A Philosophical Symposium on ‘Black Lives Matter’ Without Any Black Authors


Recently, the Journal of Political Philosophy  published an issue with a special symposium section on “Black Lives Matter.”  It’s an important and timely subject, and fits with recent calls to bring the tools of philosophy to bear on matters of pressing public concern. A philosopher told me about the symposium last week. I took a quick look and put it in the Heap of Links. A few days later some discussions online alerted me to the fact that I had missed something noteworthy about this collection of essays, given the topic: none of the authors is African-American.

How did this come about? The symposium grew out of a workshop on political violence held at the University of Connecticut a few years ago. Philosophers of color were on the program and were, along with the other participants, invited to submit papers for consideration for publication in the journal—none did, and the editors of the journal did not think to ask others not involved in the workshop to do so.

This past Wednesday, Chris Lebron (Yale, but soon to be at Johns Hopkins) posted about this at Philosopherin the form of an open letter to the journal’s editors:

The idea ‘black lives matter’ is an ethical demand calling for an end to the erasure of black lives and presence by systems of racist power anchored in a history of white supremacy…

So, if you might—please do—try to imagine my distaste when it was brought to my attention that your journal published a philosophical symposium on ‘black lives matter’ with not one philosopher of color represented, without one philosopher of color to convey her or his contextualized sense of a movement that is urgently and justifiably about context.  It certainly cannot be said there was no one to ask. I should know. I just published a book on the philosophical foundations of black lives matter.

Now, it might be the case that this particular symposium is merely unfortunate –the journal asked every black philosopher and political theorist it could find and was turned down. (Disclosure: I was not asked.) From an outside point of view, someone desiring to take on this more generous stance but not wanting to do so on blind faith would have only to do something simple: revisit the journal’s publication record and if it turns out that the topic of race or at least black philosophers, no matter the subject of their work, were decently represented in the journal’s pages, then we have some grounds to extend good faith. But things don’t look very good on this front, either…

[We] can ask whether the journal has in [the past] five years taken the political problem of race seriously as philosophically worthy. One might (or might not) be surprised to learn that at four issues a year, making a total of nearly twenty issues (including a special issue titled “Philosophy, Politics, and Society”), the Journal of Political Philosophy has not published a single article on the philosophy of race: voting, elections, immigration, global markets, and animals have gotten their time in the journal’s sun. But as black Americans, and the philosophers who study racial inequality—a political philosophical problem—have directly engaged one of our era’s most sinister moral and political quandaries, the journal has failed to represent race in its pages. Maybe more damning, so far as I can tell, not one black philosopher has seen her or his work appear in the pages of your respected journal, on race or any other topic.

You can see, then, how at this point the generous reading of the mishandling of the symposium comes under significant pressure… 

The next day, the editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy, Robert Goodin, along with co-editors Lea Ypi, Nicholas Southwood, and Christian Barry posted a response, also at Philosopher:

We, the Editors, sincerely apologise for the oversight in not including a Black author in a Symposium explicitly entitled ‘Black Lives Matter’. We accept the point eloquently and forcefully made by our colleagues that this is an especially grave oversight in light of the specific focus of Black Lives Matter on the extent to which African-Americans have been erased and marginalised from public life. Part of the mission of the JPP is to raise awareness of ongoing injustices in our societies. We appreciate and encourage having an engaged and politically active scholarly community willing to hold
everyone working in the profession to account. 

We have learnt important lessons here and will do our utmost to avoid such oversights and errors in the future and to be more sensitive in the manner we encourage, curate, frame and present work that engages with issues of grievous and persistent injustice.

They then outline some changes they will be making at the journal in response to this series of events, including adding at least two African-Americans to the journal’s editorial board.

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Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“…We have learnt important lessons here…” Ok. What were those?Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Greg,

Are you chastising them for not being explicit or can you not think of plausible lessons that they might have learned?Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  recent grad
4 years ago

Neither. I can speculate all day long about what might have been in their minds when they wrote that, but so what? The fact is, I don’t know what they learned. It would be great to know.Report

TL
TL
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

From the article above:

“They then outline some changes they will be making at the journal in response to this series of events, including adding at least two African-Americans to the journal’s editorial board.”

From the Open Letter itself, which was linked above:

“In terms of concrete steps: We have scheduled a meeting of the Editors to review our procedures for Symposia, which we now see are plainly inadequate. We will also be issuing invitations with a mind to adding at least two African-Americans to our Editorial Board in the near future (there are currently six persons of colour but, alas, no African American). More generally, we will be working harder to encourage work from philosophers and political theorists of colour as we have done with
women and young scholars in the past, and we will revise our editorial guidelines to reflect this commitment.”Report

JT
JT
4 years ago

This is a very clear case of certain black philosophers having the same opportunity as certain white philosophers. The white but not the black philosophers availed themselves of this opportunity. (Which tells us next to nothing about either group; maybe the black philosophers who didn’t submit their work for this symposium expect to publish in a more prestigious venue, e.g.) Given the underlying equality of opportunity here*, this can hardly be described as erasure or marginalization.

One could argue that there are epistemic reasons, maybe deriving from standpoint epistemology, or what have you, for seeking out black authors (and so deviating from equal opportunity). Are there tenets of standpoint epistemology that would license such a search and that are by now so well-established that philosophy journals are expected to base their practices on them? Given the difficulties of establishing philosophical doctrines to the degree required for them to be mandatory for journals, this seems unlikely. But I am willing to learn.

I recognize that the racial make-up of the symposium is super awkward. It just looks bad. But if anyone should be able to look past such subjective reactions, we philosophers should.

*The equal opportunity here of course has to do with the opportunities created specifically by the journal. I take it that the equality of these opportunities is what’s relevant, as academic journals are not in the business of trying to mitigate inequalities in opportunity resulting from, e.g., childhood educational opportunities. An academic journal should not, for example, practice affirmative action in its publication decisions.Report

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

JT – I am in no position to respond to your query around standpoint epistemology.

But, there are non-epistemic considerations that recommend seeking out certain authors to comment on BLM. I am going to suggest one that is pretty straightforward. It’s really basic and not particularly insightful, but on the other hand it is something that, if you haven’t encountered it, can be unfamiliar and surprising.

Journals are special public venues for philosophical discussion and JPP is a somewhat prominent one. I invite you to imagine them as spaces for the public performance of philosophical discourse – public stages, if you will, where philosophy is enacted in the same way that Shakespeare is enacted on stages all over the world.

An ineliminable element of a performance is the cast of players. Who makes up this cast matters. It makes a big difference to the character of the performance. The substance of the performance changes with the cast, even as the text on the page remains static.

So, here’s the simple point: An all-white cast of philosophers opining publicly in a prominent venue about BLM sends a pretty distinctive message to everyone. I’ll leave it to you to decode that message and why people are reasonable in being upset by it. Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

JT asks: Are there tenets of standpoint epistemology that would license such a search and that are by now so well-established that philosophy journals are expected to base their practices on them?””

I think the answer is yes.

“Standpoint epistemology” is a label that tends to get used for a wide package of views in various contexts, some of which are controversial. But I think some relevant elements of standpoint epistemology are uncontroversial to the point of being obvious. The idea, for example, that a lived experience as a black American might put one in a position to develop an epistemically superior perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, is not something I would expect any serious academic to dispute. You don’t have to go too far out on a limb to think hey, maybe including some black authors on this topic is important.

(And not merely as tokens—I’m a bit weirded out by the editors’ description of an “oversight in not including a Black author”. Not to obsess over one small word, but the singular article there really rubs me the wrong way in this context.)Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

[Re JT’s saying, “I take it that the equality of these opportunities is what’s relevant, as academic journals are not in the business of trying to mitigate inequalities in opportunity resulting from, e.g., childhood educational opportunities. An academic journal should not, for example, practice affirmative action in its publication decisions.”]
JT, there is so much to discuss about what you say, but I limit myself to taking up your observations about the business of academic journals. I see that a chief objection of yours (to what you take to be subjective considerations about appearances) is that an academic journal should produce works based solely on the fruits of equality of opportunities and not, for example, practice affirmative action in its publication decisions.
I take it that from your point of view, fairness requires that editors should not attend to social or particularized contexts in the course of publication processes. But I would submit that journals practice many actions, affirmative of a multiplicity of values, in the course of publication decisions. Consider: Were academic journals merely the results of scholars with equal opportunities sending in papers, we would not need editors all all. Referees could just submit scores to some automated process and the scores would determine the publications.
This is not reflective of what we expect from journals, however. Scholars expect editors to exert some quality control over the experiences of writers and readers. We hope that editors select for good referees, consider whether the referee reports are worthwhile, whether the submissions are relevant to the journal, and so on. And when it comes to special issues or special collections of journals, there is an expectation that not just any assembly will suffice as long as a referee scored it as sufficiently satisfactory. A collection generally aims to do more than merely report on the unsolicited submissions of the month, or the quarter. A Symposium or a Very Special Issue typically aspires to offer a deliberately framed window into a deliberately selected topic, that for the editors’ reasons, they deemed to be a topic actively worth the affirmative action of collecting into a non-randomized bundle. (Ach, my mixed metaphors. Windows and bundles? But I hope you get me.) And when editors decide to offer a particular collection that is actually on the topic of a movement dedicated to centering the experiences and testimony of African-Americans, well, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect editors to defer the issue until they can collect more submissions reflective of that particular value.
I’ve guest-edited a couple of special collections; doing so is difficult and doesn’t admit of hands-free randomized equality. So I feel especially moved to write about the considerations that go into such collections, and I am happy to write about this further if I haven’t sufficiently offered reasons to rethink your position.
Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

“This is a very clear case of certain black philosophers having the same opportunity as certain white philosophers. The white but not the black philosophers availed themselves of this opportunity.”

Just a note that the use of “the white philosophers” suggests that every white philosopher on the program submitted a paper, and this appears to be false (or at least unlikely). There were only three papers in the published symposium, and eleven participants in the symposium, the majority of whom appear to be white.* This suggests that many of the white philosophers involved also declined to submit papers.

The reason I’m being nitpicky about this is that I think that it makes a difference if there weren’t actually very many black philosophers who were given this opportunity in the first place.

*I may be mistaken about this–I looked at pictures where I could find them, but I could have got some cases wrong.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

Thanks for the interesting and substantive responses.

In response to Matthew Smith: I don’t see academic journals as analogous to theatrical performances in the way that you do. Or at least, not to the extent that would be needed for this to ground a criticism of the editors’ decisions.

In response to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa: I don’t think that plausible tenet of standpoint epistemology you bring up licenses the practice of searching for authors of particular identities. Black people (in this case) will on average have better epistemic access to certain facts than white people. But this is a tendency whose strength is fairly difficult to quantify and, so, when we’re dealing with three particular authors, doesn’t justify inferring anything about the various authors’ epistemic access from their being white. In general, while we can generalize about the relative degrees of epistemic access of different groups to different sets of facts, I don’t think we should assume that any individual–or any three individuals–has less epistemic access than another individual–or any three individuals–on the basis of race alone.

In response to Kate Norlock: I think of the editor’s job as ensuring quality control. I don’t see affirmative action as contributing to that for the reasons given in my response to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa.Report

DB
DB
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

“I don’t think we should assume that any individual–or any three individuals–has less epistemic access than another individual–or any three individuals–on the basis of race alone.”

I got $5 you are not an individual of color. Report

Carolyn Harvey
Carolyn Harvey
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

You obviously missed the entire point……the ones in the group did not WANT to participate…..yet the narrow minded leaders of the symposium did not think to ask anyone outside the Philosophical Symposium. The leaders of the symposium oversight sincerely apologized for the oversight so your long and obvious right sided opinion needs to get on point.Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I’m curious what people think should have been done had a further solicitation been made to black philosophers and there still were no takers, as was the case with the black participants in the symposium.Report

Kareem Khalifa
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Good question, Daniel. If I were editor in such a scenario, I’d probably be explicit about these efforts in the introduction of the special issue. I would also flag the failure of these efforts as a potential liability of the discussion, roughly for the reasons that Jonathan so nicely articulated.Report

SH
SH
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I can think of several reasonable courses of action. The editors might have expanded the scope of their search to include scholars in related fields, graduate students, or activists involved in BLM. They might have asked for permission to republish already-published material (for example, expanded in-depth blog posts from BLM activists). They might have asked other scholars and activists, including African-Americans, to write responses to the submitted pieces. The editors faced several obstacles: that there is a scarcity of black philosophers; that many are in very junior or marginalized positions; and that prominent black philosophers are probably overwhelmed with requests to provide token diversity in various volumes, committees, etc. These could be addressed by easing the burden on contributors/respondents and casting a wider net. Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  SH
4 years ago

In general I think it’d be prudent to not casting a wider net or go to grad students or activists. If we find that whenever a ‘philosophy of x’ special comes up the net is widened, I think many will perceive topic x to be less rigorous, which will be problematic for the long term goals of people working in field x.Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

In general, possibly, yes. Regardless, considering other facts of the case (e.g., the journal’s consistent lack of representation of black philosophers, no article-length treatment of the philosophy of race for the last 5 years), this general prudence might not follow to the particular, I think. (I am, of course, only going by what’s quoted of the criticism, above.)Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Another possibility, perhaps, would be to simply schedule the publication of the cluster of papers further down the calendar, to permit more time to recruit more participants. I can’t presume to know if this was an option at JPP, but if a collection hasn’t quite the robustness it should, then perhaps running regular unsolicited works in the interim would be an acceptable shifting-around? Depends on whether one has a backlog that accommodates this. Report

Suzy Killmister
Suzy Killmister
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

One simple option would have been to give the symposium a different title – for instance ‘political violence’, which was the title of the conference the papers were drawn from, and which I think better captures the themes addressed in the three papers. Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

JJI wrote:

The idea, for example, that a lived experience as a black American might put one in a position to develop an epistemically superior perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, is not something I would expect any serious academic to dispute.

= = =

Really? I wonder how far you would take this, or whether it would admit of so many exceptions and require so many caveats that it would cease to function as any sort of general principle.

For example, do you think an upper middle class black American professional, say a local banker, living in a nice suburb — and there are thousands upon thousands of such folks — would have an “epistemically superior perspective on the BLM movement” with respect to a non-black sociologist whose research was devoted to the topic or to that of race and policing?

I don’t. Report

Kareem Khalifa
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Daniel, if you’re looking for exceptionless laws governing social phenomena, you’re issuing what strikes me as an unrealistic burden of proof on your interlocutors. It seems as if a POC working on these issues has a high probability of contributing a novel perspective on BLM, especially if that POC has a published track record of offering different takes than the other contributors.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Kareem Khalifa
4 years ago

Who said I’m looking for exceptionless laws? I was just pointing out that the relevant issue is a certain kind of experience, not the color of the person’s skin. Undoubtedly, black Americans are more likely to have had that sort of experience, but as I pointed out there may be hundreds upon hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who have not.Report

Kareem Khalifa
Kareem Khalifa
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Daniel, I’m trying to pinpoint the source of our disagreement, and I’m puzzled. Hers an attempted diagnosis. It seems as if there are three issues at stake: (1) does being a POC increase your probability of having certain kinds of experiences? (2) do those experiences, coupled with the kind of training that is typical of any contributor to JPP, increase the chance that you’ll contribute something worthwhile and novel to a discussion about BLM? (3) Do some white people have these experiences, and could they offer comparably valuable contributions to a discussion of BLM? As far as I can tell, we both answer (1) and (2) affirmatively. So the issue is (3). I’m not as confident as you are that there are throngs of white people who evince a positive answer to this question. Furthermore, your example from your OP doesn’t convince me, partly because it seems to confound experience with academic training.

More germane to me however, is the following: If you chafe at me characterizing your position as a commitment to exceptionalness social-scientific laws, then my question can be rephrased. Given the affirmative answers that I think we’re both committed to for (1) and (2), what’s your objective in pointing out that (1) and (2) are merely probabilistic, but not strict generalizations? Aren’t positive answers to those first two questions sufficient grounds for making more inclusive editorial decisions about who comments on BLM?Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

do you think an upper middle class black American professional, say a local banker, living in a nice suburb — and there are thousands upon thousands of such folks — would have an “epistemically superior perspective on the BLM movement” with respect to a non-black sociologist whose research was devoted to the topic or to that of race and policing?

Daniel, I’m a bit confused at the suggestion that an upper middle class black American professional living in a nice suburb wouldn’t be especially likely to have lived experience relevant to the BLM movement. What experience do you think they would lack?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

I can answer this, but the conversation has somewhat evolved past this initial point. The main thrust in my argument at this point lies in the exchange below, regarding Holocaust scholarship.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Well, I think the point is relevant to that argument, because frankly this suggestion seems to me like the kind of howler I’m talking about below. (Or maybe it isn’t! I don’t have the relevant lived experience either.)Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

Since we are now limiting the discussion to people who are actual professional scholars in the field, the earlier point no longer seems relevant.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Daniel Kaufman, the weak standpoint claim I made does not carry the implication that you are suggesting it does. It does not imply that all black people are more authoritative than all white people, which is why I didn’t suggest any such generalization. It does not deny that “the relevant issue is a certain kind of experience, not the color of the person’s skin.” It does not imply that the epistemic superiority in question is automatic—standpoints are epistemic achievements made possible by social locations.

If you’d like to read up on standpoint epistemology, including these points, one nice entry point is Alison Wylie’s “Why Standpoint Matters”, available here: http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/siap/readings/wylie_standpoint.pdfReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I have read plenty on standpoint epistemology. I’m afraid I don’t find it very persuasive. Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Kareem: We may not have any disagreement. In part, my questions/comments here are inspired by the recent Hypatia fiasco, where it was suggested that you cannot do scholarship about X’s without the testimony of x’s. That just seems to me to be (a) obviously, straightforwardly false and (b) clearly political in a way that is at odds with the imperatives of the Socratic tradition in philosophy and critical scholarship more generally.

I am Jewish and the son of Holocaust Survivors. The Holocaust pervades our family history and stalks us through the generations — mental illness, suicide, etc. of children and grandchildren of those who actually experienced it. Now, if someone told me that there had been a conference on the Holocaust and that none of the participants were Jewish, I wouldn’t immediately conclude that such a thing must be outrageous or pedagogically compromised. Rather, the conference’s credibility would depend solely on the scholarly credentials of the people involved in the conference, and if it turned out that the all-gentile participants were top scholars in the field, that would be it.

Now, is it the case that Jewish scholars might be more likely to have in interest in Holocaust studies? Maybe … it seems reasonable, in a common sense sort of way … but I haven’t done the relevant surveys, and do not know the relevant demographic information about Holocaust scholars. Would it be the case that if there *were* credentialed Jewish scholars who participated that it would be a better conference, from a scholarly perspective? Perhaps, but I highly doubt it. I see no reason why a Jew would be a better Holocaust scholar than a gentile, and similarly, I see no reason why a black American would be a better scholar of police brutality or policing in minority neighborhoods than a non-black one would be.

It seems to me that what is being demanded is a kind of emotional satisfaction rather than something that can be cashed out in scholarly terms. I might be wrong about this, but it strikes me as rather quick, lazy, and yes, political, to suggest, as JJI did, that “no serious academic” would believe it.

Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Daniel Kaufman, I would certainly take emotional satisfaction in a really robust and excellent and diverse collection of perspectives, but I don’t think the desire for such a happy outcome is identical to its being the aim of scholars. (And in his defense, JJI did say “might.” So it’s compatible with his statement that you could find a Black American who may not be a great contributor to perspectives on BLM.)

I read with interest that you’re the son of Holocaust survivors, because I’m certain that I’ve jogged forward, me, a Catholic born in the States post-war, to say sundry things about the Holocaust in professional settings. So I’d be one of those Gentiles, those well-meaning Gentiles! Heh. But I’m going to engage in The Dreaded Comparison now: What if the Holocaust was not widely considered an atrocity? What if it was routinely debated in media and in philosophy today as to whether those of us who keep calling attention to the Holocaust were making things better or worse, or maybe dividing America, or maybe should be quieter and complain less about the genocide? And worse, what if there continued to be, currently, a long, hard stretch where it seems like most of our colleagues don’t demonstrate caring much about the Holocaust, or ever centered the testimony of witnesses and survivors and victims?

With questions like the above, I have the worry that the social and political issues ought not be entirely ignored, when it comes to publishing a Symposium on Black Lives Matter, because I have the worry that the reasons for BLM even being a subject of discussion for writers anywhere are not widely vindicated. Does this reply make sense? Does it help? or do I fail to convey to you what it is that concerns me?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Kate Norlock
4 years ago

Certainly the concern makes sense, but it doesn’t really address the substance of the main point. That is, just as I don’t see why being Jewish would make one a better Holocaust scholar, I don’t see why being black would make one a better scholar of police brutality or of policing in minority neighborhoods.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

It seems to me that, at a minimum, having some black people participating in your symposium on Black Lives Matter* would make it considerably less likely for the participants to commit howlers on the subject that could easily be checked by someone with the everyday experience of a black person in the US. Since the Holocaust was long enough ago that most people participating in a symposium on it today would not have directly experienced it, I don’t think the same issue applies there. If there were a symposium on the Holocaust in 1950 whose participants were all non-Jewish Germans, I’d look more askance at it, no matter how well-intentioned they were. And even in 1950 the Holocaust wasn’t ongoing.

*Although this seems like a misnomer in this case, as Melvin Rogers says that the participants were not aware this would be billed as a symposium on Black Lives Matter, and only one of the papers mentions it.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Daniel Kaufman, sorry, I see that I left out a sentence that was in my head and didn’t make it into my comment, so no wonder you were questioning the relevance of my reply. What I was driving that was that, in the abstract, lifted from any social or historical circumstances, of course you’re right that being X doesn’t necessarily make one a better scholar of X-related things. However, the present occasion occurs in a social and historical context in which we can say that if a Holocaust Studies symposium were held, only three people spoke and none were Jewish persons, it wouldn’t be transparently problematic that there were only scholars who were not Jewish speaking, *because* you and I both exercise this thought experiment in a context in which it is part of the social arrangement of the furniture that survivors and victims have been featured for years in past scholarship in the USA, have been widely vindicated, have been deferred to rightly and often as they provide testimony and perspectives borne of their experiences in and with atrocities. Today you and I can say that the excellence of a three-person Holocaust Studies session with no Jewish persons depends on the qualifications of the speakers (although of course, it doesn’t really just depend on that, as we’d also find it relevant if all three were holocaust-deniers, if all three were not Jewish but were other sorts of victims or survivors, etc.). We’re not operating in a sociohistorical context in which Holocaust survivors in the USA today have been recently and widely doubted, ignored, incarcerated, etc., or a context in which we still have papers on the topic that *victims of this genocide actually matter.*

That was my point in asking the what-ifs. In the abstract, without any consideration of the historical or social circumstances, you are correct, being a member of group X does not inevitably and necessarily make you a better scholar of X-related issues than any possible scholar who is not a member of the group. I agree with you about the abstract and universal claim. But the Open Letter by Chris Lebron wasn’t written in the abstract, outside of sociohistorical circumstances. It was written about a symposium on the topic of Black Lives Matter, at a time when survivors and victims and Black Americans who participate in related political movements are not widely vindicated, are not centrally featured in stories and scholarship about Black Americans, are ignored, are doubted, are incarcerated. And the topic isn’t just group-related issues generally. The topic is (purportedly, according to the journal, since it was not the topic of the conference from which these papers came) about BLM in particular, a movement that, as Lebron’s Open Letter says, is more specific and asserts an ethical demand to attend to the assertions of African Americans that Black Lives Matter.

That is what I was getting at.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Kate Norlock
4 years ago

I’m still not sure I understand the point/question, so if what I say here is not responsive please forgive me. But it doesn’t seem to me that the point of academic scholarship is to “vindicate” various political positions but rather to determine what is — in the case of sociological investigation — true, empirically speaking. And I don’t see why a properly trained, well-researched non-black sociologist of crime and policing would be any less equipped to investigate the question of policing and minority populations than a black sociologist of crime and policing.

Now, I am aware that the symposium in question involved philosophical, rather than empirical investigation, but I don’t think that matters with respect to the question at hand, unless we have decided that philosophy no longer operates in the critical/Socratic tradition, but rather belongs to the genre of advocacy. That may be the case, though I certainly hope it is not, and it certainly is not how I and many other philosophers think of what they do.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

This is going to pull in some threads from below, but perhaps the issue is something like this: We have, in the discussion of Black Lives Matter, an issue that in part specifically concerns a failure on the part of other people to take seriously the concerns and testimony of black people. Black people have been describing their treatment at the hands of police for a long time and what they say about their own experiences simply is not being given the weight that we would give other people–in the courtroom, in the weight of public opinion. I’m not an expert on this, but I do read about a fair amount of cases and I’ve looked at some Department of Justice reports on police departments in e.g. Baltimore and Chicago and it’s really impossible not to notice the epistemic injustice there, if you don’t begin with the prior assumption that black people are to be disbelieved and police are to be believed.

So the issue here (as I see it) is not that scholarship needs to vindicate the political positions of Black Lives Matter, whatever may be. It’s that scholarship needs to listen to the testimony of black people and, I suppose, to acknowledge the fact that black lives do, in fact, matter. That’s what, to quote Kate, “an ethical demand to attend to the assertions of African Americans that Black Lives Matter” means, I take it. You can’t discover what’s true if you don’t start with these points; but, looking at the social context (again, as Kate points out), it is apparent that these points are not generally acknowledged in practice.

So, you might ask, why couldn’t a group of entirely white properly trained sociologists be just as well equipped to acknowledge these things and to get at the truth here? Well, if society at large discounts black testimony and treats black lives as less valuable, there’s no reason to think that academics would be exempt from that. And the best way to make sure that you aren’t discounting black testimony would be to include black people in your conversation. Not to fall back on abstract arguments about how black people’s accounts of their own experiences are mere “anecdotal experience” and they aren’t worth anything unless they’ve been processed as empirical research (which, in our story, is being done by white people only). Not that white people can’t talk about these issues or get at the truth! But if the group involved in a discussion is entirely white, that seems like evidence that they aren’t in fact giving proper weight to the testimony of black people, and thus are much less likely to get things right.

And if it’s a group of white analytic philosophers… well, much as I love analytic philosophy, it wouldn’t exactly be unheard of for a bunch of philosophers to talk about something and totally miss some of the important empirical facts that bore on it. Or to retreat into a bunch of airy abstractions that fail to engage with the social context of how race (and gender) actually work in today’s society. (In this case, according to Chris LeBron, the journal in question hadn’t published anything else engaging in philosophy of race at all in the past five years.) So the chance of a group of all-white philosophers making basic mistakes in philosophy of race by failing to properly take into account the testimony of black people would seem to be very high.

(To be clear: I’m not criticizing the philosophers who contributed to this symposium at all, since they apparently weren’t told it would be billed as a symposium on Black Lives Matter. And the steps the editors of the journal are making going forward seem constructive. They aren’t making the argument that I’m objecting to here.)

The analogy isn’t really non-Jewish Holocaust scholars. It’s more like a panel consisting entirely of non-Jews talking about the Holocaust in a country where more than half of the non-Jews are Holocaust deniers, even though there are a lot of Holocaust survivors in that country telling their story. In that case, I would think that the panel had messed up in thinking that it wasn’t important to hear from the people whose actual experiences were being so widely discounted; even if none of them were deniers themselves.Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Matt wrote:

It seems to me that, at a minimum, having some black people participating in your symposium on Black Lives Matter* would make it considerably less likely for the participants to commit howlers on the subject that could easily be checked by someone with the everyday experience of a black person in the US.

= = =

I guess this is just something we will just have to disagree on. I see no reason for thinking this is true. Someone who is a competently trained scholar in sociology or criminology or any relevant field with respect to the subject of policing should not be committing “howlers.” And I don’t see the relevance to the point about having experienced something and time having passed, when the question is academic scholarship, which should be based on empirical research rather than anecdotal experience.

So, yes, I think the cases are analogous in all the relevant senses and I have yet to hear anything here that would persuade me otherwise.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I find this whole discussion stunning. If there were a bunch of philosophers of math who’d never actually practiced math themselves, and they were making certain arguments, and a trained mathematician said “Hey you’re doing this wrong,” I don’t think we’d have any problem with the idea that the philosophers should at least respond to what the mathematicians have to say, or that the philosophers might commit howlers due to their lack of mathematical training.

But when it’s a bunch of white philosophers talking about the experiences of black people, it’s somehow absurd to suggest that they might gain from the perspective of actual black people. That’s anecdotal experience! Our scholarship should be based on empirical research, in which black people are kept strictly as objects of study. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

(To be clear, paragraph two is sarcastic.) Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

If you don’t see the difference between having no scholarly expertise in math and talking about math on the one hand, and having scholarly expertise on crime and policing among minority communities, but not being a minority oneself, I don’t know what to tell you. The relevant difference is obvious to me. And it seems to me that your attitude on this — your “being stunned” — should extend to the Holocaust example. You should find it “stunning” that gentile Holocaust scholars should be engaged in scholarship in which “Jews are kept as objects of study.”

I don’t think about scholarship like this at all. So, I guess we are just too far apart on what professional academic scholarship consists of to be able to communicate very effectively with one another on the subject.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

We wouldn’t defer or respond to the mathematician because they simply have experience and a degree, we’d take them seriously because just about every mathematician would be able to point out the problem in the same way, they would all agree on what the problem was, and there’s plenty of evidence that when a mathematician points something is wrong in maths they’re able to demonstrate it to us, and convincingly respond to all of our objections. None of these things occur when it comes to the topic at hand. If the mathematicians disagreed, we wouldn’t know who to support. If many agreed with us but there was a separate batch of smathematicians who said that they used a different form of smaths which the regular mathematicians didn’t understand, then we’d really be in trouble. But the point is it would not be obvious that one group was right simply in virtue of their experience.

I wonder how you’d respond if said mathematician came along and said ‘actually, we can’t conclude a lack of due diligence or injustice has occurred, because we need to look at the base rates. When you look at the number of black philosophers (very few), who work in a relevant field, who were available and who the editors had access to, take into account the very few spots available and some reasonable margin for innocent human error, the chances of this result occurring by chance were pretty high’. (I’m not saying this was in fact the case, I’m just saying we can’t go from ‘none appeared’ and ‘I wasn’t asked’ and ‘this journal hasn’t published on this topic before’ to ‘therefore an injustice has occurred’, and that arguments about experience and expertise cut both ways.)Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

“the chances of this result occurring by chance were pretty high”

The argument wasn’t that the number of black philosophers participating is less than you’d expect from a random sample. The argument is that a discussion of Black Lives Matter (which, again, this wasn’t really) that doesn’t include black people is likely to be missing something important.

As Paul Whitfield says below, the low proportion of black philosophers in general won’t help mitigate that issue. Quite the reverse.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
4 years ago

My worry with this discussion is how on any other topic, such responses would be seen as virtually unfalsifiable.

You think we can reasonably disagree? Oh, you must not be familiar with the standpoint literature.
Oh you are? You must not have thought about it enough, here’s some counterexamples
Oh you don’t think they’re counter examples? Here’s some other ways of putting it
They didn’t work? This discussion is stunning!

I also think it’s important to remember given the low numbers of POC philosophers, and how they’re even less underrepresented in certain fields, and the low number of articles accepted for publication, there will *many* instances of conferences and journals having no representation *even if no biases, discrimination, or lack of due diligence occurs*. We can agree the discipline as a whole has issues, it doesn’t follow that every instance of low representation was caused by some fault on the organiser’s part. I’m reminded of when UC Berkeley was worried about being sued for what looked like clear cases of gender discrimination, but which further scrutiny revealed to be a harmless case of Simpson’s paradox. Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
Reply to  Edward Teach
4 years ago

I don’t understand. I assume that systemic issues, in “the discipline as a whole”, are entirely composed of individual cases of injustice (mereologically, so to speak). I think the point of the significant criticism, by Dr. Lebron (as quoted above), is quite simply that the journal could’ve done more. I don’t find that fact substantially contestable. This particular instance of low representation could’ve been avoided by actions on the part of the organizers, as clearly shown by Dr. Lebron. I’m not at all one for revenge, but to say there wasn’t anything wrong done here seems to tread too far into professional ignorance, ignoring professional negligence.

If there is a systemic issue, individuals should do what they can, on an individual basis (journal by journal, special issue by special issue), to help the discipline toward its resolution. Exculpating an individual case’s problems by citing those problems as existing “generally” (in some possibly non-individuated sense), strikes me as odd, as I take the implication of Dr. Lebron’s criticism to be that those “*many* instances” of epistemic, academic injustice do not, at all, relieve any actors of the responsibility to do what they can *not* to enact such an instance. They could have and should have done more.Report

Miki
Miki
4 years ago

This is a prime example of epistemic injustice. For those who think it’s not, please read Chris Lebron’s commentary. White philosophers on this page & assume other places won’t learn the important lesson of the absurdity of the journal. What i see on this page is, *white* philosophers being defensive and by pointing out (implicitly) the fault of *black* philosophers.. Report

Prabhu
Prabhu
4 years ago

Daniel, I understand your argument that a social scientific analysis of the BLM movement would be based on empirical research and that a competently trained sociologist of race, or criminologist would, regardless of their own racial identity, in principle be as likely to make a significant contribution to scholarship as a person of the relevant minority group. But you also note in one of your comments above that you recognize that the JPP symposium was to be a philosophy symposium. You then go on to state “I don’t think that matters with respect to the question at hand, unless we have decided that philosophy no longer operates in the critical/Socratic tradition, but rather belongs to the genre of advocacy.”

But it seems to me that operating in the critical/Socratic tradition still leaves room for doing the kind of philosophical analysis that, while not political advocacy, does not fall under *social scientific analysis* of empirical data. I’m thinking, in particular, of the sort of conceptual analysis that philosophers perform of phenomenological experience. Now, if African Americans have a certain sort of experience when dealing with law enforcement, then a trained African American philosopher would be in a position to *philosophically* analyze (as opposed to analyze in a social scientific way) their own experience as well as those of other African Americans.

The closest parallel example of this that I can give that also affects me personally is on the issue of immigration. Of course, nonimmigrant legal scholars and sociologists who work in this field can make contributions in law and sociology that are every bit as insightful and significant as immigrant legal scholars and sociologists. And nonimmigrant philosophers can similarly make (and have made) significant philosophical contributions to the field of immigration studies. But there is a certain sort of philosophical analysis that I think an immigrant philosopher (or perhaps a philosopher married to an immigrant) would be able to perform particularly well, namely an analysis of the phenomenological experience of being an immigrant in country X at this particular time. So, if one grants that analyses of the latter sort do count as doing good philosophy, then it seems to me that there is an important role for such contributions by immigrant philosophers, *given* the current political climate in which we live. (I do think the importance/necessity for soliciting such contributions is contingent upon the current status of the socio-political world. This doesn’t make it advocacy studies (unless one rejects the experiences of certain immigrants as “unrepresentative” and hence unworthy of analysis), because, of course, not all philosophical questions are concerned with eternal non-contingent truths.)

So, this might explain how, in the current climate with respect to relations between law enforcement officials and the African American community, a *philosophy* symposium on BLM would have an important place for certain sorts contributions (i.e., phenomenological analysis) from AA philosophers.

My point is not to say that scholars from minority communities should only work on phenomenological analysis; rather, it’s to point out that this is one area where they are in a position to make a unique sort of contribution, and to the extent that folks insist on “group”-representation in symposia, such contributions could serve as the grounds for this insistence. So, there is room for philosophical contributions on race that aren’t sociological in character, and yet are likely to be made by people from the relevant group.
Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Prabhu
4 years ago

Certainly if one thinks phenomenology a useful form of inquiry, what you say makes perfect sense. I am rather crusty analytic philosopher, so I’m not really the market for that sort of thing, but it would make the race of the scholar relevant in a way that it otherwise would not be.Report

Doug
Doug
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Philosophy is, or contains — has room for — .the practice of a first-person discipline which interrogates normative dimensions of life, in a way that the social sciences do not. This is one way of describing the “Socratic method,” for example, which you praise somewhere above. Is it your view that analytic philosophy does not have room for first person interrogation of norms? It almost looks as if you want philosophy to be.a social science — which you’re allowed to want, but which I would argue (by giving examples, if nothing else) is not synonymous with being “analytic.” There are some deep questions of method in the vicinity here, but the view you’re defending strikes me as being rather extreme.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Doug
4 years ago

.the practice of a first-person discipline which interrogates normative dimensions of life, in a way that the social sciences do not.
= = =
If by this you mean something like what Kant does, then yes, of course. Otherwise, I can’t say that this characterization is very clear to me. If all you mean is the inspection of one’s conscience, then I would say that such inspection lacks the rigor — or logical neutrality — that analytic philosophy requires. (I am thinking of Anscombe’s remarks on appeals to conscience in her “Modern Moral Philosophy.”)Report

Raf
Raf
4 years ago

Were any critics of Black Lives Matter included in the symposium? If not, isn’t this an oversight that is at least as important as the one currently under discussion?Report

Mateo
Mateo
Reply to  Raf
4 years ago

No, it’s probably not an oversight at all, although I think things get a little complicated. Suppose there was a symposium on interracial marriage. Would it be a problem if there were no critics of interracial marriage in the symposium? No, because given how bad (from a philosophical perspective) the arguments against interracial marriage are it would not be very surprising that no invited contributor argued against interracial marriage, or that any that did do this offered poor arguments that were unable to pass peer-review. And this conclusion holds even if there is still significant public controversy and disagreement about the topic in question. Thus, if the symposium was published by a US based philosophy journal in the 1980’s when the American public was evenly split on the question of interracial marriage it would still not be a problem that there were no anti-interracial marriage contributions as the arguments against interracial marriage in the 1980’s were just as bad as they are now.

Now, when it comes to the core-tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement I think we are in similar territory. Arguments against those tenets are bad enough (from a philosophical perspective) that it is not problematic at all if we don’t have voices opposing them. However, the complication is that some of the periphery claims made members of the BLM movement and some of the political tactics the movement employs may be in a different territory where there are some philosophically interesting counter-arguments that deserve discussion. A symposium on BLM with many contributors that discussed these periphery claims and political tactics at length but had no critical views expressed would be one that was poorly put together. However, this does not seem to be the situation of the symposium under discussion. Report

Raf
Raf
Reply to  Mateo
4 years ago

I agree with you that “it was probably not an oversight” (in the sense of an unintentional omission). But can you name some professional philosophers who have argued against the central tenets of Black Lives Matter?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Mateo
4 years ago

It seems to me that the causes of our problems with policing are much more highly disputable — and are much more highly disputed by sociologists and criminologists — than whether or not interracial marriage is either harmful or wrong.

I’ve talked criminologists and sociologists at my own university who work on crime and policing, and not all of them are convinced by any means that the problem is due to racism on part of the police — or at least, that this is the sole or even the most significant cause.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

“the problem is due to racism on part of the police”

This is hard to get a hold of–what is the “problem” exactly, and what sort of racism on the part of the police do we mean?–but it’s not clear that all of the papers in the symposium argue for the idea that the problem is due to racism on the part of the police.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Matt Weiner
4 years ago

The problem that BLM seeks to address. I thought that was what we were talking about.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

It seems to me that there isn’t one singular problem that BLM seeks to address, so I’m still not sure whether all the papers are meant to argue that that problem is due to racism on the part of the police. Especially since two of the papers don’t mention Black Lives Matter by name. (The one that does does mention “racist enforcement of laws” by the Ferguson Police Department as contributing to the vulnerability of the minority community, but that is well supported by the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department that they cite.)

Anyhow, the arguments for having black people participate in a symposium on BLM (which, again, is not what the authors thought they were contributing to anyway) are different from arguments for having BLM critics participate in a symposium on BLM. Lots of symposia presuppose some sort of common viewpoint. It wouldn’t be strange to have a symposium on Kantian legal theory where every participant was a Kantian of some stripe. Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  Raf
4 years ago

“Were any critics of Black Lives Matter included in the symposium? If not, isn’t this an oversight that is at least as important as the one currently under discussion?”

I guess that’s another one to add to the list: https://www.buzzfeed.com/jonathanichikawa/11-ideas-philosophers-refuse-to-take-seriously-2mes5?utm_term=.xma5rgoWQ#.lcRzA0dWgReport

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

You really love your dogmas and orthodoxies, that’s quite clear.

I don’t think that *any* political movement is beyond legitimate, philosophical criticism. If democracy itself is subject to legitimate criticism, then how can it be the case that political movements within a democracy — like BLM — are beyond it?

Linked essay is cute, but not any sort of argument. And it won’t persuade anyone who isn’t already on your side of these questions.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

There might also be opportunities to philosophically critique BLM based on the work of Forman:

http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4599&context=fss_papers

and Reed (scroll down for a bullet-point summary of his criticisms of BLM):

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/adolph-reed-blm-racism-capitalism-labor/

The more I think about it, the more absurd I find the proposition that there’s no room for philosophical criticism of BLM. Is there any other social movement like that in history? If you want to stick to intra-left debates, we get lots of fodder for productive philosophy from discussion of feminist movements and the 1960s civil rights movement. (Of course, this is not to say the omission of such criticism from the symposium in question is an oversight.)Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
4 years ago

Oops, hit the wrong ‘reply’. This was supposed to go below my comment of 5/29/3:13.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I’m assuming that at least one of the ideas associated with BLM that Raf thought should be debated is the thesis that black lives are exceptionally threatened by racially biased white people or white institutions. The social scientific research on police killings by race is complex and doesn’t yet yield an unambiguous answer on this issue. I assume you’re aware of Roland Fryer’s work on this. I’m aware his study is a long way from refuting the BLM idea in question–he’s produced one study indicating that police are less likely to kill blacks than whites given a police encounter, faces legitimate methodological critiques, and there are other studies that suggest a very different picture. Furthermore, his data paint a different picture about other kinds of police violence. But Fryer’s conclusion about killings doesn’t deserve to be dismissed, and it does open up room for legitimate skepticism about the BLM thesis in question.

As for the response that blacks are more likely than whites to encounter the police in the first place, there is a legitimate debate to be had about why this is, too. Here are people having this debate:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CQ5_qO6YJw

Based on what I’ve seen of Intelligence Squared, which is quite a bit, I would say that it would be a bad idea for the philosophical community to narrow the range of acceptable views more than Intelligence Squared.

(For the record, I think that in the debate I link to, the case for widespread racially-motivated policing got side-tracked by statistical issues and would have been stronger had they focused on some qualitative evidence from documents like the DoJ Ferguson report.)Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

I don’t think we need to resort to standpoint theory (which has some more or less controversial aspects) to support the claim that something is wrong with running a symposium on BLM without any philosophers of colour. We can instead appeal to a performative analysis: what kind of (group) speech act is being performed in this case? This is precisely why context is crucial: context partly determines what kind of speech act is being performed. I am reminded of the picture of the all-male Saudi conference on women’s rights that did the rounds a couple of years ago: in a social context such as Saudi Arabia’s in which women have less rights than men and men have authority over women, it seems plausible to say that such a conference is (at least in some ways) compounding the subordination of women, rather than liberating them, and that this is true no matter how well-intentioned or knowledgeable the all-male participants might have been. Report

Helen
Helen
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

“in a social context such as Saudi Arabia’s in which women have less rights than men and men have authority over women, it seems plausible to say that such a conference is (at least in some ways) compounding the subordination of women, rather than liberating them, and that this is true no matter how well-intentioned or knowledgeable the all-male participants might have been.”

It doesn’t seem plausible to all of us, beauvoir’s baby. This phenomenology can best be explained, perhaps, as a reflection of the subculture in which you’ve been immersed. Why think it’s anything more?Report

prime
prime
Reply to  Helen
4 years ago

“It doesn’t seem plausible to all of us, beauvoir’s baby. This phenomenology can best be explained, perhaps, as a reflection of the subculture in which you’ve been immersed.”

At least the JPP editors had the decency to realize — immediately after the obvious was pointed out — that the subcultures in which they’ve been immersed should not lead them to double down on phenomena BLM (among other such movements over the past few hundred years) seeks to address. YMMVReport

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Helen
4 years ago

Helen, what doesn’t seem plausible to you, exactly? And which or what phenomenology are you referring to when you say “this phenomenology”? My sense of what seems plausible? It seems odd to call that phenomenology. I really do not understand your reply at all. Report

Helen
Helen
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

What I mean, beauvoir’s baby, is that while *you* might find it plausible to say that the sort of conference you describe in Saudi Arabia is “(at least in some ways) compounding the subordination of women, rather than liberating them, and that this is true no matter how well-intentioned or knowledgeable the all-male participants might have been,” that claim does not seem at all plausible to me, and I suspect that it wouldn’t be plausible to many other readers. I think the fact that you find it plausible to draw that conclusion is best explained by the fact that you may be immersed in the social practices and biases of a particular intellectual subgroup you appear to be running with.

Since mere appeals to plausibility won’t suffice to make your case with many of us, I’m inviting you to provide reasons for thinking that the Saudi conference compounded the subordination of women. How, exactly, do you think it did that? Can you please explain?Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Helen
4 years ago

Hi Helen, I’ll try to explain again. I appreciate your invitation to clarify what I said, and I’ll also ask you to take up a more charitable stance toward me, rather than assuming that if I say something that sounds odd to you it must be a result of “biases”.

What I had in mind is speech act theory. Are you familiar with JL Austin? He argued that utterances are not only expressions of propositions but kinds of actions performed with speech. For example, apologies, commands, etc. Contemporary philosophers such as Rae Langton and Mary Kate McGowan have used Austin’s thought to make the case for how certain kinds of speech acts can contribute to systems of oppression.

I think that the example of an all-male conference on women’s rights, in a social and legal context in which men have authority over women, is a (group) act which exercises authority over women, thereby perpetuating the oppression of women by men in that particular context. To give one half of the population authority over the other in virtue of their reproductive capacities is to oppress the group over whom the authority is exercised. Rights are supposed to protect against oppression, but in this case rights discourse is being appropriated in such a way as to enact oppression.

I think something similar is going on in the case of a symposium on BLM where all the participants are white. In a social context in which black lives matter less (that is, are treated as less valuable) than white lives, a symposium which seeks to redress the devaluation of black people’s lives which does not include black people and is composed entirely of white people enacts the social pattern whereby black lives matter less than white lives, made particularly salient in this case because the aim of the discussion is making black lives matter more. The enactment of this social pattern does not depend on the intentions of the people doing the enacting. When the aims of the conference are to mitigate the devaluation of black lives, but the conference (unintentionally) enacts the devaluation of black lives in favour of white lives, there is an obvious tension.

The journal editor/s recognised this obvious tension. Many people share their intuition. I don’t think we need standpoint theory to justify this intuition. I think an understanding of what kind of act is performed in a particular context is sufficient to justify this intuition.

Happy to hear where I went wrong.Report

Helen
Helen
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

Thanks, beauvoir’s baby.

You say, “I think that the example of an all-male conference on women’s rights, in a social and legal context in which men have authority over women, is a (group) act which exercises authority over women, thereby perpetuating the oppression of women by men in that particular context. To give one half of the population authority over the other in virtue of their reproductive capacities is to oppress the group over whom the authority is exercised. Rights are supposed to protect against oppression, but in this case rights discourse is being appropriated in such a way as to enact oppression.”

Whoa, let’s slow down a little, please.

“I think that the example of an all-male conference on women’s rights, in a social and legal context in which men have authority over women, is a (group) act which exercises authority over women…”

Okay, you think this. I’m aware of that. But what I asked was not a clarification or repetition of what you think: I was asking whether you have a justification for that belief. I’d like to know whether it’s a belief that I should accept, too, or whether there’s nothing to be said for it and it’s just a manifestation of a bias that’s very familiar to your ideological subgroup. So far, I’m not hearing any justification.

“…thereby perpetuating the oppression of women by men in that particular context.”

This, again, is something you believe. But you’re not telling us why it’s a reasonable thing to believe.

“To give one half of the population authority over the other in virtue of their reproductive capacities is to oppress the group over whom the authority is exercised.”

Is there some important background to the Saudi Arabian conference that you didn’t tell us? Did the conference endorse the authority of men over women in some way you didn’t make clear yet? Were the men who presented at the conference selected *just because* they are men? Did the conference organizers, or the men who presented, do something to systematically exclude women who would otherwise have been presenting, too? If so, what did they do?

“Rights are supposed to protect against oppression,”

Yes…

“… but in this case rights discourse is being appropriated in such a way as to enact oppression.”

But how? This is the point I was asking you to support. Do you have any support for this assertion? Or is it merely a statement of what you happen to think on the basis of no adequate evidence? If you have adequate evidence for it, what is that evidence, please?Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

Hi Helen, I guess it looks very obvious to me, but not so obvious to you. A conference on women’s rights involves discussion about what rights properly belong to women. At the Saudi Arabian conference on women’s rights, the all-male participants made decisions about women’s rights or endorsed / rejected policies pertaining to women’s rights with a view to influencing social and legal policy. Rights either enable or prohibit actions, so to decide someone’s rights is to exercise authority over their possible actions. The all-male group was therefore exercising authority over Saudi Arabian women. The social and legal context in which men have authority over women is what made this exercise of authority possible, and also what makes the event a specific enactment of the authority men have over women in Saudi Arabia generally.Report

Helen
Helen
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

Hi, beauvoir’s baby.

What “looks very obvious” to you just seems like bad reasoning. I really think you need to look at what you said and consider how much sense it makes on its own, away from the social pressure of people who are terrified at being shunned for saying the wrong thing.

“At the Saudi Arabian conference on women’s rights, the all-male participants made decisions about women’s rights or endorsed / rejected policies pertaining to women’s rights with a view to influencing social and legal policy.”

Right, in the sense that they made decisions about *what they felt* were the right policies for women. But the participants in the conference didn’t have the power to create and enact legislation in Saudi Arabia, did they? They were just having a public conversation about it. In the same way, you and I are discussing rights here on the blog, and making our personal decisions about it. But it doesn’t follow from this that we are actually exercising power over anyone or augmenting or restricting their rights.

“Rights either enable or prohibit actions,”

Right…

“…so to decide someone’s rights is to exercise authority over their possible actions.”

Hold on. Where are you even getting this thing about the men at the conference deciding women’s rights? You’ve said that they made decisions about women’s rights, but that is only true in the conversational sense, since these men, as I understand it, had no legislative power.

“The all-male group was therefore exercising authority over Saudi Arabian women.”

This is a major blunder in reasoning.

Still, even if, for the sake of argument, the men at the conference had the power to determine the rights that Saudi women have, your conclusion wouldn’t follow. Let’s say there are ten strongly feminist men in Saudi Arabia. All of them want Saudi women to have the same rights as Saudi men. The ten of them are given the opportunity to change the laws single-handedly. They could just walk in the door and say, “We hereby grant to all Saudi women the very same rights that all Saudi men have”, and their will would be done. They could also decide not to do this, in which case the decision about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia would be made by non-feminist men, and women would not have nearly as many rights. So, the ten Saudi men show up and extend all rights to women, full stop. Would it make any sense to say that the all-male group was wrongfully exercising authority over women?

Suppose the only Saudi women who volunteered to make the decision hold that only Saudi males should have political rights. Would it be better for the feminist Saudi men to step back and let these anti-feminist Saudi women take away all Saudi women’s rights? Would that be less objectionable to you, because you think that it wouldn’t be a case of men exercising authority over women, but some women making a decision for all others?Report

Klein
Klein
4 years ago

@Helen,

‘’Let’s say there are ten strongly feminist men in Saudi Arabia. All of them want Saudi women to have the same rights as Saudi men. The ten of them are given the opportunity to change the laws single-handedly….Suppose the only Saudi women who volunteered to make the decision hold that only Saudi males should have political rights. Would it be better for the feminist Saudi men to step back and let these anti-feminist Saudi women take away all Saudi women’s rights?’’

A situation where feminist men give women equal rights to men is better than a situation where anti feminist women give women less rights than men. Nothing beauvoir’s posts states that this is not so. She does imply that a situation where female feminist lawmakers give women equal rights to men is more preferable to a situation where male feminist lawmakers do so in a context such as Saudi Arabia. The reasons for this is can be gleaned from beauvoir’s posts.

‘’Since mere appeals to plausibility won’t suffice to make your case with many of us, I’m inviting you to provide reasons for thinking that the Saudi conference compounded the subordination of women.‘’

By what criteria are you deciding whether the beauvoir’s reasoning is sound or unsound? What would count as evidence in support of such a conclusion? What would you count as convincing evidence?Report