Detroit (film)

Last night I went to see the film, Detroit, about the 1967 uprising in that city. I went with my parents, which was interesting as my dad is from Detroit and my parents were living there at the time. It was interesting to ask them about the ways in which the film matched or differed from their memories.

The film is effective at portraying terrorism, one feels frightened throughout. There are also several tear-jerking moments amid the action. It is effectively emotionally manipulative and intense. I could not sleep until 5 am after watching it.

Nevertheless, the film is disappointing because it is not really about its black characters, despite being described as a film that provides a compelling and vivid look at the experience of racism. I expected a film about how police terrorism affects Black people who are terrorized by it. Instead, it is a film about a white terrorist police officer. I cannot really imagine a film about another terrorist group that would focus so much on the terrorist and so little on those terrorized. This is allegedly a film about Black experiences, but it lacks any black characters.

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The decision from the Ghomeshi trial (read the full decision here) has generated a lot of discussion over the past five days. Some of the reaction has been in favour of the decision, while others have been critical.

In this post, I am not going to comment on the decision itself (although I do have several things to say about it, none of which are that I think Ghomeshi should have been found guilty given the way our current legal system works). Instead, I want to focus on the blurring of the lines that occurs in reaction feminist criticisms of the trial, the decision, the legal system, or responses to sexual assault survivors. I think in each of these cases it is important to keep the target of the criticism firmly in mind if you are going to respond to the criticism reasonably.

It seems to me that several targets of criticism and several alternative responses to sexual assault have been suggested in media responses to the trial. Once could criticize:

  1. a. The decision itself
  2. a. The criminal courts
  3. a. The legal system more generally
  4. a. The effects of one of the above on complainants bringing a case
  5. a. The effects of one of the above on possible future complainants

One could also discuss alternative ways to address sexual assault that have nothing to do with the criminal courts or the legal system. For example:

  1. b. Non-legal responses to sexual assault
  2. b. Ways to support survivors of sexual assault
  3. b. Social norms and changes to social norms

More could be added to the above lists, I am sure. But even with these brief lists, we can see the conflation of the targets of criticism and the contexts of discussion in some responses. For example:

Q: What I find very interesting though is how on the one hand you’ve heard people saying two contradictory things at once. You’ve been hearing “believe women,” #believewomen even, we’ve reduced it to that. On the other hand, everyone will agree of course you’re innocent until proven guilty. I don’t know how we structure a system that believes women on the one hand and also presumes that the accused is innocent.

A: If your friend comes to you and says ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ you believe your friend. But you also use your sense of scrutiny for everything else you do in life and sometimes you have questions. When it comes to a criminal trial, you have to dig down when there are those questions because someone else’s life is at stake and someone else’s liberty is on the line. I have a problem with the #believewomen movement. I get it. But it just makes no sense in the criminal justice context. We can support women who say they have been sexually assaulted. We can have resources available. But when it comes to a criminal trial, to #believe everything a woman says, says “Let’s just throw out the trial and convict the guy.” We would be using some sort of different justice system where no one gets a fair trial because the woman said this happened and that’ll be it. That would be a major setback. There are countries throughout the world who are desperate for our system of justice and there are people who have been convicted of things that they didn’t do. And one case that jumps out is that Neil Bantleman, the Canadian convicted overseas in Indonesia of sexually assaulting a child. The general consensus is the gentleman probably didn’t do it and did not receive a fair trial. The quality of the evidence is horrendous. But if it was #believekids that’s exactly what you get. Which is, “You’re convicted, the kid said it.” That’s full stop. We cannot regress to that justice system. We just can’t. (Source: The National Post emphasis added)

These two things are not at all contradictory because they are not being said about the same targets. The idea that everyone should be innocent until proven guilty is an idea that applies at the level of 2. a. the criminal courts, and possibly to other areas of 3. a. the legal system (but not all areas of the legal system). In contrast, the #believewomen movement is not about the criminal courts or about the legal system, it arises from rape crisis centres and discussions of 2. b. how to support sexual assault survivors. It has no direct application to other contexts. To conflate the targets of criticism, the context of discussion, and suggested responses is to create a straw person argument.

The idea that we should believe women when they tell us about their experience of sexual assault comes from rape crisis centres. The idea behind the movement is that the criminal justice system is currently set up to encourage defense lawyers to show that complainants are not credible and the defense will do this whether or not the complainants are telling the truth (this occurs in other criminal defenses, as well, not just in cases of sexual assault). The response “believe women” is meant to support complainants outside the courtroom as they have their credibility shredded inside the courtroom. It is meant to say that even though their credibility is being called into question, there are still some who believe them.

I have never read any feminist legal scholar or any feminist scholar of any discipline who suggested that the criminal courts should make any criminal decision on the basis of a blind faith in a woman’s testimony. To suggest that this is what the movement is about it to distort the argument and conflate the context of application for the suggestion. It is to misunderstand what #believewomen is about; it is not an analysis of the movement.

In addition, this particular misunderstanding and distortion of the movement serves to make feminists seem irrational. Kathryn Wells is right in the above quote that if what feminist were saying is that courts should never question a woman’s testimony this would create injustice, it would infantilize women, and it would undermine the criminal court system. But this is not what is suggested. The fact that people accept this interpretation goes to show the extent to which people are willing to create a caricature of feminist arguments rather than engaging them.

In contrast, some feminists have criticized the criminal courts and the evidentiary standards. But this is a separate criticism from the claim that we should blindly believe women.

Below the fold there are some more places to read or watch things about the trial.

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At Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in as Prime Minister of Canada on November 4, 2015 he was asked by a reporter why he thought it was important to have a cabinet that is 50% women. His answer was simply to say, “Because it’s 2015,” and then give a shrug.

But, just as The Beaverton (Canada’s premiere satirical news website) predicted “50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet.” (Click here if you prefer serious discussions to satire).

For example, here are some comments posted to Miss Representation’s Facebook post discussing the new cabinet:

Good to see but interesting. Tick a box for equal gender representation rather than appoint the best person (ie qualification, knowledge, experience, ability to value add etc) for the role. It is quite possible there could have been 30/30 women in the Canadian cabinet if the most appropriate persons were appointed as ministers to serve their country. Gender discrimination ended years ago, Every employer appoints the best person for the role. Are Canadians being properly served here ?

Good to see but interesting. Tick a box for equal gender representation rather than appoint the best person (ie qualification, knowledge, experience, ability to value add etc) for the role. It is quite possible there could have been 30/30 women in the Canadian cabinet if the most appropriate persons were appointed as ministers to serve their country. Gender discrimination ended years ago, Every employer appoints the best person for the role. Are Canadians being properly served here ?

This comment compares government to private business “employers” but I think there is a significant difference between government and business, namely our system of government is representative, and so there might be a stronger case to be made that those who hold important positions within government offices should be representative of the population they are meant to, you know, represent.

Whereas private businesses have no mandate to represent any one in particular (except, perhaps, the shareholders), the government is created for the express purpose of representing the people. The two cases are not analogous, and I think a stronger case could be made to say that the government has an obligation to be representative of the demographics of the country.

if women only make up 20 or 30% of the MP's... why do they get 50 % of cabinet posts? Male discrimination!!!!

if women only make up 20 or 30% of the MP’s… why do they get 50 % of cabinet posts? Male discrimination!!!!

Here is the second thing that I think is interesting about the merit and representation discussion. First, I think it is revealing what kinds of representation gets focused on. In both of these comments (and the one below) it is gender-representation that is called into question. The argument seems to be that we don’t need a cabinet with a gender-distribution that represents and reflects the general gender-distribution of the Canadian population, and if we did try for such a cabinet we would thereby be sacrificing quality.

What I find interesting about this type of argument is not what is said, but rather what is not said. For example, Trudeau also tried to create a cabinet that had representation from across the Canadian provinces and territories in proportions that are roughly proportional to the populations in each. But we do not hear that this kind of quota-based representation is going to undermine merit. Nor do we hear that it is unfair because there is only 1 MP from Nunavut so it seems an over-representation to have any one from Nunavut in the Cabinet.

So why might it be that when we are talking about trying to create a cabinet with a gender-distribution that represents the gender-distribution of the country some people suddenly raise a number of concerns about the merit of the ministers selected. In contrast, when the Prime Minister tries to create a cabinet with a regional-distribution that represents the regional-distribution of the country (even when this means that some regions will be over-represented with respect to the population distribution of that region) we do not hear concerns about the merit of those found in the different regions. Why is there the difference in response based on different kinds of quota-based representation? I think the difference shows that there is a presumption that women lack qualifications, but there is not a presumption that there is a lack of qualifications attached to the different regions of Canada in which a minister might live.

I think The Beaverton article is funny, but I do take issue with the use of “guys” in the title of the article, because women are just as likely to be biased against women’s merits as are men (the implicit bias test at Harvard demonstrates that sexism against women is not limited to men, but also affects judgements made by women about other women’s merits). To show that I think women can be sexist, too, here is a comment by a woman from the Miss representation thread:

 It sounds like Trudeau is a politician with life experience. I'm a bit iffy about gender representation having to be 50/50, and still believe in the best person for the job. Surely making it 50/50 is reverse discrimination? For example, if a male applies for a job and is more outstandingly suitable than any other applicant, but the company must employ a female to balance genders in the workplace, this doesn't seem like the company is achieving the best outcome. This goes vice versa of course. I think gender equality should be mandatory, but is in danger of going too far to appease the new female voice which sometimes seems to demand 'over-equality' to catch up for the years of ignorance. Have I stirred the pot?

It sounds like Trudeau is a politician with life experience. I’m a bit iffy about gender representation having to be 50/50, and still believe in the best person for the job. Surely making it 50/50 is reverse discrimination? For example, if a male applies for a job and is more outstandingly suitable than any other applicant, but the company must employ a female to balance genders in the workplace, this doesn’t seem like the company is achieving the best outcome. This goes vice versa of course. I think gender equality should be mandatory, but is in danger of going too far to appease the new female voice which sometimes seems to demand ‘over-equality’ to catch up for the years of ignorance. Have I stirred the pot?

In any case, even if we are only looking at these alleged concerns about the “merit” of the ministers chosen for the cabinet from the perspective of argument analysis we already have reason to think that bias against women’s merit and leadership is at work because of the uneven way the concerns are mobilized against gender, but not regional, representation. And that is before you even look at the evidence: the women Trudeau chose have considerable merit and expertise for the portfolios they will be responsible for. Each of the previous links has a serious analysis, but to keep with the Facebook analysis:


Merit, representation, bias.

There is a recently published article on Scientific American, “Are Men the Weaker Sex?” This article has been getting a good deal of attention in my Facebook feed. From the article:

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species. These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers (Source)

I agree with many of the things in this article, but I find it a little hard to read. It seems to be doing something similar to what Emily Martin identifies in “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles.”

The article is full of normative comparisons of non-normative developmental events. For example, it says that the male foetal development is “more complicated” and that

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples).

Fair enough that ‘female’ is default, but does that necessarily imply “simpler?” Sure males have nipples as a result of vestigial similarities, but also (according to Elisabeth Lloyd) women have clitorises and orgasms as a developmental vestige of male reproductive function.

The article states:

The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

But is that empirically true that the male reproductive tract is “more complex”? Each seems to have their own unique complexities.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as a bit creepy. Can’t we acknowledge differences without trying to rank them as “more complex, “more advanced,” “simpler,” or “more basic?”

In fact, women and men evolve at the exact same rate. That is what sexual recombination is all about. One is not more simple or more basic and the other more complex or more advanced. This seems all kinds of distorted.

I am emphatically not saying that we should not look at particular vulnerabilities that men might face. I think we should. In addition, we should also look at particular vulnerabilities that women might face. I just don’t see why in doing so we have to rank these differences.

There have been a number of articles recently about the problems with for-profit prisons.

Here is one in which a Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison for selling kids to for-profit prisons to ensure their continued profitability. Here is another that describes how private prisons are suing states if the prison does not stay full.

But perhaps we think this is fine, since the prisoners deserve to be there as a result of their crimes. Well, here is another article about a Massachusetts crime lab tech who falsified thousands of samples.

Still don’t think it is so bad? Here is a series of videos produced by The Nation and the ACLU about prison profiteers.

Where are the philosopheresses?

Why are there so few women in philosophy? Maybe it is the content of the philosophical cannon, which is incredibly sexist, rather than merely the result of women’s delicate, empathetic minds, or the sexual aggressiveness of male philosophy professors. Maybe it’s not just the climate of philosophy, but also its content.

When discussions of women in philosophy are raised, the issue often turns to the ‘climate’ in which philosophy is taught (rampant sexual harassment, philosophers in positions of power who are not punished for harassing female students, etc.), or to the inadequacies of women as philosophers (lack of interest is abstract theory, unwillingness to engage in ‘aggressive’ debates, etc.). In short, these explanations tend to come in at the level of student preferences and weaknesses or teachers who make the climate inhospitable to women.

For example, from the 2009 version of this debate:

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. (The New York Times Ideas Blog “A Dearth of Women Philosophers”)

Another discussion focused on women’s inadequacy for philosophical discussion from The Philosopher’s Magazine also from 2009:

…Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge whose theory of mind characterises male minds as “systemising” (driven to analyse or construct systems) and female minds as empathising. “Philosophy is, as you know, the pursuit of logic and the analysis of concepts as logical systems,” he told me. “It therefore requires ‘systemising’ and all areas of systemising (mathss, computer science, physics, engineering, etc) show this male bias.” However he stresses that biological and cultural factors can both play a role in developing these empathising and systemising traits. (Brooke Lewis “Where are all the Women?“)

There are hundreds of examples of sexual harassment, gender-based dismissal, and other issues at the blog What is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? The New York Times 2013 series on women in philosophy from the Stone floats a number of hypotheses (see end of this post for a brief summary of each). But all of these explanations focus on the ‘climate’ of philosophy departments and ignore the content of the cannon itself.

The Content of Philosophy

One thing that I think is sometimes overlooked in these discussions is an examination of what philosophers said about women. It was often very unkind and uncharitable (to put it mildly).

When I was an undergrad, studying ethics, I would *constantly* read things in which my gender was trashed by “the Great thinkers” such as Kant, Aristotle, Hegel, Rousseau and Plato. These passages were often part of the assigned readings, but were rarely discussed in class as though ignoring them would make them disappear or as though such sexism had no bearing on the credibility (and often stark hierarchies) built into their ethics. These passages were salient to me, but in class they were totally ignored.

It can be very demoralizing to read (and then re-read for understanding, and then re-read again for tests and essays) passages that reduce your gender to their reproductive function, and then reduce the reproductive contribution of your gender to something on par with a “flower pot” (Plato), or to hear that women provide the material cause while men provide the formal cause, with the latter treated as clearly more important (Aristotle), especially when the writers clearly think that women don’t contribute much other than reproduction. (So women are only good for reproduction, and our contribution to reproduction is not even that important!)

It is demoralizing to read “Great moral theorists” write that women are so delicate and emotional/irrational that they cannot be serious moral agents (let alone grasp difficult moral philosophy!) and should be confined to “passive citizenship” in which they are protected by the “active citizens” i.e. white, propertied, men (Kant). When one is then asked to write an essay where at least one of these views has to be defended against the others the process of writing the paper can be an assault on one’s self-respect (you mean I have to defend the view of someone who treats me like that???).

I coped with this issue during my undergrad by seeking out feminist reinterpretations, criticisms and discussions of these works. This helped me retain self-respect while doing the work required for a philosophy BA. None of these feminist works were included on the syllabus, however. This meant that doing a BA in philosophy was a lot more work for me than it would have been for many of my male peers who did not have to seek external sources to maintain self-respect in the face of blatant misogyny.

Feminist Philosophy is “Not Real” Philosophy

To make matters worse, even today, feminist philosophies are not considered “real philosophy” by many philosophers (including many female philosophers). Having the opportunity to take a course in feminist philosophies is often the first time that female students will have the chance to criticize and examine these racist, gendered and misogynistic things that have been said about women and non-Europeans. It is often the first time female students will read predominantly female authors, and it can make it seem like philosophy is “for” people like them after all. Reading criticisms of gendered concepts, gender hierarchies, and arguments about how a philosopher’s misogynistic views might, in fact, affect the content of his theory (rather than being merely peripheral) can be validating for those students who suspected as much when they were doing the original reading of the cannon.

When I have taught or TAed for feminist philosophy classes in the past, I have had a number of students express this kind of thing to me. Many women have written in their reviews of the class that it was the first time the read about “First Nations philosophies” or “Women’s views” or “African American philosophies” in a way that represented these views respectfully (rather than, say, talking about how women are not rational which comes up a lot in the history of philosophy). But classes in feminist philosophy are almost never required courses to complete a philosophy degree because they are not considered “core courses” for the discipline. Some departments don’t even offer any courses in feminist philosophy at all.


The result is that women and minorities are explicitly maligned and denigrated in the content of what we teach. Rarely is this denigration and disrespect raised in the context of ‘core’ philosophy courses (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, ancient philosophy, the rationalists and the empiricists). Instead this sexism and racism is treated as though it were peripheral to the philosopher’s main view. Feminist philosophy and philosophy of race do raise criticisms of the gendered and racialized concepts philosophers have relied on in creating their theories, but these criticisms are themselves treated as peripheral and marginalized within the discipline as it is taught today.

Why are there so few women in philosophy? Possibly because we read texts that explicitly state that women can’t do philosophy. Professors rarely address these statements. And the sub-fields of philosophy that do address and probe these sexist and racist views are themselves treated as peripheral and marginal to the core of the discipline.


I started writing this post in 2010 when I read a blog post on Playtonic Dialogues, “Where my Philosophy Girls At?” I left a version of this comment at Playtonic Dialogues‘ post “What it is like to be a woman in philosophy.” At that time, there was a flurry of interest in the lack of women in philosophy. I never published this post, because I intended to improve it first.

Now, once again, the issue of women in philosophy is being raised, in part as a result of recent sexual harassment allegations in the field. The New York Times’ Opinionator Blog, ‘The Stone’ has recently completed a five-part series on women in philosophy (links and a brief description of each blog post are at the bottom of this post). So once again, this topic seems timely. That is why I am publishing it now.

Link Round-Up below the Fold

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Happy Star Wars Day!

May the fourth be with you.


An Empirial attack ad against celebrating this noble holiday.

Rebels are traitors to the empire, and the force is used for mind control.

Some of the sounds are so memorable, you’d know them anywhere.

Here is a link to the post for May the 4th from last year, with many excellent Star Wars Recruitment posters. And another to some Star Wars Arts and Crafts. Below the fold a few more Star Wars videos. Continue Reading »

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