Harassment and ‘Splaining at the American Society for Aesthetics


The American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) recently convened in New Orleans for its 75th Annual Meeting. In its wake, the art and philosophy blog Aesthetics for Birds has published a pair of posts (one from A.W. Eaton and another from Paul C. Taylor) complaining about sexual harassment and the treatment of attendees from traditionally underrepresented groups there, along with a reply from the ASA’s officers.

In her postA.W. Eaton (University of Illinois-Chicago) notes the efforts the ASA has made towards diversity and inclusion, but also provides a few examples of failure to “create environments that are hospitable to people of color and to women”:

  • One alleged case of sexual harassment by a senior man toward a junior woman. I say “alleged” because the case has not been (nor will it be) officially adjudicated, although it has been reported to ASA governance. I know the details of this case and find it 100% credible. In fact, I have myself in the past had trouble with the senior male philosopher in question.
  • During Q&A after Fahamu Pecou’s Danto lecture, the artist was repeatedly called upon to help explain the seemingly inscrutable practices of Black urban youth rather than asked questions about his extremely interesting work. (There were exceptions, as Paul Taylor powerfully describes in his piece here.) One scholar of color I know expressed feeling “totally othered” by this experience. (And this scholar is not Paul Taylor, which is to say that this makes at least two scholars of color who felt negatively impacted by the way Pecou was treated. I expect that there are more.)
  • During an all-female panel (where 2 of the 3 presenters as well as the chair were women of color), a white philosopher in the audience member got up while the final presenter (a woman of color) was still speaking and went to the front of the room to tell the chair (a woman of color) that she needed to stop the speaker so as to make time for Q&A. While I find it plausible that the man would have acted that way had the participants all been white men, what he clearly failed to consider before acting is the importance of context. In the context of a panel of women, the majority of whom are women of color, this was glaringly condescending and disrespectful to both the chair, who did not need to be told how to do her job, and to the speaker, who was in the middle of presenter her ideas. The question that the man then asked in the Q&A is related by Paul in his piece.

Paul C. Taylor (Penn State), writes, in his post, about the aforementioned “question”:

A woman of color, a senior colleague with all the same legitimating credentials as most of the rest of us (setting aside the question of how much that should matter), gave a paper on issues at the intersection of race theory and aesthetics. When she finished, a white male colleague, a senior figure and luminary in the aesthetics establishment, promptly—no, not promptly: languorously, as if every word he uttered came from holy writ—mansplained and whitesplained her, in a long, obtuse question that displayed not just near-total ignorance of the theoretical resources that animated the paper, but also nearer-total indifference to the possibility that his incomprehension might reflect his own misunderstanding rather than the author’s mistakes. (Maybe you’re wondering how a question can also be an explanation, even the sort of funhouse mirror explanation that comes with whitemansplaining. Like this: the questioner began by badly summarizing the argument’s main thesis, which the speaker helpfully tried to correct out of the gates, whereupon the questioner ordered her to let him finish, and then insisted that the main thesis was not in fact what the speaker said it was. ’Splaining.)

In regards to the Danto Lecture, he writes:

The Danto lecturer, a practicing artist, presented some thoughts on his recent work. He has of late been keen to depict young black men, men like himself but younger, engaging in a sartorial display—wearing sagging pants—that originated and remains common in poor and working class urban communities of color. Neither the topic nor the mode of presentation was ideal for the setting: the artist gave a fairly straightforward academic presentation, and focused on something like the sociological meaning of the activities depicted in the work rather than on any questions of aesthetic theory that arose from the work. And for whatever reason—perhaps because of the speaker’s limitations, more likely because of his sense of our limitations—his argument made only glancing contact with the deeper questions he could have taken up.

Even so, this wouldn’t have been so bad. But then the Q&A began. And there we were, chattering away in front of the Urban Negro exhibit at an old world’s fair, with question after question inviting the speaker to reveal the exotic mysteries behind what we were seeing. A few intrepid souls, Sherri Irvin among them, tried mightily to redirect the conversation in the direction of proper aesthetic inquiry. But their queries about the artist’s choice of materials in relation to the subject matter failed to turn the tide, and the chatter quickly resumed. What are those creatures doing? What might they have been thinking? (Nearly: Aren’t those darkies curious?)…

’Splaining and othering are, among much else, ways of making clear that only some people are full participants in exchanges that aim at edification. ’Splaining clearly signals not just that the ’splainee is mistaken, but that it takes the ’splainer, it takes the kind of person the ’splainer is, to get this stuff right. Othering signals that some kinds of people ask questions and entertain thoughts while others belong under glass, or in cages. One or two might escape the cage and join the rest of us on the other side. But by and large, it’s still aren’t they curious?

How can we do better? We can accept that diversity is not enough, that inclusion is pointless and painful without transformation. This transformation must be both personal and organizational. On the personal level, each of us, or some critical mass of us, must accept that the clever (white, preferably British) “philosophy boy” no longer represents the only model for intellectual engagement, and we must internalize and model the shift in norms that come with this recognition. On the organizational level, we have to go beyond the “add color and stir” model of inclusive institutional change.

The reply by the officers of the ASA, President Kathleen Higgins (Texas), Past President Cynthia Freeland (Houston), Vice-President Susan Feagin (Temple), and Secretary-Treasurer Julie Van Camp (CSU Long Beach), included the following.

The ASA is trying to become a more diverse society, and we appreciate that both posts acknowledge the organization’s efforts in this direction. The posts draw our attention, however, to how much room for improvement remains. We very much regret that some members’ behavior and remarks at the recent meeting were off-putting and insulting to newcomers, in ways that have been helpfully explained by both commentators. These posts importantly encourage reflection on the many obstacles we must confront if we are to make the society more welcoming and inclusive. We invite suggestions for better ways of achieving this goal.

See Aesthetics for Birds for the full posts.

UPDATE: AfB recently posted additional commentary on the subject by Charles Peterson (Oberlin).

Fahama Pecou, “Tethered”

guest
24 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
newcomer
newcomer
3 years ago

I did not attend the event, but my general view is that not all questions have to be friendly. Truth matters more than (almost) everything else, so it would be a mistake to insist that only nice and friendly questions should be permitted at academic events. Not all unfriendly questions are truth-conducive, but we should leave it to the person asking the question to decide if his or her question is worth asking. Needless to say, unfriendly questions should be brief so others get to ask their questions too. Report

Roberto Williamson
Roberto Williamson
Reply to  newcomer
3 years ago

Why does truth matter more than (almost) anything else?Report

Sam b
Sam b
Reply to  newcomer
3 years ago

“Truth matters more than (almost) everything else”

Nietzsche begs to differReport

harry b
Reply to  newcomer
3 years ago

This seems ridiculous:

“we should leave it to the person asking the question to decide if his or her question is worth asking”

Far more sensible would be to have people send questions to the front on cards, allowing the moderator to decide which are worth considering. This cuts down the ‘splaining’, the rambling, the sputtering, and allows for a coherent session. Whenever I’ve seen this done, its worked well.Report

newcomer
newcomer
3 years ago

The implication is that the person who asked the unfriendly question should have refrained from doing so. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what he or she said, but my general view is that we should let people ask their unfriendly questions (as long as they are asked in a professional manner) without worrying too much about the speaker’s emotions.Report

fedup
fedup
Reply to  newcomer
3 years ago

The suggestion that truth and pro-social norms are in tension is such a bizarre notion. In my experience, progress is better served by inquiry in which both participants are treated as competent and as worthy of listening to. I’ve seldom left pissing contests thinking I learned something new.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  newcomer
3 years ago

I don’t think you read the same post I did if you thought that the complaint was about “unfriendliness” of the question. It was about questions that treated the speaker not as a philosopher speaking about a theory, but rather as an object of sociological inquiry.Report

newcomer
newcomer
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

I agree that the factual description matters. If the question was not merely unfriendly, then my comment might be beside the point. (But I still believe that truth matters more than almost all other considerations.)Report

Andrew
Andrew
3 years ago

Regarding the Danto lecture — I guess I’d be interested to hear more about what was objectionable about the questions.
The talk “focused on something like the sociological meaning of the activities depicted in the work rather than on any questions of aesthetic theory that arose from the work.” The Q&A discussion then involved “question after question inviting the speaker to reveal the exotic mysteries behind what we were seeing.” (I’m not sure why it was “chattering.”)
Is that just another way of saying that the questions focused on the sociological meaning of the activities depicted in the art? If so, was the audience just engaging with the content of the talk? I’m not sure anyone would be blameworthy for that. Report

Commenter99
Commenter99
Reply to  Andrew
3 years ago

I was present for the lecture. It may be worth noting that the Arthur Danto lecture features an artist, but given its namesake, an artist who can speak philosophically, broadly construed, about one’s work. The reason Fahama Pecou was chosen for the honor is because he has a Ph.D in the humanities and many accolades as a working artist. One interesting feature of his lecture is that it included both a spoken text (like the common practice or reading a paper aloud at philosophy conferences) and images. At the outset, the artist proclaimed that the words and the images are not aligned. I do not think it surprising that many of the philosophers focused on the spoken text. The spoken text might be broadly thought of in the tradition of Cultural Studies (Stuart Hall, John Fiske et.al) and the most common transition among the ideas was the phrase “discursively linked” From my perspective, many of the questions the audience asked were probing the limits of the “discursively linked.” Since this relation is not a common logical relation from an analytic philosophy perspective, it would seem to be a worthwhile inquiry how this “discursively linked” relation works. One question focused on how far the satire-influenced work was influenced by other satire -salient discourses popular in the press and other media (particularly how satire brought down Bill Cosby as well as other political effects of satire) Perhaps, this was an insensitive question, but questioning how far and what in particular is the range of discursively linked, and noting the popular discourse at the time of production seems to be, on the face off it, taking the artist seriously-. The response was a curt– “not at all” because there were others who criticized Cosby before Hannibal Buris. I’m not sure there was a genuine communication because the phrase “discursively linked” was not present in the response. Given that the question was about how the poesis was inspired by discourse at the time of the making, this did not seem to be intended to be an outrageous or inappropriate question, but the artist seem to take it as such. There were other questions that focused on the social meanings of fashion choices, but given that much of the 45 minutes of the talk was dedicated to a history of the politics of fashion, this seemed to be reasonable. The response to one question about the images which was lauded by Taylor, was answered by saying that the color splashes were the result of an accident. The response to the “properly aesthetics” question did not make it seem as if further questions in the same vein would reward the asking. There were other questions about the meanings of the set-up of the gallery which falls within what one might be typically encounter is aesthetic discourse. There were admittedly awkward questions about the price of the sports shoes worn in the images, and perhaps I did not catch all that was inappropriate or “othering:” At any rate, after reading Taylor’s blog post, and reflecting upon my experience during the keynote address, I’m left with the curiosity, what would have been better an awkward silence or a sincere misunderstanding. or what are the other options? While there is plenty of criticism, I’m not sure how to move forward, and while there were demands made upon the organization as a whole, I would be interested in hearing what specific policy changes would avoid the problems inherent in the keynote’s address. I was not present for the other situations described by the blog post, and leave it to others to describe their experiences as well as possible remedies. I would prefer my comment to remain anonymous.Report

Help
Help
Reply to  Commenter99
3 years ago

Can someone please tell me who the mansplainer was so I do not mistakenly sign up to work with this personReport

Anna
Anna
3 years ago

Almost all “unfriendly” questions can be asked in a polite and friendly way, if they are really a good question. It is amazing that a lack of manners is such a norm in these types of conferences. And then people excuse unnecessary rudeness in the name of a quest for truth. Sorry but I missed the day in logic class when they explained the relationship between truth and being an ass. But all that is really besides the point here.

I see these types of things at every conference , when the presenter is of any race but usually when the presenter is younger and/or from a less prestigious institution, and probably more with women presenters. While it is always bad, for reasons mentioned in the post, it is especially bad when the speaker is a minority. I once interrupted some famous senior philosopher asking an over the top rude (and irrelevant) “question” that carried on for like 10 minutes to a poor female grad student giving her first conference presentation. I think these types of people need to stopped and called out in the act.

Report

Hilda
Hilda
3 years ago

“Unfriendliness” and “disagreement” barely scratch the surface of the dynamics present in this case.

The speaker commits epistemic injustice in at least three ways:
(1) He fails to recognize that his “truth” is truth as conceived in a white-western-hegemonic-analytic conceptual framework. He cannot even conceive of a different way of philosophizing
(2) He fails to recognize his positionality as (i) the member of a systemic and systematically privileged class and (ii) addressing a philosopher from a systemically and systematically underrepresented and marginalized group
(3) Through his insensitive address, he epistemically objectifies the speaker as knowing-less-than and/or not a true or reliable epistemic source

This case is beyond diplomacy and etiquette, it is socio-political in the sense that it is a subtle and almost invisible method of perpetuating marginalization in a field that is already severely undiverseReport

Gus
Gus
Reply to  Hilda
3 years ago

Does positionality mean position?Report

Hilda
Hilda
Reply to  Gus
3 years ago

No, I meant what I said. Refer to José Medina’s /The Epistemology of Resistance/

https://ejpap.revues.org/678Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Hilda
3 years ago

I am confused, Hilda. Are you suggesting that White philosophers should treat philosophers of colour differently to White philosophers? To be deferential, rather than critical, on account of their race? This strikes me as infantilising, as an example of what some have called the “bigotry of low expectations”. It’s like speaking at a patronisingly slow speed to people of colour or immigrants. Report

Hilda
Hilda
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

This is strawmanning my position. No where did I mention that one should be patronizing or “infantilising” to philosophers of color.

Rather, I suggest that a philosopher of a privileged group ought to become more cognizant of the way in which they respond and interact with philosophers of marginalized groups; bias and prejudice are implicit, and often invisible, yet profoundly shape and influence how one addresses others and their ideas.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Hilda
3 years ago

“I suggest that a philosopher of a privileged group ought to become more cognizant of the way in which they respond and interact with philosophers of marginalized groups; bias and prejudice are implicit, and often invisible, yet profoundly shape and influence how one addresses others and their ideas.”

That’s a different argument to the one you gave. It seemed to me that your initial point was that a hearer should take into account theirs and the speaker’s positionality (in this case, racial positionality) when responding to a speaker. I interpreted you to be saying that a White hearer responding to a Black speaker should behave differently than when responding to a White speaker, and given the context, that “different” meant more agreeably and with more friendliness. That’s why I wondered whether it was (unintentionally) infantilising. I think disciplinary norms should be applied equally to everyone, regardless of race, gender, etc. If it is arguable that the norms cause extra burdens or perpetuate the exclusion of minorities, then if the norms are modified they should be modified for everyone, not just minorities.

Now, however, you are saying that a White hearer should moderate their response to a Black speaker in order to compensate for their implicit bias. This positions isn’t inconsistent with the one I outlined above, but they are not the same point. I am not sure whether I agree with this second point either. While I agree that we should monitor ourselves for prejudice, and be open to criticism that our behaviour is or has been prejudicial and to modify it accordingly, I am not sure we should deliberately try to compensate in interpersonal interactions, “just in case”. Report

Cautious Until Tenured
Cautious Until Tenured
Reply to  Hilda
3 years ago
Jean
Jean
3 years ago

I wonder what the Danto lecturer thought about the questions. Did he find them appropriate to his talk? Was he offended? Did he feel like the “urban negro” at the state fair? If he did, did he think that was due to his choice of topic? Or did he think the audience had behaved badly? What would have been the right sorts of questions to ask? Would it have been appropriate to shift the discussion to “proper aesthetic inquiry” (Taylor’s phrase in his longer post) when the speaker’s talk was sociological? Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
3 years ago

I did not attend this ASA and have only attended one, some time ago. However, I wonder if one of the general problems is common to other (many?) areas where views, traditions, and scholars are underrepresented. In my experience working in Chinese philosophy, I am often taken aback at how the incredibly low general knowledge about China among philosophers results in my getting queries I take to be in the same family as some of those directed at Pecou. In the course of presenting work on Chinese philosophy – typically on a reasonably narrow aspect of one ancient text or another, just like any other philosopher – I nonetheless am asked to field questions about CHINA – that is, about just about anything the questioner finds curious or odd about CHINA. So, give a talk on the virtue shu in the Analects, but get a question about the Cultural Revolution, or about “Chinese collectivism,” or about kung fu, or, my least favorite but the embarrassingly common, about foot binding. To take just the latter, this experience would be like giving a talk on Hume and being asked about corsets – you develop on argument on Hume’s view of causality and get something back like: “So, 18th century corsets – what’s up with THAT?” Except that Hume question is actually less bizarre and far afield since corsets were at least in use at a time contemporary with Hume – Confucius and foot binding, not. I did once jokingly ask a colleague who does ancient Greek how often he is asked where to get the best Greek food since by far the most common question about my “work” I’ve ever been asked by non-specialist fellow philosophers is where to get good Chinese food. Questions about Chinese restaurants have, unlike the others I mention, at least only happened after any formal Q & A.

I say all this to point out what I suspect is an underlying condition for events like the ASA’s recent conference. You get a lot of folk untrained and unacquainted with a culture, they encounter a (rare in their experience) member of the culture or specialist in some aspect of the culture, and then the ignorance sort of busts out. It’s not ill-meaning, but it’s reflective of a state of affairs in which the demographics and intellectual compass of the discipline are so narrow that without conscious effort to resist it, it’s perhaps inevitable and really uncomfortable for many who face it. A Hume scholar would probably get away with merely scorning a question about corsets. I’m a lot less confident that underrepresented scholars or specialists in underrepresented areas can get away with that as easily or feel as comfortable doing so – after all, the question’s ignorance may be far more widely shared in the audience and thus won’t be perceived as the wacky, ahistorical, ignorant mess it is. And I say this as a white American woman working in Chinese philosophy. I dread to think how much more extensive these kinds of experiences are for my Chinese and Chinese American peers. At least when I’m asked these questions, there can’t be a whiff of that “why do *you people* do…”

The ASA is not, I think, unique, though their public agony about it is new and refreshing.Report

Dominic McIver Lopes
3 years ago

Let me report that I attended the Danto Lecture and I was embarrassed by the Q&A. There were some excellent questions, and I recall being especially struck by a question towards the end about the reaction of black youth to Pecou’s work. Maybe it’s interestingly that that question came from a black woman, if I remember right. Anyway, there were far too many questions of the I-would-be-worried-that-my-pants-would-fall down variety. So, yes, exoticizing as well as totally missing the point, which should have been Picou’s fascinating work. I now wish I’d said something to Picou afterwards. I shrugged off my own embarrassment with the thought (based on personal experience) that of course this was going to happen. But we should be more disciplined. We’re scholars and, though bias is hard to control, we should at least present ourselves as trying to control it. That audience missed an opportunity to get deeper into the ideas in Picou’s work.Report

James Harold
James Harold
Reply to  Dominic McIver Lopes
3 years ago

I was also at the Danto lecture and felt the same way. It was embarrassing for the Society and I wish I had spoken up.Report