How to Think How to Write and How to Teach, Composing, 15/06/2016

I’ve had a lot of ideas lately for posts here, which is a shame that I’ve been so busy since coming back from Calgary, I’ve only been able to update sporadically. 

I’ve finished reading Commonwealth and wanted to add some thoughts wrapping up my long engagement with Antonio Negri’s trilogy. I also started reading Louis Althusser’s For Marx, and have a few ideas about how we understand history that I want to work out here. And I’ve been thinking about the medium of messaging apps, mulling over the mechanics and meanings of how we interact with chatbots. 

But I discovered something very disconcerting a couple of days ago. My old employer, McMaster University’s Philosophy department, was accused of racist practice by a former Master’s student in a pretty bold forum.

The home building of my old department was also one
of the oldest and best looking buildings in the otherwise
drab and brutalist McMaster campus. Plenty of green at
that university, though.
Udoka Okafor wrote a piece on Huffington Post alleging mistreatment and a lack of respect from the professors in McMaster’s department. A PhD student at the department, Jorge Humberto Sanchez Perez, wrote a response that was posted at the less mainstream* venue of Brian Leiter’s blog.

* A blogging space exclusively for university-based philosophers, and quite a controversial one in that community, thanks to Leiter’s creation and stewardship of the “Gourmet Report” rankings and his indefensible defence of formerly-Northwestern University’s Peter Ludlow after his sex scandal. I’ve already written about all this mess.

You can read Okafor’s piece online and download the .rtf file** of Sanchez’s hit job – I mean rebuttal! – to read yourselves. You’ll be about as well-informed of their characters as I am. Both joined the department well after I left my position at McMaster, and I think after I left the city of Hamilton as well.

** Seriously?!

But you can tell where my sympathies lie. If you take Okafor at her word – and you have no reason not to – you see an ambitious young thinker. And I’ve never been one to cut away at ambition. 

Having worked in McMaster’s department for five years, I certainly see why they’d discourage Okafor pursuing such a massive project as a striving-for-completeness comparative study of Western and African legal theory. It’s impossible to do in a single year. 

But if I were in their position, I wouldn’t have outright discouraged her from moving in that direction at all. What would have provoked the best work in the long run is for her to have figured out some kind of preliminary project to the big one. 

Maybe contrasting a Western and African legal theorist whose work, juxtaposed together, reveals an interesting or illuminating idea. Now, I’m just riffing here, but there’s no reason why some similar riff couldn’t have appeared in the few minutes of a grad student’s committee meeting. 

Thanks to Barry Allen, McMaster
has a firm base for new approaches
to comparative philosophy. That
should have made a project like
Okafor's quite at home.
My own supervisor, Barry Allen, has been working on comparative philosophy for about a decade now. He’s written two books on ancient and medieval Chinese philosophy, the general survey Vanishing Into Things and the exploration of philosophy of the martial arts, Striking Beauty. He would have been an excellent supervisor for such a project.

But Okafor was part of the Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law program, over which Allen never really had much influence. That program focussed very much on North American and British legal and political theory, and was largely conceived as a philosophical prelude to law school. That’s how its founders discussed its role when I was there and they were designing it.

That's the local-level set of issues. It expresses the institutional conservatism of the department, a fairly common attitude there, which I think held the faculty back from achieving more progress in teaching, research, and creativity than the good work they did do.

Because at a larger scale – as an expression of trends throughout the academic institution – Okafor describes a group of people operating in blindness to the crisis unfolding throughout the university system and the philosophical discipline in particular.

I’ve written my own perspective on this institutional crisis at the Reply Collective, twice actually. And if you take what Okafor says seriously, you can see another perspective on academic philosophy’s crisis of institutional conservatism. 

One of the most common and most effective ways to hide your head in the sand about serious problems among your discipline’s leaders is to divorce what they say from the context of their lives. Here are some concrete examples to illustrate what I mean.

In November 2013, McMaster’s Philosophy Department hosted Peter Ludlow in a prestigious week-long series of talks – mere months before his career-ending exposé, but well after his condemnation by Northwestern’s Title IX board. One McMaster Philosophy professor who’s been a good colleague and friend to me is a devotee of the disgraced Thomas Pogge's philosophy of mass charity from wealthy to poor countries. 

Now, my own problem with Pogge’s argument was that it smacked of the same imperialist condescensions that were embedded with the creation of mass poverty in the Global South in the first place. It's built on the insulting reduction of the entire formerly-colonized world to a charity case, and puts all agency on the former colonizers, treating the entire non-Western world as a passive receptor of our goodwill. 

I always found the political imperatives of his philosophy
as horribly smug, as if he never questioned if there was
more to the moral problems of a post-imperialist world
than simple differences in material wealth.
More specifically, Okafor describes, in the most problematic of her problems, being taught Pogge’s philosophy without any permission to make an issue of his years of using his Yale position for sexual predation. She wanted to introduce the hypocrisy of his position to problematize his ideas. But she was told that his vile character had nothing to do with the value of his ideas when considered in the abstract.

It makes for a curious parallel of my own problems with Pogge. His abstract ideal of justice as an imperative to restore egalitarian fairness would work out in real application to a repetition of empire as infantilizing charity on a civilizational scale. 

Following Okafor, the appeal of his abstract argument for egalitarian justice suffers when spoken from the keyboards of a man who exploited gender, economic, and post-colonial hierarchies for his selfish sexual pleasure. Real hypocrisy deflates the power of an abstract argument.

In summary, Okafor’s critiques and problems with our former colleagues at McMaster Philosophy have much in common – we both appear able to see the hypocrisies and self-undercutting of abstract arguments for justice and fairness made from a material situation of institutional conservatism.

Having such an eye for that conflict of the abstract and the material makes me think she’d have a good home as a contributor to the Reply Collective. 

As for Sanchez’s rebuttal? Just read the bloody thing. It looks like a condescending, dismissive screed at a young woman as an irrational fool not worth listening to. Appeals to empty buzzwords like ‘political correctness’ that are used to delegitimize movements against racism all over the West. Insulting the genuine need for Western philosophy to embrace a global scope as the mere fetishization of 'diversity.'

The sadly typical huffing and puffing of a grumpy old man.
• • •
Editor's note. A few hours after the post went up, a friend of mine who was a classmate of Okafor told me that the course on Pogge's philosophy took place before his recent exposé, so I can understand why what were – at the time – only rumours were bracketed from its discussion.

But the neo-colonial critique of Pogge still stands (he reminds me of John Stuart Mill's justifications for British sovereignty over India as a "civilizing mission") and Sanchez still sounds like a pig.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Adam, I think you've weighed in on a particular issue that you don't properly understand the context of.

  3. Excellent contribution to this conversation!!! I am reminded of my struggles as an undergrad, though I have to admit, grave injustices then look much differently to me now. Not to dismiss the legitimacy of Okafor's arguments (I'm right there with her on ideas---on McMaster, not my wheelhouse), only to offer my own suffering from confirmation bias as a young dissenter. I'm sorry this has worn her down so much that she's felt the need to change course. I hear it, I feel it, it bums me out. ):