Saying Something if You See Something

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins has some cautiously encouraging words for junior faculty who have “things to say” about our profession. She knows you are quite possibly nervous, and not unreasonably worried about professional harm, yet:

Philosophers, even senior philosophers, are very far from being a unified bunch with respect to their opinions on current issues in the profession. Whatever you said, there is a decent chance that a number of senior philosophers out there were thinking (or even saying) if not it, then something isomorphic to it. In fact, whatever you said, there is a decent chance that a number of senior philosophers out there who will regard you as more hirable, tenurable, and so on, for having said that. There exist senior philosophers on hiring and tenure committees who are impressed by junior folks who have Things To Say about important issues in the profession, and who regard a willingness to do this as a desirable quality in a potential colleague. So while it’s true what you’ve said could do you professional harm, you never know: the opposite could be true.

Read the whole thing. She observes that the profession is undergoing a self-examination and transformation the likes of which we’ve not seen before, and notes that it is likely that “as contributions to these critical and exploratory conversations become more varied and greater in number, over time there is correspondingly less focus (and less burden) on any one individual who has something to say.”

I know of a number of terrible incidents of sexual harassment and general bullying in philosophy, and I completely understand why the victims in these cases might think that the best thing to do is to remain silent. And indeed, depending on the specifics, that may be the best thing to do, sadly. Like Carrie, I do not want to encourage anyone to do anything reckless. But I will note that, over the past several years, as a greater understanding of the problems in our profession permeates through the ranks of philosophers, some who have chosen to speak out have been able to find that there are supportive senior philosophers out there who admire their courage and want to help. I expect and hope that the number of such philosophers will grow.

UPDATE: Heidi Howkins Lockwood has a post up at Feminist Philosophers on the issue of remaining silent which includes a number of quotes from victims of sexual misconduct in philosophy.

UPDATE (3/27/2014): Katrina Sifferd, a philosopher at Elmhurst College, has a post up at her blog, Pleas and Excuses, about her experiences and their effects.

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10 years ago

Thank you for sharing this. I am a grad student who recently applied to lots of PhD programs. I have also been at a university that was recently received attention for the kind of problems you mentioned in this post.

So I have wondered more than once how likely it is that admissions decisions could be influenced by my association with a department that has recently received bad press. And I have wondered whether I would be helping or hurting my case for admission by speaking about the subject–and, honestly, I also wonder if the way in which my comments would be received could be at all linked to my being a white male.

Although it is late in the PhD admission process, I still wonder what the value of speaking up or not speaking up might be.

I realize it depends on what I want to say. Long story short, most of what I have to say would be taken as uncontroversial things, but these things would inevitably be taken as an implicit criticism of someone or some group, and so my comments would not be completely uncontroversial.

It is good to know that there is some reason to think that some people would look positively on such a well-intending attempt to speak up, but ultimately, it seems that there is always a non-zero chance that speaking up could be received poorly no matter how good the message is and no matter how well the message is delivered.

Rachel McKinnon
10 years ago

I don’t know what to advise except: be you and trust that people will see the value in your comments. We can’t predict how some people will react. Some comments may ruffle some feathers, but I agree wholeheartedly with Carrie’s point that such comments will likely endear oneself to others. I’ve found that it’s better to be interesting and take some risks than to be bland and “safe.” Certainly, there have been some rather negative consequences to my speaking up. But on balance, I think it’s rather clear that doing so has helped me far more than it’s hurt.

10 years ago

I think it’s important to distinguish between speaking up about broad issues in the profession and speaking up about specific cases. Having tried to do both at various times (and seen other grad students/junior faculty attempt to do both), I have anecdotal evidence for thinking that however “far we’ve come” (hint: not very far), there is a lot of cognitive dissonance (or something) between people’s attitudes towards general issues (especially harassment and sexism) in the profession and people’s attitudes when someone speaks up about one of their friends or colleagues. There are people who might seem to be wholly on the right side of things until someone they personally care about gets accused of something–and they can turn quite nasty towards those who are speaking up. I just want to caution that while I hope it is true that the tide is turning in some sense, in my experience people in our profession sadly seem to take loyalty to their friends and colleagues to take precedence over seeking justice for victims of harassment, assault, sexism, racism (and in my opinion the tide is not even changing at all about the racism issue).