Only Deeds: Twenty Years Later and Still Not Recognizing What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy

This is a guest blog post, authored by Dana Rognlie, a graduate student in philosophy at UO.  The post is her reaction to Carlin Romano’s recent visit to the department.  Here it is:

(Trigger Warning)

“Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book.”

Carlin Romano, “Between the Motion and the Act,” The Nation

Suppose I decide to skip Carlin Romano’s latest pontification before blogging about him. Because I’m uncertain he understands the difference between being a feminist and being a ‘feminist’.  Perhaps the better question is, suppose the discipline of philosophy valued the existence and freedom of women in philosophy and in society more broadly over abstract claims of freedom of expression of privileged men? Despite attending more to style than to content, touting clarity while remaining incoherent, and responding to criticism with name-dropping and non sequiturs, Romano is what passes in America (the philosophical!) for a public intellectual.  Perhaps I owe it to him, to philosophy, to America, to women, or to myself to attend.  But the carelessness with which he wields his privilege is precisely the problem for women in philosophy (and in the home, and in the streets!).  Would attending implicitly endorse his ignorance and privilege?  Would failing to attend allow him to get away with yet more self-indulgent misogyny?  Should I carry a sign?  Should I wear a vagina hoodie?  Or should I engage in polite, Midwestern chitchat?  Should I patiently explain, as I do to my undergraduates, that sometimes women aren’t treated so well?  More importantly, why do I have to make these wrenching decisions at all?

One thing is certain: you don’t mess with kitty and get away with it.

He’s a self-proclaimed sophist and disciple of Isocrates, though one unrecognizeable even to Nietzsche. Believe me, his 1993 ‘review’ of Catherine—or as he professionally refers to her, “Kitty”—MacKinnon’s book, Only Words, only gets worse (or better? I suppose it depends on your point of view… which is sort of the point) from that first sentence (quoted in the epigraph above). Ahh, the blind bliss of privilege.  Breathe it in.  Unless you’re a woman.  Or gay.  Or not all that into rape culture and the societal dominance of men (both of which Romano gleefully denies are endemic to American culture).  In that case, you can still breathe it in, but it’s less like nosing a fine wine and more like coughing on fumes and second-hand smoke.  Nothing’s perfect.

Life is short, but I decide to attend anyway.  Carlin stands by this provocation twenty years later, claiming he wouldn’t write it any differently today.  He calls himself a feminist. Though he’s so focused on individuals rather than systems that, for him, cat-calling seems like an isolated event, instead of the everyday annoyance (threat?) it is. You know, in the way one wonders whether that mosquito-bite will give you West Nile Virus.

(Except that your chances are better with West Nile: one in 150 develop severe symptoms. One in four of my female students have experienced sexual assault.)

The chronicles of C-Money’s implicit misogyny are plentiful. He denies the socio-economic power dynamics at play in a sex worker’s decision to enter employment. He is emboldened by the outpouring of support of rape victims against MacKinnon’s radical views on pornography—as if survivors don’t have enough trauma to deal with, they are now used to uplift his woeful misreading of a nuanced discussion of the harms of speech acts.

He points out that “Kitty’s” ex-husband told him she wasn’t upset by his publicly imagined rape…err…review.

And then, as the feminist he obviously is, he criticizes Martha C. Nussbaum’s manly legalistic writing style—“She’s a sellout! I, like my hero Hugh Heffner, am to be entertained above all else!”

Dance, Martha. Dance. Carlin will make it rain for you.

monkey

I experience an emotion.  Is it shock?  Surprise?  Disgust?  Contempt?  Resentment?  Sheer admiration for the balls on this guy?  Is he just another victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  Does he really believe any of this shit?  If there’s anything that can be said for sure about Carl, it’s that he’s memorable. Like the first time you got Rickrolled. When your first pet died.  Or you accidentally saw your parents having sex.  (Hi, Mom!)

This blog post is not an attempt to rehash the sex debates of the 1990s. Nor do I want to add fodder to the continuing pornography debates.

This blog post is about the intersection of our discipline and rape culture.

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon recently invited (read: wasted limited resources bringing) Romano to campus to discuss his most recent book, America the Philosophical.  You see, we care about pluralism here.  For us, that means recognizing that philosophers and other thinkers not working in currently-dominant paradigms deserve a voice in the philosophical conversation. In our commitment to pluralism, our department aspires to recognize the political import of feminist philosophy and the value of women in philosophy to the extent that we embed it into our curriculum, producing scholars who take seriously the oppression of women and other ‘Others’ in our society.  Some might scoff at this statement and point to the Summer 2011 blogosphere hullaballoo regarding sexual harassment claims in our department. Such people are callous to the fact that we live in a culture that supports male domination of the kind exhibited not only in our department, but in departments across the country (take a hard look in the mirror if you disagree). Feminists call this ‘rape culture,’ claiming that everything from our institutions to sexist jokes support and foster the habitual attitude that women are inferior to the extent that male domination is not only common, but expected. It takes seriously the research that shows that 1 in 6 women will endure rape or sexual assault (1 in 4 on college campuses) and that most of these women will know their attackers, only 3% of whom will spend a day in jail.

Rapists are, by and large, utterly unremarkable. They are actually common, ‘normal’ people.  They are mundane–so much so that their heinous acts comprise a whole subset of comedy.

And (unofficial) university athletic apparel.

Philosophy is not outside this rape culture. In fact, the only reason the UO sexual harassment issue even reached national attention was that a group of graduate students, myself included, knew that sexual harassment was out of synch with our department’s commitment to changing the climate of philosophy for women and other minority groups (along lines of race, class, age, ability, sexuality, veteran status, etc). We strive to include students, faculty, and community members from diverse backgrounds in our conversation. Beyond Feminist Philosophy, we offer specializations in Philosophy of Race, Native American Philosophy, Disability Studies, and Queer (or as C-Dawg calls it, “Gay”) Philosophy. We have been taught (and teach our own students) to acknowledge and reject rape culture in order to concretely realize the emancipation of women and all those who have borne the label ‘Other.’

No one said enacting cultural change was easy, particularly not when it comes to altering the gender mores of the oldest and most male-dominated profession (in the academy, of course!). One of the most prized norms in our discipline is free expression. But as MacKinnon so long-sufferingly argued (and Carlin Danger so glibly ignored), freedom of expression is too often used as a trump card against the liberation of women. Following in the tradition of J. L. Austin, MacKinnon argues that we do things with words. “I do” in marriage is a tired example. “Saying ‘kill’ to a trained dog” is a fatal act (MacKinnon, Only Words, 12). Publishing –in The Nation no less – a rape fantasy of a feminist legal scholar who made sexual harassment in the workplace even a ‘thing’ does something. It reproduces the social inequality that makes the rape of women shrug-worthy. As MacKinnon and others argue, social inequality is reproduced by what we do, including what we do in speech. And it’s not simply what we do at an individual level that matters, but that these actions are embedded in institutions and historical memory. Which, bt-dubs was largely built by heterosexual white men in a position of privilege over women.

Freedom of speech is a value.  So is bodily integrity.  Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (or “He has a bomb!” while on a plane) is disallowed but screeching, “I raped her” is merely an incisive (if I may be allowed the word) critique. Romano defends the vividness of his rape fantasy by pointing to MacKinnon’s own admittedly, albeit purposively, stomach-turning description of what it’s like to be raped from the survivor’s perspective. She can do it, why can’t he? Indeed, “Suppose I raped her” is ardently defended as a highly regarded mode of hypothetical example, of which Carly-boo thinks MacKinnon would approve.

Now, before anybody goes all Duck Dynasty on me, I’m not saying that the First Amendment is a bad thing. Freedom of expression is important. It is important that we be able to gather and say things without fear that we will be jailed (can I get a union shout-out?!). But that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences to what we say. Indeed, there are consequences to what we say. And that’s the point. The Nation need not have published Romano’s article (can you imagine if he had ‘supposed’ he had lynched a black male philosopher? In 1993? 2014?), and my beloved department need not have invited him to our campus. His mere presence here is an affront, because it is an implicit affirmation of his work, which is, at best, shoddy scholarship, and, at worst, a horrifying exemplar of the very culture we must decry and fight in our classrooms each and every day.  Romano is free to imagine (and get off on) all the rape fantasies he wants, but if our discipline, indeed our society, is genuinely committed to the emancipation of women and other cultural minorities it needs to rethink the way we’ve rigged the game. His freedom to express his views should not trump whether I feel safe in my workplace. Until we take a long hard look at the position of women and other minorities and value it above the vapid misogyny of the Philosophical Romanos of America (don’t even get me started on his American Exceptionalism…), women will remain raped both in the flesh and on the page.

Now excuse me while I attend to the million other commitments I have as a woman in the academy…

#I’dRatherBeReadingPlato

Dana Rognlie, Ph.D. Student in Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Oregon

A map of the values of Amherst, MA

After that somewhat depressing post about Wasilla, I’m delighted to be presenting some maps of Amherst, Massachusetts.  Before I do, a few methodological and philosophical points are in order.

First, we don’t take the ascriptions in obituaries at face value.  We realize that people aren’t described 100% accurately in these texts.  An obituary, like many other texts, tells you at least as much about its author as its subject.  We’re therefore treating these documents as reflections of what the people in a community value.  Whether the deceased actually embodied all of the traits ascribed to them is not for us to say.  Regardless of the answer to that question, the constellations of qualities ascribed in obituaries tell us what the friends and family of the deceased think is good and important enough to bother attributing.

There are other caveats to consider.  For instance, the vast majority of the people celebrated in obituaries are adults in their 60s and above.  So these texts tell us about what various communities value in the elderly.  Whether they also value such attributes in the young and middle-aged is an open question.

Additionally, as Dana Rognlie, a terrific graduate student in philosophy here at UO pointed out to me recently, we shouldn’t presume that the authors of obits are a random sample of the local community.  Presumably, they’re almost all close family or friends.  But which family and friends are they?  Are they usually the daughter, the son, or the spouse of the deceased?  Or are they typically collaborations among all of the close family?  If it turned out that 80% of obituaries that were written by a child were written by a daughter, that would be good to know.  Unfortunately, we don’t yet have any data on this, but we’re looking into it.

Next, we don’t think of these maps as comprehensive.  In particular, we think that a trait is considered a virtue in a community if, but not only if, it tends to be attributed in the obituaries composed by members of that community.

We also think, with Hume, that distinctions among intellectual, moral, political, and other kinds of virtues are blurry at best.  The rich array of thick terms used to describe the dead doesn’t seem to be carved at the joints by these distinctions.  One of the things most often said about the deceased is that they were a friend.  Is friendship a virtue?  In a forthcoming paper, I argue that it is, but I realize that that’s contentious.  Another thing that’s often said about deceased men is that they were veterans.  Is a group affiliation of this sort a candidate for virtue?  Robert Adams thinks so, but again it’s contentious.  Soldiers do things qua soldiers.  Another thing that’s often said about the dead is that they were fans of the local sports team (the Ducks in Eugene, the Patriots in Amherst, and so on).  Fandom is about as passive as being for the good gets.  When your team wins, you’re, as Garfunkel and Oates put it, vicariously, “temporarily, adjacently victorious.”

Finally, we think that obituaries and other talk about the dead lend an interesting perspective to discussions in meta-ethics and philosophy of language.  What kind of speech act are we performing when we call a dead family member generous (one of the most common terms used in obituaries)?  It looks like an assertion, but as anyone who’s encountered Pericles’ funeral oration, Plato’s Menexenusthe Gettysburg address, or John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman can affirm, talk of the dead tends to go non-cognitive pretty quickly; it turns into an exhortation of sorts to the audience.

With all that out of the way, here is a map of the values of Amherst, MA:

AmherstThis one is quite detailed, so I encourage you to open it in another tab and explore it by zooming and scrolling.  As with some of the other maps we’ve presented, the size of terms here is determined by the number of terms that co-occurred with the term in question, not  simply the number of times that term occurred.  The width of an edge connecting a pair of terms represents the number of times they co-occurred.  Centrality/peripheralness represents, well, centrality and peripheralness to the network.  And in this case color represents modularity.  Modularity is, somewhat roughly, a measure of the density of interconnections among nodes in the network.  In this map, each color represents a different module; terms within the same module tend to be more connected with each other than they are with terms in other modules (represented by different colors).

The green group seems to encompass a mix of intellectual and political virtues, notably including wit, pedagogy, feminism, civil rights activism, and political engagement.  This group is also the first to have a major node for a religion other than Christianity: Judaism (it also contains a small node for Islam.  The blue group seems to encompass a variety of other-regarding dispositions, including humor, helpfulness, environmentalism, and compassion.  The pink group seems to be primarily about commitment to the local community, including one’s family, friends, church, and civic community.  The red and yellow groups are probably too small to interpret.

If you’ve been following my previous posts that detailed Eugene, Flint, and Wasilla, you’ll probably have noticed some interesting differences.  This map is by far the most complex.  That’s in part because I was able to look at a lot more obits for Amherst (about 600… oy).  It’s also because these obits tended to be quite a bit longer and have richer descriptions.  That’s unsurprising, given how much of a class and educational difference there is between Amherst and the rest of the towns I’ve looked at so far.  This map also has much less focus on sports and religion and much more focus on political and intellectual engagement.  Depending on your prejudices, you might find that unsurprising.

In other towns, we noticed some pretty substantial differences between the constellation of traits associated with women and the constellation associated with men.  What gender differences turn up between men and women in Amherst?  Here’s the map for women:

Amherst FemaleAnd here’s the one for men:

Amherst Male

Again, these are pretty detailed, so I encourage you to open them in other tabs and explore by zooming and scrolling.  No male nuns — unsurprising.  No male feminists – disappointing.  Fewer female sports fans — unsurprising.  No female veterans — unsurprising.  Otherwise, there aren’t that many noticeable differences between these maps.

I’ll post a “complete” map comparing attributions to men and women in all towns surveyed so far in a later post.  For now, I need to take a bit of a break from reading obituaries….

 

 

Wasilla: The town where they love nature so much that they shoot it in the face

Here’s the map for all obits from the last few weeks:

WasillaAs before, term-size is based on the number of interconnections the term in question has with other terms, and edge width represents the number of pairwise connections.  Not much going on in this town.  I guess when Sarah Palin eventually kicks the bucket, we’ll see a few more terms.

Speaking of women from Wasilla, here’s the map you get when you partition off the men:

Wasilla FemaleNot much sense of community in this town, which I guess is what you’d expect.  The women don’t seem to have many friends.  By contrast, here’s the map for the men:

Wasilla MaleThe sports fans are back!  It’s also a little ironic that this is the least complex map we’ve produced, and yet it prominently features the term ‘complex’.

 

 

 

Take a hard look in the mirror

Here’s a comparison of the obits in Eugene, Oregon and those in Flint, Michigan.  The redder the term, the more it was used in Eugene; the bluer, the more it was used in Flint.

Eugene (Red) vs Flint (Blue)At least we’re good at sportsball in Eugene.

Oh, and here are maps for Flint all on its own.  Don’t move there if you don’t like casinos, I guess….

Flint TraitsGender differences remain pretty traditional in Flint.  Here’s the constellation for men:

Flint Male TraitsAnd here’s the one for women:

Flint Female TraitsThe ladies in Flint don’t seem to have much of a chance to get out into nature, but they sure are funny.

 

 

 

 

Woman is everywhere (or at least in Eugene) consigned to immanence

In Eugene, the virtue of a man is shown in loving nature and the Ducks, while the virtue of a woman is shown in humorously volunteering.  Or at least, so it would seem from looking at local obituaries….

Eugene Sex DifferencesThe redder the term, the more it was associated with women; the bluer the term, the more it was associated with men.

 

 

Brian Leiter’s Sleight of Hand

Brian Leiter recently posted a take-down of my take-down of his (and Josh Knobe’s) Doctrine of Types interpretation of Nietzsche.  I’m pleased that, if nothing else, I have “Alfanoesque bravado.”  As he points out, in my initial attack, I don’t have time to get to the empirical evidence; instead, I focus only on the textual interpretation.  For those who are interested, my book, Character as Moral Fiction, makes the empirical case.

Leiter identifies two main objections to his view: 1) non-fixedness and 2) non-universality.  On the first, it might be that we have a merely verbal disagreement or even misunderstanding.  According to his “Doctrine of Types,” “Each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person.”  What does it mean for something to be fixed?  When I read this Doctrine, I thought this was a pretty strong claim.  In his paper with Knobe, Leiter says that it means that one’s psycho-physical constitution is “largely immutable” (p. 88).  He also says that one’s constitution is fixed “at birth” (p. 92).  Since the personality psychologists Leiter and Knobe rely on think that there is no significant influence of environment on personality, I took such pronouncements in a strong sense.  I thought that Leiter was attributing to Nietzsche the claim that one’s constitution is determined at or before birth and that it rarely if ever changes, and that when it changes it doesn’t budge much.  But now Leiter seems to agree with me that types are “stable but nevertheless mutable.”  What’s more, Leiter invokes Freud (understandably, since Freud systematically ripped off Nietzsche), who made a point of tracking the etiology of his patients’ syndromes, not insisting that they were determined at or before birth.  In a way, this is now the unsurprising claim that personality doesn’t shift all that much all that quickly.  As they say in the movies…

The second point is a bit more niggling.  Leiter cites roughly a dozen passages in support of his interpretation of the Doctrine of Types.  In my paper, I point out that many of these passages aren’t clearly meant to apply to human animals as such, though they do apply to philosophers.  Leiter seems to think that the burden of proof is on me to explain why they apply only to philosophers.  I think that an interesting case for this could be made, but I don’t have time right now.  In the meantime, I’ll just suggest that the burden of proof actually lies on Leiter to explain why they apply to people other than philosophers.  After all, Nietzsche seems pretty fixed on the idea that philosophers are different from other people.  A section of Beyond Good and Evil is devoted to the prejudices of philosophers.  No section of any of his books is explicitly devoted to the prejudices of the folk.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings

In a new project, Andrew Higgins (Urbana-Champaign), Jacob Levernier (Oregon), and I are studying obituaries as a perspective on values.  The basic idea is to sift through what people say about the dead to identify patterns in values.  As a first pass, I read through a month’s worth of obituaries from my local paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, and noted all of the agent-level descriptions and evaluations of the deceased.  In other words, I ignored what was said about hospice workers (not that their work is unimportant — quite the contrary) and single actions of the deceased, recording only the words used to describe him or her as a whole person.  One thing I immediately noticed was that there were systematic differences in how the men and the women were described.  Unsurprisingly, a huge proportion of the men had fought in World War II, and thus were described as soldiers.  The women — not so much.  This suggested that there might be other, more subtle, systematic differences.  Andrew took this initial batch of data and created semantic maps of the things said about the men and the women.  Here’s the one for men:

Male Descriptions

 

These maps can be a little hard to read, but I think this one is pretty straightforward.  The size of the words indicates the number of other words that co-occurred with them in a single obituary.  So, for instance, men who were described as Ducks fans were described as quite a few other things, but men who were described as chefs were described as only a couple of other things.  The thickness and brightness of the edge connecting a pair of terms indicates how many times those terms co-occurred.  The color of the terms is less important in this context.

From this map, we can see what people found most worth celebrating publicly about the men who died in Eugene last month and were mourned in the local paper.  We can see, as it were, the Eugene-male constellation of virtues.  By contrast, here’s the map for women:

Female Descriptions

 

This map is, as it were, a guide to the Eugene-female constellation of virtues.  It’s very similar to the male one, as you can see, but there are some differences.  The most noticeable is the one I already mentioned: no soldiers among these women.  The women seem almost as fanatical about the Ducks.  They’re more humorous, less athletic, and of course not patriarchs.

Finally, here’s a map everybody, regardless of gender:

Combined Eugene

 

The size of the terms and the thickness of the edges have the same meaning in this map.  The colors this time have a more interesting meaning.  Terms that share their color grouped together in much the same way that items in a factor analysis group together: they tend to co-occur with each other and not with other terms.  The pink and light-blue groups are probably too small to interpret, but the others seem to meaningful.  For instance, the green group is centered on humor and agreeableness.  The red group seems to be mostly a matter of political liberalism.  And the dark-blue group seems to be about commitment to the local community.

As we continue to work on this material, I’ll be posting more maps and discussing them.  Andrew and Jacob may also do some guest-blogging, if I can talk them into it….

Getting started

An undergraduate recently asked me how to get started with philosophy.  I was embarrassed to be taken aback by this question.  How does one get started with philosophy?  In the end, this is (most of) what I wrote in response:

One fruitful thing to do is to find some burning questions: questions that you think anyone should be able to answer because they’re very important.  Then ask experts, such as your GTF and the philosophy faculty here at the university, what you should read to help you grapple with these questions.  Read those texts, always with an eye to formulating objections.  It’s the highest sign of respect that you can pay someone to object to their theory.  It shows that you take the idea seriously enough that you care whether it’s right or wrong.  After you’ve formulated your objections, try to respond to them on behalf of the author.  Imagine what she or he would say in response to these objections.  This is the essence of philosophy.  Sometimes we call it “dialectic,” meaning that it’s a constant back-and-forth about an important question.  If you learn to do this well, you will be an expert philosopher.

Email and respect for colleagues, students, teachers, and other human animals

I’m the last person you’d describe as a Kantian, but I still think that respect is a nice thing to at least pretend to have, if only for the sake of social lubrication, good manners, and not being perceived as an enormous turd.  With that in mind, I ask the following question: under what conditions is it disrespectful for me to ignore an email that someone has sent directly to me, and only to me — an email that clearly expects a response?

To get started, it’s helpful to divide up the people who most often write to me.  I’ll use the categories of colleagues, students, teachers, friends. family, and strangers.  I realize that these categories don’t partition the logical space (someone can be your friend and also your colleague, for instance), but they do a decent job and correspond to folk categories.

Friends: This is the easiest one.  If I routinely ignore emails from my friends, then they’re not my friends.  Of course, it’s fine to ignore “look at this lolcat” and “I’m rickrolling you” emails.  That’s not what I have in mind.  If my friend sends me an email that asks a question, and my friend clearly expects a response, however, then by tossing her message down the memory hole I’m in effect saying, “I don’t care about you.”  Since one of the essential elements of friendship is caring about the other person, too many such episodes destroy friendship.  In his most recent book, Emotions in the Moral Life, Robert Roberts argues that friendships and other personal attachments are in part constituted by episodes of interactive emotion.  For instance, I generously give you my tickets to a concert (Roberts’s example); you feel gratitude for my gift; I feel gratified by your gratitude; you feel gratified by my feeling gratified by your gratitude for my generous sentiment.  A fourth-order emotion that we can make sense of!  Respect, I think, can be construed as another emotion that contributes to such ping-ponging interactions.  If I show you respect rather than contempt by responding to your email, you might feel the emotion of pride or satisfaction (not gratitude since, as your friend, I’m not doing you a favor by responding).  I might then feel pride in response to your response.  And so on.  This is how friendships are made and sustained, and its lack is how they are unmade.

Family: They say your friends are the family you choose, so I guess that means your family is the family you don’t choose.  Like so many terms, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, and other family terms are “thick” in Bernard Williams’s sense.  They are often — perhaps typically — used to convey not just descriptive and explanatory information, but normative content.  In my work on obituaries in local newspapers, I was surprised to see that terms describing these thick attachments far outweighed outright virtue terms.  People sometimes say that their beloved dead were courageous and witty, but more frequently they say that they were parents, spouses, siblings, and grandparents.  I’m not denying that terms such as ‘parent’ can be used to refer solely to biological or legal relations; the point is that we often use them in a thicker way.  You can get a sense of the normative content of these terms by thinking about statements like, “His father is not fatherly,” “My mother is not motherly,” “Her brother is not brotherly,” and “His sister is not sisterly.”  These sentences don’t express contradictions even though they have an air of paradox to them because the predicate ‘Xly’ expresses only the normative property.  Being fatherly is what a good father does.

With all that said, it seems to me that responding to family is just like responding to friends.  If I ignore a family member’s email, I’m undermining the normative strand of our familial relation.  That’s not yet to say that I’m wrong to do so.  Maybe I want to distance myself from some family members, just as I would distance myself from a friend who turned out to be devoted to vice.  But it’s something I should take seriously when deciding whether to respond.

Strangers: This is an interesting case.  Sometimes, I stranger will write to me out of the blue, saying something like, “Dear Mark (if I may), ….”  Often, such strangers turn out not to be total strangers, but rather colleagues at one or two removes.  In such cases, they belong to a different category, which I discuss below.  Sometimes, though, they are total strangers.  In these cases, it seems to me that ignoring their messages is not a sign of disrespect — at least not necessarily.  Life is short.  Typing is slow.  It’s a kindness to respond to a complete stranger, but failure to respond needn’t manifest contempt.

Students: In this case, I’m going to describe only responses by faculty to undergraduates.  Graduate students are colleagues-in-training, so I consider responses to them to be covered in the colleague category below.  The student-teacher relationship is, like the familial relationship, thick: when we describe someone as a teacher, we often mean to convey some evaluative content in addition to specifying a job description.  You could describe someone in an obituary as a teacher, and not have to specify that she was a good teacher.  The same test that I described above for familial relations also works here: some teachers are not teacherly, meaning that they have the job but they don’t live up to the normative standards associated with it.  If that’s right, then emotional interactions involving, among other things, respect should characterize a well-functioning student-teacher relationship.

Now suppose my undergraduate student asks me a question by email.  In the past, I’ve had at most 100 students at a time.  This term, however, I have over 300.  If each of them sends me one email a week, and I respond to all of them, with responses costing me on average 5 minutes, that’s ~1500 minutes or 25 hours.  I’m only supposed to work 40 hours a week (ha ha!) at my job, and my tenure and promotion case is based largely — if not entirely — on my research.  Oh, and I also have to teach the students and prepare for class and hold office hours.  Clearly, then, I need some kind of triage.  This week alone, I’ve received over a dozen emails from students who missed the first lecture. Here’s a direct quote:

I was just wondering if there was any important information that I miss?

My initial reaction to these messages is to send them a link to this terrific poem by Tom Wayman.  Fave frame:

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

I don’t send the poem, though.  Instead, I either write back that, yes, in fact, there was important information that you miss [sic.], or completely ignore the email.  It’s hard to know which of these is more appropriate.  In either case, though, I’ve taken a lesson from Macalester Bell’s terrific book, Hard Feelings, which offers a limited defense of the appropriateness of contempt.

In particular, Bell argues that mild disdain is sometimes a fitting response to unjustified contempt or disrespect.  Of course, in most cases, my undergraduates don’t realize that they’re being disrespectful by asking questions like this.  They’re naifs, not villains.  But they need to become gentlemen (and gentlewomen), and as Oscar Wilde so aptly quipped, “A gentleman is someone who is never unintentionally rude.”  A bucket of cold water to the face might shock them out their naive disrespect.

Can a general principle about responding to email be extracted from this point?  I think it can, though like all principles it will admit of exceptions.  Here’s a shot: it’s OK to respond to disrespectful emails with mild disrespect, but only if doing so is aimed at showing the offender what’s wrong with their behavior and/or attitude; such mild disrespect can be manifested by ignoring the emails, or explicitly in a response.  This is not to say that it’s mandatory to respond with mild disdain.  As Roberts points out in his review of Bell’s book, sometimes it can be more effective to respond with humorous amusement.  And it’s likely better for one’s mental health — let alone one’s digestion — not to feel too much contempt. (Though that’s what Parfit would call a state-given rather than an object-given reason.)

Colleagues: The collegial relation, like all of the others described above, is thick.  If I tell you that N. N. is my colleague, you will presumably take that to mean that N. N. is a good (enough) colleague.  I’d have to explicitly throw in ‘bad’ to indicate that, though N. N. is in my department (or school or whatever), N. N. is not collegial.  Let’s see whether the general principle formulated above applies here: it’s OK to respond to disrespectful emails from your colleagues with mild disrespect, with the aim of improving their behavior and/or attitude; this can be manifested by ignoring their messages, or explicitly in a response.  That rings true to my ear.  Here’s the hard question though: is this principle a conditional, or a biconditional (bearing in mind that it may admit of exceptions in both directions)?  In other words, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’ve established that I may ignore a colleague’s email if that email expresses disrespect.  Is it also the case that I may ignore a colleague’s email only if that email expresses disrespect?  I want to say yes, but I’ll actually make a weaker claim: I may ignore a colleague’s email only if that email expresses disrespect or I have some other good reason to ignore it.  For instance, if I’m working towards an important, hard deadline.  Or if I already have independent reason to be ignoring this colleague.  Or if my colleague routinely ignores my emails.

I’m curious what my students, colleagues, friends, and family think of this….