Saucers of Mud

August 19, 2019

Rachel McKinney on Standards

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 11:47 pm

Excellent Twitter thread from Rachel McKinney on how too much of the discussion of trans rights in philosophy fails “to meet normal content-neutral standards of evidence-based inquiry.”

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August 18, 2019

Open Thread for Epistemological Discussion

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 11:22 am

In the event that anyone wants to talk about anything epistemological here, go for it!

August 8, 2019

A Couple More Links on the Transphobia Debate

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:45 am

This by Samantha Hancox-Li, on formal free speech vs. having your testimony heard, is absolutely excellent.

Related, two threads from Johnathan Flowers on citation practices and what we are expected to listen to. Transphobic philosophers are publishing a lot of awful stuff–I don’t just mean morally awful, but just terrible arguments, like making a key empirical claim and repeatedly refusing to provide evidence for it, and far too many people are taking this seriously when it can’t pass muster.

As he says, the philosophers (often junior career philosophers) who push back on the transphobic philosophers have been forced to engage with their arguments in ways that the transphobic philosophers do not engage with the arguments of their opponents. Kathleen Stock has boasted about her refusal to engage with feminist philosophy. (If you think “I’ve read the literature in this area, I think this is bad, so I won’t cite it” counts as engagement, good luck getting published in any other area of philosophy. But philosophers don’t take expertise in feminist philosophy seriously.)

It’s exhausting to deal with this asymmetric burden of expectations on who’s supposed to do the work. It’s exhausting to me, and I’m not doing most of the work (partly because I refuse to join Twitter and so I publish at this blog, which basically nobody reads). I’ve stopped reading new Medium posts from the most prominent transphobic philosophers becasue I’ve read enough to be pretty confident that the next 10,000 word post rehashing the same stuff wasn’t going to be better; it’s folly to believe that they’re going to give some support for their assertion the sixth time. My support to the people who are out their pushing back against this, and shame on philosophers who are letting transphobic philosophers get away with shoddy work and ignoring the people who’ve put in the work.

 

(Matt Weiner, University of Vermont)

July 31, 2019

A Clarification, And Also, Come On

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 7:00 am

Occasionally I’ve seen people refer to a paper by Kathleen Stock as “I—Kathleen Stock: Fictive Utterance and Imagining.” In case this is confusing, the title of the paper is not analogous to “I, Robot,” but a Roman numeral. It’s from a proceeding of the Aristotelian Society, which tends to present twinned papers in the format “I–Author1: Title” and “II–Author2: Title” (I think maybe often the same title).

Also Rachel McKinney is right about this, this, and this. The POTFROTIs’ work in their endless Medium posts has been incredibly bad, and they aim to have a public effect! Nobody seems to be able and willing to point to the places where they provide actual evidence for their key claims about trans women being dangerous, as opposed to anecdotes. When this is done to immigrants we recognize it for what it is, I hope. It’s no better when it’s done to trans people.

July 29, 2019

My Jokes Come To Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 11:53 am

 

 

 

(three tweets snipped)

Last year I said, in response to someone who seemed to be using the concepts of “privilege” and “epistemic injustice” without understanding them:

Being slightly familiar with the literature whose terms you’re using and using those terms properly isn’t a form of privilege, even if people who don’t do it tend to get marginalized and dismissed.

I didn’t expect this to be controversial! Or, perhaps less tendentiously, what does Schwenkler mean by “privilege” here?

July 28, 2019

A Bit More on the Current Transphobia Wars

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:57 pm

(Matt Weiner, University of Vermont)

John Schwenkler, in the course of a sort of semi-apology for calling Jonathan Ichikawa an “utter shit,” has linked with apparent approval to a post in which Brian Leiter attacks Christa Peterson at length.* Peterson is quite rightly upset about this; being targeted by a senior philosopher with an outsized platform is very threatening to her as a graduate student. As Peterson points out in the linked tweet, Schwenkler recognizes this as a concern when the target is another tenured professor (or, hypothetically, himself).

“But,” someone might say, “if Peterson behaved badly she can’t expect not to be criticized for it.” That’s not something I’m sure I’d accept, but the good news is it’s moot anyway–Peterson hasn’t behaved badly. I’ve read her on Twitter for a while, and what she’s been doing is calling out injustice in the philosophy profession, and also pointing out flaws in the arguments of… let’s call them “philosophers opposed to full recognition of trans identity,” or POTFROTIs for short. Also sometimes she swears. Well, sometimes people swear. It’s Twitter.

The below is going to get into some very messy stuff concerning the recent arguments, which are taking place in a lot of Twitter threads going all over the place. My account is going to be very rambling and I apologize for that. The tl;dr is that Peterson has done some careful and valuable work in documenting what looks like very sloppy work by some POTFROTIs. She deserves careful engagement with this, not bile. She is a god damn hero for it. (And it’s understandable if her patience runs short sometimes, given the way so many participants in the discussion ignore her points.)

In particular, it’s worth looking at the interaction that led Schwenkler to call Ishikawa an utter shit–Schwenkler has apologized for the four-letter word, but not for the insult. What Ishikawa had said was that Kathleen Stock, one of the most prominent POTFROTIs right now, is not a serious scholar of gender. Not that she’s not a serious scholar in other fields, but that she hasn’t at the moment established the kind of familiarity with the philosophical literature on gender that you’d expect from someone who was getting invited to address the Aristotelian Society on gender, being invited to review a book about transnational feminism in the premier venue for philosophical book reviews, etc.

Again, Schwenkler got very mad that Ishikawa said Stock wasn’t a serious scholar of gender. But this is a claim that’s worth getting mad about only if Stock is a serious scholar of gender. Schwenkler as far as I can tell offers no defense of this claim except that he expects that Stock has done the reading. Now, I’m not a scholar of gender myself, so I have to look at evidence. Rachel McKinney, an actual scholar of gender, thinks Stock is obviously not a serious scholar of gender. (Schwenkler responded by saying that there’s no specialized knowledge or skill required to be a serious scholar of feminist philosophy, which as McKinney and Nicole Wyatt point out is false, and a pretty astonishing insult to feminist philosophy.) Holly Lawford-Smith, one of the other prominent POTFROTIs right now, says “Most of us only got into this stuff a year ago” (admittedly, Stock may be one of the ones who isn’t part of the “most”).

What’s most convincing to me is this thread (and similar ones from before), where Peterson documents many ways in which the current group of POTFROTIs appear not to have done the reading. Look, for instance, at the discussion of “sex class”–I’m not a scholar of gender, but I can follow links from Shulamith Firestone’s Wikipedia article. And I haven’t seen anything from the POTFROTIs or their defenders that explains why they made these apparent mistakes. The closest response seems to be this from Lawford-Smith claiming that Peterson only includes one recent example, which McKinney and “Bertolt Rekt” point out isn’t very convincing. We do get a bald statement that Peterson is less credible than Stock, without any attempt to address the evidence.

I may have missed something–these threads are messy, and it’d be easy to miss something even spending an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. But I really haven’t seen a convincing refutation of Peterson’s point that the POTFROTIs don’t seem well grounded in the relevant literature.

Well, as I said, that was big long and messy. But in short: Be very careful when dragging grad students in public. (I’ve tried to stay away from calling out grad students and non-tenure track philosophers; if I’ve slipped up, please let me know.) And really don’t attack graduate students who are correct, making valuable arguments, and doing work that really should be taken on by senior faculty.

 

 

*I think this is also the post in which Leiter attacks me, or maybe it’s another similar one? Obviously I’m not too upset about being attacked by Leiter on his blog; if I minded the prospect of Leiter attacking me, I wouldn’t have publicly expressed such a thoroughly negative opinion of him. But, interest declared, if you need it.

Also AFAIK Leiter hasn’t gone after me the way he did Peterson, just included me as one of many names on a list of philosophers who supposedly inspired the 12 Leading Scholars letter. Which honestly I doubt is true as a matter of the actual causal history of the letter, but it’s an honor just to be nominated.–If I didn’t have the privilege of sitting in a tenured position I might feel differently.

July 23, 2019

Is It Ever Correct To Describe A Philosopher As Transphobic? Yes.

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 4:49 pm

Twelve Leading Scholars (hereinafter 12LS) have written an opinion piece in Inside Higher Education about philosophers’ position on sex and gender. I think the piece badly mischaracterizes the state of philosophy’s transphobia problem.

The title and much of the argument of the 12LS suggest that the issue is that people are proposing to punish academics for making philosophical arguments about sex and gender. When they say “traction” has been given “to proposals to censure or silence colleagues who advocate certain positions in these discussions” I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about–they don’t link to any such proposals, and I haven’t seen any. (Perhaps 12LS are using a broad definition of “silencing” to include protests against giving these academics heightened platforms, in which case, they should be clear about that, and they certainly shouldn’t run that together with “censure” and “silencing.”)

There’s more to be said about publishing trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments. See Lisa Miracchi’s argument here that publishing transphobic philosophy is bad, and Talia Mae Bettcher on why “[t]o invite me to a philosophical forum in which I prove my womanhood is to do something far different from inviting me to share my views on mathematical Platonism.” But that’s not the part of the 12LS piece I want to focus on.

At the end of their piece, 12LS give four bullet points, the third of which is:

We condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy.

Is it cruel and abusive to accuse certain philosophers of transphobia? That depends on whether those philosophers have been transphobic. One thing that will surely make rational dialogue on sex and gender impossible is completely ruling out the possibility that anything a philosopher says is transphobic and condemning anyone who says so. (See Amy Marvin / Billingsley.)

And we can find many examples of philosophers being transphobic outside the context of academic papers. For instance:

Germaine Greer is brutally transphobic. I’m not even going to quote what she said about Caitlyn Jenner there. Given what she’s said, headlining a blog post “Germaine Greer is right about trans-women [sic]” is also transphobic. (I discussed that post earlier here.)

Misgendering trans people is transphobic. Deliberately using a male emoji to refer to a trans woman is misgendering, and therefore transphobic. So is using a zip-mouthed emoji to signify that one would like to use male pronouns to refer to her but that it is against the rules to do so. So is accusing a trans woman of “misogyny and a desire to dominate females.” So is cheering on anything in this thread.

(Thanks to Christa Peterson for documenting much of the above.)

Furthermore, saying without evidence that trans women are more likely to be violent than other women (and consequently should be excluded from women only spaces) is transmisogynist. As I discussed here, some philosophers have done that–and demanded that evidence be presented against the claim, rather than providing evidence for it. As Grace Lavery discusses here (scroll down to the phrase “outrageous and offensive”), this burden shifting is no better when phrased in the form of a question. For any other marginalized group, the demand for evidence that members of the group are not more violent than other groups would be recognized as offensive. (And arguments that relied on that claim, but did not provide evidence, wouldn’t pass muster with any reviewer–at least, I hope not.)

Claiming that trans women are a threat because of anecdotes about a tiny number of trans women is transphobic. (Leaving aside the relevance of the anecdotes, you can find five anecdotes about members of just about any group.) Citing, as evidence that accommodations for trans people will lead to assaults on women, this nightmare of anecdotal scare stories, misgendering, and the sentence (about a trans woman acquitted of sexual assault) “Still, the fact that he had consensual sex with a woman, while claiming to identify as female, is troubling.” If the claim that it is troubling for a trans woman to have consensual sex with a woman who knows she is trans is not transphobic, what is?

(The link to the last-cited document appears in the May versions of the linked post, in the sentence “Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening elsewhere in the world.” By August the sentence and link had been deleted.)

If the behavior documented above is transphobic, and I think it’s hard to make a case that it isn’t, then it’s not “cruel and abusive rhetoric” to describe it as transphobic. Much of the rhetoric used by these philosophers is cruel and abusive itself. This is not to mention the frequent cruel and abusive rhetoric deployed by the philosophers who’ve exhibited transphobia against their non-trans critics, such as this, this, this, and many more examples. (A small sample of the reasons I don’t like Leiter.) [EDITED TO ADD: Though as far as I know nobody has directed any of this at me on the occasions where I’ve criticized transphobia in various blog comment sections, except that one time that Brian Leiter (or someone with his first name, anyway) accused me of “silly rationalization.” Perhaps not incidentally I’m tenured, male, cis, and heterosexual.]

There’s also this, which targets gender non-conforming cis women as well as trans women.

To sum up: we should not, as the 12LS piece does, pretend that the debate about transphobia in philosophy is simply about people objecting to trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments. (Again: That’s not to say that it’s OK to make trans-exclusionary philosophical arguments.) There’s a lot of transphobia in philosophy that is very difficult to defend as a proper exercise of academic freedom or an attempt to investigate controversial issues in good faith. We should not sweep it under the rug.

UPDATE: John Schwenkler, one of the signatories of the 12LS letter (and I believe the organizer, though presumably he speaks only for himself), has responded to a question from Christa Peterson that raises one of the points I made above, about the zip-mouthed emoji.

I find Schwenkler’s response unsatisfactory on many levels.

First, the 12LS piece said that it was “cruel and abusive rhetoric” to call other philosophers transphobic. Here Schwenkler seems to be conceding, at least, that the zipped-emoji stuff is not obviously not transphobic. That seems hard to reconcile with the claim that it’s cruel and abusive to call it transphobic.

Second, even if it doesn’t convey some “disposition” the zipped-emoji was cruel and abusive toward Rachel McKinnon. (I’ve tried to avoid naming most of the philosophers being discussed, but it’s going to be difficult to discuss this without saying that the philosopher who tweeted the zipped emoji was Holly Lawford-Smith.) The 12LS statement didn’t address cruel and abusive rhetoric toward trans philosophers and critics of transphobia in philosophy at all, and it seems flippant of Schwenkler not to consider it here. Notably he considers the zipped-emoji only from the point of view of what it reveals about Lawford-Smith, not about its effects on McKinnon; entirely the opposite of the 12LS statement’s treatment of philosophers accused of transphobia, which are entirely about the effects that the criticism has on them, and not about whether the people making those accusations might consider themselves to be doing so in good faith.

Third, it’s awfully incurious to point to the wider context and dismiss this as “just a few remarks” without looking into the wider context, and whether it was just a few remarks. In fact the context is that Lawford-Smith made it clear that she was using the zipped-emoji as a deliberate policy, and she used it on several occasions. (That twitter account has now been suspended, so it’s impossible to see exactly how many times the zipped-emoji was used, but I trust the testimony that it was more than was displayed–and anyway, doing it four times over a week is enough to take it beyond isolated remarks.) If I had said that it was cruel and abusive to accuse someone of X, and someone pointed out to me a case where it prima facie looked like they had done X, and I thought that perhaps more context was required to establish that it was X–then I like to think I’d actually try to find out the context, so I wouldn’t be at risk of falsely accusing someone of being cruel and abusive. Saying that it depends on context and moving on is not an epistemically responsible move here! And it is pretty epistemically irresponsible to publish a statement in Inside Higher Education before you know about the context.

Fourth, the remark about “phobia is dispositional” is confusing. Perhaps the idea is that phobia is a fear, and fear is dispositional? But the word “transphobia,” like “homophobia” and “Islamophobia,” is used not for fear but for bigotry and oppression, and that isn’t dispositional. In fact Schwenkler in response to another challenge says “What would be transphobic would be to fail to treat trans people w the respect due to any human being qua h.b.,” which has nothing dispositional about it. The zipped-emoji seems like a clear case of transphobia by this definition. Is it open and polite to talk about someone like that?

To say that a philosopher has done transphobic things, but you require more evidence of some sort of inner transphobic disposition, is a climbdown from saying that the accusation of transphobia is cruel and abusive rhetoric.

Fifth, the point about judging Lawford-Smith by her worst moments has at least two issues. As in the first point above, it’s conceding that there’s some truth to the accusation of transphobia, which is very far from the 12LS statement that the accusation is cruel and abusive. Furthermore, it’s not appropriate to wave away these emoji as Lawford-Smith’s worst moment when, as far as I know, she has never disavowed them. (This is also why I cited a link that Kathleen Stock later deleted from one of her essays; as far as I know she never disavowed the link and has continued to argue in the same anecdotal style exemplified by the link.)

Sixth and last, turning the “worst moment” point back on Christa Peterson was cruel and hurtful as well as terrible argument. Christa Peterson swore about something she feels strongly about while in the midst of a personal tragedy which is still ongoing. Her swears were not directed at any one individual, and she deleted the tweets with an explanation. Lawford-Smith mocked the gender identity of a particular named colleague on several occasions, has not apologized so far as I know, and–well, her life is none of my business, but she doesn’t seem particularly stressed out in those tweets. These cases are no way analogous, and to throw Peterson’s tragedy back in her face is causing her great distress and comes across as punishing her personally for daring to participate in this discussion. It seems like if you want “sensitive and controversial issues [to be] investigated with patience, care and insight” (12LS statement)–and if you want to treat other people decently–the minimal thing to do would be not to use your interlocutor’s personal tragediy to score points. We should be very careful not to do that!

July 9, 2019

Brian Leiter Is A Disgrace To Philosophy

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 1:29 pm

(Matt Weiner, University of Vermont)

It seems that a graduate student in philosophy with a pseudonymous account lightly mocked Leiter on philosophy. In response, Leiter posted his full name and insulted him. When Kate Manne criticized him for this, Leiter took his Twitter account private (claiming “harassment” and “shameless misrepresentations”) where he has apparently continued disparaging Manne and the grad student to fairly prominent media figures.

It seems as though Leiter has also been attacking grad students who are outspoken about philosophy’s transphobia problem. I say “it seems” because I don’t read Leiter’s blog when I can help it, because in an ideal world nobody would. A couple of times before I’ve run across his transphobia and attempts to police the discourse–at least I believe that the “Brian” in the second link who said it was “authoritarian” to criticize someone for posting a link to a transphobic post is Leiter.

As many folks in that discussion have said, it is a bad thing for an influential professor to attack graduate students, who are going to be applying for jobs on an always difficult market, and who will have to worry about whether their job prospects will be hurt because people on the job committees heard something bad about them from that professor. We shouldn’t create a climate where grad students feel fear about speaking out about important issues and important issues affecting the discipline.

But also, it’s a disgrace to philosophy that Leiter has been able to attain such a position of influence. He has always been awful. We are coming up on five years since hundreds of philosophers vowed not to participate in the Leiter-run Philosophical Gourmet Report (a bad thing anyway) because of bullying behavior from Leiter that started when he took a post where a philosopher vowed to treat others with respect as a threat and threatened litigation over it. More background here. Why do any philosophers listen to Leiter’s invective? Why did we ever?

I endorse Justin Weinberg’s statement that we ought to respect and support Christa Peterson, one of the grad students Leiter and others have targeted; and for Nathan Oseroff-Spicer as well.

UPDATE: To coin a phrase, yikes.

June 10, 2019

Philosophy’s Transphobia Problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 11:11 pm

[Update: I forgot to add my full name to this–this is Matt Weiner of the University of Vermont.]

From Alysonesque on Twitter:

Philosophy as a professional discipline has tacitly (and often explicitly as well) decided that attacking trans women under the guise of freedom of inquiry is not only acceptable, but is beyond the scope of acceptable criticism. This should horrify philosophers.

Trans women who work in the field suggesting that their lives are not in fact abstract questions and that these debates do in fact impact the well being of active participants in philosophy, has been determined to be an unacceptable violation of free inquiry.

This is true, and horrifying. Trans women have been subject to relentless attacks in philosophy; and when people push back on the attacks, far too much of the response consists of expressions of concern over whether this means prohibiting trans-exclusionary views in philosophy journals. But the attacks on trans people aren’t limited to journal papers.*

There is what Justin Weinberg here describes as “name-calling, referring to trans women as ‘he,’ and mocking colleagues’ looks.” There’s the onslaught of blog posts that minimize the vulnerability of trans people and insinuate without evidence that trans women are more violent. See L Mollica, Aaron Jaffe, Asia Ferrin, and Lorna Finlayson, Katherine Jenkins, and Rosie Worsdale.

One particular notable thing; in a Medium post partly responding to the above pieces (at least, listing them in an Appendix as “half-arsed takedown attempts of my arguments, launched into the philosophy blogosphere,” Kathleen Stock responds to Justin Weinberg’s claim that “we have good reason to believe that the facts regarding statistical male violence are not representative of the facts regarding violence by transwomen” by demanding evidence that trans women are less violent than men.** She doesn’t provide any evidence that trans women are more violent than other women (nor have any other philosophers provided it, and sadly I’ve read a lot of what they’ve had to say about it).

Finlayson, Jenkins, and Worsdale provide some reasons to think that evidence is necessary—”in short, trans women are different from cis men” (see also Grace Lavery on “socialisation”)—but really, it should be obvious that evidence is necessary. As Jennifer Nicole and I. Roll point out, this is not good philosophy. An article that based one of its key claims on a thesis that it didn’t provide evidence for wouldn’t get past peer review (I hope). When the thesis is derogatory to vulnerable people, that’s even more egregious.

So: My apologies to trans philosophers and all other trans people for the attacks that you’ve been subjected to in philosophy. We need to do better.

*Not that trans-exclusionary articles in journals are fine.

**As Ray Briggs points out here, California made it easier for trans people to affirm their identity and “[t]here has been no rash of violence against cis women as a result”; Sophie-Grace Chappell makes a similar argument about Ireland at the end of this dialogue and Holly Lawford-Smith seems to accept it, though I haven’t seen her acknowledge that in other contexts. But again, it seems almost beside the point to argue this when no evidence has been presented for it.

May 4, 2017

On the truth-value of some of Brian Leiter’s statements

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 9:04 am

There is a controversy going on about a certain philosophical article and a letter written in response to it. I don’t want to address the underlying merits at all. (You can find out about it if you follow some of these links.) But I did notice something odd.

At Feminist Philosophers, Prof. Manners noted that Brian Leiter had publicly posted a list of the signatories to the letter (which I believe has since been taken down), and expressed concern that this would lead to “mobbing” behavior. Leiter responded in comments: “There will be no ‘mobbing’ here, since I will moderate comments [to his post] and am limiting the thread to those who signed the open letter.”

His post itself statements, “Only signatories to the letter may post here (including signatories not mentioned above, whom I missed).” But the comments appear to be from someone calling themselves “gprofessx” and from an Anonymous account (linking to comments made offsite). These do not appear to be signatories to the letter. Indeed, the gprofessx profile links to a German-language blog that describes itself as neoreactionary, and which retweets notorious misogynists (to put it mildly) such as Roosh V and Scott Adams.

So it seems as though Leiter announced a policy of only approving posts from the people he was attacking, and promptly violated that policy, instead signal-boosting someone who looks to be a pretty vicious misogynist. Perhaps Leiter mistakenly thought that this post was from a signatory? One hopes he would be more careful.

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