Room at the inn

There’s an example by the philosopher Michael Slote used to illustrate an issue with consequentialism. A family has broken down outside a hotel. There are empty rooms available, and so the manager kindly offers them a meal and a cabin for the night at no cost.  Not the best room, but a perfectly good room. If the manager was a maximising consequentialist, then the optimal thing to do in order to maximise welfare would be to offer this family the best room available. But we would mostly agree that what the manager did was just fine, in fact more than fine: kind and thoughtful, and by giving them a perfectly adequate room for the night, no more morally need be done.

It’s an example that comes up quite often in tutorials and in students’ essays: it’s a pretty good example, really, for illustrating what seems perfectly reasonable, although of course there are various possible explanations available for why we think the actions of this hotel manager are perfectly reasonable. (For one thing, it occurs to me that there are good utilitarian reasons to think that having dreadfully luxurious rooms in hotels is unlikely to add very much if at all to the general welfare, and may well detract from it.)

But when students talk or write about this example, it’s not those issues that my mind turns to. It’s to another occasion when my family suddenly needed somewhere to stay for the night. We did have a holiday cabin booked, but we couldn’t get back to it. We couldn’t get back to it because the Tasmanian police had put a road block in the way: it was in the middle of an area sealed off to the public whilst the Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant was under siege at the Seascape Cottage bed and breakfast (not that the police actually told us that at the time – as far as we knew, he was still on the loose somewhere in the local area). Together with many other people, we’d been holed up at the hotel on the Port Arthur site, milling about anxiously and waiting to see what was going on. Those who needed to get back to Hobart were eventually told that they could get through by the back road. But there were others like us who were just trapped. The police told us that we had to stay the night at the hotel.

For those of you who don’t know the geography, at Port Arthur we were pretty much trapped in a tiny little peninsular. Even had the police allowed us back to our cabin, it would have been sheer madness to return – it was a  little wooden hut in an isolated area of woodland in which as far as we knew, Bryant was on the loose. It was the hotel on the site or nowhere.  So we stayed at the hotel.

I have always felt rather ashamed at my amazement at what happened next. We were under police orders to stay where we were. It happened to be a hotel, a commercial business. It could have been a school hall, a church, a private house, anything. I suppose we could have just kipped in the car, but with a gunman on the loose with a holdall full of semi-automatic rifles, that did not seem like a recipe for a sound night’s slumber. We had to stay in the hotel. So stay we did, along with many others. And the hotel, quite unlike the hotel in Slote’s example, didn’t even give us discount. They just charged us full rates. Despite the fact we were under police orders to stay there, and despite the fact that we, like everyone else, was in some reasonable fear of our lives, given, as I mentioned, that Martin Bryant, who had shot and killed numerous people (later determined to be 35) was still free, and still had all his guns with him. By guns, I mean semi-automatic rifles, as I mentioned before. An entire holdall full of them.

The hotel managers had a right to charge us, I suppose. But I am still amazed that they just stood there and charged us full rates. After all, it was hardly a holiday destination of anyone’s dreams. What might the brochure say? ‘Spend the night with us while police helicopters fly low overhead, lie quaking in your bed listening for the sound of gunfire and hoping that the police really do know where the gunman is, and from time to time, as you peep out cautiously through the curtains, enjoy a momentary view of our splendid surroundings.’ Hmm.

I can only suppose that in the horror of the moment, the staff just went through the motions and did what they always do. And on reflection, it probably fitted in with a consequentialist scheme of things, unlike the actions of Slote’s kindly hotel manager.

Paula Boddington

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“On a supposed right to tell the truth”: Support for freedom of speech does not mean we all have to provide space on the internet for everyone else to have their say

There is a fundamental misunderstanding around concerning freedom of speech. It is this: the apparently common view that freedom of speech requires individuals to provide space in the comments section of their websites for the obnoxious, boring, inconsistent, rude, tedious, ungrammatical views of every Tom Dick and Harriet who happens to wish it. And that, having provided such space, they must above all not delete any comments, without trespassing on the Golden Calf of free speech.

This, luckily, is an error. There is no general duty to provide others with a platform for their views. That’s what Hyde Park Corner is for.

Additionally to Hyde Park Corner, Tom Dick and Harriet can even now, for a modest annual fee, set up their own website to express their views online, where others can freely read it, or freely ignore it. So those of you who can’t get to London need have no fear. You could even publish your views as an e-book! You can do what the hell you like with your views. But what you can’t do is claim that if someone removes your views from a particular space, then ipso facto your freedom of speech is violated.

Your freedom of speech is violated only if you are forbidden to express your views in any manner, or, to refine this somewhat (because of course concrete substance is important as well as abstract rights), if you are not allowed to express your views in any manner where you’d be reasonably seen as participating in the social hum of general communication. Of course, nobody at all might listen to you. But that’s their right too.

So, given Hyde Park Corner, given the possibility of walking along the street muttering to yourself, given the chance to put a poster in your own window, given the bar at the local pub, given the internet and the possibility of setting up your own website, removal of views from particular internet locations which somebody else has paid for, has set up, and is running, does not, as far as I can fathom, amount to a violation of freedom of speech.

So why do people seem to think it does? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s some hangover from that phase of childhood in which ‘Look at me! Look what I can do!’ is the most dominant driver of behaviour, so that others are lulled into thinking that every shout to be heard must get its response. But what it often means is that if someone writes some old crap on a comments section, there seems to be a default idea that any removal of that old crap is prima facie a violation of free speech and so has to be justified in some often pretty rigorous terms. Some old crap was written about me a while back. When I politely pointed out to the geezer running the website that it was a bunch of old crap, the pious response was I suspect typical: that of course they had no wish to have comments which were false or defamatory, but since they wished to uphold freedom of speech, they’d only remove them if I could show in detail what exactly was wrong with them. Now, had this website-hosting geezer said, ‘I’ll allow whatever I jolly well want on my website, and will only remove it if there are legal reasons for me to do so’ that would have been fair enough. But why the reference to free speech? Apart from making it sound as if I was some kind of Stalinist or apologist for North Korea.

Does freedom of speech mean that we have to abandon editing? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we can’t tell someone to shut up if they start discussing their views on bestiality over the pudding course? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we have to sit there listening to unpleasant gossip about someone’s substandard personal hygiene, unable to block our ears for fear of violating a fundamental principle of liberal society? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we can make a bitchy remark when a perfectly non-bitchy remark would have done the job? Well, of course, maybe the recipient of the bitchy remark deserved it, but freedom of speech in itself does not give us a general license to speak in any way, at any time, in any arena.

The problem arises from a failure sufficiently to appreciate the many social and ethical norms which govern communication, and to focus too much on the simple idea of information being transmitted or repressed. This is an extremely common oversight, and one I’ve come across and written on in much of my research work. For instance, philosophers and lawyers interested in questions about the transmission of medical or genetic information talk about who has a right to know, or who has a right not to know. The whole emphasis is solely on some information, some knowledge, and who has it, or who does not have it. But when sociologists actually ask people about what matters to them, a whole vista of extra moral concern opens up – how to tell, who deserves to know, what the best time to tell is, how exactly to put it, what to leave out, what to include.

Likewise, if concern about freedom of speech only considers the brute information, then it can quickly erode into a simplistic slogan that any piece of information can be spoken or written at any time and in any manner, and from there, morph to the idea that any piece of information has some kind of right to be in any particular place. Put like that, it’s obviously false. Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘On a supposed right to tell lies from benevolent motives’ defended a view that few find defensible, that even if some gert big burly bloke (translating freely from the German) were to come to the door armed with an axe and say ‘Where’s her indoors got to then, mate? Tell us quick, ain’t got time to hang about, like,’ one must stick to the duty of truthfulness and tell him that she’s just upstairs having a shower, right behind that flimsy nylon shower curtain. Many think this is so patently absurd that they take it as a reductio ad absurdum of Kant’s moral philosophy. Of course we have a right to lie from benevolent motives. And we also have a right to delete comments on the internet from benevolent motives. Or indeed, for any other motive.

Paula Boddington

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Personal Genome Project UK email disaster: If you can’t guarantee privacy, at least try to ensure trust

It’s not often that you can write on a topic in ethics whilst rolling around laughing, so I shall take this rare opportunity to make a few comments on the ludicrous breach of privacy that occurred last night when the Personal Genome Project messed up something as simple as an email list.

I’d expressed an interest in taking part in this project which aims to sequence the genomes of hundreds of thousands of people and make these available, together with trait information, to researchers. There are clear potential worries about privacy here, as there is a potential to identify individuals from such a rich source of information. Nonetheless, I was excited to take part. After all, many of the people I know and love the most would not be alive today were it not for advances in medical science which have helped to treat diseases such as cancer and type 1 diabetes. In the past, many have risked life and limb for medical science. What was the potential of a little breach of privacy to worry about? Besides which, there has been considerable attention to ethics, privacy, and security around this project. There’s a whole ethics crew. Presumably they only hire the crème de la crème of data and IT experts. Surely these guys could be trusted to use our information wisely, and to do all they could to prevent irresponsible use?

So, knowing that there had seemingly been a large interest in taking part, I rushed to complete the initial online enrolment, hoping that I was going to be chosen. The next part of enrolling required reading through extensive documents and promised to take over an hour to complete, so at that stage I went to bed. Only to wake this morning to an email inbox chock full of hundreds of emails from other participants; the email list just copied and sent emails back to everybody who was trying to enrol. Some of these emails just gave the name of other participants, and for those who’d replied to the list, some email addresses were also visible.

Hilarious! A quick check on twitter revealed a lot of enraged, bemused and amused tweeters. Here’s a selection:

Signed up for Personal Genome Project – be sequenced for med research. They’ve publicised email addresses of all volunteers. Privacy anyone?

Can we get a hashtag going for the #PersonalGenomeProject fuckup? #isurvivedtheemailstorm

I won’t be taking part in the personal genome project. Ridiculous questionnaires & don’t appreciate >140 spam emails because of incompetence

Woke up to hundreds of emails from Personal Genome Project volunteers, cheers. Such incompetence, very reassuring, wow.

Withdrawing from Personal Genome Project – if going to be this careless with emails then I don’t think I want to be sequenced after all.

I wonder if #PersonalGenomeProject are making a point to drum home the potential implications of contributing to the project

Really starting to regret signing up to the personal genome project, too many emails, really not happy!

Greatly enjoying the Personal Genome Project train wreck that is happening in my email inbox right now.

I’ve got about fifty emails from the Personal Genome Project mailing list. They said they couldn’t guarantee privacy, but this is ridiculous

Dont think I’ll trust personal Genome Project UK (PGP-UK) with my DNA if they cant even keep their email system anonymous

HOLY SHIT this email storm is from the Personal Genome Project. If they cant handle email-list privileges then they’re not getting my Genome

These responses are pretty predictable. At least they have solved at a stroke the problem of how to sift through the excess number of people who volunteered – I wonder if they will make the total number of volunteers needed now?

There is a simple lesson to be learned from this – the fragility of trust. There are two basic strategies for ensuring ethical conduct of research: one, through robust regulations and practices which protect participants; two, through the trustworthiness of those managing research – that they have the competence and virtues necessary to handle the information entrusted to them, for the betterment of humanity whilst protecting the individual.

Anyone who wished to volunteer for this would have to be pretty comfortable with the possibility that their privacy could be breached, because there would be so many points of information available that it would be more than a theoretical possibility that to narrow this down to a precise individual. But those volunteering would also presumably probably have a commitment to advancing medical science and knowledge of human biology; and perhaps, like me, considered that the potential for privacy breach by outsiders was weighed against a prima facie high degree of trust that the Personal Genome Project was being managed by researchers with a high degree of probity, academic excellence, and competence. They must employ the best people, right? They must use the latest data management techniques, right? They’re at the cutting edge of all this, right?

Well, actually, no. This morning, a few tried to downplay this disaster by pointing out that email addresses weren’t shared, but this was false: actually whilst most of the emails that came round only displayed people’s names, for those who then replied, their email addresses then became visible to the whole group. Moreover, people can be identified from their names, of course!  Not everybody is called Mary Smith or John Brown.

But the real point is not that names and email addresses were shared. It’s not just that people were irritated that, for the trouble of volunteering for this project, their email boxes were chock full of rubbish. It’s that trust evaporated overnight with this idiotic breach of security. The entire point of this project depends upon something utterly crucial to the heart of it: the trust that those running it know how to manage data. The project is all about good data management. And they can’t even do that. A glitch in how the email list is managed can be sorted out in a minute or two. A breach of trust takes much, much longer.

Paula Boddington

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Subjectivism in Metaphilosophy: towards a definition

Subjectivism in metaphilosophy, at least in the form dominant in the early part of the 21st century, is view that the value and correctness of a view in philosophy consists entirely in its acceptance by an elite oligarchy of top-rated philosophers at a handful of well-financed universities in the English speaking world. A refined, and probably more correct, version of this view is that strictly speaking, the value and correctness of a view in philosophy consists in the acceptance by an elite oligarchy of philosophers of the main proponent ( or proponents) of a philosophical view, since correctness is generally an ‘ad hominem’ centred construction.

Points to note: firstly, this is not to say that those picked out as being the main proponents of a view actually are its originators, or even those who have done most to develop it. They are those who simply, through the course of philosophical practice especially expressed through the medium of certain conferences, seminars, drinks and dinners, and an oblique and preferential system of referencing, have become, by an oligarchical elite, associated most strongly with that view. This view then is properly understood as ‘double subjectivism’.

Secondly, ‘acceptance’ is not to be understood in a merely conative way. Acceptance implies and necessarily entails (i) invitations to speak (ii) milling about with the right people in conference breaks (iii) a complex web of mutually reinforcing referencing amongst a small circle of other elite philosophers (iv) exclusion of other views and other philosophers as ‘outliers’ as indicated in various ways with social stigmata indicating lower social standing; and may in addition almost certainly but optionally involve (iv) close personal relationships from within a medium-sized pool of philosophical elite.

Tools to keep the status quo include:

Subtle ‘failure’ to notice the attempts of others to speak at seminars; positioning of the critical comments of others as ‘failures to understand’ the doctrines of the ruling elite; keeping up the ‘noble lie’ of so-called ‘blind reviewing’. This is of course reinforced institutionally at a high level by formal structures such as the so-called Research Excellence Framework (REF); and by including as a criterion for high-level appointment not any reference to the quality of a candidate’s research per se, but the criterion ‘must have an international reputation’. ‘International reputation’ can be cashed entirely and without loss by the following equivalent proposition ‘must have a large group of mates who are already in positions of philosophical power’.

Paula Boddington

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Clarity and fairness in harassment policy and practice

Oxford University is currently considering revisions to its ‘Statute XII’. This was introduced in 1988 when tenure of academics was scrapped, and deals with the employment conditions of many (but not all) of the academics working in the university (staff below a certain level, or working for colleges only but without a university contract, such as myself, are excluded, for instance). The following text will appear in the Oxford Magazine for second week of Trinity Term 2014.

Part D of Statute XII deals with Discipline, Dismissal, and Removal from Office. Hence, a case being under Part D may first arise under other policies which deal with unacceptable behaviour. This includes policies concerning harassment and bullying. There is thus a need to ensure that Statute XII can be applied consistently and effectively from the operation of such policies, and in particular, that the principles contained in Part A of Statute XII are upheld, including the principles of justice and fairness. These must be protected not just for all the parties immediately involved in a case, but for the sake of the wider academic community and the reputation of the University.

Laws concerning discrimination, and harassment law in the form of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, have come into force since Statute XII was created, and prompted the creation of institutional harassment policies. How well are those in Oxford working within the framework of Statute XII?

There is no definition of harassment within Statute XII, so any case involving such allegations must look elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. Most accounts of harassment acknowledge the difficulty of providing a definition. Whilst the nature of the beast does make a precise definition difficult, any definition must try to avoid too much unclarity and above all, unfairness. The university’s policy on harassment gives a definition which is perhaps typical in embodying an essential tension between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ elements.[i] On the one hand, ‘11. Behaviour will not amount to harassment if the conduct complained of could not reasonably be perceived as offensive’; but on the other hand, it explicitly states that ‘16. The intention or motives of the person whose behaviour is the subject of a complaint are not conclusive in deciding if behaviour amounts to harassment or bullying’. Whilst the effect on any alleged victim must of course be relevant, to have a definition which incorporates a subjective element without reference to the intention or motive of the alleged harasser opens the way to dispute. The definition of harassment also to be found on the University’s website given by the University’s Occupational Health Service takes a subjective element even further and says ‘Harassment is considered to be unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. … The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.’[ii]

I would suggest that for an individual to be open to charges which are formed entirely from the subjective content of the mind of another person cannot be just: an individual must have a reasonable chance of avoiding a charge driven by malice or personal pique, and must have a reasoned way of countering such allegations of wrong doing.

Some college definitions of harassment include a ‘serious’ and ‘substantial’ terminology which may go some way towards addressing this issue; although the very fact that definitions of harassment vary within the collegiate university is a further cause of the confusion that pervades such cases.[iii]

There are great difficulties here, because just what is reasonable behaviour in the academic context is precisely what is in dispute, amongst changing social and cultural contexts, as, for example, is entirely evident in recent and heated discussions around harassment in philosophy departments in particular.[iv] In illustration, for readers of the ‘What is it like to be a woman in philosophy’ blog, it is apparent that there is a large spectrum of views about what behaviour is or is not reasonable, from somewhat staggering accounts of alcohol-fuelled hyper-sexualised culture, to notions that all relations within a university must always and at all times be entirely formal.[v] Indeed, on some  definitions of harassment within the collegiate University, ‘unwanted sexual advances’ counts as harassment;[vi] (for all who are not mind-readers, the safe policy might be to avoid even mentioning anything as innocent as going for coffee). No wonder some people are worried about how to police their own behaviour.

A recent case concerning the suicide of a graduate student in Oxford has received considerable attention both at Oxford and indeed in the national, and international, press. Since it is in the public domain, I shall discuss aspects of this case for the lessons that might be learned for understanding difficulties of constructing policies for dealing with disciplinary cases involving harassment.

At the inquest, a public hearing of course, evidence was given relating to an allegation of harassment against an Oxford University employee.[vii]  This was reported widely in the press, but perhaps for our purposes, the most significant article was that in the Oxford Mail on February 27th. This reported that the University of Oxford confirmed that a review into the death had taken place and that the staff member mentioned in allegations made before the death, Dr Jeffrey Ketland, remained an employee. ‘A university spokesman said: “A university review concluded in October. Its purpose was to inform senior members of the university of the circumstances of [the] death and to advise on any future steps. The findings of the review remain confidential, but the university is continuing to consider the most appropriate action as a consequence.”’[viii]

Because of the confidential nature of harassment cases, no information at all had been forthcoming, including information about when any concern raised might be resolved. So, when a grieving, concerned group of students, including some very close to the events, had been told nothing could be revealed, then read, months later, that a university spokesman had issued a statement to a journalist, but not to the Faculty, this produced understandable fury and confusion. More thought needs to be given about how to handle such unusually fraught cases and to balance the concerns of the wider community with the need for confidentiality to protect all concerned in a painful and stressful matter. The case now is apparently resolved; although conditions of confidentiality prevent the university from commenting, Dr Ketland himself announced in the Leiter Reports blog that he had been ‘terminated’ from Oxford as from April 2014;[ix] the announcement was also reported in Cherwell.[x]

Lack of transparency about the procedural aspects can lead to escalation and confusion. On March 5th, a group of 135 students published an open letter to the Vice Chancellor and others, (which was later that same week endorsed by OUSU), in which lack of comment about the case from the University was linked to what was described as a ‘difficult atmosphere in the Philosophy Faculty’.[xi] This letter expresses precisely a widespread lack of trust that harassment charges are not being taken seriously. The letter went on to suggest that in order to comply with its duty of care towards students, a policy of suspension pending during a review process should be adopted.

It was reported at a Philosophy Faculty meeting shortly afterwards that some students did not feel safe regarding harassment. I would suggest that feelings of unsafety are likely to stem from a general anxiety that the policies and procedures of harassment in the institution are not working.

The risk of injustice is manifest when expectations are raised which cannot be met, or when uncertainty is created which then in turn acts to undermine trust. It is crucial to  note that in any system where ‘charges’ are levelled (to use Statute XII language) but where these are dealt with under a thick blanket of confidentiality even about procedural matters, the level of trust which is expected of the university community in relation to the handling of harassment cases has to be extremely high. In making this point, I am quite sure that a significant part of the escalating lack of trust among many graduate students was precisely attributable to numerous areas of uncertainty with regard to policy. Again, it must be emphasised that the provision of a workable, fair and just policy for dealing with cases of harassment is a matter not just for individuals involved in such cases, but for the University community as a whole. Indeed, the harassment policy for Hertford College states that ‘harassment is demeaning and damaging not only to the victim but also to the college’; inclusion of such an explicit statement in policy more widely may be welcome.[xii]

A large part of this uncertainty is created by the very cumbersome nature of harassment policy and procedures and difficulties in piecing together how the process even works. The difficulty of achieving a good level of understanding of the process needs to be taken very seriously. It can be hard for students (and also for staff) to comprehend the complex structures of the university and who is responsible for what. Greater clarity in material for understanding and navigating the complex procedures would be welcome.

There is explicit inconsistency within statements about harassment procedures. Students have raised the point that University harassment policies state that cases should be normally dealt with within six weeks.[xiii] However, this is patently absurd when dealing with the complex procedures outlined under Statute XII. Expectations are raised which cannot be fulfilled. We are of course on the horns of a dilemma that it is precisely the serious cases which need to be dealt with most promptly. Naturally if a student body feels a lack of trust in disciplinary proceedings then they are much more likely to ask for stricter remedies. Clearing away uncertainties and inconsistencies would be one step in the right direction. More effective and routine use of mediation would also be another, as suggested in last week’s Oxford Magazine by G. R. Evans.[xiv]

A community needs to feel an extremely high level of trust in any situation where serious charges are dealt with under conditions of strict confidentiality. Injustice for the goose is injustice for the gander: if any party to a case feels unfairly treated, this casts doubt upon the outcome for all concerned; serious thought needs to be given to how justice can be seen to be done when cases are dealt with so confidentially that it may become impossible to gather evidence and hold a fair hearing.

Paula Boddington

[i] University Policy on Harassment and Bullying,



[iv] There is much recent discussion, for example on the blog The Leiter Reports,

[v] ‘What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?’

[vi] See for instance,

[vii] It is vital to emphasise that the coroner made no findings of responsibility or blame; it was revealed at the inquest on February 26th that the student concerned had been, sadly, under a number of different pressures, and no note was found.

[viii] ‘Oxford Student With History of Depression Took Own Life’, Oxford Mail, February 27th 2014,


[x] ‘Tutor Jeffrey Ketland “terminated” after harassment case’, Cherwell, March 26thh 2014,

[xi] The Open Letter was first published in the Feminist Philosophers website, before being reproduced elsewhere:


[xiii] University Procedure on Harassment and Bullying, section 39.

[xiv] ‘Rethinking dispute-resolution in Oxford’, G R Evans, Oxford Magazine no. 347, Noughth Week Trinity Term 2014, 3 – 4

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For my friend and colleague, Susan Helen Hogben

I was lucky to meet Susan in 2003 through our research work at Cardiff University. Susan had originally studied English at Portmouth Poly. After graduating, she worked in London at Spittalfield’s Market before moving to Cardiff to take a Masters degree in Language and Communication, followed by a PhD on the topic of missing people. She won a departmental award for Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student; her research too made an impact; the National Missing People’s Helpline made changes to the language of their advertisements, and focused more attention upon the people left behind, the ‘missees’ as Susan called them. Susan also worked as an artist with S2, on projects remembering the disappearance of a rapidly changing Cardiff. She gained a research position at Cardiff University, and following that held posts at the University of Glamorgan, then at the University of Ulster; her head of school described her as a popular, committed and enthusiastic colleague, with great creativity in her approaches with students. She was offered work at the University of Copenhagen, but returned to Cardiff and worked for the Open University. All her students commented on her remarkable talents as a teacher, and the generosity with which she shared her knowledge. And notable too, were the topics of her research: her perceptive attention to matters of justice, and her steely focus on those who live on life’s margins. Susan was no mere academic; she lived a much richer life and brought her insights into the troubles and difficulties that face so many, her empathy with those who have least in life, into her careful, rigorous research.

In some of Susan’s work, she talked of how a text may frame a subject in order to draw attention towards certain aspects, or away from certain aspects.

But however you frame Susan, there’s one thing that’s clear: she stands out from any background. Here’s some things to remember: Being dragged around every single restaurant in Reykjavik with each one in turn dismissed as unsuitable; Susan refusing to eat food if there was more than one red thing on the plate; Susan carefully explaining to me the rhetorical significance of three part lists. And always in the frame, the unspoken truths that we wish Susan could have believed in more: that she was unique, that she exuded truthfulness, rigour and honesty; that she was brilliant, she was brave.

But Susan’s outstanding quality was simply this: she was Susan.

At work, she was the brightest, the most intense, the most passionate academic. The project we worked on was called ‘The genetic testing of children’. How poignant, given Susan’s own story, that she had the perception to point out that the project was actually about genetic testing in childhood, because we are all, always, even as adults, the children of someone. With her unerring ear for the underdog, she simply called the Institute of Medical Genetics, where doctors did little other than tell people they had something wrong with them, ‘Quality Control’. All of you who loved her should know this: that Susan was adamant that a short life is no less valuable than a long life. She spoke delightedly of a woman she’d interviewed who was so full of life, despite her fatal degenerative disorder; her son enthusiastically gave her wheelies along the seafront in her wheelchair. Susan used to say the theme tune for our project was ‘Che Sera, Sera’. Che sera, sera, Susan.

Most importantly, she had the highest, most unshakable integrity of anyone I’ve worked with in her stance towards the conduct of research and academic life. Rightly impatient of shoddy practice, she had the guts to do something few ever do, and preferred unemployment to compromise. Hats off to you, Susan.

She could also be a little annoying; to hear Susan say yet again that the text ‘just needed to be tweaked a little’ would bring a feeling of incomparable dread. Yet out of all this, Susan badgered and thought and rethought and pushed on to create insightful contributions to scholarship; to work with her was to learn much, from a careful and committed educator.

She was the perfect friend. She directed her energies with torpedo-like precision at this task. One article we wrote together showed how choice of example will skew the conclusions that you draw; nonetheless, with apology, I’m going to use some examples of my own here; you will all have your own too. As a house-guest, she arrived with her tool box, ready to help. She was with me at a conference in Berlin when I was told that my son had been taken into hospital; with no flights out that night, Susan knew instinctively how to comfort a worried mother. She was with me again at a conference in Iceland; together with Suzie we laughingly refused to join in the forced intimacy of naked late night swims with our fellow delegates and instead enjoyed the delightful camaraderie of the unsociable. When I managed to discover the plot number of the grave of my maternal grandmother, who’d herself died in terrible circumstances as a young woman, Susan came with me to the cemetery. I didn’t ask her to come; she just realised I needed support and rose to the occasion. We stopped on the way at a café and ate an obscenely large fry-up, then traipsed around until we found the right place: Susan held my hand as we stared together at the sunken, unattended plot of grass, then gave me practical information about how to get a headstone made. Her kindness and insight was so much a part of who she was, that I don’t think I ever thought to remark on it.

Susan got to you. She saw through people with the same insights she brought to language: with the same keen appreciation of fine detail within a synoptic view of the whole. She was an acute observer of others, their strengths and their foibles, and this was not always comfortable, although in the end, the truth is always comforting. She could work out things about a person that nobody else had noticed. How, Susan? From where did you get the brilliant clarity of your vision?

Susan, there was no one like you. You were a truly good person. You have been taken from us too soon, far too soon; you, who were so strict to complete every text you wrote until it reached the highest standard – how can it be that the story of your life has ended so abruptly, the page torn, the words run out? How can you be the missing person now? How can we be those left behind, bewildered that you have vanished? Now the only thing we can do with our grief is to try to work, to think about life, and to live life, to the incomparably high standards that you have set.

With love to Susan, from Polar Bear-dington

Susan Helen Hogben, taken from us April 6th 2014

Paula Boddington

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Heaven save me from the hypocrisy of humanist funerals

The first humanist funeral I attended was bad enough. A funeral is not a philosophy lecture. Yet the humanist who oversaw the service saw fit to give what I came to realise is the almost obligatory advertisement for humanism, by reading out a passage from Lucretius which argues that, since we don’t worry about the time before birth when we don’t exist, neither should we worry about the time after death when we don’t exist. I almost stuck my hand up to make a comment. ‘Please, Miss,’ I wanted to say, ‘surely that’s because the time before birth is in the past? We don’t worry about the time we went to the dentist last year. We worry about the next time we are going.’

I might also have added that I used to teach this very text in a philosophy course on life and death, and that although of interest historically, taken out of context like that, the points made were full of flaws. But that would have been of secondary import compared to the other source of my discomfort. The bloke in the box had studied Greats at Oxford. ‘Oh, appropriate to quote Lucretius, then’, one might think. But that’s not what I thought. How inappropriate, for someone who gave no apparent sign of insight into the text, to be speaking at the funeral of someone who’d studied ancient philosophy and who would surely have some interesting things to say. No, that was not the point, to honour this particular person. The point was to ram humanism down our throats.

‘I’m quite sure he wasn’t a humanist’, I thought to myself all through the service. I’m not even sure he was an atheist. Maybe just an agnostic. But he never showed to me any trace of much if any grand faith in the human race and its progress, quietly sociable as he was. He just did an honest day’s work, provided for his family, and sat in the corner getting quietly sozzled in a charmingly genial, hospitable, cultured sort of way. Low key suburban kind of humanism, if it was humanism at all.

The next humanist funeral which looms large and horrible in my memory was one in which the person leading the service more or less pointed to the coffin and declared, with a kind of defiance which made ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ sound like a soothing lullaby, that in the coffin was simply a corpse; the person was gone; there was no life after death,  no continuation whatsoever of the human soul, no such thing; that was it, finito. Well, that’s what a lot of people believe, as we all know, and maybe it’s true, but no need to rub it in. If someone says ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection’ one is at least free to dismiss this as a more dramatic version of Father Christmas coming down the chimney, and little harm is done. To chortle in front of the grieving that ‘yes, you’re right, he’s dead, dead, dead as a fucking dodo, deal with it’ had me for one running from the crematorium to the nearest glass of sherry.

Uncle John had a humanist funeral as well. Funny he lived to the age of 94 without mentioning his beliefs to us. I knew he was a very committed head teacher. I knew he was a fanatical lover of classical music. I knew he was extremely interested in Welsh history, that he’d also travelled to historic sides in the near east. Never knew he was a humanist, though. Must have been too shy to tell us.

The most distressing of all was the funeral of a friend who’d been a life-long Catholic, whose family gave her a humanist funeral. Maybe there’s something she never told me, but even had she had a reversal of the last minute death bed conversion, and had a death bed loss of faith, it was quite a stretch of my imagination to see her as a humanist. I mean, I thought humanists had great faith in the human race. This friend was always and unstoppably interested in people. In fact, she told me that she didn’t want to die because she was nosy and always wanted to find out what happened next. But a humanist? Great faith in people? She had a great love for many people, but a love that endured despite being extremely conscious, extremely perceptive, of the flaws of the human race. Is that humanism?

What distresses me about all these particular cases that I have known of – and there are more – is that in most of these, it seemed to me that those organising the funeral had fallen for the claim that a humanist funeral was simply some neutral alternative to a religious service. But this is false. In many cases, the celebrant or whatever they are called, used the occasion to proselytise humanism. It’s just not appropriate at any funeral. It’s certainly not appropriate if the person who’s dead wasn’t a humanist; it distracts from the real purpose, to honour their life, their particular being. A quietly self-effacing vicar, who more than likely will understand full well if the deceased had no steady faith, or even none at all, is a better bet for a discreet service that allows us to focus on the person, and not on some new semi-articulated, semi-creed. Forgive me if I sound cynical, humanists, but you’re the guys who insist on having such high hopes of the human race, so if I let you down, you’ve got your over-high expectations to blame.

Moreover, it seems to me that in many cases, those who have lost the faith of their upbringing, or who never had a faith, don’t just seem to replace that with the faith in humanity that humanism seems to require. Just as likely, perhaps more likely, faith is lost, or never found, because of a general agnosticism and uncertainty, or because of a general failure to find faith in anything grander than the domestic and other smaller comforts of life. That surely can’t be humanism – ‘he loved his wife and kids and enjoyed their annual holiday, and thought his job was sort of okay really’???

Paula Boddington

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“Why the prurient interest in media reports of other people’s deaths?” – perhaps they’re read John Donne, silly

Each time a celebrity dies, someone, somewhere, probably a Guardian writer, possibly even two Guardian writers, and for all I know, many other journalists or so-called journalists, will write a piece about ‘what on earth are all those plebs doing taking such a ghoulish, prurient interest in the death of someone they don’t even know?’ Accusations will be  made in the columns of right-thinking newspapers, for once aligned with the nasty guys on twitter, about the false grief – sorry, ‘faux’ grief, of those who pretend to be upset that someone has lost their life at 27 (it’s usually 27) or 25, or 42, or whatever. How could people possibly be really upset? ‘I mean’, the writer might add, ‘I did meet her once, so it’s a teency bit sad for me, but for the likes of our muck common readers? Give it a rest, you don’t really feel sad, this is nothing to do with you, run along now and live your tedious lives. Surely someone you actually know has actually died? Mourn them, suckers.’

Only, here’s the news for you, cynical writer in the ‘quality’ papers. (For the tabloids don’t seem to worry about this.) These pitiful readers are mourning  people they actually know. The news of the death of any person will trigger this mourning. That’s how it works. So why don’t the posh papers know this? Oh, silly me – they do. They sell papers with it – they just cater to the schizoid nature of their readership by slagging off those susceptible to this phenomenon at the same time, just to cover all bases.

There might be something about some particular person in the news that just gets you. Me, I cried for a week when Diana died, and I’ve got four degrees, so I must be clever & all that. But there was something I could relate to about her, and something that triggered in me grief that she’d died just when there might have been hope that her life was getting on track. The fact that I never met her is neither here nor there. The fact that I don’t really know if what was reported about her is true or not is neither here nor there. I do have it on good authority, though, that she was a human being, and therefore, someone whose life mattered. So I got sad when Peaches Geldof died – not because it’s any sadder that this 25 year old died, or that those two little boys are left motherless, but because it’s just sad, whoever she was. Nonetheless, of course I felt much, much, much sadder that someone I did know and love died the same week, at an early age, in a terrible accident.

What’s more, these are stories of real people. (And, did you know something very interesting, celebrities are actually people. Strange but true.) So here’s another reason why people read these tragic stories. To stand witness to the sorrows of others.  I’ll tell you how I found out about this reason. On April 28th, 1996, I was on holiday in Port Arthur, Tasmania. On that day, as any Australian will tell you, Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people, and injured about 80 more. Having had a timely row with my then husband, we delayed our visit to the Port Arthur site, a row which very possibly saved our lives. On the way down to Port Arthur, shortly after, unbeknownst to us, Bryant had fled, I found the body of a young woman, shot dead as she tried to escape. I grabbed my young son from our car, ran and hid in the local garage. A couple of hours later, we were transferred to a hotel where with many others, we watched in mute horror as the news came on the TV and we started to realise just how many were dead.

Afterwards, I read newspaper reports about the shootings and the victims for weeks and months with careful, horrified attention. I felt a duty to read their stories, a duty to stand and witness their brutal passing, to acknowledge their lives. And since then, with similar stories, I have felt the same need to witness, to recognise, the human loss. True, sometimes I turn aside from such accounts, too weary to take in any more. But whether the person is a random stranger plucked from life by a crazed gunman, or a celebrity famous since birth whose every move is watched by the world, it is another human life lost.

So maybe all those ‘prurient’, tacky readers soaking up news of the latest tragic demise are not just ghoulish; maybe they are not expressing insincere pseudo-grief. Maybe they have just read John Donne, and know that no man is an island, and that each man’s death diminishes us.

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Shock new findings from Ancient Greece: electronic recording of thought traces

The world of archeology, neuroscience and philosophy are astir with the shock discovery in Athens that, by combining modern techniques of sound recording, echolocation, neuroscience, and educatedguessworkism, the original Platonic dialogues have been reconstructed in a form that actually displays the unspoken thought processes of the interlocutors as well as the written text.

Unfortunately, only a fragment has so far been processed. The following extract from Plato’s The Meno however shows great insight into the dialogic nature of philosophical discourse. Scholars hope it will shed new light on the psychology of philosophical debate and add to current debates about philosophical method.

Readers of this blog have an exclusive, world first preview:

Socrates. And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question, “What is virtue?” would do well to have his eye fixed: Do you understand? (Jeez, how simple do I have to make this for this loser?)

  Meno. I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the question as I could wish. (fucking tosser; he’s doing this on purpose)

  Socrates. When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman? (ha ha, I’m going to get this twat with this one)

  Meno. I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman. (Okay, okay, another trick fucking question coming up.)

  Socrates. And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same strength subsisting in her which there is in the man. I mean to say that strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any difference? (great, he’s taking the bait. Let’s see him wriggle out now)

  Meno. I think not. (shit, there must be something I can think of in reply … crap, why does my mind always freeze over when this Socrates jerk gets going?)

  Socrates. And will not virtue, as virtue, be the same, whether in a child or in a grown-up person, in a woman or in a man? (Bet this twat hasn’t read Wittgenstein or anything … there are so many obvious retorts to this idiotic question but I’ve made him feel so uncomfortable now he’ll never think of them in time, especially if I keep up this aggressive rhetorical questioning)

  Meno. I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from the others. (I’m sure that arsehole knows it is too, and he’s worked this all out before he even got here. Shit, why didn’t I check this out on the Stanford Encyclopedia before I came to this fucking seminar?)

  Socrates. But why? Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house? (I’m enjoying this now)

  Meno. I did say so. (Bugger. Did I say that? I’m sure I didn’t mean it like that. Should I change my mind now? Or will I seem weak if I do that? Should I reply to his question with a question? How long til the drinks?)

  Socrates. And can either house or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without justice? (Going for the slow march to the scaffold now)

  Meno. Certainly not. (Shit, is that X in the audience? Isn’t he on the shortlisting committee for that fucking job? Fuck. Fuck.)

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The economy of career progression

The relative lack of progression of women through the career ranks is explained by many different factors. One of them is surely women’s relative economic power. This is twofold: firstly, the bare fact that women’s salaries are still less than men’s. And secondly, ways in which women may make spending decisions, especially once they have families. The first point is well-documented; the second point is one for which I don’t have rock-hard empirical data, (but which maybe some social scientist somewhere does) and which also surely will be subject to a great deal of individual variation, and will apply also to many men, but which I illustrate with a story. To see my point, it will be important to recognise the ways in which money is more than just pounds and pence, but is earned with differing relative costs, and spent with different relative costs.

But first, to some complexities. These economic difficulties in career progression will affect women more than men in some specific ways in different professions. So, for example, in certain workplace settings where it’s important not just to dress smart, but to dress really smart, there are more pressures on women than on men to spend a whole bundle of money on clothes. There are greater pressures on women’s appearance in general, and it’s a simple observation that men can get away with having only a very limited range of different work suits and shirts, but women have to have a greater variety of work clothes, especially in those areas of the workplace where appearance really matters. So a woman starting out in a junior position in, say, a city law firm, may find herself under pressure not just to have a range of work clothes, and to dress smart, but ‘smart’ may not be enough; if she dares wear something that’s smart but not designer, she may find herself the butt of gossip, sidelong glances, outright criticism, and, this is where it really matters, under suspicion that she’s not really putting her all into what’s needed in this workplace. So, she has to devote a greater part of her salary to literally putting in the appearance that she cares about her work. And this even for those of the female sex who actually don’t really care all that much about clothes and who would love to go to work in pyjamas, were it allowed. Like Ginger Rogers said, they have to do all that the men have to do, but in high heels, and backwards. And, they have to pay for it out of their own pockets.

Luckily in other areas of work, the dress code stakes are not so high. But there are many other examples of where workers have to be seen to be putting in that extra into their work in order to progress, and where that extra will cost them money. Money they might not have. And even if they have it, it’s money they could spend on one thing, or on another thing. Not prepared to spend it on work? Hmm, are you really the sort of person we want around here?

So here is one example. In academia, it’s essential to go to conferences. You need to list conference papers presented in your c.v., you need to be seen at conferences, you need to network there, and in order to progress your career you need to develop an international reputation, so going to conferences in other countries, or big conferences where people from other countries attend, is essential (and for ‘other countries’ we can usually  read ‘the USA’, in many cases; it seems to be palpably obvious that  hiring decisions made by many of the major ‘world class’ universities are governed by the thought: ‘what will this look like on our website? Will the Yanks be impressed?’).

But not everyone in academia has equal access to the money to go to conferences. I was going to put one story to illustrate this, but as I write realise there are more. There are many people now who work on teaching-only contracts, where there is little or no provision for funding to attend conferences. Of course, you can still go … if you pay yourself. It’s one of the filtering means by which to those who have little, still less will be given, as teaching-only contracts, such as the many tutoring jobs at Oxford Colleges (laughingly called ‘College Lectureships’, given that most people on such contracts aren’t allowed the privilege of giving their own lectures), are often bottom-of-the-pile jobs that can become blind career alleys.

Those in the more traditional university posts which involve both research and teaching often have the most autonomy over how they spend their allocation of funds that could be used to attend conferences. Those in research positions may have a reasonable pot of funds to attend conferences, but it might not necessarily be such an advantage to their career as this might seem. Depending on the source of the funding, the spending might be very limited, restricted for example only to conferences or meetings directly connected with the actual project (for instance, European Union funding tends to be very directive like this). And depending on the hierarchy of decision making on a research project, a researcher may have spending decisions made for them by someone further up the food chain. (Depending on how you look at the world, this person may be thought of as your ‘line manager’, or as a ‘dangerous predator’.)

In one such EU funded post I had, I wasn’t even allowed by my ‘line manager’ to know what was in my own travel budget. I was the only person in the research centre in this position – all the postgraduate students knew exactly what was in their travel budgets. (So his refusal to let me see the budget was a very good mechanism for control – it kept me in an infantilised position in the centre, and I felt more than a little humiliated by this.) He kept saying, ‘do let me know if there’s anything you want to spend money on’, and then simply not answering questions about exactly how much money there was. And then lo and behold, when I requested funds to attend a conference in the States, ‘oh, that conference sounds a bit expensive, we do have to make sure that we leave enough money because you might need to travel to Europe later on.’ Entirely unaware of how much money there was, and not wanting to leave insufficient funds for essential project travel, I decided not to attend the US conference. (A cunning move on his part, I now realise, because he left the ball in my court to decide, so it was my ‘choice’ not to go – but I had to do this in a condition of uncertainty, a condition he did not have). After the closing date for abstracts, he then told me, ‘oh, you could have gone.’ Frustrated by his hedging, prevaricating refusals to let me see the breakdown of the budget, I went above his head and asked someone in finance if there was any reason why I would not be privy to information about the project budget. Her puzzled email in reply made it clear that there was no reason at all why I should not know this. It’s my fault, I suppose, that I did not just  push and push my line manager into a direct confrontation or row about the budget, but I found this too hard, and just too hard to manage his consummate ability to dodge direct questions. The centre administrator kept all the files in his unlocked office; all I had to do was to go into the centre on a Saturday, and look through the files when there was no one else there. I found the answer I had expected. There was plenty of money for me to have gone to the US conference.

This is a tale of how unchecked power in the badly managed research centres, which are the rapidly proliferating ‘wild west’ of Universities when it comes to the abuse of privilege, can impact upon the progression of careers in those who are unfavoured for whatever reason. In this case, I am as certain as I can be that this manager acted in ways to block the progression of women at mid-stage of their careers who might be a threat to his status as Top Dog. But to unpick and account for this kind of what is basically, let’s face it, bullying, is a complex task. And I have another, simpler, example of how the economics of being a woman might impede one’s career progression.

I took an academic post in Australia some twenty or so years ago. When I was offered the post, in trying to persuade me to take it, I was told not to worry about the distance of Australia from the rest of the world of western philosophy, because Australia was so geographically isolated, they had plenty of money for travel, and in particular for overseas travel. This really was one of the major considerations when I accepted the job.

But I never got one single cent for travel from them. Here’s how. First try: I had been engaged to teach applied ethics. Lo and behold, the week I arrived, after a 33 hour journey through 11 time zones, straight into a teaching load of two lectures and ten tutorials a week (shortly to be followed by four lectures and ten tutorials a week) I found out that there was a conference on teaching applied ethics in Sydney, a mere 40 minute plane ride away. ‘Oh, good, I’ll go to that’, I said. ‘Are you giving a paper?’ was the reply. No, of course not: I haven’t got a paper written, I am working my little cotton socks off, I am looking for accommodation, getting over jet lag, dealing with the tax office, opening a bank account, working out how a foreign country and a foreign university system works, it’s a bit late to submit an abstract, no, I’m just going to attend. After all, in the relatively Glorious Idyll that was Bristol University, we all had equal conference budgets that we could spend as we chose. The Australian university had never bothered to explain when they wooed me into taking the job that you could not get money to attend conferences, only to give papers. This is a great example in cultural blocks to communication. Because, from where I’d come from, it had seemed to me so utterly obvious that if you were giving a conference paper, which the university would then of course proudly list as an achievement, of course they’d pay for you go to, so it had not crossed my mind that this so-called vast piggy bank of travel money, about which the Australians had boasted so profusely, only covered expenses for giving papers (i.e. doing your job). They pay you necessary expenses to do your job, then boast about it? Duh?

So, when I explained to senior colleagues that I had simply wanted to attend the conference, I was looked at sneeringly, as if I were pulling a fast one. Trying to explain that I wanted to attend the conference because I had been hired to teach applied ethics, and the conference was on teaching applied ethics, got me nowhere. Trying to explain that I did not have time to write a good quality paper on top of what else I had to do was received in similar fashion. The response I got was, ‘go on, treat yourself’. And here, I’m not being fanciful in reporting the language – a senior colleague did actually use those telling words, ‘treat yourself’. I.e., pay to travel to Sydney, pay the conference fees, pay to stay in the conference venue, out of your own salary, like it was a box of chocolates or a spa day.

So I didn’t go. But I later realised that this incident, just a couple of days setting foot in that department, helped to seal my fate as one of the career Undead. Not only had I failed to show how dedicated I was by quickly rustling up a conference paper on top of everything else I had to do, I had failed to show how dedicated I was by refusing to spend several hundred dollars out of my own bank account on work. (Moving countries is very expensive, by the way – I just didn’t have much money left in my account for such extravagances anyway.) And of course, I then missed a very good opportunity to network with those others scattered all over this vast, thinly populated country who were also doing the same work. (I did try pointing this out to my head of department and other senior members when I tried to persuade them to fund me to attend, to deaf ears; they were equally flabberghasted that I wanted merely to attend, and that I wasn’t prepared to pay myself.)

 Of course this kind of career hindrance could happen to people regardless of gender. But given that it’s an example of how workers are pressured into spending their own money on doing their work, and given women’s general lower economic power than men, it’s one example of the ways in which the hurdles for women, in general, might sometimes just be ever so slightly more difficult to navigate.

And my gender was directly relevant in the next conference money story. Move on a little bit, and I was still in the same department, but I’d had a baby, and was now only working half time. I was therefore spending quite a lot of my salary on childcare. I had a paper accepted at a medical law and ethics conference on Europe, and applied for the funds to attend. That was the second shock of failings of cross-cultural communication. For it turned out that when the university funded staff to give papers at overseas conferences, they’d fund you to travel once a year, but they’d only pay half your expenses. You had to pay the rest. WFT?????

It had simply, honestly, truly, never even crossed my mind that this could possibly be the case.

I tried reasoning with them. If the university will pay half your funding once a year, why not pay all your funding every other year? That would cost the same but be a fairer, I argued. Given that the whole founding premise of philosophy is surely reason, one might have had a glimmer of hope, but no. They were immovable. The local culture seemed to have the idea that going to conferences was half work, half jaunt, so it seemed generally accepted that this was fair enough. So the more I argued, the more I put myself in the position of being out of kilter with the local culture of that department, the more and more I reinforced my status as a career zombie, doomed: a denizen of the twilight world of the Career Undead.

But here are the realities for me. Even paying half the expenses for this conference was a huge whack out of my wages. I worked it out – it would have amounted to ten weeks’ take-home salary after paying for childcare. In my mind, that was equivalent to thinking that for ten weeks, I was working for nothing. Let me repeat that: ten weeks’ take home earnings. TEN WEEKS.

Now, there are several things to point out about this, because they point to particularities of the situation that are worth digesting.

Money is not just money. The same hard cash means very different things depending on the situation.

For one thing, once I’d had a child, my money was not just my money. It was the family’s money; it was my child’s money. Any money I spent on my career was money taken from the family spending pot. Not from my own personal spending pot.

For another thing, the money I earned was money I earned at a cost to other priorities. I earned that money by taking time away from my young child – a child who experienced strong separation anxiety, just as I did in return. This time away cost me not just money, but an emotional cost. It cost me in tiredness, which then cost him, in having a mother who was more tired than she would otherwise have been. These are costs not everyone has to bear. What this means in terms of the significance of finances, is that the salary I earned by taking time away from my child was harder earned than the salaries of others who did not pay these costs to go to work. So for me to take this money and spend it on anything, is to spend something it’s cost me more to earn. To expect me to spend it on work was, to coin a phrase, getting pretty close to adding insult to injury.

And for yet another thing, some of my colleagues may well have thought it entirely reasonable to view overseas trips to conferences as happy holiday jaunts which then would explain why it seemed to them reasonable that they would partially self-fund conference trips. But this proposed conference was no jaunt to me. I would arrive just in time and leave as soon as possible. I would miss my child. He would miss me. I would have to take a great deal of pre-planning on domestic arrangements just to be able to go. He was over a year old, but still partially breast-fed. He’d then miss the sudden interruption of the milk, and I’d have to cope with the discomforts of suddenly not feeding, and with trying to ensure the continuation of the supply. (He in fact continued to feed up to the age of about two and a half – much longer than most children in the west, but shorter than the average for complete weaning in many countries with more traditional societies, of about four years of age.) Jaunt, eh? Sounds a ball.

So for me, going to the conference would have had particular costs, and the money to go would have cost me especially dear. And many of these factors were directly or indirectly connected with my gender. In the particular department where I worked, the gulf between me and my fellow workers was exacerbated by the particular local culture, which only served to highlight my situation and make me more of an outlier. This local culture was one of extreme single minded focus upon an academic career; a culture of extraordinarily long working hours, even for a university – to do the bare minimum, when I was still full time, I’d been working 70 hours in most teaching weeks of the year, and I had one colleague who claimed that she worked 90 hours a week. I was the first person in that department to ever give birth; one of my male colleagues had a child, the rest were childless. And indeed, although almost everyone had a long term partner, only two of us actually lived day to day with their partner. Everyone else had chosen to conduct long distance relationships – with partners interstate, or in a different country, even in two cases, with partners who lived in different hemispheres. Now, of course, that’s their own free choice to live like that. But it set an atmosphere of the level of commitment to an academic life that I did not wish to match; and a level of commitment to an academic life that would have cost me more to match, in real terms, than somebody who did not have the same economic and family constraints.

My conclusion, then, is this. The causes and consequences of career disparities of gender are highly complex; the economic disparities between the genders is both a consequence of disparity and a source of disparity; and in understanding the exact nature and weight of this economic disparity, it’s essential to consider not just money in purely numerical terms of pounds and pence, but in terms of what the relative costs of earning that money, and the relative costs of spending it on one thing rather than another. When these factors are added in, the hurdles facing many women in advancing the career ladder become compounded.

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The Incompetent Shall Inherit the Earth. And here’s how they do it.


To understand this, you just need to understand two basic principles of human psychology: behavioural conditioning, and cognitive dissonance.

Everybody knows that if you want to get a dog, or a human, to learn some trick, you give them rewards for the behaviour and carry on doing this until they have learned the behaviour that gets the reward. Ideally, you plan so that ultimately they will perform the behaviour without the reward. And this often happens, because the behaviour becomes internalised. The dog or the person thinks to themselves ‘my master likes it when I do this. I want my master to like me. So I’ll do it.’ This might not even operate at a level where the person can fully articulate this. (Don’t know about what’s going on in dogs’ minds to know whether they consciously think such thoughts to themselves or not.)

Then, once they are doing the trick for no tangible reward, the behaviour can get even more entrenched through cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon whereby we try to iron out the creases in our beliefs so that we live in an internally harmonious world. You think to yourself, ‘I’m doing this for no tangible reward. So there must be some reason for this behaviour. Hmmm. I must really like doing it!’ Or, you think to yourself, ‘I’m doing this for this other person, even though it’s a bit irksome to me, and I’m getting no tangible reward. There must be some reason for this. I know – that other person must be a really great guy!’

This last point is a useful hint if you are trying to get somebody to like you. A tried-and-failed strategy is to do something nice for them. Often doesn’t work. Why not? The person often just thinks you must be a push-over. They just think you are doing this for them because they’re great. So, reverse this. Get them to do something for you, preferably something they would not want to do, add cognitive dissonance, and stir. That person will often do what you’ve asked, and then they have to ask themselves, ‘Why did I do this thing I didn’t really want to do, for that person?’ You know the answer by now, don’t you? The person concludes that they did it because the other person, you, is a really great guy. (Or gal; but I’ll come to that later.)

And now let’s return to behavioural conditioning. Because, say you had a trick you really, really wanted your dog or human to learn, and learn well, and learn fast, and learn forever. What would you do? Would you think, ‘Hmm, I’d better give a really, really good reward, and make sure they get it every time?’ You might well think this, but you’d be wrong.

Firstly, as a general strategy, if you give really large rewards, people won’t come to internalise the behaviour. They’ll never get to think to themselves, ‘I wonder why I’m doing this (even though the reward is, quite frankly, a bit puny)?’  They’ll know full well why they are doing it – for the reward. So they’ll never get to internalise the behaviour that’s rewarded. They’ll never get to think that they want to do the behaviour for its own sake. They’ll never come to think that the behaviour itself is a Good Thing. They’ll never come to produce their own justifications for continuing or even deepening the behaviour. (This is why it’s no surprise that bankers and other leaders of industry given massive rewards for their behaviour failed to internalise the ethical and regulatory standards they were meant to be following, with terrible consequences for the economy and for the livelihoods of millions of people lower down the food chain. They never came really to care about what it was that they were doing, so that they wanted to do it well. They just did it all for the oodles of cash. This is also why it’s an ongoing tragedy that the government continues to buy the fallacious line that the only way to get the best leaders of industry running things is to continue to give them massive financial rewards. In fact, it’s a way to ensure that the crisis of leadership continues, as we continue to ensure that they are just doing it for the money, as if that’s the only motivator. The very, very, very last thing we want is to have people running our industry and our financial institutions who are only rewarded by the size of their paycheques and their bonuses. We want people who are motivated by actually caring about what they are doing, and get sufficient rewards from this that they will happily work for a reasonable salary.)

So, if it’s really important that learning is fast and thorough, what you need to do is to give the person or dog you are manipulating rewards – small is good – but give them intermittently. Sometimes, preferably randomly, don’t give the reward. This has the following unexpected result. Instead of thinking, ‘oh dash it, that behaviour doesn’t give rewards after all, I’m not going to do it again’, the dog or human thinks, ‘oh dash it, I didn’t get the reward that time, I’ll try even harder next time. I’ll try even more often.’ Then, oh boy, yes, they get the reward next time! But then not the time after that. Puzzling. ‘Let’s try even harder than before! Let’s have another go right now, even!’ The trick is learned in double quick time, and because the reward comes and goes, the behaviour is internalised fast, and the dog or person will even faster come to conclude that they are doing this because the other person is, well, just a super human being. Instead of sussing out the reality, which is that the other person is a at best careless and unreliable, and at worst, a sneaky, manipulative so-and-so. What’s more, this way of training a dog or a person is much cheaper!!!!

Now, I was just about to say that none of this is rocket science, but in actual fact, it is. Because rocket science is actually easy: it’s based upon fairly simple maths and physics, and yet with it, you can get a space craft to circle the moon and back, reach to Mars, and travel beyond our solar system. Likewise, with these simple principles of human (and canine, murine, ratine, pigeonine, and to some small extent even feline) psychology, you can literally rule the world. You can certainly rule the medieval fiefdom that is the organisation where you work.

The simple trick is this: behave like an arsehole, but do so randomly.

So, remember that if you are doing something you don’t much want to do for somebody, and seemingly getting nothing out of it, you tend to think either that the thing you’re doing carries its own reward, or, that the other person is really great, or both. If the thing you’re doing is irksome, but you do it because you’ve come to believe that it’s worthwhile although onerous, you might also come to think of yourself as being a good sort of person for doing it.

One thing that this means is that incompetence will be rewarded. And often, it will be rewarded more highly than a consistent display of competence. Here’s how it works. Giving intermittent rewards might be a deliberate strategy to reinforce the behaviour you want. But it might actually also just be due to incompetence or unreliability. Worry not, for this need not affect your high standing in the workplace – in fact, it might even assure it. Because if other people are relying on you in any way, and find that, for example, when they ask you to do something, as a colleague or as a junior, or when they expect something from you as a leader, if they  only get this intermittently, they’ll try even harder, won’t they? Let down by you, but trapped – or at least wedged – by all sorts of reasons in their current job, they’ll try to work out how to make things better, or how to justify why they are staying on. They’ll either work much harder to try to get a reliable response from you, or they’ll give themselves a better reason for putting up with your incompetence. They’ll start to think you must be really great at your job, for example. In fact, that might even explain your incompetence – you’re so great, that you’ve got so much to do, of course you are always late for meetings, of course your work is always full of errors, you are so important, because you’re so good, you don’t have time to do it properly; the next thing you know, the poor losers you keep letting down are actually doing half your work for you, and thanking you for it.

Furthermore, especially useful for line managers the world over, the erratic good guy/ bad guy, reliably guy/ unreliably guy works very well in producing a divide-and-conquer management approach to your underlings. Suppose that a member of staff had got some shoddy treatment as a result of your intermittent reward strategy (which might of course be incompetence pure and simple). And suppose they try moaning about this to one of their equals. Well, that second person who was approached in the hope of some solidarity actually got good behaviour from you, because your behaviour is inconsistent. So, not only is the second person going to say, ‘but he/she has been good to me’, they are also going to, at some level, start to think, ‘oh-oh, maybe I won’t always get such a good response’ and lo and behold, they’ll start to work even harder to get a reward from you, and so reinforce their idea that you must be really great. The first person who had a legitimate gripe about your behaviour not only fails to garner support or sympathy from their equals, they get even more isolated and confused because other people seem to have a higher and higher opinion of this person, even though in their experience this person is unreliable and incompetent. And possibly, selectively malicious.

There are ever present dangers of escalation of incompetence of course. Suppose. Suppose you find that you are doing something because some other guy, like a sympathetic colleague, or your boss, got you to do it; suppose you find you aren’t really getting any reward for doing it; and then suppose even worse: that it’s hard to escape from realising that the thing you are doing is not just onerous, or unpleasant, but actually wrong. What is going to happen? First obvious strategy is to convince yourself that it’s not really wrong, or a bit wrong, but justified in the circumstances. Second obvious strategy is to think to yourself that the guy you’re doing this dodgy thing for is not only great, but really, really great, why, boy, you’d so the second mile for that bloke. You’d really risk your neck for him. He’s awesome. Why, look, he led that really great research … why, look, he gets so much money for the centre … why, look, he’s on all those working parties, isn’t he? And he has 20 000 twitter followers! And remember too, as we saw, that if you find yourself doing something that you think is irksome but worth doing, you might then find yourself thinking that you are a really good person … in just such a way, if you find yourself doing something that’s irksome because you realise it’s wrong, you can, paradoxically, end up thinking that you yourself are a really good person for doing that thing … even though, somewhere, you came to this self-belief because you realised you were doing something wrong.

So that’s one way in which it all goes a bit dodgy.

A generalised result of all this is that there will be an official belief that those who work effectively and efficiently and reliably are good and should be rewarded, and an actual, unofficial, invisible belief that says the opposite. Because the people who produce very good results, and do so consistently, are rewarding those who are affected by their actions in the way that is less effective in leading those others to try hard to reproduce good behaviour, and is less effective in leading others to internalise the idea that those effective, efficient people are worth pleasing. If someone always produces good work anyway, why bother to promote them? Why give them a raise? Why bother to lavish them with praise? Why bother to give them opportunities to advance their career? Why jump through hoops to get into their good books?

These difficulties blight the lives of many, but there is some reason to think that women may, as a group, suffer particularly from being on the sharp end of all this. That’s not so say that it’s only women, and certainly not to say that women can’t also benefit from the rewards that accrue to unreliability and random incompetence. But women are socialised perhaps more than men to be dependable supports to others. This might be especially the case for women who’ve returned to the workplace after having had children, for they have had to really learn to be thoroughly consistent and dependable when looking after their families. You can’t say to an eighteen month child, as you could to an adult colleague, ‘oh darn it, I haven’t got any dinner ready tonight, could you check your diary please, could we postpone until next Thursday, or if that’s no good, could you be a dear and pop out to Waitrose to get some shopping and cook up a stir fry for me?’ You’ve just got to get dinner, and you’ve got to get it on time. But translate this phenomenal efficiency back to the workplace, and you’ll find yourself at the same grade ten years after you got back from maternity leave.

So keep your marvellous competence and efficiency a big secret. Treasure it in your heart, but don’t let it be too widely known. Others rise in the ranks because they are inescapably incompetent and habitually unreliable. The unfortunate ones cursed with both practical and theoretical wisdom need to learn a bit of psychology, practice a bit of structured unreliability, and beat the incompetents at their own game.

But there is a PS to this thought. For one thing, I don’t really mean it in my heart that anyone should play this idiotic game. And for another, I do suspect that this is a game that women in particular would find it very hard to win. This hunch is based upon the recognition that, as powerful as behavioural conditioning and cognitive dissonance are to explain much of human life and human behaviour, we are more complex than that. One way in which this is so, is how much we may be driven by unconscious schemas that help us to fit the world around us into comprehensible generalisations. Part of this is tending to have schema that fit individuals into certain types. And since women may become mothers, and often are mothers, then any woman is prone to being seen in terms of the type ‘mother’. Hence, any woman is prone to being judged under the expected norms of behaviour for the type ‘mother’. (Of course there are other types that women might be seen under, but I’ll concentrate on mother for now, because there’s something about it that I suspect is especially pertinent.)

And what are these expectations for mothers? To be perfect, of course. To be consistent, to be there for the infant, there for the child. For humans go through such a long period of helplessness and dependency, that it’s especially important for anyone in that caregive role – usually mothers, and certainly likely to be female if we are talking about unconscious expectations by which we live and think – has to be, in the words of Winnicot, at least ‘good enough’. A mother has to be consistent, has to provide, has to be reliable. So if a mother makes a mistake, or is unreliable, it’s particularly bad. Baby might cry. (Baby might die, actually, at worst.)

So. If a woman fails in any way, I wonder if this means that her failure is taken as particularly bad? This might then form a current that goes against the way in which intermittent reward systems tend to be very effective. And if a woman consistently delivers, not only is this the less efficient way of training the other person to act as you wish, and training them to think you must be great, but it’s only what a woman (seen unconsciously in the mother role) should be doing. So why give it a second thought? Even if it’s your actual mother, all you need do is send her an e-card once a year on Mother’s Day anyway.

This might perhaps be particulary salient for women who actually are mothers, especially those for whom the fact of their motherhood is noticeable in the workplace (they just had maternity leave, they work part time to fit in domestic duties, they don’t go to after work drinks, they have trouble getting away to conferences or other work trips because of childcare, they have to leave on time to pick up the kids). Of course, fathers in the workplace might also be noticeably parents, but they won’t be seen as mothers.

So, miss a beat, and it’s a disaster. Don’t miss a beat, and it’s a slow road to invisibility.

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“Very Intelligent Woman, Marilyn Monroe”

‘Very intelligent woman, Marilyn Monroe.’

Thank you, Dad, for saying this.

I remembered this remark the other day as I watched ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’. I say ‘thanks’ to my father because this is the only comment I can recall he ever made about Marilyn. He must have made this remark years and years ago, but for some reason, it stuck in my head. No comment on her appearance. No comment on her mental health. Just a positive comment about her brains.

It brings to mind as well the account Dad gave of the one conversation he’d ever had with his father-in-law, on the occasion of his engagement to Mum. They’d gone out for a drink together. ‘His attitude to women was disgusting’, Dad muttered through visibly clenched teeth. ‘Disgusting.’  And refused to elaborate.

‘Women can do anything that men can do’, he was fond of saying, ‘only they usually do it better’. The middle son of a woman who started life as the illegitimate daughter of a Victorian barmaid and ended up as a Cardiff schoolteacher, he had a high opinion of women’s potential. ‘You could do anything in life you want to do,’ he used to say to me, ‘Anything.’

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“They just have to die”. Really, Oprah?

“There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die,” said Oprah Winfrey recently. They just have to die? Really, Oprah? You mean then, that no amount of reason, argument, cajoling, experience, anything, can change their minds and their hearts?

My grandmother, Minnie Cook, or Nanna Min to us, was born in 1888, so that would firmly put her in the older generation which Oprah wants to die out. She was born as the illegitimate daughter of a barmaid from Somerset, not the greatest start in life, who as a baby was adopted by a family which ran a sweet shop in Tiger Bay in Cardiff. She became the head of a girl’s grammar school. She died when I was seven, but long before that, I remember her coming to stay and telling us about something she’d seen. A man’s motor bike had broken down, she said. She saw a white man walk right past without helping him. Then another white man walked right past without helping him either. Then, a black man walked past, and stopped and helped him fix his bike. To this day, I don’t know if this story is true, or if she made it up to echo the parable of the Good Samaritan. But what I do know is the effect on me. We grew up in a part of Surrey where the vast majority of the population were white. But I always assumed that what I had learned at Nanna Min’s knee was true: black people were particularly nice and helpful, and it would be good to try to be more like them.

Now, call this racial stereotyping if you insist, go on, I don’t care. Perhaps Oprah would be pleased that this old ‘racist’ school teacher is long dead? It strikes me that Nanna Min was just trying to instil in us a view of black people that would counter some contemporary stereotypes. Maybe the motorbike story was actually true. Anyway, Nanna Min’s ruse worked. Take this little childhood vignette as some sort of evidence. There happened to be a family living around the corner from us, with a white mother and a black father, and two black boys. We would never have played with the boys, because they were, (a) younger than us and, more to the point, (b) boys, but together with my friend Jennifer, who lived next door to these boys, we hatched a plan based upon Nanna Min’s account of the virtues of black folk. We bought, out of our pocket money, some chocolate bars for the boys, and, secretly so we could not be seen (for who would want to be seen giving chocolate bars to boys? and besides which, good deeds had to be done in secret) we sneaked up their front path and slipped the chocolate in through the letter box. Because after all, they were nice people, so they deserved a treat.

But this is just a little amusing tale of the suburbs, and I can see how someone could easily dismiss it. It’s just meant to challenge the view that (ironically) stereotypes all the old as racist. You can insist on seeing Nanna Min, and seeing Jennifer, and seeing me, as racist if you want, if you think we were just stereotyping. So here’s another story. Because the account given by Oprah, and endorsed by many, is that people can never change.

The story’s about the US’s own J. Skelly Wright? You know, the guy who spent a quarter of a century breaking up segregation laws in the southern USA? It’s interesting that when I mentioned him to an American law student, and showed him the extract below from an obituary published in the Guardian, he was really surprised at the extract. I then looked at obituaries and accounts of Skelly Wright published in the US and could not find any account of the story I am about to recount. I wonder why not? It’s a tale worth telling. Here it is, where the obit writer, W J Weatherby, recalls an interview with Skelly Wright from some years previously:

“His was the classic case of a poor Irish-American boy who inherited the segregation background. He told me how he used to drive through the black ghetto with friends who threw rotten apples at any blacks that passed. ‘I don’t know when exactly the change came in me,’ he said. Had his religion helped? ‘No I don’t think so’, he replied. ‘I’m a bad Catholic.’

            Then suddenly it came to him and he began to talk about a Christmas party at his office. He looked out of the window at a building for blind people and saw that they were having a party too. But as they arrived the blacks were separated from the whites. ‘They couldn’t see to segregate themselves,’ the judge said.

            He was recalling a memory of many years ago and yet he was so moved that he could not complete the story for several minutes. He turned his swivel chair so that his back was to me and he sat with his head in his hands. ‘That upset me a great deal,’ he said at last. ‘That made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps that made the change.’”

I did wonder about the reason why my American law student, who knew a lot about Skelly Wright and was interested in precisely these issues, had never heard this story of Skelly Wright’s revelation of the absurdity of segregation by colour in the kingdom of the blind, and why I could not find any US account of it (of course there may be accounts of it that I’ve missed). But here is possible clue. I have been immensely moved by this story, and hence, especially since I teach ethics, have often referred to it in class or in conversation. But rarely have I managed to tell it in full, or to use it to raise the issues I wished to raise. Because generally, as soon as I explain how Skelly Wright admitted to all the usual racial prejudices of his time and place, the ensuing story of his conversion is either not heard, or dismissed. Sometimes I’ve been shouted down by those eager to show how non-racist they are by condemning him utterly the second his racist background is explained, and never even get to explain the Blind Society incident. Or if I do, that incident is dismissed as some aberration, as not genuine. ‘But look, he then spent years and years not just being a token non-racist, but actually working really hard to undo racism!’ It does not necessarily sink in.

Maybe this is one reason why so many people think that racists don’t ever change their spots, because they can’t see past thinking that if a person is at all bad, they’re bad. In the case of something like racism, where often there’s a fear that one might be discovered, ‘outed’, as a racist for something one hadn’t ever really thought about, some casual remark, some lingering stereotype, there’s a great temptation to prove how non-racist you are by being especially vigilant about spotting racism in others. But there’s bad in all of us, and good in all of us. Tease out the good, and nurture it any way you can. And you can start to nurture it, by recognising it wherever it flowers, and in whatever form it flowers.

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Why I Hate Freecycle

It’s meant to give you a warm glow of contentment to feel that you are getting rid of your excess stuff in a socially and ecologically beneficial way. It’s supposed to be a way of connecting to people in your ‘community’. So why then, do I hate loathe and detest Freecycle? Why have I had stuff piling up for years, thinking that I ought to put it on Freecycle, but dreading the deed?

One. Those people who email about one item with some totally plausible story about why they in particular really need it. You know, those same people who email about a totally different kind of item the next week with an incompatible story about why they really really need that item.

Two. The people who email within a couple of minutes to say, ‘yes please, they’d really  love an item and are coming straight round to get it’, but when there are further questions about it, and I email them to say, ‘do  you still want it’, somehow, they never bother to explain that on second thoughts they don’t want it. You are meant to get that their silence means that. In other words, ‘communication’ is not actually a two-way flow of information between two parties, but one party sticking up their hand and shouting ‘me me, over here, over here’ but then not bothering to explain that they had wandered off. As a way of ‘connecting with your community’, it kind of lacks something.

Three. The Ingrates. Top of the list must come The Man Who Collected the Proms Tickets. Annoyingly, I found out a few days before the concert that I couldn’t go to the Proms one year. I could easily have sold them, but I put two tickets, each worth £38, on Freecycle. Within an hour I had loads of requests for them. One lady said she’d love to go, she’d never been before. So I chose her. A few hours later there was a ring on the door, and a man stood there with a snide look on his face. ‘The Wife’ had sent him round, (reluctantly, his body language said) to collect the tickets. He snatched them out of my hand, with a look of ‘poor me what has the daft old bat got me into now, what a drag having to drive over just to collect these tickets for some poncy concert’ in his eyes, as if he somehow expected me to sympathise with his plight. No ‘thanks’, just snatched the tickets and drove off. Wish now I’d ripped them up in front of him.

Four. You have to collect. Part of the whole system. Nobody has stopped to think that this more or less rules out people without access to cars. So only those with a car, or the social capital of knowing someone who’ll offer you a lift, can reasonably access this great system.

Five. The wretched ‘Fair Offer’ policy that kind of locks you into having endless damned emails for a day or so before ‘deciding’ whose pathetic fib is the least implausible, who most deserves your charity. Or else opting out of the Fair Offer system which makes you sound like you are ‘unfair’. Sickening. One is forced into the mindset of a Victorian philanthropist, deciding on the deserving and undeserving poor. Give me a break, I just want to clear out my ruddy car port.

Six. The truly laughable gulf between the puny ‘offers’ and the grandiose ‘wants’ sets up such a poor view of the human race, I sure hope there are no Martian anthropologists  looking at us. Makes me embarrassed to be human.

Seven. Hating Freecycle makes me feel mean. Which, given that I’ve put loads on it and never had anything off it (see Four), doesn’t seem fair. But in a sense, it is fair, because the business of just trying to give something away really does turn me, not just into the worst kind of judgemental patronising philanthropist, but is a hair’s breadth away from turning me into an actual misanthropist.

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The shock of the old

Helen Beebee asks ‘where did all the women go’ in philosophy and says that it’s a hard question to which we don’t yet have all the answers (right); and that this lack of answers is not surprising given that ‘until very recently the marked absence of women philosophers wasn’t even a topic of casual discussion amongst philosophers, let alone one deemed worthy of further investigation’ (wrong). (See

Beebee has a paper just out, ‘Women and deviance in philosophy’, in a book co-edited by Katrina Hutchinson and Fiona Jenkins, Women and Philosophy: What Needs to Change? I haven’t seen Fiona for many a long year (Hi, Fiona), but she was an undergraduate at Bristol University, and took my course in Feminist Theory in 1986. So Fiona at least first considered these questions right at the start of her career. Didn’t she mention that to Helen Beebee?

And my arrival at the then all-male philosophy department of Bristol in 1982 was greeted with enthusiasm precisely because I was the first woman there, and the incumbents wanted that to change. For many years the department had been headed by Stephan Körner, who allegedly would not countenance a woman on the staff, so as soon as he went off to do whatever it is that retired philosophy professors do, like a bunch of naughty schoolboys itching to misbehave, they went and employed me. Because, way back then, over 30 years ago, they were acutely aware of the relative lack of women in philosophy. Various members of the department had tried to appoint women to posts, but had been overruled by what (not to speak ill of the dead), appears to have been a heavy dose of old fashioned sexism on the part of Professor Körner when he was head of department.

And way back then the students were clamouring to study feminism, which is why the department asked me to teach it. From 1983 to 1992 I taught classes covering various topics but including the question of how women and philosophy might or might not relate. That’s really not what I’d call very recent. The files I have are all dusty, the paper’s gone brown, the class notes are all handwritten, or badly typed – yes, typed! – and photocopied very amateurishly. And I have piles and piles of overhead projector transparencies. I won’t even stop to explain to the younger readers what these are – because you can just Google it. But I think you’ll find that this suggests that none of this was ‘very recent’. We didn’t even have email. Just think about it!

And throughout the 1980s I would from time to time traipse off to London to meetings of the Society for Women in Philosophy – organised by notices sent through the postal service – bless! – where, inter alia, we discussed the relationship of women to philosophy, and the relative lack of numbers of women, and the difficulty of progressing one’s career. We discussed, for example, whether philosophy seminars used overly aggressive questioning. We discussed if women tended to be more interested in certain questions, or if they tended to address these questions in typical ways different from the mainstream. We discussed sexism, and we discussed gender stereotyping.

I wouldn’t at all say I’ve been obsessed by this question of the place of women in philosophy and their attrition up the career ladder, but I’ve thought about it on and off for a while now, and lots and lots of people have worked on it. One idea that attracts me is that philosophy lends itself especially to the need to carve out and occupy an argumentative space; and that this is easier for certain individuals, and certain social groups that others; and that in general and for various reasons, women don’t do so well at this (although I think there are some means of inclusion and exclusion which can apply to various different people, affecting not only women, and not equally affecting all women).

What do I mean by ‘carving out an argumentative space’, and why does it matter? I think this is especially vital in philosophy, the discipline of debate and argument par excellence, and a discipline where the assessment of the standard of any work is especially problematic. To succeed, you need to get enough of the right people to listen to you and agree that what you’re saying is good. Carving out and successfully occupying this argumentative space encompasses  various things – it’s the need to be listened and responded to, verbally and in print; and in practice this involves things like being able to swan across the Atlantic or wherever it is to go to the best conferences, being able to go to the pub after seminars, being heard as the originator of an idea,  not as just endorsing or elaborating someone else’s, actually having your work cited, not being so swamped with all the pastoral care that your research time is eaten into, having your research and teaching topics treated as serious, etc etc etc. One thing that helps enormously is the simple trick of being able to sound authoritative; it’s a knack to which some are born, but which to a certain extent can be acquired or enhanced.

And there are various tricks to add to one’s toolkit. Claiming that what you are doing is new is one great way to mark a bit of philosophical territory with your own scent. I had a bit of a break from philosophy – in fact, I’m only doing it now by the skin of my teeth. On my return, mugging up on the latest developments in various fields, I was initially sunk into gloom at the vast amount of new work there seemed to be. Until I actually read it. And found out that hardly any of it was actually new at all; slightly different, perhaps, some new nuance, some rediscovered wheel.  Its authors just said it was new; often giving it some new label, or coining some phrase to describe something (that’s a good one to remember, because then people have to cite you! Everyone will be discussing the ‘Finknottle – Glossop debate’. But of course, you have to get people to cite you, and not someone else.)

In a discipline where it’s not entirely implausible to say that everything is merely a ‘footnote to Plato’, the strategy of claiming that your work is new rather surprisingly often works, if carried off with a certain degree of aplomb. It’s a jolly good wheeze because it also often has the effect of turning attention away from those who have worked in the same topic before you, thus clearing the way for you to colonise the argumentative space. All part of the effective toolkit of making your way in the world of academic philosophy. But not terribly helpful in advancing debate, if it also acts to cut off contact with all those who have contributed to the debate before you did. And it would be a pity if an attempt to consider why women’s presence in philosophy is relatively muted, itself mutes those very voices.

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Evidence of the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy departments and the paradox of disconfirmation

Jennifer Saul is increasingly well-known for her recent work on gender issues in philosophy, including her work on implicit bias as an explanation of gender imbalances in the discipline, and in particular for her blog ‘What it’s like to be a woman in philosophy’ which contains many entries including many accounts of sexual harassment within philosophy departments.

Of course, from such evidence we don’t know how prevalent sexual harassment is within philosophy compared to other academic disciplines and compared to other workplaces. Saul naturally acknowledges this. But from the widespread publicity around Saul’s blog – such as the item on BBC Radio 4’s programme Woman’s Hour on Monday Sept 2nd – the impression that comes across is that philosophy really does have a particular problem with sexual harassment. Indeed, Saul recently published a piece with the very title ‘Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem’ ( August 13 2013). Well, she’s entitled to use this strap line, as even one instance of sexual harassment is a problem. But as a philosopher of language, she should realise that the clear implication of such a line is that philosophy has an especially bad problem with sexual harassment, that it’s worse in philosophy than elsewhere. There are other accounts which seem to verify that it is. Peg O’Connor recently described graduate school in philosophy as  ‘treacherous and lecherous’ and others have claimed that ‘every woman they know’ has been the subject of sexual  harassment in philosophy departments. But is it really worse in philosophy than elsewhere?

The reality is we just don’t have the properly collected and analysed empirical evidence to back this up; and I for one have not been shown any convincing a priori reason to think that there’s anything about philosophy that attracts sexual harassers. Why is this important? I must stress it’s not at all that I am trying to minimise this issue. But if we are to deal with an issue we must see it clearly and accurately. Furthermore, if startling but poorly founded stories go around that philosophy departments are jam-packed with sexual predators, this is hardly likely to improve the wellbeing of any women in philosophy, or any women considering studying it. It may not do much for the wellbeing of men in philosophy either, come to think of it. The interviewer on Woman’s Hour indeed asked Saul what a female student just about to go up to study philosophy should think about this. I know what I would be thinking – I’d be rather anxious.

And of course any empirical evidence needs to be collected and analysed in effective and reasonable ways. Social scientists devote considerable attention to devising methodologies which try to address epistemological difficuilties which thwart the study of human beings and of society, including problems of bias in collecting and assessing evidence.  I hardly know where to begin in pointing out the dangers of allowing evidence collected from an online anonymous blog to dominate discussion. But my training in intellectual rigour forces me limply to continue to type. The internet is notorious for eliciting views which paint an extreme, vivid picture of a situation; and for eliciting views expressed and sent at the touch of a button. Online surveys can have a place in properly conducted social research. Different data collection methods might be used to discover what views and events are out there – so a blog might do this – but then, properly systematic research must be carried out to get an accurate picture. There must be unbiased sampling. Any questions asked must be carefully chosen. If I were to put up a post saying, ‘Hey guys, I reckon David Cameron is putting on a few pounds, what do you all lot reckon?’ we know perfectly well that lots of other people would post comments that agree.

And another problem is the nature of an online blogging forum. People are likely to come forward with accounts of their experience which form good, interesting stories or cautionary tales for others. But ‘actually, I wasn’t sexually harassed’ or ‘my colleagues/ supervisors all seemed perfectly fine and decent to me’ or ‘my supervisor did ask me out to lunch once but then I think he asks all his students to lunch when they are nearly at the end of their thesis so it seemed a fine sort of thing to do to me’ or ‘an older colleague once asked me if I wanted to go for a beer after the seminar but I said  no thanks and he was alright with that’ aren’t stories. Virtually nobody is going to bother to spend time typing them up and submitting them to a blog. Besides anything, nobody wants to sound as if they are detracting from the very real distress that those with accounts of sexual harassment have experienced.

It’s a bit like what happened after I met up with the women from my prenatal class after we’d given birth, (and I know lots of others have had a similar experience to me). One woman from my class had almost given birth in the car park. One woman had been in labour for four days and three nights. One woman had had a spectacularly easy ten minute labour. One woman’s husband had fainted, hit his head and needed medical treatment. One woman’s baby had been in fetal distress and she’d had to be whisked away for an emergency caesarean. One baby was three weeks early. One baby was two and a half weeks late. I tiptoed out of the room and made the tea, too embarrassed to tell them that I’d had a moderately long but totally uneventful full term labour with moderate pain which I’d managed just fine with breathing techniques, and with absolutely no medical distress or complications in either me or the baby. I was actually a bit embarrassed, and in any case, they weren’t interested in hearing my non-tale. I was too boring, and too lucky. I had no war wounds to show, and I didn’t want my tedious tale to eclipse their dramatic accounts of near-misses with disaster.

And in line with our confessional culture, there is a race to the bottom in telling stories of horrible things that have happened to you. So, start a blog that quickly becomes known as the ‘sexual harassment in philosophy’ blog and you’ll of course collect lots of stories which confirm the prevalence of sexual harassment. There is then, a priori, a bias to be expected against accounts from women who have not suffered from sexual harassment in philosophy. And is it worse in philosophy than in other disciplines? Well, you’d have to check the ‘Sexual harassment in Earth Sciences/ Geography/ Anthropology/ Economic History/ etc’ blogs. Oh, hang on, there aren’t any. Someone start some up and then we’ll see.

Furthermore, I have often noticed a particular kind of epistemic bias operating in accounts of people who try to say that they have not personally experienced a particular sort of problem that other members of a group are trying to highlight. I call it the ‘Oh Paula, you don’t know what you’re talking about’ bias. One spectacular example I treasure from many years ago came from a discussion about menstrual problems. Foolish me, foolish me, I happened to let slip that I luckily did not suffer from these. ‘Oh Paula,’ came the reply in unison – from a group of women, I might add, none of whom knew me very well, if at all. ‘Oh Paula, you must suffer from pre-menstrual tension. It’s just that you are so cut off from your own feelings that you don’t know that you are suffering.’ I quickly saw that it would be unwise in this situation to comment that if being cut off from my feelings meant that I did not know I was suffering, and did not realise that actually, unbeknownst to myself, I was doubled up in agony from menstrual cramps, I’d be quite pleased to be cut off from those feelings. I learned to shut the fuck up, a lesson I brought many years later to my prenatal class.

Human psychology being the complex thing it is, I’m sure that a lot of things are going on here, many of them to do with group identity and who’s in the in-group and who’s in the out-group. But there are also issues of epistemological privilege here too, I strongly suspect. Those who have experienced something considered to be a typical experience of a group – especially a disadvantaged group, and especially something which is key to that group’s continued disadvantage – are positioned to have gained an especially strong insight into what it’s like to be a member of that group. Their eyes are opened by this experience, they are no longer naïve, they know what it’s like. They have spotted something which escapes the dominant group. There is of course some salience to such a consideration. But then look -  someone who has not experienced this – or who claims not to have experienced it – has not gone through this initiation into group identity. They are naïve. So, ipso facto, their testimony is less reliable; they have reduced epistemic privilege. This again produces a bias against testimony from those who have not experienced sexual harassment in philosophy. Indeed, I have had responses along the lines of ‘you’re just protected from all this because of your position’ or ‘you just can’t see what’s really going on’. So far nobody has been rude enough to look me up and down with a stare that implies that ‘I’m not surprised that nobody has tried to sexually  harass you, my dear,’ but in having this thought it may just be that I am haunted by dim memories of the misery of adolescence. (It’s interesting that there is often a sudden cross-over from considering the question of whether one individual has experienced a situation to discussion of whether that individual knows what the situation is like in general; the allegation that someone has not experienced something is seen as evidence that she is not aware of how things are for others and in turn this can sometimes actually be twisted back to cast doubt on whether or not she actually even understands what her own experience has been. If I am starting to sound tetchy it’s because I am sick to death of being told I don’t understand the life I have been actually  living and the world that I have been actually inhabiting for the last several decades. Of course I don’t understand all of it. But I do think I have some grasp of some of it.)

So, sexual harassment obviously occurs in philosophy departments, because it occurs widely in the world. But is it more prevalent there than elsewhere? And is it an especially pertinent reason for the gender imbalances in philosophy? Collecting ‘evidence’ through blogs and hearsay is just not going to tell us; there are a host of reasons why this will selectively encourage the accounts of those who have been unfortunate to suffer the worst experiences, and selectively silence those who have had better luck.

And a few months ago, just drifting off to sleep, I sat up in bed bolt upright with a Sudden Thought. Many years ago I was the only woman in a department; the first ever, in fact. The department wasn’t perfect, but basically I thought the men who were my colleagues were on the whole alright. (There was one who was a terrible pain, but he was awful to everybody – he was an outrageous old fashioned sexist, but he had outrageous views in general, and I am certain he did not damage my standing in the department.) All these decades later, I still think it was a pretty good place to work. I was allowed to teach whatever I wanted. I was encouraged to teach feminist philosophy, when this was virtually unheard of in Britain. But try telling people that it was okay working there! ‘Oh Paula’ would come the cries from other women philosophers. You don’t know how awful that department really is. Everybody knows it’s terrible for women there.

I felt distressed and confused. I couldn’t understand how everybody else had access to this knowledge about what my day to day working life was really like, when none of them had worked there. How did they know? How did I not know? And then, after decades, it clicked. Perhaps this was an instance of a particular variety of epistemic privilege at work.

One member of the group of women who kept telling me that I didn’t realise how bad it was in my own department had previously been in a relationship with one of my colleagues. My guess was this: she had access to knowledge about what he was like through her sexual relationship with him, and through him, knowledge about what the rest of the department was ‘really’ like, and she passed this on to her closer acquaintances (which didn’t include me). Is it that this carnal knowledge puts someone in a position of epistemic privilege then, and that my knowledge of the situation gained from simply working there – day after day, year after year – was a sickly pale shadow in comparison?

This is just a hunch, but my thought was this: knowledge gained through sexual intimacy of one sort or another has a particular trumping quality – it’s taken to mean that you know what someone is ‘really’ like. If someone has knowledge then through experience of sexual harassment by a particular person or in a particular workplace or university department then they know what that department is ‘really’ like in the way that a sexual-harassment-innocent does not.  It’s certainly true that it means they have had revealed to them a particular side of a person or an institution. But in terms of collecting data about the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy departments, this is a warning to be careful how you collect it. Don’t only count positives, or you’ll end up with a skewed picture, and be careful how you count instances. After all, if philosophy really does have a particular problem with sexual harassment compared to other disciplines, we really need watertight, accurate data that tells us the truth; not what amounts to a collection of internet enhanced rumour, no matter how much that rumour is of course based on a core of real experiences of real people. And as philosophers, lovers of wisdom, one would hope that this would include a love of the truth.


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Protecting females against harm transmitted to them by males – a multi-layered story

In June 2010, my then twelve-year-old daughter returned from school with leaflets about the new HPV vaccination. I read these with alacrity and concern. My interest was not simply that of a concerned parent, but as an academic working in medical law and ethics, who has particularly examined issues of adolescent consent to medical procedures, and indeed, as a joint author of one of the few papers providing empirically founded critique of the notion of so-called ‘Gillick competence’.

I wrote up an initial analysis of my concerns, which included the following points. The programme of vaccination was aimed exclusively at girls, for a virus which infects both males and females; yet again, then, the message is being given to girls, just on the cusp of puberty, that they have greater responsibility for sexual health than boys. As my own daughter remarked, ‘It’s the boys who give us cancer. They should be made to have the vaccination.’

The information given to parents was overly emotional and misleading on points of law. The leaflet said that every year, fifteen girls in Oxfordshire would die of cervical cancer. Actually, as sad as any death from cervical cancer is, it’s not girls who die, it’s women; cancer is a feared disease, but childhood cancer especially so. This seemed to me an example of squeezing maximum emotion out of the statistics without much concern for accuracy. This is also relevant to the legal issues, because consent must be free and informed; reasons were given for having the vaccination which were arguably exaggerated.   

On the point of law, the form required parents to sign consent for the vaccination and they were asked to give reasons for any refusal. The wording strongly implied that you had to have a reason, and that this reason had to be good enough. But this is a misrepresentation of the law here. For individuals, consent to treatment may be refused for any reason or for none. Parents may be held to account if they refuse medical treatment for their child in extreme or life-threatening situations. HPV vaccination – especially for the many 12 year old girls who are not actually sexually active – is hardly such a case. There may be good reasons on a population level to get this cohort vaccinated to achieve a good level of herd immunity; but on an individual level, it can’t possibly be said that the vaccination is so important for each and every 12 year old girl that parents are answerable to medical authorities for their decision. Especially medical authorities who did not seem promising candidates for understanding feminist scruples about the skewed and gendered messages about responsibility for sexual health.

I wrote up an analysis of the problems; then it occurred to me that an associate member of the Ethox Centre, where I worked at the time, might be interested in writing something jointly on this, given that he was a barrister specialising in medical law; perhaps he had some insights on points of law or relevant cases that might add to this analysis. Fool, fool, fool. I sent him my analysis and suggested a joint piece. He replied that he sometimes had pieces published in The Times and he’d see if they might take a joint article on the topic. I waited to hear back.

When he did get in touch again, it was not to say that The Times wanted a piece from us. It was to be forwarded a blog post he’d written on the Oxford Practical Ethics blog. I found I had undergone an identity shift – from colleague specialising in medical ethics, who’s published on adolescent consent to medical procedures, to that archetype, the ‘worried mum’ who had gone to a big-shot colleague for advice:

“Is the UK’s HPV vaccination programme unethical and/or unlawful?

Published September 12, 2010 | By Charles Foster

A colleague recently emailed me. Her daughter, just turned 12, had come back from school bearing an information leaflet about HPV vaccination with the Glaxo Cervarix vaccine, and a consent form for the parent to sign.

The consent form nodded inelegantly to Gillick, asserting that ‘[t]he decision to consent or refuse is legally [the girl’s], as long as she understands the issues in giving consent.’ There was no indication given, in the consent form or the accompanying literature, as to whether and if so how that understanding would be tested. The reality is that it won’t be tested at all.

If parental consent is refused, the parent is instructed to identify the ‘Reason consent refused’, and is told to turn over the page ‘for additional space to give us your reason for your decision.’

The request for a reason for refusal is perhaps a well-meaning attempt to ensure that medically misguided reasons for refusal can be addressed. If, for instance, a parent refuses because she thinks that there is a significant chance of anaphylactic shock, further discussion about the magnitude of that risk relative to the chance of HPV-related disease is warranted. Fair enough. But the request won’t be read that way by parents. They will think that there is a legal obligation to provide a reason, and since the explanatory leaflet suggests strongly that there is every reason to have the vaccine, and none not to, the effect will be to force reluctant parents to sign up because they can’t articulate a reason for not signing.

The case for some sort of HPV vaccination is overwhelming. But the strength of that case should not allow the normal safeguards for ensuring appropriate consent to be ignored.

The NHS has decided that it will pay only for Cervarix. But Cervarix is not the only vaccine. Many other countries have opted instead forGardasil, produced by Sanofi-Pasteur and Merck. This is not the place to argue the relative merits of Cervarix and Gardasil. It is enough to say that there is a good case for saying that Gardasil is a better vaccine that Cervarix. (See, for instance, here and  here). The UK seems to have opted for Cervarix  because it is cheap. Shouldn’t any proper process of pre-vaccination counselling for Cervarix  include a mention of  its  main competitor? Parents or girls themselves, having the full facts, might opt to pay themselves for Gardasil. There is no mention in the explanatory leaflet of any alternative to Cervarix. The clear impression is that if you want to avoid cervical cancer you will have Cervarix.

Is there any justification for failure to tell girls and their parents about alternatives? Can it be argued, for instance, that full information might cause confusion, and that confusion might result in some girls failing to consent to any vaccination at all? Surely that’s a hard argument to run? Or might it be said that to give information about Gardasil could create a two-tier population, since all the rich girls will get Gardasil, while all the poor girls get Cervarix? That might be true, but is it a sufficient reason for the NHS to ignore the basic principles of the law of consent? Is it a sufficient reason to deny the rich girls the better protection that Gardasil might give? Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Gardasil is indeed better. Is the egalitarian reasoning justifying the withholding of relevant information so important that it is worth letting some people get avoidable disease?

Modern European legal debates about consent tend to be framed in the language of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 8(1) is undoubtedly engaged in the process of consenting girls for HPV vaccination. The Article 8(1) right, though, is not absolute. Article 8(2) provides that  ‘There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of [the Article 8(1) right] except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’

It is hard to see how any conceivable justification for failing to give information could be squeezed within the ambit of Article 8(2). An imaginative barrister might say that the egalitarian justification was really the ‘protection of morals’, but he would expect a hard time from mostjudges. Might ‘the prevention of disorder’ help? Hardly: there’s no real danger that the rich, Gardasil vaccinated girls are going to be beaten up outside the school gates by their envious Cervarix-vaccinated peers. The only ‘rights and freedoms’ compromised are the right to be properly informed and the freedom to act on the information received.  In the absence of evidence that proper pre-vaccination counselling would reduce the take-up of vaccination, it is arguable that the present regime is unlawful.”

True, Charles Foster had produced some new analysis, based upon the comparison of the two alternative vaccines. True, he had not included all of my analysis – he left out the feminist bit about gendered messages of responsibility for sexual health, funnily enough. But far from explaining how his thoughts on this were sparked by me alerting him to the issue – far from explaining that I had provided him with an analysis of many of the problems in the information leaflets and forms to be signed -  far from mentioning that I was a colleague who had, unlike him, actually specialised in the particular area of adolescent consent to medical procedures – he didn’t even mention my name. I asked him why not. Confidentiality, he said. As if it was confidential that my daughter had had such a leaflet – it was a frigging public health campaign – EVERY girl got one.

Of course being trumped to publication on this meant that were I then to publish something, it would look as if I was simply following in his footsteps. My one regret is that I was so overwhelmingly upset, and so angry with myself for my optimistic naivety that I would be treated with respect, that at the time I just had to let this drop.

But there is a virus that spreads throughout the population. Some people appear to be carriers, immune from the symptoms but able to transmit the virus on to others. It can be hard to identify this virus; like many others before me, I have observed that amongst academics, this virus seems to switch on a silencer gene, but usually only in those with two X chromosomes; in others, it causes perceptual problems, making those who carry two X chromosomes appear to be tiny, insignificant little objects instead of people in their own right with their own thoughts and opinions. And it spreads itself from males to females, where it can cause serious problems; it can result in females disappearing – retiring entirely from intellectual debate, or speaking but remaining unheard.

It’s a virus of patronising, bullying, patriarchal, self-assured, entitled intellectual dominance.

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Euthanasia recipient makes impassioned plea to doctors to ‘just help me to live’


 A strange thing happened last night. After watching an episode of ‘Afterlife’ on a DVD my sister lent me, my daughter and I light-heartedly sat down at a Ouija board. How soon were we to be startled to have the following message spelled out to us in a rapid series of frantic moves:

‘I make an impassioned plea to the courts of my country and to the medical profession to listen to my dreadful plight. I was the recipient of euthanasia in the Low Countries of Europe, having come to this decision of my own free will, and requesting assistance from doctors to ease my passage. However, now that I am trapped in the after-life, I can see from this vantage point that the notion of free will is not all that simple. I can see now how I was far too much worried about becoming a burden on my family, and how cuts in health service resources had led me to a skewed view. I realise now that I did not have access to anything like the decent level of palliative care that others receive. I realise too, now that I can look more globally, that I was living in a society with a pretty wretched view of the elderly and the disabled. So that when I ‘freely’ made my decision, I was not fully appraised of all the facts, and neither was I entirely uninfluenced by the interests of others. In fact, even as I signed the form, I had some more questions to ask, but didn’t want to bother the nice doctors who are so busy these days. I also realise that, with hindsight, many of my problems were created by bad medical decisions in the first place, and were entirely avoidable.

‘I therefore make an urgent appeal to my doctors, just to please, let me live. I will if necessary take my case to the High Court.

‘Oh, hang on a second, I can’t can I, I’m dead.

‘I therefore will take a case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming discrimination against the dead, making the case that live people can make impassioned pleas for the legalisation of euthanasia, but dead people cannot make impassioned pleas against it.

‘Oh, hang on, maybe that won’t work either.

‘Let’s just say, can’t we make law and policy about euthanasia on the basis of reasoned discussion about all the impacts of policy and law on everyone who might be affected, rather than by highlighting individual tragic cases?

‘Hard cases make bad law.

Oh, and you guys down there might want to think twice about introducing a law in favour of euthanasia in a recession. Just a thought.’



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Worries about academic freedom

The London School of Economics is attempting today (April 14)  to get the BBC to pull a Panorama programme filmed under cover by a BBC reporter while a group of its students were in North Korea. The BBC is disputing certain facts with the LSE and currently refusing to pull the programme. The BBC reporter involved alleges that the visit was in any case, not organised as an official university trip, and that all the students involved were told twice that an undercover reporter was going to be present, and advised of the dangers. In any case, students studying at the LSE and visiting North Korea would have had to have been living in an underground bunker without wifi not to know of the risks. However, as more facts emerge, it does look as if there is a serious dispute about what the students all really knew and whether or not they consented.

Listening to a discussion about this on Radio 4 this morning, I was disappointed to hear the reporter being put the question of what the students’ parents knew about this and what they would think about it. Odd, given that the students are all legally adults, but it’s of some significance to the university’s attitude: the general move to treat academics and students as needing to be marshalled under a corporate leadership, as if they are not capable of acting as individuals. The reporter involved pointed out one staggering aspect of this case. North Korea is, he said, a Nazi state, the most repressive regime in the world, and yet, the LSE could not apparently see the irony of their demand for censorship. Given that, luckily, everyone returned safe from the trip, and putting aside as a different question the issue of consent to the presence of BBC reporters, I focus here on the call for censorship.

The LSE’s stance about pulling the programme does not surprise me at all. It’s typical of the attitude that has crept into universities over the last few decades, in yet another example of the change blindness which has weakened our defences against the erosion of academic integrity in this country. A lot of people don’t even notice how controlling and destructive of intellectual endeavour such an attitude is.

I recall clearly when I got my first lecturing post in 1982 a colleague explaining to me the principle of academic freedom – that one of the aspects of the job was that I could use my academic position as a platform from which to speak and to say anything at all, with complete freedom. That’s been forgotten in many quarters.

Pity, as I still have a treasured publication – a letter to The Times, signed Dr Paula Boddington, Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, 9 Woodland Road, Bristol BS 8 1TB, which by coincidence appeared just under one by Anne Widdicombe. We were both complaining, for different reasons, about Baroness Warnock’s welcoming of sex selection of embryos. I complained about her statement that it might be jolly useful for those with hereditary titles to make sure they would have a son to whom to pass on that title. I pointed out that a simple change in the law would obviate the need to muck about in labs with test tubes – a change in the law which in fact is due any minute now. (I also pointed out that it would also be possible to get rid of hereditary titles altogether.) This little letter cheers me up every time I read it.

In my personal experience, I have seen the erosion of the idea that academics can freely speak out as individuals occurring chiefly within research centres – is it perhaps a coincidence? For it’s here that the marriage of academia and finance is at its closest, very often – with the need continually to attract funds. The encouragement for universities to learn more from business, emphasised as we all know by She Who Must Not Be Named, (sorry to be so childish, but it’s been a bad week) seems to have extended in some quarters to a creeping notion of the necessity of adopting a corporate line. Working in a research centre in Cardiff, which was twinned with one in Lancaster, I recall being gobsmacked at a group meeting to be given express instructions: if a reporter wishes to speak to any of us, we were to refuse. We were to contact an administrator in Lancaster (who of course, might not even be in work at the time) and pass the matter on to her. She would then decide who in the centre was the most suitable to speak on that particular matter.

Not long after that, Reuters rang me whilst I was in Sainsbury’s. It was about four o’clock. They needed something by five thirty. Did I say, ‘ooh, sorry, Reuters, I’m too much of a dimwit to be able to do anything like make clear that my statement is a personal opinion and not an official line from the academic centre where I work two days a week, I’ll ring someone in Lancaster who’s probably gone home already and she’ll get back to you once she’s checked with her boss?’ Of course not. I shouted down the phone still standing in the aisles.

Whilst working at another centre I once wrote a letter to the manager of a hospice about a matter which I believed, and still believe, to be one of some public urgency and of concern for the welfare of their patients, and patients’ families. I worked at a centre for medical ethics, so sent it on centre notepaper, as I’d done the letter to The Times all those years ago. It was in any case, of direct relevance to the work of the centre. What I had not noticed sufficiently clearly however was that the headed paper contained a line with the name of the centre director, and the manager of the hospice replied direct to him. He summoned me for an urgent meeting. Just to remind you, I was alerting the manager of the hospice of a matter which I strongly believed was likely to be a source of distress to dying patients. I was given a resounding ticking off, even though my letter did  not indicate in any way that I was speaking for my centre, and even though my letter was concerned mostly to alert the manager to something she might not have been aware of and which  she might think was not in the interests of the hospice and of some of its patients: that there was a video posted on Youtube, and expressly described as pornographic, filming a sexually explicit calendar (including S & M) which had the hospice logo all over it. On no account, I was told, was I to use the centre letterhead again. Irony of ironies – I was banned from using the letterhead and credentials of a centre where I was employed as a researcher, for pointing out that a group of self-styled pornographers were using the logo of a hospice, and simply asking the manager if she were aware of this.

I was so taken aback that the head of centre objected, that I ran this past another academic, who opined that the head of centre was within his rights to do this. That is, the fundamental notion of academic freedom – that as an academic, one may speak as an individual whilst explicitly using one’s academic position and institutional backing – had slipped away from the party without anyone even noticing it had left.

I recently had occasion to reflect on these cases when appointed to a Department of Health Scientific Advisory Committee. All they required of us is that whenever we speak to the media, or publish, we make clear that we are speaking personally and not as representatives of the Committee – unless of course, we are. We were actually treated like adults. A refreshing change.

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Poaching from the Ivory Towers


Some of the many legacies of Margaret Thatcher are alive and well within UK higher education. The pressure to show that we feckless academics are actually doing something worth doing, by insisting that we measure everything we do and write it down and compare it with what everyone else is doing; and the requirement that we try to attract as much external funding as possible to show that we are worth something to someone other than just ourselves, were twins both nurtured in her milk-rationed bosom. After all, money’s the only thing that really shows anyone values anything, isn’t it.

There are other avenues and aspects to this simple analysis but it’s good enough for a start. Together these have produced one of the most insecure, casualized workforces in the country, peopled by neurotics looking constantly over their shoulder at the next contract, the next research assessment exercise, the next so-called ‘blind review’ of  one’s work; the brilliant idea that we could get more money by getting more and more people to come to do PhDs has turned us into a vast, teetering Ponzi scheme which further erodes any notion of security as we sit there, nervously teaching people who are lining up to stab us in the back as we compete for jobs with our own graduate students; the need constantly to produce outputs – no matter how good, no matter if anyone reads them – the need to list on one’s CV not just publications but grants successfully applied for – produces a constantly escalating hype with the continual need to make out  how great we are as we push our academic wares to assessors and funders, with the concomitant casualty rate where many people end up smoking their own dope, believing their own hype, and become, far from dispassionate seekers of truth, partisan peddlers of an exercise in self-promotion.

One of the magic tricks with which Thatcher seems to have hypnotised the nation is that this has all been going on so long, one is hard pressed to find people who can recall anything different, or who question the basic assumptions behind this push to produce, produce, produce, or who really appreciate the devastating effect this has had on the humanity of the poisonous working environment to be found all over UK institutes of higher education. The few I know who would remember are on the whole long retired, deceased, or left the profession in despair.

So, in order to try to demonstrate its malevolent reach, it’s necessary to find instances where the normal operation of this ratcheted-up academic-industrial complex has had particularly bad effects on individuals. And that is hard to do – precisely because it’s become an accepted part of how the career ladder is viewed that it’s seen to be normal that many will fall off it – ‘you are the weakest link, goodbye’ – and, most people being so wedded to the system, there’s an assumption that anyone who suffers deserves to do so. They couldn’t cut the mustard, they weren’t absolutely dedicated, they couldn’t get any grant money, they only got published in peer reviewed journals with low impact factors. Tough.

Still, knowing full well that there will be many who will refuse to listen, I’m going to give just one example.

I applied for a job as a researcher at Oxford University in 2007. It was advertised as a three year position. I lived in Bristol at the time, but I applied, thinking that maybe as it was a research post I could perhaps commute a couple of days a week. At the interview, however, I was surprised to be told that the job was intended as a continuing post, and that ‘they fully expected the funding stream to continue.’ When MP, the centre director, telephoned later to offer me the job, I asked him about this and he confirmed that it was indeed intended as a continuing post.

Therefore, I both took the job, and moved my two children, kicking and screaming, to Oxford. I will leave out the part of the story where it cost me thousands upon thousands to move house, given that it was a recession and it took me a year to sell, a year in which I was paying rent, and mortgage, and two lots of council tax, as that’s just bad luck. What I go direct to is about nine months after starting, when we had a research centre ‘away day’. The two professors outlined their vision for the centre. It would be like a crucible, where people would come to stay for two or three years, get trained up in medical ethics, and then leave, hence scattering throughout the known universe the invaluable seeds of their unique wisdom. What struck me with a sickening thud was that there was just no vision, no wish, no expectation, that anyone else would ever have a continuing contract there. It was just them: the two ‘great’ men, and their ever rotating brood of servile lackeys.

Not so many months after this, I sat at a meeting of the international consortium of scientists for whom I worked. Looking through the papers about the EU funded project, I realised then with another sickening thud that there was no possibility whatsoever of any continuing funding. It came to an end at a certain date, and that was it.

When I saw my boss for my annual appraisal some time later I asked him what he had meant by describing my job as a continuing post. MP is one of the most laid back people you could hope to meet, but he was shaking from top to toe. (I’d emailed him to warn him I was going to ask him this.) Well, he replied, the Centre has got a very good reputation, so any research application you put in from here has got a very good chance of success. That was it. That was it. I had to apply for research funding from ‘somewhere or another’ and of course, I’d get it, because I was at his wonderful centre.

This is what I mean by somebody starting to smoke his own dope. How is it legal to tell someone a post is a continuing one, if they are going to be responsible for finding their own salary? He believed his own endless hype -  he believed everything he touched turned to a successful research application. He sent me away to ‘do research’ to out what bodies might fund me. Why, when he knew of course in advance who all the funders were? Why, when of course he knew in advance that virtually all funding is either early career, or emeritus, or leave from an existing post, or for equipment and expenses only? I did put in for one grant, the only one I could possibly apply for, with no success. The Wellcome Trust stipulated that I had one referee only, and that person was mandated to be my line manager – I had no option but to have my boss write a reference. Normally, it’s all submitted electronically, but he took the option of sending a paper copy so that I couldn’t see what he wrote. Doubtless he didn’t want me to get too big-headed seeing the nice things he’d written about me.

Can you guess that I didn’t get the funding? I walked out of the centre on a Friday and signed on the dole on the Monday. I left work early that Friday, I was so upset. Funnily enough, there was one piece of post waiting for me that last day – a letter telling me I’d been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts Manufacturing and Commerce, in recognition of my contributions to research into ethical issues in genetics and genomics.

 After a while, I picked up bits of casual tutoring at colleges, having applied for job after job after job – academic posts, care assistant posts, mystery shopper, washer-upper, you name it. I laughed like a drain this week at a confirmation of the age-discrimination I am sure I am also up against. I’d applied to teach at a summer school for visiting overseas teenagers, without gaining an interview. A student of mine, however did get an interview. I’m really very sure she’ll do a great job. (It’s just that I have thirty years more experience than her.) But I digress from my main point.

As a direct result of the damaging, irresponsible hype that now characterises the university sector in this country, my children and I, for the last three years, have been living below the UK poverty line. The university personnel department referred me to a counsellor who told me she’d seen so many examples of people who had sold houses, moved countries, dragged spouses thousands of miles, to be treated with similar disdain. The towers are built of poached ivory, and it’s time to stop this inhuman trade.

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In a class of their own

I sat in a class that discussed feminism and social class this week and nearly lost my cool at assumptions about the idea that we were all somehow middle class. Is there any use at all for such a label?

I would like to tell you about the event that is the highlight of my summer. It’s going to the Royal Albert Hall to the Proms, the definitively British musical festival, to see the Hallé’s prom concert. I go to the Hallé prom because my sister’s in the orchestra; last year we also saw my nephew, who’s in the Halle Youth Choir. We don’t pay for a ticket, because we sit on seats which have owned by my children’s paternal relatives ever since their forebears invested in the building of the Royal Albert Hall; at that time, their family was amongst the richest in Britain, and well-connected politically and socially. Now the family has two free seats at every concert. After the prom, we walk through the familiar glories of the South Kensington streets to meet my sister and collected friends at the pub she went to while she was a student at the Royal College of Music, nicknamed ‘Room 99’ (because at the time there were 98 rooms at the RCM). The very picture of British cultural, social and financial privilege.

Except. One reason why we use the free tickets is because we could not otherwise afford a seat – my children and I live below the UK poverty line. Of course, we could prom, but even shelling out a fiver to stand is something to be thought about. And another reason why this is such a highlight is because it’s really hard for me to afford to take my children on any kind of holiday.

Of course that does not cancel everything about class in Britain. The vestiges of my children’s privileged paternal forebears can easily be found with the use of Google. There you can find us in lists of people directly descended from William the Conqueror, there you can find us listed in Burke’s Peerage and in Debretts. That’s how I found out, not long ago, that my son is listed in the line of succession for an Earldom. But think about it – we found this out (and laughed and laughed) through the internet, precisely because I am not in sufficiently close contact with anyone who really wields any of the real social and economic power to have ever mentioned this to us in person.

But how did my sister get to live a life of such privileged high culture as an orchestral musician? Surely this is the consequence of socially segmented privilege, to have the means to achieve this, and to have the taste for high culture in the first place? But that would be wrong too. My sister went to a state school, had to pay no fees to study at music college, and was given a student grant to do so. The idea that some sorts of culture are somehow out of the world picture of certain classes also ignores reality. My parents both came from Wales, and it was just normal to be interested in music. My mother came from a family where just everybody played an instrument, and where everybody in the generation above played; her parents both played piano at the silent pictures; people sang in the street, for goodness sake. But they were hardly privileged. Her father was a skilled manual worker; her mother killed herself during the depression, while he was unemployed. And my mother’s mother had herself won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but had been unable to afford to study there.

And how did my sister get to play music? It was when we first got a piano, when my aunt moved and could no longer house my grandfather’s old piano, so it came to us. My sister sat down at it straight away and immediately started picking out tunes by ear – she was rushed pronto to a family friend who gave her lessons.

And the piano itself? It has tales to tell. It had sat in the house silent and unplayed while my grandmother lay dead with her head in the oven. And it had survived an attempted coup. After my grandfather returned from the First World War, his family had split up, and during the depression, his sister, my great aunt Kitty, was living in one room, looking after his piano for him. In those days if you claimed dole money, you had first to sell anything you had of any value. The social security official came round and said to her, ‘You’ve got a piano, you can sell that’. She told them in no uncertain terms: ‘That’s not my piano, that’s my brother’s piano, and he fought five years in the trenches for this country, and you’re not getting it’. She then picked up an axe and chased the official down the road. They never got the piano. My grandfather kept it. After his death my aunt got it; then we got it; my sister played it; and ended up at music college, unlike her unlucky grandmother.

And that, dear reader, is how come we ended up sitting on free seats in the Royal Albert Hall, basking in the undoubted wild, wild luck of being able to feel at home in this fantastic cultural festival, waving proudly at my sister on the stage.

Only, please think before you open you gob and tell people what class they are in.




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Who does Banksy think he is?

Am I the only person in Britain who thinks Banksy’s works are repetitive, mediocre, and pretty trivial? I doubt even if it’s one person doing it – following a pretty simple formula, you could produce Banksy type ‘art works’ ad nauseum. And who does he – she – or they – think he is painting art works on anywhere he pleases? A few years back I walked along the coast at Clevedon and came across a beautiful stone look-out shelter where people had sat to watch out for ships returning from all around the world. It had recently been restored and the stone beautifully cleaned. And there it was, on top of this perfectly restored stone-work – a Banksy. (Or, a piece of work done by someone who had worked out how to mimic his style.) Who the hell does he think he is? That his ephemeral, hastily painted formuliac art can be plastered anywhere? Whoever he is, if you want to find him, start by looking for someone whose ego is large enough to show up on Google Earth.

Good on the people who chipped the Banksy off their privately owned wall to sell. The idea that ‘the community’ owns the Banksy work is laughable. Any old wall in any old town does not become public property, does not suddenly gain the status of a listed building, just because a work of art, the value of which lies chiefly in the carefully cultivated celebrity status of its producer, has appeared on it.

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“Faster, stronger, ruder”

There is a series of footpaths through the farmland behind my house which are public rights of way. You have a right to walk down them. You can’t cycle, or drive a car. They are used by people walking into town, by myriads of dog-walkers, and by runners. On one side are the meadow lands, ancient grasslands which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and  on the other hand, playing fields for a few of the Oxford University Colleges.

I ran down some of these most days last week during the quiet first week of January. Some days I saw no-one, other days the occasional dog-walker. But term has almost started, and the enthusiastic sports person in particular is already back. I was running, at shall we say a moderate pace, along the public footpath today when I heard the noisy thud of footsteps behind me and a ‘Watch Out!’ I turned and stepped out of the way just in the nick of time as two six feet, fourteen stone parcels of muscle zoomed past. They did not slow their pace one jot, nor did they show any sign they might deviate their path or that they were considering stepping out of my way. I had no option but to shift quick, hoping the undergrowth did not conceal the canine hazard the horrors of which mere words cannot describe.

‘Oi!’ I yelled at them, after a nanosecond’s thought. ‘If I can get out of your way, why can’t you get out of my way?’

They stopped an turned back to look at me, jogging on the spot as they did so. ‘What are you saying? We just warned you we were coming past so we didn’t startle you.’

‘No you didn’t, I had to step aside so you could get past. Why didn’t you get out of my way?’

‘You were going so slowly!’

‘Well if you were going so fast, you could have run around me.’

‘I’ve been running for twelve years, you know. That’s how running works. The slower runners get out of the way of the faster runners.’ And with just the faintest whiff of testosterone left hanging in the air warmed by their sweaty wake, they were off.

The thing they had failed to notice, however, was that we were not anywhere where any ‘rules’ of running applied. We were not on a playing field. We were on a public footpath, where you have a right of way, not a right of jog. Cocooned in their own inner world in which youth, speed, and sheer bulk of muscle forms the basic building blocks of the universe and the rules by which it operates, they failed to notice that their little world existed inside a bigger world, consisting in little old men with their terriers, and little old ladies jogging ever so slowly – pardon me for breathing. This world has existed for centuries, far longer than the amazing ‘twelve years’ upon which the authority of the jogging rules were premised.

Faster, stronger, ruder.

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No harm in it

It looks like I am starting the new year how I plan to carry on. Irritated.

Dr Brooke Magnanti is number two on my list of people whose face I’d like to slap, were it legal to do so. I won’t tell you who is number one. (There are only two people on the list, actually.)

And for the purposes of the malicious electronic communications legislation, please note that this does not in any way, shape or form constitute a malicious communication. There is no threat, or implied threat, since slapping people around the chops is undeniably against the law, even if they are dozy cows who deserve it, and my wish to slap her is hypothetical, conditional upon a very unlikely change in the law. (I have actually often argued that slapping someone in the face is in fact a speech act, much in the same way that other gestures are speech acts, the last resort for communicating with someone who is beyond reason, or who deserves an insult that cannot be captured in language, – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must slap the bugger round the chops” as Wittgenstein put it.) But on the whole, I couldn’t be bothered to give this woman the wrong sort of publicity for her pathetic cause by actually making contact with her skin.

At the bottom line of her dreary views about sex – her dreary claims to have uncovered the truth about it, that everything anyone else has ever thought about it or told you about it is lies – are a few highly dubious claims.

Number one is the claim that certain approaches to sex – involving, inter alia, casual sex, commercial sex, sex openly discussed (albeit probably concealed from one’s other sexual partners), numerous sexual partners, (not to mention the oddest of all, sex involving the wearing of rather uncomfortable looking underwear), are all fine because they are harmless.

Number two is the implied claim that this is the right view because it’s based on empirical evidence. She is a scientist, after all.

Despite her supercilious superiority whereby she seems to think she’s more or less single-handedly noticed this, these are in fact the wearingly common tropes of the threadbare discussion that passes for moral debate these days.

How can we gather empirical data about whether a certain type of practice is harmful to human beings, in and of itself? We can test it on them. But there’s a problem. We can only tell if it’s harmful to certain particular human beings, at a certain particular time and place. We can’t actually tell if it’s harmful to a human being simpliciter, because there is no such thing. Any human is raised in a bombardment of familial, societal, and cultural influences. And these can mould people in a variety of ways. They can shape people so that certain things may be harmful, or may be perceived as harmful; certain other things may be good, or may be perceived as good.

Here is an example. Children generally learn to fear strangers at a certain time in their development, or at least to be wary of them, and learn to feel concerned if their usual caretakers do not appear. So they will feel distressed and harmed at the absence of those they are used to, and fearful of being left with those they do not know. But children brought up in orphanages with a plethora of different caretakers often won’t – they will happily go with any stranger who approaches them, happily take food from anyone, happily let anyone put them to bed and change them. Looks then like it would be ideal to raise children in orphanages, then, wouldn’t it, because it seems to inoculate them against one type of harm and distress.

However this is obviously nuts, because we feel so deeply that there must be other worse, more harmful effects from being orphaned and brought up in an institution. Or even if we don’t necessarily think there are harmful effects, we think it’s just sad, just wrong. But it’s not at all obvious that other ways of changing how a child is brought up won’t have good effects. Maybe raising children in something slightly akin to an orphanage, like a kibbutz, would have good effects. The point is, however, that when you test out the harms and benefits, you are testing them on people whose capacity to experience harms and benefits is moulded by the very thing you are testing. If you raise children without shoes, their feet get tougher, and they don’t feel the same sensitivities that other shoeless children would feel. But it’s not much of an argument against footwear that it makes you sensitive to walking on rough ground, certainly not in a world of tarmac, dog shit and pin-tacks.

Thus, any simplistic claims about harms and benefits of practices which would have a profound effect on our psychology and our relationships, need to be examined very carefully. Any such claim can’t simply be seen to be something that can readily be subjected to a repeatable empirical test.

This raises profoundly difficult questions about moral progress.  If we can envisage a future which would seem to produce more overall good and less harm, in the long term, it may well be the case that the transition of getting there might cause more harm for the people that currently exist, or at least, for those people as they are right now. They may have to be prepared for some pretty profound changes in attitudes and reactions. Some of these changes are ones we can see from here might be great – wishing no longer to be afraid of spiders, for instance – but others are harder. If one is upset because one’s spouse is sleeping around, there are two solutions. Change the spouse’s behaviour or inclinations. Or change yourself so you no longer care. Which is better? Which person would you wish to be? Hmmm. If this particular example doesn’t grab you, make up your own examples until you see the point. It’s even the case – shock, horror – that we might prefer to be a certain way, even if that means that in the world as it is, or in the world as it feasibly might be, we have a worse time.

We have reaching the difficulty arising from the malleability of human beings. This is even worse of a problem than first appears, because we know they are malleable, but we don’t really know how malleable. And the human being that we are right now judges how we’d like, or not like, to be changed; the human being we might become may have views we now can’t appreciate.

Then what are we to do? This is a hard question, but for a beginning of an answer, we can see at least some things we should not do, or approaches which are likely to be misleading.

If a practice is claimed by many to be harmful, or at least subjectively distressing, it may be argued in reply that it is not, because look, here is one person at least who did  not find it harmful. This is basically the Brooke Magnanti method for testing the harmfulness of prostitution. It seems to show that the practice can’t be inherently harmful, because if it were, it would harm everybody. This argument is profoundly wrong. I am actually surprised she has fallen for it, given her background in genetic epidemiology. She must know full well that finding a genetic variant that is associated with a trait in one individual or population group does not at all mean it’s going to be associated with that same trait in another individual or population group. She might even have worked out that a variant which is harmful in most people may fail to be harmful in one individual because that individual has a second variant which is also harmful in most people yet which by lucky happenstance protects against the effects of the first variant. Yet, (although she does try to adduce evidence that prostitution doesn’t actually harm others either) she seems to extrapolate from her own case of ‘high class’ call girl work to prostitution in general. Tut, tut.

Firstly, it’s problematic because any account of human nature must recognise that there are wide individual differences. So finding one person who, to go back to where we started, does not mind having her face slapped, does not in any way mean that most people would not mind.

Secondly, it’s problematic because it fails to note that to test harm on one human being is to test it on a particular human being with particular inborn dispositions and particular cultural and personal history. It would be useless to try to claim that finding one person who’d been brought up without footwear, or who had naturally thick skinned feet, or a naturally low pain threshold, who didn’t find it a problem to walk on pavements barefoot means that those brought up with shoes were being silly or making a fuss about nothing.

Thirdly, it’s problematic because altering views about practices in response to such arguments in turn alters the social and cultural environment in which humans form their very views and the psychology which in turn shapes whether or not certain things are harmful or beneficial. Maybe a few people have in fact worked as prostitutes without being harmed. Does this mean we want to live in a society awash with prostitution? Maybe yes, maybe no.

There is a certain cultural assumption also operating in the arguments of the likes of Magnanti. The idea is this: As a starting point, the claims that choice is good, that more choice is good: in particular, that physical enjoyments are good, whatever the source. (There’s probably the idea that these physical enjoyments are ‘natural’, although what is ‘natural’ about wearing suspenders and corsets beats me.) Then, add to this potent brew the idea that anything which reduces choice, or hampers any physical enjoyment, must be bad, and in addition, must somehow be imposed by some unnatural or otherwise unwarranted spoiler of harmless fun. Anyone who seems not to experience pleasure where another person does is missing out! There must be a potential for pleasure in them which has been distorted, destroyed or masked! Oh no! Call the fire brigade! There is likely also a profoundly infantile notion that it is our natural birth-right that we must all have as much fun as possible and that that fun is at root some primary physical enjoyment.

This then is the perfect tool for crediting more validity to the finding that one person experiences no harm from an activity, than to the finding that other people do experience harm from that same activity. The harm they experience is ‘wrong’! They have failed to experience pleasure! ERGO, something has gone wrong!

In the latter case, the person themselves has been prevented from appreciating the experience; has had their list of choices shortened – (a great crime indeed, in any society that worships rampant capitalism); or else the particular forms of the experience were not so great, but could be altered (you were a street prostitute working to support a heroin addiction; not a ‘high class’ call girl – you simply needed better employment circumstances, oh, and you needed to be more conventionally attractive (sorry about that love, but got to be honest,  no-one’s going to pay much for that face), and middle class, and, not a heroin addict, and not to have revolting ill-mannered syphilitic clients, and not have a wildly jealous boyfriend,) then it would be lovely.

Wouldn’t it, Dr Magnanti?

You dozy cow.

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Ask not for whom the bell tolls

As I write, people in Connecticut are anxiously awaiting confirmation from the police of the identities of those who have died in the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday. But as one woman interviewed on the news said, even if it’s not someone you know, it is another child, or another adult.

These stories take me back to one Sunday in April 1996, and the queue to use the only functioning telephone at Port Arthur, Tasmania. A group of maybe one or two hundred of us  had spent the afternoon hanging around the hotel dining room in shock, drinking the pumpkin soup and eating the sandwiches the staff provided, being refused information from the police, until the evening news came on the TV. The police tried at that point to turn off the television, until loud protests overruled them. We watched in stunned horror as we started to realise the extent of the massacre. Ten, twelve, twenty, the estimates of the dead continued to rise throughout the evening. Reports included the details that a three year old child was amongst the dead. My own small  son, who was two and a half, had been playing with a younger child whose father we knew was dead.

I suddenly realised that I’d told my work colleagues we were heading to Port Arthur, and that they would by now have heard the news. I joined the lengthy queue for the phone. The coin holder was full, so it was only possible to ring reversed charges. People made short calls back home to relatives and friends, then moved away to let the next person call. I had no address book on me, but one of my colleagues had a memorable home phone number so I rang her. I heard the operator say to her daughter, ‘Would you accept a reversed charge call from Paula Boddington?’ I can remember worrying that they might  not be willing to pay for the call. But of course immediately I could hear her mother shout, ‘Yes yes’ and grab the phone. ‘We’re all okay’, I said. Then what she said next chilled my blood, and does so every time I remember it.

‘Thank God, thank God’ she said, ‘We heard on the news that a three year old had been killed and I just assumed the worst that you were all dead, I feared that it was Reuben. Thank God.’

I could not reply. I was surrounded by the stunned survivors of a shooting, which was at the time, and for many years to come, the world’s worst ever massacre by a single gun man. And the inevitable logic overwhelmed me: if the dead three year old was not my son, Reuben, it was some one else’s child. I could not deny I was glad my son was safe. But I could  not say that I was glad he was. Because that would be like dealing out the hand of death to someone else.

God’s blessing on those who stand and wait to know, who has been taken, and who remains.

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Use existing laws to avoid regulations that will hamper press freedom

The freedom of the press is in danger. But this freedom is not at the moment absolute. There are limits on what the press can publish. These include personal medical details, which are protected by law and by professional ethics of medical confidentiality. There could conceivably be occasions when it might be judged to be in the public interest to breach this, as indeed, medical law itself allows that in serious public interest, the medical records of an individual can be revealed. But there is no plausible reason to think that it was in the general public interest to know that the Duchess of Cambridge had or had not been retching, and therefore no plausible defence on the grounds of press freedom. Given that the programme on 2D FM which conducted this hoax phone call was clearly an entertainment, not a news programme, this reinforces the illegitimate nature of what they did. Kate Middleton deserves  no more protection than any other pregnant woman, but neither does she deserve less.

It also appears to be the case that the broadcast violated standards in Australian broadcasting whereby those recorded secretly have to give their permission before broadcast. In the case of something which is clearly a prank done not for any reason other than entertainment, this seems perfectly fair, although for serious journalism, for example working under cover to expose crime or other matters of public interest, it would seem to be a hamper to some very worthy investigations. (Indeed, one of the problems we are faced with is too broad an idea of what counts as journalism – photoshopped ‘up the skirt’ shots of  minor celebrities are not actually news stories.)

All the more reason then, to pursue existing legal avenues against those who use trickery to obtain access to private records for nothing other than fun. Because by using what existing law there is, we can best avoid the perception that we need more regulation of the press. There are already laws in place that give some protection to individuals, whilst allowing the press to operate.  So that a genuine journalist who has a genuine reason to use subterfuge to get access to information, for example by hiding the fact that they are a journalist, can continue to do so. The freedom of the press is utterly vital in a democracy. It is already compromised by issues of ownership of the press. It would be a very worrying development if the freedom to investigate and report news were to be compromised by the wish to constrain those who break existing laws in the name of entertainment, whilst sheltering illegitimately under the umbrella of journalism.


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Jimmy Savile abuse and the culture behind it

The Jimmy Savile scandal exposes, as is well understood, not just the behaviour of individuals, but the behaviour of other individuals who either turned a blind eye or actively assisted; as well as the general culture of particular organisations, and the general culture of society at the time. Of course at any time there are different currents of culture in different strands of society and these are very often inconsistent and confusing. Amongst these is a pervasive attitude that saw girls and women as fair game, and endorsed the view that men would of course try it on whenever they could. Against the climate of ‘free love’, there was still however a more ‘old-fashioned’ view that it was up to the girl (or woman) to keep up standards and draw the line. In other words, up to the woman to say no. It was as if male sexual drive was a sheer force of nature that men themselves could not be expected to curtail; putting up limits was the task of females. (I recall this being expressed in more academic circles by Roger Scruton who claimed it was up to women to restrain ‘the unbridled passion of the phallus’.) Odd, of course, for many reasons, not least because those charged with the important task of controlling this vast and ‘unbridled passion’ were very often the least powerful in society. And this is of course especially the case with young girls.

However, before we smugly congratulate ourselves on having grown out of this attitude, ask yourself if things are really so different. The fourteen year old son of a friend reported his so-called ‘sex education’ lesson. I hesitate to glorify it with the name of ‘education’. The topic was consent to sex. Great, right-thinking parents will think. An antidote to a part of the culture that allowed predators like Savile to operate.  But this is what that fourteen year old boy got from that lesson. The teacher started off by explaining that consent to sex was only an issue for girls, not for boys. This was because, he went on to explain, if a boy has an erection, that means he’s already consented to have sex. The rest of the lesson, from what I could make out, seemed to be about how a boy could tell if a girl was really up for sex.

Put aside, for now, the seriously questionable assumption that a teenage boy ‘really’ wants sex every time he gets an erection. This is utterly nuts, given that boys of this age get erections seeing someone’s knickers on a washing line. More seriously, it also opens boys up to abuse – a sleazy music teacher puts his hand on a boy’s leg and he gets an involuntary erection – ooh , he ‘really’ wants to have sex with his middle aged clarinet teacher, does he? But I want here to point out what message this gives about who sets sexual limits. (What used to be called sexual morality.)

I am sure this was presented as a lesson about telling boys when ‘no’ means ‘no’. The boy in question – who was a sweet kid, young for his age and not yet particularly interested in girls – got the impression that it was about telling when a girl was ‘ready’ for sex. And the bottom line was still the same. Males want sex, full-stop. Females alone have to judge when and whether this occurs. I wonder if the teacher involved even realised this was the underlying message he was giving out. (And it’s a message reinforced elsewhere in schools – the HPV vaccine now given out to children of this age to prevent the spread of a sexually transmitted virus is given only to the girls, as if they alone had to bear the task of sexual hygiene. As my teenage daughter said, ‘It’s the boys who give us cervical cancer. They should have to have the vaccine.’)

We’ve come a long way since the days when the Savile abuse was at its height. But exactly how far have we come?



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Thought for today about the nature of philosophy:

Stating the obvious, but backwards and in high heels



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Groundhog day, with a difference

A report went round the philosophy faculty at Oxford University recently about the status and experience of women in philosophy. As  a result, a group of keen, right minded philosophers, post-grad students and staff, almost half of them men, met in the crowded Ryle Room in the Philosophy Faculty at 10 Merton Street to discuss it and decide a strategy for action.

Reading the report has some aspects that cheer. For instance, there’s now a great deal of pretty systematic work that demonstrates some of the mechanisms, as well as the ubiquity, of bias. But the rest of it could have been a snap shot taken thirty years ago. In the 1980s I used to go to the Society for Women in Philosophy meetings where the same things would be discussed. The discussion went over the usual grounds – the aggression of questioning in philosophy seminars, the relative invisibility of women, the relatively greater stress on female students. One difference, perhaps, was that in the 80s everyone had read ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ and whether they agreed with the conclusions or not, the issue of how power gets played out in such meetings was at the forefront of people’s minds. These considerations didn’t seem to make their presence felt today, perhaps a sign of the general atrophy of such political concerns in universities as a whole over the last generation or so. To say ‘we were talking about all this thirty years ago’ sounded imperious, so I did not.

‘Thirty years’, I said afterwards to a friend, not five,  not ten, not twenty, thirty years, in other words, before most of the people in the room were born, and what has changed? Not much, although it’s undoubted that universities as breeding grounds of ideas have changed very much for the worse. Not much seems to have changed for women. Oh yes, here’s one change: when I left to take a few years’ off to raise my small children, it was accepted that to prevent damage to women’s careers, when they returned from family leave, they should re-enter at the level they would have been at, had they not taken time out. By the time I returned, nobody could recall this idealistic notion. Drat!

Here’s another, personal change too.  In the 1980s I was a lecturer at Bristol University philosophy department, the first women ever employed there, and teaching, amongst other things, feminist theory. In those days I was allowed to teach whatever I felt like. Now I work part time doing tutoring, mostly casual work or filling in for others on leave. When it was suggested at the Ryle Room meeting that a new structure in the BPhil postgrad degree could allow someone to put on a seminar on feminist philosophy and for students to submit work on this, I inwardly wailed to myself, ‘I was a feminist theory teacher’. No point in mentioning it, as a college lecturer I only give tutorials, I’m not allowed to lecture for the university, so could not offer to do this. But still, let’s not forget past glories: as I sat, GroundHog day like, at yet another meeting at how women fare in philosophy, I can proudly say to myself ‘I was a feminist theory teacher’.

What was that thing Karl Marx said about philosophy?  Oh yes, ‘The point is to change it’.

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Vice work if you can get it

A recent report claims that more and more university students are turning to prostitution and other work in the sex industry to fund their studies, including A level students. This has been a standard “option” for student work at universities in Australia for some time. In the ACT, prostitution is legalised and when I worked at the Australian National University, during freshers’ week when students have talks on various things such as where they might get part time work, work as a prostitute was mentioned as one viable option. A former colleague of mine once explained to me in words on one syllable, as if I were some kind of moral imbecile, what a pity it had been for the girls working as prostitutes when the brothels were regulated, because then they were all moved out to the two industrial areas of Canberra – meaning that instead of  just nipping out to nice suburban house around the corner from the campus, they had to travel across town and thus had to get a taxi home. Was I hearing things? No, she went on to explain to me and to the equally stunned adminstrator with whom I had been having a chat, how, due to outdated attitudes, such students found it harder to get married “because there are still some men out there who don’t want to marry a girl if she’s worked as a prostitute”, shaking her head at this irrational and unjust prejudice.

When I had lived in Canberra only a few weeks, it was National Open Day at the brothels around Australia. The newspapers were full of it. I read a double page spread which included an account from an elderly lady who had looked around a brothel to see what they were like because her son was a frequent visitor. “They are so lovely and clean” she said, or words to that effect. Well, even I clean up my house when I am expecting guests. As a method of moral inquiry, looking for traces of dust rates pretty low in my humble estimation. Did she expect to “see” some moral turpitude lurking in the corners? David Hume springs to mind: “Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object.” Hume’s conclusion from this was that the vice existed solely in one’s own breast. Others seem to consider that our failure to pinpoint vice in the same way as we might pinpoint the Higgs Boson implies its nonexistence. With such a simplistic strategy, one is on a fast track to moral nihilism or extreme subjectivism.

Some commentary on the report about the rise of students working in the sex industry pointed to the sea change in morality regarding sex and sexual entertainment: it’s everywhere around us. I would add to this a more fundamental sea change in attitudes to morality more generally, one that strikes me forcibly having recently spoken to dozens of sicth formers about their views on ethics. It seems to me to be a product of how people are taught to think – or not to think – at school. When presented with a moral problem, many will say: a Buddhist would say this, a Christian would say this, a utilitarian would say this, a Kantian would say this … ad nauseum. “Yes, but what would YOU say”, I prompt. “Well, in my opinion .. but you can’t tell other people what to do … that’s just what I think, it’s only my subjective view.” There is perhaps only one moral principle  left standing, the idea that it is wrong to  “force” someone else to do anything. Morality as wallpaper, as choice of breakfast cereal.

One further oddness about this contemporary abandonment of value: it’s notable that our media and culture is more and more sexualised. It’s also notable that we are bombared with programmes that seek to set standards in the most trivial areas of life: what to wear, how to host a dinner party, how to look good naked, how to win prizes at village fetes. Put alongside the view that it’s wrong to judge anyone’s ethics, isn’t this obsession a bit, shall we say, “arse backwards”?

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