Time for a Change?
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Would you leave the APA [American Philosophical Association] and join a new dues-charging professional philosophy association that does much of what the APA does, but without the current political agendas/projects?
The response was striking in how it skewed [as of the writing of this essay]:
Definitely 42% 493 votes
Probably 25% 292 votes
Undecided 10% 123 votes
Probably not 10% 124 votes
Definitely not 13% 151 votes
The poll comes at a time when our profession is more divided along political and ideological lines than I have ever seen, since I began studying philosophy in the 1980’s. A group of intensely ideological/partisan activists have turned our discipline into a war zone, using both social media and professional platforms to attack not just those who are politically or ideologically on the “other side” (Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher who articulated traditional Christian natural-law arguments regarding homosexuality, at a conference hosted at an evangelical Christian college, was called upon by one such philosopher-activist on social media to “suck my giant queer cock”) but those who are on their own side, but have been deemed insufficiently “pure.” Witness, for example, the treatment of Rebeca Tuvel and Kathleen Stock (the latter of whose trials I described in my essay, “Just Stop It”), both of whom are solidly on the left side of the political spectrum.
The situation is made worse by the fact that our professional organization, the APA, seems to be on the side of the activists. My impression that this is the case is due to any number of things, including, prominently:
(1) Not only are the number of posts on the APA Blog having to do with some dimension of “social justice” – “diversity,” “trans identity,” “fat acceptance,” etc. – wildly disproportionate, but at least one of its editors, Nathan Oseroff, has been overtly hostile and abusive towards those who hold different views on these subjects than him, attacking them both in the comments section of the blog itself, and on social media. (I was one of the people to whom he spoke in such a disrespectful manner that I emailed the editor to complain about it.) Since there has been some pushback, from me and others, these comments have been scrubbed, and Oseroff’s Twitter account has been made private. He briefly has been suspended for this behavior, but his name continues to appear on posts.
(2) The blog has also posted essays in which the authors flat out attack colleagues and accuse them of any number of offences, having to do with the failure to meet some identity-politics related standard or other. Two in particular, come to mind: (i) a recent post by Asia Ferrin, in which she accused Kathleen Stock of justifying violence against and therefore, actively harming trans people, simply for expressing gender-critical views in her writings; (ii) a truly bizarre post, “Fat Female Philosophers,” in which the (anonymous) author criticized Martha Nussbaum for talking publicly about how much exercise and fitness matter to her, on the grounds that it “contributed to the idea that not prioritizing exercise, especially as a female philosopher, is a kind of failure” and “did not contribute to making space for fatness in our field.”
(3) The projects for which the APA provides grants are overwhelmingly directed towards “social justice” related topics. (I described some of these in a Provocations piece some time ago, and Leiter conducted a poll on the APA’s ideologically skewed funding priorities as well.)
(4) Six of the APA’s twelve newsletters are devoted to racial, ethnic, and gender identities.
(5) The APA has an official code of conduct that prohibits “bullying and harassment” on the part of its members. Included is the following:
Typical examples of bullying and harassment include verbal aggression and yelling; spreading malicious rumors; calling someone conventionally derogatory names or using derogatory stereotypes to describe them; humiliating initiation practices (“hazing”); “cyber-bullying” through email, text messages, or social media; stalking; subjecting an individual to repeated, unsolicited criticism, except when this is clearly limited to a matter of scholarly dispute; subjecting a person to public ridicule; sabotaging a person’s work; scapegoating (e.g., blaming a disabled person for the need to make accommodations); and other hostile conduct that diminishes the capacity of its target to function effectively as a teacher, worker, or scholar.
But despite the fact that a number of the activists of whom I’ve been speaking violate this part of the code as a matter of routine, I can’t think of a single instance in which any of them have been censured or otherwise disciplined by the organization, under this policy.
There is much more, but this is sufficient to give a good sense of the extent to which things have gone terribly wrong.
For a professional organization to be ideologically/politically biased in this way would be a serious problem, regardless of the fortunes of its profession, but it is particularly egregious at a time when our discipline is facing a serious existential threat, given the pressures under which it finds itself in the contemporary University. Steven Hales of Bloomsburg University put it well in the discussion following Leiter’s publication of the poll results:
Even if you think that every APA diversity initiative is a wonderful idea, there is still a deep problem with the APA’s focus because of opportunity costs. Non-wealthy colleges and universities have drunk deep of the STEM/practical majors Kool-Aid, and philosophy programs hang by a thread. There are not just fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs, but fewer jobs of any kind, including adjuncts and VAPs. Philosophy is increasingly seen as a boutique field instead of a vital component of a well-rounded education. This is an actual existential crisis for philosophy that is easily overlooked by those at R1s with billion-dollar endowments. Making sure that every component of our profession has the exact same percentages of women, men, blacks, whites, gays, straights, whatever as the general population will mean nothing when there are no faculty positions for those people to fill.
The question, then, is whether it is best to attempt to reform the APA from within or to create an alternative professional organization.
At this point, the level of division and hostility in our discipline is so high that I don’t see how the organization can be reformed from within, without a proverbial civil war that will be so bloody, it may very well destroy us. And in truth, if people want to belong to a professional organization that is nakedly ideological and partisan, they should be able to. But the rest of us who do not should be able to join a professional organization, whose entire focus is professional and which leaves ideology and politics to the consciences of its members.