The Kipnis Case

I have been suggesting (here and here) that the reason to have non-Western authors in the curriculum is not to satisfy identity politics, but precisely so that non-whites can gain reflective distance from their background. In order to reflect on the assumptions of one’s background, one has to engage with those assumptions. Eurocentrism is thus an obstacle to many non-whites gaining philosophical reflection.

Consider the analogous case of feminism. The reason to have women authors isn’t just so that women are pacified. Given the generally patriarchal structures of society, for many women (perhaps not all) as they come to philosophical self-consciousness, their being women – that they are different in that way from the famous male philosophers – is central to their initial perspective on philosophical questions. This is neither right nor wrong; it is a matter of psychology. The way for someone who is conscious of the male dominated structures to do philosophy would be for her to start by reflecting on the situation of women in philosophy. That is her starting point into philosophy, a starting point which might be very exciting to her as philosophy. As illuminating not only her condition as a woman, but our shared condition as human beings.

As with racism, it is helpful to distinguish between standard sexism and philosophical sexism. Standard sexism consists of things like sexual harassment, rape, putting women down, etc. By categorizing this as “standard” I don’t mean to downplay the harm caused by this form of sexism. I use “standard” to capture the fact that it is a form of sexism that we are most familiar with.

Philosophical sexism is the view that academic philosophy has, for the most part, managed to transcend the category of gender, and that the predominance of male authors is incidental and not philosophically important. A philosophical sexist can be a strong opponent of standard sexism and a proponent for women being equally represented in the profession. But the philosophical sexist assumes that this can happen without significant changes to how philosophy is currently done or what topics are covered, since she assumes that how philosophy is mainly done now is already appropriately universal.

Right now our society is in a transformative phase where women are coming into, or have come into, positions of power unavailable to them in the past. This is heightening their awareness of the male dominated structures in society which remain from the past. So there is a great need for them to think through this disparity: that even as they ascend the structures, in some ways they might be reenforcing the traditional anti-feminist structures. Women who feel aware of this tension might sense a great deal of sexism all around them, like they have to fight their way through a cloud and into sunshine.

If philosophical feminism is not a standard, foundational part of philosophy education, then the only available option for the majority of women trying to make sense of the sexism around them will be in terms applicable to ordinary sexism. Activism is the appropriate response to ordinary sexism. And if the only articulation of feminism available to women is standing against ordinary sexism, then the only mode of standing up against sexism available to them will be activism.

Activism functions by saying that somethings are no longer up for debate; that what is needed is institutional change. So if philosophical feminism is not a greater part of the curriculum, the only recourse left to women trying to stand up against the male-dominated structures will be to adopt activism as the way of dealing with their situation. This is unfortunate because it covers over the distinction which is essential to keep in mind: that between ordinary and philosophical sexism.

This is evident in the Kipnis case. Was Kipnis’ first article a form of retaliation against one of the women in the Ludlow case? There is no easy answer to this question.

Ludlow is accused of an instance of standard sexism: a very serious issue concerning rape. Kipnis is primarily concerned with what she sees as mob rule in academia: the idea that students are being “infantilized” by letting them protest whenever they feel wronged, as if feeling wronged is a reason to protest and not a reason to debate whether the feeling of being wronged is justified. 

Kipnis’ essay is not an instance of standard sexism. It is an instance of philosophical sexism: her general defense of the status quo structures, and the sense that students ought to be “toughened” by the existing procedures, suggests that she thinks that academia, once rid of ordinary sexism, would be pretty much fine.

It’s not easy to say whether Kipnis’ first article is a form of retaliation, because it is not easy to say what the relation is between ordinary and philosophical sexism. By saying the issue is unclear I am not defending Kipnis. I am suggesting that we don’t have the categories in place to know how to evaluate Kipnis’ first article in relation to the Ludlow case. These are uncharted territories, new situations. This is prime material for philosophical reflection, not for settled conclusions.

The educational and professional opportunities available to women is raising their consciousness, and so many of them are feeling hemmed in or constrained by the status quo structures, which are remnants of the past. One feature of the status quo structures is that feminist intellectual thought – a deep engagement with philosophical sexism – is marginalized in it. So even as women feel constrained by the structures, they don’t have the resources to understand and reflect on the philosophical groundings of those structures. Therefore women are articulating their dissatisfaction in the only language available to them: protest.

If one is charitable to Kipnis, one can say that this is Kipnis’ main point: that turning every issue having to do with gender into a protest against ordinary sexism is to run roughshod over philosophical debate regarding thorny issues regarding gender. But, then again, Kipnis seems to equate philosophical debate with accepting that the current structures are best suited for such debate, and in this way she embraces philosophical sexism, and the very traditional structures which are constraining many women.

Kipnis seems to identify academic excellence with succeeding in the academic profession: as if women have arrived when they get to have the jobs that men used to have. On this picture, the general structures can stay the same, as long as women and men are equally represented in those structures. The progressive idea of women’s equality here hides the philosophically conservative idea that the structures themselves are perfectly fine. It is like saying capitalism is fine as long as more people than in the past get to be millionaires.

This is what seems to bug Kipnis. She worked hard to get to a secure and good position in academia, and now these know-nothing agitators are threatening the structures. She is not able to control the agitators from within the classroom, so her only recourse is to moralize in editorials, hoping that emphasizing the value of debate and reflection will stem the tide.

But this is a vain hope. As long as Kipnis affirms that the basic structures of academia are fine, and so implicitly affirms philosophical sexism without bringing that assumption itself into debate, she will not be able to address the root cause of the agitator’s concerns. As long as Kipnis identifies debate with accepting philosophical sexism, she is herself pushing students to take on the language of activism as the only recourse. If she wants the students to debate rather than protest, then she has to help change what happens inside the classroom, so that philosophical sexism can itself be debated, and so the classroom can function as an outlet for these issues. Instead, Kipnis seems to say: “Don’t protest. Debate. And for that go to classes and accept them basically as they are, because they are the standards of rationality.”

Ironically, the protestors are themselves affirming the same thing by embracing activism so intently, as if it is the only option. Are you upset by Kipnis’ first article? Then use that anger to challenge the intellectual assumptions of academia, and to think about what it would mean to construct alternative structures. Argue for why Kipnis’ article is flawed. The protestors in their own way are reaffirming philosophical sexism by treating the methods against ordinary sexism as the main methods to use regarding any issues regarding sexism.

Philosophical sexism is the foundation of all forms of sexism, including standard sexism. If someone abuses women, that abuse is the outer manifestation of that person’s being comfortable with status quo structures which are philosophically sexist. And even if one doesn’t abuse women in the form of standard sexism, one can still be philosophically sexist. Activism by itself will not get to the deeper philosophical sexism, because that sexism is not only a matter of sexuality or social norms, but it is a matter of intellectual patterns of thought. It is sexism rooted in the way we think, and the only way to change ideas is to engage with them at the level of ideas.

The ultimate power of academia doesn’t lie with Presidents of universities or even with tenured faculty. It lies with what happens inside classrooms as part of intellectual education. The way to change academia from the inside is to confront the assumptions of academia as they are manifested in the classrooms, and to raise them for debate in the classrooms

Kipnis is upset about students protesting in the streets. But what she is really worried about is what will happen when the students’ bring their concerns inside the classroom. She is trying to cut off that possibility by doubling down on rationality and debate, where those are defined by what happens in traditional class room structures. The last recourse of philosophical sexism is to claim that there is no such thing: that once standard sexism is addressed, everyone can get back to the normal tasks of reason as traditionally understood. Any disagreement requires some shared assumption. And right now the shared assumption between Kipnis and the protestors is to leave the classroom out of it.

Once that assumption is given up, new frontiers for engaging with sexism in all its forms becomes possible. When the protestors discover that, they will embrace reasoning as a mode of creating change. And then Kipnis might look back fondly on the days when reason itself seemed like something uncontested and uncontestable.

The point isn’t that the classroom is a suitable place for debating ongoing standard sexism cases. Certainly it isn’t. For example, what happened between Ludlow and the graduate student is for the appropriate authorities to decide. But beyond standard sexism, there is much more to debate regarding sexism. And as long as the other issues, centering around philosophical sexism, aren’t addressed in the classroom, then the general pent up frustrations of sexism in general will find an outlet in the only way available to them.

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