% of the papers in special issues are by female philosophers? The Board of the Dutch Research School of Philosophy (OZSW) will discuss such measures for activities organized by the OZSW later this year. There may of course be exceptions to this rule, but these exceptions need to be justified. Similarly, we should stick to the rule, formally adopted by many universities, that selection committees should include at least two women.
Last year I had twoposts up where I compared genital cutting in males and females, and claimed that ultimately there aren’t any real, substantive differences between the two cases. The posts provoked heated reactions, as could have been expected on the basis of the reactions that anti-circumcision advocates usually receive.
Well, today I came across an article by Rebecca Steinfeld over at The Conversation that says everything I would like to say on the topic, but much more eloquently: 'Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue'. In particular, she discusses why our perception of genital cutting of boys is so different from our perception of the same practice with girls. I copy some passages below, but everyone should really read the whole thing! (And yes, I’m ready for more heated discussion in comments. But let me just be clear that my issue is with the genital cutting of non-consenting children; what consenting adults do with their genitalia is none of my business.)
But this isn’t a harm competition. It’s about how FGC [female genital cutting], often referred to as female genital mutilation because it’s widely seen as a violation of women’s rights and a form of oppression and sexual control, is easily accepted when that girl is a boy.
Recently (in a satirical context) I endorsed the proposal that we should pay no attention to the boy-wonders in our midst. I really think we do a disservice to our community and to philosophy by focusing on boy-wonders. 'Boy-wonder' is a sociological term. In what follows I remain agnostic about the intrinsic merits of young philosophers (male or female) who just happen to be or appear to be fantastically good at philosophy.
I define a 'boy-wonder' as follows: a male -- aged 20-28 -- who is quick on his feet, precocious, often with gifts in formal areas of philosophic, and annointed as 'the next big thing' by Some Important Philosopher(s) (SIPS) at a top department.* Words like 'genius' and 'brilliant' are often used in this context. (Often SIPS and their boy-wonders are dismissive of other people's contributions.) Philosophy is by no means the only discipline that has 'anointed' boy-wonders (economics does, too), but we like them a lot. By this I mean that boy-wonders do not only show up in the inflationary context of letters of recommendation, but they also impact the sexist mores in philosophy.
I offer seven considerations to rid ourselves from the whole set of practices that involve boy-wonders.
The Feminist Philosophy Archive Project project began when the Association for Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) and the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) wanted a way to handle SWIP archives, dating to 1971. While the SWIP archive is the immediate goal, the ultimate goal is an inclusive and international Feminist Philosophy Archive (FPA).
The coordinators of FPAP are Samantha Noll of Michigan State (email), and Christina Rawls of Duquesne (email); the advisors include Alison Jaggar, Joan Callahan, Ann Garry, and Sandra Harding. A website is in progress but a listserv is already in operation. To join it, please send an email to: LISTSERV@LSV.UKY.EDU and in the body of the email include the message Subscribe FPAP .
[My wife is a physician-PhD, so I doubt I am an impartial observer here.--ES]
In reality, medical care during pregnancy seemed to be one long list
of rules. Being pregnant was a good deal like being a child again. There
was always someone telling me what to do, but the recommendations from
books and medical associations were vague and sometimes contradictory.
It started right away. "You can only have two cups of coffee a day." I
wondered why. What did the numbers say about how risky one, two or three
cups were? This wasn't discussed anywhere.
The key to good decision making is evaluating
the available information—the data—and combining it with your own
estimates of pluses and minuses. As an economist, I do this every day.
It turns out, however, that this kind of training isn't really done much
in medical schools. Medical school tends to focus much more,
appropriately, on the mechanics of being a doctor--Emily Oster in WSJ [HT Diana Weinert Thomas via Facebook].
Oster's editorial is a pre-publication to a commercial book. It's supposed to be provocative. Indeed, it 'ticks off' all the 'right boxes:' babies, a desire for self-ownership/autonomy ("Pregnant women...want to assess risks for themselves and make their own best decisions"), rejects scientific over-reach ("fuzzy science and half-baked research"), embraces the good life ("a glass of wine every now and then, plenty of coffee, exercise when I wanted it") etc. Her editorial also offers a glimpse into the eugenic ideals of the new epistemic elite: "the other big concern with alcohol [consumption during pregnancy] is low IQ" of the child. (Fetal alcohol syndrom is not just about IQ.)
UPDATE: 19 July 10:15 am: This message is from the organizers of the letter, not from me; I am only posting it:
Signatories to the Letter of Concern have heard from colleagues who wish to add their signatures in support. This is splendid, and sharing support is important; we are limited by the availability of those with the time to compile supporting signatures, but through Sunday, July 21, we will be checking firstname.lastname@example.org for those of you who wish to send in signatures.
We encourage those with job security and tenure to sign; because of the risks (including retaliation), we'd ask junior people not to sign in support. The letter should be signed by, and was initiated by, senior members of the philosophy profession because, given our privileges, it is one of our chief responsibilities to provide support for the more vulnerable members of our profession.
This NYT article provoked a good bit of discussion on FB and pushback in the blogosphere (here and here, at least). A few observations:
Generally speaking I don't care for the borderline moral panic articles about what college kids are doing in bed, but I do admit to sadness in hearing the way the language of return on investment has entered into the article's subjects. Then again, sex and love and commitment can't really be separated from the other ways a society treats personal and interpersonal relations, and maybe what I'm wincing at is just the the way in which what Foucault calls the neoliberal production of "self-entrepreneurs" has taken us all up in its grasp.
Today I came across this story by a man named Kim, whose
quest for a job was seemingly hampered by his gender-neutral but
female-sounding given name. The moment he added ‘Mr.’ to his CV, the interview
invitations started to pour in. In no time, he landed an excellent job, after
months of having his CV with the 'missing' ‘Mr.’ being systematically ignored. Of course, this
will not surprise anyone familiar with the studies on how a CV is perceived in
function of the associations created by the name at the top: in many cultures, everything other
than ‘white male’ associations is bound to make the CV be evaluated less
This phenomenon is related to something I’ve been thinking
about a bit as of lately, namely the concept of gender-neutral given
names. My two daughters have unambiguously female names, but if I were to name a
child now, I would opt for a gender-neutral name, both for a boy and for a
girl. The point is not to preclude the kind of discrimination documented in
these CV studies against female-sounding names, as the effect of a
gender-neutral name for a boy is likely to be detrimental (as in Kim’s story
above). The point is rather to counter the obsession with tracking gender that
seems to be pervasive in virtually every human society.
This is a fantastic collection on the gender imbalance in Anglophone philosophy. The essays represent a variety of approaches to the problem of women's underrepresentation. It is especially important that the book not only offers a way for philosophers to learn about psychological and sociological results that have a bearing on how we organize ourselves, but also a way for us to become more reflective about distinctively philosophical aspects of our practice.
This has been Annals of Everyday Sexism, volume 45,225.
Her response, though, was superb: "Ce n'est pas important. Oui je ne suis pas blonde. C'est un fait. Est-ce que j'ai rêvé de devenir mannequin ? Non, désolé. Mais est-ce que j'ai rêvé de gagner Wimbledon ? Oui. Absolument."
Two and a half years ago I wrote a post on
the impressive results that community-oriented campaigns to fight female genital
mutilation were having in Ethiopia. Now, again via David Slutsky over at the
Feminist Philosophers, I learn that Bogaletch Gebre, the founder ofKembatti Mentti Gezzimma
(KMG, the organization leading the campaigns), has
been awarded the 2012-2013 King Baudouin African Development Prize (arguably, a legacy of Belgium's colonial past, but now put to good use).
In this vein, Boge [Bogaletch
Gebre’s nickname] organizes community conversations to confront culturally
entrenched taboo subjects and challenge harmful customary practices such as
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and bridal abductions. By implementing this
approach across communities in Ethiopia, Boge and KMG lowered the incidence of
FGM in ten years from 100 percent to less than 3 percent of newborn girls in
the areas where they work. (My emphasis)
Given these results, the prize is more
than well-deserved. (Following the motto ‘good news is worth spreading’
(especially at times when we are confronted with NSA-related horror and such
like), I figured it might be good to remind us all that there are still reasons
to rejoice now and then.)
Inspired by some comments of Jennifer Saul on Rebecca Kukla’s remarks concerning the “aggressive, argumentative” style in philosophy, Eric Schliesser and Catarina Dutilh Novaes here at NewAPPS have taken up the question of what I would call the character of philosophy. Does it consist in contests in which adversaries, having occupied positions, not only defend them vigorously but also attack those positions which, being contrary to their own, they take to be opposed to their own? Readers of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by will recognize here a familiar conceit: argument is war. How warlike should philosophy be?
"Je sais qu'il y a eu des hommes qui ont fait jaillir le lait de leurs mamelles" [that is, "I know that there have been men who have brought forth milk from their breasts."]--Diderot (1754) Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature PENSÉES SUR L'INTERPRÉTATION DE LA NATURE, 56. [I thank Charles T. Wolfe for locating the passage; and his general insistence that Diderot (recall) ought not be neglected.--ES]
This post was inspired by reading some unpublished papers by Sandrine Berges, who is a leading authority on the political philosophy of Wollstonecraft and Sophie de Grouchy. Prof. Berges points out that in contrast to Rossseau and Wollstonecraft, De Grouchy rejects the close link between birthing and nursing in her (1797) Letters on Sympathy, which De Grouchy attached to her translation of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. De Grouchy's move opens up the possibility of recognizing nursing as a distinct and politically significant activity that can be valued (morally, politically, and economically) by society within the division of labor. In fact, if Diderot is right, nursing need not be a gender-specific activity. Motherhood, thus, need not confine women to domestic careers.
Our very own Catarina has taken sides in the exchange between Rebecca Kukla (who started it in this very interesting interview), and Jennifer Saul. But in doing so, Catarina (a) endorses what I take to be a mythic origin birth of philosophy. (I hesitate to disagree with one of the great historians of philosophy of my generation!) This matters because consequently, Catarina (b) overlooks plausible alternative ways of doing philosophy available at the 'origin' of philosophy. But even if I were wrong about (a) and (b), Catarina's argument (c) tacitly embraces optimal institutional design (whereas I am skeptical that we can attain the circumstances in which we would endorse those institutions). At one point Catarina writes:
As Rebecca points out, this
argumentative model of inquiry is at the very birth of Western philosophy in
Ancient Greece. Philosophy has always been a dialogue of people disagreeing
with each other, and this is precisely what makes it a worthwhile enterprise.
First, I doubt that a "dialogue of people disagreeing
with each other" is "precisely what makes" philosophy "a worthwhile enterprise." I believe it's the searching after certain ends (truth, illumination, liberation, beauty, good, etc.) and the various to-be-expected by-products it generates (wonder, joy, insight, self-doubt, critical stance, etc.) that make philosophy a worthwhile enterprise. Second, Catarina endorses here an origin-myth of philosophy that is quite plausible if we focus on Platonic dialogues, but less so if we take a more expansive view of the origins of philosophy. For example, Parminedes' poem is very philosophical (with important reflections on the nature of reason). It certainly has dialogical elements in it. But its predominant mode is a magisterial stance.
Friend-of-the-blog Rebecca Kukla is the latest 3:AM Magazine
interviewee. Alongside lots of interesting observations about her philosophical
work, she was asked to comment on the poor gender balance in professional
philosophy. Here is one of her (somewhat controversial) comments:
[L]et me go on record
as saying that I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or
unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap.
Discursive intensity and tenacity, a high premium on verbal sparring and
cleverness, and a fundamentally critical dialogical method have been central to
philosophy since its birth, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The fact is,
most people, regardless of gender, find that kind of discourse difficult,
overwhelming, and somewhat threatening; the Athenians didn’t crack out the
hemlock for no reason. This is why most people should not be philosophers, and
that’s just fine. A tiny number of women and men thrive on that kind of
engagement. I think the idea that women are disproportionately bad at it or put
off by it is based on anecdotes – anecdotes that are hopelessly distorted by
stereotypes and biases – and not on serious evidence.
Upon re-reading the Vindication in preparation for a class discussion, the second epigraph to this post, which we may loosely translate as Natura sive Deus, startled me. Could Wollstonecraft, who so often sounds like a Deist, be a kind of Spinozist? For, Wollstonecraft is quite clear that "propriety" is just "another word for convenience." (106) So, the substitution of "Nature" by "God" is really an act of social expedience. Yet, could this really be so? For, so much of Wollstonecraft's argument seems to rely on commitments that require commitment to immortal souls and, presumably, a judging God (and one can find other Deist commitments).
Feminist philosophers drew attention to this THE article on gender equality in academia. The article highlights striking differences between countries on gender participation in academia, with a 47% female participation rate in Turkey, and an abysmal 12.7% in Japan as two extremes (see the map through the link). For most of my academic career, I have studied and worked in Belgium, where gender participation is very poor (it's one of the red countries on the map). Only 13% of full professors in Belgium are women. In the EU, only Cyprus and Luxembourg do worse. In this post, I want to examine causes for the disparity (the high % in Turkey; the low % in Belgium), drawing amongst others on personal experience, and on this highly relevant article on Turkish academia.
Being in Brazil this week (but flying back home tonight) allowed me to follow some of the local current debates more closely than I would have otherwise. One of the ‘hot topics' at the moment is the new legislation regulating the working conditions of domestic workers. It is still very common in Brazil for a middle-class family to rely on a wealth of domestic workers, including cleaners, drivers, gardeners and perhaps most importantly, the (almost always female) live-in domestic workers who are responsible for the big chunk of domestic chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, caring for children), known as ‘empregadas’. (Here is the trailer of a very interesting film/documentary on the phenomenon of a few years ago.)
Up to now, these live-in maids were basically expected to be ‘on call’ 24 hours a day, starting with breakfast early in the morning all the way until washing the dishes after dinner. Needless to say, salaries are usually pretty low, and there was until now no control over the amount of hours they were expected to work; thus the concept of ‘doing extra hours’ did not apply to them. To most foreign eyes, it is a very strange arrangement, which can only be understood as a painful reminiscence of Brazil’s recent slavery past (where slavery was only officially abolished in 1888).
So I’m not going to get into the game of thinking thoughts too many, of
trying to break down the wrong of raping an unconscious person in terms
of psychic discomfort at disapproval. It’s the wrong game to play.--Jacob T. Levy at BHL.
demonstrates, first, the familiar problems with blunt hedonic
utilitarianism that has been detached from utilitarianism’s roots as a
moral theory, and, second, the selection effect about what kinds of
people are attracted to that theory. Lansburg [sic] is entirely too pleased
with himself for being willing to Think Challenging Thoughts (thoughts
that pretty much get covered in a first semester moral philosophy class
as the frosh learns why blunt hedonic utilitarianism is not a very good
theory), and determined to get through his cute hypotheticals for the
fun of it, regardless of whether they convey anything useful or not.
It's just a fact of the matter that economists are not trained to be philosophers (and they are no better at it [recall here and here] than we are at economics [here]). But (not unlike philosophers) they do get socialized into thinking they are really smart boys (recall this). Since the Samuelsonian, revealed preference revolution cut the link between economics and hedonic utilitarianism (utility curves are not supposed to refer to mental pleasure entities entities, they are just a ranking of choices--recall this post), Landsburg is not even bringing any of the standard economic's tools to bear on the case. He is simply out of his depth. (Of course, that's just a daily fact of life in blog-land, the problems start when one forgets this.)
Now, the interesting issues here pertain to Levy's decision to speak up about Landsburg's moral and intellectual obtuseness without giving Landsburg credibility in doing so.