Sensitivity Reading Services for Philosophers and Others


Lex Academic, the editing firm founded by philosophers Louise Chapman and Constantine Sandis, includes “sensitivity reading” among the variety of services it provides.

What is “sensitivity reading”?

Here’s an excerpt from how the people at Lex Academic describe it:

The conversation on diversity (or lack thereof) in publishing has highlighted the urgent need for nuanced and inclusive dialogue when representing marginalized individuals, communities, and their experiences…

[W]e work with expert readers who will address material with sensitivity, care, and scholarly rigour to draw attention to problematic, offensive, reductive, or misrepresentative content. This ensures that research is fair and accountable, steering the author away from infelicitous speech and unconscious bias that can result in peddling and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, tropes, or clichés. This ensures positive and engaged uptake of your work and ideas, thereby increasing the chances of a fruitful global conversation around it.

I think this is a great idea. Authors who want to ensure that they are engaging with their topics in responsible way and are not miscommunicating with their audiences can bring experts into the editing process to help them achieve these aims.

Readers may recall that when The Journal of Controversial Ideas was first floated, I proposed an alternative to its policy of allowing pseudonymous authorship. Such pseudonymity was to be offered by the journal, I noted, out of a “concern that some ideas don’t make it into scholarly journals because of their mere unpopularity, offensiveness, or political incorrectness, rather than any lack of intellectual merit” and to protect authors who might otherwise be discouraged from writing about such ideas “by the prospect of outraging others who have influence over their career prospects.”

I put forward an alternative: “make the publication of scholarly articles on controversial ideas less outraging.” How? By bringing those “others” into the publication process. I outlined one possible way of bringing “stakeholders” into reviewing, revising, and publishing. This was a way of protecting authors without the costs (to accountability, credit, and intellectual history) of pseudonymity. (The idea turned out to not be very popular with the commenters on that post and a follow-up post that addressed some criticisms of it.)

Sensitivity reading services may accomplish the same thing, giving authors more confidence as they tread into controversial waters and risk offending others, and receipts (literally!) that they’ve at least taken steps to offend responsibly.

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Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
7 months ago

Imagine writing an article on Israel and deciding to get a Jewish sensitivity reader to insulate against the possibility of inadvertently giving offense. I think the idea should seem silly because it’s extremely salient to most of us right now that there is a wide diversity of opinions among Jews about Israel, and I’m sure that this extends to diversity about what it would be offensive to write in an article about Israel. Certainly you couldn’t have just one sensitivity reader, and if you got readers inhabiting the full spectrum of opinions about the topic it’s easy to imagine there would be little of substance you could say without raising strenuous objections from some.

If you think the issue looks meaningfully different when we shift our attention to other identity groups I suspect that’s just because the fact that other groups are also not monoliths isn’t sufficiently salient to you.

I definitely don’t mean to say there’s no room for seeking advice of the sort that can be provided by sensitivity readers. Rather, I just want to say that treating it as a professionalized service with certified experts who can pronounce on what’s offensive and what isn’t–people who can “ensure that research is fair and accountable”–strikes me as either naive or disingenuous. Sensitivity readers are individuals and can’t speak for the entirety of the groups they are members of.

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Daniel Greco
7 months ago

Do you think the sensitivity reader just asks the question “Does this offend me?”?

If I wrote something on Israel, and showed it to someone living in Israel before wider distribution, I expect I would often get a useful amount of feedback on how it would sound in the context of the conversations that are happening there. And that might be true even if the person I showed it to basically agreed with my conclusions.

That’s especially true at the sentence-by-sentence level. Things like “You use this phrase, which is being around here primarily by group X that you probably don’t intend to associate with. Would it change anything if you reworded it like this?” are often helpful bits of feedback from friends. It’s the same kind of feedback I look for when writing reference letters, for example – how some wording on a delicate topic might strike some readers the wrong way.

That seems like something an expert could help with, especially an expert who is embedded in communities that I have a much more superficial acquaintance with.

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
7 months ago

Yes, this is what I meant to leave room for by saying “I definitely don’t mean to say there’s no room for seeking advice of the sort that can be provided by sensitivity readers.”

My objection is to the idea–which i took both Justin and Lex Academic to be suggesting–that getting such advice provides a kind of insurance against the sort of blowback that might otherwise discourage someone from writing on sensitive topics.

To stick with the example of Israel, suppose I’m wondering how to describe the events of 1947. E.g., should I use the term “Nakba”? A good sensitivity reader could tell me just what I’ll be conveying by using that term, versus using alternatives. But they can’t tell me which one is the safe choice that will ensure my research is “fair and accountable” to the relevant stakeholders. That’s highly contested, and I may face a forced choice in which I’m guaranteed to alienate some of my potential readers. And I think the example generalizes pretty broadly.

So big picture, sure sensitivity readers could provide helpful advice, but both Lex Academic and Justin are suggesting they can do more than is possible.

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Seeing your response to the post below, i think we’re closer than i thought. I suspect I only disagree with you about how often it is that people who seek pseudonymity merely fear giving *inadvertent* offense, such that their fear could be allayed by the advice of a good sensitivity reader. My hunch is that that situation is pretty rare.

Malkhaz
Reply to  Daniel Greco
6 months ago

Hi, yah there is a problem which is unfolding at present in Israel.
Different groups judging this conflict differently and a question how to avoid offending any of the groups is quite a task.
But it is possible fulfiling your task,
In conversations about the matter whith others.
There should be some other options too…

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
7 months ago

Philosophers have long been offensive; Socrates was arguably killed for his penchant for causing offense. Depending on who you ask, students report feeling equally offended by Thomson’s defense of abortion as by Marquis’ critique.

Do we really want, as a profession, to say that “engaging in our topics in a responsible way” means that we should take every step possible, including hiring specialists, not to offend? This strikes me as a norm that would be very bad for philosophy.

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Yeah, I guess if we had a bunch of philosophers who really didn’t want to offend but inadvertently found themselves offending, then maybe there would be value in the services offered.

But surely if we widely adopted the practice of employing sensitivity readers, this would affect the norms around offense in philosophy more generally. Philosophers who did offend would be more likely to be called out for ignoring the “expertise” of the sensitivity readers and maliciously causing distress, publishers would be more likely to require manuscripts to go through this kind of vetting, and so on.

All of this would be, in my view, terrible for philosophy and encourage more people to pull back from writing about important, albeit, sensitive topics.

Craig Burley
Craig Burley
Reply to  Serial Offender
6 months ago

You’re not Socrates, you’re just some schmo.

Brandon Watson
Brandon Watson
7 months ago

It seems very odd to claim that there is expertise in offending and nonoffending. The excerpt says, “This ensures that research is fair and accountable, steering the author away from infelicitous speech and unconscious bias that can result in peddling and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, tropes, or clichés.” But this could only actually be ‘ensured’ if the selection of “expert readers” were done by a fair and accountable certification of expertise in matters of “infelicitous speech and unconscious bias”. What is this certification process? What was done to establish what is required of an expert in this field? A dash of Socrates seems called for here.

Miles Rind
Miles Rind
7 months ago

I suppose that Sensitivity Reading will have to do until we reach the bright future in which all utterances must be submitted to the Ministry of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Whatever Other Leftist Authoritarian Garbage We Happen to Fancy at the Moment for approval before it can be publicly released.

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

The issue is that the line between something like this being thought a “good idea” by influential members of the profession and that thing eventually becoming mandatory is a slippery slope that will be rather short, especially given similar recent trends in the profession (e.g., diversity statements).

cecul burrow
cecul burrow
Reply to  Tristan J. Rogers
7 months ago

You can bet this company is lobbying journals for this to be the case. Remember, they are a company doing this for $$$, not a charity doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. In a perverse way, I admire them for seeing an opportunity to make $$$ out of the woke mess that much academic discourse has become.

Miroslav Imbrisevic
7 months ago

Brilliant idea. No, wait! Aren’t today’s reviewers already doing this kind of work? So, the whole idea is superfluous. Cui bono? The companies preying on the insecurities of (young?) scholars who fear being cancelled or shunned. The whole idea is an insult to our integrity as philosophers. It suggests that without ‘sensitivity’ readers we would – allegedly – make grave mistakes (i.e. cause offence). But, in fact, it would only force us to kowtow to woke fashion. If you’re really not sure about something, ask a friend/colleague. No need to pay for friendly advice. The idea of using sensitivity readers for fiction was ‘misguided’ in the first place – no need to import it into philosophy. It’s another triumph of neo-liberalism: how can we cash in on the fear not offend. If we allow woke censorship into philosophy, then we are putting chains on ourselves. Philosophy sometimes may offend in the pursuit of its object – look at its history. If we self-censored or used ‘sensitivity’ readers then it would be a very different kind of ‘philosophy’. As Lord Justice Bean and Justice Warby stated: “Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Who are the “expert readers”? What exactly is their area of expertise? Will editorial decisions hang on whether an author is willing to make changes recommended or demanded by these sensitivity readers? What happens when an author disagrees with the assessment of the sensitivity reader due to some substantive moral or political disagreement that’s pertinent to the disagreement about things like style/word choice? What benefits do sensitivity readers offer to philosophers or the field, as opposed to the publisher?

David Wallace
7 months ago

I wonder what any of this really has to do with sensitivity.

If you are writing about a community that you’re not a member of and aren’t already deeply familiar with, it is sensible to get feedback from someone who is in that community or is deeply familiar with it. If you write about physics, talk to physicists. If you write about contemporary Japan, talk to people who live there. If you want to talk about why people vote for Trump, talk to people who voted for Trump. (And if you are an editor finding referees for an article, similar points apply.) There are straightforward reasons of good scholarship for doing so and they apply irrespective of whether a given group is marginalized or underrepresented.

Anya
Anya
7 months ago

Some of the reactions to this service reminded me of this Ricky Gervais bit about someone who doesn’t want guitar lessons seeing an ad for guitar lessons:

https://youtu.be/L3dxMGzt5mU?si=tdZ5lkpFuSWNBR04

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Anya
7 months ago

That is a great bit. Gervais is one of the funniest people on earth. Of course the joke depends on the voluntariness of guitar lessons, the take-it-or-leave it quality. It wouldn’t work if guitar lessons were mandatory.

The company says that “many publishers and presses are advising” that authors and editors make use of sensitivity readers. Advice from a publisher can be pretty persuasive, insofar as one wants to publish.

Anya
Anya
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

It’s the reactions in this thread that reminded me of the bit–the ones that don’t mention the statement you quote from the company’s promotional material.

That particular statement’s hasn’t raised my credence in the thesis that this company’s services are now mandatory for publishing, or poised to become mandatory. This is both because of the content of the claim and that it’s part of the company’s promotional materials.

If the statement makes you think people wanting to publish now have to hire this company, cool, you do you, it’s not something I’m interested in debating. But I do think it would be consistent with Gervais’ bit that the guy calling the guitar teacher has his own wacky theory about mandatory guitar lessons.

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Anya
7 months ago

It’s not (for me at least) a question of mandating that authors hire sensitivity readers. It’s that the use of sensitivity readers will become more prevalent, perhaps at the editorial/publisher level, such that conforming to their demands will become mandatory in order to publish. Of course it’s silly to worry about being forced to hire a sensitivity reader oneself—that seems extremely unlikely.

Anya
Anya
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

So first it was “‘publishers and presses… advising” that authors and editors make use of sensitivity readers’ that was supposed to be analogous to mandatory guitar lessons. But you say you agree that that won’t happen.

Instead, the new analogy to mandatory guitar lessons is publishers adopting standards that authors have to meet?

I don’t see a strong analogy there. But I also don’t think the possibility of publishers using a sensitivity reading firm this way is a good reason to get worked up about the existence of a sensivity firm.

And I say this as someone who finds this kind of stuff a bit cringey, as the kids say, and probably counter-productive. It’s just that some of the counter tendencies are even worse on both counts. That’s what I see in these comments, fwiw.

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Anya
7 months ago

It’s wasn’t my analogy. In any case, I think Dmitri Gallow describes the concern well below.

Anya
Anya
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

I think Animal Symbolicum’s reply to him, whether sincere or parody, illustrates well the diversity of concerns.

Gallow points out that, under specific assumptions, whose applicability to real-world editors and publishers in general is unknown, philosophy might come to resemble, to an unknown degree, a very different field that’s addressed these sorts of issues quite differently from philosophy, and the actual state of which we can only speculate about based on a handful of anecdotes.

Animal Symbolicum, by contrast, believes that the existence of sensitivity readers in academic philosophy is part of a national long march by an identitarian political faction towards capturing executive power, etc., etc.

There are a range of other interpretations of philosophy’s sensitivity readers.

It’s unfortunate, because elements of the academic left or academic liberals or whatever you want to call it can go off the rails in a number of ways, including with respect to free speech. It would be nice to have serious opposition to that. To me, the hysterics and knee-jerk reactions in this thread are indicative of the unseriousness of too much of this opposition. It’s bad optics to get worked up about Lex Academic before you have any evidence they or the editors they work with have taken a single step towards suppressing speech. (I don’t take the mere existence of sensitivity readers to be a step towards suppressing speech, for such purposes; to characterize it as such is analogous to the infamous overuses of the concept of harm.)

Last edited 7 months ago by Anya
Miroslav Imbrisevic
Reply to  Anya
7 months ago

hysterics and knee-jerk reactions“? Hmmm…

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Anya
6 months ago

To be clear, my comment was not addressed to any supposed free speech suppression. It was about how sensitivity readers fall into a wider pattern of neoliberal progressivism’s gathering and exertion of nondemocratic power. Other than that, I actually quite agree with your point about serious opposition. But as Professor Weinberg correctly noted today (11/2/23) in a post, “philosophy is not in charge of itself.” To keep the identitarian left from ruining philosophy and the rest of the academy, we need to look seriously at the extra-academic social-political patterns and incentive structures forming the environment that nourishes the identitarian left.

Christopher
Christopher
7 months ago

To summarize, it’s literally 1984: there’s a company, you can hire (or not), to help you find unintentionally offensive bits in your writing (if you want). Then, a single person (on the internet) suggested another way it could be used, which is just as bad as it being implemented (which it isn’t). This will lead to a slippery slope (a fallacy) to it becoming mandatory, like diversity statements (which aren’t).

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  Christopher
7 months ago

Is it really that difficult to imagine the ways that people with axes to grind would wield sensitivity reading “services” as a cudgel against ideological opponents?

Somewhat orthogonal but related remark: I am often shocked by how difficult it seems to be for some philosophers to grasp that people can actually legitimately disagree about morality and politics and that these disagreements cannot be settled by one side’s simply pointing to alleged moral and political truths. I am not saying that this describes your position, Christopher, but it does appear to describe the views of a surprisingly large number of philosophers.

Last edited 7 months ago by GradStu
Christopher
Christopher
Reply to  GradStu
7 months ago

It’s not difficult to imagine at all, I just am unaware of it happening literally anywhere right now in academic philosophy, at least from what people are saying. But what I do know is that, under the current system, if intellectually dishonest editors have an ideological axe to grind, they can just reject a paper out of hand, and they can do *that* for free.

But that wasn’t my point. Rather, what frustrates me is that when a blog posts about a *hypothetical* way we could use a voluntary service, there’s a Philosophy Bat Signal fired into the night sky and we philosophers swoop in to decry the merely possible threats to our ability to offend people with our (apparently) *very* provocative papers we’re just dying to publish. Kidding aside, there’s a severe disconnect in the debate here. Literally nowhere in the post could I find a sign that mandatory sensitivity revisions were suggested, let alone actually implemented, let alone implemented universally. Yet here we are, discussing the demerits of universally mandatory sensitivity reading services. Why? You tell me.

You are right that one can’t point to the alleged moral truths when those supposed “truths” are the very thing at issue. But note nothing I said made any claims about mandatory sensitivity writers being good or bad, just that this is a highly online comment section where many people are attacking a proposal that no one has made.

On the Market Too
On the Market Too
Reply to  Christopher
7 months ago

This will lead to a slippery slope (a fallacy) to it becoming mandatory, like diversity statements (which aren’t).

Slippery slope is a “fallacy” in the way that ad hominem is a “fallacy”; in real life, concerns about credibility that are technically ad hominems are rational. For instance, very few people have the scientific knowledge and expertise to take positions on climate policy without relying upon credibility assessments that are technically ad hominems. Likewise, in real life, wariness of policy expansions grounded in precedent that are technically slippery slopes are rational. Many job ads indeed require diversity statements. Regardless of any verbal dispute regarding whether thus, diversity statements are “mandatory,” we can just restate the consideration as the role of diversity statements in hiring being a concerning precedent.

Dmitri Gallow
7 months ago

It’s of course nice to know if you’re about to unwittingly offend somebody. If that’s all sensitivity readers were, then I don’t think that they’d be very controversial.

In the world of fiction, where sensitivity readers are already commonplace, the concern is that their reports go to the publisher, who then encourages authors to address the sensitivity reader’s concerns. So they operate as a second editor—some would say de facto censor—effectively re-writing books before they go to press, even over the author’s wishes.

Many literary authors feel that this leads to frivolous rewrites. For one instance: Anthony Horowitz claimed that he was told to not have a Native American character use a scalpel, since the word “scalpel” is too close to “scalp”. On his telling, the changes and cuts to his book were not optional. Bret Easton Ellis shares stories about a sensitivity reader cutting a scene from a book because a white character expressed fear of MSG at a Chinese restaurant. There are other similar stories out there. As an outsider, it’s hard to know how cherry-picked or representative they are. It’s also hard to know how many books by lesser-known authors don’t get published at all because of sensitivity reader concerns.

In academic publishing, I can see sensitivity readers leading to a dynamic that makes it difficult to defend controversial views. It’s natural to expect that journal editors would be wary of getting caught up in controversy themselves. Suppose they see a sensitivity reader report which says that a paper is offensive or demeaning to a certain group. The editor might think that the paper is milquetoast and that the report is frivolous, or that the idea is worth exploring even if offensive. But they can foresee a potential backlash. They can foresee people incredulously asking “how did this make it past sensitivity readers?”. And they can foresee their editorial judgement becoming the topic of conversation. They’re not that confident of their judgement here; and, anyhow, it’s not their paper that’s on the line. There’s a potentially quite steep downside for them and a very small potential upside. It’s natural that they’d start siding with sensitivity readers as a matter of course. If this becomes the standard practice, it’s natural that sensitivity readers would become aware of their de facto veto. And it’s predictable that some of them would start to use it more and more liberally.

There’s a kind of institutional design that would guard against this dynamic: sensitivity reader reports could go directly to authors, without editors seeing them. Or sensitivity readers could sell their services to authors directly, without going through publishers.

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Dmitri Gallow
7 months ago

You’ve lain bare what the identitarian left’s long march through the institutions has always been about: wielding cultural power.

The identitarian left stopped doing politics long ago and has accordingly ceded legislative power, from the local to the national. To compensate, they’ve been relying on the judiciary branch, the executive/administrative branch, and, most saliently, the cultural sector: corporations, the entertainment industry, NGOs, nonprofits, and education. (This is why concentrations of corporate or private power are low on their list of evils while appropriately representative chief officer suites are high on their list of goods.)

Sensitivity readers, like DEI officers and antiracist trainers, are the last-gasp efforts by a politically frustrated faction to realize the neoliberal progressivist vision: harnessing the de-regulated investment- and finance-markets to bring about the world they think would be the better one.

Nicholas Denyer
Nicholas Denyer
6 months ago

Iris Murdoch said of the young David Lewis: ‘His work has been excellent, certainly “alpha” throughout.’ Throughout my career, I’ve known Greek letters used to indicate the quality of a student’s essay or examination performance. A few months ago, however, I learnt that in some quarters in North America, such uses of “alpha” are found deeply offensive. This is information worth having, and a sensitivity reader could no doubt give such information. But this information won’t make me abandon the habits of a lifetime. It simply reinforces my feeling that some people too easily take offence.