A Puzzle for Humanism

I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

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Academic failures in elementary humanity

Here’s the deal: I am paid to teach, which means I have a professional relationship with my students, and it’s an ongoing relationship that typically extends over four years. My job is to educate them in those domains of biology I specialize in. The administrators here have an expectation that I will show up, be prepared, behave professionally, and engage with students at a level beyond lecturing at them: I advise them on professional opportunities, I write recommendations, I try to help with small crises that might derail their progress.

I do not have sex with them or beat them up. This should be obvious, right? Those kinds of behaviors would be antithetical to my university’s mission and my obligations.

This seems to be a poorly understood concept at the University of Sussex. Dr Lee Salter was a lecturer there. He was convicted of viciously beating his girlfriend (warning: graphic photos of a battered, bloody woman at that link), a woman he met as a student.

This is where it gets into some difficult boundaries. She was a former student, she is an adult, and this was a consensual relationship. That part, you can’t prohibit…but it’s a bit skeevy, and says that you should be keeping an eye on the guy to make sure he is not preying on students.

The part where he batters her bloody was not consensual. That part immediately moves the relationship from slightly creepy (but maybe it was “true love”!) into flagrant criminality. That’s where you’ve revealed that this wasn’t a healthy relationship between two adults, but an abusive relationship with a man who thinks he’s the boss.

Gail Gray, chief executive of RISE, Brighton and Hove’s specialist domestic abuse service, said: “This is not a romantic ‘Educating Rita’ scenario. This is about a man who has abused and exploited his position of power and authority to perpetrate domestic abuse.”

So far, so tawdry. But what is appalling is that the administrators at this university were completely aware of his behavior, and continued to allow him to teach students, despite the clear violation of university policies.

During the 10 month period between his arrest and conviction, Salter continued to teach, the university has admitted, while Ms Smith said she remained so traumatised she was afraid to leave the house.

This is despite regulations laid out on the university’s own website which say “staff and students are subject to disciplinary procedures that, amongst other things, proscribe violent behaviour”.

The policy reads: “The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.”

“The University may also seek injunctions to exclude the perpetrators of violence form University premises in order to protect staff and students from further violent incidents.”

These problems will continue to arise as long as the awareness that domestic violence is unacceptable fails to be understood at all levels. Too often, having something written in a policy handbook is a cover-your-ass move to forestall actually doing something about it.

What should have happened is that the university administration should have said, “You’re going on a trial for beating up a former student? You’re not going into a classroom until this is resolved, and are on academic leave.”

His colleagues should have said, “Nope, we’re not working with you until this is cleared up.”

And the students at the university should have been made aware of the charges, so that they wouldn’t sign up for a course and then discover it’s being taught by an accused violent abuser. There’s an element of coercion there — students must take certain courses at certain times to graduate on schedule, so the entire university has to take responsibility for the professoriate, for their safety.

We also discover that this wasn’t unusual for Salter.

Described by Ms Smith as a manipulative and cruel man”, Salter alluded to her of having previous relationships with former students. She said he attended his court sentencing accompanied by another young student from the University of Brighton.

The court heard that Salter’s relationship with that student would be “closely monitored” as part of his sentencing.

Jebus. This is a guy with a thing for young students. He’s a predator. He should not be employed by any educational institution, because he brings disrepute to the entire profession.

Yet the University of Sussex kept him on the job until only recently? I didn’t know that lecturers in media and film were such a rare commodity that they had to be retained at all cost (I know science professors aren’t; if I were tossed out for good cause there’d be a long line of applicants ready to step right into my shoes.)

A small step forward for patients’ rights

Dan Markingson was a schizophrenia patient who was enlisted in a University of Minnesota trial of an experimental drug — and he killed himself horrifically while in the experiment. The university has just now made a policy change that excludes people from research trials who are restrained under a 72-hour emergency hold.

That’s nice.

Markingson killed himself in 2004, and it’s taken 11 years to get this minor, and honestly, rather obvious change in policy. Why has it taken so long? Perhaps this attitude by Brian Herman, vice president for research, explains some of the problem.

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Gender Workshop: How to think like you’re not

Redundant posts are redundant

Except when they aren’t.

Here your gender-workshop-taskmistress Crip Dyke encourages you to revisit the douchegabbery of the Minnesota Child Protection League. PZ did an excellent job of illuminating just that in “Two steps forward, one step back” in December of last year, and the discussion on that thread when it was current included a great many useful comments.

I want, however, not to merely rehash criticisms of MCPL (criticisms well-deserved and well-made the first time around) but to use that example to talk a bit about what “centering” and “marginalized” really mean. In the post on the need for transfeminist critiques of other feminisms, I focussed on Katha Pollit and identified places where, quite frankly, I think she employed some bad thinking to construct some bad feminism. I suggested that marginalization had something to do with this bad thinking on Pollit’s part. Here you can learn more about exactly what marginalization has to do with it …and the extent of my criticism of Pollit, rather than merely Pollit’s column.

I didn’t pick Pollit because her work is low hanging fruit. She has written excellently on many topics. She clearly has the writing chops to be clear about the distinctions between political theorizing and political rhetoric. Yet the only reasonable inference is that she was, in fact, talking about rhetoric when she was using the phrase “political analysis”. She also has the analytical skills to make the distinction between gendered terms like the French pronouns ils and elles, and gender neutral words like people. Yet here, too, she fell down.

So what is the problem with this Katha Pollit person anyway? The problem is the same as one in our community: the inability to think like you’re not.  [Read more…]

Why why why?

I really like Richard Dawkins, personally and professionally, although a lot of readers here get indignant at that. But that’s why it hurts to see him say obnoxious things on Twitter, like rating different kinds of rape and pedophilia. He doesn’t understand why that’s objectionable; has he ever heard of Todd Akin (maybe not — he is an obscure American politician who made up a lot of nonsense about “legitimate rape” and got flambéed for it)? This is like walking straight into a firepit that has consumed many far-right wingnuts (which Dawkins is not) before him, and thinking he’ll come out unsinged.

Amanda Marcotte does an excellent job of explaining why his remarks were objectionable. That feminists think a patronizing pat on the ass deserves a lesser punishment than rape is simply not an issue; we don’t need condescending explanations of basic logic to understand the concept. The problem is people who don’t understand that logic at all, and think there’s a sharp cliff, an all-or-nothing pattern, so that rape gets you put in jail, while date rape gets you a high-five in the locker room. And those people aren’t feminists.

If you want to make a difference in social attitudes, you can say “Date rape is bad”…full stop. You don’t go on and say that some other form of rape is worse, because that’s all the date-rapers see: “Richard Dawkins says I’m not as bad as a rapist”. The first part is ignored.

Better still: I believe in a proportional response to a crime, and therefore someone who commits date rape should not go unpunished.


Maybe this will get through to him.

Is Ted Nugent still a darling of the Republican party?

I knew Ted Nugent was a nasty piece of work, but this…can he possibly be a bit more blatantly racist? He’s had a couple of shows cancelled at Indian casinos — first by the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, and most recently by the Puyallups in Washington — and I guess it made Nugent a mite testy.

“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has always been about human rights — for decades, we have worked individually and as a Tribe to make sure that each and every person is treated equally and with respect and dignity,” said a statement from the tribe.

A spokesperson for the casino said that the company didn’t want to provide a platform for the “racist attitudes and views that Ted Nugent espouses.”

Nugent responded to the cancelation by calling the Coeur d’Alene Tribe unclean vermin.

By all indicators, I don’t think they actually qualify as people, but there has always been a lunatic fringe of hateful, rotten, dishonest people that hate happy, successful people, he continued. I believe raising hell and demanding accountability from our elected employees is Job One for every American. I am simply doing my job.

Brilliant: fired for racist remarks, so he calls the whole tribe “vermin” and questioning their status as humans, perfectly confirming the accusation.

No heroes, ever

Through my drug-induced haze, I’ve been following the rising tide of revulsion at Richard Feynman’s personal behavior. It’s been sad and distressing; he was pretty much an opportunistic cad with women. What’s also been disturbing is the denial by people who should know better — Feynman was completely open about it in his published memoir. Face it, accept it, get over it. If you’re making excuses for him, we’re laughing at you. I was amused at this illustration of the problem:

Being a great physicist does not make you a great human being. Everyone is a mosaic of different properties, and there is no automatic correlation of saintliness in all dimensions. And most importantly, being really good at physics or any other intellectual endeavor is not an excuse for being a reprehensible asshole.

I will not call on you to demand Anthony Cumia be fired

Anthony Cumia of the Opie & Anthony show has a long history of public awfulness. He’s a sexist pig and a creep.

But I don’t think you should call Sirius XM and complain.

His latest episode was a flamingly racist tirade against a black woman (only he didn’t restrain himself to merely call her a “black woman”). He wanted to shoot her because she slapped his camera away when he was taking creepshots.

He’s an appalling human being. But why bother demanding his dismissal?

Many media outlets are howling about his violent racist fantasies. He’s scum.

But he’s just the erupting pimple of the problem. The real issue is that somewhere in the corporate headquarters for Sirius XM, there is a nest of verminous, amoral, soulless corporate drones who saw a racist misogynist loudmouth as a pile of dollar signs. Fire Anthony Cumia, they’ll still be there. Fire Cumia, his audience of sympathetic racist misogynist cowards will still be there. Treating the repugnant excrescences without digging deep to the root of the disease is not enough.

If you want to do anything, cancel your Sirius XM account. Not conditionally, not if they don’t fire Cumia, but just plainly and simply cut them off. Punish the executives. Do you know anyone who listens to that Opie & Anthony crap? Repudiate them, publicly and unabashedly. Let them know that they are also terrible human beings for giving an audience to racists.

Firing Anthony Cumia is just the icing on the cake. Demand more.

Hobby Lobby won

Of course they did: in a court packed with Catholics and their twisted views on reproduction, it would have been a surprise if they decided otherwise. So now, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have a right to dictate how you manage your health care, and the corporation’s religious convictions (they can have them, apparently) trump yours.

You’re all boycotting Hobby Lobby, right? And if you work there, try to get out.


We now have the underlying truth about the decision.

thesame