April 5, 2022

Back when I was a graduate student in the Nineties, first at St Andrews University and then at Leeds, philosophy departments were terrifying places. Seminar rooms often felt like amphitheatres.

Every week, the same ritual would unfold in the senior research seminar. First, a visiting speaker from another University would spend an hour explaining the details of his new theory to an ostentatiously bored and listless audience. Grimacing through the faint applause, he would brace himself for what we all knew was to follow.

Previously slouched, comatose-looking figures in the audience would ominously stir into life. Hands would shoot up. The objections would start. Frank accusations of confusion, question-begging, inconsistency, and contradiction would be made, against which the stammering speaker would defend himself as best he could. Tenacious questioners would follow up on their original objections and follow up again, to be stopped only when the speaker eventually muttered the shaming words, equivalent to a “give-up” signal in judo: “I’ll have to think a bit more about that.”  Victory achieved, the questioner would fall back in his chair, visibly satisfied to an almost post-coital degree.

The speaker’s immediate ordeal over, he would be dragged to the pub and force-fed copious amounts of alcohol, then on to some probably awful restaurant, where colleagues who were particularly socially unaware — which, let’s face it, was most of them — would continue explaining to him precisely why he was completely and utterly wrong, with huge enthusiasm, late into the night.

When I was a Masters student at St Andrews, the stated aim of some faculty members was to humiliate visiting speakers, with a “win” for the “home” department declared afterwards. A distinguished Professor from Australia once told me that, years later, he still woke up in the night sweating, reliving how badly his paper at St Andrews had gone. At Leeds during my PhD, there were still a couple of Wittgenstein’s original acolytes knocking about. Apparently first learnt at the feet of the master, the habit had spread among staff of theatrically wrinkling and striking the forehead in an exaggeratedly contemptuous manner when they heard something they didn’t like, in full view of the visiting speaker. Sometimes they would wheel round, sneeringly turn their backs on the speaker, and hold their heads in their hands.

Frankly, these places scared the bejesus out of me. At St Andrews, I think I only ever spoke twice in class. The second time, I was scoffed at by the teacher so effectively that I didn’t speak in class again there, ever. In Leeds, I used to shake with anxiety walking down the endless departmental corridor. Towards the end of my time there, I finally dared to put up my hand to ask a question at a research seminar, and thought I must be having a heart attack, so loudly was my heart banging in my chest.

Most places back then were like this. Academic philosophers were nearly all men, and many (most?) of them were eccentric, obsessive, grumpy men with minds like steel traps. Philosophy departments were places where derision, incredulity, and scorn were manifested on a daily basis without any attempt to hide it.

You probably expect me to say how terrible this all was. Actually, I wonder if it wasn’t the best of all possible worlds in comparison to what came next.

***

In 2011, a report came out that was circulated widely within UK philosophy departments. This was a joint initiative from the British Philosophical Association (BPA) and the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), entitled “Women in Philosophy in the UK”. Its aim was to present a new survey indicating women’s relatively low participation in higher echelons of the philosophy profession, despite large numbers of them at Undergraduate level. At the time, SWIP was an organisation I cared about partly for self-interested reasons, naturally assuming they represented me given my membership of the female sex. Later on, when more senior, I would get involved with their mentoring schemes for women in early career stages.

This report enthusiastically leaned into the fashionable theories and buzzwords of the time, hypothesising that the main causes of women’s diminishing engagement in Philosophy over time must be men’s “implicit bias” against women, and women’s experience of “stereotype threat”, rather than, say, the effects of early educational influences, economic or other structural influences ultimately to do with motherhood, or possible sex-based difference across populations. The salient point for us here, though, is that one of the report’s conclusions was that women were being deterred from postgraduate degrees and jobs in philosophy because of male aggression in arguments. For instance, the report noted:

“One piece of stereotypically male behaviour is an aggressive style of argument in the seminar room. This might include, for example, displaying hostility — by words, tone of voice or body language — towards a speaker or audience (or a class discussion) member whom one thinks has failed to grasp a point or adequately address an objection, or pursuing a point well past the stage where it is obvious that the speaker has no adequate response.”

Since stereotype threat and implicit bias were thought to be difficult to eradicate (and arguably are even more so now, since it’s turned out they probably don’t exist as robustly evidenced phenomena), by far the easiest-looking response to the report was to try to make philosophical discussions less intimidating. This project was taken seriously by many colleagues across the country, including my own. One by one, philosophy departments started to advertise on their websites that they abided by the BPA/SWIP’s new Good Practice Guide. By 2018, a study of the impact of this scheme was able to report that: “As a result of the seminar policies many universities reported that the atmosphere was more constructive and less aggressive.”

Based on my own experience of both giving and attending talks around the country, I too can attest to a change in social norms in the philosophy seminar room during this period — fuelled partly by the influence of the report but also by the increasing numbers of North Americans getting jobs in UK Universities back then, and so bringing cultural norms of US academia with them. (Indeed, the two are arguably linked: one of the BPA/SWIP report’s main authors is American.)

The most obvious manifestation of this change was that younger British members of departments started talking like fake Yanks. An implausible degree of positivity in talks became the norm, even amongst the otherwise terminally morose. Upward inflection became commonplace, as did the intensifier “super”, an implied exclamation mark, and an unfeasibly perky demeanour. Ostentatious expressions of folksy informality became more common: some audience members started — shudder — bringing knitting along to talks. Meanwhile speakers, under a guise of flattening the hierarchies, could show off to others about their acquaintance with powerful figures in the profession by discussing their work on a casual first-name basis (“So here’s what Crispin thinks about higher order vagueness!”).

During question periods, there was also a noticeable shift. Elaborate rules would be announced by the chair at the beginning of every question period, the better to try to control unruly audience members. “Junior and minority scholars” would be prioritised over others to ask their questions first; “a hand” should be raised for a main question; “a finger” for a subsidiary follow-up; “hands” absolutely could not be smuggled in as “fingers”, and so on. A typical interaction between chair and questioner would go: (Chair:) “Is that really a finger, or is it a hand?” (Questioner:) “It’s definitely a finger!” (Reader, it was hardly ever a finger).

It also became much more common for audience members to start by thanking speakers fulsomely for their talk, then offer banal and unfocused lines of questioning such as: “I was really interested to hear you say X in your talk. Could you say a little more about that?” (Other audience members, inwardly: please God no!). Instead of trying to eviscerate the speaker with a devastating question, the new tendency was to try to be constructive and collaborative in one’s approach, identifying not what was wrong with the speaker’s argument, but what was right about it. Generally it seemed to me that, as ostentatious expressions of civility went up, standards of inquiry dropped — because as a questioner, you no longer had to have grasped the form of the argument to ask an acceptable question.

Unlike the authors of the BPA/SWIP report, I’m not convinced that the originally dominant argumentative style within philosophy departments was ever particularly testosterone-fuelled, though males were certainly its principal authors. They weren’t beating each other up, after all. In fact, outside the seminar room, I have found most male philosophers fairly passive and confrontation-averse, which presumably partly explains why so many have proved supine when it comes to rejecting fashionable gender metaphysics.

Whatever the truth about its origins, the demise of the old approach meant that aggression was still knocking around, but now it had to go somewhere else. As the numbers of PhDs being disgorged into the philosophy job market every year increased, and the number of jobs available decreased, competition amongst philosophers, always high anyway, became even more intense than usual. Where that aggression had formerly been expressed and so somewhat contained within the combative rituals of the seminar room, it now sought new outlets. And what it found was the internet.

***

Though more sensible academics tend to eschew social media altogether, Facebook is a favourite platform for many. Many spend lots of downtime scrolling and commenting throughout the working day. Even the most antisocial of philosophers is usually able to build up large numbers of Facebook “friends” on the basis of shared acquaintances in a close-knit profession, and this often includes lots of graduate students and post-docs.

Around the same time as the BPA/SWIP report was published, and as the popularity of Facebook as a platform was taking off, some senior philosophers realised it provided them with the means to build up secure little fiefdoms — not really private, given the large numbers of colleagues and students looking on, but not really public either. Within a few years, high on the fumes of the media attention being given to a few high profile sex scandals in the profession, these same people were furiously cementing a narrative that philosophy was a terribly dangerous and threatening place, not just for women but for other minorities too.

Now, whether or not academic philosophy was (or is) a truly terrible place for minorities is not my question here, but what was clear back then was that these people really, really wanted to believe it was. Particular stories about harassment and prejudice to individuals that emerged online would be seized upon as obviously indicative of what must be happening to a particular minority at scale in the profession, accompanied by heartfelt exhortations to “listen” to that minority, as if its members were functionally interchangeable. And because a narrative like this needs both heroes and villains and a clear storyline, there was also a lot of sneering about white males and other ideological enemies, and the emotional blackmailing of presumed weaklings into recanting public opinions the in-group didn’t like.

As these figures virtue-signalled, gate-kept, and generally queen-bee’d around in virtual spaces, they consolidated their own power. An example was being set for younger onlookers, desperately hungry to get into the profession permanently, and standing relatively little chance given the paucity of jobs and the high number of competitors. It told them that self-aggrandising and bullying others was acceptable in the philosophy profession as long as it was in the name of social justice. And it told them that drawing attention to their own presumed victimhood was good for their careers, since it was likely to draw the approval of more powerful others.

One website for early career researchers, started around then, was called “The Philosopher’s Cocoon”, helpfully indicating the profession’s new favoured approach. Roughly speaking, this approach goes: tell junior researchers in some particular identity group that the world of academic philosophy will be particularly harsh for them, because of who they are; isolate them from evidence that might disconfirm this, or explain it differently; uplift any narrative that apparently supports it; and reward their ensuing expressions of anxiety with ostentatious cosseting, soothing, and patting. (And also — for the love of God and the continuing flow of student fees and cheap labour — don’t mention that for most philosophy postgrads, there will be no glorious butterfly stage after the cocoon, because there just aren’t enough academic jobs to go round.)

Soon enough, ambitious youngsters who were able to tolerate the obviously infantilising element got the hang of this new game. Via self-published blogposts, comments, and open letters pleading with the profession, they readily became the sort of public victim they sensed their elders would like to see.

Around this time, lots of Facebook groups and dedicated blogs sprang up to support particular identity groups in philosophy. The dynamics of these online spaces were sociologically fascinating to witness. I was a silent member of the group “Academic Mamas in Philosophy” for a while, as well as its parent group the gruesome behemoth “Academic Mamas”, and I still grin when I remember the implicit hierarchies, barely suppressed rivalries, moralised hyperbole, and passive-aggressive spats about exactly who was having to do the “emotional labour” of “educating” others about their linguistic transgressions. (Most of all, I remember the off-the-charts humblebragging: “Hey mamas, just wanted to get your views on whether an hour a week of screen time — supervised, of course — is excessive for a seven-year-old kiddo? And if so, can anyone hook me up to some cool educational websites?”. Ruefully, I would lift my gaze from my computer to wink at my own children, mainlining Penguin biscuits and watching Cars 2 on a loop for the 14th time that day).

But to get back to the main point: by 2017, when junior philosopher Rebecca Tuvel published her article in the journal Hypatia arguing that if transwomen are women, “trans-racial” people like Rachel Dolezal must be black, the groundwork for a debacle of carnivalesque proportions was already prepared. Though Tuvel was earnestly treating her argument as a modus ponens (i.e. since the premises about transwomen seemed true, the conclusion about trans-racialism and Dolezal must also be true), it was obvious to most readers that equally, her argument could work as a modus tollens (i.e. since the conclusion about trans-racialism and Dolezal seems obviously false, there must be something wrong with the premise about transwom… OH SHIT HELP LOOK OVER THERE!).

The resulting attempts to distract from this inconvenient implication involved mass denunciation on a hundred Facebook pages and blogs, widespread public huffing about “failure to engage with the scholarship of trans people and philosophers of colour”, and a comically pompous open letter alleging Tuvel’s incompetence as a researcher signed by big names in feminist philosophy and gender studies. A craven public apology from Hypatia’s own associate editors for having published the article in the first place followed.

The outcome of all of this, predictably, was fear. No-one wanted to be the next Tuvel, and especially not younger and more precarious members of the profession, but the more established ones didn’t much feel like it either. The traditional means of defending a position — using arguments — wasn’t fashionable in online spaces anymore. Instead, moves formerly condemned in first year logic classes were in the ascendancy: ad hominems, failures of charitable interpretation, begging the question, confusion of sufficient conditions with necessary ones, derivations of “is” from “ought”, and all the rest. Any white male over the age of 40 with a permanent job and a modicum of self-awareness took the temperature of the times and slid away to the edges of the online world, confining their robust discussion in public to impenetrable questions about panpsychism or metaphysical grounding.

In 2018, I wrote my own blogpost, having noticed that it could be quite an effective medium for getting philosophers’ attention. I wanted to suggest to them that there was a peculiar and undesirable silence in academic philosophy on the obvious problems around legal self-ID in relation to the Gender Recognition Act, which at that point was being discussed furiously elsewhere in the UK as part of a government consultation.

Reader, you probably already know the rest.

***

To date, to my knowledge, neither the British Philosophical Association nor the Society for Women in Philosophy have ever commented publicly on the circumstances of my resignation from my post at Sussex University. But in October 2021, at around the same time I was facing the prospect of men letting off flares at my campus workplace, angry with me for holding views about the importance of naming biological sex, they published another report on “Women in Philosophy”. This one followed up on their original one after ten years and summarised what they thought had changed. Utterly predictably, one of the things that had changed was that by now they weren’t talking about women anymore.

This new report, written by the original two authors, pretends not to notice that the old one was aimed at improving the lot of females in philosophy. It now says that the focus is “gender”, and talks of “woman” and “man” as “identities”, so making a nonsense of the idea that its aim is somehow continuous with that of the previous project. A “methodological note” describes a “newly included nonbinary gender category” in the associated survey of philosophers, but complains with regret that the number of non-binary people recorded in the survey is probably inaccurate, because departments have “inadequate reporting processes for students to change the gender on their records”.

The report seamlessly adapts to the present cultural climate in other ways too. Though the notion of “implicit bias” is still hanging in there, “stereotype threat” — so heavily leaned on in 2011 — is out with barely a mention. And “intersectional oppression” is now in, a mere 33 years after Kimberlé Crenshaw first wrote about it.

Also predictably, the new report also declares that “philosophy is unwelcoming to trans philosophers”. By “philosophy”, they mean me, and a handful of others still hanging in there within the university system, argumentatively defending age-old, culturally ubiquitous, and still perfectly functional understandings of “woman” and “man” in terms of “adult human female” and “adult human male”. To try to demonstrate their lurid assertion about the environment for trans people, the authors link the reader to an article in the journal Transgender Studies Quarterly, in which non-binary author Robin Dembroff writes:

“The situation in philosophy is, to be blunt, a massive, complex, and thorny transgender trashfire. This trashfire manifests most explicitly in the context of social media, blogs, interpersonal interactions, and the occasional journal publication, and it has serious repercussions. (To name one, a number of high-profile court briefings opposing trans rights in both the United States and the United Kingdom cite blog posts by philosophers such as Kathleen Stock … as evidence that trans persons are dangerous and deluded.)”

Now as a matter of fact, none of this is true, and the footnote supplied by Dembroff to supposedly demonstrate the truth of the last parenthesis doesn’t even come close to doing so. But the energy drains out of me when I think about seriously trying to get the report’s authors, or Dembroff — or anyone at all working in feminist philosophy in a University these days — to correct the public record. For I know by now that in their line of business, stating the truth isn’t remotely the point.

This is adapted from a post originally published on Kathleen Stock’s Substack.

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