Sunday, May 21, 2017

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Last Word?

Paul Griffiths' farewell to the university is worth reading. He has experienced something that many of us have been watching unfold with concern from the sidelines in now countless other cases. He expressed his views and faced disciplinary proceedings as a consequence. This also happened to Laura Kipnis and, I dare say, to Tim Hunt. In all cases, one can accept that people are upset or angered by what one says. One can even accept that those who are offended call for one's dismissal or disinvitation. What we cannot and should not abide is university administrators that, knowing full well that the complaint was occasioned merely by something that was said, and said very clearly as an expression of opinion, actually move against the "offender".

Griffiths writes that

words, in universities, have been what I’ve used to make my way. I’ve used them to elucidate, to explain, to understand, and to argue. The word-life, which is the same as the life of the mind, has been for me one of struggle to accentuate and sharpen intellectual differences with the goal of increasing clarity about what they come to and what’s at stake in them.

I respect Griffiths' decision, though it saddens me and I wish he would stay. Someone who has been living, and thought he could continue to live a "word-life" cannot continue to work happily in an environment where the words he chooses are subject to administrative oversight. Critical oversight is another matter. We want our peers and colleagues to argue with us when they disagree. But the increasing legitimacy of the act of going to administrators for help in settling intellectual disputes takes the life out of our words. Academia becomes a place to negotiate ideological positions grounded in power, not knowledge. It stops being a place to make up your mind about what the truth is.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Tolerance of Ambiguity

"The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so old venerable sterotype. As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

I've been having some interesting exchanges over at Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa's blog. It think I've located an important fault line, that runs through both the discussion and what is sometimes called "sexual negotiation" (i.e., the communicative process by which consent is established). Jonathan recently summarized one of his disagreements with Kipnis as follows:

Kipnis has strange ideas about sexual agency, thinking that tolerating harassment and assault is a more genuine exercise of agency than is filing a complaint about it.

Kipnis's ideas about agency may seem strange to Jonathan, but I think it is unfair to characterize her view as suggesting tolerance of harassment and assault over filing a complaint. She is saying that stopping harassment and assault in the moment is a more genuine exercise of agency than letting it proceed (for perhaps weeks and months) and then filing a complaint (perhaps years) later. She is saying that a woman who is able to assert her boundaries and defend herself if necessary has more agency than a woman who depends on the intervention of an authority to maintain her personal space.

She not even saying that this agency also includes tolerating behavior that is merely annoying but falls short of harassment or assault. Getting a man to stop "merely" annoying her is an exercise of the very same agency that she is talking about. Indeed, exercising this agency is a way of avoiding the escalation of the behavior to something where the authorities might relevantly intervene. Note that the woman is not protected by the authority at this point, i.e., she does not have the "agency" to file a complaint if no actual harassment has taken place. [She doesn't have a "case".] But she very definitely might have the agency she needs to stop a guy from hassling her. So Kipnis is making a substantial point: the Title IX regime is (implicitly) encouraging women to tolerate mild annoyance, about which no complaint can be made, until it escalates to harassment, when the complaint-filing agency kicks in.

One of Jonathan's commenters has suggested that Kipnis is sometimes "smeared" by her critics as promulgating "rape myths". I think Jonathan is doing something like that in this way of characterizing her position. (I called him "slick" at one point for insinuating that Kipnis approves of Trump's "grabby" behavior.) Kipnis is clearly not saying that women should tolerate being assaulted. She's saying they should express their intolerance directly, not through the intercession of a higher power. I think that's important to keep in mind.

One of the things that the Tim Hunt scandal taught me was that some of today's feminists seem intolerant of ambiguity. They don't like to play on what Rosmarie Waldrop once called "the lawn of excluded middle". Ironically, she asserted the importance of this space of ambiguity with distinctly feminist intent. I recognized it again in the "difficult conversation" about harassment in astronomy. I think Kipnis is trying to indicate the importance of this space of human interaction too.

What this requires is a "comfort zone", if you will, that can be challenged without violence. That is, it requires us to "allow" or "tolerate" discomfort without immediately considering this to be harassment or assault. It means we have to take responsibility for establishing and maintaining boundaries in particular situations and allowing them to move in real time, sometimes "too far", but then back again. What is "intimacy" if not the moving of the boundaries of one's personal space with respect to some particular person? The idea that every move here can be made with the unambiguous "affirmative" consent of the other is unrealistic and, I suspect, completely foreign to most people over 40. (And most younger people without a college education, too, no doubt.)

This has a rhetorical, perhaps even logical, corollary. "The law of excluded middle is a venerable old law of logic," Waldrop tells us, "But much must be said against its claim that everything must be either true or false." There has to be a space in which we don't immediately conflate tolerating behavior that someone (and even a Title IX investigator) has found to be harassment with "tolerating harassment" itself. It may be a denial of the assumption that the behavior was indeed harassment. That is, I may simply be arguing, in a particular case, that it is false that someone harassed or assaulted someone else, given the facts.

But is may also be inexorably ambiguous, even to the two people who have direct access to memories of the experience. It may simply remain unclear whether the pain (if such there was), emotional or physical, was the result of violence or accident. That's why it's so important to work it out in the moment that unfolds, and in the moments that follow, in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps, on one outsider's interpretation, a woman was assaulted, but, on her own interpretation, she successfully defended herself against, i.e., averted, an assault. Or perhaps it was never an assault but whatever was going to happen didn't. Perhaps we must accept, then, that there is no simply true or false proposition about what was going on there.

"The four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle," Waldrop tells us, "where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." To say, as Kipnis does, that we should educate men and women in the art of letting the meaning of their encounters mature, rather than seeking its unambiguous adjudication by a Title IX panel, is not to say they should tolerate assault and harassment. What we need to learn, Kipnis is trying to tell us, is to manage the ambiguities of desire. In my view, we need not law but literature here, not policy but poetry. "The gravity of love," says Waldrop, "encompasses ambivalence."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Kate Clancy Gets James Watson Disinvited

"Moral character and ethics matters more than science."
(Kate Clancy)

I wouldn't normally write about this, but Kate Clancy happens to be in my wheel house, or perhaps just a little stuck in my craw. It seems she led the charge against James Watson speaking at the University of Illinois. I want to deal with this both at the level of principle and the particulars of the case. For good order: I refuse to send the obligatory virtue signal of "denouncing" the man's views before defending his right to speak.

I think this sort of silencing is distasteful, no matter who is speaking. Someone at UI wanted to hear what Watson had to say and there was no reason to think that he was going to incite anyone to violence or otherwise undermine the institutions of Western democracy. By contrast, Clancy threatened to organize a protest against those institutions if the talk was to go ahead. Clancy was objecting to the peaceful exchange of ideas between interested parties in a university setting. Watson appears to have had something on his mind that he wanted to share; an institute appeared to be willing to listen. The fact that Clancy couldn't abide this event says a great deal about her and people like her. The fact that the talk was immediately cancelled because of her Twitter-based objections says something about the institute and perhaps the larger institution. The weakness of our institutions against even the threat of protest is a bit disconcerting. But there it is.

But what about the basis of the complaint itself? James Watson is, of course, one of the discoverers of DNA, something for which he is justly famous. He doesn't just know a thing or two about genes. He knows what is, arguably, the first thing about them. It is not surprising that an institute devoted to the study of genomic biology* would want to hear his thoughts on cancer.

The News-Gazette article points out that he was going hold a narrowly "scientific" talk, but why should this matter? Watson apparently once held and perhaps still holds views about the genetic basis of intelligence and, well, "fun". He thinks, or thought, that black people are less intelligent, and women more fun, than he is. That is or was his opinion, or is at least something he accidentally said and later regretted saying. Regardless of what he now thinks, as a question of the distribution of traits in a population it may or may not be true. (We are told it is scientifically "discredited".) Watson's proposed mechanism (genes) may or may not explain the phenomenon. Now, even if that was what he had wanted to talk about, and if the Carl Woese Institute had wanted to hear him talk about it, what business is it of Clancy's?

Or we can put this point even more strongly. If James Watson can't say that intelligence has a genetic component, who can? How can this idea ever be discussed if the Nobel prize winner on the topic can't discuss it? Likewise, if not even a Nobel prize winner can talk about how to have fun in the lab, who can? But, again, that wasn't even what he was going to talk about. On Clancy's view, it seems, once you have said something that she thinks science has "discredited" you shouldn't be allowed to speak anywhere again about anything. This is a very strange view to me. I don't mind her not inviting him to dinner, or even not putting him at the top of her list of suggested speakers for her events. But to prevent researchers (and students) from hearing what he wants to tell them seems like overreach to me.

Unfortunately, she does seem to understand the power she wields. The Carl Woese Institute was certainly sufficiently cowed by the prospect of her "plan to organize against it". She may call it "moral character and ethics" but what she really thinks matters more than science is her morality. For Clancy, ideology trumps knowledge.** It saddens me. I hope this tactic will soon be sufficiently discredited to be immediately ignored by our institutions of higher learning.

*I wonder if some sort of underlying conflict between biological anthropology (Clancy's field) and genomic biology is playing out here. It would be interesting to look into that.
**I added these two sentences and the epigraph. I'm grateful to my anonymous commenter for bringing this tweet to my attention.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Magic Trick

I would like to do a magic trick in which an audience member has to bring an unopened can of ground coffee to the performance. The can is set down on a table out of my reach. I never come into contact with it. I then give them an unopened pack of playing cards. They are to inspect it, open it, and then inspect the cards. It is an ordinary deck of cards.

I now ask them to shuffle the cards thoroughly and set the cards down on the table beside the can of coffee. I touch neither the cards nor the can. I produce an envelope from my pocket and hand it to the audience member. I ask them to take the top card off the deck, show it to the audience, and to me, and put it in the envelope and hand the envelope back to me. I return the envelope to my pocket.

At this point I explain how the trick works. Some time in the future, I, or one of my descendants, will invent (or purchase) a time machine. I, or they, will go back in time and work out where the coffee was put into the can. At the crucial moment, before the can is sealed, they will slip the card that is now in the envelope into the can. The envelope along with the instructions for what to do when the time machine is acquired will be passed down from generation to generation.

If I am right, then, a double of the card from the future has been in the can all along. No one could have known what card would be selected during this performance. Only a visitor from the future could put the right card in the can before it was sealed and subsequently sold to the audience member.

At this point, still not having touched the can myself, I ask the audience member to open it and to dump the contents on the table. What, I wonder, would we find?