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:

  1. Joshua Miller and I have been blog-friends for a long time, and IRL friends for even longer. I presume we will remain so after this post. After all, he says in his piece: "I like to be corrected, so I can be correct!"
  2. This post is intended to be instructive, not punitive.  I am literally just trying to make plainly evident something that many people have a hard time seeing or believing on their own: namely, how women get erased and/or appropriated in men's work
  3. I know that saying (1) and (2) will not stop anyone from reading what follows as "bitchy" or "shrill" or "insecure" or any other number of pejoratives commonly applied to women who point out that they've been wronged. #sorrynotsorry
Miller's essay is an admirable call for us to reconsider how people-- specifically, philosophers-- ought to interact with one another. He advocates for "joyful disagreement and charitable agreement," he urges that we take special care in evaluating disagreements with (not to mention the presumed disagreeableness of) interlocutors in vulnerable social/political/professional positions, and he does so in reference not only to the situation for women in Philosophy today but also by appeal to feminist philosophers of color like Maria Lugones.  

But there are some problems...

The Erasure
Miller's essay begins thus:
I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy.
Although I always appreciate a shout-out, the link embedded in that sentence is not to any essay of mine, nor is it to an essay about a disagreement between Miller and me over "the role of critical engagement in philosophy."  That's because we never had a disagreement over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. This sentence is the tone-setter for Miller's piece, but the real background story is a horse of an entirely different color.

Back in 2009, Miller and I did have a disagreement about moral realism, which we both wrote about in an extended, nuanced, and friendly volley between our blogs.  (You can read my end of that whole exchange, in reverse chronological order, here.) But Miller doesn't offer that context.  He says we had a disagreement about "the role of critical engagement in philosophy," which I think would incline any reader to think that whatever Miller subsequently says in his essay about the role of critical engagement in philosophy will be the content of that with which I disagree.

Immediately following is a pull-quote from Miller's essay "The Parable of the Three Rings," which was originally written back in 2009 in response to my essay "Friendly Fire." (Keep in mind that Miller's opening sentence linked to his response essay and not to my "Friendly Fire"; this will become important as we go forward.)  His opening pull-quote includes this sentence: "When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!" That sentence is, more or less, a summary of the content of my essay "Friendly Fire," though no reader could possibly know that having been denied a link to the original.  For the record, it's a pretty standard practice to link to a blog essay that you reference.on your own blog.

My actual position, as articulated by me, has been erased.

Miller's intro goes on to note that he has often been reminded of "Johnson's phrase" ("friendly fire"),"when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect." But immediately following that, after the heading question in bold Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?, Miller once again references our "exchange" (read: "disagreement"). The erasure of my end of that exchange/disagreement has now-- in the course of this very short intro, voila!-- become a misrepresentation-by-suggestion of my actual account of the merits of "friendly fire."

Miller's essay will go on to defend (my) ideal of "friendly fire" throughout, but all in a kind of warping wake generated by his initial frame of our "disagreement about the role of critical engagement in philosophy."

The Appropriation
So what?  Here's what:

Somehow, by magic, "Johnson's" friendly fire stops being Johnson's before the end of Miller's essay. After an extended engagement with Noma Arpaly's guest post on Daily Nous ("Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?") and engagements with several of the commenters on that post, Miller comes back around to the notion of friendly fire.  And he writes (emphasis added):
[Joseph] Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”
 And there it is. Appropriation real quick-and-easy like. Move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of "Arendtian" distinguishes what he calls "my ideal" and my (Johnson's) idea of "friendly fire." No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of "friendly fire" was erased from the get-go. Still, if you're interested, here's my original post on Friendly Fire again.  Judge for yourself.

The Takeaway
This is not about demanding credit.  (Though, for the record, even if it was, there would be exactly nil wrong with that.)  This is about demonstrating just how easy, how seemingly harmlessly, how commonly and below-the-radar the erasure and appropriation of women's voices happens.  Even among friends. I would hope that a close reader of Miller's essay might catch that slide from "Johnson's friendly fire" at the beginning to "Miller's friendly fire" near the end, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Everything about our profession makes it very easy to make the sorts of mistakes that end up erasing and appropriating women's work.  Malice or ill-will is not required, nor should it always be assumed. But if we want to hear what women are saying-- really hear it-- we need to pay closer attention to how we amplify (or fail to amplify) their voices.


UPDATE: Joshua Miller posted a thoughtful response and very helpful clarification on his blog in a post titled "Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessions of a Philosophical Theft." And so our fiery friendship continues!


Justin Weinberg said...

Hi Leigh. Thanks for your comments on Joshua's piece. I just inserted a link to your December 6, 2009 post into Joshua's first block quote, when he mentions "what Dr. J calls 'friendly fire.'" If you have other material or pages you think ought to be linked to, and suggestions about where to insert them, please let me know.

Leigh M. Johnson said...

Thanks, Justin!

Kathryn Norlock said...

This was enriching, since I did not know you wrote about friendly fire before today. Given your account of events, I STILL would not have known about it if you hadn't corrected the impressions permitted by Joshua Miller's initial Daily Nous post. So thanks!