A Response to Brian Leiter from the Margins
by Christopher Lebron
Take a look around you. It’s a new day. Campuses around the country have put the world on notice that there is no last place of refuge for marginalization. Apparently not everyone has gotten the memo.
Consider the queer and peculiar case of Brian Leiter, Professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Leiter runs a remarkably successful and enduring philosophy blog eponymously named Leiter Reports. This has been Leiter’s platform for his views on philosophy as both a vocation and way of life. The blog has been a similarly important wedge for his influence in the field along with the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), which until recently had been under his leadership and was the industry standard, so to speak, on the ranking of philosophy programs. The PGR faced increasing challenges over the past several years in part owing to complaints that the rankings reproduced outdated and status quo views of what counted as important or legitimate work; views that marginalized important work in feminist theory, race theory, queer theory, and other previously unjustifiably non-mainstream areas of philosophical investigation.
For my part, I’ve never had any dealings with the man. I’ve not been interested one way or another in his escapades, at least until recently when he turned his unwelcome gaze in a direction of special interest to me—a black UCLA graduate student—so bad luck for him. (Out of respect for the person in question, I shall simply refer to him as the BGS.) The trouble began when Kate Manne of Cornell and my Yale colleague, Jason Stanley, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the recent racial troubles at Yale. At issue in the piece is the confusion that the fight on the ground is that of the right to free speech vs. racial offense—the two authors intelligently argued in favor of sensitivity to racial offense. Leiter didn’t deem the piece “helpful” which is fine as far as that goes—disagreement is the bread and butter of philosophy.
My own interest became piqued when the BGS in question became a target of a comment on Leiter’s blog site. On Facebook Leiter had expressed on Jason Stanley’s page that his and Manne’s views were symptomatic of group think. It is worth me pointing out that the common objections to arguments that favor protections of minority interests usually involve some invocation of the right to free speech. This invocation tends to be confused in its philosophical moorings (by for example classifying sentiments that have been weaponized by history as ‘speech’). The other strategy, the one Leiter preferred in public, is to deem the position in favor of such protections illegitimate because widely held among… well apparently, the wrong people, since his own views are widely held among some people, just with a better sense of the rational, or of civilization, or some such.
Ahh. Apologies. The issue is with, as he puts it, not The Left so much as “mindless identity politics”. It’s difficult to know if the politics is mindless because it deals in the issues of identity, or that those that partake in said politics are themselves mindless because they are concerned with identity. (I should additionally note that this category of identity politics is simply wrong – these folks are concerned with social justice and last I checked, that’s the ethical category that got this whole U.S. of A. thing going in the first place, warts and all.) This is important since the BGS challenged Leiter’s claim that Manne and Stanley were engaged in group think since Leiter’s own retort seemed quite resonant with standard conservative white responses, well, resistances, to what was that again? – right: mindless identity politics a.k.a. social justice.
Soon after the discussion on Facebook, in which he called Stanley’s friends “clowns,” “lowlifes,” and “what’s wrong with the profession,” Leiter took to his blog to first congratulate himself on a job well-done by quoting a supporter of his views (for all we know, a lone supporter) and then proceeding to lay into his colleagues in a quite unprofessional manner. For example, he proceeded to call my colleague and Facebook friend, John Drabinski, “deranged”—I mean really, Brian, was that very professional? Drabinski might be flamboyant in spirit but deranged is a borderline defamatory claim referencing mental health. Tsk tsk. But things didn’t end there as he proceeded to refer to BGS and his allies as “philosophers on the margins.”
On the margins indeed. I won’t go through the tiring exercise of reminding anyone just how under-represented blacks and race philosophy is in the field. That a person like myself is at Yale is a statistical anomaly to the way of things. This is in fact why I am taking time I don’t have to put an end to this nonsense. I find myself these days, plying my trade—pardon, my award winning trade—in “mindless” identity politics, constantly writing for one audience or another asking them to please use their good sense and good will to stop pushing black and brown Americans to the margins with their ignorance, lack of sympathy, or whatever else causes people to be ethically numb to the needs of other humans or affectively numb to the fact that these “others” are humans in the first place. Leiter took aim at a young black man in a field in which he most certainly is on the margins, but certainly not by his choosing. Leiter wasted no time reminding him of his place on the margins as well as of the “stupidity” of his position—one only need read the post to see this is the case. And we wonder why retention of promising black talent is so precarious and fraught. But these days are coming to an end. There will be no more reminding us of our place or of our stupidity. Have I made myself clear?