More on ‘Male Anxiety’ in Academic Philosophy

Daniel Mullin comments on my post from yesterday about ‘male anxiety’ in the workplace–in particular, in academic philosophy departments–and describes his strategy for dealing with an atmosphere in which there is heightened sensitivity about sexual harassment:

Since that time, I’ve considered ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible. I certainly kept my office door open during consultation and only met with female students during office hours. I was a little more casual with male students, sometimes meeting them at a campus coffee shop if, for example, they had class during my office hours. Ironically, then, I suspect that ‘male anxiety’ does not foster more equality, but is more likely to result in preferential treatment of male students by male professors. I still consider my policy a prudent one, but it’s unfortunate that female students had less access to my time than did male students. Sadly, however, the practical effect of male anxiety might be that female students don’t get the best out of male professors which may contribute to an already existing problem: the dearth of women in the discipline.

It is not immediately clear to me that the precautionary measures that Mullin (and his adviser) describe should lead to a situation in which male professors accord ‘preferential treatment’ to male students. Meeting students during office hours, or by appointment on school premises, or conducting all discussions–the ones that do not require a private hearing–in an office with open doors, don’t seem to entail zero contact with female students, and neither do they suggest that all avenues for discussion with them have been blocked. And of course, they do not preclude careful and detailed comments on papers and respectful conversations in academic fora and the classroom.

More problematic is Mullin’s assertion that he considers ‘ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible.’ This is roughly equivalent to saying ‘I consider ANY female student to be potentially an irrational actor who will make false, career-destroying accusations against me.’ This seems like a very prejudicial attitude to maintain toward women students; it makes it seem as if false accusations by them and destroyed careers are the norm in academia. Are they? Are female students–especially those in philosophy–especially prejudiced against their male professors? So much so that they have conducted a vindictive smear campaign against them?

Again, it must reiterated, it is a false dichotomy to suggest that unless and until male professors can interact with their female students in a host of intimate, possibly problematic, situations that there cannot be fruitful academic interaction between the two. To suggest this is to paint a curiously impoverished picture of the numerous modes, possibilities and venues for meetings and discussions between professors and students. If Mullin could not meet on a campus coffee shop with his female students, could he have met them in the department lounge or common room? Or on the quad? Or is the fear that a student will insist on a private meeting and then turn around and make a false accusation of sexual harassment? The picture of the female student that emerges from these anxious responses is not a flattering one.

It is significant that Mullin mentions his adviser giving him the–very sound!–advice to ‘be conscious of what [he] said to female students. ‘ Indeed, all professors should be careful of what they say to their students: we occupy positions of power; we often set examples by our behavior and speech. Professors, like other folks, can also make racist and sexist speech; why shouldn’t we be cognizant of the effects of our words and actions?

As I indirectly noted in my past yesterday, what started as a problem about sexual harassment of women in the workplace can turn very quickly turn instead into one about ‘fearful’ men in the workplace, whose needs now must be attended to. The most substantive effect of this is, if Mullin is to be believed, is that women have suffered even more. They needn’t have, but they might, according to this account. Perhaps the women should have not complained so that business as usual could have proceeded?

Finally, Mullin suggests that ‘the academy is already doing more than enough to make men hyper-conscious of the dire consequences of even seemingly innocent interactions with female students.’ The crucial point is whether this ‘hyper-consciousness’ is leading to better behavior or just the anxious reactions that I have described and discussed. If it’s the latter, then we haven’t made any progress.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy

In 1990, I began work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. My technical employment status was ‘Resident Visitor’; I was a ‘consultant’ sent to work at the Laboratories on a contingent basis. Because of this status, I was not required to attend the training sessions that were often set up for permanent employees. Off they went, while I, and the rest of the consulting crew stayed in our offices, attending to whatever it was we did. When my colleagues and friends returned, they complained bitterly and caustically about these trainings, these onerous impositions on their time and energy: they had been made to attend day-long seminars on ‘diversity,’ ‘affirmative action,’ ‘women in the workplace,’ ‘sexual harassment’ and the like.

Their contempt for these efforts was unvarnished: ‘a fucking waste of time,’ ‘useless,’ ‘just a bunch of moaning and whining,’ ‘the usual politically correct bullshit.’ They wondered, to a man–and I use that term advisedly–what would it all mean? What did ‘management’ want? How should they comport themselves? They were bewildered and anxious and angry: ‘It’s like you can’t crack a joke anymore without someone getting offended’; ‘Try being friendly with someone, and you’ll get cracked down on’. One older gentleman, with whom I had developed a bit of a friendship, complained to me that he when he called younger women ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ , he meant it as a term of affection, not meant to be remotely insulting, patronizing or offensive; it was just how he interacted with that demographic. (I failed to point out to him that he used these terms more often for women of color.)

Listening to them, one would have been hard pressed to not imagine that a gigantic inquisitorial McCarthyite whip had been cracked, shedding skin and sending them scurrying for cover. Those whose protection was seemingly demanded by these trainings now became the focus for more suspicion and contempt: Will this woman complain about my language, linguistic or body? Will this black man accuse me of being patronizing? Oh, the inhumanity! The realm of social interaction, previously unsullied by exhortations to be more sensitive to assorted sensibilities, to problematic presuppositions, to the potential for prejudice-enforcing behavior, had been transformed into one of suspicion and worry; relationships, which would have flowered and bloomed without this malign intervention and chaperoning, were now doomed to wither. Why not just let things be as they are–when they seemed to have worked so well for everyone? Couldn’t the whiners and complainers just learn to live and let live?

I am reminded of that group of anxious men as I read Louise Antony‘s article at the Stone yesterday, noting the male anxiety triggered in academic philosophy by La Affaire Colin McGinn, in which a senior philosopher resigned his tenured post after being accused of inappropriate behavior by his female graduate student. As Antony notes, the MIT linguist  Steven Pinker wrote ‘that “such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.”’ And then, of course, there are the familiar worries from elsewhere:

Pinker’s reflexive and overheated reaction to the events in Florida is simply one precipitate of the fog of male anxiety that floats through the halls of academia. I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

Unsurprisingly enough, in academia, just like it was at Bell Labs more than twenty years ago, the actual disciplinary record is the same: very few men have actually been complained about, and an even smaller number have had any action taken against them. Very few careers had been ruined; what had been, or could be, ruined was the atmosphere that had existed before, where all the squirming was done by women, or some other vulnerable minority, and where all the smirking and grinning was done by men. Yes, there was plenty of banter, some of it just the kind that adults engage in to take the edge of what might otherwise be a stilted social engagement. But in these very same engagements, the balance of power was always visible to all; if there were lines to be crossed it would only happen in one direction. How much give and take, the supposed fabric of banter, could really be spun out in these domains of unequal power?

Antony is right to note that the real effect of the heightened visibility of discourse about sexual harassment–or about other variants of discomfort and offense inducing behavior–is not as much legislative or punitive, as it is to induce an uncomfortable spotlight on the perpetrators and to place an expectation on them of real, substantive change in their behavior. That is onerous; it requires some serious introspection, some work on building new habits of speech and action, some effort directed toward sympathetic or empathetic listening; it requires working on the new, as yet not clearly understood or defined, parameters of new relationships; it requires the construction of a new space of discourse, with new guidelines and conversational implicatures. If male academic philosophers insist that ‘openness and informality’ be understood and construed only as specified by them, and that intellectually rewarding academic relationships cannot be formed in any other way, then they are guilty of several false dichotomies.

As Antony notes:

The real worry, I think, for men is that they will have to change their ways. They will have to monitor what they say to female students and colleagues. They will have to think twice before chatting up that attractive graduate student they see at a conference. They’ll have to stop relying on smutty double entendres to get laughs in their seminars.

So, yes, it is a burden. Having to change our ways always is.  So, since those folks who complain about diversity training and sexual harassment sensitivity sessions always set great store by plain speaking, it would not be untoward to direct at them, a simple and plain injunction: Deal with it. Change.

On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory

Jennifer Saul over at  The Philosophers Magazine has an interesting article on the psychological biases in the field that are adversely affecting the role and presence of women in philosophy. Saul considers various explanations for why women are so poorly represented in philosophy, one of which is:

[T]he importantly distinct idea that women approach things differently, and that philosophy is the poorer for not fitting well with women’s ways of thinking. One version of this idea can be found in Carol Gilligan and another in very recent work by Wesley Buckwalter and Steve Stich. These claims of women’s difference, however, have never held up well empirically, as Louise Antony argues eloquently in her “Different Voices or Perfect Storm”. [links added]

I agree with Saul in general and have an alternative theory to offer as explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. I call it the Dickhead Theory.  The heart of the Dickhead Theory (DT) is contained in the email I sent to Saul:

One of the biggest problems is that philosophy is treated like a contact sport: an argument is a contest, a chance to knock your opponent down, to utterly destroy him. Look at the way male philosophers report on question-and-answer sessions at colloquia: “Oh, X just wiped the floor with Y; X just totally devastated Y’s objection’ and so on. Look at the hostility with which questioners confront speakers, or the bristling tone of most philosophy discussions. Are they doing philosophy or are they working out deep neuroses? I find all of this extremely distasteful and diligently avoid most philosophy talks simply because I cannot stand – pardon my French – all the dick-waving.

I understand that philosophy is structured around the construction, analysis and defense of arguments, and that as such, it is an adversarial discipline. However, I have yet to see any good argument that such activities are best conducted in an atmosphere that approximates the one described above.  Philosophy is, truth be told, seemingly overpopulated by male dickheads. And I don’t think women like being in disciplines where that is the case.

In response to my email, Saul directed me to a paper by Helen Beebee titled ‘Women and Deviance in Philosophy‘. In it, Beebee includes a section titled ‘The seminar as a philosophical battleground’, which I think, argues for the DT much more carefully and thoughtfully, and in much more temperate language. At the end of the section Bebee concludes:

The hard question remains, of course: do women in fact, in general – or perhaps just more often than their male colleagues – find the aggressive and competitive atmosphere that is often present in the philosophy seminar uncongenial, independently of any effect it may have via stereotype threat? I do not know the answer to that question. I myself do not enjoy being on the receiving end of aggressive and competitive behaviour, and…do not feel in the least bit demeaned by that confession. On the contrary: on my own personal list of thick moral concepts, these both fall under ‘vice’ rather than ‘virtue’. I cannot, of course, speak for others. But my point here has been that there are grounds for thinking that such an atmosphere is alienating for women – and hence good reasons to attempting to change the atmosphere of the seminar room when it is aggressive or competitive – whatever the answer to the hard question; so it is one that we can simply allow to lapse. The role of such an atmosphere in the pursuit of truth is, at best, neutral; at worst, it runs the risk of putting women off philosophy – thereby reinforcing the stereotype that philosophy is a man’s world.

Yeah. What she said.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)