The Strange Case Of Anna Stubblefield And Facilitated Communication

The word ‘tragedy’ should not be used lightly. But the case of Anna Stubblefield and the young black man called ‘DJ’ calls out for such an appellation: many lives and two families lie ruined at its core. Stated baldly the facts of the case run as follows: a professor of philosophy, aided by, and reliant on a technique called ‘facilitated communication,’ developed over a period of time an increasingly inappropriate relationship with a severely physically and mentally disabled black man (a brother of one of her students.) When ‘DJ”s guardians realized the relationship had become sexual, they blocked Stubblefield’s access to ‘DJ.’ When Stubblefield persisted in making contact, they  reported Stubblefield to the police. Her arrest and trial followed. She was convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

There is, as might be surmised, nothing redeeming in this sad tale. Violations of trust lie scattered all over its particulars: an older white professor raped a young black man in her charge; a mother and wife betrayed her husband and children (Stubblefield’s husband has written with some passion and eloquence about the trauma visited on the couple’s children and the ruination of their marriage); and lastly, a bizarre method of communication, utterly discredited by any systematic empirical investigation ever directed at it, was used to impute all kinds of competencies to ‘DJ.’

At the heart of this story–besides the many visible betrayals of trust–lies the pseudoscientific ‘facilitated communication.’ Despite ample evidence showing this method–sometimes referred to as ‘facilitated typing’–is a front for the facilitator to impute thoughts and words to the disabled person, Stubblefield relied on it as a foundation for a series of extravagant claims about DJ’s mental capabilities–going so far as to state that he had ‘authored’ an academic paper–none of which were backed up by any form of clinical or scientific evidence. The most comprehensive debunking of ‘facilitated communication’ can be found in David Auerbach’s article for Slate, an act of investigative journalism for which he is now being rewarded by unhinged abuse by facilitated communications’ proponents on the Internet. As Auerbach makes clear, facilitated communication is not going away any time soon; indeed, its boosters would like to see it being used in public schools. It is unclear what would take to drive a stake through its heart.

There is little need to circle the wagons around either Stubblefield or the method of communication she used. The disabled need help and understanding and support; they do not need to be turned into laboratory cases for experimentation. Rape is rape, no matter who the victim or the rapist, for meaningful consent retains its central role in sexual relationships. Perhaps the happiest outcome–if that term is even appropriate at this juncture–for this series of events will be that ‘DJ’ and Stubblefield’s family will find a way to move on, that Stubblefield will be ‘reformed’, and lastly, that ‘facilitated communication’ will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.

A Paradigmatic Example Of A Philosophical Dickhead

Over at the Rough Ground, Bharath Vallabha has an interesting and critical post on the institutional biases implicit and explicit in the ranking of philosophers. He takes as target a recent poll that ranked the Top Twenty Anglophone Philosophers. Vallabha notes the lists’ most prominently featured institutions and philosophical traditions, its narrow emphases, and goes on to conclude:

At its root what “Anglophone philosophy” picks out is not a language or even a philosophical tradition (like Logical Positivism or Ordinary Language Philosophy), but simply the network of departments which are considered to form a unit. Therefore “Anglophone philosophy” is just another way of saying: “doing philosophy this way, what we do, at these departments.”

Unsurprisingly, given Vallabha’s recent persistence in making this–and related–critiques of the institutions of academic philosophy, his post provokes the following comment from ‘Anonymous’:

I think you’re getting to be a broken record on this topic. We get that you think it’s all about the sociology of institutions and connections, and not intellectual content, but have you really argued that or just asserted it? Can you name an Indian philosopher in the last fifty years who wrote in English and explain why his (or her) work was important, indeed, as important as any of those in the top 20 or the top 30 on the list?

When Vallabha responds, offering reasons for why he makes such a critique and cites as an example of an ‘important philosopher’, J. N. Mohanty–a philosopher I can bet good money Anonymous has never heard of–Anonymous comes back with a series of rapid-fire questions. (Picture, if you will, this querulous questioner at an academic seminar.)

You have not explained why Mohanty’s work was important, other than saying it bridges traditions. Why is that important? And how is that comparable to, for example, Kripke’s contributions to modal logic and our thinking about meaning and reference? What important philosophical theses are due to Mohanty? Can you state them for us?

Anonymous’ opening comment was a very good example of a very particular style of doing philosophy–one I am intimately familiar with thanks to my experience attending philosophy colloquia. Here, Anonymous opens with an accusation of ‘overkill’; no reasons are given for this characterization. Instead, it is assumed emphasis and persistence are philosophical sins (especially when they concern the ‘sociology of institutions’, an unimportant issue to be sure.) Then, interestingly enough, for someone familiar enough with the content of Vallabha’s posts to say they sound like ‘a broken record,’ he asks “Have you argued it or just asserted it’? Perhaps Anonymous can tell us why–i.e., offer reasons why he thinks Vallabha is only asserting and not arguing. Then, we have some aggressive interrogation, mixed in with a healthy dose of disbelief: “Can you name an Indian philosopher…” Clearly, if an Indian philosopher writes a post critical of the Anglo-American tradition in philosophy, it must be because he is upset about Indian philosophers being left off some exalted list. And, of course, if Anonymous hasn’t heard of them, they don’t exist.

There is a masterful engagement here with the content of Vallabha’s post that suggests a really well-trained philosophical mind–one perhaps keenly honed on modal logic and repeated readings of Naming and Necessity. Having thrown these rhetorical firecrackers, and thus in his exalted mind, having scattered the advancing forces of critique directed at the high temples of Anglophone philosophy, Anonymous does not stick around to offer, gasp, reasons for his skepticism and disdain in response to questions put to him by Martin Shuster:

Anonymous – can you explain why modal logic or thoughts about meaning/reference are important? Why are they more important than thinking about how to bring together disparate traditions and people, or indeed whatever (other) issues Mohanty thought about? Thinking about how to bring together traditions might do much to alleviate human suffering, and one could argue then, that it is far more valuable than advances in modal logic or theories of reference.The thing is, either philosophy–understood here in the broadest sense as self reflection and critical thought–is important or it is not. If it is, then there is no way to decide, in advance, which issues are more important than others, and therefore which figures.

I’ve written a couple of posts before on the discursive environment in academic philosophy. They were titled On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory and The Dickhead Theory of Academic Philosophy, Revisited. In those posts, I was indulging in some hand-waving, referring to a class of academic philosophers without naming names or citing paradigmatic examples. Well, I still don’t have names, but I do a have a paradigmatic example.

Anonymous is a dickhead. And he–I use that pronoun advisedly–is not alone.

The Dickhead Theory Of Academic Philosophy, Revisited

A little while ago on this blog, I posited something I jocularly termed The Dickhead Theoryas a possible explanation for the lack of women in academic philosophy (“there are too many dickheads in philosophy”). In response, one male reader commented:

At the risk of unjustly downplaying its particular effect on women, I’ll note that the dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too. It’s one of the reasons I left the field. To succeed in some philosophical fora seemed to require not only the *willingness* to wave one’s dick in the way you describe, but an outright love of doing so. I don’t find oneupsmanship to be a very appealing motivator, which put me at a disadvantage.

And then, just a couple of days ago, I received an email–from a male graduate student–which read:

I have to admit, I was happy to see someone suggest this.  At my undergrad, I seldom if ever came across this sort of behavior in philosophy classes or seminars – something I now recognize as a blessing.  Coming to [XXX] on the other hand, I was admittedly rather shocked at the prevalence of this sort of behavior among the students.  You mention that this behavior is possibly a deterrent to would-be women philosophers.  I think this is probably right.  But I must admit that I too – a male – also found this sort of behavior discouraging, and I’ve heard other male colleagues express the same sentiment.  Also, I’ve even seen this behavior exhibited by female colleagues.  I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I see this as a problem not just for women interested in philosophy – though as I said, I think this probably is a problem in this respect – but also for the profession in general. [name of institution, er, redacted]

Both my interlocutors are correct: the “dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too.” Male philosophers are not a monolithic bloc, and indeed, neither are women philosophers, some of whom, indeed, do display the same obnoxious behavior I complained about in my original post. Many of the former demographic do not find the atmosphere of ‘philosophical debate’ to their liking, conducted as it often is, in a manner that seems deeply counterproductive to the idealized notion of philosophical inquiry. Love of wisdom seems a very distant notion in these abrasive exchanges.

My second interlocutor then goes on to ask:

Given that you mentioned this problem publicly, I wonder whether you have any opinions on how to change this aspect of the culture of our profession?  Also, do you think it is a problem many other philosophers take seriously?

Second question first. I do know many academic philosophers take this problem seriously. Certainly, the philosophers I cited in my original piece do, and some others have even taken public vows to treat their colleagues with more respect in academic settings. (See for instance Carrie Jenkins’ Day One post; but see too, the reaction it provoked). But we should also acknowledge that being a dickhead is not likely to get you much professional blowback–especially if you have a few OUP or CUP books. The incentive schemes of academic philosophy are not set up to recognize or reward non-dickheadish behavior.

There is another problem, perhaps more fundamental, one which I’m not sure can be addressed. Philosophical activity is often, fundamentally, understood as the presentation and refutation of arguments. It is presented as an essentially adversarial activity: we critique, we analyze, we take apart, we seek weaknesses, we probe for openings in arguments. If an argument can be refuted or made to seem untenable then so much the better for it. (Indeed, the intensity of the inquisition is valorized.) As such an entire vocabulary of trial and examination, of survival and fortitude, is imported. I think this has a great deal to do with the some of the behavioral patterns on display. There might be alternative conceptions of philosophical activity but they do not have much play in academic philosophy–at least, as far as I can see.

Social norms in a community can be changed; we can indicate, with varying degrees of disapproval, whether some species of behavior is praiseworthy and worthy of encouragement. Much normative weight can be attached to such praise or condemnation. But if our very activity is understood within a framework that is fundamentally about conflict, then we might be fighting a losing battle. (No pun intended.)

Addendum: My Brooklyn College colleague Serene Khader comments:

Feminist philosophy is a place where alternative norms are very much alive. The paradigm supposes that we are involved in a collective enterprise and trying to figure out the truth together. We scrutinize arguments by saying things like “can you help me see how to get from x to y” and “maybe it would be helpful to you to consider this objection.”

Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.

Professional Academic Philosophy’s Blind Spots

A few years ago, I read an email–or a post on an online forum, I am not sure–written by a very accomplished senior philosopher (a logician to be precise.)  In his argument, the logician–adept at providing mathematically elegant proofs of recondite logical problems–seemed to have committed at least two logical fallacies in the first paragraph of his ostensible argument. The topic of the discussion: women’s place in academia.

It was not the first or the last time I noticed the Ironic Absence of Argumentative Rigor in Professional Philosophy When it Comes to Women (or indeed, Any Topic That Threatens Male Privilege.) This observation of mine can be made more general, perhaps even cast as an exception-free law of sorts: professional training in philosophy is no bar to, and indeed might even increase the probability of, sloppy argumentation on topics of personal and political interest.

There is now, once again, in the world of professional academic philosophy, a renewed debate about sexual harassment and sexism (here; here; here; here); once again, many of my academic colleagues–especially the female ones–are dismayed by the plentiful display of very unphilosophical and unsympathetic prejudice by many accomplished  and senior male philosophers. They are right to be dismayed; but they should not be surprised.

For as long as I’ve been a member of this discipline, it has bred a very particular sort of arrogance. This is manifest in many ways: sometimes it is the resolute conviction that philosophy alone–and sometimes only its analytic, science-worshipping component–provides the royal road to Truth; sometimes it is the assertion that no other discipline engages with philosophical problems; sometimes it is the implicit claim that its students and practitioners are the best equipped with argumentative dialectic and clarity and rigor in written and oral expression. The philosopher stands above all, best equipped to provide lofty judgments on all matters of human endeavor and thought. His education, his methods, his intellectual tradition has outfitted him admirably and ideally for this task.

The contrast between this confident, narcissistic self-assessment is only heightened by the actual, empirical manifestation of these supposed capacities: all too many professional philosophers reveal themselves to be narrow-minded pedants whose conception of human inquiry and motivation is remarkably impoverished. And all too many travelers on the Royal Road to What There Really Is are rapidly undone when arguing about political issues that might possess an emotional or sexual dimension. Keep matters confined to a closely specified and formally clarified sphere; you might see rigor on display. But let matters spill out into an issue in which positions are often underwritten by prejudice and you will suddenly observe philosophical acumen take its leave.

I do not doubt pedants and hypocrites are plentiful in other academic disciplines; I have had the misfortune of encountering many of them myself. But the gap between the self-image, between the professed claims to loftier things, and actual ground realities makes philosophy’s situation just a tad more sordid.

Cleaning up the muck takes much longer when those entrusted with the task continue to screw-up, all the while convinced they can do no wrong.