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‘Philosophical Differences’ on Under-Represented Groups in Academica

July 30, 2012

If I posted every time that American academics did something silly, we’d probably violate New York labor laws by making our interns work too much. But a recent pronouncement by Mark Lance and Eric Schliesser, two philosophy professors at Georgetown, deserves special comment. In a recent post on Sexism in Philosophy, the two academics solemnly announce their pledge not to attend any future philosophy conferences with only male keynote speakers. In prose combining the language of civil rights with academiquese, the two write:

  • The time has come to change the cost-benefit analysis of the main parties involved. We propose a campaign in which we publicly identify keynote presenters at conferences with all or almost all male invitees who through their inaction, complacency, and indifference contribute to the sexist status quo. This involves few epistemic risks (there is no need to rely on hearsay, testimony, etc); it is also likely to be an effective way of promoting change.
  • We hereby commit ourselves not to accept invitations to male-only events. We call on others to join us.

While Lance’s and Schliesser’s move reflects longer-standing concerns about the climate that exists for women in academic philosophy departments, some of their colleagues are less convinced. Philosophy, more so than other disciplines in universities today, appears to uphold a climate of sexual harassment, and some female job candidates report shocking behavior when going on the job market. Some scholars point out that the proposal seems to demonize all male philosophers as Neanderthals: ‘I so applaud your statement and am floored by your sacrifice. I would love to see gender-balanced conferences, but I do not want to lose as keynote speakers the males who support gender diversity,’ wrote one academic in anonymous response. Another anonymous commenter fretted that ‘the proposal of implementing social justice and equal outcomes by proscription and intimidation is potentially dangerous and can easily degenerate. Poor old Kant, for one, would have seen it straight away.’

It’s true that this isn’t exactly earth-shaking news, but this story still captures broader disturbing trends in the American élite today. It’s true that women remain significantly under-represented in many academic disciplines, just as men have historically been under-represented and discriminated against in certain professions, like nursing. Since at least the 1960s, Americans have made great strides in creating greater procedural fairness for how women, racial minorities, and the poor are treated in admissions processes, professional and graduate schools, and the job market.

Those movements had real, substantial results that improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The anti-Semitic old boys’ world described by authors like Jerome Karabel in The Chosen is mostly gone, although there is some evidence that Asian-Americans still face discrimination in college admissions today. That’s unfair and stupid; even if colleges decide that they are in the business of promoting ‘social justice’ through some racial admissions formula, lumping together second-generation Chinese-American students with fourth-generation Punjabi-Americans does little to further that goal.

Movements like the one to boycott conferences without female keynote speakers, however, represent the rotten fruit of the 1960s social justice. While many of the energies from that period directed themselves productively towards institutional change and a focus on procedural justice, unfortunately, some Americans – a disproportionate portion of them academics – took the critique even further, claiming that America owed these minorities not only procedural but also substantive justice.

When fused with the identity politics that has run roughshod over American humanities academia since the late 1970s, chaos results. Focus on figuring out why female PhD candidates in philosophy drop out more frequently than males of a similar background do, any you might get somewhere. But the dual projects of equal outcomes (not procedures) and maximalist identity politics leads to incoherence. Virtually any identity group – homosexuals, Africans, the poor, the elderly – can stage the claim that members of its group aren’t receiving enough keynote addresses, pages in journals of Identity Studies, or – the last the scarcest resource – jobs. Academia becomes less about a shared search for truth beholden to a public interest, and more about dividing up an Balkanized pie between different interest groups.

This is all part of why academia, but especially humanities departments, are less relevant to the American public conversation today than almost any time in the last fifty years. Let’s hope that a new generation of humanists can re-invigorate it.

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