Monday, November 24, 2014

Rape culture

If you haven't yet read this article about rape at US universities then you should (and then see this followup). (Also see this.) When I was an undergraduate a typical party involved bringing and guarding your own unrefrigerated beer (no one was rich or generous enough to provide free drinks for other people), possibly having a conversation or two with people who turned out to be no more interesting than the friends you had gone with, leaving once you had drunk your beer, and wondering why you had expected this party to be any different from the others. In the US there are fraternities that provide unlimited free drinks in a country where most students can't legally drink in bars. Drunkenness ensues. So does sex. And violence, especially sexual violence.

The Rolling Stone article focuses on the University of Virginia, where I got my PhD, but the problem is nationwide. We had a discussion this past week at VMI with students from Washington & Lee University about sexual harassment. Apparently it is common there. (It happens at VMI, too, but we don't allow fraternities or alcohol on campus, which I think makes it rarer.) At UVA when I was there some fraternities had a reputation for rape, but they won't be closed down unless specific allegations are proved. This is hard because rape is often hard to prove, because victims are especially discouraged from prosecuting in these cases (do you really want to harm the university's reputation?, do you know what this will do to your reputation?, do you want never to be invited to another party ever again?, etc.), and because the fraternity members all stick together in defense of their "brothers" and against women who go against them in any way. The only people I know who defend fraternities at all are people who were in one when they were in college and who point out that not all frat boys are rapists, that fraternities typically do charitable work as well as throwing parties, and that being in a fraternity provides an ineffable bond of brotherhood whose value can never be appreciated by outsiders. It is about as clear as it ever could be that the bad of fraternities outweighs the good. But universities won't get rid of them because parents and alumni support them, and these are the people who provide the money that keeps universities going. As with gun control, large numbers of people are prepared to accept violent crime against young people for the sake of the very dubious benefits of their own preferred way of life.

Lowering the legal drinking age to 18 would surely help, but something called rape culture is also said to be to blame. It is not clear what this idea amounts to. Part of it, I think, is that we live in a culture that is too tolerant of rape. Which is to say that rape happens in our culture, and happens far more often than it should. This is true. But part of the idea also seems to be that rape is a product of culture, so that to blame specific rapists is naive. It is more important, perhaps not more urgent but at least closer to addressing the problem at its root, to attack rape-friendly aspects of culture, such as rape jokes and pornography. This, I think, is less true, and perhaps not true at all.

I don't mean that rape jokes are OK. It's more that getting rid of rape jokes will not necessarily get rid of rape. Perhaps rape jokes make rape seem more acceptable to people who might commit or help cover up rape. But perhaps they don't. And perhaps it's more a case of actual rape making rape jokes, etc. more common than vice versa. Jokes about rape are neither funny nor sensitive to the suffering of rape victims. So I'm not defending them. But putting a stop to them will not necessarily do anything at all to reduce the amount of rape that occurs.

Focusing on rape culture rather than rape might therefore lead to efforts going in the wrong direction. It has other likely effects too. It makes the issue one about what might be called texts (jokes, movies, etc.) rather than people and how they treat each other. (Enter the theorists...) It also greatly increases the number of people who can be condemned. (Let slip the dogs of war...) In doing these things, i.e. making the issue one for theorists and one that directly involves far more people, there is a risk of watering the problem down. If it's a theoretical matter how concrete can it be? And if it's about offensive jokes, etc. then it certainly seems less serious than when it was about rape and only rape.

So I sympathize with this kind of statement from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network:
In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.
While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions. 
I sympathize, but I'm not sure I agree. Amanda Marcotte responds to the statement I just quoted that:
This doesn't make sense. People who use the phrase "rape culture" do not deny that rape is a matter of individuals making the active choice to rape. "Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes. Instead of recognizing this, or, at the very least, just not bringing it up at all in its memo, RAINN instead bashes a straw man, arguing that the focus on "rape culture" diverts "the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions."
What's at issue here, it seems to me, is whether, or how, useful the idea of "rape culture" is. Does it help us refer to the way that rapists are helped by those who make excuses for them, or does it move our focus from where it belongs? I suspect it does both, i.e. it has both good and bad effects. Whether it does more harm than good is an empirical question that I'm not in a position to answer. Marcotte points out some of the good the term does:
The bill addressing sexual assault in the military that passed in December demonstrates the impact that "rape culture" as a concept has had. Most of the provisions—disallowing commanders to overturn rape convictions, making it a crime to retaliate against accusers, and giving civilian defense officials more power in prosecuting rape—stem from a new understanding about the way that a rapist's friends and colleagues will often give him cover and protection and blame the victim for her disruptive accusations.
There is a difference between the kind of provisions listed here and the much broader cultural features that critics of rape culture often condemn. For instance, Marshall University's Women's Center lists both "sexually explicit jokes" and "refusing to take rape accusations seriously" as examples of rape culture. The former, it seems to me, are not necessarily bad at all, while the latter is extremely bad. Mixing both types of behavior together seems both likely to be unproductive (although I can only speculate about this) and confused (because it shows no recognition that there are different degrees of badness here). The same website says that "rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population." I don't deny that there is some truth to this. But the primary victims of rape are rape victims, not all women. And it seems especially unfortunate that a kind of rape metaphor (holding in a subordinate position) is seemingly used to explain the badness of rape. The primary evil of rape is the evil done to its victims, not the consequent psychological and social effects on women in general. (Which is not to deny that those effects exist and should be taken seriously.) If we did not already understand the evil of literally holding someone in a subordinate position then we would not understand the metaphor apparently presented to explain the effects of rape on society at large. There is an implicit recognition here, in other words, that what is primarily bad about rape is not these effects. They might exist, and they might be a real problem, but we do not need to be warned about them nearly as much as we need the kind of reminder of the horror of rape that the Rolling Stone article provides.      

I've gone off track. My main point was meant to be simply the fact that our culture appears to be more rotten and dangerous than most of us realized. My secondary point, though, is that the way to fix this is surely to attack the most rotten points, not to retreat into language-reform and theory. By all means let's fight not only against rape but against all sexual assault, all sexual harassment, and all sexist behavior. But let's not pretend to know that cultural factors are the most salient cause of rape, or that these factors can be altered by conscious actions, or that we know how to carry out cultural surgery or social engineering successfully. A misguided consequentialism, I suspect, lies at the root of the insistence that tasteless jokes must cause violent crime in order to be rejected. And then certainty that such jokes are bad leads to unproved claims that they cause rape. We cannot prove causal claims like this. What we can do is take the kind of action that is starting to happen now because of the Rolling Stone article. And when we read essays like that we do not want to tell or laugh at sexist jokes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Vote for A Bag of Raisins

Here.

(If you want to, of course, and honestly think it's the best candidate among the other philosophy blog posts from the past year selected by 3 Quarks Daily.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hard questions

It's been a week since my last post, so I feel as though I ought to write something. I also feel that some time in my life I ought to have a go at answering some really big or hard or interesting problem. So here's a small first step in that direction. I'm not leaping into lion-taming directly but more moving towards it via a move from accountancy to banking. Still, here goes.

Four of the most amazing things are that there is something rather than nothing, that some of what there is is alive, that some of what is alive is conscious, and that some of what is conscious is also rational, i.e. capable of making sense. The first and third of these facts correspond with well known metaphysical puzzles or research projects. The second (that some things are alive) does not appear to be regarded as much of a mystery, at least in comparison with the other questions, and is generally treated as a scientific question. Michael Thompson has shown that the related question of what life is, at least, is philosophically interesting. And the fourth amazing fact has to do with meaning or language. To answer why there is meaning we would seem to have to figure out what meaning is, and that gets us into the philosophy of language. So the amazing facts closely relate to a set of questions, and these questions are fundamental in ontology, philosophy of biology (actually I know nothing about the philosophy of biology, but it seems as though 'What is life?' ought to be the fundamental question there), philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.

But the questions also seem to be closely related. Wittgenstein links the first and last of them when he says that:  "I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself." With some reluctance and/or self-mockery Michael Thompson writes that:
a life form is like a language that physical matter can speak. It is in the light of judgments about the life form that I assign meaning and significance and point and position to the parts and operations of individual organisms that present themselves to me.  
This links the second fact with the fourth, if only by analogy. And the third (about consciousness) is surely related both to questions, or matters, of life and questions or matters of meaning or sense.

So, first point: the most amazing facts about the world are not just facts but important philosophical mysteries, the mystery being in each case why this fact is the case. And second point: the mysteries appear to be interrelated in some way (albeit I have not come close to proving that the apparent inter-relatedness is real or at all important). My third point is that the questions seem to be similar in nature. "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is, or appears to be, unanswerable. So does "What is consciousness?" So does "What is life?" if I'm remembering this correctly. And I don't think that "What is meaning?" has much of an answer either.

Are these questions all somehow the same question? Or are they not the very same thing but all equally nonsensical? Or are the similarities I am seeing all merely superficial?

I have no intention of working on any of these questions any time soon, or ever really. But having written this out I may as well post it. (My desire not to post rubbish is in danger of killing the blog completely, so I'm going to try to resist it. And at the very least I have linked to work by Thompson that is not rubbish at all.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lest we forget

It has seemed to me for a long time now that criticizing World War I has become too easy. People, especially in Britain, like to point to this war as an illustration of the pointlessness and badness of war. Of course it is that, but it's such a comfortable example that it encourages not thinking rather than thinking. The tendency to act thoughtful and sad, to do the things you are expected to do during a minute's silence, without being thoughtful or sad also produces empty words. I had a student a few years ago end an email with the words, "Lest we forget!" He seemed to think that these words meant "Let us not forget" rather than "So that we don't forget." The words need to be attached to a memorial to make sense, and using them in ways that don't make sense shows thoughtlessness, the very opposite of the thoughtful remembrance supposedly intended. Of course students will always make mistakes, but now here's John Quiggin making what appears to be exactly the same mistake. Of course people who are not students will always make mistakes too, but I take this as a sign that the rot has really set in.       

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Teaching in groups

[UPDATE: thanks to dmf this post is now being discussed over at the Daily Nous. If you want to read some very interesting responses to the use of group work in philosophy classes head over there.]

I often wonder what the point of classes is. Not just rhetorically, but actually, the idea being that if we know why we have classes then this might help us do a better job with them. (I also sometimes wonder in the rhetorical sense, because when I was an undergraduate I was actively discouraged from attending lectures and yet many classes are so large that lecturing is more or less inevitable.)

The point, it seems to me, is for students to interact with an expert on the material they are studying. They get to ask questions about assigned readings that they did not understand. They get some kind of (possibly very short) lecture on this reading so that if they only think they understood it they will be corrected. They get to ask questions about the relevant issues, and probably some kind of lecture on these issues. And hopefully some kind of discussion of the issues will either happen of its own accord in the process of all this or, more likely, will be made to happen by the teacher. The point of this discussion being to get students to think more, more carefully, and in a more informed way, than they otherwise would, about either issues that matter or issues that it is somehow useful to think about. (For instance, an issue might not matter in itself but debates about it might be historically or politically important, or it might be an issue debating which is thought to develop certain intellectual skills. Nothing turns on whether the weights in the gym are up or down, but moving them up and then down again can be very beneficial. If there is an intellectual equivalent (a very big if, of course) then academic work, including discussion, might well be it, or at least an ingredient of it.) Ideally this will all happen in a way that feels natural to the students, so that it connects as seamlessly as possible with the rest of their lives. Then discussing ideas, asking questions, reading, and otherwise exploring the world intellectually can become greater parts of their lives.

I think its apparent unnaturalness is why group-work feels so wrong to me. As far as I can tell, though, it's becoming the norm. See comments here and here, for instance, and the reference to "structured activity" here. (And while you're at it, see this comment for some of the problems with group-work.) I'm also going by what I've seen other teachers do--increasingly it seems to involve group-work and student presentations. So, why do I think this is so bad?

The first thing to say is there is a real problem of ambiguity and possible misunderstanding here. Not all lectures, or things that people call lectures, are the same, and not all group-work or structured in-class activities are the same either. The second thing to say is that I'm not defending lectures. I think they are largely a waste of time. When I was an undergraduate we were told not to go to lectures on the grounds that you can learn more, and more efficiently, by reading. Lectures were presented as a remedial option. I think they can be useful in this way, and when my students just seem lost I do resort to lecturing. But I see it as a sign that some failure has occurred, not as a go-to option. Enough about me though. On to complaining about other people.

Here are problems with group-work that I have observed or heard about multiple times from students:
  • the members of the group (unless the group is the whole class) do not include an expert on either the topic for discussion or the assigned reading on it, so mistakes can go uncorrected and misunderstanding can be increased (if plausibly, confidently, or charismatically defended) 
  • there can be a tendency for everyone in a group to want to get along and agree, so that diversity of opinion (which is sometimes healthy and at least indicative of independent thought) can be replaced by a kind of groupthink, in which the better (or better-supported) ideas by no means always win out
  • neither every student nor even every group engages in the exercise seriously or at all (policing can help here, of course, but is not likely to be 100% effective, and brings its own problems simply by making the teacher take on the role of police officer)
  • groups can be dominated by loudmouths (although they might also be more comfortable environments for some students to speak in)
  • the whole thing can feel like a waste of time
The first of these problems is probably less serious at more selective places. If everyone in the group has a decent grasp of the issues, ideas, facts, etc. then the wisdom of the crowd might drive out individual kinks of ignorance and misunderstanding. But if enough students have not done the reading, or not done it carefully, or done it but without sufficient comprehension, then trouble lies ahead.

The problem of the whole thing feeling like a waste of time could be addressed by explaining why it isn't, but this would require being able to do that. It might be enough to say, "Trust me, the discussion will be much better afterwards." But why should students trust the person who says this? If they are an expert on philosophy, what do they know about educational psychology? And, in fact, what proof is there that discussion is valuable, let alone group-work intended to improve discussion? I think discussion is part of the examined life, but there's no evidence to support that claim. There might be evidence that it helps with remembering facts, but if it does, so what? Memorizing facts is not what the liberal arts claim to be about. It certainly isn't what philosophy is about, anyway.

The biggest problem, though, has to do with the suggestion made here that such activities feel forced and unnatural. They are, after all, forced and unnatural. They involve the teacher's going from being a resident expert there to help students in his/her area of expertise to being a classroom manager, manipulating students for their own good. Class is no longer (if it ever was) a place where a conversation takes place between people who (at least might) care about ideas and books. It is now a place where learning is facilitated. Of course the change is not from black to white, but students seem a bit more patronized in the new way of doing things, and the ideas (literature, arguments, whatever) being taught seem a bit more remote from life, a bit less like things that anyone might actually care about when off duty. It seems a shame to me.

Having said all that, I am a strong believer in doing what works, and I think that if we're qualified to judge work in our areas, as we (professional teachers) surely are, then we can also judge when a discussion is going well or not, and whether it is going better or worse than past discussions. So if a little bit of group-work really does improve discussion then I'm all for it. But there is a downside that should not be completely ignored. And I don't think that group-work should be done just because it's the latest thing or because it helps fill up the time we are required to spend in class (as I suspect is sometimes the case).

No doubt a thousand grumpy old men have said much the same thing before. What I hope might be new is the ethical angle. Patronizing and manipulating people should be avoided as much as possible. And there is a great evil in the world that might be called 'management' (or 'bureaucracy' or 'assessment' or whatever you like to call it), replacing freedom, individuality, and spontaneity with various systems of control. There is, it seems to me, a real danger that classroom management might be part of this problem.        

Friday, October 17, 2014

The concept of prayer

In case you don't always read everything at Jon Cogburn's blog I thought I'd draw your attention to the comments on this post. Thomas Carroll makes good points, in response to some of which Jon mentions Carroll's new book, which looks like essential reading. In the introduction Carroll writes:
The approach to reading Wittgenstein on religion advanced in this book is a variation on the ethical-therapeutic interpretations developed by Stanley Cavell, James Conant, Cora Diamond and Stephen Mulhall. 
Sounds good to me.