Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Leigh Johnson Mystery

Here's the thing everyone needs to understand before s/he starts picking a fight: you can only back people into a corner so far before they come out swinging. UChicago law professor Brian Leiter has decided to pick a fight with me in a comment thread on his blog here. There, in a moderated thread allegedly addressing "issues in the profession," Leiter published a comment by one "AnonUntenured" who wanted an explanation of what he called "the Leigh Johnson mystery." Specifically, AnonUntenured wanted to know how in the world I could possibly have secured not one, but TWO, academic appointments in my time as a professional philosopher. Leiter almost immediately received pushback from his readers for posting AnonUntenured's comment, and subsequently defended his decision to do so by claiming that I was a "very public and rather noxious presence in philosophy cyberspace."  I should say for the benefit of the uninitiated that a lot of people in professional philosophy opt out of engaging Leiter when he starts in on these #DrunkUncle-ish tirades because Leiter has a tendency to hide behind his gigantic bully pulpit blog, refuse to engage his critics, cry "defamation!" and threaten lawsuits whenever he's called to account.

I am not one of those people.  I actually enjoy a good fight. Srsly, come at me, bros.

For whatever its worth, as regular readers of this blog already know, I spent a good deal of time and effort documenting what I called the Archive of the Meltdown in our profession last year, which (unfortunately for him) assembled together in one place a lot of bad press about Leiter.  I considered it a service to the profession, which I think it was, judging by the over 25 THOUSAND hits it has received to date.  I mention this because I suspect my Archive is the root of Leiter's otherwise inexplicable antipathy towards me.  I have no idea who AnonUntenured is, so I cannot explain or even hazard a guess at the cause for his antipathy, which remains as genuinely mysterious to me as the fact that he used the phrase "the Leigh Johnson mystery."

[Leigh Johnson is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a mystery.  AnonUntenured, allow me to introduce you to Google.]

What follows is my counterpunch.  I'm breaking it up into parts because I doubt everyone has the time or interest to read all the way through.  Part One is for those of you with just a generic curiosity about why I haven't responded to Leiter's provocations.  Part Two is for those of you who are concerned about how Brian Leiter is hurting the profession of Philosophy. Part Three is for those who are just gluttons for punishment.

Part One: My Unpublished-by-Leiter Reply
Below, I'm copying the full text of my reply to AnonUntenured and Brian Leiter, which I posted last night to Leiter's blog and which he has refused to publish,  Leiter's blog is "moderated," which means that he has the option to publish or refuse to publish comments submitted there.  Here is my comment that he refused to publish:

@AnonUntenured: Hi there, I’m Leigh Johnson, one of the more public and, as a consequence, probably one of the LEAST “mysterious” philosophers on the Internet. You’ll notice that I’m posting under my real name here, as I do everywhere else. I’d be happy to chat with you about how I moved from my previous position to my current (NTT) position if you are genuinely that stymied by the mystery of my employment. (By the way, you should really check with people before speculating publicly and/or inaccurately about their employment status. Especially someone as easy to reach and non-mysterious as me!) You’re already familiar with my blog and Twitter feed, I see, so here’s my email: leigh.johnson@cbu.edu. You could also speak to people who know me, who attended graduate school with me, who have worked with me or currently work with me, if you want corroborating accounts of how and why I am employed. I promise you, it’s not all that mysterious.
What you really meant to ask, I suspect, is how did SHE get a job (nay, TWO JOBS) that I didn’t get? Here’s the thing, I don’t know anything about you because you’re commenting anonymously. Maybe your work isn’t very good, maybe you’re a terrible teacher, maybe you’re not collegial. I’ll assume none of those are true, partially because I have no idea who you are, but more so because I know there is a FAR greater statistical likelihood that if you’re in Philosophy and find yourself un- or underemployed, you’re guilty of nothing other than just not having the stars align in exactly the right way yet. Academia is not a meritocracy. 
It may be worthwhile to spend less time and effort obsessing over so-called “mysteries” like me or engaging in anonymous, thinly-veiled attempts to impugn other (non-Anon)untenured philosophers, and rather more time and effort *actually talking* to the literally hundreds of other philosophers who, like me and like you, are trying to make our way in this profession against considerable odds. 
@Brian Leiter: It looks like your readership has already beat me to the punch in the comment feed above, and you’ve tacitly conceded your own bad judgment here, so let me just echo the chorus confirming that you really are making a mockery of your own site by letting comments like AnonUntenured’s go through without some considered moderation. For whatever it’s worth, I’m not particularly bothered by AnonUntenured’s comment, though I do find his anonymity and willful ignorance exasperating. Everyone makes bad judgments, of course, but your (Brian’s) pattern seems to be to double-down on bad judgments when you’re called out on them, unfortunately. 
Since you’ve pushed in, though, what *exactly* is your evidence for designating me a “particularly noxious presence in philosophy cyberspace”? While you’re manufacturing evidence to support that claim, here are some examples of your own “particularly noxious” behaviors in Philosophy cyberspace that you might use as a gauge: 
1. Regularly and repeatedly maligning professional philosophers on your blog, usually sans evidence and almost always including an incredibly juvenile selection of invectives. 
2. Targeting junior and/or underrepresented groups in our profession, especially women, for the treatment above. 
3. Refusing to engage those who you bait, goad, insult, denigrate or (yes, I’ll say it) defame and, instead of participating in productive conversation, retreating to the safety of your blog to hold court, almost entirely uncontested by a host of (mostly anonymous) sycophants and sock-puppets. 
4. Perpetuating what, at this point, can only be described as a *willfully ignorant* myth of our profession as meritocratic.  
I’m not sure which of my activities in Philosophy cyberspace have motivated your denigration of me as a “particularly noxious presence” but, let’s be honest, I suspect it is chiefly motivated my archiving of your meltdown over the course of this last year on my blog. I am generally inclined to believe that most people are fundamentally decent people—an inclination which I can only assume, from the activities of your public persona, that you do not share—and for that reason I will grant you the benefit of the doubt in this case and trust that you have not voluntarily and reflectively chosen to (1) publish a comment questioning the legitimacy of a junior, female, untenured philosopher without any supporting evidence on your very public blog and (2) redoubled that error by name-calling the very same junior, female, untenured philosopher without any supporting evidence of her, in fact, being a “noxious presence in philosophy cyberspace.” 
As you no doubt already know, the hardest thing about having a public digital presence that one occupies under one’s own name is this: one cannot hide. Pace AnonUntenured, I am not a mystery. I do not censor or block others from engaging me (as you do on Twitter), I do not delete non-spam comments on my own blog (as you do, and probably will with this comment), I never write or speak anonymously, I do not engage in sock-puppetry and I do not take disagreement, as a matter of course, to be prima facie threatening or unproductive. 

For whatever its worth, Brian, you’ve created a space in which serious philosophers of good conscience are constitutionally disinclined to engage honestly and critically with you... mostly because the environment you’ve (I think, intentionally) cultivated on this blog is puerile, needlessly aggressive, partisan in the meanest way and, worst of all, IRRELEVANT in the grand scheme of things. No one takes your bait anymore, either because they are afraid of you or (much more often) because, like arguing with a toddler, it really isn’t worth their effort. 

You’ll be happy to hear that I’ve been advised not to respond to you and this thread, almost as happy, I suspect, that I disregarded that advice. But I want to go on the record here as avowing that I am not afraid of and, in fact, very much enjoy, a good philosophical fight. 

You baited me, Brian Leiter. I’m biting. Let’s have it out.

Again, if you just arrived on this post because your were (c'mon, you can admit it, we all do it) rubbernecking and wondered wtf was going on in your FB or Twitter feed today, now you know.  If you're interested in a more critical account of what happened, keep reading.

[Please make room in the aisles for those who are now exiting.]

Part Two: How Brian Leiter is ACTUALLY HURTING Philosophy
SINCE Leiter's decision to *not* publish my reply above, which ftr directly adressed AnonUntenured's question and Leiter's defense of it as publishable, Leiter has subsequently refused to publish any more comments that criticize AnonUntenured or himself.  (Really, this is a violation of Blog Moderation 101: One ought permit the accused/questioned/maligned to reply to his or her critics.)  Leiter did allow AnonUntenured one more dig at me, though, in a comment in which AnonUntenured defends himself on the grounds that he finds me (intuitively, I assume, since he has never contacted me) "weird" and "malicious" and is put off by my "vicious attacks on BL." (Seriously, somebody please get AnonUntenured a dictionary.  I do not think the words he uses mean what he thinks they mean.)  Whatever.  In the course of washing his hands of this whole affair, Leiter managed to also slip in an accusation-by-association in re the  "feminist conspiracy" in professional Philosophy and, in a move almost brilliant enough for me to accord him genuine props, actually invites-without-obviously-inviting "substantive criticisms of Johnson" on his blog.  

Reality check, Brian Leiter: You're a tenured professor of law at a major research university.  Despite the fact that you are not, technically (and, imho, really), a professional philosopher, you nevertheless are the accidental custodian of one of the most well-trafficked blogs in Philosophy's TINY corner of the Internet. So, why oh why are you bothering to pick a fight with me? I'm a junior, untenured, female philosopher in a profession that stacks the deck against the same.  I haven't kicked your dog or slept with your wife or even criticized your scholarship.  What is your beef here, really?  Why do you feel compelled to designate me a "noxious presence in Philosophy cyberspaace"? The worst I've ever done to you is to collect in one place an easily-accessible and semi-comprehensive archive of your objectionable behaviors... which, let's be honest, is really more something that you've done to yourself than something I've done to you, isn't it?  Have I harmed you?  Have I defamed you?  Have you ever, even once, contacted me to address whatever problems you may have with anything I've done or said publicly?  (The answer to that last question is NO, btw.)

Gloves off now.  You are a pox on Philosophy, a profession under considerable duress and within which you remain strategically and superficially central. Whenever I think or speak of you, which is not often, I am inclined to channel the spirit of Jon Stewart in his Crossfire interview with what were certifiably uncritical, philosophically vacant and intellectually suspect interlocutors.  YOU ARE HURTING PHILOSOPHY, Brian Leiter.

I've already listed above (in the comment you refused to publish) a series of numbered points that detail the many ways in which you are (and I am not) a "noxious presence in Philosophy cyberspace." Reckon. 

I won't bother going into the many and well-documented problems with the PGR, your for-profit pyramid scheme that constitutes perhaps the GREATEST of your many sins against professional Philosophy, because others have already documented as much convincingly. Not to pour salt in the wound, but your own PGR Advisory Board asked you to step down.  Wake up.  This is not your sandbox, anymore.

Part Three: For the Sake of The Rest of Us
Fwiw, I wasn't (am still not) personally bothered by Leiter's or AnonUntenured's aspersions. I am not a delicate snowflake and my "feelings" are not hurt.  I am neither traumatized nor intimidated by their pathologically juvenile assaults and, to the extent that I bother to engage them at all herein, it is only in the hopes that it may encourage them, in just this one instance, to crawl out from behind their manufactured (and increasingly porous) self-imposed Wall of Protection and actually engage a critic. Leiter's insults are such incredibly typical, embarrassingly unoriginal and tired reproductions of what passes as generic expressions of ressentiment in professional Philosophy today, tossed about unreflectively by meta-bros (and white, heterosexual, tenured men like Leiter) in the general direction of anything and anyone that threatens established positions of privilege, that no self-respecting adult women could possibly take them personally, much less seriously.  I suppose there is some small part of me that feels sorry for you, Leiter, that you've wasted all this energy on someone who really has, pardon my irreverence, exactly zero f*cks to give about anything at all that you say, but congrats on showing your true colors in a way that even the colorblind cannot ignore,

Oh, whoops, did I just implicitly invoke the so-called "feminist conspiracy" in professional Philosophy? #whyyesIthinkIdid

In sum, let me just say that I'm not just dispositionally disinclined to "ignore" Internet bullies like Leiter, but I'm also not afraid of him. I get it that there are very good reasons to not feed the trolls, and I genuinely respect my colleagues in Philosophy who have ignored Leiter's grossly objectionable behaviors on those grounds.  For better or worse, that's just not my style. People who choose to maintain a digital presence as public-- and not at all "mysterious"-- as mine (and Leiter's) have to expect that they will inevitably encounter detractors. Here's the difference between me and Leiter: I am not a coward, I do not "punch down," I do not pick fights than I am unwilling to (or incapable of) seeing through, and I never, ever, hide behind anonymous agents.

So, there it is. Comment section below this post is open.  I will not delete any non-spam submissions.


Tom Digby said...

Leigh, i've been a professional philosopher continuously since 1982, and I've never had a hero before reading this post. Thanks for your wonderful presence in the philosophy profession!

Ammon Allred said...

Amen, Leigh. Amen.

Jon Cogburn said...

What Tom and Ammon said.

Pleshette DeArmit said...

Bravo, Leigh!

Anonymous said...

Oof. Well said.

Jill Gordon said...

Leigh, thanks so much for this post! Great start to my work day. Proud to be a colleague!

Emanuela Bianchi said...

Nicely done, Dr. J.

Kathryn Norlock said...

Thanks for publishing your comment here. But I think it undermines criticisms of conduct to assert that someone's not a real/ technical/ actual-in-fact professional philosopher. I've read more than one such criticism of authors of philosophy with positions in Political Science, Women's Studies, Religious Studies, etc. Brian Leiter has a PhD and has published primarily in philosophy while paid a salary for working in a cognate field. So he's a professional philosopher, as are our colleagues who've done same while working in various departments in higher ed. I hope that if I changed jobs but was posted in environmental studies or gender studies, you'd still consider me a professional philosopher.

Conspiratorially yours,

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I think it's wonderful in the sense that it draws attention to some of the reoccurring and all too familiar problems women face in professional philosophy (men calling women names, men questioning how women got certain jobs, got into certain philosophy programs, etc), but furthermore, it sets an example for other women who are attacked in similar ways.. namely, that publicly responding to these criticisms and defending ourselves should be an option available to us. I hope that more women continue to draw attention to and call out the men who bully them.

Christian Munthe said...


Having enjoyed a bit of "anonymous" pro Leiter comment on my own blog after posting about his continuous undoing of his own professional standing, to me, frankly – although that might to some seem to be the real enigma here – there's really no mystery at all to who "AnonUntenured" is.

Andrew Dilts said...

an exemplary instance of what it means to "eat the rolls for breakfast."

well done, indeed.

Clement Loo said...

After reading your post it strikes me that philosophy would be a much more interesting field if more philosophers had fewer fucks left to give.

Talia Welsh said...

Bravo Leigh! Whenever such kind moralists as Leiter police philosophy for us, I think of Nietzsche's characterization of such types--"Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: ‘Man ought to be such and such!’ Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms—and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: ‘No! Man ought to be different.’ He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on a wall and comments ‘Ecce homo!’"

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, Leiter's not a "real" lawyer, either. Many, many law students and current practicioners alike would categorize Leiter as a "jack-off of all trades, master of none". But he certainly likes to throw his weight around, as they say, as if he had something to contribute in the first instance.

Anyway, why does he fetishize Nietzsche so much? What's that about? Ubermench-envy? Nothing else happened AT ALL in philosophy, over the last century or so?

Why U of C hired Leiter, and why they continue to tolerate him, is one of the great mysteries of life.

Anonymous said...

"you really are making a mockery of your own site by letting comments like AnonUntenured's go through without some considered moderation"

"I do not censor or block others from engaging me...I do not delete non-spam comments..."

Cathy Kemp said...

A great moment in the otherwise pretty quiet history of archivists, no?


Mark Berardi said...

I am grateful to your biting, and I appreciate all the faculty who are supporting you in this fight. This has been in turns a disheartening and encouraging moment in my often cynical exposure to the profession, and it is good to know that there are ways of holding people accountable in a public and recognized way.

Leigh M. Johnson said...

@Kathryn Norlock: Fair point. I've seldom (if ever) seen the "you're not a real philosopher" rejoinder leveled against prominent, tenured, white men-- it's used as a strategy to further undermine women and/or people of color-- but I agree with you that that doesn't make it any less problematic here.

@Anonymous 9:52: Is there a specific question you have about those two quotes (or the relationship between them)?

Anonymous said...

I think Anonymous 9:52 was trying to raise the question of why it is appropriate for you to let any non-spam comment through but it is not appropriate for the Brian guy. Is there a double standard, and, if so, what warrants the higher standards the Brian fellow has to enforce? Does the fact that he is all about "high" standards, or the fact that his blog is so visible, provide grounds for requiring his moderation to be more selective than yours?

There is probably a distinction at Leigh's disposal between requiring him to weed out spam--not really a high requirement--and a requirement that weeds out more than spam.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:09, isn't it obvious that the different standards are due to Leiter and Johnson's divergent policies on comment moderation? It's appropriate for Johnson to let any and all non-spam comments through because that's her declared policy for comments on her blog. It's not appropriate for Leiter to do the same because it's his declared policy for his 'Open Thread' series to "moderate it, but only for the nuttiness and defamation". The anonymous comment in question seems to be at least nutty by Leiter's own lights--this much appears to be admitted by Leiter himself when he says that "I suppose I should not have approved [comment] #2," given that he later declares that "nothing defamatory has been posted."

Leigh M. Johnson said...

want to register (in advance of this comment) my STRONG preference that those of you who have genuinely critical objections to register do so under your own (non-Anonymous) names. It's always been my policy to allow "anonymous" comments on this blog, because I understand that the extant structural conditions of professional Philosophy are disproportionately stacked against the truth-telling of those who might be (for a variety of reasons) precariously-employed. My policy ought NOT, however, be taken as a carte blanche advocacy of anonymity.

Anonymous 6:04 already, in effect replied to Anonymous 5:09, but I'll just add the following:

My condemnation of Leiter for "making a mockery of [his] own site by letting comments like AnonUntenured's go through without some considered moderation" was meant to highlight the manner in which Leiter (as a self-designated "moderator") fundamentally abrogated his responsibilities. In sum, he published a post on "issues in the profession" and subsequently approved a comment addressing a matter (i.e., me) that does not , by any reasonable measure, bear upon issues in the profession.

With regard to @Anonymous5:09's second quote, I'll defer to the comment above.

That is, there are two separate issues here:
(1) Was BL justified to publish, in his self-described role as "moderator" for a thread on "issues in the profession," AnonUntenured's commment?
(2) Am I, as someone who does NOT moderate (non-spam) comments on her blog, implicated by my judgment of BL?

The answer to (1) is NO. The answer to (2) is also NO.

Richard Birdsall said...

Wow. Fantastic reply - even the third part identifying us readers as "gluttons for punishment".

Anonymous said...

Apparently things happened following this post. I know it really isn't worth your time, but I think it would be worthwhile to document it for posterity. Apparently your archiving is what prompted all this to begin with. Also, you're awesome.

Anonymous said...

A little late to this: I just now learned of BL's comments about you on New Apps.

Leigh, I don't think we've met IRL but as a philosopher, a woman, and a long-time boycotter of BL's blog, I wanted to say: (i) I'm so sorry you've been added to the list of junior women singled out for BL's ire, (ii) thank you so much for your no punches pulled (not to mention hysterical) reply.

Philosophers like you are helping to embolden many of us to stand up for ourselves in a variety of contexts, against a variety of abuses.