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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Civility run amok

First, a blog post in which a philosopher states what her own conduct will be:
In particular, I will treat other philosophers more junior and/or professionally vulnerable than myself with respect.
I will make clear, in public, that in my opinion behaviour which does not meet the basic standards described in 1 is both unprofessional and unethical.
On its face, and explicitly in a disclaimer, this is entirely a statement about her own conduct:
For clarity: it’s not my intention here to suggest that these or similar pledges should be made by every philosopher. These are statements about my own intentions.
Of course (!!), this statement was seen as a direct attack on Brian Leiter. Leiter himself responded with a bizarre email to her.

Contextually, I guess Leiter is right. He is so notorious for being disrespectful, he must believe, that anyone setting a standard of respect for herself and herself alone must be automatically calling him out. For all I know, she was doing so, but for him to take the bait seems absurdly narcissistic. Does he think he's the only narcissistic bully in philosophy? If I had a post about my habit of not throwing kittens into rivers would I get attacked by kitten murderers? Wouldn't they just be outing themselves?

I do enjoy heated rhetoric. Pullum is one of my favorites. I have enjoyed Leiter's own attacks in the past when they were directed at deserving targets, though I always wondered whether the rumors of his bullying might be true.

See also here.


Thomas said...

I've been thinking about this case too. The thing that strikes me most is how openly "vulnerable" people seem to have become. I imagine Leiter is puzzled about the amount of "harm" he's able to do with a mail like that.

This post explains in some detail how he is perceived. I have to say, it worries me that the culture of academic philosophy today has people going to counsellors for advice on how to interpret mails like that.

You're right to call it bizarre, of course. It's depressing to see one philosopher acting "on the advice of council", i.e., threatening a lawsuit, and the other following the advice of a counsellor. One would have hoped the field's rhetorical space had a greater range of humour.

Jonathan said...

Yes, I saw that post too. I would probably consult my therapist if I got an email like that from a powerful person in my field. I don't know that I would broadcast my vulnerability on the internet, though.

Jonathan said...

Leiter also fancies himself an expert on civility:


Thomas said...

Yes, I suppose if I had a therapist (or a lawyer for that matter) that I talked to regularly, my feelings about this mail would come up. But I'm guessing it would then be because whatever reason I had for having a therapist (or lawyer) in the first place would come into play here too.

The way I read that post was that the mail itself is obviously traumatising, a cause of "serious harm", etc., not just a something that reflects poorly on Leiter. The fact that Jenkings "received counselling during ... in order to recover from the incident" is part of the case against Leiter. I.e, it was that serious.

My natural inclination would be to use any possible counselling in a behind-the-scenes way. A means to making me stronger in the situation.

I don't know enough about the case, but it looks to me like that Leiter's behaviour, though by no means acceptable, is the sort of thing that career academics should not be "vulnerable" to. Maybe we need stronger institutions (better job security). But some of this has to do with the way culture shapes personality (on both sides).

Jonathan said...

Well, we don't know her personally, and what other vulnerabilities she already has. She has tenure, reading her cv, so I'm not sure she's worried about job security.

Of course, if she didn't suffer real harm, then the case against the behavior being bad is weakened, so I take your point that this part of "the case against Leiter." The bully doesn't know, though, whether the person being bullied has other issues. That's precisely the point: the abuser is recklessly indifferent to the possibility of real harm. He can always say it's a jocular jab. It's curious that Jenkins is seen as over-reacting (by some) but that Leiter is not seen as being a wuss for objecting to something that was not even about him. He's so vain he thought that post was about him.

Thomas said...

I think he read this post, at least, making Jenkins' post about him.

Jonathan said...

Yes, that's the context in which a post could be about something that it doesn't even mention. I guess a less vulnerable person would have answered: Why do you think it is about you? You would only think that if you are confessing to be an asshole. If you think your behavior is respectful already then you should have no problem.

Anonymous said...

I think it's shocking that people publish somebody's emails without his permission. That's disgusting behavior. I wonder if these philosophers have ever heard of ethical behavior.

Leslie B. said...

Leiter is scary. Counseling would be over the scare. A professor at my university called me at home, somewhat unhinged, after I turned him down for something social, made a few veiled threats and a few demands, and he has a reputation somewhat like this guy's, and yes I called for advice. On several fronts: my physical safety, my peace of mind / freedom from harassment, and also the question of how to handle since it was someone in my professional circles.

It's "counseling" in the sense of advice about law, protocol, and best practices. You get threatening mail like that, you ask for advice. And the advice will be the advice she got. And then you have to follow the advice, and be able to show you have done, in case you need to apply for a protective order or defend yourself in some other way.

Leslie B. said...

And yes, I did turn over all the threatening e-mail to the police without asking the sender's permission to do so.

I think that if you send mail of the kind Leiter does you are basically asking for it to be shared around and perhaps published -- it is too outrageous not to consult about, and obviously the sender isn't the person to be talking to about it.

I would not ask permission since my point in sharing would be to get advice. Asking permission, to a person like this, just puts you in a position to be harassed by them more and also would probably provoke much more mail from them.

I think by now we all know all e-mail can be forwarded. The most, absolute most I would have done is let Leiter know I was sharing his mail. I am not sure even that would be a good idea, though, and would probably ask advice on this.

There is my colleague the Peninsularist who used to call me at odd hours and complain about our colleagues, and who I felt sorry for because he was new and in culture shock but then shut up when he started insisting a certain one of our colleagues should be raped. He then sent the third woman in the department an unhinged e-mail that included the sentence (more or less) "I warn you, do not contradict me again because you will come to regret it," and yes, she sure did forward it to relevant supervisors.

Leslie B. said...

"I don't know that I would broadcast my vulnerability on the internet, though."

You might want to, actually, as on stage is a better place to hide than many.

Again, this does *not* sound to me to be about "feeling bad" because somebody powerful acted "mean", and going to cry on the shoulder of your therapist.

This is about getting threats and harassment from someone who seems increasingly unhinged, and getting interdisciplinary professional advice on how to handle.

Thomas said...

@Leslie: I hadn't considered the possibility that it was merely "advice about law, protocol, and best practices". It didn't read that way to me, but I guess it could. If so, it would suggest less vulnerability, i.e., that there are working institutional protections in place. But one would then have hoped that there might be a "best practice" that could avoid this public scene.

Hopefully, that's what happened in the other two cases you describe. There should be no need to "hide on a stage" in such cases. The institutions should simply intervene (after the mails are forwarded to the supervisors. Part of my worry here is actually about the role of the institutions in protecting people, i.e., making them less vulnerable. I'm not just suggesting people get a thicker skin.

One can imagine Jenkins forwarding the legal threat she has received (in the course of her job) to her department head, who then contacts Leiter's boss. Basically, when I get something that looks like a legal threat I either take it seriously as such, or I don't it let it bother me.

Leslie B. said...

The thing is, Thomas, that these situations tend to be sticky and ambiguous, and institutional protections are primarily designed to protect the institution from liability.

People routinely consult informally on these things before going ahead institutionally. Typically upon receipt of a missive like this one wonders if one is overreacting or will be construed as such. You have to talk to your circles and sometimes your only protection is to spread news informally as well as formally.

In my infamous sexual and professional harassment case, University officials refused to follow Federal safe workplace law because they liked the harasser better than they like me, and thought we might make a nice match. To allow me the possibility of reconsidering and getting together with the guy, they broke the law. This was a problem in itself and also because city police, who were doing their job off campus, had advised me I must get certain things done on campus. Failing to do so made me look ambivalent and would have weakened my case in court had anything violent actually happened.

It is all well and fine to talk about decorum but to continue using my case as an example, it was the University which refused to follow the law. When one tells the victim to use extreme decorum in these cases, it isolates them and protects the perpetrator.

This Leiter is weird and there are plenty of weird people who are also pillars of society like him. Tenured or not, at same institution or not, I would not ignore a person who writes in this tone. Ignoring enables, so they can go on to the next step. The only way "ignoring" of bullies works is if it is a collective freeze-out. Then then are on notice -- otherwise, they just get to continue toying with the current victim.