The September Statement (Guest Post by Simon Cabulea May)

Simon Cabulea May is assistant professor of philosophy at Florida State University. He works on a variety of topics in political philosophy. He is also the creator of the group political philosophy blog, Public Reason. In the guest post*, below, May explains why he thinks philosophers should sign the “September Statement“, declaring in light of recent events their refusal to participate in or cooperate with the Philosophical Gourmet Report while it is under the control of Brian Leiter.

The September Statement

In the last few days, I have urged the philosophers I know to sign the “September Statement.” This statement calls for Prof. Brian Leiter’s resignation as editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR). The September Statement is occasioned by Prof. Leiter’s recent hostile behaviour towards Prof. Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, but has been accompanied by a separate list of “Recent Events Involving Brian Leiter,” which details further allegations of hostile behaviour towards a number of other (mostly female) philosophers. In what follows, I would like to explain to a broader audience why I make this call and why I do not think it is an issue about which members of the philosophical community can remain neutral. In essence, the question is forced: you either stand in favour or you stand against. I have six points.

1. The September Statement is not an attack on Prof. Leiter’s moral character or on the PGR.
At the outset, I would like to make clear that I greatly respect Prof. Leiter as a philosopher in his own right, as a singularly valuable member of the philosophical community, and as a force for good in academia more generally. I concur entirely with both the tone and content of, for instance, his recent criticism of UIUC’s despicable de-tenuring of Prof. Steven Salaita. I regularly use his work when I teach Philosophy of Law, and I have personally benefitted from his advice and assistance on a number of occasions, as have very many of my students. I also admire his forthright commitment to philosophical quality regardless of polite social niceties—we might all write with a few hammers in our toolkits, and be ashamed if fear of opprobrium should compromise our rejection of flagrant error and wanton idiocy. Moreover, as a South African, I have an especial appreciation for how the PGR provides essential information to foreign students that American students often seem to take for granted. I could not care less for the relative advantages or disadvantages of the PGR within the United States if these are outweighed by the value it provides prospective graduate students from the Global South. We do not all somehow intuitively know that Rutgers and Michigan are great departments, for example, or that Arizona is at the forefront of work in political philosophy. Nevertheless, I cannot regard the particular behaviour detailed in the September Statement and the Recent Events list as anything other than abysmal and utterly unacceptable. I do not wish to argue this point here. If you do not think there is even a prima facie problem, then stop reading.

2. The current issue cannot be divorced from that regarding the climate for women in philosophy.
For the last few years, philosophers have tried to understand and remedy the unusually poor climate for women in the discipline. A number of interpretations have been proposed, some more plausible than others. I do not think that male philosophers are any more sexist than other members of the academy or that philosophy is somehow an inherently masculine enterprise, whatever that might mean: a good argument is a good argument is a good argument. Nevertheless, many familiar vices of sexism—intolerance, obsessiveness, and competitiveness—can thrive disguised within appeals to the virtues of philosophy—truth, precision, and cogency. This should give us pause. What may begin as a pugnacious dialectic may end up only as pugilistic diatribe. Our laudable aspirations as philosophers may be all-too-easily overtaken by our all-too-human flaws as scions of an iniquitous society. In this regard, it is impossible to overlook that so many women feature prominently amongst Prof. Leiter’s recent targets. Once again, this is not a question about his moral character—there is no suggestion of implicit misogyny here. But character is beside the point. The point, rather, is the effect of the contumely. Were it philosophical propositions at stake, that would be understandable. But Prof. Leiter’s assertions have been extraordinarily ad hominem: that one female philosopher is a “sanctimonious asshole,” another “singularly unhinged,” still another a “disgrace,” and so on. This is not philosophy—it is not honesty, nor argument, nor insight—it is mere table-banging and chest-thumping. I oppose it unreservedly, and so urge my fellow philosophers to join in the call for Prof. Leiter’s resignation as editor of the PGR. We should be cold and ruthless towards all wellsprings of inequity in our discipline, whatever their location.

In what follows I consider four arguments I have encountered in the last few days against the September Statement.

3. It does not matter that the PGR is not itself the vehicle of hostility.
The first argument is that whatever the moral merits of Prof. Leiter’s behaviour on his blog, on Twitter, or through email, his management of the PGR is a quite separate matter—unless and until it is shown that the ranking system itself is compromised by Prof. Leiter’s aggressive internet persona, no objection should be raised against his editorship of the PGR.

I reject this argument because it is impossible to separate Prof. Leiter’s editorship of the PGR from the potency of his hostility towards other philosophers. The point is not that Prof. Leiter has power to silence his critics because he might manipulate any particular department’s standing in the rankings. Rather, the point is that Prof. Leiter’s status as the editor of the de facto or quasi-official rankings of philosophy departments indicates the community’s endorsement of his behaviour as within the bounds of acceptability. It is this endorsement that is the problem and this endorsement that must be repudiated. As things stand, as uncontested PGR editor, Prof. Leiter has relatively free rein to act in as belligerent a manner as he might wish towards any member of the community. The mere knowledge that he is very safely embedded in a social network of esteem and approval, and that he has an unparalleled ability to dictate the content of discourse about the profession, inhibits public assertion of anything likely to raise his ire. It is an unpleasant, unfortunate, and embarrassing fact that a great many truth-seeking philosophers would be far more willing to engage in disputation about the profession were it not for the fear that they might thereby find themselves subject to the insuperable contempt of the community’s loudest and most relentless champion of Millian mud and bluster. This is not a healthy state of affairs. There is very little that ordinary philosophers can do to remedy the situation other than pledge to repudiate any honorary status that might express the community’s toleration of the treatment meted out to Prof. Jenkins and others. This treatment either comes with the imprimatur of the community or it does not. If it does, then we are beyond redemption. If it does not, then we must say so, without pause, in the only meaningful way available to us. Because to tolerate is not to approve someone’s behaviour or to refrain from its criticism. To tolerate, rather, is to allow someone to behave with impunity, to accept that whatever wrong they might do, no sanction will be offered. All the heartfelt tut-tuts of all the philosophers in all the world will mean absolutely nothing if absolutely nothing of consequence results. In essence, it is time for us to put up or shut up.

4.  It does not matter who created the PGR.
The second argument is that the PGR is Prof. Leiter’s creation and the fruit of his labour. To require him to stand down from its management is in effect to deprive him of his intellectual property.

I regard this argument as utterly nonsensical. Certainly, Prof. Leiter is owed a great deal of gratitude for his tireless efforts in providing this public service. But the PGR is not a thing to be owned. The present proposal is not to deprive Prof. Leiter of his entitlement to an internet page or of revenue from any source. The PGR has value as a practice, as a social convention ultimately constituted by members of the profession as a whole. Our withdrawal from participation in the PGR does not deprive Prof. Leiter of his property beyond depriving the profession of an established way of understanding itself. That this stance of non-cooperation is warranted by Prof. Leiter’s behaviour is the claim in question—it is not a stance that is undermined by any account of the sweat that has steadily dripped from his brow over the years. The future direction of the PGR is about us, not him.

5. It does not matter whether the PGR is accurate.
The third argument states that the PGR is unobjectionable because it is relatively accurate (and that Prof. Leiter has taken many steps to improve its accuracy since its creation).

I am not sure whether the premise of this argument is correct. There are a number of methodological objections to the PGR that strike me as plausible. Some of these (in particular the problem of snowball sampling) are detailed in Zachary Ernst’s paper, “Our Naked Emperor.” I hope that in the next few weeks, more knowledgeable people than me might sort through the various statistical problems that a reputational survey such as the PGR presents. But the premise of the argument is beside the point—what if the PGR is entirely accurate? Unless Prof. Leiter is himself the magic ingredient that somehow ensures this accuracy, nothing at all follows about whether the community of philosophers ought to accept his management of the project.

6. It does not matter whether signing the September Statement would be an “empty gesture.”
The fourth argument is that signing the September Statement is an empty gesture for those who are unlikely to be asked to participate in PGR surveys—declining to perform a service one is not asked to perform is a hollow and meaningless protest.

I do not accept this argument. In effect, it limits the right to carry pitchforks to those who have no need for pitchforks. What matters is not that the commitment to non-cooperation might somehow make the PGR survey impracticable. Rather, what matters it that mass non-cooperation expresses the community’s intolerance for the behaviour in question. The point is not to send a message to Prof. Leiter himself—he is well aware of the many objections that have been raised. Instead, the point is to send a message to every person who, for whatever reason, finds herself vulnerable within a profession supposedly dedicated to impersonal truth. Either such a person can trust that the members of the community will vouchsafe her right to pursue truth as she sees appropriate, or she cannot. If so, then it is incumbent on us that we not tolerate any abuse of power that might suppress her inquiry. If not, then no competing Millian argument can have any force.

I am aware that this is, at the end of the day, an extraordinarily petty squabble between highly-privileged First World academics. Many years ago, I was an activist in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Were this a similar revolutionary context, there is no philosopher I would rather have alongside me in the trenches than Brian Leiter. Nevertheless, were he my comrade in some such struggle, I would be bound to tell him that, in this matter, he has become a liability to the cause of the Good and the True, and that it now behoves him to abdicate his position. We need to keep our focus on what matters. The current imbroglio concerns far more than the interests or stature of any individual—it goes to the quality of our practice as philosophers and to the sincerity of our common moral commitments.

Simon Cabulea May

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