The comical sanctimony of certain segments of the philosophy "profession" is a regular topic of conversation and head-shaking among adults, but the insulting treatment of philosopher Tommie Shelby (Harvard) after his keynote at the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism (SAF) sets a new low. Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), who always has his finger on the racing pulse of the hyper-sensitive, offers this account:
At the SAF, some members of the audience found the keynote talk by Tommie Shelby (Harvard), drawn from his forthcoming book Dark Ghettos, highly objectionable. My understanding (which may not be entirely accurate) is that the controversy concerned some remarks in the talk about procreative ethics, how (as he puts it in an earlier article), “basic duties are not suspended or void because one is oppressed,” and whether what he said was disrespectful to poor, black women. Some attendees apparently thought that an apology was in order, perhaps from the organizers. (UPDATE: two days after the SAF conference ended, its organizers sent an email to the participants issuing an apology, and requesting feedback from them regarding the event and future conferences.) (UPDATE 2: further details regarding Shelby’s talk can be found in the comment below from “a poor black woman who was there.”)
I suppose Professor Shelby (and everyone else) has learned an important lesson here, namely, that the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference, but one in which failure of ideological purity (which is marked by giving "offense"--heavens!) is verboten and results in an "official" repudiation by the organization.
Again, if we were dealing with professionals--it appears we are not--then we would expect SAF to issue an apology to Prof. Shelby for this shameful treatment at what was supposed to be a philosophical event. (I should add that the sins of SAF should not be visited on those who work in feminist philosophy, though there is, of course, some overlap in the two groups. But I guess if I were a job candidate, I would get SAF off my CV, lest the sins of the SAF organizers be visited on the innocent.)
UPDATE: Philosopher Kate Norlock (Trent) tells me that Professor Weinberg's account is not accurate, and therefore the inferences I have drawn from it are not warranted. She writes:
Tommie Shelby spoke to an attentive and quiet audience without interruption.the question-and-answer period afterward involved many members of the audience providing substantial and critical comments and questions to him. I can attest, since I was there, that their objections were not to the notion that the oppressed can have moral duties.
Interestingly, one of the more unfortunate moments in the discussion period was a moment when Shelby attempted to deflect a robust criticism with the comment that he was "just doing philosophy." Since the unfortunate implication of this ill-chosen deflection is that his questioner may not be trying to do the same, I found myself asserting, as I closed the event, that I appreciated the extent to which we all, including our keynote speaker, remained engaged and did philosophy together. It is therefore disappointing to read your statement that "the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference."
Presentations at our conference included the works of philosophers from 30 different states and 3 countries. I provide you the link to our program so that you may be better informed as to the philosophical content of our conference:
I know you care about truth and fact more than your post indicates. I believe that you wish to be accurate and right. Your post about SAF is neither. It is not reflective of actualities and instead seems to merely echo Justin Weinberg's likewise uninformed post at Daily Nous. Your recommendation that my organization should not appear on a philosopher's CV may be well-intended but is predicated on misunderstanding on your part.
Last, please provide me with any proof that I or my organization officially repudiated Tommie Shelby or owes him an apology. Proof should include more than your repetition of Justin Weinberg's gossip. That the blogs cite each other does not constitute proof. Again, I know that you know this, or would ordinarily know this.
I appreciate the additional detail, but I am, I confess, still puzzled. I am surprised that Prof. Weinberg's posting would remain uncorrected on these points after more than a day and despite dozens of comments including from members of SAF. (UPDATE: Prof. Weinberg's post was updated to reflect this point after I posted this.) I have asked Prof. Norlock for the apology e-mail organizers allegedly sent to members; Prof. Norlock's message to me was silent on tHis. When I have more information, I will post more.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Another SAF meeting attendee has forwarded me the e-mail sent out by the organizers, which confirms the crucial part of Prof. Weinberg's original account:
We write to all participants in the SAF 2016 conference so that those of us not on Facebook or social media have the same access to our acknowledgement of the harms some participants have already identified, and opportunities to participate in addressing them.
In planning this conference, we wanted to create a safe and nurturing space for feminist philosophers and feminist philosophies. We recognize that this was not the case for everyone present, and for that we apologize. In particular, we apologize for the effects of the Saturday keynote address [by Prof. Shelby] and for our failure to do more about a situation in which SAF members felt personally and collectively hurt. When members identify effects including the erasure of Black women’s bodies and words, then we have to do better. What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference, and we take responsibility for our roles in the events that took place.
We realize it is crucial that we take steps to address the concerns of our members so that we can do better, and to do that well, we need to learn from the concerns of our members. We considered the limits of an online discussion board and we concluded that, given the vagaries of internet comments, there was too much danger of further harm to those who have already been harmed by what took place.
So, instead, we have created an email account to collect stories, concerns, feedback and other comments from our members. We’d like to know what worked, what didn’t work, what hurt and why, what could and should be different, and how we can improve as feminist philosophers and colleagues. We are asking each of you with something to say to write and let us know about it, if you are willing, at:
[feedback e-mail address omitted]
The SAF executive will read and reflect on these, and ask each writer’s permission to collect them – appropriately anonymized or not, as you indicate– into a document that we will circulate electronically to all SAF members, along with our proposals (based on your feedback) for how to do better going forward (and, just a heads up: we’ll probably look for your feedback on those, too). This document will be stored for future SAF executives and conference committees, so that we can start to create an archive of past failures and accomplishments, and what we’ve learned - or should have learned! - from them.
We promise to keep all emails confidential, and to only share your views if you consent, anonymously if you prefer. If you want to provide feedback but do not want it included in the document, please let us know in your email.
If you are uncomfortable writing to us from your own account and would like to be anonymous to us, please use the following email address:
[e-mail address omitted]
We ask that you please submit your feedback between now and OCTOBER 3, so that we can start putting the document together as soon as possible. We will continue to check the email address for other responses for another 2 weeks.
Kathryn Norlock, President Carol Hay, Secretary/Treasurer Susanne Sreedhar, Executive Member Alice MacLachlan, Executive Member
This e-mail message confirms my original judgment: SAF should apologize to Prof. Shelby. One doesn't invite a keynote speaker, and then afterwards apologize "for the effects" of his address, noting that "What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference...."
ADDENDUM: And here is, I am told, the comment by another SAF meeting attendee about her reaction to Prof. Shelby's talk:
I thought long and hard about whether or not I would speak or stay silent regarding #SAF2016, but words of my fore-mothers kept coming into my mind and I decided that I cannot stay silent.
These words are for *me.* It is important to me that black women's experiences and our stories are told and documented, despite the risks it may pose or the misunderstandings that could ensue.
I have observed that for many feminist philosophers (read: white feminist philosophers) these gatherings are rejuvenating, revitalizing, and a safe space where 'we' can do our work. However, this has not been my experience. Due to countless instances of microaggressions and even overt racism and misogynoir, I have learned to arm myself when I am entering into these spaces. But the armor that I have cultivated was not enough to shield me from the events that took place this weekend. I will speak of just one central event, because 1- it was the most public, 2- on multiple levels it serves as a paradigmatic example of the erasure of black women's bodies and our words, and 3- if you want to know why so few of us are in philosophy, this example hits on a multitude of reasons.
Now I commend the efforts made to bring a talk into this space concerning black women; however, within the current climate, this should have been done by a black woman in order to avoid objectification. If academic feminist philosophy truly wants "a dialogue about racism, it will require recognizing the needs and the living contexts of other women." It requires making space for our voices to be heard along with the recognition of the power dynamics within the space that I am entering. While our voices were given salience during the talk's q&a, our voices were entering into an already hostile and emotional environment where I don't wield much power.
My first question to the speaker was 'Why on a talk on black women and black women's bodies, black feminist theorists were not being engaged?' I framed it as a metaphilosophical question concerned with methodology, but it was flat out ignored. Space was made for me directing the speaker to address my question; however, I was told to repeat it because the speaker 'had forgotten it' and once the question was repeated, it was dismissed as "asking for a bibliography." Another response was given that the speaker 'was just trying to do philosophy.'
It is harmful enough to sit through that talk, then to be ignored and belittled, and effectively told that I don't do philosophy. But more harm occurred when the majority of the remaining questions abstracted out black women and focused on women as a collective (read: white women). I am now at a talk where the object is black women, black women's work was not being engaged with, black women's questions were dismissed and ignored, and the remaining questions erased black women. I am at a talk focused on black women without using our work and then we drop out of the conversation when the talk's focal point is our bodies. This is erasure on multiple levels. We were silenced on numerous accounts.
Afterwards I was told that my responses were visceral and that I was being angry. Yes, I am angry and it is a painful place to reside, but in order to survive I have learned to use it. I was also told that I was brave and that my courage should be commended. I appreciate the positive affirmation - truly I do. It helps to keep me from being pushed out of philosophy. But what I need is for my feminist allies to realize that when I am fighting against misogynoir and in unsafe spaces, I am trying to survive.
Operating in a space under such duress I do not consider fun, epic, nor rejuvenating. I left the conference wondering how much time will it take for me to grapple with this trauma? How many days did the stress of this take off of my life? I heard other women speaking on being in "survival" mode during the event, but I want to stress that it was not your womb that was being addressed. It was not your womb that was being explicitly told could act in a morally reprehensible way. It was not your work and words that were being silenced. You are still able to see the weekend as a success, to experience the speaking event as one of solidarity, a joint venting, and to even look forward to the next gathering.
I do not. I can not.
I see how unintelligible black women are. I see how with such ease and lack of awareness we are erased. And now, by documenting this, I see more clearly the work that needs to be done.
These are my words. These words is my anger being well used. May these words be words of fire.
From this, I think the only thing about Prof. Weinberg's original posting that was misleading (and echoed in my title, above) was the claim that it was his substantive theme that provoked controversy and led to the official apology by the organizers to those in attendance. In fact, what provoked the public rebuke of the keynote speaker was even less substantive than that. With all the evidence now before us, and despite Prof. Norlock's protestations, the original judgments about SAF seem warranted on these facts.
YET ANOTHER 9/26 UPDATE: I have corresponded with two younger philosophers who attended SAF. They have not persuaded me that the public rebuke of Prof. Shelby was justified or that it does not reflect a kind of ideological intolerance that is incompatible with the Socratic ideal of philosophy to which almost everyone professes allegiance. I still believe that the graduate student who objected to Prof. Shelby's response to questions, above, was mistaken. It is not appropriate to ask a speaker why s/he has not referred to scholars based on their race, gender or class; it is only appropriate, at a real philosophy conference, to ask why a speaker has not responded to an argument by particular philosophers. The correct response to the objector--the one quoted at length above--is to educate her about the norms of the profession she wants to enter, not to indulge her nonsensical objections and then insult the speaker to whom she objects by issuing a public apology and rebuke.
But I want to withdraw my parenthetical suggestion, above, that students and faculty should withdraw their SAF affiliation. That was too strong a claim, not warranted by this one unfortunate, and I hope anomalous, incident. Prof. Norlock shared the SAF program, above, which included many very good philosophers (and many not-so-good ones, but that is life with conferences). And my admonition that the sins of the SAF conference organizers should not be visited on the participants will hopefully be taken seriously. In the best-case-scenario, the SAF conference organizers will issue a public apology to Prof. Shelby and acknowledge, also in public, that it is not appropriate to challenge speakers about the racial, gender or class identity of the authors they cite or rely upon.