Saturday, October 08, 2016

Sick Of This Sh*t: On Professional Philosophy's Boiling Frogs

There's an old anecdote about boiling frogs that is often employed by philosophers to explain the sorites paradox. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, the story goes, it will immediately sense the heat and the danger, jump out of the pot, and be spared its life.  But if you put a frog into a pot of cold water and only incrementally increase the heat, the frog will not realize it is boiling until it's already too late.

I was reminded of the boiling frog syndrome last night as I watched the 24-hour news cycle shills practically induce their own brain aneurysms attempting to feign shock at Donald Trump's most recently revealed buffoonery. Of course, there is nothing in the least bit surprising about "new" news of Trump's crass misogyny, pathological narcissism, or boundless sense of entitlement. But here they were on my television-- CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the whole lot-- collectively gasping, double-taking, and fanning-themselves like Southern debutantes, exclaiming who could ever believe such a thing?! as if Trump had just donned a post-Labor-Day seersucker suit.  And here we are with them, we American frogs, looking around at our cushy, comfy democratic melting pot and saying, yeah, how DID it got so hot in here all of the sudden?

It didn't get so hot in here all of the sudden.  We've been blissfully basking in increasingly warmer water for a long, long time.

Mirroring the very worst of American politics, my discipline of professional philosophy also experienced a cranking up of the climate-heat this past week, If you have international friends, you are doubtlessly already aware how hard it is to explain the complete sh*t show that the 2016 Presidential election season has become here in the United States. Now, imagine if the phenomenon you were trying to describe included not distant and powerful plutocrats like Trump and Clinton, but your actual friends and colleagues.  And imagine if, instead of being a metaphorical sh*t show, it involved actual feces.

Yes, you read that right.  Actual feces.

A Very Bad Week For Philosophy
Someone really should tell professional philosophers that, contrary to the old adage, no press really is better than bad press.  For the last several years, the only time our profession has appeared in the popular press is when a story about (yet another) sexual-harassment scandal has broken or when the (persistent, endemic, actively maintained, and easily quantified) sexism, racism, and/ or homophobia of Philosophy serves to make some larger point about the rottenness of the academy, the disconnectedness and hypocrisy of the humanities, or the pointlessness of ideal theory. We just can't seem to help ourselves.  Collectively, we've made the creation of sh*t storms into our own regrettable niche.

This past week, we learned that four philosophers-- Sally Haslanger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins (University of British Columbia), Carolyn Dicey Jennings (University of California-Merced), and David Velleman (New York University)-- were mailed packages of feces. If one incident is an anomaly and two is a coincidence, surely four incidences of something so unusual and strange must constitute a pattern.  And as it turns out, these four philosophers are linked to one another by at least one common thread. They share a common foe, Brian Leiter, a philosopher cum University of Chicago Law School professor, former author of the (formerly, very influential) program-ranking The Philosophical Gourmet Reportand sole author of the widely-read professional philosophy blog Leiter Reports. [Full disclosure: this blog hosted an "Archive of the Meltdown" and an "Interactive Timeline of the 2014 PGR Controversy," which chronicled the serious criticisms of Leiter's online behavior and management of the PGR in 2014, which eventually led to his stepping-down as Editor of the PGR.]

Package of feces mailed to Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins from
"Peter Abduren," a pseudonym widely believed to be used

by University of Chicago's Brian Leiter
I won't rehearse all of the details of the sh*t storm here or the long and complicated history of Leiter's disputes with the abovementioned philosophers, but you can read the full story of it in articles from Buzzfeed, Daily Nous, and even the New York Times earlier this week. What I will note is that this story only came to the fore in the wake of another (not totally unrelated) sh*t storm in professional philosophy last week. This other storm--  thankfully, not involving actual feces-- centered around an indirectly-engaged philosophical disagreement between Yale philosopher Jason Stanley and University of Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne concerning the latter's recent keynote address at the Society of Christian Philosophers conference in which Swinburne characterized homosexuality (in some contexts) as a "disability." [Full disclosure: Jason Stanley is a friend of mine.] You can read a longer account of the drama here, but in brief, the subsequent story is: Stanley took offense at Swinburne's SCP keynote argument, Stanley mouthed-off about it on Facebook and used profane language to make his objections crystal clear, some anonymous third parties doxxed Stanley, and then the anonymously-authored conservative philosophy blog Rightly Considered fanned the flame of bullsh*t "free speech" rhetoric.

I suppose all of these stories do come back to sh*t in some way or another.

Here is what ties the two news pieces of last week together, and how they are both linked to the now decade-long streak of bad philosophy press: they all illustrate just how thoroughly hostile, virulent, sometimes sophomoric, but consistently toxic and retrograde the climate in professional philosophy is right now.  Yes, it was a very bad week for professional philosophy in the press, but this should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone operating within its ranks. It's awful, it's embarrassing, it really should be shocking.  But as is the case with American politics and the upcoming Presidential election, it's difficult to explain to outsiders how we (philosophers) came to be accustomed to our current state of affairs, how we're not outraged and appalled, why we're not all leaping out of the boiling pot and saving ourselves. Even rats know that there comes a time to jump ship.

But here we are, slowly boiling philosophical frogs.

Who's Manning the Stove?
The water is boiling now, and it didn't just get this hot all of the sudden. Swinburne isn't the first philosopher to posit an argument that, either by design or accident, effectively devalues his professional colleagues.  (Those sorts of arguments were literally standard fare for most of the history of our discipline.)  Stanley isn't the first philosopher to mistakenly assume a more expansive realm of privacy than he actually inhabited, nor is he the first philosopher (or the thousandth, for that matter) to express his disagreements in an imprudent manner. Ludlow, Pogge, McGinn, et allllllll are not the first philosophers to sexually harass women in our discipline. The nameless philosophers behind Rightly Considered or the pseudonymous philosobros behind any iteration of philosophy's "metablogs" are not the first to marshall the protections afforded by anonymity to reak havoc and harm. And neither Professors Haslanger, Jennings, nor Jenkins are the first philosophers to have experienced overt discrimination and harassment since women philosophers, queer philosophers, and philosophers of color (only quite recently, in the two-millennia-long scheme of things) arrived on the professional philosophy scene... though they may very well be the first to catch actual sh*t for being here.

Someone-- or, more accurately, a set of someones-- have been slowly cranking up the heat for years now, making things more hostile and less productive. More exclusionary and less engaging. More ignorant and less thoughtful.

More libertine and less free.

In the last two decades, professional philosophy crossed the digital divide. I'm thankful for this because the advent and subsequent popularizing of social media, as well as the fundamentally democratic open-access nature of blog-creation and -consumption, has allowed me to think, to write, to learn, and to professionally network in ways that would have been quite literally impossible, if not also unimaginable, to the generation immediately preceding mine.  But those same developments have coincided with what I see as a historically-unprecedented spike in the deadly heat of our professional climate.  (A spike that is as amazing and terrifying as this one.) And just as I can credit specific people among my "digital" colleagues with making the world of professional philosophy better in these last two decades, I can point to those who are responsible for making it worse.

Chief among the latter is Brian Leiter, who has not only consistently wielded the professional influence and power of his blog (and, prior to that, The Philosophical Gourmet Report) to do real harm to the discipline in general, but also has consistently wielded the same professional influence and power to publicly attack specific individuals (many of whom have been junior/untenured), to give platform to those who would do the same under the cover of anonymity, and to actively foster the sort speaking-and-acting-with-impunity "anonymous" environments found on sites like Rightly Considered and the philosophy metablogs.

For whatever it's worth, I actually don't give a sh*t whether or not Leiter personally mailed sh*t to Jennings, Haslanger, Jenkins, and Velleman. At this point, I'm unconvinced that even identifying the actual culprit would be enough to totally exculpate Leiter. If someone is mailing feces to your colleagues in your name (or your well-known pseudonym), and if your own history with these victims gives reputable and reasonable people pause to reasonably consider whether or not it really could have been you, you may be justified in protesting an unfounded accusation for the offense, but you have to reckon with your priming of the pump all the same.

I do not want to be mistaken for saying that I think the current climate in Philosophy is solely Brian Leiter's fault. As I see it, Leiter is as much a symptom as he is a cause. (Leiter is no more the problem of Philosophy than Trump is the problem of American politics.) For similar reasons, I'm not interested here in arguing the (many) specific problems I see with how the Stanley/Kukla/Swinburne dispute has developed or how the sh*t storm is being reported, both of which are also symptomatic of a larger wrenching-up-of-the-heat problem that all of us frogs have either actively fostered, passively enabled, or done nothing to decelerate.

The Wide Open Secret of Professional Philosophy
I cannot possibly be alone among professional philosophers-- in fact, I know I am not alone--  in looking upon the SHOCKED and APPALLED reactions of my colleagues in this last week in the same way that I watched the news reports about Trump's misogyny last night.  Let's be honest: most of the recent indignance, for the most part, is in bad faith.  (Why the outrage now?) I am legitimately not shocked by the fact that Leiter's enemies received actual sh*t in the mail.  I am not shocked that Jason Stanley got doxxed and trolled and threatened by anonymous philosophers.  I am not shocked that the Washington Times and the New York Times picked up and printed stories about philosophers using the F-word and sending sh*t to each other in the mail. And you, philosophers, shouldn't be, either.

I am not shocked because I know that, as much as we try to comfort each other with climate-change denying reports, we're literally being boiled alive.

As I see it, we have two options: we can either jump out of the pot and save ourselves or, should we be able to muster any last remaining smidgen of concern for the rest of the doomed frogs, we can start working together to get the chefs removed from their control of the kitchen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Open Call for Conversation: #ThinkMore Podcast With Dr. J

After many, many months of research, tech upgrades, trial-and-error experiments, and almost crippling self-doubt, I am finally ready to announce that I will be launching my new podcast #ThinkMore in the coming weeks.

I first want to give a shout-out to Myisha Cherry and her very excellent The Unmute Podcast for inspiring me to get my ish together and finally set things up to podcast on my own. If you haven't tuned in to The Unmute Podcast yet, stop reading and do so now.  There are a few good philosophy podcasts on the web-- check out Philosophy Now, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Philosophy Bites, The Big Ideas, and (my favorite) The Partially Examined Life--but none of them have the panache of Myisha Cherry's podcast, which not only focuses its attention on underrepresented philosophers, but also has the superadded virtue of relaying conversations that are real and really interesting to listen to (mostly thanks to the hostess!).

I've got several recordings in the can--yes, I know that's film lingo but I don't yet know the audio analogue-- for my new podcast but I don't want to make it live until I get a few more. So, what follows is an OPEN CALL for interviewees.


Dr. J (@LeighMJohnson) is the hostess of the new #ThinkMore podcast. She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Christian Brothers University and has been the sole author of the ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore blog since 2006. Her teaching and research interests focus on social and political philosophy, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, humanism and human rights, democracy,  technology, and film.  
Dr. J is an OMG really interesting person with whom to have a conversation!  No punches are pulled, no straw men are not set ablaze, no nuances are left unpacked, no presumptions are not rigorously investigated, and no bullsh*t is not called out. Are you up for a conversation like that?  
Fair warning: all #ThinkMore conversations will be recorded, edited, then posted on the Internet. And the Internet never forgets.
If you've got something interesting to say about philosophy, politics, music, or pop culture and you want to be heard on #ThinkMore, send your pitch (300 words or less) to and put "#ThinkMore pitch" in the subject line. I promise to get back to you within 48 hours. I will be incredibly flexible with scheduling interview times, but interviewees should know in advance that they will need reliable Internet access, a decent microphone (see here), a generous dispositional attitude, and probably a thick skin.
So that's the official call.  I hope regular readers of this blog will share it widely (and also please follow #ThinkMore on Twitter!). Come hell or high water, I'm launching this podcast no later than next week,so go ahead and buckle up.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Well Actually, This Is How Erasure and Appropriation Happens

Women's voices, ideas, engagements, and critiques are constantly being erased and/or appropriated-- in academia, on the internet, at workplaces of every ilk-- sometimes through slick and malicious moves, but much more often as a consequence of careless inattention.

Also, water is wet.

I was just recently "disappeared" in an essay by my friend Joshua Miller ("Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship"; also reproduced on Daily Nous here).  Because this is not the first time I've experienced such, and because I want to think that something might be done about the "careless inattention" that so frequently causes it, I will, in the following, walk you through the anatomy of this case.  But first, three important caveats:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 23: Your Favorite Song This Time Last Year

It's funny how quickly pop songs start to sound "old." In order to figure out what I was listening to this time last summer, I'll admit that I had to consult iTunes and a couple of music blogs to see what the top tracks were for June 2015.  In almost every case, my first thought was whaaaa? that seems like AGES ago!, but nah, in every case I was wrong, because it was just one measly trip around the sun ago.

My pick for today is a song that I was 100% obsessed with around this time last year.  In retrospect, I don't think I'd put it in my top 50 Songs of All Time, but it could possibly squeeze its way into the top 200. Ask me again next year and I'll likely have changed my mind.

Before you get all judg-y about my selection, keep in my mind that I was not alone in my Rihanna-love last year.  This track was hotttttttt.

Here's my pick for Day 23, Rihanna's "B*tch Better Have My Money":

Pay me what you owe me.  Don't act like you forgot.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song You Wish You Had Written

Ok, at this point-- I'm writing this on June 37-- I'm already six days behind on the 30 Day Song Challenge.  I was just about to give up and call it quits, but then I remembered that I've been doing this for a long time and, even if this year's iteration ends up being the last hurrah, I ought to see it through.  So, I've got a little less than 3 days to catch up and finish.

Hide and watch me do it.

My pick for today is Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind," first released on his 1982 album of the same title.  It goes without saying, I hope, that Nelson is among the greatest of American singer-songwriters, but God also gifted that man with a very unique kind of warbly voice that somehow manages to caress and expose every bit of human vulnerability in its most rarefied form.  This little ballad of love and regret is one of his best.  Here it is:

Little things I should have said and done.  I just never took the time.

I could throw all of Willie Nelson's song lyrics into a bag, randomly pick out one line, and almost certainly find in my hand a First Principle for Living and Loving.  He's that good.  But "Always On My Mind" is my pick today because I wish I had the courage to be as honest, as vulnerable, as self-critical and as gracious as Willie is in this song.

This, to my mind, is the song that says all the things that everyone, at some point in their lives, need to hear... but which hardly anyone takes the time to say to those who need to hear it.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song You Want Played at Your Wedding

I won't ever get married-- partly because I object to the state institution of marriage, but also because I'm old and ornery and too attached to my own independence now-- so today's prompt is a bit of a strange one to answer. For the record, I love weddings, I love couples who pledge their lives and fidelity to one another, I love cake and flowers and Vitamixes and the chicken dance...I love love.

I just don't love the fundamentally exclusive, overdetermined and state-sanctioned cultural institution of marriage-- which bestows civic and economic rewards, for thoroughly undemocratic reasons entirely unrelated to merit, right or desert, which does so at the expense and to the detriment of more than half our democratic citizenry, which has no governing interest other than the managerial consolidation of private property and the compulsory regularization/normalization of sexual behaviors, familial structures and gender expressions-- and which has now been marginally modified by the highest court in the land to be a slightly-less-exclusive exclusionary institution.


Anyway, in a compossible world where marriage wasn't the horribly unjust institution that it is in this world, if I were forced to choose a song I would like played at my wedding, it would be this one, sung by Otis Redding, "The Glory of Love":

Give a little. Take a little. Let your little heart cry a little. That's the story of, that's the glory of love.

Y'all know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song That Is Best Heard Live

Most of the kinds of music I like-- blues, gospel, country, rock n' roll-- are better heard live.  I don't know if this is true of all genres of music.  I've heard my jazz-loving and classical-loving friends speak of some of their favorite albums as if the recording were absolutely perfect, as if no "live" reproduction could ever do justice to the infinitely and perfectly repeatable production.

I love to hear live music and I try to get out and do so at every opportunity.  That's easy to do in a city like Memphis, where there is live music every night of the week, much of it "free." (I put "free" in scare-quotes because NO ONE should EVER think that musicians in this town work for free. If they're getting paid at all by the clubs, it's a pittance, so do not ignore the call of their tip buckets!)  There's something about the energy of listening to loud, live music in a small space with other people that feeds my soul.

Monday, June 20, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song You Listen To When You're Angry

NOTE: I've gotten behind in my posts for the 30 Day Song Challenge, so the next few days are going to be short and sweet, so I can get caught back up.

If I choose to listen to music when I'm angry, more often than not I'm looking for some kind of cathartic release, rather than searching for a way to amp myself up further. Anger is something that ought to be discharged as soon and as nonviolently as possible.

My pick for today is a fairly peppy song, so it might seem like a counterintuitive selection, but the lyrics are where it's at, really.  You held me down, but I got up. Get ready 'cause I've had enough. I see it all, I see it now.
'Cause I am the champion and you're gonna hear me roar.

Here it is,Katy Perry's "Roar":

Sunday, June 19, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song That Bar Bands Should Stop Playing

For the most part, bar band songs become "bar band songs" in the first place because they're the sort that people can hear over and over again without tiring of them. So I don't really have a beef with most bar band songs.  I wish that Beale Street bands didn't play "Sweet Home Alabama" so frequently, for what I hope are obvious reasons, and there are a few Elvis songs I could stand to hear less often, but other than those I really don't mind hearing the same stuff over and over.

Since I must choose one, though, I'm going with Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," which is not one of my favorite songs to begin with, which is played too often and which has that unfortunate la-la-tee-dah-ing at the end that I find super-annoying.  Here it is:

For the record, I really like Van Morrison quite a bit.  "Brown Eyed Girl" is just a little too chipper-cheesy for my tastes, and it's gotten more insufferable over the years. I'd be fine if bar bands just stopped playing it altogether, but since that is unlikely, I suppose it serves as a good excuse to go to the bathroom during a show.

Click here to return to the "anchor page" for #30DaySongChallenge2016 with the full list of this year's picks

Saturday, June 18, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song That Every Bar Band Should Know

I'd give roughly 10 to 1 odds that you don't know who that guy is in the picture to the left.

That's Rupert Holmes (born David Goldstein), British composer, singer-songwriter, musician, playwright, and novelist. He won two Tony Awards for his musical Drood and has released no fewer than 16 albums over the course of his lifetime (the most recent in 2005).

For our purposes today, however, Rupert Holmes is notable for penning the super-cheesy but deliciously addictive song that I think every bar band should know. When you're picking among "bar-band cover songs," the very best are always going to be super-cheesy and deliciously addictive in my book, and Holmes' is one of the best.

And, if you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape, you're going to loooooove this.