Yesterday the Guardianpublished the results of a research conducted on the over 70 million comments that have been placed at Guardian articles over the years. The question was: is there a pattern in who gets most abusive comments? Given the Guardian’s policy to block comments (blocked by moderators) when they are not aligned with the spirit of constructive debate, this constitutes an extremely dataset to explore online behavior (it is reassuring by the way that only 2% of the 70m comments were blocked!). It has been long felt that women, and in particular women speaking from a feminist perspective, receive much online abuse in reaction to what they write. (Comment sections are one such venue, but think also of Twitter and other social media platforms.) But crunching the numbers is the right way to go if one wants to move from the level of ‘impressions’ to more concrete corroboration. The results will probably not come across as surprising:
Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.
And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
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.”
In their series that could be titled "Academic sexism is a myth", Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have a newest installment: on the basis of fictive scenarios, faculty members in STEM disciplines had to make decisions about hiring particular male or female candidates. I'm not going to talk in detail about the methodology - which involved presenting faculty members fictitious scenarios about the on campus interviews of female and male candidates - but about the problem of inductive risk whenever we investigate biases against women and other underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, people with disabilities, etc.
Inductive risk is the chance that one is wrong accepting or rejecting a scientific hypothesis. For instance, a food additive that poses a serious health risk is wrongly concluded to be safe, or conversely, a food additive that has no health risk is wrongly concluded to be carcinogenic. Both false negatives and false positives can potentially pose inductive risks. Heather Douglas has argued that inductive risk is one way to let values play a role in science. Because scientists are in an epistemic position to assess the risks and benefits of their work, they should assess the non-epistemic consequences (in policy, public perception, health hazards etc) of publishing particular research findings. How does this concept apply to the research by Williams and Ceci?
When we investigate sexist biases against women in academia, there are two types of inductive risk: (1) There are no biases against women (indeed women are now being preferred as candidates for some positions in some fields). (2) There are in fact biases against women, but Williams and Ceci failed to detect it.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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.
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.
(Many thanks to Bryce Huebner for drawing my attention to this work) - There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not sexual harassment is worse in philosophy than in other disciplines. While there are few hard data on this issue, a new paper by Dana Kabat-Farr and Lilia Cortina throws new light on this problem, looking at the correlations between gender disparity and harassment in a large sample of employees in the military, academia and the court system. Across all these fields, the authors found that a low gender representation for women results in higher levels of gender harassment. Gender harassment is defined as "a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes” about people of one’s gender". Concretely, "when comparing a woman who works in a gender-balanced work-group to a woman who works with almost all men, we find that the latter woman is 1.68 times as likely to encounter [gender harassment]." Remarkably, they found no correlation between sexual advance harassment (which we have been hearing a lot about recently) and underrepresentation.
I think these data are highly relevant for the recent news about harassment in our profession, and that there are things to learn from it for concrete policies.
The Gendered Conference Campaign "aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male conferences (and volumes, and summer schools), of the harm that they do." In keeping with that aim, I call your attention to a (so-far) gendered speaker series that raises awareness for this issue in a different way. The University of California at Merced (disclaimer: my place of work) started a Philosophy Speaker Series this year that has so far organized talks for three speakers, all of whom are women (see the calendar and archive here). This was not intentional, but the fact that it is striking to have this sort of line-up reveals that we have some way to go to reach gender parity. Has anyone else come across conferences, speaker series, or summer schools with all-woman line-ups?
We've recently had a NewAPPS post where it became clear in comments that many (presumably well-meaning) people are at loss when it comes to the appropriate terminology to use when talking about transgender people. (Interestingly, there is a recent post over at Feminist Philosophers on this very topic.) Conveniently, the Guardian just published an informative piece with very sensible guidelines on how to go about it (at least, they seem sensible to me, but I'd like to hear more from people more knowledgeable than me on this matter). For example, I often asked myself which pronoun to use when talking about a transperson's past, prior to her/his transition, and here is the answer:
Whether discussing a person's past, present or future, only use the correct pronouns for their gender. A person's gender generally does not change. Public presentation may change in transition and secondary sex characteristics may change with the aid of hormones and/or surgery, but one's sense of being either male or female is, in most cases, constant throughout life.
There is much more sensible advice in the article, so go check it out!
This Salon piece looks at some recent movies through the lens of masculinity anxiety:
A friend of a friend of mine has big plans: quit his prestigious editorial job in New York, grow his beard a bit further out, and start working on the docks. In 2014, the sentiments behind such a decision aren’t anything new... Gender roles in the workplace and the family are blurring...
I don't have any complaints about the analysis of the movies, just about the vast understatment of the phrase "aren't anything new." Because, let's face it, if there's anything men have been worried about the entire history of "Western Civilization" (TM; and yes, like Gandhi, I would be in favor of it), it's the decline in masculinity as soon as guys take up desk jobs.
I would date it to Nausicaa getting turned on by the pirate, er, gangster, er warrior Odysseus when he appears on the beach, because frankly those nancy boy courtiers hanging around her dad's court just lack a certain something, know what I mean? But then again, really isn't it Enkidu teaching Gilgamesh what a real man is all about? And so on and so forth, through Plato and Tacitus and hell just about everybody, really, including turn of the century Americans. Turn of the 20th century, that is. Cf, too, for the latest in hard bodies. It's as if it were a theme or something!