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Cate Hundleby:

It seems to me that these reasons are not sufficient to prefer men (or white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied, etc. people) over other people. It’s not sufficient because the sorts of impressions addressed here while quite ubiquitous are of minor relevance to what makes a good …. whatever the issue is. Speakers need more than an authoritative voice, and also a social significance that can be parsed in many different ways. Track records can also be assessed in different ways and being established by track record in any case may also indicate entrenchment in outdated approaches and even burnout or over-exposure. The person who attracts an audience is also not necessarily the person who makes the greatest impression on an audience.

Yet it seems argumentation theory ought to be able to provide a clearer means for dismissing these sorts of appeals.  In a hierarchical society hierarchical social categories such as gender and race are sometimes relevant, but how can we show the (severe) limitation of that relevance?  Is generic status ever sufficient reason to promote or prefer a person?

Originally posted on Feminist Philosophers:

In a sexist society where there is a very long tradition of women being excluded from a wide range of desirable public roles, we should expect many of the following things to be said of men and these roles:

People expect a man to be doing X.
People associate manliness with important features of this role. (E.g., a male voice has more authority.)
Men have much more of a proven track record at X.
(Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.

So what do we think of appealing to such beliefs as a reason to favor picking only men for such roles? One response is to label it as the ‘Sexism Wins’ strategy, with the implication that the actions are sexist. What would you suggest? Notice that the strategy is different from the frequently false response to the effect that there just aren’t any…

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An unprecedented apology for excluding women has been offered by the organizers of the Extended Cognition and Epistemology conference at TU Endhoven.

“The organizers of the conference sincerely regret the gender imbalance in the list of contributors. They admit that they should have, before the list of contributions became final, taken more proactive measures to guarantee a better gender balance in the special issue/conference line-up.”

“Gender imbalance” is an understatement regarding the all-male lineup, and respecting the recommendation of pretty much the same lineup at the Episteme conference on privacy and secrecy. There are plenty of women doing work in these fields, and not just (to use Sandra Harding’s terminology about scientists) the “women worthies,” such as Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Lackey.  The apology goes a good way toward indicating a desire to do differently (at least I think it is mistaken to be sceptical), but treating gender as an afterthought, the remedy that they suggest, won’t suffice.

What needs to be addressed is why women are being overlooked, and similar biases have been clear in job applications, promotions, and so on for decades (as Steve keeps reminding me).  We can blame this on implicit bias, but that may seem to limit prospects for a deep or lasting solution. It suggests that the problem has unconscious and permanent roots in individual cognition, which may discourage those who want to make equitable choices.  It doesn’t provide constructive direction to those who would like to do differently, such as the organizers of the TU conference.  Also, the problem is not isolated: it is a problem of reasoning, a problem for epistemology, and suggests a lack of appropriate critical thinking tools.

We need skills for addressing implicit bias, for negotiating the ways in which our thinking is undermined by gender and racial bias, and other “status quo bias.”  We need to develop procedures that encourage the recognition of socially marginalized contributors, experts and otherwise weakly recognized testifiers.  These considerations need to be built into decision-making at all levels.  Evidence of the problem for invited speakers, insofar as those decisions are made at great length, only indicates that the problem has great epistemological depth.

A step in the right direction would be to orient conferences to this problem from the outset: include race and gender analysis in the conference topic; have a regular conference to address that topic; consider how epistemologists are educating philosophers in ways that reinforce social bias; think first of which women (and people of colour) can be featured.  Make analysis of social privilege part of the critical thinking practice in philosophy and the critical thinking curriculum, not just an afterthought.

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University of Guelph graduate students (it’s my understanding) have been organizing in a serious fashion to take philosophy out of the ivory tower.  A two-day series of events, with six concurrent sessions addresses issues from Einstein to zombies, heuristics, and feminism. 

Philopolis Guelph, inspired by Philopolis Montreal aims to “[do] a better job [than academic philosophers have been doing] of engaging in dialogue with the public: this requires finding a common language, as well as being explicit about the relevance of the ideas at issue. Both academic philosophers and the broader public stand to benefit one another greatly through this kind of exchange—free of jargon, of minced words, and of exclusionary assumptions. “

Philopolis’ resistance to academic jargon and presumption promises to make philosophy accountable as well as show non-philosophers how valuable philosophy can be.  The development of a common language is a creative endeavour that requires public engagement, and making assumptions explicit is an important principle of critical thinking to put into practice.

Philosophers sometimes think we own “critical thinking,” which is an extremely dangerous assumption in itself.  Sociologists, neurologists and physicists engage in critical thinking too, and are more aware of the limitations to their methods.

I know at Guelph they’ve been talking about this sort of event for years, and I spoke at one such around 2004.  Unfortunately, that lacked the upswell and publicity that supports this event.  Such savvy is to the credit of the graduate students, I expect.

As a faculty brat, I have a long-abiding affection for graduate students from the old days when there were more personal relationships between faculty and graduate students.  While that intimacy could and often did involve a number of problems regarding sexual morality and nepotism, some of us benefited in the most benign ways.  As the numbers of graduate students swell — at least in Canada where governments are putting money into that sector of education (mostly to the exclusion of others), many freshly-minted doctors will be disappointed by their job prospects.  The benefit however (and this is the reason the government puts the money there) is for society in general.  Graduate students have insight, passion, networking skills, and drive that can drive social and intellectual progress.  That power is well-demonstrated by Philopolis Guelph.

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