Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest-Blogger Shiloh Whitney on the Hendricks Affair

[Introductory note from Dr. J: Hello, readers. Just a quick introductory note about today's "guest blogger." Shiloh Whitney (pictured left) is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at McGill University. She submitted a rather long comment to the previous discussion taking place on this blog surrounding the Hendricks affair, so I asked her if she wouldn't mind letting me post it as a separate entry. This is our first foray into "guest blogging" at this site, so I appreciate Shiloh's willingness to be our test-case. Her text begins below the break.]

My first exposure to philosophical dialogue was a philosophy club meeting I attended during my first term as an undergrad. A professor gave a talk on political philosophy. I challenged him at every turn. What he said, I was sure, couldn't be true. It was inconsistent with a whole constellation of beliefs I had always maintained. I was quite vocal in that discussion--looking back on it, it was a bit presumptuous of me to take up that much space in a club meeting my very first time there. The conversation didn't end satisfactorily for either party: I didn't see what he saw, and I wasn't interested in being shown. I was interested in proving him wrong. At a certain point in the conversation, I could see him recognize this, and withdraw, letting the students in the club take my bait. As he gathered his things to leave, I had a sudden worry that perhaps I had been a bit of a jerk after all, and that if I wanted to talk to this man again, it would be prudent to smooth things over. I approached him. "Dr. W--." He turned to look at me. "I hope I wasn't... too combative." He looked a little surprised, as if he had been bracing for something else. His countenance shifted, regarding me thoughtfully. He waited until I looked him full in the face. "I don't think you are combative," he said quietly. "I think you are ignorant."

It is not an exaggeration to say that that moment changed my life. Because somehow, I believed him. The suspicion grew in me that perhaps he could see something I couldn't. I glimpsed for a moment the possibility of my own ignorance. And what I felt then was wonder--and desire. I no longer wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted to see what he saw. I wanted to know the things I didn't already, the things that didn't fit, the things that could change everything. I wanted to stop defending what I thought I saw, and learn to see something new.

No doubt many of us have had an experience like this in our introduction to philosophy. We were doing an excellent job as proper young adults collecting plausible beliefs, shoring up the order of things as we were familiar with it, working out its kinks. Then a philosophy class came along, and we encountered something that didn't fit but couldn't be dismissed; something that upset the order of things as we had been conceptualizing it, and gave us a glimpse of a different one. And suddenly the world was new and wondrous again. As Socrates shows Meno, the lesson that you have something to learn is the first and most important lesson in any education. And the most difficult one: how do you see that there is something more to be seen unless you already see it?

As I read over many of the detracting comments on the thread following Dr. Johnson’s second post about L’Affaire Hendricks, I at first want to engage their combativeness: to point out their errors and misunderstandings, to explain the steps they have missed. But by the end I no longer see their combativeness as their most salient, response-worthy feature. I see instead their ignorance. The detractors in this thread do not see sexism in the pictures. We are looking at the same pictures, considering the same facts that made up their context of use, and they do not see it. I was similarly startled when I first read the Hendricks interview Dr. Johnson discusses in her post. "He just doesn't get it," I thought. Which is exactly the news Dr. Johnson's post relays: he doesn't get it.

One indignant commenter (Ticu) lists failure to assume a burden to prove the photos' sexism as a "logical fallacy" in Dr. Johnson's post. This is a startlingly brazen refusal of the possibility that his own ignorance could be the problem. The audience of Dr. Johnson's post is clearly those who already CAN see the sexism in the pictures (and as the widespread indignation over the photos shows, that is no small population). This is evident in the fact that the post's core message is to report the news, parsed from the text of the recent interview, that Hendricks "SOOOOOO does not get it." That is, that he is not one of us who see sexism when we look at the photos. That indeed, he seems to have learned nothing from the reproach his photo opportunity has merited, because his interview shows that he thinks people who see sexism in the pictures are under the influence of an unfortunate "misunderstanding." Though he uses the word "sexism," he doesn't understand what it means. Or to be kind: he is using the word "sexism" in different sense than the way it is used by the people who reproached the photos and his use of them as "sexist."

For the uninformed, I will take a moment to explain: Hendricks uses the word "sexism" as if it refers to individual's beliefs and intentions (he claims that the criticism is a "misunderstanding" because he did not intend to offend anyone), while his critics use the word "sexism" in what has come to be called a *structural* or *systemic* sense (Dr. Johnson says explicitly in her post that she means this sense of the word). In brief, the use of this structural sense of the word means that the claim that the pictures are sexist is not primarily a claim about Hendricks' personal character, beliefs, and intentions. It is rather a claim that his actions participated in a pre-existing practice that purveys and perpetuates sexist stereotypes that are damaging to women in philosophy (if you can't see how that would work, you can start trying to understand by reading Emma B's excellent post later in the comment thread). His claims that his intentions were above reproach should make a difference to how we judge him personally if indeed we do judge him personally, but they are no defense against the feminist demand to censure his behavior. Just so, a person who defended her use of the n-word by claiming she did not mean to offend might be dealt with more gently than a brazen white supremacist, but would nonetheless be sternly informed that it is in most contexts utterly inappropriate (because racist) to use that word. Caj, the commenter who was concerned about the claim that "Hendricks is sexist" should take note of this. When Caj says "Prima facie, it looks as though you're suggesting that an agent uttering something that is overtly sexist is a sufficient condition on that agent being a sexist. That would be a very strong claim. I doubt you actually endorse it," s/he is indeed mistaken about the claim being made. It is not a claim about the agent. It is a claim about the behavior--and a demand on the agent to change that behavior.

When a person participates in sexist behaviors (notice I am using the structural sense of the word), it is not incorrect to say that they are or have been sexist. But when we use the word in a structural sense, this is not primarily a claim about their personal character, their motives, or their dispositions as an agent. It is a claim that they have participated in a practice that is dangerous and potentially damaging to women, or to some party defined in terms of their sexual difference. You can see how the claim about the agent is simply not the primary feminist concern: if we truly care about the damage these practices can do, we will not sequester ourselves within the question of whether and how much to judge the individual. All other things being equal, praise and blame are beside the point. Our priority is to place a demand on the person that they cease the behavior, and to do so publicly so that others who are well-intentioned but ignorant will take note of the fact that those behaviors are considered inappropriate. The best outcome in fact would be that the behaviors do not "stick" to or permanently mark the agent: that the individual reflects on the feminist reproach, accepts it, realizes that she does not want to be the kind of person who purveys the sexist practices, and takes steps to learn how to avoid more of those behaviors. This is hard to accomplish when the individual is primarily concerned with insisting on her own blamelessness, and believes that what is primarily at issue in the feminist criticism her behavior has warranted is a trial of her personal guilt or innocence. It’s understandable that folks sometimes react this way to feminist critique, but it demonstrates either a lack of concern about the claim that there are larger injustices at stake, or else ignorance of what those claims mean.

To return to the commenter who accuses Dr. Johnson of the "fallacy" of failing to shoulder "the burden of proof" that the photos are sexist: you need to take a moment to reflect on how patronizing your remarks are. If you are, like Hendricks, not one of us who sees the sexism in the photos and his use of them, then I am afraid it looks as if the original post was not written with you in mind. That is not grounds for criticism. If you are prepared to listen to an argument that the photos are sexist, then you should respectfully request one. Preferably after committing to some reflection on the matter given what I have said about the meaning of the word “sexist.” Learning to see something you could not before will require your cooperation, your assumption of some of the burden of communication. You will have to acknowledge the possibility that there is something you have yet to learn here, a lesson that may oblige you to engage in a process of discovery, one whose effort cannot simply be dismissed as if it is someone else's job.

Commenter Pavelka chides Dr. Johnson's rhetoric, aiming to discipline its snark, its abrasive edge. He sagely reflects that he has identified the stumbling-block on which feminism is (as he sees it) currently "struggling": its "proponents' inability" to "appeal" to the uninformed (which is to say, him, by his own admission) in terms they can already understand. Commenter Pavelka, I say this without malice, because I can read in your tone that you do not mean to be patronizing: you also need to take a moment to reflect on how patronizing your remarks are. If the uninformed become intransigent when they are told that they need more background knowledge in order to understand the point being made, then their haughtiness has made them unteachable. And that is not the fault of those who would teach them. If you are interested in engaging in a dialogue about Dr. Johnson's post, my advice is to stop demanding her humility, stop defending the foolish pride of the ignorant, and start asking some thoughtful questions.

At this juncture I think it is appropriate to explain that I am making what is known in feminist circles as a point about "conversational politics." You will have noticed a pattern in my responses to my fellow commenters: I think many of the detractors in this thread have behaved as if communication gaps between themselves and Dr. Johnson's post signify a failure on her part, and have taken affront to her for informing them that the problem was their own lack of the requisite background knowledge to understand. In the cases of the detractors who admit the possibility that she could have a point, they chide that she should be nicer, or they question her "netiquette." You should know that these responses fit troublingly snugly within another set of sexist practices: the sort that patronize women interlocutors, that demand or simply presume our humility, and that reproach and punish women who are proud, confrontational, challenging, demanding, feminist, or who fail to make others' comfort a priority. Not only photographs, but also discussion and debate can be occasions to participate in sexist practices, and occasions to call them out. Some of the people in this debate are not only lacking background knowledge. They are also lacking a self-awareness of their own implication in sexist practices. If you want to be part of the solution to philosophy's problem with sexism, you should start by reflecting on the demands you place on your feminist and women colleagues in the way that you speak to them. Do you demand their humility? Do you make your discomfort and hurt pride their problem?

In sum, when I read over the comments on this blog post, I find myself convinced that many of the commenters need to learn that they have something to learn from Dr. Johnson and her response to these photos. They need to learn the lesson I learned in my first encounter with a philosopher, the lesson I keep relearning, the lesson I have come to love and desire as part of my love of philosophy: Meno's lesson, the lesson that you have something to learn, the lesson that there is something there to be seen that you do not yet see. Dr. Johnson looks at the Hendricks photos and their placement on the website for his logic course, and she sees sexism. As do many of us. We see a piece of the problem that keeps women out of philosophy, that keeps our gender gap wide, that keeps harassment common in our departments, that fetters our bright young women scholars with sexualization, condescension, underestimation, subordination, anger, alienation and self-doubt. If you do not see this in the pictures, I think that in itself should give you pause, and occasion to question your own perception. There IS a problem of sexism in philosophy. If you acknowledge that, but do not see the problem here where others who are knowledgeable on the subject of sexism claim the problem shows itself, then you should take seriously the possibility that we see something you do not, and that there is a learning opportunity for you here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

American Values Project [Update]

A lot has happened with the American Values Project since my last update. We received a generous grant from Rhodes College's Center for Outreach and Development of the Arts (CODA) to buy some new equipment, revamp our website and, most importantly, stage a physical exhibit of the project here in Memphis. CODA has been an invaluable supporter of the American Values Project so far and we're very lucky to have their support. (The image to your left is from the CODA event "Exhibition Momentum" which was held last Fall and during which AVP was given space to photograph.) In addition to the AVP project assistant, Colin Fleck ('12), and the CODA assistant, Emaily Main ('12), we've also added two more volunteers to the AVP Team, Andrea Tedesco ('15) and Timothy Garton ('14), both of whom have been motivated, hardworking and much-appreciated additions. Just this past weekend, the AVP team scattered out with their cameras, pens and paper during the ArtsMemphis Pop-Up ArtsFest at the Hollywood Community Center. (Some photos from that outing below.) It was a beautiful spring day and a great opportunity to spread the word about our Project and take in a lot of new photos. In the coming weeks, AVP is scheduled to be featured on the Rhodes College website, which we hope will provide another "bump" in interest and contributions. We were also recently featured on Kerry Crawford's I Love Memphis blog, and she contributed her own photo to the Project. Word-of-mouth has been the AVP's best friend so far, though, and I encourage you (if you haven't already) to visit the website, take part by contributing a photo, "like" the AVP Facebook page and tell everyone you know to do the same!

Photos from the ArtsMemphis Pop-Up ArtsFest at Hollywood Community Center:

The most exciting (and expensive) work we're engaged in right now is planning and executing our exhibition, which we hope will happen during the last week of April. (Only a month away!) Choosing among the hundreds of photos to feature seemed like it would be the biggest challenge we would face, until we began trying to find a location and date to stage the exhibit. The good news is that Memphis is absolutely bursting at the seams with interesting art projects. The bad news is all that creative activity makes it difficult to squeeze oneself into a local gallery's time and space. Still, I'm excited about the exhibition, which will involve multimedia and interactive elements in addition to the best of the photos in our collection. Fun for the whole family!

As I've mentioned here on the blog before, our long-term goal is to make the American Values Project a "traveling" exhibit next Fall during the Presidential election season. Election seasons are, after all, the times when talk about "American values" is at its peak. What we've always hoped that this project could do is motivate people to stop and think about what that phrase means. And, hopefully, to actually see what it means.

One last thing: if you're a Rhodes student and are interested in the American Values Project, it looks like I will have a Fellowship position available for the 2012-13 academic year. Stop by and speak to me about how to apply.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

If P, then WTF?! (Revisited)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about what has come to be known in the professional philosophical community as "L'Affaire Hendricks," in which Prof. Vincent Hendricks used several explicit and sexist photos (one example on your left) to advertise his logic course at the University of Copenhagen. I was, quite honestly, surprised to see so many defenses of Hendricks in the comment thread of my original post, though in retrospect I suppose I shouldn't have been. I didn't respond to most of them because, quite frankly, I think that their comments were all of a sort, that is to say, they did not meet the minimally acceptable bar of familiarity with women's and gender issues in professional Philosophy to warrant a response. (Their comments exhibited a manifestly gross naïveté with regard to the global structure of women's systemic devaluation, and so trying to convince them that Hendricks' photos were evidence of sexism in the profession of Philosophy would be like trying to convince a Creationist that fossils are evidence of evolution in Nature.) Thankfully, Prof. Hendricks provided his own rejoinder to the debate in an interview here, so I can now in good conscience avoid his defenders' objections and address the man himself.

Prof. Hendricks: Not to put too fine a point on it, but you SOOOOOO don't get it.

Here's the rub: you don't have to intend to be sexist in order to for an action of yours to be sexist. As a matter of fact, and not to be overly-Kantian here, but your "intention" is the least significant criterion that one should use to determine the sexist nature of your actions. In fact, forget Kant altogether, your decision to use overtly sexist images is non-instrumentally useful, regardless of your intent. For the record, and to be manifestly clear, using overtly and demonstrably sexist images in the service of an otherwise worthy charity is not an excuse, neither instrumentally nor on principle. So, Prof. Hendricks, you (and your excuses) fail on every philosophically-legitimate moral account.

Kudos, by the way, to Anna Meera Gaonkar, the interviewer at the Danish newspaper Universitetsavisen, who continued to press Hendricks on his decision to publish the controversial photos on his own website. From that interview:

Gaonkar: But wasn’t the criticism directed at the photos as displayed in a different context, namely that of your own website?

Hendricks: I used some of the images on my private website in connection with a site that advertizes my logic course at University of Copenhagen. It was the connection between the photos and the course advertisement that lead to some criticism, especially in the U.S. Some saw the pictures as sexist. As I see it, I shouldn’t have placed the pictures on my private website without providing the context for the photos. I have officially apologized, and I immediately removed the images when the criticism was raised. Let me also point out that the criticism ended, even in the U.S., as soon as it became public that I did this as part of a charity initiative.

Goankar: What was the purpose of advertizing a logic course using photos of yourself surrounded by half-naked women dressed in school uniforms?

Hendricks: I initially thought it would be humorous and ironic to use these photos to advertize for a logic course. It was not my intention to provoke people or make them feel offended. It was an effort to promote a logic course, a course that would not otherwise appear particularly interesting to most students. I also wanted the course to have some appeal to young men who read these kinds of magazines but who rarely sign up for logic courses. Remember in this connection that there is a long video interview with me on as part of the launch of the charity initiative. In this interview I make some comments about my background and argue for the importance of perseverance, persistence, knowledge, information and informed basis for informed decision and action (something I regularly do through my columns and commentaries in newspapers and in my co-authored books: Tal en tanke, Oplysningens blinde vinkler, and soon NEDTUR! Finanskrisen forstået filosofisk).

Gaonkar: You say that the pictures are self-mocking. How so?

Hendriks: Look, what’s the chance that a professor at a university would be associated with anything that might even remotely resemble the scenario depicted in the pictures? It's not my world. I am Professor of Formal Philosophy. I'm not a Clark Kent, model or rock star.

Oy vey. You may not be Clark Kent, a model or a rock star, Prof. Hendricks, but let me assure you that the chances that "a professor at a university would be associated with anything that might even remotely resemble the scenario depicted in [your] pictures" is far greater than you might imagine. Sure, it's unlikely that a bunch of scantily-clad female undergraduates would huddle around their logic professor in the way your photos imagine, but the fact that the environment for students serious about Philosophy might be manipulated in a way that convinces female students that they have a less-than-optimal chance at success if they don't-- forgive the salacious verb-usage here- prostitute themselves is far more likely than you seem willing to admit.

I know, I know, people are going to say (and have already said) that I'm viewing this issue through a myopically-"American" or "feminist" lens. I'm inclined to respond that I can't see how that makes any difference, as alleged sexism in our profession ought to be a concern for both non-Americans and non-feminists. Nevertheless, in the interest of fairness, I would like to invite Prof. Hendricks to contact me for an interview (to be published on this blog) for the American and feminist audience. I'll even provide the questions in advance, so there's no worry that the interview isn't being conducted in good faith.

If you're interested in reading an interview between Prof. Hendricks and myself, please send the following email to Vincent Hendricks at :
Dear Professor Hendricks,

I am writing to encourage you to accept the interview request by Dr. Leigh Johnson, which you can read here. Your English-speaking audience is eager and willing to hear your response to the controversy surrounding the images associated with your Logic course. I hope you will make every effort to accommodate this request.

{Your name here}

Come on, Professor Hendricks. Let's chat. You can contact me here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Parking Lot Movie: In Defense of Service Workers

Many years ago, when I found myself griping about the horrible and infuriating treatment that restaurant service-people-- at the time, that included me-- get from their patrons, I remember my father telling me: "Everyone should have at least four types of jobs in his or her life: (1) a job in the service industry, (2) a job in sales, (3) a job that requires manual labor, and (4) a job where you basically just punch the clock. That's the only way to respect what goes into another person's job."

Dad: Word, f'realz.

My current occupation doesn't really fall into any of those categories, but in my life I've had all four, so I've always deeply appreciated my dad's wisdom on this score. I started working literally within the week that I turned 16-- in a job that was a combination of categories 1, 3 and 4 above-- and the only time in since then that I haven't exchanged labor for money was the first two years I was in grad school. (I suppose that, technically, that's not even true, since I did get a stipend to study as a graduate student. And study is work.) Given my long and varied litany of wage-earning endeavors, I was shocked to discover upon my arrival at Villanova (where I started graduate school in Philosophy) that so few of my cohort had ever been employed. Like, in a real job, where you work for somebody not related to you, and for pay that you actually need to live. These days, when I have a pretty good job that I really do enjoy, I find myself equally astonished to discover that so few of my students (and, to be honest, my colleagues) have had one or another of the jobs my dad described, either.

Here's the thing: there are plenty of satisfying, gratifying and respectable jobs, with plenty of opportunities for self-actualization, in the categories above. In fact, most jobs fall into one of those categories. But there are a lot of crappy jobs in those categories, too, and I think it's those that my dad's sagacity was intended to highlight. I wouldn't wish a crappy job on anyone, having had more than my fair share over the years, but the truth is that there's a whole lot to learn about yourself, about life, about the world, and about those fickle talking apes you share the world with when you spend your days and nights slogging through a crappy job. If you're interested in hearing some superbly-reflective talking apes of above-average intelligence unpack all of the existential issues embedded in unappreciated labor, I highly recommend the documentary The Parking Lot Movie.

The Parking Lot Movie (by Meghan Eckman and Christopher Hlad) focuses on a pay-to-park lot called "The Corner Parking Lot," a humble little place situated behind a cluster of restaurants and bars in Charlottesville, Virginia. The guys who work at the parking lot-- all of them are guys-- are mostly graduate students (heavily drawn from the Philosophy, Anthropology and Sociology programs at the nearby University of Virginia) and, by their own account, none of them ever applied for or actually earned the job they eventually received there. The Corner Parking Lot is one of those places where friends recommend friends, who then get hired and recommend their friends, so that the whole employee group remains incestuously homogenous. In this case, that's a good thing, because the characteristics that are common to this particular group make for excellent documentary fodder. They're all hyper-analytical, idiosyncratic, mildly antisocial, reflective, articulate, over-educated for their job and literally dripping with what Nietzsche would call ressentiment. They're also a weird mix of Marxist and libertarian, that is to say, they're extremely critical of wealth and privilege, but also preternaturally inclined toward a defensive independence of the Don't-Tread-On-Me ilk. Most importantly, like all graduate students, they're more than willing to let you know what they think.

And what they think is something like this: "You're profoundly, aggravatingly, even maddeningly stupid. You don't deserve what you've got. You have no idea what real people working real jobs have to deal with when they deal with people like you. Also, f**k you."

Anyone who has ever worked in a service industry job can feel that pain, no doubt. The endless barrage of disrespect, disdain, rudeness, condescension and sometimes outright contempt that service workers are subject to will drive even the most Pollyanna among them to cynicism and spiritual destitution. Take it from someone who knows: service work is a front-row seat to the Very Worst of Humanity spectacle. If you've never parked cars or waited tables or sat at receptionist's desk or answered customer service calls or cleaned or organized or fixed someone else's mess, you have no idea. As my father rightly noted, and I take this as a moral imperative: you ought to have done this, or do this, at some point in your life.

This film should've been titled The Help: Part Deux.

I love stories of humanity's weaknesses, imperfections, foibles and ennui. (To wit, The Parking Lot Movie reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite documentaries of all time, Hands on a Hard Body.) The protagonists of this film aren't heroes--they're barely even likable-- but despite their arrogance, bitterness and waywardness, they are able to show us something of the underbelly of our beloved social contract. I hope you'll watch it and learn from it. I hope you'll be nicer-- by which I mean, minimally humane-- to those who you don't usually consider deserving of your cordiality. I hope you'll stop, take a moment, and really consider the fact that you could not live the life you live without the literally billions of people who work every day, invisibly, to make that your life more comfortable.

And, for god's sake, I hope you'll tip better.