A Tale of Two Conferences (UPDATED)

Last weekend, the Society for Analytical Feminism (SAF) held its 2016 conference. This weekend, the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) held its 2016 Midwest conference. I did not attend either of these conferences, but I did hear about them. As one might expect, they had a lot in common with other conferences: a fair amount of anticipation in advance, a mix of good and bad philosophy talks, some great points and also some head-scratchers in the q&a’s, the enjoyment of philosophical camaraderie after hours, and so on.

These two meetings were also each the meetings of like-minded philosophers. The SAF meeting was attended largely by feminists, the SCP largely by Christians. Feminism and Christianity are each rather big tents, of course—big enough for lots of disagreement within them. But still, there’s some set of substantive claims associated with each, and many of the attendees at these conferences endorse a sizable subset of those respective claims (which makes those conferences a bit different from, say, a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, or a conference on causation).

It would be helpful to have a name for these types of gatherings. Let’s call them resonance conferences. Resonance connotes importance and agreement, and its technical meaning involves different objects vibrating at the same frequency—works pretty well as a metaphor, I think.

Do resonance conferences have a different feel to them than standard philosophy conferences, and if so, how?

I suspect one difference is that disagreement feels worse at resonance conferences. In part this is because people may go in expecting, well, resonance—people let their guard down among the like-minded—and so can be caught off guard by disagreement they did not brace themselves for. At standard philosophy conferences, one goes in expecting disagreement from top to bottom. An additional part to this may be that disagreement over one particular matter may be more frustrating with a party who agrees with you on nearly everything else than with someone with whom you have few views in common.

Another difference might be that attendees at resonance conferences, in virtue of being members of a shared community of sorts, take what happens at such meetings more personally than they might at standard philosophy conferences. They may feel as if they are identified with what happens or with what others say at these meetings, so when something goes wrong, they feel it reflects on them personally. In turn, this may motivate people to try to “make things right,” either by working hard to eliminate disagreement or even by engaging in a kind of public-relations damage control.

Perhaps there are other differences, too.

I ask about these because both the SAF and SCP meetings featured what ended up being controversial keynote addresses that divided their audiences.

At the SAF, some members of the audience found the keynote talk by Tommie Shelby (Harvard), drawn from his forthcoming book Dark Ghettos, highly objectionable. My understanding (which may not be entirely accurate) is that the controversy concerned some remarks in the talk about procreative ethics, how (as he puts it in an earlier article), “basic duties are not suspended or void because one is oppressed,” and whether what he said was disrespectful to poor, black women [apparently this is not the whole story: see UPDATES 2 & 3, below]. Some attendees apparently thought that an apology was in order, perhaps from the organizers.

—– some updates to the preceding part of the post (rest of post continues below updates) —–

UPDATE 1: two days after the SAF conference ended, its organizers sent an email to the participants issuing an apology, and requesting feedback from them regarding the event and future conferences.

UPDATE 2: further details regarding Shelby’s talk can be found in the comment below from “a poor black woman who was there.”

UPDATE 3 (9/26/16): My description of the events at the SAF was misleadingly incomplete. I will be able to say more about this later today or tonight—patience, please—but for now, let me say that I apologize for this error and for some missteps (again, to be elaborated upon later) that led to it. I will be happy to post corrections and helpful comments from others. Here’s one, from Daniel Silvermint (Connecticut) in the comments:

Considering that one of the SAF conference’s co-organizers, Carol Hay, literally wrote the book on the obligation victims have to resist their oppression, the suggestion floating around (here and elsewhere) that SAF apologized for the substance of that view, or tried to silence a keynote in order to enforce ideological purity, is cartoonish. For folks not in attendance, a bit of charitable interpretation might be called for.

—– post continues below —–

Meanwhile, at the SCP, Richard Swinburne (Oxford) delivered a keynote address in which he called homosexuality a “disability” and an “incurable condition,” according to conference attendee J. Edward Hackett (Akron) in a post at Philosophical PercolationsThis led several Christian philosophers to distance themselves from Swinburne’s remarks. For example, in a publicly accessible Facebook post, SCP President Michael Rea (Notre Dame) writes:

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne’s keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward.

Now I don’t want to draw any parallels between the substance of the comments at the center of these events. My sense of things is that Shelby was making a narrow philosophical point about a way in which an act might be objectionable, even if it isn’t all-things-considered so, and even if there are relevant influential structural forces beyond the agent’s control [this isn’t quite right: see this comment also linked to in UPDATE 2]. Swinburne, meanwhile, was explicitly expressing a really stupid view, held by some Christians (and others), that gays and lesbians are defective humans.* Knowing how comment threads go on matters like this, it would probably be best if we didn’t assess the substance of these views here. You have the rest of the internet for that, ok?

What I’m more interested in discussing is what, if anything, should be done when these kinds of things happen. Do the differences between standard and resonance conferences at all suggest differences in the professional obligations of their organizers and attendees? Is the role of keynote speakers different at these events? To what extent are conference organizers responsible for the words of their invited speakers? Is there a default assumption in place that keynote speakers represent in some way the rest of the attendees at a resonance conferences (but not at standard conferences)? And so on.


Josef Albers, Homage to the Square

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square


(*Yes, I understand people will find my characterization of the “defective humans” view as “really stupid” offensive. Please note that comments that are mere complaints about its offensiveness or how it is unfair or how it expresses a bias will not be published unless they actually include an argument for the “defective humans” view that you yourself are willing to—and in fact do—put your name on.)

UPDATE 4 (9/26/16): Eric Schliesser comments on the statement by Michael Rea about Swinburne’s lecture at the SCP. At Philosophical Percolations, J. Edward Hackett shares some further thoughts about the SCP and the lecture, and Helen de Cruz discusses diversity in philosophy of religion.

UPDATE 5 (9/26/16): James K. Stanescu (American U.) on the idea of resonance conferences. Let me note that I did not take myself to be critiquing these conferences.

UPDATE 6 (9/27/16): Please see this message from me.

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