A problem ≠ the worst problem ever

Massimo Pigliucci asked yesterday, “Does philosophy have a sexual harassment problem?” He asked it in response to Jennifer Saul’s article in Salon, which was titled “Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem.”

Last week Jennifer Saul, a philosopher at the University of Sheffield, published an article in Salon entitled: “Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem.” While there is much substance and nuance in the body of the article, I sincerely hope that Prof. Saul did not actually choose the title herself (editors often do that sort of thing), because the message it sends is anything but nuanced, and if taken at face value also not particularly constructive.

And that’s what he got from that article? That saying philosophy has a sexual harassment problem is overstating the problem? Rather than that, say, the sexual harassment there is in philosophy is a problem? He is, in short, worrying more about the reputation of philosophy than he is about the women being harassed?

After that he pauses to say that sexual harassment is a bad thing and he doesn’t think it’s been addressed yet.

Saul goes on to point out that since she started a blog devoted to women in philosophy she began receiving an alarming number of anonymous testimonials of sexual harassment in the workplace, with heart wrenching stories concerning undergraduate students, graduate students, and young faculty. These stories are aggravated by the fact that often nothing was done about the incidents in question, sometimes discouragingly pointing to a failure of the people involved, as well as of their institutions, in even understanding that there was a problem. It makes for sober reading for anyone who still doesn’t take this issue seriously.

But none of this amounts to the conclusion stated in the title of Saul’s essay: we simply do not know whether philosophy as a field is particularly vexed by sexual harassment, or whether philosophy is simply a microcosm of the still largely misogynistic society in which we live.

But that isn’t the conclusion stated in the title of Saul’s essay. The title of the essay isn’t “Philosophy has an exceptionally bad sexual harassment problem.” The title just says that philosophy has a problem.

 Indeed, in the body of the article Saul herself clearly states: “When I talk to people about this, I am invariably asked whether sexual harassment is worse in philosophy than in other fields. The short answer is that we don’t really know: it’s very difficult to get good data on something that is drastically underreported and often kept confidential even once reported.” Good, then I hope that Saul protested vehemently with the Salon editor when she saw the title under which her article appeared, because it literally indicts an entire fields of professionals — most of whom do not engage in sexual harassment — with a broad brush that is as offensive as it is unsubstantiated.

No, it doesn’t. Saying there’s a problem doesn’t indict the whole field, much less all the people (whether professional or amateur) who work in the field. There just isn’t any need to be defensive about it.


  1. Kevin Schelley says

    Didn’t we hear these same things about the tech industry, the gaming culture, oh, and the skeptic/atheist movement? And weren’t some of the people saying that the skeptic/atheist movement didn’t have a problem with sexism/sexual harassment/sexual assault the biggest perpetrators in those areas?

  2. maudell says

    Ah, that sounds familiar.
    We don’t know how prevalent it is.
    It’s really hard to actually find out, and requires everyone being conscious of the problem.
    Therefore, we won’t look into it.
    Problem solved.

  3. says

    @1 – Some, yes. Not that I think Massimo is in that category! I don’t at all. But I think it’s really off to worry more about a claim that wasn’t made than about the described reality.

  4. maudell says

    Also, “most of whom do not engage in sexual harassment” is a red herring. Of course, most people do not engage in blatant sexual harassment. But most people are silent about it, though, and this silence perpetuates a climate of acceptance. Saul’s article covers that pretty well. (Also, it’s a Salon article, not exactly an academic paper)

  5. maudell says

    True, maybe I should have been more precise. I am an occasional reader of his blog, and from what I know, I definitely don’t think he’s a pro-harassment/anti-woman person. I read his post this morning and though I think he means well, I think his logic perpetuates a level of blindness to the problem.
    I think philosophy is losing a lot of people, and it is disheartening, but the overall protection of a field’s image at the expense of a large group of people (Saul’s topic is women, but of course race and sexual orientation is a huge issue too) bothers me.
    In the end, philosophy deals with ethics, and should be held to a higher standard, in my opinion.

  6. Maureen Brian says

    Tell this man from me the time has come to say,

    “Stuff nuance! Nuance if what keeps us pinned down trying to persuade an inexhaustible supply of idiots what the definition of rape is, who gets to say whether someone is harassed, how an under-resourced and sometimes incompetent police service is not The Answer and why, after two solid weeks of non-stop attacks, we are exhausted, running out of patience and, yes, a little curt.”

    Many of us have spent 40 years being polite and helpful and always willing to explain, as well as earning a living and fighting for something vaguely resembling a fair deal. And if Massimo Pigliucci is not aware that that’s been happening then he should resign his chair and let someone who is capable of handling such a situation, should it arise in his department, hold it instead. How would he know if had, anyway?

    (And you can pass that on if you wish!)

  7. dexitroboper says

    “most of whom do not engage in sexual harassment” – given the lopsided gender ratio couldn’t that be lack of opportunity rather than any actual virtue on behalf of philosophers?

  8. CaitieCat says

    So, basically his argument is that only the field in which the absolute WORST harassment occurs is expected to address it; everyone else simply has to point to the field which is the WORST and which is not them, and they are off the hook.

    Are we going to have a huge dance-off to determine which is the WORST field? Is this a new Olympic sport, sponsored by A Voice For Men?

    *makes mental note to avoid Mr. Pigliucci like a rat with bubonic fleas*

  9. picklefactory says

    I got the impression from reading Massimo’s post that he is saying there may be an excluded middle in this discussion: that there is sexism in philosophy, but that no particular non-anecdotal evidence was brought forth to demonstrate that it’s more of a problem than we have seen it is in atheism, skepticism, gaming, medicine, etc etc to exhaustive and exhausting length.

    I don’t think that his argument was that “therefore we should do nothing”, but I do wish his post had also included something along the lines of: we philosophers should try harder to quantify the problem. He was a bit defensive; I think one of the commenters summed it up best: “Either way philosophy has a problem.”

  10. says

    I’m ready to conclude that any male-dominated field has a sexual harassment problem. Otherwise, males wouldn’t be dominating it because they wouldn’t see it as worth dominating.

  11. says

    picklefactory – yes but again, I didn’t take Saul to be saying philosophy had a worse problem – just that it had a problem.

    Mind you, if it’s only as bad as “atheism, skepticism, gaming, medicine etc etc” that’s plenty bad enough!

  12. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    At this point any whiff of this elision tells me the person is motivated to deny and minimize sexism. It may not be conscious (often it isn’t), but that’s what this is about. It’s not confusion. It’s reflexive No This Can’t Be.

  13. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Yeah, let’s nitpick definitions rather than actually address a problem – this is why I don’t often listen to philosophers when the topic is anything other than purely academic.

  14. Pieter B, FCD says

    I enjoy the Rationally Speaking podcast a great deal, but this isn’t the first time Massimo has said something at best insensitive about the issue of harassment. I don’t remember the details, but my reaction to this item was “Again?”

  15. ludicrous says

    He bemoans the lack of good data. Well he runs a department of philosophy, if he actually gave a shit he could start there right at home and make an effort to find out what the harassment situation actually is in the department that he is paid to run.

    Naw he’s hopeful, others are working on it.

  16. smhll says

    It sounds rather like “Hand wavey, hand wavey. If it’s not more pronounced than background levels of harassment in society, then you can’t pin it on (or localize it to) Philosophy.”

  17. Thomas Lawson says

    Prof. Pigliucci is right about society being still largely misogynistic, but wrong about not wanting to scrutinize his own field. But this is the norm when the tomato hits your own house…

    Recently, there was an article in the New York Times on sexism in the publishing world. To whom did the NYT give center stage for a rebuttal? Not a female to prove otherwise, that would be patronizing. No, they went with a white male author, whose two-sentence riposte did nothing but first mention that women do work in publishing (duh, not the point), then accuse the article’s writer of neglecting all the sexism in the New York City theatre scene! Okay, so your industry is bad, but NYC theatre is worse? Or just as bad? Or not as bad? Not really following your deflection there, fella.

    Click here to see who likes saying “Look over there!” when confronted with sexism in his own industry.

  18. Martha says

    My own hunch is that the degree of the misogyny problem within a community is inversely proportional to then number of women in said community. It might also be the case that men who pride themselves on their logic are particularly resistant to the notion of unconscious bias. Or it could just be a macho thing.

    Either way, as Maryam Namazie said at WiS2, if you complain about sexism in Iran, you’ll be told that it’s much worse in Saudi Arabia. Who cares where the worst problem is? We should all work to solve the problem wherever we encounter it.

  19. hoary puccoon says

    I don’t know anything much about Massimo Pigliucci. But a reaction like his raises a big red flag for me. Was there any reason for him to respond at all to the article? Did someone demand that he make a statement? If not, why did he jump in with such an odd, illogical criticism? Even if he were hounded for a response, why didn’t he say something supportive, or at least noncommittal, to women in academic philosophy?

    I’m not a betting person. But if I had to bet, I’d bet he at least knows about instances of sexual harassment in academic philosophy. Maybe he’s just turned a blind eye to harassment he knows about in other departments. Maybe even in his own department. Maybe he giggled and gossiped along with the perpetrators when they bragged about their conquests. And it’s always possible that he’s one of the perpetrators.

    As I say, I don’t know the man. But somebody who would argue that any mention of sexual harassment in his field is wrong because the title of the article doesn’t contain all kinds of disclaimers is somebody looking for an excuse to let the status quo– i.e., sexual harassment in academic philosophy– continue. My advice to anyone who has to deal with him– don’t trust the man.

  20. says

    @12 – Um, doesn’t philosophy have the most lopsided gender ratios of all academic disciplines? That seems like “non-anecdotal evidence” that philosophy specifically has an objectively worse problem with sexism.

    So instead of being appalled/concerned/activated by the content of the article, Pigliucci decides to complain about the title. That’s the deep thinking we expect of professional thinkers right there!

  21. says

    #23: ” I’d bet he at least knows about instances of sexual harassment in academic philosophy.”

    He does, he says: ” In my decades as a faculty at various universities — both as a biologist and as a philosopher — I have seen it happen, and seen people dealing with it badly or rightly, depending on their moral fiber and of the institutional environment.”

    “But somebody who would argue that any mention of sexual harassment in his field is wrong because the title of the article doesn’t contain all kinds of disclaimers…”

    That’s not his argument. What he’s objecting to is what he thinks is Saul’s claim that philosophy has a *particular* problem – i.e that philosophy is notably bad. He seems to be quite prepared to acknowledge that philosophy has “a problem”, but takes issue with the idea that philosophy has a worse problem than any other field. Well, that’s not proven, so I suppose there’s a point there. The problem is that by spending so long making that relatively minor and pedantic point he only ends up (no doubt unintentionally) minimising whatever problem there is. He says he takes sexual harassment etc seriously, and I want to believe that – but he is a senior academic and I would have been more interested to hear his views on what can actually be done.

  22. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Sexism and sexual harassment may not be “the worst problem ever”, considering the history of the world as a whole, but I would argue that it is the worst problem facing organized skepticism/atheism* right now, and fixing it needs to be the very first point on any decent skeptic’s agenda. This cannot wait. There isn’t something else that needs to be done first, and there sure as hell isn’t anything skeptics can do to compensate for the problem instead of solving it.
    *Probably a whole lot of other fields as well.


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