Welfare Eugenics? George Osborne’s budget shows he wants the human race to die out. Or that he can’t do maths. Or both.

In last week’s budget, George Osborne decreed that in future, benefits payable for children will only be paid for two children per family, and not for the third or any subsequent children.

Apart from what else is wrong with this, such as penalising larger families, putting economic pressure on women to end otherwise wanted pregnancies, and punishing children for having several siblings, he may not realise that the replacement level for a population is not two children per woman, but slightly more than two children. In other words, unless you want the population to shrink, some women have to have three children.

A moment’s thought makes this obvious. Some women will not want to have children; some women can’t have children; some women find they can have only one child; some children will die before they themselves become parents. So, if the upper limit was set at two children per woman, then, little by little, the population would decrease.

Is this what you had in mind, George? I doubt it. Perhaps what you had in mind was a kind of welfare eugenics, whereby the only people who have more than two children are those nice well off people who aren’t forced by today’s poverty wages to claim benefits. If so, why not come out and tell us? It would be handy to  know.

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Demo score: Police, one; EDL and UAF, nil.

There were three demonstrations in Oxford city centre yesterday, on Easter Saturday, April 4th. One by the English Defence League, one by Unite Against Facism, and one by Thames Valley Police, aided by reinforcements from several neighbouring forces.

The police greatly outnumbered the two other demonstrators combined, judging from my own eye witness estimates as well as official reckonings. Neither the EDL or UAF had dogs, vans or horses of course. So the police won in terms of how impressive their show of force was. A loser of course was also free speech, rescued thanks to youtube.

I had actually wanted to hear what the EDL were actually going to say  – being interested in free speech of course, and well aware of how the media, including social media, distorts things, it seemed too good an opportunity to see and hear for myself.

My sister and I first went along to have a look at the UAF group assembled in Bonn Square, then walked up to Oxford railway station to see the EDL gathering there. I spoke briefly to a couple of the EDL women, and they were polite and didn’t seem at all thuggish. Not all the supporters were white either.

We then had a very long detour to try to get into position to hear what the EDL said at their rally, because the city centre was just blocked by walls of police vans, police dogs, and horses, all in the aid of preventing the two groups of demonstrators from seeing each other, and preventing members of the public from getting anywhere near the EDL either. A very long way round later, we arrived outside the little Tesco Express near the police station and the magistrate’s court. A solicitous police officer asked us if we wanted to leave the area ‘while we still could’, like it was under siege or something, and the manager of Tesco came out to advise some other people that they could go inside the store if they wanted, and warned us that ‘if it gets bad, I’m locking the store.’

‘Don’t worry’, we told the police officer, ‘we feel quite safe, we don’t think the EDL will attack us, two middle aged white ladies, we’ve come here to see what’s going on, and in any case, you can protect us. You’re bigger than we are.’

The area was then completely sealed in. A walls of vans, rows of police, and three constantly barking police dogs had us well and truly trapped. Meanwhile, from a row of police vans adjacent to St Aldate’s police station itself, extremely loud discordant pop music blared intermittently. Is that a tactic?

We’ll be fine, we laughed, ‘If the worst comes to the worst, we can always go into the Alice in Wonderland shop, (which was inside the cordon) and disappear down a rabbit hole,’ I joked. We had a clear view of Tom tower of Christchurch College,  where the previous Sunday, Palm Sunday, I’d heard Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, give a sermon in Christchurch Cathedral in which he compared Jesus’s peaceful arrival into Jerusalem on a donkey with the many battles Mohammed fought. At least anyone could get in the Cathedral and hear him. But practically no members of the public were able to hear the speeches given by the EDL. A strange contrast.

They couldn’t hear them because of the policing. When the marchers arrived, we saw that they were completely and utterly surrounded by police. I myself didn’t see any of the demonstrators behave in any thuggish way. The marchers were stopped a couple of times and eventually came round the corner and gathered in front of the police station, a thick wall of police all around them. (Since when did the police get to be so big? Many of them seemed to be well over six feet tall. They looked like cybermen.) The EDL speeches began. We could kind of hear snatches, but not much really, not enough to be able to tell what they were saying. There were a few other ‘members of the public’ standing around as well, some just trapped there by the policing tactics, perhaps some others like us just wanting to exercise our democratic rights and stand wherever we like on the pavement in our own home city.

After a while we left, getting permission from the police to get through the barriers. We had to cross through two lines of police officers to do so. I guess we didn’t look like EDL supporters or they wouldn’t have let us through. But they never asked. So, EDL supporters, next time if you want to go through a police cordon, just wear a nice smart green wool coat with a nice black velvet collar and cuffs like I did, and you’ll pass for middle class and nobody will ever suspect.

Then as we walked up St Aldates, the UAF group came down towards the police cordon. I can’t imagine that they would have been able to see the EDL, since the line of police vans was blocking their view, and was at least 50 or 100 yards away from the EDL group, which was of course behind its own cordon of police. Some of the EDL had face coverings, and those are the pictures that always get out there, but some of the UAF also had scarves covering their faces. Some of the UAF were running – the EDL of course could not run as they were controlled by the police. There were far fewer police with the UAF group. The EDL carried home-made banners, the UAF had mass produced banners, some saying ‘smash the EDL’, which disappointed me – surely in Oxford, you could argue against the EDL, rather than just ‘smash’ it? Many of them were chanting ‘Nazi scum’. Now, on demonstrations, you don’t usually get much in the way of reasoned debate, but is ‘Nazi scum’ the best the denizens of the city of dreaming spires can do? What did strike me is that, judging only from what I myself saw of what happened on that particular day, the EDL behaved less provocatively than the UAF (although there were three arrests, I did not see them). A striking difference though of course was class – the EDL seemed more working class, the UAF more middle class.

Later I found an EDL speech from the march posted on youtube. This was the speech which our democratic policing prevented anyone in Oxford from actually hearing, apart from the police themselves. Which was perhaps fitting, given that one of the main complaints was how the policing of the Oxford ‘grooming’ gangs had been handled. The very police station they stood outside had been one where a twelve year old girl, bleeding from the groin having been raped, turned up at two in the morning and was sent away for being naughty. The EDL did at that point chant ‘scum’ to the police for acting like that.

Was it really necessary to have so many police that they outnumbered demonstrators and counter-demonstrators put together? Is it really necessary to police such demonstrations so that members of the public can’t even hear what is said? Is this the best our democracy can do? I could not help but wonder how the decisions about policing were made, and whether the police perhaps had a vested interest in portraying a group who were vocally pointing out the failings of the police, as nothing other than mindless thugs from which the public have to be protected, as so dangerous that the whole of Oxford city centre has to be completely disrupted for hours. Which had the side effect of ensuring that few if any members of the public were able to hear the EDL speeches, whilst the police themselves were forced to listen.


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Knowingly becoming a jihadi bride should be a criminal offence

Reports say that the British schoolgirls who have run off to Islamic State territory, presumably to become jihadi brides, would not be charged with any offence in the unlikely event that they ever return to Britain. You’re just the wife, the girlfriend. Mea non culpa. The idea seems to be that merely marrying a terrorist – or willingly becoming their sex slave, perhaps – is no wrong.

Yes it is.

To say that it isn’t is to assume a notion of marriage that simply does not apply in this case. It is to assume a Westernised notion of marriage as a state endorsed symbol of love between two equals. And you can’t help who you love, now, can you? Simply marrying someone is not endorsing their actions, now, is it? (In fact, it gets you out of some sticky situations, legally, as you’re not obligated to testify against your spouse.)

Well, apart from the fact that, armed with an iron will and the help of a few good friends, you jolly well can help who you love (according to me), such a view of what’s going on is radically (pardon the pun) mistaken. Much more pertinent is to recognise that the act of travelling to Islamic State territory in order to become a jihadi bride is specifically intended to add support to Islamic State and its aims. The role of the wife is precisely to be subordinate and to be obedient to the husband. It is specifically to aid and abet the fighters. It is specifically to further the aims of this terrorism, by producing a supply of new members of the Caliphate, who in turn will be expected to fight, if male (and quite possibly from a very young age). For goodness sake, haven’t the people in charge of the laws in this country seen those jihadi recipes going around, such as the one giving instructions to how to make delicious pancakes for your jihadi husband to stoke up his energy for the next round of beheadings and rape? This is not the same as happening to cook a meal for a husband who then, using the energy from this meal, just happens to go and say, rob a bank. It’s not even the same as, say, happening to fall in love with a Nazi solider in occupied France, although there may be certain parallels there. To cook a jihadi pancake is specifically and intentionally providing your husband with food in order to enable him to kill, maim, and destroy. (And by the way, jihadi recipe folk, a stack of pancakes may be great for pudding, but the fact that you are suggesting this as a main course raises in my mind the suspicion that maybe you are short of food or know little about a balanced diet.)

If anyone doubts this, I suggest you read Elizabeth Anscombe’s marvellous book Intention, in which she carefully explains this point. She uses an example of somebody pumping water into a building in order to poison its inhabitants to make the point that an action may be intentional under one description but not under another. It is simply not good enough to say that these jihadi brides are not intentionally aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation: that is the reason they have gone there.

As to the serious worries that young girls are being groomed into becoming jihadi brides, this may well apply in some cases, and the law has a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with such issues, on a case by case basis, under rules of diminished responsibility. Suppose you are a woman living in a situation where there were great pressures on you to be obedient to your husband – that might in some circumstances diminish your responsibility for supporting his bad actions. But this is entirely different from knowingly entering into a marriage with a known terrorist in which you willingly take upon yourself the obligation to obey and support him. So don’t try saying that jihadi brides aren’t terrorists every bit as much as those who actually carry out the deeds.

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Dualist essentialism is alive and well thanks. As a cursory glance at the internet will tell you.

I have been thinking a lot in the last few months about ‘them’. You know, ‘they’, the ones who are behind it all.

Or rather, I have been thinking about the generic use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ in how people think and reason – I might advisedly put ‘reason’ in quotes there.

One aspect of this is the way that ad hominem arguments are used. By this I  mean ways in which in an argument or a discussion, the real point, the aim, so often seems to be focused on the person who is speaking, and not on what exactly they said – or insofar as the focus is on what is said, it’s interpreted through the lens of who the person is. ‘Oh, you don’t believe that, THEY said it,’ or, ‘Do you know what THEY said about topic X?’, or, sometimes, ‘that person can’t be trusted, THEY agree with something that’s also said by THEM.’

A lot of debates in various areas are about trying to wrestle ground, wrestle attention, from those who are seen to be dominant or privileged; to get multiple viewpoints heard. (‘They’ are trying to stop this, usually.) The common assumption is to fight against an essentialist world view which claims an allegedly bogus objectivity; commonly, tired dualisms are also critiqued, such as the binary opposition of male and female, masculine and feminism, mind and body. Commonly, a social constructionist view of some sort is advocated, or some kind of cultural relativism.

And commonly too, debates quickly degenerate into suspicious accusations and a welter of ad hominem arguments.

But ironically what lies behind much of these cat-calling rolling critiques of escalating attacks on personalities is precisely a kind of essentialist dualism. Because what is often going on is an attempt to get behind somebody’s statements, their tweets, their spoken or written word, their actions, behind who their name was next to on a petition or a letter to the editor, to ‘what is really going on in their head’ – not to a piece by piece assessment of the issues, of the arguments, not a careful and detailed look at what they said in the context of a larger whole of argument and the settings of argument – but an idea that by interpreting their latest tweet, or whatever, it is possible to get to what is really going on in their head

and next, the staggeringly simplistic notion that you are a Good guy or a Bad guy. (Oops, mustn’t use a generic ‘guy’, must I, or I’ll be anti-woman. Or, something. Not sure what, but it is probably bad.)

In other words, what lies behind many of the escalating, stupid, vicious, self-righteous rows which clutter up our rapidly exhausted brain waves, is the idea that there is something, some unitary thing, which is what a person is ‘really like’ and that there are two options, Good, and Bad. And Good, usually means, ‘just like me’.

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How to get politicians and the public to accept new biotechnology: a beginners guide.

One. Describe new technology in some inflammatory way, strongly suggesting that it represents an extreme violation of nature or existing moral frameworks or social convention.

Two. Wait a few seconds: this will entice out of the woodwork ‘small c’ conservative moral thinkers, including those who make reference to religious ideas, and those who reference the violation of the natural order.

Three. Debunk and ridicule the most extreme interpretations of these critiques, pointing out that the original inflammatory description of the new biotechnology is ‘just plain ridiculous’.

Four. This will obscure any more trenchant or measured critique of the proposed new biotechnology, throwing up loads of argumentative dust, inciting rage, and rendering detailed, accurate and honest debate otiose.

Five. That’s it.  You can always add vivid stories about the individuals who need the new technology, as this helps to make the critics seem utterly heartless, (even if they are not necessarily completely opposed to it in all its forms anyway). But you don’t need to, because as soon as there is any opposition to the technology from ‘the church’ or similar, or any suggestion that it violates nature, you have won, regardless.

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Child rape and prostitution gangs in the UK – crimes against humanity?

It is time to consider if the staggeringly widespread rape abuse and prostitution of underage girls and young women, by gangs operating seemingly with impunity across wide areas of the UK, constitute crimes against humanity.

A crime against humanity is a widespread, systematic attack on a civilian population, representing an especially odious crime, perpetrated by a government, a de facto authority, or condoned or tolerated by a government or de facto authority. They constitute a serious attack on human dignity, or grave humiliation or a degradation of human beings.

The abuse by rape gangs in various UK towns is now known to be almost unbelievably common – an estimated 2000 cases in Rotherham alone, which if extrapolated over the rest of the country, would make for hundreds of thousands of cases. Moreover, if you take only a second to think about it, the horrors visited on these girls and young women will also be deeply felt by their whole communities. Parents frantic with grief and despair. Siblings terrified it might happen to them. Decent young men finding that so many of the young women in their community are battle-scarred from sexual abuse. Children growing up to realise that they were conceived in rape. Whilst not wishing at all to detract from the unimaginable suffering of the direct victims, when abuse is as ubiquitous as this, the whole community is deeply deeply damaged. Moreover, who will provide the support to those in such dire need – with health needs, psychological needs, devastated education and employment prospects?

Then add to this the refusal of so many in authority to do anything about this. The times girls and frantic parents called on the police and other authorities only to be brushed aside. The knowledge of those in positions of power in local authorities who turned a blind eye. Add to this the refusal by many to take a long hard look at what was going on, those terrified to even contemplate that perhaps the cultural and religious background of many of the perpetrators might be a factor. Add to this various truly unbelievable events such as the closure by Rotherham council of an effective service that was helping victims, Risky Business.

Then I’d say there’s a pretty good argument for taking seriously the thought that these may truly represent crimes against humanity.

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The more prominent men are, the more prominent men are, and I’ve done the maths to prove it

Some graduate students in philosophy at University College London told me this week that Philosophy Bites had just put out a podcast compiling philosophers’ nominations, from previous Philosophy Bites podcasts, of who they thought was the most impressive philosopher they had met. There were load grumblings from these students about how there were hardly any women put forward. So I listened to the podcast, typing fingers at the ready, making a list of who was interviewed, and whom they put forward.

There were 47 people asked, of whom 9 were women, making 19% women.

Some people cheated and put forward more than one name of the ‘most impressive philosopher’ they had met, making 71 names in all. There were quite a few overlaps. But counting the number of times a male name was nominated, there were 66 times; female, 5 times. That makes 7% female nominations. In case anyone squabbles with this way of doing the maths, there were 39 separate individuals nominated, of whom 4 were women. That makes about 10%.

To recap: 19% of those interviewed were women; 7% of ‘impressive’ names put forward by total count were women; 10% of ‘impressive’ individuals put forward were women. So, comparing percentage of women interviewed to percentage of women nominated, by the ‘total count’ method, the women disappear at a rate of about 64%; by the ‘separate individuals count’ method, they still disappear by almost 50%.

It’s even more interesting when you look at how men and women nominate. Of the 9 women asked, they nominated 11 individuals in total, of whom 3 were women, which is 27.27%; 3 women nominated one woman, which is 33.3%.

Yet of the 38 men, 60 nominations were made in total, of which 2 were women, which is a pathetically low 3.3%; 2 of the 38 men suggested a woman, which is still only a measly 5.26%.

The women were 6.3 times more likely than the men to put forward at least one female name.

The women were 8.26 times more likely than the men to suggest a female name.

Oh dearie me. Men. What were you thinking of.

So, this might be one illustration of how successive filtering means that certain groups tend to get to the top and tend to get more and more exposure, and certain groups tend not to get to the top and tend to get less and less exposure. You have to be pretty successful to get to do a Philosophy Bites podcast in the first place, and a paltry 19% of women interviewees is nothing to boast to any equal opps committee about. Then, ask a question about who is even more successful than the list of average Philosophy Bites interviewees, and those people who are already pretty selective, will select down further still – it’s staggering how much less likely a man was to say he was impressed by a woman (5.26%) than a woman was to say she was impressed by a man (7 out of 9, or about 78%). Come on guys!

To be fair, perhaps it’s partly the question. I mean, is it a good idea to ask who ‘the’ most impressive philosopher you’ve ever met is? Is there one way of being impressed with someone, even as a philosopher, let alone as a teacher, a writer, a person? I am not at all sure that tunnelling our admiration of other people into narrow assessment of those who are already, by and large, fully in the academic limelight, can do any good and look, I’ve done some stats to suggest that it might even do a tincy wincy bit of harm, by further entrenching the relative invisibility of female philosophers.

So, to address the balance, and in thanks to the two female philosophers who taught me, I will now rave about each of them.

Jennifer Hornsby, what a gift to have arrived at Corpus Christi College to do the BPhil and to find you there. I had come as a very nervous and very shy young woman from an undergraduate degree at Keele, where I had had some truly excellent teachers, some of whom were however jolly scary. I was always somewhat scared of your intellect, but never of you. You were always such a lovely human being. You gave my work such careful attention. You really made me think in class, really stretched me, and I tried as hard as I could to be as good as you were. You were an inspiration.

Rosalind Hursthouse, you took me on for a term for my DPhil when David Pears was overseas, and how much I thoroughly and immensely enjoyed philosophy with you. What wild luck to get on the bus out to your house and to sit and drink tea all afternoon out of a giant thermos flask with you. We had such fun. You introduced me to new texts, you laughed, you made jokes, and most of all, did all this with such consummate openness and generosity of intellect and spirit it made me feel for all the world as if I might be able to join in philosophy and to do it, just the same as you. You made me feel like an intellectual partner. Thank you, thank you.

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Nobody banned anything, folks, stop panicking

20th January: Oh dear, it’s one of those days where yet again people are seemingly worrying that we are going to run out of pictures of naked women. All the ones on the internet must be getting used up or wearing thin or something, judging by the bile and panic regarding the Sun Newspaper’s editorial decision no longer to show women with naked breasts on Page 3. ‘Please, please, please, save these endangered mammary glands!’ comes the frantic cry. A load of flat-chested, pig-ugly, ill-tempered jealous feminist types with no notion whatsoever of fundamental tenets of liberal society have just prevented other women from taking their clothes off and prevented a whole load of fun-loving men from looking at breasts.

Panic not. Nobody banned anything.

Yes, there was a campaign run by people who didn’t like Page 3. But if you noticed, there were others who argued back. Yes, the Sun is not going to put boobs on Page 3 anymore. But was this by some forced decree? No. Was there a law passed banning this? No. Did the anti-Page 3 campaigners post a sinister video on Youtube of Rupert Murdoch, clad in an orange jump-suit, pleading for his safe release if only Page 3 were abolished? No, or at least, not to my knowledge – I presume that if one had been posted, it would have had plenty of publicity by now.

In fact what appeared to happen is that some people said quite clearly they did not like Page 3, and gave some reasons. Other people said they did, and gave some reasons. So far, so good, in a democracy – remember that?

The next thing that happened is that a newspaper, owned by a vast corporation headed by Rupert Murdoch, came to its own decision at an editorial meeting.

Er … that’s it.

UPDATE 22 Jan 2015:    See. Told you. Still, somehow, some people on twitter are crowing that feminists were ‘wrong’ to have ‘forced’ a ban, when it’s demonstrably not the case that there was indeed a ban, or that anyone was ‘forced’ to do anything.

So, how it goes is this:

1. Feminists wrongly accused of forcing a ban on something.

2. People discover that nothing was banned, nothing was forced.

3. Feminists still wrong for ‘forcing’ a ‘ban’.

Er … that’s it, again.

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Gun toting amateur militia types, your attention please

I  noticed that some people are putting out the inevitable messages on social media claiming that ‘if only’ somebody out there in the street had a gun, they could have dealt with the Lindt cafe gun man by now, and some are harking back to the Port Arthur massacre  as a parallel and saying that ‘if only’ some ‘good brave man’ had had a gun, Martin Bryant would have been taken down earlier.

Well, being the countryside and all that, there were people around with guns. After I’d fled into the shop at the local garage, they said that the bloke there had thought about getting his gun out. The people inside had seen Bryant, a man with long blond hair, shoot a woman, take her companion hostage in the boot of his car, then drive off. A little later, they then saw a man drive up again. This man had long blond hair. Thinking that Bryant was returning, the bloke thought about getting out his gun, until noticing that there was a woman in the front seat of the car, and deciding of course it would be too dangerous.

But even if he’d been a crack shot – as gun toting militia types always seem to think exist aplenty – he’d have got the wrong man. For the long blond haired  man driving the car was my ex-husband, and the woman in the front seat was me. And, unseen by anybody, in the back seat, was our small child. You may tconsider that on the world stage, a few individuals here and there may be of minor importance, but still, that’s one reason why guns are best in the hands of those who are highly trained. It is not a good strategy to try to defeat lone nuts with guns by employing other loners with guns randomly scattered among the populace.

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Glad tidings of great joy (and goodwill for masturbators)

It’s advent. The season of excitedly preparing for the Christmas festivities. The season of good will to all men. I’ve been reasonably efficient this year, and went to our local sub-post office to buy my stamps for my North American and Australian cards. It was almost closing time, so there was a longer queue than I’d ever seen there. Normally, I queue crammed between an aisle of washing powder and general household goods such as plastic bowls. But today, at the back of the queue, I was in a gap at the end of the aisle so that I realised I had a full view of the newspaper aisle. Because the aisles are quite  narrow, I don’t usually stand back enough to be able to take a good look at the top shelf. But I could today.

No FHM style magazines here, but what struck me as pretty rampant pornography. Women in bondage gear, women with their legs spread wide and a (strangely small)  yellow star covering what must either be the world’s tiniest female genitalia or a photoshopped nod to a modicum of modesty. Plus, badly hand written cardboard signs promising that there was yet more porn and DVDs available behind the counter.

So, why not put it all behind the counter? An elderly lady gave me the answer: because I needed to ‘get a bit more modern’ and ‘come up to date a bit’. ‘You may as well say that you won’t step outside your front door, this is all over the place’, she haughtily told me (whilst refusing actually to take a look at what was there in this particular shop: this particular sort of stuff is not ‘all over the place’ – and there’s none at all in the Co-op two doors down).

So, the question I have is this. Why does the freedom of some people to masturbate over photoshopped pictures of the mostly impoverished 18 year olds who’ve been lured or tricked into the pornography industry trump my freedom not to see this stuff when all I want to do is sent glad tidings of great joy or other appropriately neutral good wishes to my friends and relatives? Is the internet running out of its porn supply such that this is their only option? Are these porn consumers too shy to ask to take a look at the stuff behind the counter? Ah, bless!

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Twitter and the death of reason

Twitter can be quite useful for providing links to news items, reports, and so on. It can also be quite fun for quips, jokes, and off the cuff remarks. It is also useful for stating the obvious, which sometimes needs to be done. But it is not much use for anything else. In particular, it’s pretty rubbish for advancing complex arguments. Because complex arguments are, well, complex.

Now, a tweet might contribute to a complex argument, if only there was a general cultural recognition that arguments about most things that matter and which are controversial actually are complex. But strangely, this recognition seems to be lacking. I am so perturbed by this that in the small hours I sometimes even catch myself wondering if there is something in the water that is turning people stupid, producing a particular kind of stupidity that stops people from seeing that most arguments are complex edifices of reason and evidence, which need to be carefully crafted and pieced together in a certain way, rather than consisting of one-off shots fired, often with considerable venom, at a perceived ‘enemy’. But seriously to hold that there is actually something in the water which is  turning our brains soft like this, would be to advance a conspiracy theory for which I have no evidence, and heaven knows, I don’t want to do that. (Oops, better not use the turn of phrase ‘heaven knows’, or someone reading this will imagine I’m a religious nut, – possibly making a myriad unfounded assumptions about what kind of religious nut along the way – and fire venom at me for that {see below}.)

No, there probably isn’t something in the water turning people stupid (I brace myself for those who will call me ‘naïve’ for denying that ‘they’ are doing precisely this). But there are a number of things which are encouraging the kind of thinking about complex topics which leads people to act as if they imagine they can argue as if they were playing a game of Jenga by removing 50 pieces all in one go and expecting the one remaining piece to hang there in the air totally unsupported. Because that’s how many people use twitter. Now, as I’ve said, if people generally realise that one tweet, one thought, one reason, one piece of Jenga, is not intended to be seen in isolation, that would be okay. But the more we use quick-fire media such as twitter, the more we are in danger of turning ourselves into bird-brains.

Twitter, and other such avenues, can help encourage the intellectual vice of isolating complex arguments into tiny, useless fragments. It can also help encourage another intellectual vice – what’s known in the logic textbooks as ‘ad hominem arguments’. A tweet, one thought usually, comes from an account belonging to a person (well, very often, a person disguised under some daft pseudonym) or a specific organisation. So, aided and abetted by the (ludicrous) notion that an argument consists in slanging one idea at a time against another lone idea, these ideas are then hurled at a specific account, a specific person. And to defeat a person in this one-thought-at-a-time intellectual game, you can do it via hurling an actual thought – or, because it’s a person, you can also defeat them by hurling an insult or attacking some other feature of that person. Both work, because in the end, it’s the person you are attacking, not an actual edifice of reason and evidence.

And because complexity of argument is being eroded, this in turn also makes ad hominem arguments easier to pass off. Simply find something that that person has said, done, is affiliated with, (or, very often, focus on what that person looks like, especially if she is female), dredge that up, attack them for it, and, hey presto, you can magically attack every single thing they ever tweet.

It works for broad groups as well. Somebody sends a tweet wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’? Simply provide a link to an article somewhere on the internet which argues that because Anders Behring Breivik described himself as a cultural Christian (whatever that is), he perpetrated terrorism in the name of Christianity, or that Timothy McVeigh only actually renounced Catholicism so it looks like maybe he was a Christian too, (and what’s more, those who say he isn’t Christian are just extremists anyway so their views can be dismissed), and you can denounce everything that that wretched ‘Merry Christmas’ tweeter supporter of ‘Christian terrorism’ ever says.

Of course, this is only a short blog, so I hasten to add that these remarks only scratch the surface of the moronic level of discussion and the slanging matches that take place online. I’m going to make some porridge now. Which says nothing at all, please note, about whether or not I am a supporter of Scottish Independence.

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Some tests for faith schools

Should there be any faith schools in the UK? One straightforward view is that the answer to this question is ‘no’, that religion has no place in education, and certainly no place in an education which is condoned by or even supported by the state. But there is at least a pragmatic response to this answer, which is that we already have a large number of religiously based schools; for example, a large proportion of primary schools in the UK are Church of England schools. So getting rid of all religiously based schools would be a major move.

What if a test was applied to see if such a move might be necessary? So, let’s start by considering why might there be objections to the state condoning or supporting religiously based schools. The very basis of the state supporting a range of schools from different religions, as well of course many entirely secular schools, is tolerance for ideas of religious freedom, freedom of thought and of conscience, within an open and democratic society.

The first basic thing then to consider would be whether a religious school taught its pupils in ways which were inconsistent with these very ideals, hence undermining a premise upon which the existence of such schools depends. If religious doctrine as taught in the school did not allow adherents of its religion freedom of conscience, including complete freedom to leave the religion, that would therefore be inconsistent with the widely held ideals which allow different religious expressions.

More broadly, if a school did not teach its pupils the ability to reason and to think critically, this also undermines the very basis of our democratic ideals. This is a strong ideal – the teaching of critical thinking is arguably in a pretty parlous state – but at the very least, a school should recognise basic tenets of reason, logic, scientific method, empirical inquiry and intellectual curiosity in various disciplines more broadly.

If religious doctrine is incompatible with basic respect for the rule of law, then likewise, there is no earthly reason why the state should support any schools based on that religion. Of course, since we live in a democracy, it is perfectly right and proper for a school to encourage pupils to think about what changes to the law might be needed or desirable, and to equip them with the means to consider such questions in an informed manner, as well as to consider the very basis of government and citizenship. Furthermore, religions will often require of their adherents behaviour which goes beyond that required by law or the general mores of society; a religion may think of religious commands as ‘higher’ than earthly law; but this is not the same as considering that religious commands are incompatible with a state’s laws, except perhaps on occasion or in extremis as in vicious dictatorships or fascist regimes. However, a school has no business in undermining respect for the rule of law per se, and certainly not if it expects support from the state. So, any religion which teaches its followers that they should have no respect for the law of the land, or should obey an incompatible set of laws, therefore, and quite obviously, deserves no support from the very state which they are thereby actively undermining.

At the very basis of our laws is a fundamental ideal of equality; that people are all to be treated in an impartial and fair manner; laws concerning discrimination recognise this explicitly, and the whole basis of human rights legislation rests upon a notion of the equality of persons. Now, naturally, there are different views on how exactly this equality should be realised in practice, just as there are different views about how exactly human rights should be understood. But given that some basic understanding of equal respect is critical to our whole democracy and legal system, and furthermore, is used in any justification for the very existence of religious schools, any religiously based school which did not recognise such basic equality undermines any case for its state support and toleration. Now, again, there is a line to be drawn between expressing views and implementing policy. (For example, someone who privately considered that mothers of young children ought to be at home looking after them might nonetheless scrupulously stick to legislation and policy concerning maternity leave and discrimination against women.) But a school which, based upon religious doctrine, did not treat all its pupils equally should not receive state endorsement. Harder to navigate are questions of what a religious school might teach about the status of others. Suppose a religion discriminated against those who are not adherents? Well, this would be a large problem if any non-adherents attend this school, and any such discrimination should not be tolerated. But what about those beyond the school walls? As I consider this question, I can feel in myself a visceral reaction against any doctrine or dogma which does not consider all of humanity to be in some fundamentally important way to be of equal value. A religion may warn that there are consequences for certain behaviours or beliefs of non-adherents or imperfectly adherent followers. But this is not the same as valuing less those who behave in certain ways or who lack certain beliefs. So, consider a religion which taught that some are more important, more beloved by God, perhaps, than others, or even that some other people are less than human? If the school nonetheless teaches pupils to adhere to equal treatment as laid down by current laws, then perhaps this is enough? For those of us who have had drummed into us the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of god, or from the point of view of the universe, or from the point of view of human rights legislation, views which depart from this are extremely challenging. Certainly, if active discrimination or attacks on non-adherents is advocated, this could pass beyond free expression of religious views to endorsement of breaking the law. So it would be nonsensical for the state to support or condone a religious school which advocated such levels of discrimination.

So, if a religiously based school provides a well-rounded education, turning out pupils who are interested in the world, who can reason, research, debate, consider different points of view, who are generally respectful of the rule of law, of democracy, of freedom of speech and expression, who are respectful of others, and who treat people without discrimination, then, why not just leave them to it. Otherwise, schools should summoned to the Head Teacher’s Office for a Serious Talking To. And probably stripped of state support.

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A tiny little chapter in feminist philosophy

In one of the large lecture rooms in Examination Schools on Oxford High Street, I took my BPhil exams. I sat at a desk at the very back of this same room and cried. But I cried not during my exams, which I spent immersed in concentration, but thirty years later during a lecture on Feminist Philosophy. By the rivers of Oxford, where I sat down, and I wept, when I remembered Zion.

In between times, I’d taught feminist philosophy. I no longer taught it, indeed, I was no longer able to teach it, since I no longer had a lecturing post, but I thought I’d go along to that term’s lectures to keep up with how the subject was developing. The north American scholar who was taking the classes was young and enthusiastic, but I only went to her first lecture. She explained that she’s start the term’s course by examining the history of the teaching of feminist philosophy within the UK. I held my breath, and sat up, tight with tension and a peculiar fear.

But as I sat there listening, she went on to explain that she was going to describe the teaching of feminist philosophy through the women’s studies and gender masters’ course at various British Universities. There were many names I knew and descriptions of courses that I knew of. She mentioned various sociology departments. But she didn’t even mention the teaching of feminism within philosophy departments. So she never mentioned my little contribution. Neither did she actually mention the Women’s Studies MA which was briefly available at Bristol and for which my feminist theory course was a component.

I was half relieved that I did not have to sit there and listen to a stranger mention my work, and half appalled to hear an account of the history of something that had been so part of my life, but which left me out. Was I completely insignificant? Why were courses put on by other women, whom I knew, mentioned, and not my course? After the lecture, I approached the lecturer and introduced myself. ‘I taught feminist philosophy at Bristol University,’ I told her, ‘from 1983 to 1991. I drew up a finals paper on it.’ She acknowledged me just very briefly, but showed no curiosity and no wish to extend the conversation. I went home humiliated, and never returned to any more of her lectures. I wished I could have just put a paper bag over my head and crept out of the lecture room incognito, I wished I’d never let myself be known.

I wondered later if the reason why she had not talked about the history of the teaching of feminist philosophy actually taking place within British philosophy departments was precisely because there were so few philosophers teaching it during that period – she was talking about how the subject got started as an academic study in the UK, and she’d started talking about teaching from the 1970s onwards, (I’d taught it in the 1980s to early 90s).  Or for some other reason – that she simply knew nothing about it; that my career had bombed so spectacularly that there was no reason to know I’d started a course on the topic – that I’d failed to keep in contact with the other women involved in teaching feminist philosophy – or that my course was too insignificant to mention? But at the time that I was teaching feminist philosophy, I myself did not know of any other similar course taught within a philosophy degree in the UK. That was precisely the reason why I was so dismayed. So here is a little history of my tiny little, barely significant contribution.

How did my feminist theory course come about? There were a few major factors.

One factor: Professor Stefan Körner retired. He’d been head of the Bristol philosophy department for years and years and, according to what I was told, had been insistent that as long as he was in charge there would be no women working there. Adam Morton was made professor in his place, and could hardly have been a different figure. The next person to be appointed after Adam was me, the first woman ever to teach there.

Another factor: when I first started, Adam said to me that I could teach anything I wanted to teach, just so long as I considered it to be intellectually respectable. I was given greater freedom, accorded greater respect and greater responsibility, on that first day in my job, aged 26, than I have been in any job since. Worth mentioning, given the flack I got from other women philosophers who refused to believe that I was not being treated appallingly in the Bristol philosophy department (see below). But there was something in particular that I was asked to teach.

And that’s the third factor: the students really, really wanted a course on feminism. This was to do with the climate of the times. And I was asked to teach it. The simple reason why I was asked, was, of course, just because I was the only woman there, and the men were all too scared to teach it.  I’d never studied it – indeed, how could I have done so, when it was not taught? Although I had studied psychology, and that at least had included looking at various issues concerning gender. I’d even helped to conduct research with Corinne Hutt into differences in gender stereotyping which compared mixed and single sex schools, the first research which showed that girls were subject to less stereotyping and had higher aspirations at single sex than at mixed sex schools. But that was it. I hadn’t even studied political philosophy, owing to an administrative error as an undergraduate which meant that my department at Keele ‘forgot’ to make me take any courses in it.

The time was just right for this then. I was a newly arrived, female philosopher, in a department with a newly appointed, young head, at a time when there was a good staff student ratio, just before the times when universities really started getting squeezed and measured, before the squeeze on academics to concentrate on research, when there was emphasis on the quality of teaching, when the department could teach and examine students in considerable freedom, when courses could be put on with scant regard for what place they might have in the student’s overall assessment. For although the feminist theory course eventually became a finals’ paper, it started out simply as a lecture and seminar series with no exam attached to it. And, the time was right in that a great many students wanted to study the subject. This would not always be so. But then, conditions all came together.

There was widespread toleration for the feminism teaching in the department, and some strong support. There was only one person who dissented in any way, and I took great comfort from the fact that he was hostile to lots of people, not just to me. I won’t mention his name, because anybody who knows the department as it then was will know who he was, and because nothing is to be gained from ‘exposing’ or naming him. I’ll just tell you a couple of things so you get the gist. He was walking through a door ahead of me one day, so he held it upon, and I walked through it, since it would have seemed discourteous to refuse. ‘Huh,’ he sneered, ‘thought you were a feminist. Just goes to show how inconsistent you all are.’ Now, one thing to note is this: the only thing that I did to qualify, in his eyes, as a feminist, and therefore, as someone to be challenged mocked and ridiculed, was this: I was in a philosophy department, and I was a woman.

From then on, whenever we spotted each other walking along the corridor, there would be a race to reach the door first: I generally outran him and forcefully held the door open for him to walk through, but to give him his credit, he could run quite fast for someone of his age. There were other such incidents. (I’ll tell you the best one later, as something to look forward to.) In other words, this man was so preposterous, and besides which, horrid to so many people, that I thought of him as more of a natural phenomenon, like mosquitoes or hard rainfall, than anything that seriously formed any kind of opposition to what I was doing.

There were numerous challenges. One of these was the relative scarcity of literature and the laborious task of drawing up lecture materials and reading lists and just doing the preparation for the teaching. No computers, remember, no internet, no online library catalogues, it was tramping through library shelves and combing bookshops and periodicals. In those days, there was a much heavier load of teaching than there is now. I taught on average about 16 hours a week, tutorials, seminars, and lectures. All in all in my time at Bristol, I taught as well as feminist theory, applied ethics, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophical logic and philosophy of language, general philosophy for first years including Descartes, Hume, Plato, and so on, Wittgenstein, philosophy of social science, the ethics of work.

And the first lectures I did on feminism were pretty much cobbled together on the hoof. I do recall one student complaining to me ‘this isn’t philosophy’ – (he is now a professional philosopher) – although I did get the feeling that he just wanted an argument and needed to be convinced. But the majority of students who took my classes were very keen, and many of them were involved in feminism or other political activities in a serious way. The teaching quickly evolved to a final year special subject. It’s true to say that the majority of students were women but there were always not insignificant numbers of men taking the course as well. The discussions were always very good.

The precise nature of the course changed and evolved from year to year. The course included in various combinations and various arrangements certain relevant topics, such as gender and language, abortion, discrimination, etc, certain relevant thinkers and philosophers, such as Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir and Mill, and different approaches to feminist theory – liberal, radical, socialist, Marxist feminism, and so on. I kept changing it around from year to year. The only major revisions that I came to make towards the end of my time teaching it were that I dropped teaching prostitution and pornography, simply because I got burned out from the academic consideration of these two topics which I personally found extremely disturbing. Oh, and I changed the name of the seminars, on a fanciful whim, to ovulars.

Outside of the department, I started to attend some of the Society for Women in Philosophy meetings. Here, I got a lot of pity – whether intended like that, it certainly felt like pity – from some of the slightly older women because of the department I was in, but I can honestly say that it was precisely the openness and the laissez faire attitude of that department which enabled, in fact, demanded, that I teach feminism. I remember more than one SWIP meeting where women were recounting their experiences of departments where there were topics which they would like to teach, but would never be able to, or would never dare to. As a matter of fact, other ‘new’ sort of topics in philosophy – new for the time, that is – which I also taught, again, with the positive encouragement of the department and Adam in particular, were issues in applied ethics, which were included in the list of topics which some other women philosophers felt they could not teach. I naively opened my mouth at one meeting and commented that I was allowed to teach whatever I wanted to teach, and had in point of fact, taught most of the topics which the others had said that they dared not teach. I am not sure that won me any friends. I am not sure even if anyone else there was teaching a whole finals paper on feminist theory, or feminist philosophy, within a philosophy degree, at that time in the mid-80s; again it was explained to me in return that the department I worked in was ‘really bad’ place for a woman to be, it was just that I didn’t realise how bad it was.

The women who told me that were wrong. It was not perfect, but I have never worked anywhere since which did not treat me positively badly. Bristol treated me, in many ways, very very well. But again, part of that was down to the generosity of the times, the appreciation of the importance of teaching, and the enthusiasms of the students, and of some of the other staff.

In 1992, I left Bristol and took up a post at the Australian National University, teaching applied ethics. Another woman was appointed at the same time in a post teaching feminist philosophy. She was in her first job; indeed, she was still just finishing her PhD. She came from a tradition of European philosophy, and together we realised that we could put on a great course if we joined forces. We approached Paul Thom, the head of department, with this idea, and he agreed. The next day, however, he came running along the corridor, saying that he’d realised that it would ‘look bad’ for him on the faculty if it looked as if he had two feminists in his department. (At this juncture, it is impossible not to namedrop in passing, just out of human interest, that he was a former lover of Germaine Greer.) So, I was not to teach feminist philosophy after all, not even to contribute to it.

Twelve months later, another young woman was appointed to the department, again, in her first job, and she immediately started teaching the feminism course with the first woman, taking almost exactly the same classes and topics that I would have taken, had I been allowed by the head to teach them. Somehow, the ‘problem’ of having two feminists in the same department had faded. One difference is, these two young women had sat in classes and been taught feminist philosophy. I’d worked it all up the hard way. And I was the one not allowed to teach it. My files and files and files of notes sat yellowing on the shelves. My days of teaching feminism were over. One of my female colleagues often used to expound her views that feminism was about promoting the interests of young women – I’ll never forget her idiosyncratic way of speaking and how she emphasised the word ‘young’ – she made it clear she did not think I fitted into this category. I was in my thirties. For some reason, she thought that older women had had it easier. Duh? Her academic life was harder than that of older women? Both she and the other woman were the daughters of professors, for a start.

When I came back from maternity leave, (let me repeat that, so that it sinks in – when I got back from MATERNITY LEAVE) I discovered that my two female feminist colleagues had organised a feminist philosophy conference on the topic of motivated irrationality – the topic of my DPhil. But this was a conference at which there were only women speakers, and at which you could not speak unless you were approached and invited. This was part of a feminist move, to allow space for women philosophers to speak. I was not on the list of their invitees to speak. I hadn’t even been told about it. Anyone could attend though, and I attended for one day, and sat there in mute misery as I realised how much I could have contributed, and could not bring myself to attend any more. A few weeks’ later, a job was advertised in the Study Skills Centre at the university. I applied for it, got it, and left the philosophy department as fast as my little legs could carry me. My days of teaching feminism were well and truly over.

Here’s the other story about my annoying colleague at Bristol, to end on a lighter note. After years and  years of ribbing from him, finally one Friday he approached me in the tiny kitchen on the first floor of the large house where the philosophy department was. He thrust a used mug at me. ‘Wash this,’ he instructed me. ‘Wash it yourself,’ I replied. ‘Huh’, he responded. ‘You silly little girly. That just goes to show that you aren’t really a feminist, because feminists believe in equality, and I would have washed your mug up for you.’ (For the record, this man had never been observed washing anybody’s mug up for them, let alone mine.) He then ran downstairs and into the common room, where the rest of the department was assembled waiting for a visiting speaker to start his talk.

That was it. Years of being called a ‘little goose’, a ‘little girly’ and so on finally got to me. I ran down the stairs after him. By the time I reached the common room, he was seated on one of the comfortable seats around the edge, his head buried in an open copy of the Times  Higher Education Supplement. I stood in front of him and spoke. ‘For your information,’ I said, ‘I am not ‘your silly little goose’, I am not ‘your little girly’, it is absolutely obnoxious having you as a colleague, and I am sick to death of having to work in the same department as you.’ I ran out, left the building, and went straight home.

At home, I went to bed and worried. I’d had that outburst in front of the entire department, graduate students, some people from other university departments and a visiting speaker. How could I ever got into work again? But after a couple of hours – when my colleagues would be going home – I got phone call after phone call. Phone calls congratulating me. One older, generally scrupulously polite colleague was laughing so much he could hardly speak. ‘Well done! I’ve been dying to say something like that to him for years!’ Another colleague’s phone at home was broken, so he went to the trouble of going out to find a phone box to call me to offer his congratulations. I went back into work in Monday with no worries at all.

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How the ‘wool’ got into ‘woolly liberal’

One. John Stuart Mill was not right on everything, by any means, but he did have some decent notions. One idea he had which is pretty good, was to promote a liberal framework within which different ideas and opinions could be freely discussed. There is no danger in allowing discussion of ideas, he argued, because within this free discussion, and over the course of time, ideas would be tested, and the better ones would endure, whilst the bad ones would be rooted out. Likewise, it’s also healthy for us to be regularly challenged with our own ideas, even if we are right, because that helps prompt us to re-examine and be better aware of the foundations of those ideas. Such challenge keeps our good ideas alive. This general liberal framework has been pretty well accepted by a lot of people. It’s a good way of managing diversity of opinion, expression and culture. It’s a pretty good wheeze, actually.

Two. Hence, we’ve got used to the idea that there are lots of different systems of belief out there, and that therefore, we should be tolerant. Everybody has the right to express their own opinion. Note in passing, that I am being deliberately vague about what it is we have to tolerate. Are we tolerating ideas? Or are we tolerating people? And how exactly do we tolerate these?

Three. This open market place of ideas, together with greater travel and greater access to different views and peoples, has then led many people to think that therefore, there is no real truth of the matter, no way of resolving disagreements that is better than any other; in other words, to forms of relativism; at the extreme, to postmodernism. In practice, of course, most people have not totally abandoned any notion of reason and evidence, and operate a kind of hybrid between an extreme relativism, and belief in reason and evidence. This hybrid is often expressed in a patchy and inconsistent manner, (see below).

Four. This insight into the variations of different cultures and belief systems is also underlined by realisations of imperialism, and the wrongs done in the past by dominant powers to others.  It became inescapable that what others of different background know about, and have to offer, was often wrongly dismissed and overlooked.

Five. So, more strongly than toleration, which is perhaps more neutral about the ideas that others have, we ought to respect others. We were wrong to be so sure of ourselves – that is, the dominant cultures, and the dominant classes and individuals within those cultures, were wrong to be so sure of themselves. We ruled out too much, and should show more respect. But what is toleration, what is respect? Note that these terms are often very loosely defined. ‘Respect’ encapsulates perhaps a stronger notion than simple tolerance, suggesting that the ideas of others should be valued in and of themselves. We may have moved from ‘everybody has a right to express their own opinion’ to ‘everybody’s opinions are in and of themselves of value’. See below for more on this.

Six. And note something: at the start of this, the framework of free and open discussion of ideas as propounded by Mill and others presupposed that there could be debate and disagreement based upon reason. This gives a clear basis for distinguishing between being tolerant, (or respectful) of people (allowing them freedom to speak, treating them with equal rights in society, addressing them as you would anyone else, and so on); and being tolerant (or respectful) of ideas. A person’s ideas, on the assumption that these are based upon some form of reason and evidence, can be conceptualised and critiqued quite independently of criticising that person.

Seven. But note then that, meanwhile, one of the foundational premises for a liberal tolerance of ideas has been eroded – the notion that some kind of reasoned or evidential debate about these ideas is possible. On such a view, we need not even have any fully agreed notion of how to conduct such debates – indeed, philosophers have of course argued for centuries about how to do so – but nonetheless, we can propound arguments, and arguments about how to have those arguments, in an open marketplace where anyone is free to join in, and where everybody’s ideas are free to be tested and scrutinised. Within such a view, we can tolerate people by letting them join in, and by listening to them. We can tolerate ideas by letting them be expressed. And we can respect ideas by engaging in debate and discussion with them in fair and reciprocal terms. And we can easily distinguish between a person and their ideas; this indeed is underlined by freely accepting the possibility that we might even change our minds about something as a result of free and open discussion. In fact, engaging in open critique with the ideas of others is precisely a way of showing respect – you respect the person by listening to their ideas, and respect the ideas by showing you think they are worthy to be listened to and taken seriously.

Eight. But if we’ve let go of the idea that there is some common ground upon which to debate, if we’ve decided that there is no real way to judge between ideas, and that these are nothing other than personal opinions or expressions of cultures, but clung on to the idea of tolerance and respect, what happens then? Potentially, we have created a situation that is more and more confusing and that spirals down more and more to a counsel of hopelessness about the foundation of our beliefs. For in order to show tolerance and respect, we can’t just allow ideas expression and allow any resulting debate and mutual critique and discussion;  instead, we end up simply saying ‘I have good ideas, and your ideas, (even though inconsistent with mine) are very good too.’ Now, if this were a matter of how each person chose to decorate their own kitchen, that would be fine. If it were a matter of how people choose to spend their Sundays, that would be fine. Etc. But if it’s a matter where there might actually be some clash of public policy or behaviour that impinges on other people, we are painting ourselves into a very awkward corner.

Nine. This is all made worse by the rise of a certain sort of individualism: by the idea that an individual’s ‘identity’ is an essential part of who they are; this includes of course their beliefs about key things such as cultural practices, religion, politics, gender relations, and other ideologies. It’s thus much harder to distinguish a person from their beliefs; it’s thus much harder to distinguish respecting and tolerating a person from respecting and tolerating their beliefs. Now, put this together with the effects of the rise in relativism and postmodernist views, and the tendency is amplified:

Ten. The belief that there is, at least potentially and in theory, some standard of reason and evidence by which beliefs and ideologies can at least to some degree be tested, means that it’s easy to make a clear distinction between a person and their beliefs. People are people; we respect them and tolerate them because we value people qua people. The respect and tolerance due to people is worked out with reference to the nature of what it is to be a person – for example, based on ideas that people are social creatures for whom community with others is vital, and ideas that people are all fundamentally of equal value, etc. A person’s beliefs are respected and tolerated by reference to what is proper to beliefs – and this includes, on the original view outlined in point one, the notion that to tolerate a belief is to allow it expression, and to respect a belief is to think it worthy of consideration, assessment, debate and critique. Not, per se, to think that the belief itself is good or true.

Eleven. But what if we have collapsed the distinction between a person and their beliefs through modern notions of identity? What if we have eroded the idea that what is proper to beliefs is to be founded on evidence and reason? How then do we understand the ideas of tolerance and respect (for of course we don’t want to jettison those)?

Well, we keep them, but we understand them wrongly. What we end up with can easily look like exactly what is happening in many modern debates. When a person’s, or group’s beliefs are challenged, many people react as if that person or that group is being challenged. Very likely, the beliefs will never be challenged in the first place. A reaction to pointing out flaws in beliefs and positions is very likely to be not, ‘Your arguments are mistaken’ or ‘You seem to have a point, I’ll think about that’ but ‘You hurt my feelings’, ‘You racist’, ‘You something-ophobe’, ‘Are you going to apologise for insulting group X’.

Twelve. A further reaction from some people is also often to think that respecting the beliefs of others actually involves having to claim that these beliefs are really cool (because, lacking the idea that you respect beliefs by engaging with them, it’s hard to see how else you might ‘respect’ beliefs); this, together with an abandonment of the whole idea that one’s own beliefs can really be justified with reference to reason and evidence, can end up in a ludicrous position where the beliefs and practices of others are valorised, and one’s own culture’s beliefs and practices are vilified – because one is allowed to attack the beliefs of one’s own culture, being part of it, (especially if one is part of a Western culture which includes still in some corner the idea of free, open, and reasoned debate); but to attack those of others is disrespectful.

And the more that happens, the less we can have open debate and discussion. Of course, if the extreme relativists and the post modernists are right, and there really is no basis whatsoever to any of our views, then that would not really matter, because to think that there might be better ways of thinking, and better beliefs than others, will be an illusion. It just will all come down to a power struggle.

Thirteen. What is happening in practice is a mosaic; most people have not abandoned evidence and reason entirely, but in certain areas, there is an almost inevitable slide into a relativist, postmodernist, ‘you hurt my feelings’, playground-style bun fight. Far from opening up debate, people who want to engage in it are often shut down. Note that this is the very reverse of the original ideal. Not everybody can in fact freely express their views, if somebody else considers that those views constitute a critique of their ideas. And far from the free testing of ideas, where over time the bad ones will be found out and the good ones will prevail, there’s no way that this will occur.

Fourteen. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the bad ideas will prevail. Because good ideas involve critique and the attempt to reason impartially and to base things upon evidence, so, these will automatically pose challenges to other ideas which don’t match up. But then, that will look as if those who hold such ideas, (if they express them robustly and especially if they explain their basis and their justifying grounds) are ipso facto attacking other ideas, i.e., in this warped way of seeing things, attacking other people. And that’s not respectful, is it. So shut up, you ‘Ophobe’. You ‘Ist’.

Fifteen. And in addition, what often happens is a version of this mosaic of ideas whereby we hold ourselves to a standard of reason and evidence giving, but think that it’s imperialist to hold others to this standard. One way of putting this awkward melange is to say that this expresses tolerance and respect for other cultures. Another way of putting this is that this shows we hold others to lower standards than we hold ourselves. All in the name of tolerance and respect. This looks rather intolerant and rather disrespectful. That corner we painted ourselves into seems very small indeed, and the paint doesn’t seem to be drying.

Conclusion. However, had we worked out a way of separating a person from their beliefs, had we clung on to the idea that we can respect people by treating them equally and well, and to the idea that we can tolerate ideas by allowing them to be expressed, and to the idea that we can respect ideas by debate and challenge, we would not be in this idiotic mess. It’s really not that hard.

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A plea to philosophers: will more of you please learn to read texts with due care

I’ve been undertaking the dismal task of looking again at online comments made about me in the wake of my almost entirely futile attempt to clarify the status of reports of Charlotte Coursier’s inquest. Futile, because many people seem unable to think clearly. My conclusion:

Please will everybody who has made misinformed comments take note of a few things.

Number one. Inquests in the UK are held in public. Do you want to  live in a society where they are held in secret? No. Then sorry to all concerned, especially of course family and friends, but there you are. That is reality.

Number two. In this country, we still have a (reasonably) free press. Do you want to change this? No, of course you don’t.

Number three. Drawing on one and two: Therefore, the press are free to report on inquests.

Number four. At inquests, various evidence is heard, according to the decision of the coroner. Some of this is presented under oath. Some of it is taken from signed statements to the police. Some of it is taken from other sources such as medical records and other statements including of course any autopsy report. The purpose of an inquest in UK law is limited to ascertaining the identity of the deceased and the place, time and cause of death. That is it. In the case of an inquest where it is thought that the deceased may have taken their own life, then their state of mind will be relevant to any verdict. Therefore, at the coroner’s discretion, any information which is thought relevant to ascertaining the state of mind of the deceased may be presented. Moreover, the coroner will also present their own accounts of events, based upon their reading of the various pieces of evidence before them. For instance, a coroner may reconstruct a timeline of events drawing on evidence from various sources.

Number five. So, when a newspaper or other media outlet reports on an inquest, what they are doing is this. They are giving a report of what evidence has been presented at the inquest, and they are presenting the final verdict. You will be able to determine this by reading these reports with the due care and attention that anybody who has sat in one or two lessons at school about how to read a newspaper article should have. You can determine this by the use of such devices as directly reported speech, indicated by the use of quotation marks, and by devices such as starting or ending paragraphs with phrases such as ‘the inquest heard’. This indicates that what is being reported is not any direct claims as to what happened, but reports of what was in evidence heard at the inquest. And remember, that evidence heard at an inquest is evidence which the coroner has deemed relevant to reaching a verdict; some of this will be taken from official documents and reports, some from sworn testimony, or signed police statements, but much of it will be the opinion of individuals.

Number six. Cast your minds back to the first lessons you had on logic. In these lessons, you will have been taught how to translate sentences of natural language into formalised sentences of logic. A major aim of doing this is to be able to determine in a rigorous manner the truth value of sentences including various complex sentences, and so the validity of arguments. In these lessons, you will have learned about various sentences which cannot be so translated in their entirety, because they contain intensional contexts. Here’s an example. Take sentence A: ‘Snow is white’. This is true if snow is white. Take sentence B: ‘Snow is white and rain is wet’. This is true if it is true both that snow is white and that rain is wet. Take sentence C: ‘Tarski said “snow is white”‘. This is true in different circumstances. It’s true if Tarski said that snow is white. Whether or not snow is white is completely irrelevant to the truth of sentence C, entirely relevant to the truth of sentence A and to the truth of sentence B.

If you didn’t do logic, you can cast your mind back further to the school room, where you learned the difference about direct or indirectly reported speech, and to days when you will have been able to work out that you might possibly be able to get out of trouble by saying ‘I didn’t say Mr Clarke was a fat git, Sir, I was just saying that Sammy Jones said that Mr Clarke was a fat git. Honest, Sir, it weren’t me.’ Although this particular school child may be being disingenuous, the principle referred to is entirely valid.

I am labouring this point because for some reason which completely escapes me, many people simply do not seem to get this. At least, not in any context where their emotions are involved. This all leads to my next point

Number seven. When I stated in the Leiter reports that, as someone who had attended the inquest, I could confirm that the Daily Mail gave the most accurate report of the inquest, the reason why I said this was because it gave the fullest report of all the evidence presented at the inquest covering a variety of aspects of the stresses that Charlotte had most unfortunately suffered. It should be blindingly obvious by now that what I meant was that the Daily Mail was giving a report of what was said at the inquest, an intensional context; directly or indirectly reported speech. Like all the newspapers. None of the papers reporting the inquest was doing anything other than reporting what evidence was presented there. None of them was giving their own views or opinions, or investigative research, into what had actually happened in Charlotte’s life. They were ALL simply reporting what evidence the coroner thought appropriate to present publicly at the inquest. Moreover, another reason for thinking that some newspaper reports were likely to be  more reliable in their details is that they were by named reporters present at the inquest, rather than created from agency reports.

Got it? So, like all the media reports, as someone who attended the inquest, I only know what was said at the inquest. I have no special insight into what inquest evidence was or was not true. I also do not have a photographic memory, and cannot now recall in minute detail every single thing that was said. Got it?

Number nine. Although there is a free press in this country, individual citizens do not yet have any duty to enter into the free-for-all of online comments in erratically managed blogs. Just saying. Especially when those blogs are populated by philosophers who, from their training, ought to have been fully able to work out a priori the fallacies that were being peddled or reproduced by certain others.

And PS – to those who think I am a member of the patriarchy, thanks for the laugh! I nearly wet myself at that  joke.

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The ‘chocolate cake fallacy’ and academic recruitment

Don’t worry, this is not a blog giving you a cookery lesson. It’s a blog about a lesson I learned from cookery.

If I intend to make a cake, and I ask my children what sort of cake they want, the answer is invariably the same: ‘Chocolate cake please’. Any sort of chocolate cake will do, but in the country of the Chocolate Cake, White Chocolate Brownies are King.

I notice this acutely, as chocolate cake is my least favourite cake, although I am quite partial to the raw mixture. But at least the years of selflessly baking chocolate cakes for my eager offspring has annoyed me enough that it’s alerted me to a common fallacy.

There are lots of other sorts of cake that my children also really like: for example, lemon drizzle cake, fruit cake, Welsh cakes, almond cake, Battenburg cake, banana cake, poppy seed cake, ginger bread cake, apple cake, macaroons, not to mention those lovely little nutty chocolate cake log things coated in chocolate and green marzipan you can get in Ikea.

So, were I to ask them if they would like to live a life in which they never ate any of this extensive range of baked delicacies, they would surely exclaim in horror. Yet, each separate time that I ask them what sort of cake they want, the answer is the same: ‘Chocolate cake’. Yet they don’t want to never eat anything other than chocolate cake. This is a prime example of short term thinking, of prioritizing the present over the future, of prioritizing an immediate assessment of one choice over an extended range of choices over a lifetime. It is a part of what Aristotle had in mind in the Nicomachean Ethics when he pondered Solon’s question of whether we can call any man happy until he is dead. Can we call any cake eater satisfied, until we can look back over an entire life of cake consumption, contemplating the full range of cakes enjoyed? Surely we would have only pity for someone who ate only chocolate cake, whilst the lemon drizzles and the gingerbreads and the Dundee cakes never even made it off the page of the recipe book and into reality, let alone into their stomachs?

Yet, I strongly suspect that recruiters to jobs are falling into something very similar to this Chocolate Cake Fallacy when they choose candidates for posts. I certainly have a strong hunch that this is happening in academic recruitment. I’ve been looking out to see what sort of candidates are actually successful in recruitment to academic posts in philosophy. And there certainly does seem to be a type – someone who works on a currently prominent area; someone young, who can be seen as having potential; someone who has a few publications in just the right journals; someone who has referees from a select circle; someone who has the right academic connections; someone who has very little teaching experience. A short translation of this would be the Young Well-Connected Genius Type.

My guess is that recruiters just look at a pile of applications, probably screen out most of them without even reading them, probably put applications into a bin as soon as they see any reason to think there’s some problem with  a person (in fact, a recruiter told me that’s what he does) which is a jolly good way of overlooking people with outstanding qualities or unusual profiles; and then, seeing the applications that remain through a lens of ‘what is our profile of the best possible philosopher?’ overlook entirely the need to populate a university department with a range of characters and abilities.

Now, I don’t have the time to do a whole load of empirical research into this, although it would be great if people whose job it was to consider these things did. But what I do know is this. If you want a good team of people in a university department, you don’t want a whole load of clones. You don’t want a whole load of people who have similar qualities. You want a range of qualities. Or else you’ll end up wondering why there is nothing being served up in academia but a constant diet of chocolate cake. And even if that chocolate cake is the very best white chocolate brownie, that’s surely not what you really want, now,  is it? Time to wake up and smell the lemon drizzle.

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What it’s like being harassed online

Suppose that you go every day to collect your children from school. One day, another parent tells you that she’s heard people gossiping about you, for example, saying what a bad mother you are. You won’t really want to go to the school gates, will you? Unless you go into ‘fight’ mode and have it out with everyone, or are especially thick-skinned, you’ll probably engage in avoidance behaviour. You’ll get someone else to collect the children, you’ll arrive a bit late so that everyone else has gone, you’ll tell them to meet you at the end of the lane instead. I know. Because exactly that happened to me, once.

Now suppose you are harassed online. You are likely also to engage in avoidance behaviour. But at least your children eventually get to go home from school on their own anyway. And at least, you can get the children safely home and shut the door, and not have to listen to the gossips. But if you are pushed into avoidance behaviour online, what might that mean?

It might mean this. It might mean that every morning, when you sit down to work at your computer, you feel sick. Because the computer, that computer sitting there, on your desk, in your room, is the site of the harassment. In fact, any computer is the site of harassment. Any computer at all.

It might mean that whenever you turn on your search engine, you feel a bit sick too, because that’s the place of harassment. It might mean that when you are forced to check your emails, you can’t bear to look at the screen. Perhaps you’ll do this: open your email with your eyes closed, then take a piece of paper, hold it over the screen, and move it down slowly, with the other hand over your eyes, squinting, because you really still can’t bear to look to see who’s sent you emails that day, because of the fear that a harassing email might have arrived. Supposing you have been subject to harassment, gossip or ridicule on a professional blog site. You might avoid these entirely, or do the same sort of trick of having a quick look with your eyes askance and your  hand over the screen, or ask a friend to check for you to see if there’s any more comments up about you, and whether these are hostile or not. It might mean that you decide not to check your emails for days on end, that you decide to work in a café or away from your desk. That then might mean that you become isolated from what you really ought to be doing.

Online slurring of reputation and ridicule is viewed by many as trivial – ‘ignore it’ – ‘who cares what they think’ – ‘it’s just banter’ – ‘it’s not so bad’. But the tentacles of online harassment are very long indeed. It needs to be taken very seriously.

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“Care not Custody” – When, exactly? Melanie Shaw, on remand in HMP Peterborough

Two events happened on July 10th this year. The Home Secretary gave a speech to the Women’s Institute. And meanwhile, in Nottingham, child abuse survivor and whistleblower Melanie Shaw sent out a message asking for help. What have these two events got to do with each other? Rather a lot.

Samantha Morton, a well-known actress, has recently revealed that she suffered from abuse as a child in a children’s home in Nottingham. Many newspapers and radio and TV stations covered her story. It is a great idea to use one’s celebrity to give publicity to the vile cesspit of institutional child abuse. But, dear journalists who covered Samantha Morton’s case, please could you also stop to look closely at Melanie Shaw’s case? All the many politicians who have been contacted regarding Melanie over the last few months, please could you actually get your act together?

Melanie, like Samantha, has spoken out and told the world that she was a victim of abuse at a children’s home in Nottingham, the Beechwood Children’s Home. She is also described as a key witness and whistleblower revealing the abuse of many other residents of the home. But unlike Samantha, she is not being interviewed by the mainstream media: she is currently on remand in HMP Peterborough, a Sodexo-run category B prison, and has been since shortly after being taken into custody by the police on July 10th. Is it a coincidence that an institutional child abuse whistleblower is in prison in peculiar circumstances, seemingly subject to court appearance after court appearance where nothing advances her case?

She has been there since charged with arson, accused of setting fire to a shed, and has been refused bail. I took an interest in her case when I read about it in the UK column news. There are enough oddities to make me wonder about the arson charge. The Nottingham post reported that the alleged arson occurred on April 4th:


But strangely, the Nottingham Fire Service does not mention, on its list of incidents attended, any fire on that date. Look here:


Odd, eh?

Furthermore, even if it were true that Melanie is guilty of this charge, her treatment seems terribly inhumane. She has been refused bail. She is a vulnerable prisoner, as anybody who has suffered from child abuse whilst resident in a children’s home must be. She is innocent at law – what kind of a country is this that locks up such vulnerable people, victims of child abuse, under such conditions? This is a serious issue, which must affect many many people, since many victims of institutional child abuse end up in prison at some time or another. Meanwhile, her son too is affected, having been taken into foster care.

I have been writing to Melanie, and have had several letters back. She tells me that an ulcer on her leg has not been properly cared for or properly dressed, which is a particular worry in the closed environment of a prison where infection is more  likely. Even more worrying, she has been denied and inconsistently supplied with medication. She has been on valium for a number of years, as a consequence of the experiences she endured as a child, and tells me she’s had this withheld. To do this is not only a terrible experience for the patient, it can be very dangerous. She has been subjected to a number of strip searches. She is spending a great deal of time alone in her cell. Melanie is a vulnerable prisoner. She tells me that she is on a corridor where other vulnerable women prisoners are kept, and many of them are very distressed, banging their cells, and there is a great deal of self-harm. Whilst Melanie feels sorely for the plight of these other women, what a terrible environment for anyone, let alone somebody who is so vulnerable. And what does it say of the state of our country that somebody who blew the whistle on institutional child abuse is being held in such a way?

The many court appearances Melanie has gone through since July are a mystery. She told me that she’d been denied her valium, which would doubtless produce terrible symptoms in anybody who had been taking it for so  long, then was brought before a judge, who took one look at her, and told her that she was not the same woman he’d seen a week before, and judged her unfit to plead. Well, it would seem obvious that someone who had suddenly been denied medication upon which she was dependent would not be in a very good state. But because she was judged ‘unfit to plead’, back to HMP Peterborough she went.

She has received over a thousand letters from supporters, who have contacted her MP, the prison governor, and whoever they can think of, to try to get an improvement in Melanie’s situation.

But as of September 22nd, Melanie has been on hunger strike, although it’s reported that she’s now ended this, but she recently self-harmed.  Her case thus is  more and more urgent. There are reports that she has found it very upsetting that Samantha Morton has had a great deal of coverage for her own past abuse, whilst Melanie languishes in prison, in great distress and discomfort. To state this again, Melanie is innocent at law, she has not yet been found guilty of anything, and may well turn out to be innocent, as she claims. Is this any way to treat any human being, let alone a vulnerable adult?

Melanie has been held since July 10th. On that very same date, the Home Secretary Theresa May gave a speech to the Women’s Institute, ‘Care Not Custody’, about the serious issue of keeping vulnerable people with mental health needs in custody .


This makes for very ironic reading.

Apart from brief accounts of the charges against her, Melanie’s case has been reported only in the alternative media and online. The media publish accounts of an alluring, famous actress alongside heartfelt articles about their past abuse, but then ignores someone who is so obviously suffering enormously RIGHT NOW.

There is a petition concerning her treatment here:


Some more information about Melanie can be found here:



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Child sex abuse and consent to sex

One of the many aspects of the extremely complex cases of horrific child sex abuse and exploitation that have been revealed recently, is that some cases seemingly were not investigated or pursued on the grounds that the girl involved ‘consented’ to the situation. The men who were abusing them were thus able in many instances to continue and even to escalate their abuse. In some cases, much older, married, violent, known offenders were classed as ‘boyfriends’ or ‘sweethearts’ in a consensual relationship – even with girls who were well under the legal age of consent.

‘She’s consenting, so there’s nothing we can do’ was a particularly horrendous mistake in those cases where the girls involved were groomed and in many cases, violently threatened if they did not continue to comply, or if they told anybody what was going on. It is impossible to comment on any of the individual cases, and indeed, many complex factors would have fed into these toxic, appalling tragedies. One of these may have been a simplified picture of ‘consent’, especially in relation to adolescents. This simple model is implicitly a ‘threshold’ picture of consent, where reaching a certain level of maturity enables one to ‘turn on’ a consent switch – and bingo, you are now capable of consenting.

The ‘Gillick’ ruling on consent to medical treatment implicitly takes such a model, applying it on a case by case basis, where for particular decisions, different individuals will acquire sufficient capacity to consent at different ages – so that even those under the legal barrier of 16 may consent to receive certain medical treatment.

This case, as is well known, was heard in the context of supplying girls under the age of 16 with contraceptives without parental consent or knowledge. It was found that girls may, on a case by case basis, have the maturity to consent to this, and this has now been extended routinely to other cases of medical treatment.

So far, so sensible? Well, this all needs to be considered very carefully in different contexts. In work I undertook with the sociologist Maggie Gregory, we examined interviews with young women who had, as teenagers, ‘consented’ to genetic testing for carrier status for haemophilia. Each of these had been marked off in the clinic as having given ‘informed consent’ to the testing.  Yet, interviewed some years later, many of these young women said that they really had no idea what this all meant  – for instance saying that it was only years later that they realised that that meant they could have a baby with haemophilia. In outline, they had given consent; but our conclusions were that it was only with the greater maturity of hindsight that they more fully grasped the implications of what it was they had consented to. In other words, their consent was not fully informed, after all. We conjectured that as teenagers, they had lacked the experience, and had not yet reached the stage of life at which it was really possible to give a fuller reflection on what it might mean to carry a genetic condition and pass it on to a child. If you’d asked them at the time, they would no doubt have agreed that they consented. If you asked them later, many would say that they did not really realise what the testing was about.

This strongly parallels the testimony of some of the victims who have spoken out about their abuse in towns such as Rotherham. And consider the Gillick ruling itself. This found that a girl under the age of 16 may be mature enough to consent to the prescription of contraception. But if there was any room for doubt about whether somebody is really consenting to any medical treatment or procedure, one might say, well, why not wait? I can hear you cackling as I type – for of course, a keenly relevant reason not to wait exists – because these girls are at risk of pregnancy. So, as long as they understand well enough, then that has been reasoned to be grounds to consider that they do have the capacity to consent to contraceptive use. But, I would argue, one pressing reason for considering that a girl under 16 may  have the maturity to consent to contraception use, is precisely because, lacking the maturity, physically, emotionally, and socially, for motherhood, it’s particularly important that she does not get pregnant. Granting the legal capacity to consent to contraception is thus relative not to maturity, but in this respect, to immaturity. There’s a pragmatic reason for saying – ‘okay, mature enough, quick, get her the pill’. Gillick consent is, to this extent, a legal fiction, or at least, a legal myth – maybe it exists, maybe it doesn’t, but there are benefits in believing in it.

Now, that reasoning may be perfectly sound in certain cases. But note that this does not mean that the girl has now reached some threshold of general maturity. Note that often, contraception may be provided principally because it’s considered that sexual activity is going to take place regardless, and it’s better that the girl is protected. So, in some cases, a girl may be deemed in law capable of consenting to contraception when she may not be truly capable of consent to sexual activity; she may well live to see the day when she looks back and thinks ‘good grief, what was I doing?’

The Gillick ruling on the prescription of contraception to girls under 16 without parental consent may then in fact act as ‘gateway’ consent to a generalised view of capacity to consent, when this may not be necessarily justified. Indeed, in the context of adolescent testing for carrier status (where there is rarely any medical necessity at the time of testing) there is evidence that the average age of testing for girls in the UK is lower than in the rest of Europe, and this may be attributable to the effects of the Gillick ruling on views on medical capacity to consent.

Consent should be seen as something that is relative to time, place and person, as something that may be partial, as something that can be retrospectively revised, that is relative to other harms and benefits. Sticking more firmly to a presumption that sexual activity under the age of 16 is sex without consent  – especially with older men, as has been seen over and over and over again as in the cases in Rochdale, Oxford, Rotherham, Derby ….the list goes on, sadly – seems like a good idea.

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Commenting online about misleading accusations

In April of this year, Jeffrey Ketland published some claims about me which are misleading. This has received some attention from other online commentators to Ketland’s blog post, and additionally the debate has also been taken up elsewhere. I have not replied upon any of these blogposts to the claims that Ketland made about me online for two reasons.

Firstly, because commenting in such a forum leaves one open to continued ‘he said she said’ interminable accusation and counteraccusation – and commenting as  a named individual in a forum where others feel free to comment anonymously has always seemed to me ridiculously unfair. My primary concern has always been to prevent rumour and unsubstantiated accusations in this terrible case.

Secondly, and more substantially, I did not comment online because I had already sent a letter to Ketland explaining the errors he had made or implied about me and requesting that he remove the misleading claims from the internet. I sent this letter on May 22nd. I copied the letter to the Master of Pembroke asking her to ensure that Ketland got the letter. Neither of them has to date replied, nor indeed, acknowledged my letter. So there is no reason for me to comment online, in a forum of named and unnamed individuals, when I have already clarified the situation with Dr Ketland himself.

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Cover-up? What cover-up?

If we want to expose cover-ups, it’s time we stopped talking about them. Paradoxical? No.

If people look for a cover-up, they will be looking for some organised conspiracy. They will be looking for evidence that X and Y knew each other, and also knew Z, and P and Q and R, and that they had some secret meeting or secret code or way of communicating, or that they all had some significant shared history, and were planning the whole thing.

There may be no such evidence forthcoming. Perhaps even worse, there may be some such evidence, but little else other than loose connections, so that those who are in the business of trying to ‘expose’ a cover-up themselves look like they are barking mad, as they try to pin significance on facts such as belonging to the same club, or once having been married to someone’s cousin, or whatever.

The mistake lies in thinking that cover-ups need be planned in such a deliberate way. They may be. But they may well not be. But continuing to talk about ‘cover-ups’ implies that there is some deliberate, corner of a shady car park meetings type cover-up. It is most probably not like that.

All that is needed for a ‘cover-up’ to take place is to arrange people’s interests so that they are tied to the continuing and untroubled operation of an organisation which might be threatened if certain things were exposed. All that is needed for a ‘cover-up’ is to ensure that people who are in a position to know inconvenient things cannot get their voices heard by those higher up the chain, or are somehow in debt to, or dependent on, those higher up the organisation, or can easily be made to look as if they are misguided, or bearing a grudge of some sort. All that is needed for a ‘cover-up’ is for the odd whistleblower here and there to be treated badly. When you look at how ubiquitous such features of organisations are, the question is no longer, ‘is there a cover-up’ but ‘what is being covered up?’

You can add to the difficulty the simple fact that so long as people’s interests are so wedded to the success of an organisation, – which will be stronger in cases where they have already invested a lot (e.g. through training in a career), and stronger in cases where there is no ‘exit strategy’ (e.g. if financial insecurity and loss of social status may follow exit from the organisation) – they will have so much invested in it that, since they are likely to be reasonably decent people themselves, they will have to think of the organisation as being reasonably decent. So they are already automatically biased against believing anything really bad about their organisation, or their wider social group. I have found this out to my cost in the few occasions when I have explained to people what has been going on in some of the places where I have worked. The only way to get most people to believe me is to present a view of things which is considerably less bad than it actually was. Tell the truth, and hardly anybody will believe you. Why? Not because they are bad people, but because they themselves have got so much invested in how things are that they can’t afford to think what you say is true.

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Correction to some idiotic claims which are still on the internet, despite polite requests to remove them.

If you don’t know what this refers to, good. I’m not about to enlighten you, because life is too short to bother with such trivia and such madness. If you do know, and if you know me, and realize that I am not a complete nincompoop, you won’t need to read this either. But if you have read anything on the internet which suggests I am making unfounded claims about a particular philosopher, involving belief in time travel, read on. I won’t take too much of your time, since the claims made about me are so idiotic that it’s a wonder anyone could believe in them, let alone anyone with the remotest acquaintance with the rules of logic and the arts of good argumentation.

Firstly. If a newspaper covers an event, and another newspaper covers the same event, one of these papers may give a more accurate account than the other. By ‘more accurate’ might be meant various things – degrees of accuracy applied to something as complex as a description of, say, (for the sake of argument) the evidence presented in a legal procedure, is pretty  loose. A ‘more accurate’ newspaper article might be fuller than a less accurate account, covering more of the evidence presented, perhaps, so as to provide a more balanced view. Or it might use more measured language. The more accurate account might even contain falsehoods, mightn’t it, if the other account contains more falsehoods, or if the other account changes vocabulary in ways that distort or move away too far from the vocabulary of the original speakers. A ‘more accurate’ account, or the ‘most accurate’ account, could well contain some things which are false, just so long as some other accounts exist which contain even more falsehoods. Disagree, and you’ll fail ‘Reason and Argument 101′. Agreed?

Secondly, even if a newspaper’s account of what somebody else said is accurate, as an account of what they said, this still leaves open the question of whether or not what that somebody said is true. Agreed? Again, disagree only if you wish to be thrown out of the community of reasonable people.

And another thing: the evening follows the morning. The autumn follows the summer. I followed my sister into the world. My brother followed me. The cat followed me to school. (I don’t know what her intentions were in doing that, by the way.) Mary’s little lamb followed her as well. The hat went on ahead, and the pants followed behind. Etc. I am too weary to explain more.

I have never made any claims at all about the behaviour of a philosopher whom I have never met, and about whom I am totally indifferent. So please go away, and please read that letter I wrote you, asking you to remove your unfair and illogical claims.


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Is argument in philosophy too aggressive? Maybe, but in plenty of other arenas, it’s even worse

In fact, it’s a lot fucking worse, if you can’t see that, you must be a fucking moron, just the kind of thing I’d expect from someone like you, over-privileged wanker in your fucking ivory towers. Ivory! Don’t you know it’s ILLEGAL. It’s down to wanking academics like you that THE ELEPHANTS ARE ENDANGERED and all you can do is moan that some other tosspot in a stupid seminar had accused you of failing to understand how a proper appreciation of Anselm’s view of the first person present demonstrates that contemporary accounts of the difficulties attributed to the Cartesian Circle are inadequate. Tosser.

Okay, calm down now. We all know that we’re talking about the internet, don’t we. And at least in a philosophy seminar you know who the people are – if you don’t recognise someone, you can just ask ‘who’s that person?’ or look them up on google when you get home. But on the internet, people can spew shite at you under the label ‘anon’ or ‘PetefromLuton’ or ‘Just_having_my_say_in_whats’_left_of_modern_britain’ or ‘NotDeadYet’. Feel better already about the state of philosophy?

Secondly, in a philosophy seminar, if someone advances an ad hominem argument, everybody knows that this is illegitimate. I have been to lectures recently where a Famous Philosopher peppered her talk a bit too much with references to how the people whose views she favoured were ‘Nobel Prize winners’, or were friends with somebody extremely famous, or were themselves extremely famous, but at least the audience knew that fame and prizes are irrelevant to how good any particular argument is. Likewise, in a seminar, no one would publicly express the sentiment that ‘you aren’t going to take any notice of what that total fucking waste of space thinks are you?’

But this is where we need to start to stop to think a bit more. Because we know that this does not just happen in internet forums, it happens in real life, albeit sometimes more politely; and in real life, not only do people use ad hominem arguments frequently, people often seem to think that ad hominem arguments are generally valid. You casually remark that you agree with what person X said on topic Y – you moron, don’t you know that they voted for Biden? (Our politicians of course do this routinely – rarely if ever admitting that someone from another party had a point, often seeming to think that the mere fact that a position was put forward by someone from a rival party meant that it was wrong). In philosophy seminars, we know such ad hominen arguments are generally problematic. Phew!

Next: never mind philosophy seminars, in real life, people are horribly aggressive – often looking for fault all around them. Someone expressed a view that leaves scope for interpretation in the most uncharitable manner possible, thereby leaving you a chance to score some points? This is the warp and weft of the internet, but it happens in real life too. It happens in philosophy seminars too, but in philosophy, we know that such an argumentative move is poor form. True, a particular person might not get a chance in a philosophy seminar to correct the mistaken interpretation. Chairing of seminars is often pretty poor. But philosophy as an academic discipline fully recognises, and holds up as a standard, the notion that twisting the interpretation of someone else’s views is bad philosophy. I don’t think that Joe and Jane Internet blogger knows this. And I have often found such levels of misinterpretative aggression in Real Life too.

And it’s not just misinterpreting views that goes on. It’s misinterpreting intention and motive, using any tiny hint to label someone as dabbling in the Dark Arts, of being under suspicion. Someone you know for years makes some off the cuff remark – perhaps, for instance, assuming that a neighbour is Muslim when they are actually a Sikh – and you insist that they are therefore racist – as if you’d completely misjudged their character and belief system all this time. Someone points out a spelling mistake – that means they HATE people with dyslexia. Ooh, lucky you, you managed to spot that someone used an inappropriate word to describe some minority group, perhaps having failed to keep up with what the latest vocab is meant to be – what, that person has been advocating rights for minorities for years, who would have guessed that all along they hated, yes, HATED, that particular minority? ‘Thought you were a Xist but you obviously hate Yists’ etc etc. At least in philosophy, we might think it odd that someone manages to be a realist about X but an anti-realist about Y (or whatever) but we think this is interesting and don’t necessarily think it automatically they are a disingenuous, lying, wanking cunt. Or at least, not to their face.

I’ve given up bothering to defend myself against people who make such character assassinations. I just ignore them. I guess that the level of this accusation and counter-accusation in part stems from terrible uncertainty about what it is that we are meant to think, how we are to avoid causing offence  – the terrible fear of accidentally being racist, for instance, grips many people, and one way of showing publicly that you are not racist, or disablist, or any -ist, is to spot this crime in other people as a way of demonstrating your own purity of thought (I might at this point out that this move is the bread and butter of repressive regimes but that deserves its own rant)  – regardless if this means picking up the slightest hint that there’s some suspicious attitude lurking under that seemingly benign exterior; regardless of whether you’ve know that person all your life and they’ve seemed both decent and amenable to argument so far. This coupled of course with not being entirely sure what being racist is – is mentioning that rickets is a worse problem amongst those living in northern climates who have darker skins racist? Hmm. Might be. Or it might be racist to fail to do something about this. Not sure. My fingers tremble as I type.

One thing that’s ironic about all this is that there’s a horrible climate of people desperately trying to avoid giving offence, whilst simultaneously frequently accusing others of giving offence, and often in a most offensive manner.

Now, in philosophy seminars, people nit-pick and sometimes find fault with opponents in an openly or obliquely aggressive manner. But they aren’t often directly casting vile aspersions on that persons’ whole character and being. Yes, people are marginalised, even ostracised, not given the credit they deserve for their views; people have their opinions credited to someone else; people are not always listened to; but, when I turn my gaze to the big bad world, I long, oh, I long, for the safe haven of a philosophy seminar.

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One way Academy Schools reduce accountability

Here’s part of an email I received from my child’s school today:


Are you a qualified accountant?

Are you a Cherwell parent, present or future, or a member of the local community, who would like the opportunity to gain a valuable insight into how the school operates whilst sharing your skills to make it an even better school in the future?

Would you like to be part of a team that is shaping and driving improvement in the education and experiences of young people in our community? 

The Cherwell School is seeking to expand the skill-base and capacity of its Governing Body. If you possess expertise in accountancy and would be interested in joining our Governing Body as a Community Governor, please contact the Clerk to The Cherwell School Academy Trust”

From time to time, I consider whether to stand for election the next time the school is recruiting parent governors. But since it’s become an Academy, I can’t – the posts always involve the requirement to have a skill that I don’t have. Few people are accountants, and by definition, no people lacking in formal educational qualifications, but who might otherwise have a great deal to offer a school as governor, are accountants. Only a tiny pool of parents can apply. So, the role of school governor is thus removed from the vast bulk of parents, the schools’ accountability in this way limited. The more accountants, the less accountability.


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Analysis of a sexual harassment blog part 2: Go for the Big Ones

Reading through the blog entries filed under ‘sexual harassment’ in the What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? blog (http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/) there were many things that struck me. One was this: that although there were many accounts where contributors discussed specific instances of harassment, there were even more where contributors discussed the general climate that was produced by concerns about harassment, and by stories about harassment. It was striking that reference to these general concerns and fears was  so dominant. I looked at 100 entries posted under the category of ‘sexual harassment’ between 2010 and 2014. Trying my best to classify these (and I realise that this is not a completely exact science), in 50 of the 100 entries (yes, that’s really the stats I got, I’m not making it up) generalised concerns were raised about sexual harassment – and by this I mean, not just generalised concerns about demeaning, derogatory or sexist cultures more generally, but general concerns about sexual harassment in particular. Additionally, I should point out that of those entries which only discussed specific instances, which I therefore did not count amongst the 50, the contributors could well have also had more general concerns about sexual harassment which were not mentioned in their more specific blog entries.

So, we can think about having (at least) two sorts of problem to tackle: individual cases of sexual harassment, and the damage this causes, and a general climate of sexual harassment, and the damage that causes.

There was a pattern of a range of repeating concerns amongst the blog entries discussing general concerns about sexual harassment. Sometimes these accounts were based upon vaguely characterised rumour. Sometimes they were based on more specific accounts of multiple cases. Some were based upon an account which focused first of all on specific instances, but which then spoke of how there was a general climate of acceptance that this was just something to be tolerated, or spoke of hopelessness about how to address any instances of harassment. Sometimes accounts talked about philosophy in general, sometimes about general climates in particular departments. Some accounts talked about the deleterious effects of this general climate of harassment: in some instances, decisions to leave university, or abandon philosophy; in some instances, behaviour avoiding certain situations, such as social events or avoiding working with certain individuals; in some instances, feeling coerced into a relationship; in some instances, feelings that the general climate of the profession is sullied by the examples of how women are treated, or sullied by the examples of those women who gain favours and professional advantage from harassers.

In some instances, contributors talked about environments in philosophy with more than one harasser; but it was also notable that many entries discussed individuals alleged to be serial harassers, with many victims over the years. There were 24 entries of the 100 which described serial harassers. Furthermore, I’d noticed that very often, entries mentioned that philosophers about whom they were complaining were well-known, prominent, very powerful in their field, having  lots of friends in the profession, or had an international reputation – all of which I categorised as ‘famous philosopher’. (Of course, some other entries might involve famous philosophers as well – given that the posts are all anonymous, it may well be the case that those writing entries did not mention how well-known a philosopher was if the writer was trying to ensure anonymity.) There were 17 entries which I’ve labelled as involving complaints about ‘famous philosophers’. Of these ‘famous’ types, 7 were alleged to be serial sexual harassers.

Of course, in theory, it might all be the same bloke!  Certainly, if someone is a serial harasser then it may well be the case that there is more than one blog entry here that complains of that person, because a serial harasser by definition will have more than one victim. (Likewise, the percentage of women who are raped is much higher than the percentage of men who are rapists, because most rapists rape more than one woman.)

And one reason why my beady little eye noticed the frequency with which reports mentioned how well-known or well-connected the perpetrator was is this: over and over, this was given as a reason for the hopelessness of doing anything about it. Over and over, it was claimed that it was a philosopher’s ‘fame’ which meant he used this allure and power to his advance in harassing others; or which meant that a department would do nothing about his actions; or which meant that a victim felt unable to act because he was well-connected, well-protected, or in the position to hamper her career.

It seems to me also likely that if a Famous Philosopher is a harasser, then this could potentially cause the most damage, for more than one reason. For one thing, the more powerful you are, the more your actions set the scene for what behaviour is tolerated in the profession as a whole. And for another thing, it seems more likely that their very fame would make it more likely that stories about them would spread. And that is a two-edged sword, as reading these blogs has made me realise. On the one hand, people are craving for information about ‘who the harassers are’ – there are explicit comments on this on the blog. On the other hand, it struck me forcibly that much of the damage is precisely that attributable to worries, concern, fear, about the rumours going around about sexual harassment in philosophy. The actual harassment causes damage. And fear of harassment causes damage. The more it’s talked of, the more people know about it, and then perhaps something can be done; but meanwhile, the more it’s talked of, the more some people will feel unsafe, if it looks like there’s not much that can be done.

But on the positive side, there were quite a few entries which expressed optimism that the situation seemed to be improving in general, or which cited ways in which individual cases had been dealt with to at least partial satisfaction (I classed an unlucky 13 entries as positive or partly positive – there were many which weren’t, of course).

So, if one has to deal with the twin issues of addressing individual cases, and addressing a general climate in which accounts of sexual harassment mar the profession and cause misery for many, then it seems strategically efficient to suggest this: go for the Big Ones. If you had a wasps’ nest in your loft, you’d clear out the nest, right? Rather than keep swiping individual wasps. You move them by moving the queen. Get any serial harassers, get any Famous Guys who are using their power wrongly, because these ones cause the most damage.

But, having thought about how frequently it seems to be that general fear of the extent of harassment in philosophy is in itself a problem, I’d say, try to do this through institutional, legal and regulatory channels. Spreading rumour might be a necessary way to get victims to come forward – as has amply been seen in many cases recently where publicity about several high profile cases of sexual assault in the UK by various ‘celebrities’ has led to hundreds coming forward. But rumour without the assurance that cases can and will be tackled effectively by the authorities, and without the assurance that there won’t be a general climate in the local culture of ‘put up and shut up’, itself causes damage. The more it can be seen that cases are actually dealt with, the more confident people will be about coming forward, the less others will feel inclined to protect the worst offenders, and the more the general climate can improve.


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Bad education

In amongst the current cat calls across Parliament about the state of British education in schools, there can be heard the cry for sex and relationship education in schools. I never thought I would be sceptical about the provision of sex education in schools until I saw my own children go through what passes for sex and relationship ‘education’. If I’d known what idiotic ideas their teachers would present to them, I’d have removed them from class for the duration of the lessons. Because if teaching can go bad in any area, in this area, it can go really, really bad.

Example: aged 9, my daughter – small for her age, slim, with very little body fat, and therefore, extremely unlikely to begin menstruating any time soon, given that there needs to be a critical level of body fat for this to happen, and given that there are genetic aspects to age of menarche and there is no family history of early menstruation – comes home from school very worried because her class teacher, a middle aged man, has told all the girls in the class that from now on, they all have to take sanitary pads into school every day, in case they start their first period.

Now, a few girls start as young as nine, but not many. For those who do, can’t the school spend a couple of quid on some pads for use in emergency? No, apparently not. They would prefer to save their money, and in doing so, give every  little girl the impression that she personally, as an individual, might start bleeding at any minute. The teacher presumably thought that this was sensible precaution given the bare possibility of commencement of menarche; what it meant however to the mind of a small girl was day after day, week after week, of worry that she was about to start her periods, and indeed, she had to carry a pad with her in any case, out of fear also of getting into trouble with her teacher. It was several years before she needed it. Moreover, can’t I, as her mother, be the one to have this chat with her? Given that it was very very unlikely that she’d start at that age, I had not yet broached the topic. How dare this complete stranger pre-empt my maternal discussion with my own daughter?

Second example: my daughter, aged about nine or ten, came home from school and told me that her teacher, the same middle aged man, had instructed the class that girls had to wear bras or else their breasts would sag. On what planet does this pass for sex education? Isn’t it up to the girl whether or not she wears a bra? Given that virtually all of them are going to want to wear bras anyway, why do they have to be told this by anyone, least of all a man? Why do they have to go to school in order to learn, to return having been told as if it’s a fact, that sagging breasts are to be avoided? What fucking business is it of my daughter’s teacher if, at some time in the future, her breasts sag or not? (What kind of a weirdo is he to care about this?)

Third example I must confess involves not  my own child but the son of a friend, who was a year or two ahead of my daughter at her secondary school. He was the kind of kid who doesn’t lie or make things up – sweet and very literal and a bit young for his age. He reported a sex and relationships lesson he’d had, aged 14, on consent to sex. The teacher explained to the class that consent to sex was only an issue for girls, not for boys. Why? Because if you’re a boy, the teacher said, if you had an erection, that meant that you were ready for sex. The lesson then proceeded to explain to boys how to tell if a girl was really up for it.

Had this been my own son who had come home with this story, I would have been at the headmaster’s office door within fifteen minutes with a gun. Okay, I haven’t got a gun, but I would have been in that kind of mind set. I would also have rung the police. Encouraging minors to engage in sexual relations is a criminal offence. Telling children (because that’s what they are) that any time a boy has an erection, he really wants sex, is to my mind encouraging them to have sex. Teenage boys get erections at the drop of a hat. And in any case the idea that sexual arousal in itself means that you really ‘want’ to have sex is monstrous. It completely destroys any notion that a human being might make any kind of judgement about whether to act on their desires or biological urges. You get an erection whilst alone with your best friend’s girlfriend? You want to have sex with her, then, according to this teacher. Your geography teacher puts his hands on your inner thigh and to your surprise, you get an erection involuntarily – you really want to have sex with your geography teacher, don’t you? He’s only just doing what you really want him to do, isn’t he, now, children?

Those who hold more conservative views about sexual relations have long had worries about the provision of sex education in schools. I never thought I would see their point of view. But what comes out of these few examples? A peculiar kind of laissez-faire, sexist, quasi-amoral liberalism. Girls, don’t let your tits sag! Boys, if you’ve got a hard-on, go for it! Makes you realise why in the old days, schools just stuck to describing the biological facts.


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Are academic philosophy departments awash with sexual harassment?

If you read some reports, you’d think so. But there are many problems with recent claims that philosophy has a particularly bad problem with sexual harassment.

One thing that has especially troubled me is that reports of the apparently high rate of sexual harassment in philosophy departments are so unsystematic. Much of this widely accepted dogma is based upon a well-known blog, What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy, and in particular, the posts on this blog classed under ‘sexual harassment’ (http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/).

If you read through these accounts, it’s very alarming. But this is a blog. Have you ever read any blogs? Have you not the slightest conception of how dodgy they are as a basis for any responsible kind of social research? I have written elsewhere about the difficulty of using blog entries to come to any conclusions at all about the prevalence and nature of any social phenomenon (http://paulaboddington.com/2013/09/evidence-of-the-prevalence-of-sexual-harassment-in-philosophy-departments-and-the-paradox-of-disconfirmation/)

But a blog itself can of course be the proper subject of scrutiny. And this blog is worth looking at, if only for the reason that it seems to be a key player in current debate and in shaping perceptions of what kind of a discipline academic philosophy currently is, and whether it’s worthwhile for women to put up with what they find there.

So, it seemed a good plan to look closely at the blog and try to do some careful analysis of what I found. I have not yet finished this, but I have in the last couple of days done some coding and analysis of what’s on the blog, and what I’ve found is at once disconcerting and reassuring.

One of the first things I realised is this: how hard it was to know how to categorise most of the reports. Why? Because of course these are only anonymised reports, and often brief, and often lacking in detail, but also because of the lack of context. Very often, it was just next to impossible to know whether or not something would constitute sexual harassment, as (variously) defined in regulation and statute. Now, partly this is because there are many reports of generally shoddy or clearly unacceptable behaviour that women have experienced, and often such reports are combined with many different aspects of a person’s experience, so it’s not always clear if the writer actually meant their experience to be classified as sexual harassment per se.

So, for instance, a report on a blog from a professional philosopher sick of the fact that every time she goes to conferences, fellow delegates try it on with her, is of course a report of an experience which the person finds at the least irritating and counter to her professional development. But weariness at the frequency of sexual overtures does not in and of itself mean that any one of the individuals making these overtures has done anything which constitutes sexual harassment (given that we are talking about two professional adults). If one man asked a woman out for a drink, or to go back to his room, and she said no, and he asked her again, and again, and again, and again, that would at some point amount to harassment. But if each time, it’s a different man, the irritated and weary woman is unlucky, but can’t, e.g., take a class action against these guys.[i]

And often, the difficulty I had in interpreting and analysing the blog reports was because there is no cultural context to work out how to interpret a remark, a set of behaviours. This was very interesting to realise, because often it’s precisely this lack of shared cultural context about what sort of language and behaviour is reasonable in certain settings which leads individuals to act or speak in ways which other individuals find offensive, repellent, or harassing. Here’s one example: it’s blindingly obvious that many of the reports, indeed, probably most of them, came from North America. In many of them, women complained about being ‘hit on’. Now, I’m not being deliberately obtuse, honestly, but I’m British, and a bit old, and I am a bit confused about how Americans use this term. It sounds unpleasant, and I’ve only ever heard it in contexts where a woman is complaining, so it sounds like something the (usually) man should not be doing, but on the other hand, when I’ve heard it used, it encompasses behaviour all the way from drooling and leering and making suggestive comments and invading personal space, and so on, down to a woman having the feeling that a man is glancing at her in ‘that way’, or talking to her as if he quite likes her. I guess nobody ever ‘hit on’ me, or else maybe I just didn’t realise they were doing it.

Joking aside, (for now I think about it, a man once came up to me at a party and admired my embouchure – I think he might have been ‘hitting on me’) some of the entries make quite clear that lack of shared cultural context is exactly the problem. What behaviour is reasonable? We don’t really know. What is flirting? We don’t really know, it depends so much on the context and on interpretation. When is flirting appropriate and when is it not? We don’t really agree. Does flirting mean that the person intends anything to follow? Well, it all depends, and people don’t seem able to find a point of agreement. Is it ever appropriate to flirt with a woman wearing a wedding ring? There’s disagreement about this. Is flirting entirely in the eye of the beholder? And so on.

One thing is crystal clear though: sexual harassment involves trespassing across boundaries. Some cases are clearly harassment (some reports detail alleged assault, one report detailed masturbation in front of a student – such behaviour is illegal). But other cases involve trespassing across boundaries where the boundary itself is in dispute. Especially given the general context of academic philosophy where there are frequent reports from women of not being taken seriously professionally, there were many cases of behaviour which against this background would be ‘bloody irritating’, may help obstruct careers, and may be demeaning and discriminatory, but not necessarily constitutive of anything which would meet the criteria for sexual harassment. (So, one thing that means is, that policies to deal with sexual harassment won’t be able to deal with those ‘not harassment’ cases which jar so much because of the general climate.)

And one of my interests in looking at all this is because of the different ways in which sexual harassment is defined in institutional policies. In some definitions, there is a large subjective element, and so for instance ‘unwanted sexual advances’ in and of itself would count as harassment. And indeed, in some contexts, any sexual advance would be rightly seen as harassing – a Professor alone in his office with a first year student, for instance, should not suddenly announce a desire to touch her breasts or to kiss her. But two students in a social context, or two staff members at a social context? Not so clear. Is an insultingly disparaging comment about feminists in itself an instance of sexual harassment? I realised I didn’t know. But if we are to have workable policies dealing with sexual harassment, we need to get as clear as possible about what counts. And it is more and more apparent that policies alone aren’t going to do the trick – there needs to be much more consensus about what counts as an appropriate, civilised and humane way of treating each other. Reading many of the blog entries I could just picture to myself situations where vast chasms of expectation and social, cultural and ethical mismatch loomed before me, which is not to say that of course, many of the accounts clearly do as described amount to sexual harassment.

Another thing which really struck me was that some of the reports detailed pretty serious consequences of experiencing harassment – depression, and in ten or eleven cases, individuals deciding to drop out of courses, leave university, leave the study of philosophy, or leave academia entirely. (Not that studying philosophy is the apex of human existence, but if a person decides to leave, it should be for positive reasons, not because of harassment.)

But also, that many reports detailed ill effects on the writer not of any specific personal experiences of harassment, but from simply knowing that there is a lot of harassment around in philosophy. Some students used this to decide to avoid certain high-ranked philosophy departments for their graduate work. For some individuals, fear of harassment prevented involvement in professional social events which can seriously hamper one’s career. So it is all the more vital to deal with harassment, to let it be known that it’s being dealt with, and moreover, to try to work out how prevalent it really is. And is it more prevalent in philosophy than in other places?

Well of course reading this blog will never ever tell you. So let’s look at some of the analysis I’ve done so far.

I looked at 100 entries (what statistical luck that there just happened to be 100) posted between 2014 and 2010. Of these, 7 didn’t actually involve philosophy, but other academic departments, so let’s exclude them from reports about what it’s like for women in philosophy. And here’s an example of how difficult it is to classify such reports for the purposes of working out if academic philosophy departments have a problem with sexual harassment: a report that involved a female philosophy student having the unpleasant experience of being groped at a party by a male philosophy student. I honestly don’t know whether to count that in with the tally of how bad it is in academic philosophy departments, because the sad reality is that people get groped at parties the world over. There was just nothing to suppose that the subject these two were both studying had anything to do with the occurrence of groping. What might make one link this to philosophy are other experiences of hostility to women within the discipline? Or one might put this down to generally bad behaviour and not link it in one’s mind with philosophy in particular? I think about this example and just think of the fact-value gap. Those working on the complex and fascinating methodological problems of how to conduct social science research have thought long and hard about the difficulty of coming up with such classifications and the normative assumptions that can so easily then be incorporated into any findings or description of social phenomena.

I then also noted that several of the entries detailed historic cases of sexual harassment, dating from the 1940s onwards. So, although the blog has given these women affected a chance to tell the world of what they went through, I decided to exclude them from any analysis of what’s going on in philosophy now, not least because there were also some reports from people expressing the opinion that things had improved for women. Fifteen or sixteen were of historic (1990s or earlier) cases of harassment. (Furthermore, although some of the remaining cases specifically mentioned that they were recent, in some cases, no evidence was given by which to date them, so there could have been further cases of historic harassment.)

Some of the blog entries did not report specific cases of harassment but just made general comments about harassment in philosophy, so again I did not count these. There were twelve such entries.

Many of the blog entries reported cases where others had allegedly experienced harassment. In some instances, these were quite specific, in other instances, this was much more general (e.g. ‘everybody knows that Prof X …’ etc). I have not yet looked through these in detail, although I intend to. So far I’ve concentrated on looking at the self-reports.

Working from a blog entry is itself fraught with difficulty in terms of knowing how fully and accurately it describes what’s going on. (Okay, this in itself raises a difficulty: if someone has been harassed, then they need support and the last thing they want is someone scrutinising what they’ve said and wondering if it really counts as harassment. I thought about this, obviously. My answer is this: I am not in that position of offering these individuals support. I can’t. I hope they already have it. My work here is based solely on what’s in the blog entries, not on what actually happened, and I am trying to be as impartial as possible.) It seemed therefore that looking at blog reports second-hand was just adding too many layers of uncertainty. On top of that, there was the chance of double-counting incidents if both self-reports and other-reports were included, and this especially so for reports about which referred to rumour and ‘general knowledge’ about harassment.

Then, my next problem was, of those entries which concerned philosophy departments, which were reports of alleged harassment affecting the reporter, and were not historic: how many of these described behaviour which amounted to harassment? One reason for posing this question was because many of the entries catalogued a variety of difficulties encountered, and because many of the entries did not specifically describe problematic behaviour as harassment – the classification I think was done by the website itself. The problem is, as was utterly apparent when I started combing through these cases, the large array of behaviour that might possibly be thought of as sexual harassment. Having thought about this for a while, I realised my answer: as long as I recognised that this was precisely the crux of the difficulty, then I could attempt my own categorisation.

How I tried to do this, given the very limited description of any one incident, was based upon different definitions of harassment in policies. Some policies have a very subjective element, and include ‘unwanted sexual advances’ as constituting harassment. If behaviour simply fell under this description (so far as I could tell) and had no other relevant features, (such as being persistent or offensive) then I tended to classify it as mild harassment. Some policies refer to what is reasonable, or to repeated behaviour, or to behaviour which has a serious or substantive deleterious effect on the recipient. It was this sort of behaviour that I classified as harassment. So, for instance, if a staff member reported unwanted sexual comments from another staff member, I’d probably think of that as  mild, whereas if a professor made a sexual advance to a student within a classroom setting, that would be unreasonable and count as serious harassment.

That’s the best I could do, I realised. Some instances I just didn’t think would count as harassment at all – for instance, cases where professional equals flirted consensually.

Now, I REALISE that others will disagree with me. But, firstly, I’m only going on slender material from which to judge cases. And secondly, that’s the whole point I’m making: there is a large variety of opinion about what behaviour is wrong, why it’s wrong, and how wrong it is – cases of assault and clear predation aside, of course. It’s the boundary issues that often feed into the problems in the first place.

Excluding historic cases, I found 48 self-reports of possible harassment involving philosophy departments and their members, of the 100 reports on the sexual harassment blog (although a few of these reported more than one incident). Of the 48, seven of these did not seem to me to be sexual harassment per se (although, I do wish to keep stressing that this does not mean that the incidents were not problematic in other ways).  Eleven I classed as either doubtfully sexual harassment, too vaguely described to judge, or as mild cases. Thirty one reports I counted as instances of sexual harassment (with two involving one person), of which four involved assault of some form.

Additionally, there were also at least four reports which just spoke of the deleterious effects on individuals of worry about the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy, as well as many further reports which included such worries and rumours as part of their content.

Of course these were entries in a blog, not any attempt to use any methods that might produce a representative sample. The reports were submitted over a four year period, over a geographical domain that included much of the English speaking world, although, given that they were anonymised, it’s hard to know exactly what area was covered.

So, are academic philosophy departments rife with sexual predators? We do not know. But my best guess is that I have yet to see any evidence that it’s any worse in philosophy than in the rest of the world. What I have seen, however, is evidence that harassment exists, and should be dealt with more effectively – although there seems to be some improvement. I also strongly suspect that the incidence of sexual harassment in philosophy may appear particularly high because of how other sorts of poor behaviour, and poor conditions for women and others at the bottom of the professional pile, rub off into a sometimes dismal general climate creating the opposite of a ‘halo’ effect – everything just looks bleak, from some perspectives in the discipline, illuminated not by a radiantly glowing halo but by the flickering fires of hell.

I have also seen some evidence to suggest that not just harassment, but fear of harassment can have seriously deleterious effects. Lesson: we have to combat not just harassment, but the fear of harassment. Getting clear about what it is, and where it is happening, and how much it is happening, would be a good place to start.


[i] Although there are some who would wish for this, in terms of banning sexual relationships completely in a professional context: that might be one thing for staff-student relationships, but if we are talking about relations between professional equals in a social setting, it’s pretty hard to see this as either desirable or possible.


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Which philosopher said this?

Prize competition:

Which philosopher said this to me in response to a question I raised at a seminar many moons ago?

Me: “How, on your view, can moral judgements provide reasons for action?”

Him: “That’s a good question.” (Pause.) “Did you think of it yourself?”

Answers on a postcard, please, to me at Hertford College.

A small clue to be found in the prize: the lucky writer of the first correct entry gets a chance to explain to the Taliban why their views on women are incorrect (must pay own airfare and insurance). (Oh, and must negotiate own access to the Taliban, etc etc.)

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On the internet, proper names are not rigid designators

One theory has it that proper names are rigid designators. A rigid designator, according to Saul Kripke who introduced the idea in his book Naming and Necessity, refers to exactly the same thing in all possible worlds.

As I see it then, there are thus two options. One, Kripke’s account is incorrect. Or two, the internet is not a possible world. It’s an impossible world.

Actually, there are three options, the third being the conjunction of the first two: Kripke is wrong, and also, the internet is an impossible world.

Why are these the only options? Because the things that can be said about a person on the internet are often so far removed from any plausible reality that by no stretch of the imagination can what’s said about the person seemingly described by the same name, pick out the same person as the one currently alive on Earth (and, perhaps, even now quietly weeping into their laptop). The internet is an impossible world, in this sense: that it distorts and lies and gives information and misinformation and obfuscation and clarity and detail and rumour, all in such a higgledy piggledy manner, that no possible sense can be made of the sum of it.

So, on the internet, proper names of course sometimes pick out the real, flesh and blood person; and sometimes don’t. Sometimes, they pick out that person’s fictitious Evil Twin, an Evil Twin which exists only in the disordered phantasy of some saddo, and those other saddos who then comment on the first saddo’s disordered phantasy, mistaking it for reality, perhaps because they read too much Kripke at graduate school and have gone slightly bonkers.

There’s an additional normative reason for thinking this too, of course: the argument from self-defence. Momentarily upset when I realised that, on the first page of google searches about me, there were posts which just talked utter garbage, I realised that the moronic speculations about what this strange person with the same name as me had or had not claimed and what could or could not be inferred from what this person had or had not allegedly implied, were so daft, the whole thing so monumentally silly, that there was no way that this could feasibly be about me, the actual me, myself, I.

With a sigh of relief, I stopped worrying, as I realised that these comments had nothing to do with yours truly at all, but with a fictional entity that existed only in the fevered imagination of people who did not know me from Adam. On the internet, proper names, far from being rigid designators, are useless, flaccid things, rather like some of those who feel free to comment whether under their own names, using a slightly silly made-up name, or anonymously, and armed only with a mistaken thesis in philosophical logic, on those they impotently attempt to name.

Paula Boddington

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Trigger warning: may contain views that may irritate some readers

I teach ethics. Like many other subjects, including literature, theology, psychology, sociology, medicine, anthropology, history, and art history, proper study of this subject will expose students to material that ‘some may find distressing’. It would be impossible to teach it without this being the case.

There are of course ways of discussing such material which are better than others, which are more sensitive than others. But should any such material be heralded with a trigger warning that some may be distressed?

Of course a trigger warning which is aimed specifically at those who suffer from post-traumatic stress alerts to the possibility of a reaction that may go well beyond any usual distress that any ordinary feeling human being would experience at the portrayal of suffering. But the thing about post-traumatic stress is this: it’s governed by a bit of the brain that knows no rationality.  Therefore, it’s next to impossible to predict what it might stick itself on to. In the years after our brush with the massacre at Port Arthur, I have had reason to be grateful that the fashion for long hair in men seems to have passed, for the sight of a young man with long blond hair is enough to bring out a strong urge to throw myself onto the floor under the nearest table. (And this, even though I have only ever seen Martin Bryant, with his long, wavy blond tresses, in photographs; apparently the imagination works overtime to create triggers that mere reality left out.) I imagine that many of the millions of Australians who also saw Bryant’s picture so many times in the news might guess that one: I remember a work colleague telling me that he could not understand why all the fair-haired men with long hair did not cut it short: to us, they all looked like Bryant, they all instilled a momentary, visceral fear. (Long blond hair = Where’s his guns?)

But what really triggered stress and panic in me was not what anyone else could possibly predict. It was white cars. This, presumably, because I’d found a woman shot dead inside a white Toyota Corolla hatchback. But why wasn’t it some other feature of the scene? Only my reptilian hindbrain could tell you, not that it’s capable of language.

So, one thing that follows is this: if a teacher takes out all the examples of, say, sexual assault, and replaces them with examples of, say, burglary, that might still be a trigger for some of the audience. In fact, a discussion of sexual assault in and of itself might not be a trigger for some survivors of sexual assault, if my own experience is anything to go by, because discussing the Port Arthur massacre, or shooting victims, in and of itself, was not.

Those who discuss potentially traumatic aspects of human experience, the dark and evil side of life, need to do so in ways which will help to enhance understanding, which will aid learning and discussion, and which exhibit the sort of sensitivity that no possible code could delineate with exactitude. And those who suffer from post-traumatic stress to the extent that they find their daily life, including their education, disrupted by the trauma, need help and support from professionals. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I’m not at all sure that giving explicit ‘trigger warnings’ will necessarily serve any purpose. It won’t be possible to cover all bases without giving them constantly. And what should those whose trauma is triggered then do? Should the teacher avoid topics ‘just in case’? Should the student leave the class?


A few months after the Port Arthur massacre, someone arrived to take me to the coast for the weekend, in a white Toyota Corolla. ‘It’s a white Toyota Corolla,’ I gasped. He didn’t seem to think that was a problem – after all, it was a different model to the one involved in the shooting, he explained to me. Not having the slightest interest in cars, I had no idea that this was the case, and more to the point, nor did my brain. So, frozen with fear, what did I do?

I can only describe it like this: I stepped out of my body, stood behind myself, and using every ounce of strength I could muster, pushed myself into the front passenger seat of the car. And off we drove to the New South Wales south coast. Now, white cars sometimes remind me of the time when I could not walk past one without stopping to check if there was somebody shot dead inside. And sometimes, they don’t.

Paula Boddington

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