Monday, September 29, 2014

Brian Leiter In Hot Water

Here's a kind of summary.
I don't pay much attention to this sort of thing...
Leiter seems to have been rather an asshole to some people, and to have said some things that someone who runs the PGR probably shouldn't have said.
The anti-Leiter movement strikes me as (a) possibly right, and (b) possibly sinister.


Blogger Dark Avenger said...

What sinister about opposing someone who sends harassing e-mails to someone threatening to sue on the basis of a blog post that never once mentioned him by name?

I think much of Mr. Leiters' activity aside from the TPG is pretty sinister and questionable, like the way pro-Leiter trolls seem to pop up in a comment thread about him, as is the case with the comment thread in the article you posted.

I'm the Get Chutney Love commentator in the thread. I guess that makes my actions sinister as well.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

For Those Who Need To Know
Recent Events

Just this year, there have been several episodes in which Brian Leiter has publicly insulted people with whom he disagreed and/or sent those people insulting and threatening emails. What follows recounts the basic facts about these episodes and provides links to relevant information. There have been several other such episodes over the last decade or so, some of which involved not philosophers but lawyers. But we do not have the energy to catalogue all of them, and we are not sure what purpose it would serve. What follows, we hope, is sufficiently illuminating.

It seems worth noting explicitly that, of the seven people targeted by Leiter in recent months (we are including Tom Stern), six of them were women, two of them were junior faculty (one of them very junior), one was a post-doc, and one was a graduate student.

1. Lucy O’Brien is told that “she can leave the profession”

On 5 September 2014, Tom Stern, who is a lecturer at University College London, published a review of four recent books on Nietzsche in the Times Literary Supplement. Leiter then sent a letter to the editors and, when it was rejected, posted that letter on one of his blogs. In the letter and post, he characterizes the review as “silly” and “sophomoric”, implies that Stern is “lazy” and a “superficial reader[]”, and declares the entire episode “an embarrassment for both TLS and UCL”.

Stern’s colleague at UCL, Lucy O’Brien, posted a comment on Leiter’s blog responding substantively to some of his criticisms and, at the end, responding to its tone:

I am Stern’s colleague at UCL and I am not remotely embarrassed…. I am, however, a little embarrassed to belong to a profession the norms of which seem to allow an international audience to be presented with a portrait of a brilliant young colleague as ‘sophomoric’, as ‘a flake’, as a ‘hack’, as ‘silly’, and perhaps ‘lazy’, in the space of two days by one person through the idiosyncratic representation of a review that is behind a paywall.

(The accusation of Stern’s being a flake, which was made in a different post, was later removed.)

It was in response to this that Leiter wrote: “If Dr. O’Brien is really embarrassed that Dr. Stern’s hack work has been called out, then she can leave the profession and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted to pass in silence…”.

You know how to pick them, Winston.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, DA...I can always count on you for gentle correction...

See the bit where I said that BL seems to have been an asshole. Not that I feel obligated to explain myself, but, in brief, as I wrote in the post I didn't (yet?) publish:

I am not a fan of BL, nor of PGR. It sounds to me like he is sometimes really mean to people. I also think that the PGR promotes a kind of People Magazine view of the philosophical profession, and that's repulsive.

However, I have met people who seem to hate BL and PGR for more roughly ideological reasons. He seems to be a frequent target of feminists, and I tend to think that feminism is far from being an unmitigated force for good in academia and in philosophy.

My worry about the recent anti-Leiter stuff is very wispy. It seems to me that there is an unstated accusation in the air that BL is a sexist, and that this is at least partially based on the fact that he's disagreed strongly with some women, and sometimes been an asshole to them. So far as I can tell--and I don't pay terribly close attention to this crap, admittedly--he's right about the "Climate for Women" report, and right about questioning Alcoff. And I suspect that that has contributed to his problems.

I have personally seen feminism get out of control in philosophy, and I think that feminism is in general going rather crazy right now, and I wonder whether this is part of what's driving the anti-BL stuff.

Now, perhaps BL really *is* a sexist, and really *is* targeting women. If so, then he deserves what he's getting, and more of it.

But, furthermore, on the concern side: just generally, this resembles the internet lynch mob / "callout culture" becoming more and more prevalent on the left.

Philosophy isn't as crazy lefty as most of the humanities...but it obviously errs left when it errs.

Furthermore, that outrage about the "leave the profession" comment is being intentionally overblown. Again: I'm not defending BL. Sounds like he's an ass. It's an insult. But that's all it is. That quote is being thrown around like it's almost some kind of threat or command or something. It's an insult--but the kind of insult I've heard in philosophy more than once.

In short:

Some of the stuff BL has stood up for/against *needs* to be stood up for/against.

I think that's generated some powerful political enemies by doing so.

Also, he seems to be at least a hot-head and likely an asshole.

But I worry that the anti-Leiter stuff is a sign of something big, important, and sinister happening in the profession. Specifically, the development of a culture of political correctness in which being an asshole is made into a political issue, and political issues are mixed up with professional issues.

(though, personally, I think that tone is very important...though...I've been told that that's "tone policing" in other contexts....)

Anyway: I'm suspicious of everybody involved in this.


11:01 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Incidentally, I'm much more interested in hearing the straight dope and your considered opinion about this than I am in getting into a slap fight about it.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

See the bit where I said that BL seems to have been an asshole

When one threatens to sue someone on the basis of a post where ones' name isn't mentioned in the post, then seems isn't a strong enough word here, IMHO.

C'mon, Winston, when was the last time you threatened to sue someone, via e-mail or otherwise, over something they wrote?

My take on it, Winston, that it's somewhat unusual for a person of Mr. Leiters' stature to be engaging in these little fights with others in his area, threatening to sue people, reportedly threatening to violate commentator anonymity to employers and the general public, sock-puppeting threads about him IMHO in a very blatant and unintelligent way,and other things that some of the commentators in that article mention, that it's a wonder that he's lasted so long.

There are patterns here, Winston. Patterns that can't be ignored.

Now, are the feminists and leftists targeting him? Yes, in the sense that if you put a giant target on your back, and dance in front of the trenches daring the enemy to shoot you, you will be targeted.

Further details here:

I should note that Prof Campos has been following this case for a while, so you might want to dig up his other posts about Leiter and read them as well

He might be the Al Capone of Philosophy, put on the shelf not because he's a sexist ass, but because he's an egotistical ass who believes TPG entitles him to a tyrant-like control of the profession. I would rather he be put on the shelf for his sock-puppetry and his threats via email to those he sees as potential threats/enemies, but, like the Feds, I'll take what I can get.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, there's some stuff there I didn't know about.

Listen, I'm not pro-Leiter. I neither know nor care much about Leiter.

I do worry about witch-hunts in the profession, about there being unofficial (or semi-official) political orthodoxies, about treating someone being an asshole as if they were doing something criminal, and about philosophers online becoming Tumblrized, and the creation of a shaming/callout culture that targets individuals for political heterodoxy.

I'm also concerned about the nature and role of feminism in the profession.

It sounds like Leiter has done enough to deserve to be hassled back. And it may very well be that somebody who runs the PGR (again: I don't like it, but I sure as hell send my students to it when they're applying to grad school) needs to be...not somebody like Brian Leiter...

OTOH, I can't help but worry that a lot of anti-BL sentiment is political. In addition to the other things I've mentioned, he received criticism for not being in favor of that thing where men refuse to be keynote speakers at conferences if there are no women who are also keynote speakers. Then he was criticized for being for it...but...y'know...not with sufficient enthusiasm...

Though I detest discrimination, I have to say, I don't support the measure. I find it kinda creepy, actually. I don't think it's crazy...but I don't support it.

I have no interest in defending assholes, and I don't think I've said anything here to defend him.

I just don't trust the other guys either.

Perhaps you're right, and 'asshole' isn't strong enough. That's reasonable.

But, OTOH, surely you admit that the "leave the profession" comment is being spun wildly? Or not?

1:15 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

But, OTOH, surely you admit that the "leave the profession" comment is being spun wildly? Or not?

I think it's a rather intemperate statement, and that there are very few circumstances where it couldn't be spun wildly.

I mean, there's disagreement, and then there is the disagreement/insult, of which the remark is the latter, and you don't need a PhD to tell the difference.

Again, I would rather he would suffer consequences for his intimidation and intemperate language in general and his sock-puppetry in particular as being beneath the dignity of a Professor, than for his 'political' sins.

My experience, Winston, is that if somebody is self-destructive, unless you're a psychologist or other professional qualified to deal with it, there are only two options open to the bystander: Get out of the way, or help out. Stopping him/her isn't really an option.

Now, I know he's been on the side of the angels in the UI controversy, but sometimes people can be on the 'right side' but still be a liability because of their behavior.

With allies like Leiter, who needs enemies?

Have you ever read Man Against Himself, by Karl Mennninger? The Freudism is rather dated, but the case histories contained in it would be a little more helpful to you in understanding whats' going on with Leiter, IMHO. Think of it as something to put on your Christmas break reading list.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I'm not really clear on how much difference there is in our positions...

But I don't see what the UI controversy has to do with it... BL has been on the right side of plenty of issues...but that's, as you note, not really relevant. So I'm a little puzzled as to why that would come up.

What BL said was something like *if you can't hack a discipline that requires clarity, maybe you should find another one.* That's an insult, and an assholish thing to say (though it might be warranted depending on what was said to him first...though that seems like a long shot...) But it seems to me that people are trying to pretend that he was commanding her to get out of the discipline...which is a completely different thing.

Like BL himself, the anti-Leiter forces might be right about some things and wrong about others.

I was focusing on the latter stuff.

Thanks for the recommendation...though my tolerance for Freud is really low...

2:26 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

You can ignore the Freudian stuff, Winston, there's a whole chapter on the martyrs of the early Christian Church and how in many cases they courted their martyrdom in an active manner.

I think this Amazon review says it all:

I read this book over 30 years ago and to this day in 2013, it remains the most important book of my life. When I read the book my father had just committed suicide and I was distraught. I went the the library and checked out every book they had about suicide in a quest to understand WHY. Within the first month after the suicide, I had read all the books and each one had a different explanation for suicide. I read Menningers book and it explained it all to me. I felt thankful for the explanation and proceeded to be sure that my own small children (at that time) did not go down that same path that my father did. They did not and hopefully no one else will.

As for spinning it into a command, I'm naturally against that, there's no proof that he has the clout to enforce it, but, live by the intemperate statement, die by the misinterpreted intemperate statement, I guess.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Groovy. Thanks. Will put it on my list.

Well, no, obviously he has no power to enforce it...but it seems to me that it's being spun in that, instead of just an insult, it's something more.

Again, assholery is enough to make me against someone.

But it does seem like there's some pearl-clutching going on there...

"live by the intemperate statement, die by the misinterpreted intemperate statement..."

Welp, that pretty much sums up a big old chunk of all this I guess...

4:03 PM  

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