Saturday, January 16, 2021

It's not censorship; it's peer review.

Jen Foster does research on slurs. "I am interested, first, in the meanings of slurs, as they are understood by the people who actually use them; second, in the relationship that those meanings bear to the meanings of so-called 'neutral counterpart' terms; and third, in the ways that the close –– but, crucially, imperfect and imprecise –– relationship between slurs and so-called 'neutral counterparts' helps to perpetuate ideologies of ordinary bigotry by facilitating a systematic practice of exception-making."

When Foster waded into the fray to call out Kathleen Stock's hostile and mean-spirited response to Christa Peterson's illumination of Stock's long history of undeniably transphobic comments, which was written in response to an open letter saying bigotry should not be overlooked in academia and has no place in the classroom, Foster put a target on herself, and she did so knowingly. She did it from a point of expertise and out of a sense of ethical mandate: the use of name-calling by Stock wasn't merely a simple disagreement expressed immaturely; it was an attempt to delegitimize and silence any attempt to characterize Stock as a bigot, an attack Stock waged by use of slurs. Stock came for Peterson, but quickly expanded her scope to include anyone who disagreed with her, including the entire body of signatories to the open letter saying awarding Stock an OBE entrenched academia's stance of transphobia as permissible. Scholars who signed the letter (full disclosure: I signed it) were called "morons" by Stock, incapable of basic analysis: "It's not rocket science."

Stock then went full eighth-grade-mode and decided to get Philosophy heavyweights to sign an open letter of her own, a missive about "Academic Freedom," in which she shifted the framework entirely (no one was trying to limit Stock's freedom to be a bigot; in fact it was the award and presumably Parliament who were being admonished in the original letter penned by Liam Kofi Bright, Leverhulme scholar). No one said anything about freedom at all except Stock, but having done so, notable bullies of philosophy Brian Leiter and (whatshisname, I seem to have a block) eagerly jumped in to lambaste Peterson and then Foster (and probably many others, I limit my time on Twitter and also I was practicing Twiddles).

Derision is not discourse.

When Foster says the tenor of Stock et al's response is harmful to academia generally and to Philosophy specifically, she knows what she's talking about. She's delivering a peer-review level critique. Likewise, Peterson's article is coming from an area of expertise: she knows inflammatory, exclusionary rhetoric when she hears it. The open letter from Bright, signed by others, was a reasoned warning to all of academia that we have a moral mandate not to ignore the statements of educators that are exclusionary and harmful. Saying so in a formalized, if informal, fashion is the hallmark of academic freedom and demonstrates the adherence to a moral mandate of inclusiveness and solidarity. No one is saying Stock (or Leiter or whomever) can't be a bigot. Bright says that bigotry shouldn't be dismissed. Many in the discipline agree, and it's not an extreme position.

Stock isn't rallying around the opposite view, which would be to say bigotry shouldn't matter; rather she's saying she isn't a bigot and never has been, and that anyone who claims to see bigotry in her statements is analytically challenged professionally and infantile personally.

Stock is being a bully. Leiter and other bullies are cheering her on, wanting to normalize bullying. Don't let them.

Accountability is not defamation.

Changing the conversation to cliquish insults demeans Stock and all who follow her lead. The language we use matters, and to use it as a weapon is undisciplined and juvenile, but worse-- it erodes intelligent debate. Stock, Leiter, and ImmanentlyForgettable have shown the worst side of themselves and are making a mockery of the discipline. Any scholar who doesn't speak out against this is now dangerously close to being complicit, to wade into that area Foster knows so well where the "relationship between slurs and so-called 'neutral counterparts' helps to perpetuate ideologies of ordinary bigotry by facilitating a systematic practice of exception-making."

Bright, Peterson and Foster's commentary on Stock comes at an important time. When dignitaries weaponize ire into personal attacks of those who shine a spotlight on bigotry, they lose the moral high ground and cede the field of rigorous debate. We have a moral mandate as educators, as philosophers, and as decent human beings to speak up. To remain silent 'neutral counterparts' is to grant implicit consent for vilification.

Stock has better credentials than Trump, but not much better manners. Like Trump, she is wrong to cry censorship when her professional colleagues call out her bigotry. Like Trump, she has responded to well-reasoned calls for accountability by rounding up supporters and launching personal attacks in the name of threats against freedom. Like Trump, she is whipping up a frenzy of polarization to distract from the underlying issue: bigotry has no legitimate space in education and in Philosophy and it should not be ignored. Saying her words matter is not censorship; it's peer review.