The real crisis in philosophy is about power

Philosophy does not have has a sexual harassment/sexism problem. It has a power imbalance problem of which one particularly vicious manifestation is the prevalence of sexual harassment/sexism.

Our society is ruled by a responsibility-free oligarchy, which is becoming more and more entrenched by the day. One consequence of this is the idea that power, authority, cannot be challenged. It is becoming increasingly common and explicit that any one who does challenge or question those who have power must be punished for the act of challenging or questioning, even if the challenge concerns manifestly illegal behavior on the part of those in power*

This dynamic is being replicated in the academy. Consider the ever increasing concentration of power in university administrations and the agenda of corporatization they push, usually with no meaningful consultation of the faculty and often to their detriment.  It seems that this is especially so in professional philosophy. This is because of our worship at the Altar of the Cult of Genius, that is the wide-spread belief amongst philosophers that they’re just so much smarter than everyone else, that philosophy is the Queen of the Sciences (even when it is merely an under-laborer for science), that since philosophers should be kings philosophers know best. Which is, hyperbolically, to say that we have a disciplinary culture of veneration for, and consequent obedience to, what we perceive as intellectual skill and insight. This is gives those who reach the pinnacle of such regard, which we tend to equate with those who hold positions in well-ranked departments, an inordinate amount of disciplinary power (they set the fashion, they determine who is in and who is out, who is ‘smart’ and ‘has potential’ and who does not, etc.), which is only increased by their actual institutional power as allocators of resources and goods (admissions, jobs, letters of recommendation, funding etc.). But our veneration for genius also exacerbates a sense of infallibility — one is prominent and powerful because one is smart — and a consequent defensiveness when challenged. Such a challenge is to question their judgement, their intellect, hence their power.** When you couple this aspect of our discipline with the growing culture of intolerance towards dissent you get a particularly bad case of concentration of power in the hands of senior philosophers married to a special obliviousness to the harms their actions can have (what nubile student wouldn’t be honored to be groped by a genius! I write this as a joke, but seriously I have met philosophers who think like this.)

Philosophy has a climate issue because we do not have disciplinary norms for calling-out and correcting the bad behavior of the powerful. Indeed such an idea is to a great extent foreign to the self-conception of the discipline; our disciplinary norms tend toward obedience and deference to those higher up the genius pole, so when the prominent and powerful are called out they see only unjustified attack. Brian Leiter’s behavior in the FP thread strikes me as a case in point.  Leiter’s comments really went off track when a commenter (Current Student) called him out on his concerns about due process and academic freedom as products of his position of power and privilege. Indeed the point of his comments on that thread (made again in his now deleted post) indicates that he could not see how the Northwestern sit-in could be construed as a protest*** against the responsibility-free culture the powerful enjoy,**** as a protest against a system that seems to do more to protect those with power than those who are harmed by those in positions of power.***** His amazement that almost a majority of people thought the sit-in was legitimate just highlights the point: what to people in Leiter’s position looks like the “increasingly ugly cyber-dynamics of the sexual-harassment crisis in philosophy” is the damn of anger at the culture of abuse of power and the obliviousness (sometimes even callousness) to the harms caused by it finally breaking.

*A prominent example: Wikileaks and Julian Assange expose the murder of a journalist in Iraq, and they are branded as criminals, terrorists etc. Edward Snowden reveals, amongst other things, that the head of National Intelligence perjured himself before Congress and is branded as aiding terrorist etc. Journalists reporting on this are ‘accomplices’ and must be silenced. The point is that this dynamic is becoming increasingly common in all facets of life not just politics.

**Which, by the way, is one reason why philosophical arguments (in some philosophical sub-cultures) can get so aggressive and vicious; unlike other disciplines that have disciplinary norms determining what counts as good work, and sound results, that are to some degree objective — a proof is either valid or not, an experiment well designed and run or not — philosophy has largely the perception of smartness and significance: the fight is so vicious because the stakes are so low).

***One has to note that given Leiter’s penchant for dumping on conservatives it is really quite ironic that his reaction to the NU sit-in (vigilantes!) is reminiscent of the rhetorical tactics used by conservatives, e.g. health-reform means death-panels, moderate financial reform is like Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

****As an adjunct if I did what Ludlow did (what he admitted to) I would be summarily fired on the student’s accusation alone. I know fellow adjuncts who have been fired for lesser forms of harassment. Leiter’s worries about the freedom to teach and due process would carry more weight with me if did more for the equitable treatment of those who do the bulk of university teaching.

*****Which is not to make a judgment on whether Ludlow should have been punished more than he was, or to express an opinion on the merits of the case, it is to say that the NU sit-in action has an interpretation which is not readily available to those whose power is threatened by it. When it appears that due-process is inadequate (which is the very subject of the student’s lawsuit against Northwestern) calls for respect of due process sound rather hollow. It is in this sense, by the way, that the comparison with the George Zimmerman’s aquital for the murder of Trayvon Martin is apposite, it appears as a failure of due process and a reinforcement of the responsibility-free culture the powerful enjoy.


3 Comments on “The real crisis in philosophy is about power”

  1. Anne says:

    I think you’re quite right that this can be characterized as part of wide concerns about power dynamics, but I don’t think the profoundly sexist – not to mention racist – nature of the way in which a good deal of the power imbalance plays out in philosophy should be elided.

    Likely your opening claim was really more a rhetorical device than a genuine suggestion that sexism isn’t fundamental to the sexist behavior by numerous philosophers and that this can better/entirely be explained in more general terms. But, it’s in virtue of our gender and skin color that many of us are marginalized and silenced in philosophy, and framing it purely in terms of power erases a crucial part of both the problem and the solution. Yes, if the power imbalance were corrected, the sexism would be ameliorated, but there’s no way to change the power dynamics without dealing directly and explicitly with notions of gender and race (among others).

  2. Reblogged this on PrecariLeaks and commented:
    The struggle to build leverage for contingent labor may be complicated by our adaptation to a culture of powerlessness.

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    added to precarity bloggers (blogroll) in hope that Philosophy Adjunct will soon resume blogging

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