Philosophy blogs as supermarket tabloids

Lately, I’ve been remembering the good old days when you could open up a philosophy blog and read about… well, philosophy and the philosophy profession. And that was about it. Perhaps this is nostalgia talking, but I think those were good times. And they weren’t so long ago.

Over the past couple of months — or is it only weeks? — I’ve noticed a shift. The thing to talk about now is sexual harassment and sexism in the profession. And you can’t get away from it. Even if you steer clear of the blogs whose main purpose is to promote political correctness and gasp in self-righteous horror at its apparent violations, blogs that were once devoted to other topics (like The Philosophy Smoker) are serving up sex-talk to a satisfied readership around the clock these days. And Leiter Reports has apparently switched to 24/7 sexual harassment broadcasting.

It started, less than a year ago, with McGinn. A story was leaked, alarms were raised, McGinn kept trying to unstick himself from the scandal in counterproductive ways, and the world was entertained by the public ridicule of a man nobody liked taught an important moral lesson in the process. Then came some lesser explosions, but for a long time nothing else had the OJ Simpson feel we all wanted to bind us together. We got McGinn far too soon in our descent into trash.

And then our inner gossips were fed the delicious Colorado scandal, thanks to the breach of confidentiality afforded by the site visit team. Nobody could stop looking at it or talking about it, but we told ourselves that our attention was absolutely necessary. Our discipline was waiting for us all to line up and wag our fingers at the accused, to revel in their shaming, and to announce to the world that it was everywhere. It was a glorious time: a time for feminists to ride high and say ‘I told you so!’, and for the men and women who had questions to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. To raise doubts was to announce that one was part of the problem. We felt that all of us were needed, somehow: that if it weren’t for each person expressing shock and outrage at how horrible the profession is, the alleged sexism problem would never be dealt with. For weeks, we had a wonderful reason to procrastinate on our work while never having to worry about how to fill lulls in conversation by the water cooler. We were all in on the fight to save philosophy from sexism, and it felt great.

As if on cue, just as we began to tire of the fun of dragging the Colorado department through the mud, ruining their career prospects and reputations forever (usually the thrill fades in a week or two if there aren’t more outrages), someone at Northwestern came to our rescue, giving us a new scandal about Peter Ludlow. By now even the extra-philosophical world had been primed to receive: the Ludlow accusation, with some work by the accuser and her lawyer, even made it onto the evening news, delivered in bogus earnestness by a newscaster who seemed to enjoy his swipe at the ivory tower.

Ten days or so later, our gastric juices were flowing again — wasn’t it a little sooner this time? — and we felt the pang of hunger. But whose life and reputation could be ruined this go-round? Lucky for us, the media had become wise to what we needed by that point and fed us… the Oxford scandal! A suicide — a horrific personal tragedy — bearing some unclear connection to someone in philosophy who was issued… a sexual harassment warning. And what better way to console the grieving friends and family than to begin speculating on the guilt or otherwise of someone who did something we don’t really know that much about? Don’t bother sending flowers: just start speculating and following the story. And in the meantime, keep reminding yourself and everyone else how much these allegations are sure to indicate about sexism in the profession. I’m sure all those involved are grateful to be in the thoughts of strangers who care enough to gawk and speculate about their private affairs.

Around then, we began to near the point where we wanted constant updates on our sex scandals. New legal opinions! Opinion pieces and emails from those who might have known the key players! Boycotts! Protests! All this can help stave off our hunger, but not for long.

And today, the new outrage was served up: the Berkeley affair! Yes, just last week, 31 students associated with Berkeley jumped into the circus by filing federal complaints against Berkeley for not doing enough to stop sexual harassment. For all we know, one of those students might have had something to do with a creepy philosophy harasser there or elsewhere! Will the horrors never end?

More seriously, how — if at all — is this different from the tendency of modern news stations to report murders, kidnappings, and grisly car crashes at higher and higher rates, regardless of the actual numbers of such incidents, all in a cynical attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator?

I see the future — well, a couple of possible futures. One is an ongoing teaming-up between philosophy and the scandal-hungry gutter press that we have already begun to explore these past few weeks, and which the general public seems to enjoy a great deal. If this scenario comes to pass, the lay public will at last be able to talk to us about philosophy, because we’ll have stooped to the level where there’s nothing but scandal left to discuss. Let’s hope it doesn’t.

16 thoughts on “Philosophy blogs as supermarket tabloids

  1. Presumably, this is different because it allows us to actually do something about it. Hearing sensational news about the latest gruesome homicide won’t probably help me to diminish the gruesome homicide rate. Hearing, however, that action is finally being taken against harassers may give an incentive for others to come out and file complaints. Moreover, it’s clear that at least one of these pieces of news are strategic: the Berkeley case made the news because one of the complaints apparently never resulted in any concrete action, either by or against Berkeley. Given this, I don’t see why going to the media, specially when the climate is apparently conducive to it, should be considered sensationalist.

    Finally, I follow both NewAPPS and Leiter. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they handled the recent cases “sensationalistically”. Both haven’t allowed for speculation over the Ludlow case, and in effect have even been accused of protecting Ludlow! With regards to Ketland, there were even fewer details, and both denounced some of the rhetoric in the main articles. Also, only Leiter reported about Berkeley. Over at NewAPPS, the latest discussions seemed to center around the notion of epistemic peer and the vaccine controversy, neither of them related to harassment (in fact, there’s been quite some time since there was any discussion of harassment at NewAPPS). So I’m not entirely sure about what, exactly, you are complaining.

    • Daniel, I’m afraid I just don’t share your background assumptions at present. Let’s start with the sensationalist crime and disaster coverage that TV news barrages us with. We can tell ourselves that it’s really important for that stuff to be widely publicized to the point of crowding out real news because it helps us know the scale of the problem, so that we can protect ourselves and undertake helpful action. But it doesn’t tell us the scale of the problem — it only exaggerates it more and more the more the public consumes and revels in it. And it also gives us only the illusion of help. Parents who read of shocking kidnappings shelter their children far in excess of what is healthy, despite the fact that the odds of their child being abducted by a stranger are miniscule. People watching the World Trade Center attacks rushed out and gave blood pointlessly, when almost no blood transfusions were needed. In the wake of a murder at a school, what can happen? We can intrude on the lives of the bereaved families for months or years for the noble cause of finding the truth to protect society, cheering when the killer gets arrested, and freaking out about whether we or our children are next. But is this really helpful? There are far better sources of personal advice and much better ways of determining appropriate punishments and responses, not to mention the true scale of the problem.

      So what is the great difference in these sexual harassment cases? You say this coverage “allows us to do something about it.” Do what, exactly? Freak out about possible harassers in our midst? Sit around and spend time agreeing that harassment is really, really, really bad and that we just can’t believe that this person did what he might have done, if he did it, which he probably did, and so on? None of this is helpful. It also isn’t helpful for us to go out marching with bullhorns — figuratively or literally — to ‘help’ disciplinary bodies determine whether someone accused of sexual harassment is guilty of it or what the punishment should be. There are bodies authorized to make those decisions, and they must make them sober-mindedly and without caving to public frenzy or to letters sent collectively by departments or other groups out to combat the great social menace of the day.

      You say that “hearing… that action is finally being taken against harassers may give an incentive for others to come out and file complaints.” *Finally* taken against harassers? You mean that no action was taken against harassers before our public obsession with it on the blogs, starting less than a year ago, with the leaking of the McGinn case? Nobody accused of sexual harassment faced any consequences in early 2013 or before? Come on. Nothing has improved. We’ve just become much more obsessed with it and allowed our discipline’s name to be blackened in the popular media because of it. And we’ve celebrated it, because it’s all for the good cause of… what? Ridding the world of harassers? No, that was already happening. It’s for the cause of joining the mob in a big public shaming spectacle, and now the mob wants more and more.

      And yes, these blogs report some nuances, too. But that’s always been part of the show. The plot twists! The denunciations of inferior, alternative sources of coverage for being sensationalistic! These are mainstays of the gutter press. We philosophers just do it a little more cleverly because we’re brainy and it makes us feel better about what we’re up to.

      • I’m not sure what background assumptions we don’t share. In any case, you are apparently claiming that there is an illusion of help in this case, and that this is something that this phenomenon share with responses to sensationalist cases. I agree that sensationalist cases, more often than not, have the harmful effects you signal. I’d make exception, however, to school shootings coverage: if anything, it made the disarmament campaign stronger, and has helped to push for stricter legislation regarding gun control, which I think is a beneficial effect (perhaps we also disagree on this). So we have a case in which press coverage, sensationalist or not, helped to push forward what I assume are beneficial effects. My proposal is that the recent coverage of the harassment issue is more similar to such a case than to the others you mentioned. They bring an issue that was not considered a problem to the front, and may help to improve the situation. So there are two claims here: (i) this coverage brings attention to what was otherwise an unperceived problem and (ii) it may give people an incentive to help. Since you challenge both of these claims, I’ll try to be more explicit about them, specially since I believe there were some misunderstandings.

        (i) is a little hard to defend; we would need empirical evidence to settle it, and I’m not sure if the evidence is available. But I think it’s at least plausible that, before this coverage, most people thought of harassment as a problem (obviously), but not as a problem endemic to the university (that it is a problem endemic to the university is not, I believe, so controversial: I don’t have the statistics at hand — we can search for them latter — but I remember Langton claiming that date rape was much more common among university students than among the general population). Now, it’s clear that there is a problem specific to the university. I know that I became aware of this problem a little before the McGinn case, and it started to make me think about my own university, where this kind of harassment culture is unfortunately rampant.

        About (ii), I’m not sure why you think the options you outlined are the only ones. Take the Berkeley case. It’s plausible that the current wave of (more or less) successful complaints against harassers motivated those women to take legal action against Berkeley. This legal action may help the university to become more rigid in enforcing its own disciplinary code. Or take the Oxford case. It made the students organize themselves in order to demand a change in the way the university is conducting its harassment cases. Moreover, in the individual level, it makes one more alert to issues of harassment. I know that I myself took part or was complicit in making my own department less hospitable for women, since that was the way I thought things were normally conducted. Things changed after I started reading about it, and I can say that the McGinn case left an impact on me, in more than one way (likewise, reading about Tarski).

        So I wouldn’t say that nothing has improved. It seems that things are improving, as I believe the actions such as the ones taken by the Berkeley and Oxford students show.

        Finally, you misunderstood me when I said that “hearing that action is finally being taken against harassers” could be an incentive for making things better. You interpreted that as saying that no action had been taken previously. But that was not what I intended to convey. What I intended to convey was that, previously, action could have been taken against harassers, but few knew about it. So one could live under the fatalist impression that there was nothing to be done (I know that I lived under such impression, considering the impunity with which harassers act in my own department). Now, this may have changed. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I don’t this point is as controversial.

  2. Last year Choice and Inference had a post, “Logic for Lunatics,” that made a similar point about NewAPPS and Leiter Reports.

    • Hi, Daniel.
      To me, there are a couple of relevant differences between the school shooting case and the sexual harassment case.

      One difference is that, as far as I’ve seen, there is just no credible evidence that there is an epidemic of sexual harassment in philosophy. If you have such evidence, by all means present it; but all the evidence I’ve seen so far is pretty clearly flawed. Conversely, there is little doubt to me that there have been school shootings in which large numbers of innocent people have died at the hands of crazed gunmen.

      As far as I can tell about the McGinn, Colorado, Ludlow and Oxford cases, we have the following: a professor who inappropriately engaged in a highly flirtatious but initially two-sided relationship with his graduate student, for which his career was ended; a department in which there seems to have been complaints about a faculty member at some point in the past seven years, where that faculty member was punished; a professor who went out for an evening with a former student of his (who was romantically interested in him) but didn’t have sex with her; and someone who committed suicide at some point after, but not necessarily connected to, filing an as-yet-totally-unsubstantiated complaint about a professor who seems to have done nothing else wrong. Did all these people act angelically? No. But if this is the worst there is out there, then I really think we need to dial the reaction way, way back. And if you think that these cases mask an extremely ugly and huge problem, then I want to know what your evidence is for that.

      Another difference I see is that the steps people take in response to school shootings (trying to limit access to dangerous firearms) seem more likely to help than the steps people are taking, or are likely to take, in the sexual harassment cases. But even in the shooting cases, I think the obsession over details is unhealty and that fixating on these tragedies often help us overlook important world developments that deserve more of our attention. It’s hard to see what political purpose is served by interviews with the families of school shooting victims.

  3. Very good post. Leiter Reports and NewAPPS are where the mean girls of philosophony hang. It doesn’t take much to see that even the ostensibly philosophical discussions are premised on mutual congratulation for moral and intellectual enlightenment.

    The Colorado debacle is an excellent example of how PC-whipped misplaced moral enthusiasm destroys itself.

  4. Hi again, Highly Adequate.

    I’ve looked over the details of a recent complaint involving the key players (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCOURTS-ohnd-1_11-cv-00465/pdf/USCOURTS-ohnd-1_11-cv-00465-0.pdf).

    I’m not sure, on reflection, that there are good grounds for the interpretation Ben Cohen (and you?) seems to be pressing for.

    If Yedes had been a philosopher and alleged to have sexually harassed students or colleagues, and if we could be sure that the prominent feminist philosophy blogs were aware of these facts, then the most plausible explanation could well be that the moderators on those blogs are hypocritically giving Yedes different treatment from McGinn or Ludlow.

    However, there are just too many other factors here. The most important is that Yedes is not a philosopher or working for a philosophy department; but also, there’s no suggestion that he sexually harassed his colleagues (though he may have done something worse, the feminist bloggers could object that they are only interested in documenting sexual harassment).

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