How to make your gay students uncomfortable

Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, is quoted as giving the following awkward if well-intentioned defence of free speech on campus:

I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. (… ) And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable. If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

In later qualification, Professor Richardson explained that she wasn’t talking about ‘many’ conversations here at Oxford.  I believe that.   I also believe Professor Richardson knows her legal obligations under the UK Equality Act to ensure the university is a comfortable place for its LGBT communities to do what we are all here to do: to teach, to research and to learn.  In any case, most of what needs to be said to remind her of that obligation, as well as her obligation to defend academic integrity from incompetence and quackery, has already been said.

Except, I think, for two points.

First, how does it come to be that any university teacher is expressing ‘views against homosexuality’ in a class?  I’m baffled. Maybe it was a seminar on human sexuality, moral philosophy, or human rights law.  But what if it was on quantum mechanics, modal logic, or numerical analysis? Maybe a university policy on sex discrimination or free speech was under discussion.  But what if it was merely that the rainbow flag was flying, and that gave the professor a homosexual panic attack? These distinctions matter.

I expect my gay law students to be willing as anyone to test the view that sexual orientation should be a prohibited ground of discrimination, or to be able to assess arguments about same-sex marriage. I do not expect them to have to put up with the casual homophobia of everyday life, with irrelevant or biased comments or examples, or with the stench created by some professor’s religious incontinence.

Second, where debate about homosexuality is relevant, it does not fall only on students to tackle false, ill-informed, or unsympathetic views on the part of teachers. And it certainly does not fall mainly on gay students to do so. It falls on all of us, starting with the Vice-Chancellor.

In my own fields, there are only two or three faculty whose homophobia intrudes in their work. Their disapproval of homosexuality is usually gracious, emollient, and even, in its twisted way, ‘reasoned’. I am less troubled by them than I am by pusillanimous  colleagues, tenured liberal faculty who regard such views as outrageous or pathetic, but who never dare put pen to paper, or even a hand in the air, to join in the argument and, in that properly academic way, help make their gay students more comfortable.

As Professor Richardson says, ‘If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them’.  But she should also have said, to her colleagues as well as to her students, ‘and this means you.’

Donald Trump, Laura Kipnis, and the Intolerable

No one I know who voted for Donald Trump has told me that he (or, conceivably, she) did so.   But then I hang out in the wrong circles: lawyers, academics, immigrants, gay people, and adults who are able to read and write. Still, I am sure there must be some. I suspect several of my rich American friends, most of the constitutional ‘originalists’ I know, and far too many ‘Christians’.

None of these actually approves of Trump, his values, or his conduct. On the contrary, they held their noses when voting, because they thought the alternatives worse, and because they thought Trumpism would secure the things they do approve: the wealth and power of the rich, a Supreme Court free of liberal-minded people, and a country in which women and LGBT minorities know their place.   That is to say, the sort of people I know who voted for Trump did so, not because they approved of him, but because they were willing to tolerate him.

Now, that does not eliminate, or much mitigate, their moral responsibility in helping support one of the most unjust, corrupt, and vile regimes of any aspirantly democratic society.   They share in the blame for its increasing corruption, not because of what they favour, but because of what they are willing to tolerate in the name of what they favour. They tolerate the intolerable—and mostly they still tolerate it—and that is wrong.

Which brings me to Laura Kipnis, and her illuminating, powerful, and controversial polemic, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.   Daring to question some complaints against a Northwestern professor hounded out of his academic post as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct—and, more important, daring to question the fairness of some universities’ procedures created to address sex discrimination—Kipnis  now finds herself exposed to a variety of complaints and lawsuits, essentially for supporting, or at least tolerating, the intolerable.

There are reasons to doubt that these claims will succeed.   But even if they fail, many will urge that this is because free speech, academic freedom, and procedural fairness are, in the US, treated with more affection than is gender equality. The more we insist on procedural fairness—a presumption of innocence, a right to confront one’s accusers, and to test their evidence—the easier life will be for harassers and rapists, and the harder for victims.

That is true, and because (alleged?) harassers and rapists attract little sympathy, it is a truth that dominates discussion about sexual predators on campus. After all, whose side are we on?

It is a good question. But a good answer to it should mention, not only the interests of the (alleged) victims and the accused, but also a group that no one ever mentions: the bystanders.

A graduate student whose instructor or supervisor is suspected of sexual misconduct will attract  suspicions.   Even when, and especially when, she is not a complainant, it may be assumed that this is because she is compliant. Or, if not compliant, then at least tolerant of a supervisor who is a harasser. Now, graduate students don’t have a lot of power, but most of them have enough power to ditch a supervisor who behaves in such ways. They do not need to show that he assaulted them. It is enough not to want to work with someone who assaults other students.   One willing to work with such a person when she could change that can fairly be assumed to tolerate his conduct. And, like voting for Trump, this is to tolerate the intolerable. (‘I know he is a sexist—racist, homophobe, adulterer, liar….—but he really is the world’s expert on the Roman Law of Dogs, so it is fine for me to keep working with him.’)

And this takes us back to procedure. A false accusation of harassment, racism, homophobia, infidelity… damages, not only the accused, but those who, in virtue of their own decisions, can  be supposed to tolerate the accused’s behaviour.   So fair and accurate procedures are important, not only for the sake of those who may be wrongly accused, but also for the sake of innocent bystanders, who may be wrongly accused of tolerating the intolerable.  It is time for them, and not just the wrongly accused, to speak up in favour of fair procedures.  They too have an interest at stake.







I apologize for any offense #MakesMeSick


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In 2012, English footballer Andre Gray tweeted Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #Makesmesick”.’

Following Gray’s winning goal against Liverpool yesterday, the striker ran for cover as his vile spew was discovered and re-tweeted. Gray said , ‘I want to offer a sincere and unreserved apology to anybody I may have offended in relation to these tweets. His statement went on to assert that he is ‘a completely different person’ now, and that any suggestion that gay people should die or burn was amongst his ‘big mistakes’: he is ‘absolutely not homophobic.’

Gray’s club and fans rallied to his support. In a brief statement Burnley FC minimized the remarks as ‘historical social media posts’ and, while condoning Gray’s ‘apology’, said the club ‘”do[es] not condone any discriminatory behaviour by any employee’. The cowardly evasion did not even appear on the club’s own homepage. And why should it? Gray apologized; he is a whole new person; he is not homophobic.

But none of this is credible, and the stinking words cling like a shitty diaper to Gray, to Burnley, and to the whole Premier League.

First, the ‘apology’ was obviously not written by Gray. The lawyerly tropes, ‘sincere and unreserved and in relation to these tweets’ are not items in any linguistic register in which Gray speaks. The statement is a shallow and phoney lawyer’s production.

Second, suggesting that gay people should burn (or be burned?), die (or be put to death?) is not something that ‘may have offended’ people. To imply that mere offense is at issue here regurgitates the hatred. Admittedly, Gray’s words are not what English law regards as incitement to murder, but they fall squarely within what is, in many jurisdictions, criminal hate speech.  And even where the law tolerates such filth, sane people can see it for what is: a symptom of a dangerously disordered outlook.

Third, there was no psychological rift between 2012 and 2016 that could warrant Gray disowning his words as those of ‘a completely different person’, and no moral rift that could warrant Burnley dismissing them as a ‘historical’ evil. Gray is the person now that he was four years ago, and in 2012 anyone who was not a monster would know that gay people do not deserve to burn or die. Moreover, Gray’s views about sex and gender still remain on flamboyantly ignorant display in April 2015, as we see in his pathetic comment about Joseline Hernandez’ pregnancy:

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Fourth, Gray’s assertion that he ‘can only apologise and ask forgiveness’ is absurd. The club is paying him £6 million for three years’ work. If Gray were to return, say, 1/36th of that in compensation for his wrongful conduct, it would only be £167,000. Four weeks of service to those he said should burn or die. So it isn’t true that he can only apologize: he could do more if only he wanted to. Who to compensate? One appropriate recipient would be Sport Allies, who work to eradicate homophobia in UK sport.

Should we, as some suggest, think that Gray’s early life—in poverty, gang-culture, and racism—mitigates his wrongdoing, that it frees him of the responsibilities of any other human being?   No. In this case, the experience of oppression is not a mitigating factor but an aggravating one. Gray of all players should be able to identify the wrong he has done. He is well-placed to know just what it is like to be always at the sharp end of the stick. He would understand the menace in this:

“Is it me or are there blacks everywhere? #Burn #Die #MakeMeSick”.

Gray would never accept a mere apology for ‘any offense’ caused by those words. Neither should we accept his apology–and  neither should Burnley or the Premier League.


Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

Germaine Greer does not think new clothes, new hormones, or sex-reassignment surgery can turn men into women (or, I assume, women into men).   She is right about that, and a Cardiff University controversy about her planned lecture this month is a tsunami in a teaspoon.

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

Obviously, the fact that something is true need not stop people taking offense at it. But there is actually no evidence of widespread offense at Greer’s remarks. I called the controversy a ‘tsunami in a teaspoon’ because, contrary to what you might suppose from the press, the students were mostly untroubled by Greer’s comments. Not one in a hundred even felt moved to click on an anti-Greer petition. No serious opposition was mounted; no policy of exclusion was formulated. There was no ‘hecklers’ veto’; in fact, there was a pretty effective hecklers’ veto veto.

So this is all rather puzzling. Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone.  Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.   And what safer, softer, target than an imaginary recrudescence of virulent PC-ism in our student unions?

The real reason there are so few women judges

British lawyers and the British public are angry with Lord Sumption’s urging to go slow on sex equality to avoid the ‘appalling’ consequences to our legal system that could come from striving to get more women on the bench.

How out of touch can a Supreme Court judge get? (That is not a trick question.) Many people are appalled by the things Sumption explicitly says. I am as troubled by what he implies and—especially—by what he presupposes.

Sumption says that: the reason there are so few women judges in the UK is that female lawyers make a ‘life style choice’ to avoid the kind of work that would make them eligible to become judges; that the English Bar that provides such work is ‘a very meritocratic institution’; and that fifty years would be a short time to wait for sex equality on the bench.  The first two claims are false or misleading; the third is repugnant.

Sumption implies that: there is not now a large enough number (NB: not percentage) of women making that ‘life style choice’ for things to improve any sooner, and that there is serious suggestion of a remedy that could lead to ’85 percent’ of appointments going to women.  I’m sure those claims are  implied and not asserted because to assert them would call attention to their absurdity.

Sumption presupposes that: judicial office is something that should only come ‘at the end of a successful career at the Bar’. One should do it as a kind of personal sacrifice, out of loyalty to ‘a long cultural tradition which is genuinely based on public service’.

Never mind that, in Britain as elsewhere, desire for a judical appointment is as often based on personal or political ambition as on noblesse oblige.  More important is this:

Why presuppose such things about a judicial career? Shouldn’t judging be a job whose pay and conditions enable people to do it without having already banked a fortune as a successful lawyer? Why presuppose that a certain kind of practice is a desirable, let alone necessary, qualification for appointment to the senior judiciary? Sumption himself says that this kind of practice involves ‘frankly appalling’ working conditions. So why presuppose that a high-stress, narrowly focused, socially prestigious, financially lucrative career–often in London–is an ideal qualification for being a judge?

When we think of the appeals courts in particular, and the sort of decisions needed there—decisions about delicate questions of law that could reasonably go either way, decisions that require a sense of judgment and justice,  decisions that profit from broad knowledge of our society and from ordinary human empathy—these are not things for which high-pressure, high-salary, super-lawyers have any special qualifications. Perhaps the contrary.

Brilliant judges—including brilliant women judges—could easily be found amongst in-house counsel, lawyers who went into business, lawyers in public service or in small firms, perhaps even amongst law teachers in universities.

The presumption that the tiny circle of our elite Bar is the best or natural training ground for judges is one of the things that entrenches the sexism of our courts. The main problem is actually not the attrition of women from the careers that Sumption thinks make for good judges; it is presuppostion that those careers make for good judges.

Occupy (the right aspect of) the syllabus!

Brian Leiter comments on the mindless identity politics among the Berkeley undergrads who demanded that a course on ‘classics of social theory’ (Plato to Foucault) should mirror the social justice interests of the privileged college students who chose it:

We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula.”

They ask,

‘Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? … Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?’

First, as Leiter notes, there is the humiliating fact that these students seem unaware that Foucault was gay.  Not to mention the interesting case of Plato.  And all those confirmed bachelors among the tyrants.  Yet the students turn lavender contemplating their own firm belief that there are no ‘LGBTQ*’ authors on the curriculum.

They have a better complaint about sexism.  It is troubling that Foucault makes the syllabus while none of Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir or Arendt do.  Choices always need to be made, but to omit all of these is a poor one.  And I also share the view that ‘classics’ of social theory might include something from the Asian philosophers.

But a question: I take it that these students, or nearly all of them, want Asian philosophers translated into English, the lingua franca of the white male corporate plutocracy that runs their state and nation? (California is the home of the US “English Only” movement.)

As far as I can see, that is how they were served their Plato and Aristotle, their Marx and Weber–and their Foucault.  Or are Sanskrit, Pali and classical Chinese now more widely read among Cal undergrads than are Greek, German or French? Somehow I doubt it.

I have a feeling that the linguistic mono-culture of most American students is utterly invisible to them. That is how hegemonic blinders work.  White students don’t see their own race; American students don’t see their own language. They want their identities to be reflected in their syllabus.  But in one of the ways  most salient to the humanities and social sciences, they already are–and not to good effect.  Of course, ‘unilingual Anglophone’ is, for most American students, not a social ‘identity’ they are aware of, let alone one they care to reflect on and, perhaps, transcend.  (Ditto, of course, for social class.)

It seems to me that a college education that leaves students–especially in the humanities– linguistically crippled is an ‘epistemically poor education’ if anything is.  (I know: ‘What ableism!!)

It gets worse.

The students’ complaint is introduced, without comment, with this backgrounder:

“This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings.

At first, I thought OK that is a pretty good reason to ‘occupy a syllabus’.  Many American college students are racking up huge debts, and for what?  A ‘classics of social theory’ course in which the instructors’ main tool of assessment is multiple-choice quizzes? (‘Hobbes is the foundation for unbridled capitalism: (a) Yes; (b) No; (c) I couldn’t get the reading.’)

It is easy to poke fun at the narcissistic self-involvement of privileged students who think everything should be a branch of “me studies“.  In truth, thinking about one’s own identity can be a first step in thinking about others’ identities–and then  a further step up the ladder to thinking about social identity as such.  But not if you think the problem is just the poverty of the reading list, as opposed to one’s own  impoverished ability to read beyond it.