[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.