Brian Leiter is an issue for philosophy

UPDATE: Brian Leiter replied by email; that communication is included in full at the bottom of this post.

Brian Leiter, proprieter of the philosophy blog Leiter Reports and—until recently—sole controller of the influential Philosophical Gourmet Report, is an issue for the profession of academic philosophy. Despite his claims to oppose sexism, racism, and other oppressions in academic philosophy, is often complicit in creating a hostile climate towards marginalized philosophers—either by policing the boundaries of “real” philosophy; concern trolling efforts at real change; engaging in casual ableism; linking approvingly to anonymous blogs like “Real Feminist Philosophers” and Philosatire which engage in racism, sexism, and ableism; or by threatening and bullying junior women in the profession.

The fact that he and his blog remain influential suggest that a significant proportion of academic philosophers tacitly endorse his behavior and share his bigotry. This suspicion was more or less confirmed last week when Leiter posted one of his regular polls, this one aiming to gauge the profession’s sense of the “issues facing the profession.” By ranking 22 “issues,” Leiter’s readership sought to answer a number of pressing questions: Are feminists or “anti-feminists” a bigger “issue” for our field? Is the under-representation and treatment of disabled people a larger problem than the plight of political conservatives? Is racism a greater blight on academic philosophy than political correctness and identity politics?

As could be predicted, the readership of Leiter’s blog were largely split over these questions. The only clear conclusion to be drawn is that the “vindictive, intolerant ‘groupthink’ mentality” in parts of the profession has not succeeded in forcing everyone to parrot the new consensus that ableist, sexist white supremacy exists and is bad.

Despite the fact that there is still healthy debate over whether real racism or reverse racism is a bigger problem, the existence of a substantial number of philosophers who use “bigotry” without scare-quotes has had a chilling effect on the discourse. Yesterday Leiter published an email from a correspondent who requested anonymity out of fear that people might criticize him for what he says. And for good reason:

I recently read of a stranger’s experience, in a Twitter thread that has since been deleted, with a transsexual friend. Having no malicious intent whatsoever, this former individual casually addressed a group of friends, of which the latter person was a part, with the word “guys.” His transsexual friend (a woman) informed him sometime later that hearing the word “guys” “triggered” her, induced serious psychological distress, by way of a gender identity conflict that this word brought about. In recounting this story on the internet, the person with the transsexuxal friend stated that he wasn’t interested in maintaining a relationship with this person, since he wasn’t willing to “walk on eggshells” and self-police his language to accommodate what he perceived to be unreasonable fragility on the part of his transsexual friend. Unsurprisingly, the individual recounting this story was incessantly berated by victim-mongering identity politickers on Twitter, who suggested that he’s an “evil bigot” with virtual unanimity.

The belief presumably animating such sickening moralizing strikes me as utterly perverse, where, by “belief”, I mean the view that those who cause any offense to some vulnerable individual are morally required to take every step necessary to rectify the caused—and, in the future, avoid causing—offense. Is there no obligation on the part of “offended” persons to accept that not everything they hear will reflect the reality that they desire, and to develop some, dare I say, resilience in the face of this reality? And where will it end? Are we all to avoid speaking in public about the persons we find physically attractive, for fear that some self-aware, unattractive person will be psychologically traumatized by the experience?

It continues to a conclusion that even Leiter admits is incoherent.

What should we make of this anecdote? For Leiter, outrage that someone would end a friendship rather than take the trouble to avoid hurting their friend is just another case of the “hyper-sensitivity of coddled narcissists masquerading as moral righteousness,” and he helpfully distinguishes real PTSD from whatever these hyper-sensitive social justice warriors are suffering from.

But again this isn’t surprising. Leiter has rarely been sympathetic to trauma caused by abuse that he doesn’t acknowledge as legitimate, including, as in this case, the ubiquitous misgendering of transgender individuals caused by a refusal to recognize them as their correct gender (as our anonymous philosopher calls it “the reality that they desire” rather than, as is implied, the real reality).

Leiter’s lack of concern towards transgender members of his profession was visible last week as well. In the “issues in philosophy” poll, Leiter added a note about his omission of LGBTQ “issues” from the poll:

UPDATE: A philosophy graduate student writes:

I was surprised to see that you did not include any reference to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise part of the LGBTQ community. This surprised me for three reasons. First, like the aforementioned issues in our profession, these are pressing. Second, in the country at large, LGBTQ equality is among the most important civil rights issues of our time. Third, you have repeatedly gone to bat for LGBTQ equality on your blog–something that I and many other readers have truly appreciated.

This is a fair point, and was clearly an oversight on my part, due in some degree to the fact that (1) LGBTQ philosophers have been less vocal about continuing discrimination on social media in my experience, and (2) my sense that the profession has done better by LGBTQ philosophers than some other groups (for example). But it should have been included as a category for voting purposes, for which my apologies.

Setting aside the silliness of thinking that an anti-discrimination policy from the American Philosophical Association will do the trick of undoing the systematic barriers keeping gender/sexual/romantic minorities out of academic philosophy, this comment from Leiter reflects his ignorance of trans issues in general, but in this case it’s an ignorance shared by his critics. Transgender oppression is so little understood in the field that major feminist philosophers have recently proposed that trans women are not women unless they have the means and good fortune to consistently pass (Sally Haslanger), and that trans women are only women in certain contexts (Jennifer Saul).

And the idea that Leiter’s failure to hear the complaints of LGBTQ philosophers via social media is evidence that there aren’t many…well, that loses some of its plausibility when you remember how Brian Leiter uses social media, blocking his critics and tweeting things like this:

Now as it happens, there are relatively few complaints from LGBTQ—and especially transgender—philosophers, because there are relatively few LGBTQ philosophers. But that’s because there are relatively many people like Brian Leiter still in the profession.

This is not to discount the barriers to trans philosophers erected throughout the notorious history of transphobia in academia, but entrenched feminist antipathy towards trans people seems less common in philosophy departments than elsewhere in academia—the transphobia here appears to be informed by simple bigotry rather than by transphobic feminism. Haslanger’s and Saul’s poor treatment of trans issues stems, I hope, from ignorance rather than from a committment to trans-exclusionary radical feminism. They can, and I think, will do better. I am less optimistic about Leiter and those like him. They’re going to be an issue if we want to make philosophy safe for everyone.

Dear Mr. Dunn,

I was just directed to your post smearing me.

I would encourage you to fix the falsehoods promptly–for example, Carrie Jenkins and Noelle McAfee are not “junior women,” they are full professors with tenure at leading research universities who had also threatened, attacked, and defamed me. And one of the others I, correctly, threatened, John McCumber, is a senior man, also tenured (did you even look at the site you linked to?). Happily, he stopped making up quotes and attributing them to me after I wrote him.

But there are other falsehoods in your smear piece, do review it carefully.

Your post seems a quite imprudent, as well as pointless, thing to have done. I hope you’ll think better of it. More importantly, you should think more critically about the nonsense charges-“ableism,” “bigotry” etc.-that you mindlessly repeat. You will damage your professional prospects if you get a reputation for being such a parody of self-righteous political correctness.

I spoke with some of your current and former teachers, who assure me you’re a nice person, and they were embarrassed on your behalf by this outburst, which they assured me was atypical. I hope that’s right, and that you’ll grow up.

Best wishes,
Brian Leiter


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