Saturday, November 1, 2014

Insults and Power

Those who followed the controversy that followed the publication of certain emails sent by one Brian Leiter to Carrie Jenkins and Noelle McAfee, and then the publication of the September Statement, may remember a website titled "Recent Events Involving Brian Leiter". The site aggregated information about the events surrounding those emails, and other similar episodes. Several weeks ago, however, the site vanished.

That's too bad. Although Leiter has now pledged to step down as editor of PGR (though I for one am somewhat skeptical about what that will actually mean), there does not seem to be much reason to think that his behavior towards other people in our profession is going to change. Especially because he has steadfastly defended his actions and painted himself as the true victim. (Carrie threatened him first, blah blah blah.)1 It's hard to imagine that there will not be other insults and other threats on other occasions. And, if there are, then it would be nice if we could all remember that it isn't the first time (by a long shot), and maybe next time more people will take seriously the fact that it is only because Leiter has the sort of power he does that he can hurt people the way he does, and then get away with it. Which means that everyone who contributes to his having that kind of power is an enabler at best and an accessory at worst. (These days, I find myself more disgusted with them than with Leiter.)

I thought about restoring "Recent Events" myself from a copy I grabbed from the WayBack Machine after the site disappeared. Unfortunately, that copy was old and somewhat out of date,2 and it seemed not to be worth posting those old versions. But I have recently had an email from someone who thought, as I should have, to grab a copy of the main page, at least, from Google's cache, which would have been much more recent, and they have restored that much at*

Re-reading the site now reminded me of a post I'd started some time ago but never got around to finishing. It was inspired by some comments Leiter made about what he called the "cyber-smear campaign". (No, I won't link to it.) He complained about
the false claim promoted by an anonymous website that my targets "recently" have been disproportionately women. In fact, during the exact same time period, far more men than women have come in for criticism, derision, or polemics, including Eric Schliesser, Santiago Zabala, Tom Stern, Matt Drabek, Leon Wieseltier, Dirk Johnson, Ben Cohen, Ed Kazarian, Vince Vitale, William Vallicella, and Mark Oppenheimer, among others (I leave out the 'big names' like Zizek and Niall Ferguson).
What the authors of the anonymous website said in response seems right,3 but I think there's a deeper point, one I've made in other posts, namely: It isn't just that Leiter was directing many of his insults and threats at women but in many cases at junior faculty, post-docs, and graduate students. That is: He was directing these things at people who have very little power, by comparison, and who are in relatively vulnerable positions. And being a woman in philosophy too means being relatively vulnerable and powerless, due to the pervasive gender bias in the field (a problem to which PGR arguably contributes more than a little). These are all of a piece (which is maybe why the authors of "Recent Events" mentioned them all together).

So the reason it's relevant that many of Leiter's threats and insults were directed at women isn't because it might reveal Leiter as a sexist, or anything like that. I have no idea whether Leiter is a sexist, I frankly don't care whether he is, and I don't think anyone was accusing him of that.4 It's relevant, it seems to me, because women are in such a bad position in the profession anyway. Leiter's willingness to publicly insult a graduate student, and to mock and demean junior faculty who disagree with him, seems to me to demonstrate, if not an utter lack of concern for the effects that his actions have on other people, then a pretty astonishing blindness to real-world dynamics of power.5 And, as many others have said, the sorts of insults and threats Leiter was directing at women might well have been expected to have a disproportionate effect on them due to their position, as women, in the profession. So Leiter's insistence that he is equally prepared to insult and threaten men just misses the point.6

In any event, I post this now not to pile on,7 but simply to try to set the record straight. If I am or was accusing Leiter of something, it's of not being sufficiently sensitive to the power dynamics to which gender gives rise, especially in a profession that has the kinds of problems that philosophy does, and of thereby exacerbating those problems.

* UPDATE: It appears that this site too has now vanished.

1 Leiter did issue an "apology" to Carrie, but, being a non-apology apology, it did nothing but make things worse.

2 If I remember correctly—these have now vanished, too—the only two snapshots that were available were from early October, not long after the site launched, and I could remember various changes myself that were not there. The only snapshot on is from 28 September, which is even earlier.

3 Namely, that they were talking about people Leiter had "publicly insulted...and/or sent...insulting and threatening emails", not about the great throngs of people about whom Leiter had made nasty or derogatory comments. Writing nasty things on your blog isn't the same as insulting someone (and I dare say it doesn't have the same psychological effect, either). I'll add myself that Leiter's complaints about "errors of fact" and "omissions of fact" seem mostly to amount to annoyance that his version of the facts isn't universally accepted. (Carrie threatened him first, blah blah blah.)

4 In fact, Leiter has been pretty supportive, generally speaking, of the nascent movement to address gender bias in the profession—though there was obviously a great deal of controversy about some of his remarks concerning the situation at Northwestern, which were what precipitated the now-infamous exchange with "Current Student". I'll add, moreover, that I shared Leiter's concerns about how vitriolic the discussion surrounding gender issues in the profession became at one point—though he may not have expressed those terribly well.

5 Being an expert on Nietzsche no more guarantees sensitivity to power dynamics in real-life than being an expert on Kant means being a moral person.

6 While we're at it, we might as well quote "Susan", who said in a comment over at Daily Nous: "I would like to say 'only in Philosophy' would it be the case that a reasonable defense of being accused of rudeness is to protest, hey, I'm rude to everyone all the time, but I imagine the climate is similarly unfriendly in at least a few other disciplines or professions. Telemarketing and other high-pressure sales environments spring to mind." Now there's a comparison class we don't want to be part of.

UPDATE: See Simon Cabuela May's second point in this post for much the same thought.

7 That's why I'm back-dating this post—in case anyone notices. I don't want it at the top of my blog. (The actual date of the post was 12 December 2014.)

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