What does philosophy have to say about difficult life decisions? Recently, there has been quite some interest in what philosophers have to say on this; for example, Ruth Chang’s TED talk on how to make hard choices has had over 3,5 million views. And recently, the new book by L.A. Paul, Transformative Experience, has been making quite a splash in the American mainstream media, with references in venues such as the New Yorker and the New York Times. A transformative experience is one that so fundamentally changes the person who undergoes it that she acquires a new self altogether, because she is transformed in a profound way. (See here for the shorter, article version of this idea.) The quintessential transformative experience for Paul is becoming a parent, and other examples include the death of a loved one, emigrating to a new country, among others.
One of the upshots of this conception of transformative experience is that, for many of the most important decisions in life, we simply have no way of evaluating the pros and cons of each side because we have no idea of what we’re getting into. As put by the influential journalist David Brooks in the New York Times,
Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”
This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department's annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was 'How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy'. Here is the abstract:
The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]
At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, "Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis...". During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.
Today is International Women’s Day, so here is a short post on what it means to be a feminist to me, to mark the date. Recently, a (male) friend asked me: “Why do you describe yourself as a ‘feminist’, and not as an ‘equalist’”? If feminism is about equality between women and men, why focus on the female side of the equation only? This question is of course related to the still somewhat widespread view that feminism is at heart a sexist doctrine: to promote the rights and wellbeing of women at the expense of the rights and wellbeing of men. Admittedly, the idea that it’s a zero-sum game is reminiscent of so-called second-wave feminism, in particular given the influence of Marxist ideas of class war. However, there is a wide range of alternative versions of feminism that focus on the rights and wellbeing of both men and women (as well as of those who do not identify as either), and move away from the zero-sum picture.
The much-watched TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘We should all be feminists’ (bits of which were sampled in Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’), offers precisely one such version, which I personally find very appealing. (After recently reading Americanah, I’ve been nurturing a crush on this woman; she is truly amazing.) The talk is worth watching in its entirety (also, it’s very funny!), and while she describes a number of situations that might be viewed as specific to their originating contexts (Nigeria in particular), the gist of it is entirely universal. It is towards the very end that Adichie provides her preferred definition of a feminist:
A feminist is a man or a woman* who says: yes, there is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.
A few days ago the link to an interesting piece popped up in my Facebook newsfeed: ‘Three reasons why every woman should use a vibrator’, by Emily Nagoski. I wholeheartedly agree with the main claim, but what makes the piece particularly interesting for philosophers at large is a reference to Andy Clark and the extended mind framework:
Some women feel an initial resistance to the idea of using a vibrator because it feels like they “should” be able to have an orgasm without one. But there is no “should” in sex. There’s just what feels good. Philosopher Andy Clark (who’s the kind of philosopher who would probably not be surprised to find himself named-dropped in an article about vibrators) calls it “scaffolding,” or “augmentations which allow us to achieve some goal which would otherwise be beyond us.” Using paper and pencil to solve a math equation is scaffolding. So is using a vibrator to experience orgasm.
This is an intriguing suggestion, which deserves to be further explored. (As some readers may recall, I am always happy to find ways to bring together some of my philosophical interests with issues pertaining to sexuality – recall this post on deductive reasoning and the evolution of female orgasm.) Within the extended mind literature, the phenomena discussed as being given a ‘boost’ through the use of bits and pieces of the environment are typically what we could describe as quintessentially cognitive phenomena: calculations, finding your way to the MoMA etc. But why should the kind of scaffolding afforded by external devices and parts of the environment not affect other aspects of human existence, such as sexuality? Very clearly, they can, and do. (Relatedly, there is also some ongoing discussion on the ethics of neuroenhancement for a variety of emotional phenomena.)
I've written before about the question of boundary policing in philosophy, occasioned at the time by a remarkable essay of Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman's. It's a question, and a habitual tendency within the discipline, that certainly continues to deserve our attention.
In the same spirit, I want to call readers' attention to an essay that Adriel Trott has published today on her blog. The piece is subtle and quite complex, beginning with four anecdotes and developing from there into a meditation on what it would mean to stop policing the borders of philosophy—but also engaging a series of related—and urgent—questions. How can philosophy remain attentive to the singularity of different sorts of experiences? How can philosophy embrace the insights of intersectionality? What, especially in light of these first two questions, might it mean to do philosophy while resisting the drive to universalize or ontologize? And how do we deal with the ever present danger of appropriation or colonization involved in our attempts to theorize or conceptualize what is at stake in lives at the border, even if we have given up attempting to police those borders?
The essay is carefully composed and deserves to be read on its own terms. But as a teaser, I will leave readers with this short section from Trott's conclusion, about which I will add a few remarks below the fold.
I am only just now coming to see that changing the way we think about philosophy in order to make it more inclusive means making those of us who are happy with the way the thinking in philosophy currently operates uncomfortable and not-quite-at-home with philosophy.
There are two important posts up today elsewhere in the philosophical blogopshere that deserve your attention—both of which raise the question of how those of us in the profession at large can support those members who, because of activism or simply their social position, are vulnerable to various official and non-official forms of retaliation.
Above the fold, I will simply point readers to the Open Letter of Support for "for people in our profession who are suffering various trials either as victims of harassment or as supporters of victims" published on DailyNous by John Greco, Don Howard, Michael Rea, Jonathan Kvanvig, and Mark Murphy: and to NewAPPS emeritus blogger Eric Schliesser's more concrete suggestion about how to address the retaliatory deployment of legal means against complainants. Both pieces deserve to be read and reflected upon.
In what follows, I'll say a bit more about my sense of the importance of both pieces, and the larger phenomenon of retaliation against those contesting the inequitable state of the profession.
Related to my post on the invisibility of sexual harassment earlier this week, here’s a video that has been making the rounds on the Internet, and rightly so: a woman walks on the streets of NYC, and a hidden camera captures the unsolicited comments and aggressive attempts at making contact by numerous men she runs into. Now, that’s a good way to make (street) harassment more visible!
A few years ago, I was going through airport security at Schiphol for a short European flight (to Munich, if I remember correctly), with hand-luggage only. As I was struggling with some lower back pain at the time, I was bringing an electric massager with me; sure enough, when my trolley went through the x-ray, the massager caught the guard’s attention. He made me open the trolley, and asked: ‘what is this?’ I said: ‘it’s an electric massager’. His reply (salacious voice): ‘oh, but isn’t it better if someone else does the massaging on you?’ (Wink, wink…) I am usually rather short-tempered, and normally would have made quite a fuss about it, but I didn’t want to risk missing my flight so I simply moved on.
Now, this is only one of many similar episodes I and every single woman in the world have experienced in our lives – nothing very extraordinary about it. But when I told my friendly, well-meaning male friends about this episode, they just couldn’t believe their ears: yes, there it was, a male airport security guard making entirely inappropriate remarks to a female traveler.
This episode illustrates a well-known phenomenon: the invisibility of harassment to those who do not experience it (and similarly for racism, ableism etc.). The ‘nicer’ guys who do not engage in overt harassment often think it is so inconceivable that anyone could be so grotesque that they fail to see it when it happens near them (and in fact, it often does not even happen near them; I doubt that the security guard would have made his remark had I been accompanied by a male travel companion). This tends to lead to an under-appreciation of the problem among these well-meaning men. Moreover, the men who do engage in such behavior often think there’s nothing wrong with it (‘hey, it’s just a joke!’), and so also fail to appreciate the gravity of the problem.
My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.
I want to add a little more detail to this story--as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.
How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now. (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.) Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone." My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech. I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."
I expect many readers to be following the ongoing debate, prompted by a poll run by Leiter last week, on the (presumed) effects that blogs have had for professional philosophy, both at the level of content and at the level of ‘issues in the profession’. (Roberta Millistein weights in at NewAPPS, and I agree with pretty much everything she says; another summary at Feminist Philosophers.) Now, there is a sense in which I am personally not in a good position to have an opinion on this, simply because I haven’t been around long enough to know what it was like before, and thus to be able to draw an informed conclusion. But I can say that my very process of becoming a professional philosopher (not so much content-wise perhaps, but in terms of deciding on the kind of professional I wanted to be) was considerably influenced by reading in particular the Feminist Philosophers blog. Also, I won’t deny that my career as a whole has tremendously benefited from my blogging activity at NewAPPS and at M-Phi, both in terms of the opportunity to discuss my ideas with a larger number of people than would otherwise have been possible, and (more pragmatically) simply in terms of increased visibility and reputation.
But obviously, my individual experience (or that of other bloggers) is not what is under discussion presently; rather, the question is whether blogs have been good for the profession as a whole. This, however, is obviously a multi-faceted question; it may for example be read as pertaining to the quality of the scholarship produced, to be measured by some suitably ‘objective’ criterion. (As a matter of fact, I do believe that blogs have been ‘good’ for philosophy in this sense, for reasons outlined here for example.) But it may also pertain to the overall wellbeing of members of the profession, in which case the putative effect blogs will have had could be conceived of in terms of a simple formula: for each member the profession (I is the set of all professional philosophers), estimate the net gain (or loss) in professional wellbeing by comparing their situation before (wb) and after (wa) the advent of blogs; add it all up, and divide the total by the number of members considered.
Exactly 15 years ago today, I arrived in the Netherlands with a suitcase full of dreams (ok, maybe two), ready to start a new phase of my life, but having no idea I'd end up staying for so long. I still do and always will feel a strong bond with my home country Brazil (as BMoF readers of course know!), but looking back on these years, I realize I feel entirely at home here now. Perhaps the main turning point in my relationship with this country was the birth of my children, who were both born here, and who, for all intents and purposes (sadly, including rooting at the World Cup…), are basically Dutch. After they were born, I started feeling a visceral connection with this place, which I didn’t experience before.
However, it is not only because they happened to be born here and have lived here almost all their lives (except for 20 months living in NYC for my older one) that I feel this connection. More importantly, I simply see them happy and thriving, being given all the conditions they need to develop healthily and joyfully, and I am extremely thankful for that. And it’s not only my kids: the Netherlands is consistently ranked as number one at studies comparing the well-being of children in a number of developed countries.
Everyone’s next question is then: what’s the secret? How does one raise the happiest kids in the world? Obviously, the Netherlands is a prosperous country, with levels of social equality only to be compared to those in the Scandinavian countries, and that goes a long way of course. To start with, virtually every child here has access to health care, education, nutrition etc. (Which is not to say that everything is perfect! But even for what is not so good, it’s still probably better than in most other places.) However, there are more factors involved, and on the basis of my experience as a parent I would like to outline two of them.
Google the keywords “academic” and “mother” or “motherhood”, and you will find various websites with discussions about the baby penalty in academia for women. Representative for this literature is an influential Slate article by Mary Ann Mason, who writes “For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children.”
As an untenured mother of two children, I find these reports unsettling. When my second child was born, several women who are junior academics approached me to ask me if it was doable, or how I managed to get anything done. They wanted children but were scared that it would kill their careers. How do children impact one’s work? This got me thinking that it would be good to hear the stories of philosophers who did manage to combine a flourishing academic career with parenthood.
To this end, I interviewed seven tenured professors who are parents. Six of them are mothers, but I decided to also include an involved father. I aimed to include some diversity of circumstance. Some of my interviewees have very young children whereas one respondent has grown children, she had them in a time when being a mother and a professor was even less evident than it is now. One of my interviewees is a single mother, who had her child in graduate school. One went to a first-round APA interview when her son was six weeks old, with a sitter in the hotel room. Two of my interviewees have special needs children, a fact that shaped their academic careers in important ways. I aimed also for geographic diversity—my respondents come from the US, the UK, Canada and The Netherlands—since countries and institutional culture differ in the formal and informal support parents receive, such as paid leave and childcare.
How can we combine the economic necessities of work with caring for infants? This dilemma recurs across cultures, and western culture is no exception. In a series of interviews with professors who are mothers (which I hope to put on NewApps by the end of this month), one of my respondents, who has grown children remarked about their preschool years:
"I was completely stressed out. It wasn’t just that childcare was expensive—and even with two salaries it was a stretch: It was insecure. If a childcare provider decided to quit, I would be left in the lurch; if my kid wet his pants once too often he’d be kicked out of pre-school [which had strict rules about children being toilet-trained] and I’d have to make other arrangements."
This concern resonates with many parents. It is especially acute among low-income, single mothers who struggle to find last-minute childcare to fit their employers' unpredictable scheduling. Also symptomatic are heart-wrenching stories about a woman whose children were taken away because she failed to find childcare when she had to go on a job interview and left them in a car, or a woman who was arrested for allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play in a park while she worked in a nearby fast food restaurant.
Can we learn anything from how other cultures solve the working mother's dilemma?
As I noted in an earlier post, preparing for a seminar on privacy and surveillance has given me the opportunity to learn more about any number of aspects of the topic – in this case (again) the feminist critique of privacy. To recap: on this argument, which is most commonly associated with Catharine MacKinnon (see the abortion chapter here for a succinct, 10-page version), privacy manages to be very bad for women under conditions of structural sex inequality. Because women are socially unequal, “privacy” manages to protect men, but not women. Wife-beaters, for example, get to hide behind the veil of privacy in the home to shield their conduct from scrutiny: “a man’s home is his castle.” (MacKinnon then answers the obvious question: why does patriarchy support abortion rights? The answer is that the availability of abortion removes the one last obstacle men faced in the complete social domination of women: the possibility of undesired pregnancy. So abortion rights justified on privacy grounds (as opposed to equality) end up being tools of patriarchy. But that’s a different conversation)
MacKinnon’s argument is a lot more subtle than it usually gets portrayed as being, but it’s vulnerable to some obvious objections. For example, Jena McGill, writing out of her experience working in battered women’s shelters, points out that privacy is the thing that women who make it to the shelters need most of all. If they don’t get it, their abusers are very likely to kill them and their children. One way of interpreting the implications of this point is to say that the value of privacy for women depends on where it’s claimed; once women leave the traditional patriarchal household, privacy suddenly becomes a lot more important as a concept.
At the request of the folks over at Hypatia, we're helping to publicize the open online forum they will be hosting in conjunction with their recently published special issue on Climate Change.
Here's the description the editoral staff at Hypatia provided for the event:
Policy makers have recently begun to acknowledge the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women and disadvantaged communities, but feminist analyses of the complex epistemic and political dimensions of climate change, as well as its causes and effects, are urgently needed. Hypatia recently published a special issue on Climate Change that initiates a necessary conversation that will deepen our understanding and help identify promising opportunities for positive change. Feminist philosophers Chris Cuomo (author of Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing) and Nancy Tuana (author of Feminism and Science) have invited scholars and activists working at the forefront of feminist climate justice to share their perspectives.
Yesterday's post about the the extent that mainstream feminist thinking is implicated in trans exclusinary radical feminism generated some great comments. In particular, my impression that Women and Gender theorists overwhelmingly defined gender differences as being in the contingent realm of culture and sex differences as being in the realm of nomic necessity was mistaken. However, nobody took up the main point I was trying to make (and it should be clear that no one has an obligation to do so) so I'll try to frame it more generally.
First, with respect to gender, it's not enough to problematize the gender/sex distinction merely by arguing that sexual difference itself is imbued with cultural and epigenetic factors. Has the debate gone beyond that sort of generic culturally relativist move? It was not clear from the comments. The challenge by Serano and Garcia is in part from the other direction; denying that aspects of gender difference are in the realm of nomic necessity leads to other forms of oppression. From Sullivan's post, the denial of this by many feminist activists involves systematically ignoring or dismissing the testimony of many trans people, and this suppression accounts for much of the acrimony between TERFs and transgender people.
Second, the gender/sex issue wasn't a little bit orthogonal to the problem I tried to pose, which was that much feminist theory (at least the stuff I studied seven years ago) wasn't able to navigate a Scylla and Charibdis between politics of identity and difference. Serano and Garcia argue that even recent feminist theorists (who are aware of the danger) end up denigrating femininity and telling women that they should have traditionally masculine traits. But if the alternative is Carol Gilligan or Glover type theory, no thanks. Glover critiques the "final girl" in horror movies (the last possible victim who survives and kills the killer) as a "male adolescent in drag" in part because the final girl has "masculine" attributes such as planning and use of reason. As far as infantalizing condescension goes, this is about on par with pesticide companies giving pink teddy bears to women with breast cancer.
A few months ago some of us discussed Julia Serano's book Whipping Girl, which argues that a lot of mainstream feminism ironically enforces the Aristotelian view that masculinity is healthy and normal and femininity is artificial and harmful. The chapter on gender in Tristan Garcia's Form and Object makes a similar argument with respect to some academic queer theorists who (according to Garcia) end up excoriating people who don't cowboy up and take responsibility for their own gender.
If there is a problem here it has to do with a calim that is taken to be almost analytically true in many Women and Gender's Studies classes. It goes like this. The division of sexes is a biological notion, and hence tied up with nomic necessity in some manner, while gender division is merely cultural, and hence highly variable and contingent. But the biology doesn't really support the presupposed views about biological sex (there are more than two genetic sexes, and the leap from genetic to genital sex requires at the very least lots of epigenetic factors we don't understand, and there are more than two genital sexes). And the view of gender as entirely cultural involves systematically ignoring what a lot of transgender people such as Juliana Serano have to say about their experience (and perhaps some of the relevant biology as well).
A recent post by Andrew Sullivan chronicles how this debate has gone beyond academia and is actually become poisonous in the activist community, pitting trans exclusionary radical feminist ("TERF") activists against transgender activists.
I’m teaching a course on privacy and surveillance this fall, and one of the things I’ve been doing is reading up on aspects of privacy theory that I didn’t know much about, such as the feminist critique of privacy. The basic feminist argument is that “family privacy” has been historically used as a cover to shield domestic abuse from legal scrutiny (and not only against women – see this disturbing Supreme Court case about a stepfather who beat a four year old into serious and permanent cognitive disability; the Rhenquist Court argues that state social services had no enforceable obligation to intervene because of family privacy). It is in this context that I ran across Reva Siegel’s (Law, Yale) fantastic article on the way that claims of domestic privacy emerged out of the collapse of a husband’s legal right to “chastise” (beat) his wife. Siegel’s larger purpose is to study the ways that legal reforms can serve to “modernize” status regimes, a process in which old hierarchies are given new justifications and (perhaps) weakened, but not eliminated. It’s not that the legal reforms don’t achieve anything – it’s that it’s very, very difficult to dismantle regimes of social privilege, and that (as Foucault noted), power always entails resistance.
Here, I want to focus briefly on the move from chastisement to privacy, because I think it suggests something important for our understanding of biopolitics. As Siegel outlines it, the basic story is that, over the course of the nineteenth century, a couple of groups made substantial inroads into the old common law right of chastisement: temperance groups used stories of horrific abuse of women by drunk husbands to advocate banning alcohol, and feminist groups use the same stories to advocate for the banning of wife-beating. The feminists eventually won, and a pair of state supreme court cases around 1870 (one in Alabama and one in North Carolina) emphatically – perhaps a little too emphatically – pronounced wife beating to be the unwelcome vestige of a primitive, bygone era.
Anyone who spends a modicum of time on the internet will have been exposed to the recent hashtag battle opposing #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen, so I don’t need to rehearse the details here. What I think is significant is that there may well be a sense in which both camps are right: it may well be the case that the proportion of men engaging in the more extreme forms of sexism and violence against women – the limit cases being sexual assault and rape – is relatively small, while the proportion of women being victims of these assaults is very high. There is no contradiction between the two.
Indeed, a 2002 study mentioned in this recent Slate article (which Eric W also linked to in a recent post – btw, it’s Eric’s post that got me thinking about this issue) on the sexual histories of college men found that ‘only’ 6% of those interviewed had attempted or successfully raped someone. But the catch is that there was an average of 6 rape attempts per perpetrator. So the math is simple: in a population of 100 college men and 100 college women, if 6 men are rapists but each engage in rape attempts 6 times during their college years, then it is perfectly possible that 36 of the 100 women, so more than a third of them, will have been the victims of successful or attempted rapes. (Naturally, there may also be cases of men sexually assaulting other men, but it seems that, in the college population in particular (as opposed to the prison population, or among younger male victims), the wide majority of cases is of male perpetrator and female victim.)
Over at Feminist Philosophers, they've posted the CFP for a conference on Diversity in Philosophy that, I'm proud to say, is being hosted and co-sposored by my alma mater, Villanova University, along with Hypatia and the APA's Committee for the Status of Women.
The conference will be held at Villanova on May 28-30, 2015 and the deadline for submissions of 250-500 word proposals is January 1, 2015.
More info and the full CFP follows after the break.
Another sad loss this week: psychologist Sandra Bem, a pioneer in the empirical study of gender roles, passed away on Tuesday, May 20th. Here is the most complete obituary I could find so far, which details nicely her scientific contributions and the practical impact they had in gender policies. For example, it was largely based on her scientific work that the infamous practice of segregating classified job listings under "Male Help Wanted" and "Female Help Wanted" columns was finally abandoned, after a 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court ruling against the practice. (The case was against a particular press, but within a year all other newspapers in the country changed how their classified ads were listed.)
There are many other aspects of Sandra Bem’s life and work worth mentioning, but let me focus on two of them. As an undergraduate in 1965, she met Daryl Bem, then a young assistant professor, and a romantic relationship between them began. (Yes, there are successful stories too, apparently…) Initially, she did not want to get married, as this course of events seemed to preclude the professional path she had in mind for herself. But Daryl was not deterred, and so together they agreed on an arrangement that would allow her to flourish professionally, and which would basically consist in what is now known as equally shared parenting – an ideal that many couples aspire to, but which remains a challenge to implement (speaking from personal experience!). The ‘experiment’ was largely successful, and Sandra narrates all the ups and downs of raising two children (a boy and a girl) on this model in her 1998 book An Unconventional Family. (I’ve been meaning to read the book for years, and now may well be the time to stop procrastinating.)
Some years ago, at the end of an evening that probably involved more alcoholic beverages than it should have, I found myself as a member of a small party of four, composed of two colleagues (and incidentally, good friends) and one PhD student (all three male). As the conversation progressed, I ended up saying things that were somewhat sexually explicit (as some readers may recall, I don’t shy away from talking about matters pertaining to sexuality – see a recent lecture of mine on the science of female orgasm). To be clear, what I said could not have been construed as ‘flirtatious’ in any way, but the next day I came to deeply regret the whole episode. My reasoning was as follows: had I been a male individual, and had the student in question been a female individual, what I said would have been undoubtedly inappropriate, by my own lights. (Similar considerations could be offered concerning interactions with colleagues, but I was particularly concerned with the asymmetry between me and the student).
This episode led me to formulate and since then apply a principle of parity to regulate my behavior in professional situations: not to say or do anything that would be construed or viewed as problematic, had I been a man dealing with (especially more junior) women, be they colleagues, students etc. Until then, I would on occasion make remarks during class (e.g. ‘here, size does matter’ when talking about some issue pertaining to model-theory) which seemed to me to be ok (and in a sense, even a ‘political statement’ in some way), but which would not have been appropriate if uttered by a man. I do not make such remarks in class anymore.
A petition is circulating online asking Gov. Bill Haslam to veto SB 1391. The bill would modify the Tennessee criminal code to allow for criminal assault charges to be brought against women who use illegal narcotics while pregnant, should their drug use lead to harm or death for the fetus or child. These charges carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. But the bill is so badly written, it could affect all pregnant women in Tennessee, whether or not they use drugs, should something go wrong during their pregnancy. In effect, SB 1391 threatens to criminalize pregnancy in Tennessee.
Policy analysts and political commentators across the world have voiced their concerns with SB 1391, arguing that it could have far-reaching consequences (Reality Check, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and NPR). Even some pro-life groups recognize that SB 1391 could incentivize abortions for women who use drugs, since women risk up to 15 years in prison by continuing their pregnancy, especially if they are unable to access drug treatment programs (All Our Lives).
If we really want to support the flourishing of children in Tennessee, then we need to move beyond the pro-life/pro-choice framework to seek reproductive justice for everyone, based on “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments” (SisterSong). For example, rather than punishing women who use illegal drugs while pregnant, we should be extending the Safe Harbor Act to support women who use either prescription drugs or non-prescription drugs to get the treatment they need, and to stay clean for the sake of their families and themselves.
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.