The First Amendment, a Philosophy Professor, and Pronouns


No, professors, the First Amendment does not protect you from receiving a warning from your university about violating its nondiscrimination policies when you talk to or about your transgender students in discriminatory ways in class.

Nicholas Meriwether, professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University in Ohio, had used “sir” while responding in his Fall 2018 political philosophy class to a transgender woman student. After class that day, the student asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her as a woman and use feminine pronouns (“she”, “her”) or titles (“Miss,” “Ms.”) when addressing or talking about her. He refused. Instead, he resorted to referring to the student by her last name only, while continuing to address other students in class as “Mr.” and “Ms.” followed by their last name.

Nicholas Meriwether

The student filed a complaint with the university, which investigated and presented Dr. Meriwether with a written warning to not violate the school’s nondiscrimination policies. (See previous post on this here.)

Dr. Meriwether then sued Shawnee State University, arguing that the warning had violated his Constitutional rights. From the initial decision:

He is a “professing evangelical Christian” and member of the Presbyterian Church of America with sincerely-held religious beliefs about gender, and he does not believe that an individual’s gender can be changed after the moment of conception… He objects to communicating what he believes to be “a University mandated ideological message regarding gender identity that he does not believe” and which he believes “contradicts (and would force him to violate) his sincerely held religious beliefs.”…

Meriwether sought a judgment that the school’s nondiscrimination policies and practices violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Shawnee State University officials named in the lawsuit asked the court to dismiss it.

This past September the court did dismiss the case, making use of various precedents, including the judgments that “Universities may sanction professors ‘whose pedagogical attitudes and teaching methods do not conform to institutional standards” and that “although public universities may not force professors to endorse or eschew specific viewpoints, the First Amendment does not bar a public university from requiring that its faculty treat each other and their students with civility.”

Meriwether appealed to the district court, which rejected his appeal last month. Meriwether has now filed a further appeal.

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Don’t ask me
Don’t ask me
1 year ago

Easy fix: learn your students’ first names and use them.

A bigger issue is whether someone can receive a warning or be reprimanded for not using a student’s chosen pronouns when the student is not around.Report

International Professors Project
International Professors Project
1 year ago

If that was an ideological message he received from his school, then we are in bigger trouble than I had imagined.

Most evangelicals worrying about institutional ideologies will be fervently voting for the proto-fascist or neo-fascist for President this Fall. We are full-on into “it can happen here.” If he drops our because the Virus gets him his VP will be running as a theocrat with fascist leanings – which of course is baffling.

We are gradually becoming a fascist or otherwise authoritarian state which will resemble chunks of Brave New World and 1984.

What would Jesus say of Trump and his Republican cult members?

I learned only yesterday that God will be attending the Annual Atheist Graduation Day Ceremonies in What’s The Matter With Kansas onReport

AD
AD
1 year ago

I understand having philosophical issues with thinking trans women are women (such as those expressed in Alex Byrnes and Tomas Bogardus), but I don’t understand having religious objections. What would that even look like?Report

Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen
Reply to  AD
1 year ago

It apparently believes that it has religious reasons not just for believing that an individual’s *gender* cannot change after birth (not sure that Alex Byrne believes that, btw)–but also for denying individuals the right or courtesy of being addressed by the pronoun they prefer. Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
1 year ago

The religious objection might look like this: God created a particular order in the world such that human beings are created each with a definite gender, given at inception, that is not alter able and not subject to social alteration. It would be falsify the order of nature given by God to talk about human beings in other terms. Using , on this account inappropriate pronouns would give implicit endorsement to falsehoods and display an impious attitude towards the natural order. So not so different to objecting to using third person singular pronoun for human beings. Assuming the question was genuine.
As the Supreme Court has added a number of religious freedom cases to the docket, in addition to the sex discrimination cases, one might pause.
To forestall one kind of misunderstanding, as things stand, the professor has a losing position under current law.Report

AJ Adair
AJ Adair
Reply to  J. Bogart
1 year ago

Oh, I missed the part of the Bible where Jesus gave the speech about transgenderism. I guess it was right after He talked about gay marriage and only voting Republican?Report

Matt
Reply to  AD
1 year ago

Several years ago I reviewed the book “Debating Same-Sex Marriage” by John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher. In her “against” contribution, Gallagher argued that it was an “injustice” to “force” people who didn’t believe that a same-sex “marriage” could be a real marriage to “claim that both [same-sex and opposite sex] unions are marriages.” The idea, as well as I could understand it, is that this was forcing people who didn’t believe a same-sex marriage was a “real” marriage to “tell a lie”. Even on its own terms, this seemed like a pretty weak and unconvincing argument to me, but I assume that the “religious objection” here is supposed to be something similar – that it’s “forcing” this guy to “tell a lie”, in light of his religious belief about gender. That seems like a pretty bad argument to me, and maybe even worse than Gallagher’s (though I’d have to consider it more closely than I think it deserves), but I expect that something like that is the argument. Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
Reply to  AD
1 year ago

I don’t see why religion is important here. If he had a secular philosophical objection, that should be treated the same way. I’m opposed to putting religious convictions on some kind of pedestal, as we often do (as with offering draft exemptions to conscientious objectors).Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

If I understand this summary correctly, the professor was not given a warning by his university because he uttered a pronoun or honorific that the student objected to, but because he *failed* to use an honorific the student insisted on. I presume that there would not normally be anything objectionable, to anyone, about a professor who called on students by their last names. But in this case, the student wanted the professor to use a certain honorific that would imply that the student is a woman, and the professor apparently didn’t feel comfortable saying that and had settled (with himself) on a compromise of using the student’s surname but not any honorific. In this way, it seems, the professor walked a careful line of neither affirming nor denying that the student is a woman.

Perhaps this neutral policy is nevertheless objectionable, and the university is right to compel people to say things that conflict with their deeply-held beliefs. But even if that’s the case, this appears to be a little more than a First Amendment issue as we normally think of it. This doesn’t seem to be a question of a constitutional right to say something: it’s a question of a constitutional right not to be obliged to say something one doesn’t believe is true. I think that at least merits discussion!Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

He was using her last name alone while using a title for everyone else. He was told he could either use a last name for everyone or use her preferred title but he refused to either. That’s why he’s in trouble–he was offered a perfectly good out but instead insisted on treating her differently than he treated the rest of the class.

The judge who dismissed the suit argued his speech isn’t protected under the first amendment because it was spoken in the context of his official duties. This is consistent with the controlling case, Carcetti v Cabellos. What is significant is her refusal to recognize an exception, which Carcetti didn’t rule out, for ‘faculty speech.’ Lawyers can help me out here, but this would seem to suggests colleges and universities have a great deal of leeway when crafty policies regarding the demands of ‘civility’ and the like.

Report

Andrew
Andrew
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
1 year ago

Garcetti is consistent with the magistrate court’s decision because Garcetti was explicitly neutral about whether the framework it employed (and that was employed by the magistrate court here) should be employed in a case like this. There’s no controlling Supreme Court authority and the Circuit Courts of Appeal are split. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Seems like you have not understood the summary correctly. He deliberately treated the student differently than others. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Yes, the professor treated the student differently than others, in that he called the others Mr., Ms., or Miss, but did not use any honorific in referring to the transgender student. And as I understand it, the professor chose to do this because the student did not feel comfortable being called by one of these honorifics, and the professor did not feel comfortable using any of the other honorifics, so he tried to avoid the issue of doing neither what he felt uncomfortable about nor what the student would feel uncomfortable about. I don’t think I’ve misunderstand any of these things, but please correct me if I’m mistaken.

Is it right for the university to compel the professor to say something that implies something he believes is false? Again, perhaps it is. Certainly, the fact that the transgender student would be made more comfortable by the professor’s doing that is a reason in favor of the university’s doing that. But I shudder to think that some in the philosophical community might, despite being philosophers, neglect to think about the bigger picture. I don’t know for sure what the result of doing that is: maybe, even then, the university was right to compel the professor to do that. But it’s terrifying to think that even philosophers might fail to think of the broader implications here.

One of the big questions here is this: is it permissible for an employer to compel an employee to say something the employee doesn’t believe in (or that implies something the employee doesn’t believe in), and that the employee doesn’t feel comfortable saying?

Even more important, is it permissible for a *university* to compel a *professor* to say something the professor doesn’t believe in?

Perhaps the answer to this question is definitely yes. Perhaps, whenever the professor’s failing to say something will make someone uncomfortable (add in other criteria that might apply to this sort of case), it is perfectly legitimate to put pressure on professors to say things and add warnings to their file if they refuse to say them, which presumably means they will face more serious sanctions if they continue to refuse.

Now, let’s look forward to 2040 or 2030. The political tides at universities have shifted, perhaps because the general public has become incensed with things, Republican governors have managed to gain control of many universities by threatening to defund them, and those governors now have strong public support, etc. The universities are still functioning much as they always have, but the administrators are as right-wing as they are presently left-wing.

Now the word comes down: to make patriotic students feel more comfortable, each professor must refer to the (Republican) President as ‘The greatest President ever’ whenever referring to him or her; must always say ‘USA, the greatest nation on Earth’ whenever referring to the country; must pledge allegiance to the flag and utter a Christian prayer at the start of every class, or what have you.

When we professors express outrage against this and explain that this is just not how a university can or does operate, the response we get is, “Oh, really? Well, back in 2020, when the hard-line political left was dominant on campuses, nobody batted an eye when professors were compelled to say all sorts of things they didn’t believe in. The precedent is undeniable: whichever political faction holds power in the university compels professors of the other side to get with the program and say what we want them to say, or else find some other line of work.”

Look also to the past. How is it that LGBT… issues are now taken as seriously as they are, and that we’re even talking about these accommodations? It’s due to the fact that, decades ago, people started saying things that were (for their time) outrageous and personally offensive to many people, and those who were saying them could not be shut up or forced to say things they didn’t believe in. The reason that didn’t happen was that people on both sides of the political issues and personal conflicts in question were prepared to rise above them and look at the big picture. If there hadn’t been a precedent of not forcing people to adjust their views to those of the locally powerful, we could never have got here.

The matter is not (just) about the feelings of the professor and the student in this case. It’s about paying attention to the fact that a social safeguard that we’ve (fortunately) had in place for a long time now is in question, and realizing that there’s much more at stake than these ephemeral questions and the sociopolitical causes we’re variously dedicated to.

Again, I’m not trying to say anything here about whether the professor should or shouldn’t be compelled to say things he believes are false. I’m just pointing out something that should never need to be pointed out to philosophers: that we sometimes need to keep the big picture in mind and not get distracted by the emotional valence of what’s immediately in front of our eyes. If we of all people are losing the ability to do that, the world is in trouble.Report

Scott
Scott
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Just read the blog post again and you’ll see that your view of things starts to fall apart right about where you start writing. The second paragraph – the one that describes the events that took place – specifically says “the student asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her as a woman and use feminine pronouns (“she”, “her”) or titles (“Miss,” “Ms.”) when address or talking about her. He refused.”

The worrisome issues here are not ones about whether or not employers can force people to say things they don’t believe, but rather whether someone’s believing a thing is justification for disrespecting others and violating their autonomy by denying them the ability to self-identify as they choose. Hint: It’s not.

Take your distractions and sea-lioning elsewhere.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Scott
1 year ago

I don’t know what ‘sea lioning’ is, and this isn’t a distraction. It’s a comment on the case. Or would you have it that only one side of some cases should be discussed here?

Yes, I read the summary, you say, “the student asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her as a woman and use feminine pronouns (“she”, “her”) or titles (“Miss,” “Ms.”) when address or talking about her. He refused.”. I have no idea why you think I didn’t read that part.

You write, “The worrisome issues here are not ones about whether or not employers can force people to say things they don’t believe, but rather whether someone’s believing a thing is justification for disrespecting others and violating their autonomy by denying them the ability to self-identify as they choose. Hint: It’s not.”

Why can’t there be several issues here? Surely, *one* of the issues here is whether a university can force people to say things they don’t believe. Maybe you think they can, under certain circumstances. In that case, it would advance the conversation if you were to say just what those circumstances are, or else clarify that a university could do this at will.

As for a violation of autonomy, what you seem to be missing (or else see but don’t care about) is that two people seem to feel that their autonomy is violated. The student is not prevented from using any title or self-identification, but is being referred to without an honorific. The professor is being prevented from saying something, and from refraining from using an honorific. Is that not a prima facie violation of autonomy?

What we have here is a place where two people’s wishes are in conflict. Neither side can win without the other side giving ground. The moral question, as always, requires weighing the two conflicting demands against each other and coming to a reasonable outcome.

I’m not religious and not a conservative, so I don’t side with the professor. But I can understand his point of view and, more important, I at least know that the way to aim at a reasonable outcome is to consider the principles at play here. If those principles are stated and applied to the case at hand, and the principles that favor forcing the professor to say things he doesn’t agree with win the day, then great. And perhaps that will be the result. But if we’re not even going to look at the competing principles but instead start getting angry with anyone who points to some general worries of compelling people to speak (and who doesn’t even say that those worries should decide the issue), then we cease to be worthy of the name ‘philosopher’.Report

Matt
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Justin said, above: “the professor treated the student differently than others, in that he called the others Mr., Ms., or Miss, but did not use any honorific in referring to the transgender student. And as I understand it, the professor chose to do this because the student did not feel comfortable being called by one of these honorifics, and the professor did not feel comfortable using any of the other honorifics”

And then said, quoting, ““the student asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her as a woman and use feminine pronouns (“she”, “her”) or titles (“Miss,” “Ms.”) when address or talking about her. He refused.”. I have no idea why you think I didn’t read that part.”

Do you see the issue between the two parts here? In your first part, you added “The student did not feel comfortable being called by one of these honorifics”, but that’s pretty clearly contradicted by the summary, which you quote yourself, and seems to have been just added by you, without any clear source or justification. I don’t see how you think there’s not a problem with how you’ve presented the case here. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

I see. Sorry, Matt, I mistyped there. What I meant to say was that the student didn’t feel comfortable being called by any of the honorifics that the professor felt comfortable using.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Scott
1 year ago

”violating their autonomy by denying them the ability to self-identify as they choose”

Yeah, no. Regardless of whether it can be justified to refuse to use someone’s preferred pronouns, doing so is not a violation of their autonomy.Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

So true

Also. Whether or not they can self-identify is not the issue, or at least is different from whether or not they can demand I acknowledge and affirm their self identification.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

That’s a long winded rationalization of a not very interesting case. For some obscure reason the professor couldn’t help but use titles in class (hardly a norm, much less one dictated by his faith), but he managed to deliberately ignore multiple reasonable requests from another person—a student of his, mind you, not a total stranger. He could have switched to first names, just last names, or even granted the request without giving up on any part of his faith (his objection is about the ‘metaphysics’ of gender, not speech practices). He chose to make a trivial linguistic accommodation a hill worth dying on. Whatever you think of gender identify, the student must have felt terrible being set apart like that, and rightly so. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Thanks for the comment, Nicholas.

There are two separate questions here that I think we need to avoid tangling up:
1. Should the professor have continued to use titles in class if he didn’t feel comfortable using the title the student requested?
and
2. Was it right for the university to take the first step toward disciplinary action (giving the professor a warning) for failing to do this?

I don’t think I disagree with you about 1. If I had been in the professor’s position — the position of not believing that the student was a woman or should be referred to as a woman, but also being asked by the student for this linguistic concession — I think I would have done just what you suggest: switch from honorifics to last names only or first names only.

But the answer to 2, I think, does not follow directly from this. It’s one thing to say that P ought to phi, or even that P is being jerky in not-phiing. But it’s another thing to say that the university ought to compel the professor to phi. That opens up a much bigger door, and it doesn’t seem wise to open it lightly.

I take it that this thread was about the university’s action and not just the professor’s choice.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

If the professor’s choice is discriminatory then the university’s warning doesn’t seem too shocking. I guess I don’t find it shocking that an administration would ask its employees to treat students with respect. If you don’t think the professor discriminated against the student or was being disrespectful then the matter of the professor’s choice does seem to pertain to the evaluation of the university’s decision. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Thanks for the reply, Nicholas, but I really would like to understand what general principle you’re using here.

Is your position that, whenever a professor does or says something (or neglects to say something) and thereby causes a student to feel disrespected, it would be right for the university to warn and then punish the professor?

Or is your position that this is a legitimate action by the university under certain circumstances, but not under others? If that’s it, could you please say what the circumstances are in this case that make you feel the action is justified? Thank you.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Justin, several comments on this thread have already made the point. The university plausibly interpreted the professor’s behavior as discriminatory.

If for instance you kept misspelling my first name, but not other students’ names, despite my repeated requests, I would be pretty upset at some point. Your belief in your right to misspell my name would not justify your discriminatory behavior. 😉Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

But I didn’t ask you to repeat that point to me, Nicholas. I’m well aware that the university made that finding, but of course philosophers ought to determine what constitutes moral grounds for action by reasoning about it independently, not by appealing to the authority of university disciplinary boards.

I also never said anything like ‘One’s belief in one’s right to do something justifies discriminatory behavior.’ That’s obviously a ridiculous view to hold, and nothing I said would suggest that I hold it.

What I asked, instead, was whether you feel it is *always* appropriate for a university to begin disciplinary proceedings against a professor if a student of that professor feels that the professor has been disrespectful to the student, or if you only hold that it is *sometimes* appropriate. And if you hold that it is only sometimes appropriate, I asked you to indicate what it is about this case that makes it appropriate here.

That is what I asked you. The answer to that question was not given before, nor did you give it now. If you aren’t interested in clarifying the ethical reasoning that supports your claim, that’s your choice; but in that case, please do me the courtesy of not wildly mischaracterizing my position. Thank you.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Justinne, the university thought the student had a good case. The student had a good case. The university sent a warning. I’m puzzled why you think we need to pretend there’s something philosophically interesting about this that would warrant your long winded replies. I think you’re not acting in good faith in this conversation so I’ll leave it here.

Also: it’s NICOLAS. Please show some respect and learn how to spell a name if you want to be taken seriously. It’s not my first warning. 😀Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Nicolas, I apologize for not having noticed that you spell your name, unusually, without an H. I hadn’t realized that your oblique reference to that in a thought experiment was meant as a ‘warning’: if I had noticed that your name was spelled without an H, I would not have spelled it with an H. It was not done out of disrespect

You say that you don’t understand what’s philosophically interesting about a case in which, apparently, a complaint is made that someone has failed to say something. I have been assuming, against the evidence, that you are interested in understanding that and in approaching the matter like a philosopher. I have tried to engage with you respectfully under that understanding. But it’s difficult to continue to interpret your intentions that way.

Despite the fact that I have asked you a couple of times now to clarify the duty of respect you think applies here, you have repeatedly dodged the question and provided no basis for your view at all, and no clarification. Instead, you have accused me of being insincere in raising any questions about this.

I haven’t decided what to think about the university’s action. On the one hand, there’s the question of whether the professor should have acted different;y; but I’m also wary of endorsing a norm of forcing professors to say things they believe are false. I had hoped, and still hope, to engage with thoughtful interlocutors so that we can all reach some clarity on this issue.

So far, you have said that the university was right because the student felt disrespected. I pointed out that this needs clarification, and twice asked you for that clarification. If you had had any basis for your principle, or could even articulate the relevant part of its scope, I’m fairly sure you would have provided that by now. You have not.

You have also repeatedly pointed to the decision of the disciplinary board as evidence that the university was in the right. But as I hope we all teach our beginning ethics students, the fact that someone in authority has deemed something to be moral is not grounds for thinking that it is. The decisions of an authority should reflect the moral truth, but the moral truth cannot be found by appealing to the decisions of some authorities (especially authorities who probably have no training in ethical thinking).

What disappoints me so much about all this isn’t the case at hand (again, I’m not even sure what to think of the university’s action yet), but the fact that so few professional philosophers seem interested in examining these issues philosophically and impartially. If this is representative of those of us who care enough about philosophy to complete an advanced degree in the subject, then what does that tell us?

Just a couple of decades ago, philosophers used to have great debates on all sorts of big issues in applied ethics. You really heard good arguments from both sides, and people on both sides of issues would do their best to state the principles in play and find subtle but important flaws in each other’s arguments. Now, so much of that seems to have been replaced by declarations that the other person is being dishonest or a ‘sea lion’ (whatever that means), and by a hundred evasions where there should just be a simple clarification of the principles and arguments in question so that we can know what we have to discuss.

How is this happening? How can we stop it? This isn’t the philosophy I signed up for.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

I didn’t sign up for a bad faith conversation with you. The principles you’re looking for have been stressed repeatedly here:

1) professors have a plausible duty to treat their students with respect, which includes not treating them differently on grounds that are irrelevant to instruction
2) universities may send warnings to employees who they reasonably believe have violated their anti-discrimination policies, which partly capture the above duty of respect

You may disagree with 1) or with the claim that the professor’s behavior falls under 1), but this hasn’t been your strategy thus far. You seem to be hung up on 2), but it’s unclear why the burden lie on everyone else but you to provide a defense of a widely accepted principle that applies to private and public employers and employees. The application of the principle doesn’t require compelling speech, since it’s already been established by other commenters that the use of pronouns and/or titles in the classroom need not commit the professor to any particular view.

Your description of the state of philosophy now and then isn’t at all credible. Philosophy’s doing well, thank you. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

As for my name, you’ve misspelled it numerous times on other threads, and I had already told you so. Its spelling is not ‘unusual.’ That’s how it’s spelled for 99.9% of Nicolas in France. Believe or not, there are non-American philosophers. If I were in your class I would expect you to spell my name correctly. Apologies accepted but it does you a disservice to demonstrate an inability to pay attention to the simplest things.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

I’ve already pointed out elsewhere in this thread, at some length, exactly the difficulties in the application of the principle you keep relying on. Nothing you have said indicates how you think those difficulties can be overcome.

I do seem to remember, a couple of years ago maybe, that there was someone whose name I inadvertently misspelled in a reply. It seems that was you. I apologize for not having noticed the correct spelling. I’ll take your word for it that ‘Nicolas’ is the standard spelling in France. But since I don’t work in France or have regular communication with anyone there, and don’t know anyone who spells that name without an H, it didn’t stick in my mind. Now I know. Sorry again for the error in spelling: again, it wasn’t intentional, as I hope is clear. You say that my having not noticed the missing H in an otherwise common name of someone I frankly had no reason to care that much about, and apparently didn’t find particularly memorable from two years ago, demonstrates “an inability to pay attention to the simplest things.” Well, Nicolas, there are many things I could say about that, but I prefer to allow this sentence of yours to be the last word on that particular subject. I find that it tells its own story very well.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Nothing you have said indicates why you think we should be worried about the slippery slope you keep implying. Slippery slope arguments are fallacious until you can prove an underlying mechanism for the series of consequences. You have not in this case done much to make it plausible that “UNTOLD CHAOS” (no less!) would follow from allowing universities to ask professors to treat their students with the respect they deserve by using perfectly normal ways of addressing people. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

No, no, no, Nicolas. You don’t get to just make up your own incorrect interpretations of what I’m saying and then present them as though I said them.

What did I say will lead to untold chaos? A system in which *BOTH* of the following are in play:
a) the ability and tendency of a university administration to crack down, with impunity, on any instructor who fails to respect his or her students,
*AND*
b) a wholly subjectivist criterion for ‘respect’, according to which a professor has failed to respect one of his or her students whenever the student feels, or claims to feel, that this is the case.

Why would these combined principles give us untold chaos? Simple! Because in that case, any student could compel any professor to do anything. If a student feels disrespected because the professor (say) has criticized the student’s writing abilities, or pointed out that the student’s understanding of a philosophical essay is sub-par, then in a world where those two principles are both in play, the professor would be forced to avoid doing those things. If a student feels offended by the fact that the professor doesn’t keep a flag in the classroom and salute it every day on entry, the professor has to do it or the university breaks down. Further cases can be added at will, but I think this suffices to indicate the untold chaos I was thinking of.

But, you may ask, isn’t it straightforward that we can avoid all that by limiting the sorts of things that can count as sufficiently disrespectful to warrant the beginning of disciplinary action against the professor? Yes, yes, of course, and this is exactly what I’ve been saying. We *can’t* make this work if we rely on some extremely vague principle of ‘respect’ that has no discernible limits and just seems to indicate that respect lies in the eyes of those who feel they aren’t getting it. We need to be clear about what the limitations are.

Once those reasonable limitations have been spelled out, it will, I think, turn out that professors should not refer to students by names or pronouns or honorifics they find disrespectful. On that, I think we all agree. But will it turn out under these reasonable limitations that a professor is, more than that, *obliged* to say certain things he or she doesn’t feel comfortable saying? I’m much less sure of that. We’ll know when a reasonable limitation to the principle has been suggested. But I don’t recall having seen any reasonable limitation to the respect principle yet. Instead, people seem to be either assuming a subjectivist interpretation of respect or else being incredibly vague about what does or doesn’t fall under it. If you’ve got a good limitation to suggest, then please go ahead.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

No, no, no. You still haven’t showed us why your slippery slope argument is not fallacious. How on earth would this sort of case lead to untold chaos? It’s neither here nor there. Again, again, again, treating like cases alike seems like a straightforward formal principle at least encompassed by respect. You owe it to your students not to treat them differently on irrelevant grounds. We’ve already established that the professor has no good grounds. Why change the subject and think that administrations could then agree to compel speech arbitrarily in response to students’ whimsical demands when clearly that’s not what’s going on here? You don’t need more principles to explain that.

No one has argued for anything remotely resembling a) or b), let alone their combination.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Nicolas,

I just answered your ‘slippery slope’ challenge in the very response you replied to. If you didn’t read it there, then there’s no reason to think you’ll read it if I repeat it here. If you show me that you’ve read my response and have a criticism of it, I’ll respond. But it’s not my job to repeat, endlessly, things you keep saying I’ve never said. That’s on you.

You deny that anybody holds both that
a) university administrators should rightly intervene whenever a professor fails to respect a student, and
b) a professor fails to respect a student whenever the professor neglects to do something the student says is necessary for him or her to be properly respected.

Since you deny that anyone thinks both those things, I presume that *you* don’t hold both those things. Therefore, you either don’t hold a), or else you don’t hold b), or both. In either case, if you actually care about articulating or sorting out a coherent position on this matter, please explain how exactly your view does not entail both those things. So far, you’ve been very vague about what you think the correct principles are.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Come on, Dr Kalef, you just changed the wording of a and b! See the two principles I mentioned above if you want a real discussion. Untold chaos won’t follow from them. I don’t think it would follow from your two premises either but since nobody holds these far-stretched views it doesn’t even matter. We can come up with any number of random straw manning principles that may seem to lead down slippery slopes but that’s not the philosophy I signed up for. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Nicolas,

I engage in philosophical discussion for three main reasons.

The first is that I can sometimes learn insightful things from an interlocutor who is thinking about things differently from how I think about them and takes the time to express and defend that other position carefully.

The second is that I can sometimes persuade an interlocutor who is genuinely interested in seeking the truth, not in scoring cheap points and preening.

The third is that, even if my interlocutor is completely lacking in insight and dishonest in his methods of argumentation, further discussion might sometimes help onlookers see the problems with his or her position. However, this third criterion only comes into play if many others seem to be watching with interest and the interlocutor is making at least quasi-reasonable moves. At a certain point, if my interlocutor is just playing (say) a juvenile copycat game with me and repeating the same old drivel in order to keep egging me on into discussing further (I think this falls in about the center of the category of ‘trolling’), the value of continuing the discussion is lost.

Those are some general claims about me. Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope, but I can’t really see much benefit in engaging with you in further conversation.

Please do me the respect of not pushing things further here. To your last comment above on the substantive issues I tried to discuss with you, I will make no reply, so that you effectively have the last word on the matter. Goodbye.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Justin, wielding insults is no way to drop the mic. I’ve engaged with you reasonably, to no avail. It’s fine, we don’t have to agree. But you don’t have to insult me; this is exactly the tactic you think your interlocutors shouldn’t be employing. I wish you well in this dark time, really, and hope you will realize the academy is not that bleak a place as you picture it these days. All best. Nicolas Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

I would add that what might seem to one person to be “a trivial linguistic accommodation” might be a hill worth dying on for someone else. Jehovah’s witnesses were willing to go through considerable political persecution to avoid making accommodations to American nationalism, for example.

As for me, I’d never, wear a “stars and bars” confederate battle flag or a Che Guevara shirt (that hasn’t been suitably modified to express my actual political views — I do have one like that). How much would you pay to avoid wearing a MAGA hat or to avoid a symbolic oath of loyalty to Donald J. Trump? I’m guessing more than a few bucks.

We do take symbolism seriously. If we didn’t, we could turn the tables and ask why the student was unwilling to bend on a trivial linguistic matter. This doesn’t settle the question of whose right to linguistic accommodations should win out here, but I hope it’s clear that there’s something at stake for Meriwether if his professed views are sincere — and I see no reason to doubt that they are. Report

AD
AD
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

@Spencer: This is a really good point. I never thought of it this way. I mean this sincerely: this makes me seriously doubt my position that we should use preferred pronouns. In fact, I don’t think I hold that view any longer.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  AD
1 year ago

Well, I’m exceptionally bad at identifying sarcasm. So I’m going to convince myself that you mean it and I did some good work here. Cheers.Report

AD
AD
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

Just to be clear, it wasn’t sarcasm! I really do not hold that view any longer, in a large part due to your comment.Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
Reply to  AD
1 year ago

I appreciate it!Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

Thanks for the reply, Spencer. I appreciate your point. But what one is called in certain (all?) social contexts is more importantly constitutive of one’s identity as a trans person than what one calls others in the college classroom is constitutive of one’s identity as an evangelical Christian. As somebody else pointed out, no one compelled him to see in his own heart that student as a woman; the student felt like she was unfairly denied the privilege of a title because of the professor’s religious beliefs (completely irrelevant to the professor’s instruction by the way).

Would I sue a catholic university if they sent me a warning because I refused to acknowledge that Christians have any epistemically warrant for their beliefs? No. That would be foolish of me, and disrespectful of me in the first place.

But I take your point about turning the tables. I’m willing to grant that the linguistic accommodations may not have felt trivial—to either party in fact. There’s just more at stake for one than the other. Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Thanks for the reply. You write:

“But what one is called in certain (all?) social contexts is more importantly constitutive of one’s identity as a trans person than what one calls others in the college classroom is constitutive of one’s identity as an evangelical Christian.”

Ok, I’ve gotten into more than one disagreement on DN over precisely this point. My objection I’m not sure I understand the relevant sense of identity here, and I doubt that it can be usefully clarified in a way that’s helpful for you. It’s clearly not the kind of personal identity that Locke, Reid and Hume were interested in investigating (and, in Hume’s case, debunking).

So I figure it must be practical identity. But being an evangelical Christian could be just as important practically as one’s trans identity. Or at least I’d need a good argument to see why not.

One ancillary point. For the record, I’m not a fan of “exceptions for religion.” At all. I’m not a believer myself and I don’t see why religious conviction deserves privilege over any other kind of conviction. Of course, the 1st Amendment mentions religion, but as I said elsewhere on this thread, I don’t think the 1st Amendment matters to the points I want to make.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

I didn’t say one identity is more important than another. I said that what one is called is more important for a trans person’s identity than what one calls others is important for an evangelical Christian. I might be wrong of course, having access to neither of these identities. But even if they were equally important constituent of equally important forms of identity, the fact that a professor has duties to their students that the students don’t may tip the scale. Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

It might be as importantly constitutive as abstaining from from saying the pledge of allegiance is for a Jehovah’s witness person. But I actually don’t think we need to parse it that finely. If we have a general norm against compelled speech we don’t have to quantify how important this is for his identity. Religion isn’t central here, I don’t think. Report

Matt
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

I can’t reply directly to Spencer here, but he says,

“If we have a general norm against compelled speech…

It’s important to see that we _don’t_ have a _general_ norm against “compelled speech”, certainly not of the sort that’s relevant here – the workplace, by an employee. (This isn’t plausibly an academic freedom issue, for what that’s worth.) Your employer can compel you to day all sorts of things – “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas” or “hail satan” or whatever, and if it’s tied to the job and during job hours, you have to say it. Here, there is an anti-discrimination policy, and that policy gave the professor a range of options. This is well within the normal bounds of what an employer can “compel” an employee to do. And, it’s both legally and morally distinguishable from the Jehovah’s Witness pledge case, where students (children), in a setting where they were forced to be there (school) were forced to do something.

We will understand these cases better if we look closely at the relevant factors. Making up other cases where these factors are not present can sometimes helps us isolate the factors that are important, but they don’t, typically, tell us much about the case where the relevant factors are present. For this reason, the scenarios that Spencer and Justin K have come up with seem to me to make things less, rather than more, clear. Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Matt,

Well if there’s any obfuscation on my part it’s not intentional. I’d be interested in getting your reaction to the NFL stand/take-a-knee dispute. I was annoyed by the kneelers, but I don’t want them to be conscripted into insincere patriotic gestures as a condition of their employment as athletes! Seems to me that we are significantly less free, in a sense we care about, in a society in which employers routinely compel people to do things like that.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

”But what one is called in certain (all?) social contexts is more importantly constitutive of one’s identity as a trans person than what one calls others in the college classroom is constitutive of one’s identity as an evangelical Christian.”

That’s wholly arbitraryReport

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

No, choosing to only address students with honorifics except when they’re transgender people is wholly arbitrary, doubly so in fact. The first norm (honorifics) is arbitrary. The exception is arbitrary. Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Perhaps I am losing the thread but I am not sure where honorifics come in. Are we assuming that in calling on someone as Mr x or Ms y we are implicitly honoring them? Formality is not the same as honoring.

And has there been any other evidence of discrimination or disrespect other than the use of using the persons last name in a context where usually a formal gender reference has been added to the name?

For example, I would think discrimination might include here not calling on the person or responding to their comments negatively, or not giving them opportunities, or giving them poor grades, and so on. If the student was treated with respect in every other way other than the formal gender designation, it isn’t clear where the disrespect or discrimination is.

As already noted the issue is in the eyes or the student who has made their self identification central to their identity and who wants that recognized by others. An understandable wish for sure, but we should be clear if we are talking about a demand for recognition or something else, such as actual discrimination or even worse phobia or hate. These too often get lumped together.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

JK used honorifics and titles interchangeably (I think). Yes, it’s kind of dicky to call everyone Mr X or Ms Y but the person who kindly asked to be called Ms rather than Mr Z. If it’s really hard for the professor to grant the request then that’s on him (after all it’s no less subjective and whimsical) and he should find a way to address them all the same way. He may not recognize the student as a woman but he ought to recognize her as a person. I guess you may want to defend the professor’s right to be a dick, but then *shrug*. Report

annoyed grad student
annoyed grad student
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

So we’re supposed to take pause enough to “think of the broader implications”, but not enough to reflect on whether our analogies are obviously disanalogousReport

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  annoyed grad student
1 year ago

Not at all, annoyed grad student. If you can see a way that my analogy is defective, I’d be glad to be corrected.Report

mark montgomery
mark montgomery
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

This is an issue of disparate treatment. The Obama administration, through a 2016 Dear Colleague letter, interpreted Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and transgender status. The Trump administration rescinded this guidance. The issue is currently being litigated. Several Circuit Courts of Appeal have already determined that Title IX applies to gender identity, e.g. the Seventh Circuit in Whitaker. Report

mark montgomery
mark montgomery
Reply to  mark montgomery
1 year ago

Professors do not have to use pronouns at all, but they are prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of sex. To call all students by their last name would not be disparate treatment. To refer to all cis-gendered students as “Mr.” or “Ms.” and a transgender student solely by her last name is disparate treatment.Report

Bigger Picture Indeed
Bigger Picture Indeed
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

These thought-experiments are very pertinent. Have we learned nothing from C20th history and novels such as Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”? Thank you Justin for your persistence on these points. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Bigger Picture Indeed
1 year ago

Thank you, Bigger Picture Indeed.

You have put your finger on exactly what terrifies me about this, and on exactly what motivates me to keep plugging away at it regardless of whether it will make me unpopular to do so.

The worst horrors of mid-20th Century history give us lessons that must never be forgotten. Millions died in order for us to learn those lessons from experience, because we are apparently not wise enough to learn them from thinking them through (this vulnerability and lack of wisdom is in fact one of those terrible lessons).

We have also learned, or should have learned, that these great harms to humanity can come equally at the hands of the political left or the political right, and that to those who say nothing about them or cheer them on, they are motivated by what seem to be quite noble intentions.

In so many of these matters, we must toe the very careful line between doing so little that innocent people can be victimized and recklessly creating our own innocent victims, and that takes a careful and even-handed attention to detail, principle and argument that is strangely absent from so many of these discussions. But the harm done to innocent victims through inaction or an overreach of justice, serious as those things are, is small potatoes in the big scheme of things. By far the greater disaster is that we could allow ourselves to forget the lessons we have received at the cost of so much misery and so many millions of lives. If we do forget, and if we fail to teach the next generations to learn and pass along that wisdom, then untold millions to come will suffer similar horrors. Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

I think one likely consequence of these new speech norms surrounding gender is that all use of gendered pronouns will be seen as risky. If you don’t want to be compelled to endorse, by implication, beliefs about gender that you don’t subscribe to, you had better eliminate all these words from your vocabulary, lest you be accused of discrimination. Even if you have no religious or philosophical objections to the transgender rights movement, you might start to get nervous about referring to your students by pronouns and gendered titles (e.g., Mr. and Mrs.). What if you make a mistake? What if some student wants to be called by some pronoun you’ve never heard of before? What if a student wants to be called “she” on some days and “he” on others? That’s rare, but not unheard of.

The best personal policy in the current environment, it seems to me, is to avoid using gendered language altogether. Some people will think that would be progressive anyway. But I think it’s a bad thing that ordinary language is suddenly full of potentially career-ending trip wires, especially ones that seem almost designed to coerce people to assenting to controversial ideas (e.g., when it comes to being a man or a woman, self-identification is the only thing that matters). Note that this critique doesn’t depend on the 1st Amendment. It would be just as sound (or unsound) in other countries. Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

“Career-ending trip wires”? I didn’t read that Meriweather was being fired. And even if he were, it would be because he sued in order to be needlessly and counterproductively awful to his student. This case is hardly evidence that innocent mistakes about pronouns are going to get us all canned. I guess you can imagine a distant dystopian future where such mistakes do carry that penalty, but you’d be imagining things.

I am *terrible* with names. In the fog of managing several lines of student questions while trying to remember who I should call what, I have misused gender pronouns in class. I always apologize, explain that it was a slip, and promise that I will get better as the semester progresses. I have never had a student complaint. They understand that learning a new crop of names/pronouns each semester is hard, they appreciate my efforts, and they cut me an appropriate amount of slack.Report

Max DuBoff
Max DuBoff
Reply to  Luke Maring
1 year ago

I firmly support reducing gendered pronouns in the classroom as much as possible. But I also object to the phrase “career-ending trip wires” and agree that putting in a good-faith effort to use gendered pronouns correctly when applicable is most important. In society as in the classroom, titles such as “Mr.” and “Ms.” (and especially “Mrs.”) should be phased out as quickly as possible. They’re not helpful and can be harmful, as in this case.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Max DuBoff
1 year ago

Hi, Max!

What about cases where someone *asks* to be referred to as Mr., Ms, or Mrs.? Suppose the student would feel disrespected if you didn’t use such a title. Perhaps many students in the course feel that way. Do you feel we should give weight to that preference, also?Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Luke Maring
1 year ago

Luke Maring, you write:

“Career-ending trip wires”? I didn’t read that Meriweather was being fired. And even if he were, it would be because he sued in order to be needlessly and counterproductively awful to his student.

Well you left out the word “potentially.” I said “potentially career-ending tripwires.” What do you suppose would happen if prof. Meriweather doesn’t heed the warning, or if anyone else in similar circumstances doesn’t heed the warning? The whole notion of a warning implies that more severe consequences are to be expected if the behavior continues. And it sounds like you think that they would be warranted anyway.

You assume it’s “awful” for him not to affirm, by implication, beliefs that he doesn’t hold and is religiously opposed to. I think that at least isn’t obvious. He probably thinks it’s awful that this kind of conformity is being forced upon him.

I hear you about the memory for names. It’s one thing I could definitely improve on as a teacher. But I would not equally be nervous about getting a name wrong versus getting a pronoun wrong.

I’ve frankly seen much more unreasonable sensitivity (or feigned sensitivity, as I suspect is often the case) around perceived offenses based on identity categories like race and gender than other things. If I messed up a student’s preferred pronoun once or twice and then give that student a grade he/she/they aren’t happy with, they might allege discrimination or harassment. I’m aware of instances where things like this have happened. And it doesn’t need to be the threat of firing to intimidate people. A “warning” from the higher ups is enough to put the fear of God into many who aren’t tenured.

Max Duboff, you write:

In society as in the classroom, titles such as “Mr.” and “Ms.” (and especially “Mrs.”) should be phased out as quickly as possible. They’re not helpful and can be harmful, as in this case.

Titles like Mr., Ms., and Miss have long facilitated social interactions. You might, for instance, want to maintain a more formal atmosphere than a first name basis would allow. A last name only policy would be weirdly reminiscent of the military. And some teachers don’t like to be called “Dr.” or “professor.” Those titles should be options for them. So they are helpful. I’m not convinced that this student’s complaint is good evidence that they are in fact harmful, or if they are harmful, that the harm outweighs the benefits I’ve mentioned.
Report

Ken Friedman
Ken Friedman
1 year ago

It is difficult to see how the requirement to use a preferred title and pronoun conflicts with Prof. Meriwether’s religious beliefs. The university has not asked Meriwether to change his beliefs nor to assert that the student is, indeed, female. The university asks that the professor treat the student as though the student were female regardless of the professor’s own believe about the student’s gender.

To my way of thinking, this is rather like agreeing to use a courtesy title. Or, perhaps, it is like using the titles that people choose for themselves in a specific culture. Prof. Meriwether agrees to call students from his own culture by an honorific “Mr,” “Miss,” or “Ms.” Imagine that a student from the nation of Awgromph with the last name Tweed were to request that the professor use a form of address appropriate to Gromphis, designating the student as “Ballonga Tweed.” If the university were to ask that Prof. Meriwether call the student “Ballonga Tweed,” it wouldn’t violate any religious principles. This seems to me comparable.

No one requires that Prof. Meriwether change his beliefs. The university merely asks the professor to participate in a social ritual that allows the student to feel treated equally to other students.

Sincerely,

Ken Friedman

Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-journal-of-design-economics-and-innovation/

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Eminent Scholar | College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning | University of Cincinnati ||| Email [email protected] | Academia https://tongji.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cnReport

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Ken Friedman
1 year ago

All language is in some sense a social ritual, but that doesn’t mean that it’s insignificant. A university might (I’m sure some universities do) prohibit their professors from referring to Tibet as a country. If the belief that Tibet is a country is important to a person, for some reason, being made to refer to it as if it is not will be a hardship, and that they aren’t required to *believe* Tibet is not a country is not relevant. They are required to say it or imply it and that is bad enough. Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
1 year ago

would it have been objectionable if he used everyone’s last name? I have a sense there is some confusion between discrimination and lack of affirmation. If he really referred to everyone— I am not sure what sort of person would even track this in a classroom— with a title but refused to use one for the student, or even worse used a nonpreferred one, then sure some discrimination, albeit not a very offensive one. But I think if everyone was referred to without title the student probably would still object because they want the prof to affirm their belief as true, not to just avoid it. This isn’t a matter of discrimination but of metaphysical advocacy. Report

Linds
Linds
Reply to  LESLIE GLAZER
1 year ago

” the student probably would still object because they want the prof to affirm their belief as true, not to just avoid it. ”

This seems like a bit of a strong assumption to me. As someone who has worked closely with trans* students across all of my institutions so far (to the point that I was the person being tapped to go in and “educate” administrators, the health center, the mental health center, various departments, and the corps of cadets among others at an R1, 40k+ student institution), a common refrain is that they don’t want to be treated *differently* than others or made to stand out. Being treated alike as to their peers is a type of affirmation in and of itself. Are there some that might take the more metaphysical route? Sure, and I have yet to meet one in person though I can think of *maybe* two on the internet. Are they the majority or (in my rather uncharitable opinion) a bit of a “straw” representation in most cases? Yeah, I kinda think they are.

As to “I am not sure what sort of person would even track this in a classroom” this seems both a bit, well, irrelevant and it’s not really that hard to catch and doesn’t really require robust tracking beyond some semblance of social awareness. Some examples: when folks decide to make pronoun disclosure mandatory and someone doesn’t share, it stands out because it is a deviation from the norm. Doesn’t usually take much intentional tracking–just a *blip* in the standard routine. Students aren’t dumb–they’ll notice when things are done differently.

So, saying it’s about metaphysical advocacy seems to be depending on a lot of undefended assumptions and doesn’t map on to the live and standard conversations about trans* inclusion and nurturance from what I can tell. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, but I think we should keep in mind both the actualities of the case at hand and the trends within actual conversations occurring on college campuses.Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  Linds
1 year ago

I don’t think so, but I am open to further thinking on this matter. It seems different for the student to ask not to be referred to as sir, than for her to object to being referred to by her last name. And maybe you are correct that this would be obviously offensive and easily tracked in a context where every other person has gender titles connected with their names. I can grant you that, even though I find it not so obvious that the professor was systematic in this way. Nor find it obvious how being referred to by ones last name is offensive as such. Can something that isn’t in itself offensive become offensive in context? I don’t know. And I don’t feel the need to argue this but only to ask about it. I can’t help but think that the offense was mostly in the eye of the student. And that is where metaphysical advocacy comes possibly in. The student wants the gender title she wants to be affirmed as having some truth status and recognized. And finds it offensive it it isn’t. Your mention of inclusion and nurturance of trans individuals indirectly supports this metaphysical advocacy idea. For while it is arguably the position of universities to include and nurture individuals in their humanity and capacity for becoming scholars, it is only if one claims a special status and importance in affirming trans identities that one can refer to the nurturance of trans individuals as such. And I have seen nothing in the present case indicating that however the professor referred to the student that that student hadn’t been given every opportunity to participate and learn, nor that their grades or prospects were limited unfairly. That would be discrimination. Not in my view using their last name. Now maybe that was happening. But just using the name wouldn’t demonstrate that.Report

Matt
Reply to  Leslie Glazer
1 year ago

Can something that isn’t in itself offensive become offensive in context? I don’t know.

Is this a real question? I ask because the answer – yes – is so obvious that I wonder what you’re thinking. Imagine a philosophy department, where all the faculty members regularly call each other by their last name and title – “Dr. so-and-so” or “Professor so-and-so”, except for the sole female member, who is referred to by a diminutive form of her first name – Jenny, let’s say. This is done w/o asking and without real permission. Of course, calling people by an informal form of their first name isn’t “offensive in itself”, but in this context would obviously be so. Other examples are so easy to find that it’s hard to believe this is a real question. This isn’t hard or controversial. Report

LESLIE GLAZER
LESLIE GLAZER
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

sorry Matt, but while I think you give a good example here, you have pulled a sentence out of context and then used it to undermine the overarching questioning. Here is the whole again

“I am open to further thinking on this matter. It seems different for the student to ask not to be referred to as sir, than for her to object to being referred to by her last name. And maybe you are correct that this would be obviously offensive and easily tracked in a context where every other person has gender titles connected with their names. I can grant you that, even though I find it not so obvious that the professor was systematic in this way. Nor find it obvious how being referred to by ones last name is offensive as such. Can something that isn’t in itself offensive become offensive in context? I don’t know. And I don’t feel the need to argue this but only to ask about it. I can’t help but think that the offense was mostly in the eye of the student”

I had already granted that this might be offensive, but was trying to sort out why and how. I appreciate your example here in that it brings out something I hadn’t specifically stated, namely the role of intention on the part of the speaker/s, in your case maybe a department of good old boys speaking diminutively towards the lone {younger?} female in the department. But even this offense might seem to begin to fade a bit if we just made it a lone younger male who was being called by his first name. Interpretation carries a lot of weight here. This question of intention and context is what I was trying to consider in the example of the professor using the last name in class. It is hard for me to see anything offensive here per se in the intention. At least it hasn’t been stated that he was attempting to insult the student. The only intent mentioned has been his wanting to avoid speaking what he considers an untruth. Now, the student was offended, but it isn’t clear it was because of the professors intention to offend or the fellow students perceptions of that student. Report

John Light
John Light
1 year ago

The first “appeal” wasn’t an appeal, it was an amended complaint to the trial court. Since it’s a federal case (because First Amendment is a federal question), plaintiff has right of appeal to the Sixth Circuit. That’s now his (first) appeal.

Note that the Sixth Circuit is what gave us the circuit split in the same-sex marriage case—a Bush appointee wrote the opinion for a 2-1 panel, making it the only circuit (I think?) to oppose same-sex marriage. Whatever federal trials courts say is mostly irrelevant because the appellate court exercises “de novo” review —the trial court’s holding here doesn’t even have precedential value.

So: there’s really nothing to see here (yet), legally speaking, and at least a reasonable chance this doesn’t hold up.Report

Mr. Fragile
Mr. Fragile
1 year ago

Meanwhile, in a slightly different world…

Philosophy Professor R. Bitrarry has sued his employer, Hypothetical University, for issuing him a warning for violating its antidiscrimination policies. Dr. Bitrarry generally refers to his students in class as “Mr. [Last Name]” or “Ms. [Last Name].” However, in his current class, he has refused use this practice with one student, John Doe, instead calling him “boy”. Mr. Doe is the only black student in the class, and the first Dr. Bitrarry believes he has ever taught. When Mr. Doe noticed the disparity in treatment, he approached Dr. Bitrarry after class and asked to be referred to in the same way he addressed the other students. Bitrarry explained that according to his religion, black people are not among God’s chosen people, and so are not as deserving of courtesies as whites are, and he should not be forced by politically correct ideology to pretend otherwise. As a compromise, he offered to refer to Mr. Doe in class as “Doe,” without any titles.

Mr. Doe complained to the school, which investigated and issued a warning to Dr. Bitrarry. Dr. Bitrarry has now sued the university on the grounds that it is violating his First Amendment rights.

When asked about situation, fellow philosopher Justin Kalef said, “Is it right for the university to compel the professor to say something that implies something he believes is false? Perhaps it is. Certainly, the fact that the black student would be made more comfortable by the professor’s doing that is a reason in favor of the university’s doing that. But I shudder to think that some in the philosophical community might, despite being philosophers, neglect to think about the bigger picture. I don’t know for sure what the result of doing that is: maybe, even then, the university was right to compel the professor to do that. But it’s terrifying to think that even philosophers might fail to think of the broader implications here.”

Another philosopher, Spencer Case, said, “what might seem to one person to be ‘a trivial linguistic accommodation’ might be a hill worth dying on for someone else. Jehovah’s witnesses were willing to go through considerable political persecution to avoid making accommodations to American nationalism, for example. As for me, I’d never, wear a “stars and bars” confederate battle flag. How much would you pay to avoid wearing a MAGA hat or to avoid a symbolic oath of loyalty to Donald J. Trump? I’m guessing more than a few bucks. We do take symbolism seriously. If we didn’t, we could turn the tables and ask why the student was unwilling to bend on a trivial linguistic matter. This doesn’t settle the question of whose right to linguistic accommodations should win out here, but I hope it’s clear that there’s something at stake for Bitrarry if his professed views are sincere — and I see no reason to doubt that they are.”Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mr. Fragile
1 year ago

Mr. Fragile,

It’s easy to come up with analogies to help make one’s point, so long as one is free to make some relevant details non-analogous.

In your case, the professor refuses to give the black student *any* honorific, because he feels that black people are inferior and don’t deserve honorifics. He also calls the student by a word that most people would find insulting or at least demeaning, and he uses that word for that purpose.

Again, I don’t at all share the belief system of the professor, so I’m trying my best to make sense of what it is that he thinks. But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t hold that his student is unworthy of being called by an honorific. He seems to believe, instead, that every student deserves an honorific, depending on which category he or she falls under; but he recognizes that he disagrees with the student about which category the student belongs to. So to avoid having to express an honorific that either the professor or the student would find incorrect, he dispenses with the honorific.

He does not thereby replace the student’s name with ‘boy’ or any other demeaning term. To him, it seems, it’s as though the student insisted on being called ‘President such-and-such’ or ‘Professor such-and-such’ without belonging to a category that makes such a designation appropriate, by the professor’s lights.

Again, I’m not here to defend the professor in this case: I’m just pointing out that the appropriateness of the university’s intervention seems to entail an extension of a principle that is probably worth discussing. This analogy changes a couple of things to get the result you seem to want, but at the cost of getting the broad strokes wrong.Report

annoyed grad student
annoyed grad student
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Pointedly refusing to use preferred pronouns, to the point of singling out a trans student in the way this professor did, is **exactly** the same kind of harm as illustrated in Mr. Fragile’s analogy, and as in Matt’s analogy (the female professor referred to as “Jenny” above).Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  annoyed grad student
1 year ago

Hang on: this needs to be disambiguated.

When you say “refusing to use preferred pronouns”, do you mean using pronouns the person does not prefer? Or do you mean something consistent with not using any pronouns at all?

Those are very different things. If you think they’re exactly the same, please look at the different differences I just explained above and tell me why you don’t think they really are differences. Mere assertion is not an argument. Report

kailadraper
1 year ago

Speaking only for myself–most of my fellow trans people may feel differently–it gives me the creeps when some transphobe announces that they use trans people’s preferred pronouns out of politeness. In my opinion, insincere civility is overrated, and I don’t want anyone to be compelled to use my preferred pronouns. But I can see the problem in the university setting of allowing transphobic professors to communicate disrespect to their trans students by not using preferred pronouns. To use an analogy, if for religious reasons someone insists on calling women students, “Helpmate Cindy”, “Helpmate Jane”, etc., because they feel that to call them “Ms. Jones” or Ms. Smith”, etc., would be to communicate an ideological message about gender that, for religious reasons, they reject, well, what’s a university to do?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

This is great, Kailadraper. I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of a trans person, and thinking of what I would want in that situation. I had a hard time understanding why I would want someone to be compelled to say something to me he didn’t believe, and I couldn’t see it. It’s nice to see that at least one trans person also finds that perplexing.

Here’s how I think of it: your input is welcome. If I have a professor who clearly thinks of me as a man while I think of myself as a woman, that in itself could bother me. That he says things that confirm that he thinks that is only the symptom of what to me, in that case, would be a deeper problem. Finding a way to coerce him into saying what he does not believe doesn’t seem to solve any problems. I still know what he really thinks about me, and I also know that he’s apt to couple that with resentment against me for forcing him to speak dishonestly. So this will serve to aggravate him and probably make his beliefs about me even more entrenched. The original situation is bad, but I don’t see how this makes it better.

In your ‘helpmate’ case, we don’t need to make the professor start to say anything he doesn’t believe in. We could just ask him to please keep his opinions about women being helpmates to himself while he’s teaching his class. If he wants to call his students by their last names and doesn’t want to use the honorific ‘Ms.’ for his female students, then it seems much better for him to use just their last names than to make the women put up with this ‘helpmate’ nonsense.

I wonder whether there are any other cases in which it’s clear that a university is right not just to limit speech but to force a professor to say something he or she doesn’t believe. If there are some, it could be useful to try to work backward toward the principle.Report

Matt
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

what’s a university to do?

Tell them that they have to abide by the relevant non-discrimination policy or else get a new job? I don’t see that this is hard. (That’s the obvious legal answer, and it seems like the plausible moral one, too.) Report

kailadraper
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Seems right to meReport

Law&PhiloBro
Law&PhiloBro
1 year ago

Reading this thread, it’s painfully obvious that some people here have only been employed as professors. Employers everywhere, public and private, can compel particular speech from employees in the course of their employment. This isn’t some new danger. This case sets no new precedent.

The only interesting legal question about this case is about whether the usual rules for public employees apply to professors at public schools, or whether schools face a higher constitutional burden when controlling professorial speech done in the course of employment. Even the 9th Circuit, which this plaintiff relied on in making his arguments, concedes that profs aren’t fully exempt from such control. For the 9th Circuit, courts must scrutinize a school’s tactics more closely when it comes to professors.

Philosophically, I think there is a good question here, but not the narrow one about speech. Generally, I wonder whether we should continue to accept governance structures in employment that are oligarchic and that leave workers with few liberties, when we roundly reject that in the political sphere.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Law&PhiloBro
1 year ago

Well put! Thank you.

To get this going, I hope someone will make a case, in general, for thinking that we *should* accept governance structures that leave workers without the liberty not to say things they don’t believe in, and moreover that this *should* extend to a power of a university to compel professors to speak, to their minds, falsely.

The question is *not* what is currently legal: the question has to do with what *should* be permitted.

Is anyone out there willing to state a general principle that entails that universities have an unlimited right to demand that professors say certain things? If not, how about a principle that entails that universities have a right to do that in certain circumstances, including (but not of course weirdly limited to) the one in question in this case?

Thanks.Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Don’t want to speak for others but I can’t imagine anyone endorsing a university’s “unlimited right to demand that professors say certain things.” On the other hand, insisting that a person hired to teach evolutionary biology teach evolutionary biology seems reasonable. If for someone that amounts to ‘compelled speech’ that person needs another job. So a limited right seems ok.

The case in question is not a matter of compelled speech–he had an option that did not involve using the title he found objectionable, and using a title can’t plausibly be construed as endorsing a controversial position on the gender of trans people anyway.

For a general principle I’d suggest something like this: employees should not be compelled to say things that have no bearing on their performing the job they were hired to do. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
1 year ago

Thank you, Dennis!

You’ve given a principle that specifies one clear condition under which employees should *not* be compelled to say things they don’t accept. But do you also have a principle that specifies some conditions under which compelling professors’ speech *would* be acceptable?

Your case of the evolutionary biology teaching assignment is interesting. It seems to me to fall under a more general category that would prohibit things like a professor’s showing up to class and sitting in complete silence the entire time, never answering questions, etc. In those cases, the professor seems to be failing to live up to the responsibility to teach *something* relevant. But even in a case like that, I wonder how far this would go. Suppose, for instance, that the professor believes in Lamarckism, and says to the students, “Here’s the case everyone presents for the neo-Darwinian paradigm,. But I think all that’s wrong, for the following reasons….” Would it be acceptable, do you think, for the university to insist that the professor repeatedly assert that the neo-Darwinian paradigm is correct, despite his or her doubts about it?

Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

If being expected to teach the subject you were hired to teach with some minimal degree of competency counts as compelled speech, then that is ok. I think that’s kind of obvious. I don’t see anything else really that should be compelled by a university or college. The more interesting question is what should be forbidden and why.

I’d have to question the competence of a biologist who believed in Lamarckism, and I don’t think professors should claim the right to teach bad science. Whether the person you’re imagining should be tolerated by their institution would depend on a whole lot of other factors. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
1 year ago

I think I agree with you, Dennis Arjo. I’d put it this way: anyone teaching evolutionary biology needs to have competence in the field. He or she also needs to make reasonable efforts to help bring the students in the course to the point where they, too, have mastered the course material appropriately. But this does not require the professor to claim to endorse any view: the professor could say, “I personally don’t believe in the neo-Darwinian paradigm, but the point of this course is to teach neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology, so I’m going to tell you what those people believe and give you their reasons.” That would not require the professor to make any insincere statements.

So far, I don’t think we’ve found any clear cases where it’s legitimate for a university to compel a professor to profess any belief he or she does not hold, or to say things that imply he or she holds such a belief. I’m not sure that any such cases exist.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
1 year ago

A quibble with your suggested principle: there can be mission creep in the job description to accommodate whatever speech restrictions the university (or other employer) sees fit to impose.Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 year ago

Yes. I think the legal space may be opening up for job descriptions and the like that invite more and more restrictions on speech. Different types of institutions may have good reasons to define jobs differently, but there’s potential for a lot of mischief here. Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

I think this is an important point for discussion in regard to many institutions Can speech be mandated? How would this avoid the dangers of thought police? For while for the sake of civility one could insist on manners and censures on hate speech or even disrespect, it is a further step to insist in positive speech requirements or the expression of accepted ideas. In the present case, quite different for the student to ask not to be referred to in a way she finds offensive, than for her to insist on being referred to in a specific way.Report

Matt 2
Matt 2
1 year ago

What a snowflake.

I’ve had several students ask me to use particular pronouns. It has never been an issue. I am always happy to do so. Why? Because I hold one moral principle quite close: If I could not harm someone, why wouldn’t I?” Absent some compelling reason which entails harming them, I choose not to. It is quite an easy choice.

It is no stretch to suggest that if one is unwilling to accommodate student’s desires to not be misgendered, then one quite literally in the wrong vocation.

I, for one, will not lament when people of this sort finally leave education to those who can do the (whole) job. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Matt 2
1 year ago

Hi, Matt 2.

Your principle is interesting, but I wonder how well it works in various cases. Here’s one:

Suppose Sarah has a few very orthodox, religious students in her classroom. Two of them are women, and keep their faces veiled.

After class one day, these students approach Sarah and say that they are very uncomfortable in the classroom, hearing a lecture from a woman they take to be very immodestly dressed. In their local religious community, a woman who dresses ‘immodestly’ in public is thereby offending the decency of the community. They explain that they already feel quite marginalized in the American university community, and that the repeated discomfort this causes is hard for them to bear. They feel it as real psychological harm. They have got to the point where they expect no better of their fellow students. But they find it intolerable that their own professor, who should be a role model, will not cover up. They explain that they realize the professor probably didn’t know any better, so they won’t hold it against her. But they ask her to please wear a veil from that point on, to avoid harming them further. Sarah, let’s imagine, wants to be reasonably inclusive toward all her students, but finds the suggestion that she wear a veil abhorrent and regressive.

How would you apply your principle to this situation? The students have clearly explained to Sarah that they find her manner of dress insulting and hurtful. It would not be difficult for Sarah to wear a veil (in fact, the students offer to buy her a very nice one as a gift).

Does Sarah, on your principle, have an obligation to wear the veil from then on? Or is there more to your principle?Report

Matt 2
Matt 2
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Hi Justin,

From your response to Mr. Fragile, above: “It’s easy to come up with analogies to help make one’s point, so long as one is free to make some relevant details non-analogous.”

Indeed it is. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Matt 2
1 year ago

But the burden is always on the critic to say what’s wrong with the analogy. A critic who doesn’t do this probably has nothing. Report

AJ Adair
AJ Adair
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

There is a large difference between asking to be referred to by our preferred pronoun and expecting people outside of our religion to adhere to its principles. I don’t think your situation would actually happen, because moderate Muslims choose to dress modestly and because truly conservative Muslims will probably not allow their women to attend higher education.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  AJ Adair
1 year ago

Women wearing a veil isn’t a religious principle of Islam. In this thought experiment, it’s just a “courtesy” that women can show to some of their students. Non-Muslim women visiting Muslim countries often do this act of “politeness”.

Whether the thought experiment would actually happen is neither here nor there.Report

Matt
Reply to  William Peden
1 year ago

It’s important to keep in mind here that this isn’t, primarily, a case about courtesy, but about the application of an anti-discrimination policy. What should be in or follow from an anti-discrimination policy is, of course, not available to use from the mere use of reason, and is something that could be gotten wrong, but here there was a (not obviously implausible) anti-discrimination policy, and the professor refused to comply with it. Changing the example to one where it’s a “courtesy” to the students to do something is, I think, more likely to cloud the issue than to make it clear. At the least, it’s on the person proposing the change to explain why the proposed case is relevantly similar. That hasn’t happened here. (I _think_ this is because people are just confused about the issue, though it’s hard to say.) As to the example, if anything, it seems like requiring all women to wear a veil would violate plausible anti-discrimination policies. It’s hard to see how it would fit with them. As such, this doesn’t seem to help.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Hi, Matt.

As you say, the details of the particular anti-discrimination policy in place at a given institution are whatever they are. The question I’m interested in is not the descriptive one of what that anti-discrimination policy happens to entail, but the normative question of whether a university ought to have the power to compel its professors to say things they don’t believe in cases like this. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  AJ Adair
1 year ago

I deliberately didn’t say that the students were Muslims.

The question is this: *if* some students made this request, is the professor obligated to comply with it?

More pointedly: if the students made the request, and the professor chose not to comply with it, should the students be able to bring in the apparatus of the university to coerce her into wearing the veil? And would the university be morally obliged to act as the instrument of these students, on the grounds that they sincerely feel this is a respect due to them?

If not, could you please refine the principle so that it doesn’t have endlessly many unfortunate implications like this one? The principle of respect many seem to be assuming here seems unclear at best, and more likely just incorrect.

Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

I find it hard to get worried about this case on academic-freedom grounds (and I have form on this blog for getting worked up about many things on free-speech grounds).

If Professor Meriweather was obliged to affirm “trans women are women” or even “this student of mine is a woman” then I think the academic-freedom case would be pretty good. But to refer to a trans woman student as “her” or “Ms X” doesn’t seem to carry anything like the same weight. At most, it defeasibly implicates “X is a woman”; I’m not convinced it even does that. This really doesn’t seem much of a concession to civility and to keeping fraught issues out of contexts where they aren’t salient (and I note that principled critics of ‘trans women are women’, e.g. conservatives like David French, are willing to make it).

In principle I take Spencer Case’s point that some forms of address might be completely unreasonable to require; but equally (cf Kailadraper’s point) some forms of address are obviously inappropriate and not protected on free-speech or academic-freedom grounds. (It’s screamingly inappropriate to refer to your female student as ‘whore Sally’ even if you have a sincerely-held view that all women are whores and should so be addressed, and assiduously avoid making propositional claims based on that view in class.) So forms of address must be a space where we weigh competing interests in an ordinary kind of way – there can’t be the sort of strong content-neutral protection that we appeal to in other first-amendment or academic-freedom cases.

(At least, that’s how it seems on first pass; happy to be corrected. Let me also note the feeling of comfort and normalcy that comes of having a DN argument about academic freedom right now.)Report

kailadraper
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Excellent comment David. There’s also the fact that he had other ways he could have avoided being an asshole without using the student’s preferred pronouns, like using first names. Still, I am not sure it’s such a good thing that so many employers and even laws require appropriate pronouns. When I was a kid in Southern California, my Dad’s African American colleague remarked that he preferred the open racism of the deep south where he grew up to the disguised racism of Southern California because he didn’t value insincere expressions of respect and he wanted to know who his enemies were. I guess I have similar feelings about pronouns; I don’t want insincere expressions of respect, I don’t need to be coddled, and I want to know who the transphobes are.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

“If Professor Meriweather was obliged to affirm “trans women are women” or even “this student of mine is a woman” then I think the academic-freedom case would be pretty good. But to refer to a trans woman student as “her” or “Ms X” doesn’t seem to carry anything like the same weight. At most, it defeasibly implicates “X is a woman”; I’m not convinced it even does that.”

I’m not a linguist, but my understanding is that it is widely accepted among linguists that gendered pronouns trigger gender presuppositions. So when you utter “She is such and such”, referring to person X, you presuppose that X is a girl or a woman. Presuppositions carry stronger commitments than implicatures. At the very least, they are less easily cancellable.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  ehz
1 year ago

When Merriwether uses “He” to refer to God, does he trigger a gender presupposition and so presuppose the heresy that God is a man or a boy? No, because language is more flexible than that. If someone uses “she” to refer to me, they might just be presupposing the obvious truth that, given the way I (and many others) use term “woman”, I am a woman. Not everyone uses the term “woman” in the same way, of course, and many people use the term differently in different contexts, and many people don’t like my usage, but my usage is not mistaken. It’s not like I’m confusing “turgid” and “turbid” and so mistaken in my usage of those terms. A quick trip to the dictionary would inform me of my error there. I am already well-aware of how dictionaries define “woman”, and they don’t reveal any mistake on my part. Suppose, then, that Merriwether equates being a woman or girl with being human and having female reproductive organs. Then the real problem in his classroom is that not everyone is using the term “woman” in the same way. For him to use the student’s preferred pronouns would then not presuppose that his trans student has female reproductive organs. It would only require him to believe that, out of respect or goodwill towards his student, or for the sake of a good classroom environment, or to avoid getting fired, he ought to defer to his students preferred usage of terms like “woman” even though his own preferred usage differs.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

kailadraper, regarding the God part, perhaps the use is metaphorical. Some people refer to their car as a “she”. The presupposition would also be metaphorical. Many conceive of God as male in some sense. In Christianity, God is the father, not mother, of Jesus. After all, there is a reason why many refer to God using “he” and not “she” so consistently.

It’s true that not everyone uses ‘woman’ in the same way, and that one can defer to another’s linguistic use. But I think that is compatible with the presupposition claim.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  ehz
1 year ago

“Many conceive of God as male in some sense.” Exactly, and Meriwether has no reason to deny that his student is female in some sense. Thus, his honoring his student’s request that he use female pronouns to refer to her wouldn’t commit him to claiming that he thinks his student has ovaries or a uterus (I am assuming for the purposes of illustration that he would define woman in terms of having such reproductive organs) just as referring to God as He does not commit him to claiming that God has testes or a penis. Philosophers should stop trying to put binders on language. Language will break free of them anyways and go off in new directions.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

This whole sub-thread is interesting: but just to clarify:

Is the idea here that, if someone insists, from religious grounds, on avoiding something that would be personally uncomfortable (in this case, on not having to refer to the student as ‘Ms.’), we should grant that only if we can find no inherent contradiction in the person’s religious beliefs?

The parallel to that would seem to be that, if someone insists, from gender identity grounds, on avoiding something that would be uncomfortable, that request should only be granted if the person’s gender identity claims are broadly coherent.

If these are the constraints, then mere discomfort on the basis of belonging to some demographic is not sufficient. I’d be a little surprised if this is a constraint, given that so much of the discussion around these issues puts making people comfortable first and leaves questions of metaphysical or linguistic coherence aside. Am I wrong? Report

kailadraper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

No, that is not the idea here. My only point is the modest one that Meriwether cannot justifiably claim that his use of the student’s preferred pronouns would presuppose, or otherwise commit him to expressing, the view that his student is a woman in some retro sense of the word (e.g., being an adult human with ovaries, uterus, and vagina).Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  kailadraper
1 year ago

Good point. It seems true that the professor could have been more flexible psychologically and in his use of language, and could have been open to more poetic metaphorical analogous usages if gender terms. Especially given that most likely this language issue was unrelated to the substance or his course and his purpose in teaching it.

In a similar vein the student could have been more psychologically flexible and fluid in her responses if in all ways important to her learning and success in the course the professor was respectful and fair. She her self would know that ‘in some senses’ she might still be referred to as male, or referred to in some senses in a non gendered way by using her last name or some other nongendered designation, in some contexts and for some purposes. So the point goes both ways.

And in fact it seems in the face of it she may have been the less flexible if the two. The professor did adapt to her requests but she apparently couldn’t.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

I think it’s pretty easy to cancel. If I say ‘my policy is to refer to students by whatever pronouns they like’ then I disconnect my choice of pronoun from any substantive views I have about the students.Report

ehz
ehz
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I think you are right that you can do that. Similarly, you can disconnect statements such as “this student is a woman” from any substantive views about the matter, perhaps by saying “my policy is attribute to my students any gender they like, regardless of my own views”. So I don’t think the cancellability option shows that using “her” or “Ms” carries substantially less weight than saying “this student is a woman”.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  ehz
1 year ago

I think there’s a difference between cancelling an implicature and flat-out stating that the literal meaning of the thing you go on to say isn’t correct.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

That seems ambiguous to me, since it could be seen as just endorsing self-identification as an epistemological principle of gender identification. On the other hand, “My policy is to refer to students by whatever pronouns they like, even if they’e WRONG” is not going to make students feel any less alienated than just calling them by the pronouns they don’t want.

Quite a conundrum.Report

Leslie Glazer
Leslie Glazer
Reply to  William Peden
1 year ago

I am wondering if the designation by others isn’t what makes the student feel alienated but rather that the student already feels alienated—perhaps from themselves, from their bodies, from their histories, from social norms—- and is looking for an acceptance or affirmation to help them resolve that alienation they already feel. These sorts of dialectics have been spoken about since Hegel and Marx.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

(Sorry, that’s a reply to ehz above)Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

I joined this discussion not knowing what to think about some of the issues involved here. Reflecting on what’s been said so far,
1) I feel that the professor ought to have used the expedient recommended earlier on, of simply eliminating all honorifics and referring to all his students by their last names only, but
2) I continue to feel somewhat uneasy about the university’s taking this action against him.

My reason for the first part is that, even granting the professor’s views and preferences, whatever inconvenience the professor might otherwise gain by generally employing respectful honorifics with his students probably comes to less than the troubling conflicts that arise from the fact that the professor and student can’t settle on an honorific they would both be comfortable with. Removing honorifics entirely seems to come close to resolving all the conflicts very easily.

The reason why I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the further step of endorsing the university’s action against the professor has partly to do with fears of empowering what could in other contexts lead to significant administrative overreach, and great harm to our mission as academics and teachers: once certain precedents are in place for a benevolent reason, they can easily be turned to less benevolent ones. But another part of the picture has to do with the nature of reasonable accommodations. I’m not here interested in the details of this particular case — again, I think the professor ought to have just dropped the honorifics and just treated all the students equally — but rather with the broader issue of accommodating special wants and needs.

I’ve often seen it taken for granted recently that the moral need to provide people with special accommodations entails the moral need to make those accommodations invisible. For instance, some people seem to feel that, since some students in their courses need to be allowed the use of computers to accommodate some disability, it follows that *all* students in those courses need to be allowed to use electronics, as otherwise the student with a disability becomes conspicuous. To some of these people, the greater interest of allowing the students to learn effectively (study after study has confirmed that widespread electronics use in classrooms decreases *everyone’s* learning) is as nothing in the face of the moral obligation to make all accommodations inconspicuous.

I have a couple of special needs of my own, and one of them might help cast light on why I doubt such a general obligation exists. I happen to have several extensive dietary restrictions that don’t fit into any of the usual categories. What I can eat is limited to very specific, and entirely bland, foods. This has a significant effect on me, because so many social and even work-related events involve eating together, and staying away from those events can be costly in both blatant and subtle ways. But to attend them, I either need to eat on my own first (which is awkward and makes it conspicuous when I’m not eating) or else I need to give extensive instructions to the kitchen, if I want to risk it, and then end up with something different from what everyone else is eating. Invariably, people will ask me for all the details about this and I have to launch into a long discussion of it, which is not exactly my cup of tea.

If my department were to have a banquet or go out for dinner, or if I join any other event (of which there are many) with banquets, I could — and often do — simply skip it to make things less awkward for everyone. But if I wished to join, I could request two different sorts of accommodations:
a) I could ask that the organizers arrange that a special meal be prepared for me, or
b) I could ask that the organizers scrap their menu of delicious food for *everyone*, and make everyone eat the unpleasant and hopelessly bland fare that I can tolerate, so that I don’t stand out. I could also request, I suppose, that they conceal from everyone that I’m the person who insisted on this accommodation, so that I could not be harmed by being held responsible for the result.

If I were a student in a course or program that had some banquet or shared meal, I can imagine that I might request a). But there is no way that I would request b), under any plausible circumstances. The burden I would be asking others to bear for the admitted advantage to me of not having to deal with the conspicuousness and awkward conversations would just not be worth it.

Perhaps the professor might choose to inconspicuously set out some plates of nuts and crudites here and there throughout the day, so that I could eat without being treated differently and without any attention being drawn to me. But if the professor did not do this, should I have the power, at will, to bring the force of the university administration down upon the professor, forcing him or her to do this and moreover to change the banquet for anyone else? I really don’t see why that would be right.

So many of these matters seem to depend on the mutual goodwill and sincerity of the parties directly involved. Not all of them are that way: professors have a clear obligation, for instance, to avoid partiality in the way they assign grades, allow students to submit their work, etc. If a student presents a good case that his or her professor has fallen short of that impartiality in grading, or failed to provide a student with a reasonable accommodation for a demonstrated special need, then I agree that the university may rightly use its power to coerce the professor to remedy the problem.

Can a case be made that the professor also owes each student a duty of respect, on the grounds that disrespect might make it unfairly difficult for some students to learn? I think so — but *only* if we are very careful about what we mean by ‘respect’. One thing that it *cannot* mean here is just anything the student insists on or feels that he or she deserves. Otherwise, as I suggested elsewhere in this thread, students may demand pretty well anything they like — that their female professors weir veils, or what have you — and if they don’t get their way, they can bring the apparatus of the university down on professors. I really don’t get the sense that many of the commentators in this thread have given much thought to what is likely to follow from that shift of power to the administration. If this is combined with a subjectivization of respect, chaos is not far off.

However, I think one version of the respect principle is almost safe enough to be allowed to the administration: the principle that a student who tells the professor that he or she finds it disrespectful to be addressed in a certain way should no longer be addressed in that way. Even then, there are *some* cases that need to be ruled out: I don’t think, for instance, that a student should be permitted to insist that she not be called a student, or something obvious like that.

This provision makes it possible for a student to bring in the big guns of the university if the professor continues to use a pronoun or honorific the student doesn’t agree to: this takes care of the ‘misgendering’ issue. But I don’t *yet* see any clear and safe way of handing the university the power to crack down on a professor for simply failing to use a preferred honorific, without opening the door to untold chaos elsewhere under the same principle.

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Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
1 year ago

Nicolas Delon charges Justin Kalef with the following

“You have not in this case done much to make it plausible that “UNTOLD CHAOS” (no less!) would follow from allowing universities to ask professors to treat their students with the respect they deserve by using perfectly normal ways of addressing people.”

I think Justin’s done an adequate job spelling out the dual conditions that he’s worried about: a subjective criterion for respect, on which whatever a student considers disrespectful will count as disrespectful; and institutional mechanisms that enable university administrators to punish educators who get crossways with a student over what is experienced as disrespectful. Insofar as these cases are not to be decided by purely subjective criteria, there must be some other method for determining how to handle them.

At the same time I’m not sure that we need a principled criterion (or necessary and sufficient conditions) to determine when, in practice and for most of the cases we actually face, a speech act is disrespectful. Our concept of respect may be more like what the moderns considered a clear and confused rather than a clear and distinct idea: with the former we can sort individuals according to whether or not they fall under the concept but we cannot specify the marks that justify the sorting; with the latter we can both sort and explain why the sorting is justified.

Surely as philosophers it’s good for Justin to encourage that we come to a clear and distinct idea of respect able to cover cases like this. But I’m not convinced we need to worry that Stalinist thought-policing is on the horizon if we continue to fumble our way forward with what we conceive clearly and confusedly in this vicinity. And at any rate the issue is probably settled by looking at the details of the case at hand. It may be that with enough individual clear-and-confused applications of the concepts in play we could distill out the governing principles.

And concerning the first-order issue, Nicolas’ charge nicely illustrates the dispute insofar as it appeals to two of the notions that are contested–namely ‘the respect they [students] deserve’ and ‘perfectly normal ways of addressing people’. It would appear that the debate concerns 1) whether there is a duty of respect to use the gendered titles a student prefers, or to avoid singling a student out in some way over his or her (etc.) preferred use of those titles, and 2) whether the ‘normal ways of addressing people’ are not already gendered (sexed, etc.) in a way that makes the proposed application either abnormal from the standpoint of the collective, or false (impious, etc.) from the standpoint of an individual who believes these forms of address are gendered (sexed, etc.) in a certain way.

Personally I suspect that there is such a duty, and that the best route forward lies in facing the second issue head-on by making clear that the aim is to change the way pronouns are used. But I’m curious as to what others think.
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Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 year ago

Thanks, Preston. As I’ve replied to Justin above, his two conditions are not met in this case and he hasn’t provided evidence to believe they would be:
– “a subjective criterion for respect, on which whatever a student considers disrespectful will count as disrespectful”: the issue is not what the student considers disrespectful subjectively; it’s objectively disrespectful to address one student differently than the rest of the class; everyone stakeholder should be able to appreciate that;
– institutional mechanisms that enable university administrators to punish educators who get crossways with a student over what is experienced as disrespectful: because the above condition isn’t met, the institutional mechanisms include safeguards such as whether the behavior is compliant with their anti-discrimination policies or consistent with the educational mission of the college, the professor’s contract, etc.; sending a warning is also a far cry from the aggressive measures Justin thought would be implied.

I’m actually quiet sympathetic to your point about principles. I did want to take Justin’s demand for a principle seriously (his subjective impressions notwithstanding), but I don’t think we actually need a principle. A particularist approach may work as well if not better for our purposes. In fact, I’m almost tempted to conclude that the fact that Justin thinks we cannot come up with a principle to account for the university’s decision is a reductio of the principlist position.

Finally, as regards “normal ways of addressing people”, I’m assuming that few people will disagree that singling out one student in the class is not a normal way of addressing students, neither descriptively nor normatively. Professors just shouldn’t do that. The issue has very little to do with pronouns in fact. As I’ve (again) said several times, the issue is one of formal respect: treating like cases alike, which means addressing students qua students in the same way. There were many options open to the professor that did not commit him to any conception of gender. Pretending that justifications hinge on what one thinks of pronouns is a way of deflecting the issue.

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement, Preston, always appreciated!Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Hi Nicolas – thanks for this. We’ll have to part ways over whether Justin’s succeeded in what he’s after, I’m afraid. But I want to push you on whether appeals to things like ‘normal ways of addressing people’ and ‘treating like cases alike’ are as uncontentious as you suppose. Let me try to explain, and you can tell me if I’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

I had considered that by ‘perfectly normal ways of addressing people’ one might mean only that everyone is addressed the same, against some background of sameness (which might allow that men and women are referred to differently). But if that were doing the only work in governing our thinking here, then it would be possible for the professor to choose to use the dispreferred pronoun, under his individual supposition (let us imagine) that English pronouns are to be used to refer to human individuals of a (perceived) sex. He would then be treating like cases alike, but of course we would all rule that option out of bounds as it runs contrary to our community-wide supposition about the notion of respect.

This establishes, it seems to me, that the student’s will to change the professor’s behavior is playing a non-trivial role in governing our judgments about respect in this case. And so one wants to know what the principles are here.

It can’t simply be that whenever there is a community-wide supposition in place that something counts as disrespectful it really is disrespectful – for that’s to give the game away to the most banal and juvenile sort of relativism. Nor should it be left open simply to the feeling of the individual – that’s to court narcissistic solipsism. The community and the individual are the two poles between which the current of the ethical life arcs, but neither pole is alone the source of that current.

At the least one needs something like ‘treat everyone the same, and don’t upset anybody’ (I suspect a principle like this is what most of us operate on most of the time). But then that brings us straight into all of the interesting stuff that Justin’s been pushing on us. So I think appeals to ‘normal ways of addressing people’ and ‘treating like cases alike’ are fine, so far as they go – for instance when the issue is one of how to, in practice and in the case at hand, clearly and confusedly apply the concept respect. But they don’t go very far when the question is just what counts for sameness by way of respect in a context like this – that is, when the question is one of the concept of respect as clearly and distinctly conceived.
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Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

Nicolas, it’s good to at last see what your objection is to what I said before. Since you’ve now presented it clearly, I’ll respond.

An important part of the case at hand is that the professor and the student both have a restriction, connected to something greatly important to them, that gives rise to this situation. One of these restrictions implies that the student should be referred to as Ms., and the other implies that the student should be referred to as Mr. You seem to think that gender identity reasons obviously trump religious identity reasons; but many of us are not sure about that. It seems all around that the best solution would be one that doesn’t involve the professor calling the student Mr. or Ms., thus avoiding the whole issue. The professor is actually doing that: he’s not calling the student either. But because he continues to call the other students Mr. or Ms., the student in question is made conspicuous.

For choosing a solution the problem that entails that the student will be made conspicuous, you judge that the professor could have made a better choice (I agree with you there) and also that it would be right for the university to take disciplinary action against him (I don’t yet agree). Why would disciplinary action be warranted? It seems to follow from a general principle that anything that makes a student conspicuous deserves censure and disciplinary action. This is far from clear to me, however.

Example: as I mentioned elsewhere, I have serious dietary restrictions. Imagine that I’m part of a class of thirty students who go on a special study abroad program for a month. All the students stay at the same hostel, and we normally buy and prepare our own food in the hostel kitchen. For our last night abroad, though, the professor wants to take us all out to a dinner at a local restaurant. The students overwhelmingly vote in favor of a certain restaurant that everyone has been raving about.: there’s one dish in particular that everyone is excited about eating. I can’t eat the food there, though, nor can I eat at any restaurant in town. I privately meet with the professor about this. She says she’s sorry to hear this. She calls the restaurant and arranges with management that I’ll make my own food at the hostel and then bring it to the restaurant for them to warm up in the kitchen. But I protest that this will make me stand out from the rest of the students, needlessly. This can easily be avoided, I explain, if we just don’t go out for dinner and instead have another meal at the hostel that we can maybe make special in some other way. The professor sees it differently: to her, my special need is already accommodated by her solution, and the further benefit of my being allowed to remain completely inconspicuous is outweighed by the good things associated with the special outing to the restaurant.

Should the professor have cancelled the reservation and told everyone we’re eating at the hostel instead? Maybe, but it’s not obvious to me that she should have. But more important, for taking everyone to the restaurant, thereby putting us in a situation where my dietary restrictions draw attention to me, is she deserving of disciplinary action on the part of the university? That, I really don’t feel comfortable at all. Perhaps others feel differently?

You suggest above that all this might point to particularism as the correct moral view. But even if particularism is true, I don’t see how a university’s code of conduct or conditions of employment could depend on particularism. What will the code of conduct say: that there are a number of things professors ought never to do, and morally wise people will know what they are, and others should try to figure them out, and if you get them wrong, we’ll start disciplinary action against you? How comfortable would you be working under those conditions, especially if the university administration didn’t share your sociopolitical outlook? Not only does this sound terrible as a set of conditions for general employment, but it sounds particularly bad as a set of conditions for university professors. It would winnow out all the most eccentric, experimental and interesting thinkers, and all those who try to follow principles to see where they lead, and would set up the whole game so that the safest play would always be to take no risks, rigidly conform to those around one and especially to the pronouncements of the authorities, and be prepared to change one’s views and practices with the fashion rather than on the basis of any principles. Sounds to me like the Dawn of the Anti-Philosophers.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Thanks for this thoughtful reply, Preston!

I’ll just comment here on part of what you say. The first bit is a clarification: I don’t think the big concern is a sort of Stalinist restriction of speech (though that’s one part of what I’m concerned about). For one thing, restrictions of speech can come from the political left and the political right; and if we allow it for one side, it seems that we will in practice (and in theory) have to allow it from the other side. It also goes far beyond speech. I already gave some examples of things we could be obligated to do, on pain of losing our jobs, if the university administration were given the power to take action against professors who violate norms of respect, *if* (as often seems implied) the norms of respect are largely or entirely subjective. Professors could be coerced into wearing veils, saluting the flag, and doing all sorts of other things. We could be significantly hampered from doing our jobs properly in ways that might be difficult to demonstrate, largely from living under fear of the subjective complaints of students.

Nor are these just hypothetical thought experiments. A friend of mine recently reminded me of the Evergreen student revolt. If you watch the much-viewed conversation between the Evergreen president, George Bridges, and the students, you will note that the students demand that he put his hands in his pockets to avoid being ‘threatening’. He immediately complies. Why? Because he accepts, and the students have come to accept, that to be disrespectful or threatening is in the eye of the putatively disrespected or threatened, and also that there is an obligation to refrain from doing those things.

Part of my concern is that we will inadvertently, by following a poorly-examined but well-intentioned set of principles, cede all sorts of power over faculty to what are already very powerful and bloated university administrations. That has never gone well for professors or for most of the other stakeholders in universities. Another part of my concern has to do with the endorsement of a standard of interaction between professors and students that just doesn’t seem workable. Yes, people in such a relationship ought to be respectful of each other. But the idea that anyone in such a relationship (or any other sort of interpersonal relationship) should just have the power to walk in and demand all sorts of things from the other side, unconditionally, backed by significant punitive power, does not seem workable to me. It’s much too simple and much too open to abuse. Nobody should be compelled to act as someone else’s puppet. A university of all places should foster a better spirit of community than that.

You seem to think that I’m insisting on something like a clear, perfectly-defined set of criteria for respectful treatment. But actually, I’m not. I agree that there will be many clear-cut cases but also many tricky ones that will have to be navigated by reference to the easy ones. I like your idea of starting with particular judgments and working to something clearer from there.

As I said, one judgment I’m already happy with is that nobody should address anyone else in a manner he or she knows the other person dislikes. That’s one case where a demand for respect should be followed. More cases like that would be useful, but we also need a bunch of cases where someone’s demand for respect is clearly unreasonable and can be rightly ignored. With enough of both sorts of cases worked out, we can move on to the trickier ones.

I fear, though, that many people are reluctant to mention *any* such cases, partly from fear of being insensitive, and partly because I suspect that, somewhere, they really do accept a purely subjectivist criterion of disrespect. If we could start by getting past that, with everyone admitting at least one case where a demand for respect should be treated as unreasonable, we might get out of this crypto-relativistic swamp.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Hi Justin, thanks. To be clear, I didn’t refer to Stalin in a political sense, just by way of his tactics. The Gestapo would have done just as well for the point I was trying to make. But I appreciate that you weren’t meaning to pick out the left as a particularly egregious culprit.

I’m with you on most of the rest. But I wonder whether what explains people’s reluctance to search for explicit criteria isn’t a fear of being accused of thoughtcrime once they start talking. We’ve had too many cases of people getting raked over the coals for saying the wrong thing, offending the wrong sensibilities, about issues of gender, race, pronouns, etc. for most people to want to weigh in on these issues. It’s a shame, because sometimes one gets the sense that the mob is driven by a more-or-less subjective criterion for adjudicating cases. One might hope that if more intelligent people of good will began speaking up we could keep the extremism at bay!Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 year ago

I agree completely!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

(This is sort-of a follow up/response to the thread from my earlier comment, but I’ll post it here since that thread has got a bit congested.)

Here’s an analogy to support my earlier suggestion that forms of address aren’t an academic-freedom/free speech issue. Nowadays, “Ms” is widespread and fairly uncontroversial as a form of address for women that doesn’t make presumptions about their marital status. But it wasn’t always uncontroversial, and there are doubtless still some people who object to it. I’m pretty purist about academic freedom: if a professor has antediluvian views about the disparate status of men and women, and about the importance of women being defined by their marital status, I don’t really care provided it doesn’t translate into concrete effects on students. But I don’t have any time for that professor refusing to call a female student “Ms”. And conversely, if the student herself has those antediluvian views and wants to be called “Miss”, I have pretty little time for the feminist professor who refuses to do so (even as I probably agree 100% with that professor’s substantive view).

If I had to turn this into a systematic principle, it would be: there are a bunch of forms of address, and pronouns, that society currently deems legitimate. In normal social and teaching contexts, the addressee should be able to choose whichever ones they like, and those talking with them should honor those choices, simply out of courtesy. The advantage, and the irony, of such a policy is that simply by adopting it one cancels the implicature that accepting a given pronoun or form of address means accepting a certain set of substantive propositional claims.

I should add that the “normal social and teaching contexts” clause is doing some work here. If I’m writing an article about a convicted rapist, say, the principle wouldn’t entail that I have to respect that person’s desire to be called “she”. Maybe I should respect that desire, maybe I shouldn’t (my sympathies lie with the latter FWIW) but in any case different factors apply. And again I think there’d be a good academic-freedom case if someone was sanctioned for that kind of third-party use in a teaching environment.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Hi, David. You give this as your rule: “There are a bunch of forms of address, and pronouns, that society currently deems legitimate. In normal social and teaching contexts, the addressee should be able to choose whichever ones they like, and those talking with them should honor those choices, simply out of courtesy.”

I’m interested in the principles that get you to that rule.
a) _Why_ should we all be able to compel others not only to avoid forms of address we dislike, but to actively use ones we like?
b) Why is the addressee only allowed to choose from those forms of address and pronouns society currently deems legitimate? I’m curious about why the principle that gets you a) stops right here.
c) What role is being played by ‘simply out of courtesy’? If anything, including that part seems to suggest that it might be inappropriate for a university to fire, or threaten to fire, someone for failing to follow the norm. It’s bad to treat people rudely, and we shouldn’t do it, but it feels strange to me that a professor (even a very rude one) could rightly be disciplined just for not being very courteous.
d) Why does your rule apply only in normal and teaching contexts? Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Rather quickly:

(a) it’s mostly extrapolation from relatively clear cases – that’s the point of the “Ms” example. If I had to try for a systematic principle, it’s probably that choice of form of address is akin to choice of name. But I’m more confident of the cases than of a systematic logic like that.
(b) it’s a sufficient, not a necessary condition. But there are fairly clearly unreasonable forms of address. If I want to be addressed as “Darth David, Lord of the Sith” I don’t think others have to honor it.
(c) I have no problem with excessive rudeness in a teaching context being a disciplinary offense.
(d) See the last paragraph of my earlier post.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I like the idea of extrapolating from relatively clear cases, David. But when I do that, I find the result murkier than you seem to. I’m especially troubled by things like your “Darth David, Lord of the Sith” case. I agree with you that nobody should have to honor such a request. It follows from this, importantly, that nobody has an absolute right to be addressed in whatever manner he or she chooses. But that makes me want to tread much more warily. I don’t feel I can see exactly where the seemingly radical break comes between a demand that nobody needs to pay attention to and a demand that carries so much weight that stubborn failure to abide by it can legitimately cost one one’s career. Yes, you give a *critetrion*: one may only select from the modes of address that are generally agreed upon as normal in one’s society. But *why* does that one factor get to bear so much weight? I find it troubling that it should, especially when it’s not clear what powerful reason stands in favor of that being the criterion.

Let me add in another data point here, though you might dispute it. My legal name is Peter Justin Kalef. For reasons I still don’t really understand, my parents always intended that I should be called by my middle name. I have never in my life gone by ‘Peter’, but I get called by it in every doctor’s office, etc. A few times, people have persisted in calling me that even when I told them I don’t like it.

Suppose I had had a professor who saw my name on the roster as ‘Peter’ and kept calling me that, despite my corrections, on the grounds that she always uses the name on the register, no matter what. Suppose she persisted even after I privately met with her and asked her to stop, and that she never gave me a good reason for doing so. Would I conclude that it was inconsiderate of her to treat me that way, putting her silly rule above my clear preferences about my own name? Yes: I would find it annoying and impolite. I’m sure she wouldn’t exactly endear herself to my fellow students that way, either. But suppose that there is no evidence that she uses this conflict as a basis for grading me unfairly and that it doesn’t affect anything else in our professor-student relationship. Suppose I’m so annoyed about it that I bring it to the authorities at the university. They speak with her, but she won’t abandon her silly rule of using the name on the course roster, under any circumstances.

Now the university has a choice. They can decide that this professor’s stubbornness is so grave that it invalidates all her value as a professor. They can decide that the decades of schooling she has undergone to get there, the value of the work she is doing, everything, comes to nothing if she won’t call me ‘Justin’. She agrees to say, ‘Sir’ when referring to me, just not to say ‘Justin’, but she doesn’t care. So… that’s enough to bring her career to an end, and maybe she can go sell shoes instead if she won’t use my preferred name. One other choice could be that the university could say to me, “We’ve talked with her about it, and she’s just not going to call you ‘Justin’. We think that’s really dumb, and we apologize; and if you ever come to suspect that she’s giving you unfair grades because of this, we’ll definitely check out that complaint very sympathetically.”

I must say, it’s not blindingly obvious to me that the firing option is the right one to take, and as Spencer Case pointed out, a warning to a professor from a university is a warning to do something (probably fire the person), and presumably a professor who doesn’t heed such warnings will be fired. I don’t see that a professor’s refusal to call me ‘Justin’ is sufficient grounds for ending his or her career, no matter how persistent she is. Do you disagree?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

If your employer makes a reasonable work-related request, you persistently refuse to follow that request, and you provide no good reason for the refusal, I have no problem with your being fired. Academic freedom properly shields faculty from many things that would be grounds for dismissal in other jobs, but straightforward insubordination isn’t one of them in my view.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Then let’s look back at your case of a student who insists on being called “Darth David, Lord of the Sith.” Suppose the student’s professor feels that the student is just requesting this name out of the pleasure of being able to control the professor into saying laughable things, so the professor refuses. The student complains to the university. By your lights and mine, the student has no obvious right to be referred to in that way. But suppose that a cowardly dean, seeking to avoid any risk of bad publicity, nonetheless asks the professor to use that name and title whenever referring to the student. The professor refuses. The dean warns the professor that she had better get used to calling the student by that title, and that insubordination on this point will lead to the professor’s firing. The professor won’t budge on the point.

Does it follow, on your view, that the university would act blamelessly in firing the professor? If so, then it seems to follow that the student has, after all, a de facto right to insist on the ‘Darth David, Lord of the Sith’ title.

Or take the other case I mentioned earlier: religious students insist that their professor wear a veil so as not to make them uncomfortable. The professor refuses, the dean insists, the professor won’t budge. May she, too, be fired?

I’m not comfortable with either of these. If you’re not, either, then it seems that mere insubordination in similar cases shouldn’t be grounds for firing. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Those requests aren’t “reasonable”. Insubordination, in a workplace context, is a failure to obey your employer’s lawful, reasonable order. (So ultimately, what is ‘reasonable’ is up to the courts… which is where we came in.)Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Yes, just where we came in!

So now what really determines whether something counts as worthy of firing, on your view, is whether it’s *reasonable* insubordination; and what determines whether the insubordination is reasonable is up to the courts.

I can see that that answers the descriptive question of what the university can get away with doing (or what it’s perhaps legally compelled to do). But what I’m interested in is the moral question of whether it would be *right* for a university to fire a professor. The law should reflect what is right, but we can’t derive what’s right from what the law happens to say.

I normally agree very much with what you say, David, so it’s odd for me to find myself differing with you on something like this. But look, imagine that we have two professors, Smith and Jones, each with a different transgender student. Smith’s student would like to be referred to with the honorific ‘Ms.’. Jones’ student would like to be referred to with the honorific ‘Minn’, which the student invented as a non-gendered mode of address. Both students feel equally strongly about their preferences. Smith and Jones both refuse the requests, and the students both complain, but the professors won’t budge. Now, on the criteria you seemed to be giving above, It would be morally right for the university to fire Smith (because Smith’s student requested an honorific that is often used in our society at present), but Jones can rightly refuse the request without being wrongfully subordinate, because ‘Minn’ is not a common honorific.

I just can’t see how the difference between the Smith and Jones cases can come to all that much. The matter just can’t be that clear-cut and obvious. Too much work is being done by too small a difference.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

*wrongfully insubordinateReport

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

I suspect the reason you’re disagreeing now with me, whereas you normally agree, is that normally discussions like this hinge on academic freedom. But (largely for reasons I’ve already given) I don’t see this as an academic freedom issue.

That being the case, a university can set a policy for how students can be addressed. That policy had better be “reasonable”, but there’s a fair amount of latitude as to what that encompasses. Different universities might set (somewhat) different policies and each might be reasonable. There needn’t be a unique, morally compulsory policy.

The policy “address students as they wish to be addressed, within the range of socially permissible addresses” seems reasonable to me. In particular, it doesn’t seem to me to impinge on academic freedom. (Not least because I think it’s more a matter of conduct than speech; but more generally, see my earlier points.) So I don’t have a problem with a university adopting it as policy. And I don’t have a problem with a university enforcing a reasonable policy via disciplinary action.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Well, I still disagree that it can be that clear-cut, especially given that I think you agree that it wouldn’t be reasonable for a university to not require professors to call people ‘Darth David, Lord of the Sith’, etc. And there are so many other cases that are so close to each other that will fall on different sides of these policies… all of which I’ve explained above.

I agree with you, though, that it’s not an academic freedom issue. That seems to me to be a red herring here, since the professor was not making remarks as part of a presentation of his research or of an idea he wanted to explore with his students. But I do think that it’s unacceptably harsh that someone’s career can rightly be ended merely because he or she stubbornly refuses to call someone by a certain honorific or name; and that we should treat very warily when we’re clearly in a realm where (as you yourself say) different institutions can faultlessly disagree about what’s reasonable. And I also think there’s an *indirect* bearing on the purposes of the academic community here: some of the most valuable members of the intellectual community are difficult to get along with personally, but do great work. Some socially bad character traits are side effects of other character traits that make for interesting thinkers. If we allow university administrators to throw out professors they deem ‘insubordinate’, then we’ll be left with a high proportion of yes-men and women. On balance, I’d much prefer an intellectual world in which I feel disrespected by some annoying and socially stubborn colleagues than one in which everyone values politeness and conformity over honest intellectual conflict. I worry that, in getting rid of the people we find the most difficult, we’ll inadvertently lose the eclectic thinkers and critics the discipline needs..Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Two observations:
1) If different institutions disagree about what’s reasonable *and penalize faculty without warning* I agree that would be problematic. But we are talking about situations where the institutional policy is clear and someone is actively refusing to follow it.
2) I don’t see a conflict between politeness and honest intellectual conflict. And I have very little time for the view that we should tolerate bad behavior in colleagues because they have intellectual talents that make up for it. At least in my own experience, professional bad behavior and academic ability are at best uncorrelated, probably negatively correlated. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

I still have a hard time agreeing, David, in cases where the university is not unhappy with professors for what they *are* saying, but rather coercing professors to say things that they don’t feel comfortable saying as a condition of continuing their careers.

What do you think about the question raised by Spencer Case upthread, of the NFL saying that players who kneel in protest rather than stand in respect for the national anthem should be fired? Should their employer be permitted to coerce them into insincere professions of patriotism they don’t feel comfortable with?

– There’s no academic freedom issue to worry about;
– The employer can give them fair warning before firing the persistently insubordinate players;
– There is even some reason that could be given for the rule (players who won’t show their patriotism offend some spectators and create controversy, while making some veterans and other fans feel offended).

Are you comfortable with the coercion in this case? I’m not.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

I think if I replied I’d just be repeating and rephrasing things I’ve already said.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Okay — so then it sounds as though you are comfortable with the prospect of the NFL coercing players into insincere patriotic gestures they’re not comfortable with, and many more such things. I’m surprised, and I disagree, but there we are.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

The major disanalogy is of course that the NFL case is not a question of courtesy or student-professor interaction. It’s at best unclear who is wronged by the kneeling (to preempt the objection: no, patriots and fans are not plausibly wronged; they’re mildly offended; it’s a textbook case of a victimless crime, if it’s a crime at all). In the classroom case the student is not just offended; she’s being wronged by being denied basic courtesy and equal treatment.

Like David, I feel like I’d have to keep repeating the same things if you or Spencer replied, so there’s probably something like a bedrock gap we won’t bridge on this blog. But I also think it’s totally fine. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

To paraphrase:

Justin: are you comfortable with P?
David: I don’t think it’s productive to continue this.
Justin: so you are comfortable with P.
Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

No:

David: [Principle A].

Justin: Hang on: it follows from Principle A that P! Do you accept P?

David: I could respond to you, but I’d just be repeating things I already said, so I won’t.

Justin: Hmm… well, since you said Principle A, and P pretty clearly follows from Principle A, and I just pointed that out, and you just said you’d be repeating yourself if you were to tell me whether you accept P, it sounds like you accept P.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

There is clearly no point engaging further with this.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Yeah, I got that yesterday morning, David. That’s why I wrote ‘but there we are’. I don’t know why you’re back and re-initiating exchanges. If you don’t want to address the counterexamples and problems I raised, that’s fine: no need for any further exchanges. Take care.Report

Mark Alfano
1 year ago

People refers to ships as ‘she’.
Some refer to their car as ‘she’.
Some refer to their home country as ‘she’.
Many are quick and eager to learn whether to call a pet cat or dog ‘he’ or ‘she’.

But when a human being asks to be addressed as ‘she’, the klaxon shrieks.

Even if you have some deep metaphysical or religious commitment, we still live in a society. Don’t be the person who responds to questions like, “Do you want to go out or not?” by saying “yes.”Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Mark Alfano
1 year ago

Reply to Kalef immediately above Alfano (I can’t get the Reply button to show up).
You seem confused about a reasonable means with respect to employment policies. It is a range, fairly wide in fact. There is no need for sharp lines or easily defined lines and it is a mistake to demand them as they can’t be provided. In general, employees have rather limited rights with respect to speech and conduct in the workplace. The professor is very likely to lose his case. (I think it is certain unless the Supreme Court changes the relevant law in the next 6 months, which might happen.) The NFL players might be fired but that depends on their Collective Bargaining Agreement and, if applicable, any individual agreements. To the extent there is anything for moral philosophy here, it is about social and economic structures. The ship has long left harbor on these speech questions. Report

ProfSoDone
ProfSoDone
1 year ago

As with so many threads on Daily Nous, the commentators on this one seem to run very cis and male — I’m making an inference from the contents of some of these comments. Justin, what can we do to make this platform a safe and inclusive place for all voices? My strong impression is that women, PoC, trans people, etc. avoid this site and for good reason — it’s the predictable gaslighting, concern trolling, etc. that dominates the threads here. The result is a highly skewed commentary, one that does not reflect the diversity of our profession.

One thought would be a more crowd-sourced platform, with more articles authored by women, trans, PoC, etc. Another thought would be that more threads on controversial topics should be “no comments.” I would certainly count this topic as controversial and, for some people. More needs to be done to protect and center trans philosophers, who are somehow often left outside of these conversations but who are also the ones who have to contend with the fall-out from these sorts of comments. These aren’t abstract theoretical issues. Actual trans philosophers are harmed by the reminder that, for instance, some people *in their profession* think it’s totally ok for a trans student to be deliberately treated in a discriminatory manner. And some of these people even go out of their way to say this on a public platform.

How can Daily Nous be part of a solution or at least, a centering of marginalized people? I think it can be.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  ProfSoDone
1 year ago

Thanks flor this. The thread is collectively obnoxious even if the individual contributions are innocuous enough. Transphobia is alive and well in philosophy.Report