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.

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