Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blog 'Diversity Obligations'

Brian Weatherson writes:
Just what diversity obligations a blog has is a slightly tricky matter. I think anyone is perfectly within their rights to start a solo blog, and if that blog’s authorship is thereby 100% white and male, I don’t see how that’s a problem. I don’t think there’s a problem if they add a second author, even if that still means 100% white and male. A philosophy-oriented group blog that had, say, 10 authors and was 100% white and male, now that I would think was troubling in its lack of diversity. My intuitions about these cases feel fairly strong and robust, and I assume they are tracking something, but I don’t have a good theory about what they are tracking.

Process matters. I think the relevant feature here is not the size of the blog, but rather whether the pool of potential contributors is open-ended. Suppose, for example, a dozen drinking buddies decide to set up a group blog as an online supplement for their in-person philosophical banter. Despite the larger size, such "social group" blogs are relevantly like individual or two-person blogs. Assuming you don't have "diversity obligations" regarding the company you keep, you likewise won't have such obligations regarding the blogs you set up with those friends -- whatever their number might be.

A different kind of "closed" contributor base is found in department blogs, for example. So long as everyone feels welcome to join the blog, there doesn't seem any further moral issue at stake. It may turn out that the global result of respecting each individual's preference (to participate themselves or not) is that disproportionately few women end up blogging. But so long as each individual freely chose what they wanted (without distortion induced by fear of hostility or the like), this procedural fact is surely all that matters. Whatever outcome results from the aggregate of individual choices in this situation is ipso facto just.

Things seem different when we consider an "open-ended group" blog, e.g. topical group blogs that welcome any contributors who work in the relevant field. Because it is open-ended, not every potential contributor receives an explicit invitation to join. And if, of all the experts in the field, one only thinks of men to invite, such implicit bias (however innocent) certainly seems unfortunate -- and worth remedying (e.g. by making an explicit effort to remember women in the pool who are equally deserving of an invite).

So far, this all strikes me as fairly commonsensical (no?). But what if, despite all procedural fairness, it turns out that women are less likely to accept the invitations? Is one obliged to take further, affirmative steps to promote "diversity" in outcome? This is more controversial, as it rehashes the whole 'affirmative action' debate.

On the one hand, it seems plausible that increasing the visibility of (expert) minorities in the field could have good consequences, e.g. in counteracting implicit bias, and perhaps in making the field seem more welcoming to minority students. So there's probably some reason to affirmatively recruit minorities.*

Still, as a deontic minimalist, I don't think such efforts could be reasonably demanded, or considered 'obligatory' as opposed to simply desirable. (Maybe this is even true of the procedural case, above, for explicitly counteracting one's implicit biases?) It'd be a good thing to do, but perhaps not so pressing as to justify burdening individuals with moral demands. Consider: if someone goes to the effort of creating a new and worthwhile group blog, it seems rather perverse to expose them to moral censure for their failure to exert additional feminist efforts in the process. (And writing letters of complaint to the "higher-ups" at affiliated institutions, as I think I saw someone suggest, seems downright counterproductive.)

Moralists should inspire, not harangue -- or so I'm inclined to think, at least. (Perhaps not everyone reacts so negatively to haranguing?)
* = It's worth noting that affirmative action generally risks burdening brilliant women with self-doubts about whether they were selected in part for their gender, and not just on their merits. This seems less of an issue in the particular case of blogs, since they're never all that selective to begin with. But it may be a reason to oppose AA practices in general (especially if the benefits are minimal, and more effective means can be found to make the field inviting to minority students).


  1. Consider: if someone goes to the effort of creating a new and worthwhile group blog, it seems rather perverse to expose them to moral censure for their failure to exert additional feminist efforts in the process.While I actually agree that this particular sort of case is in the realm of desirability rather than obligation, I think there are cases where this is not obvious, and where the path of argument would have to be a bit longer. For instance, one could think that the obligation arises not from the particular circumstances of the case but from the combination of the severity of the problem and relative ease with which it could be fixed in the particular case. If, for instance, talented, competent blacks were regularly overlooked in a given field, and the new open-ended group blog looked like just more of the same, with an overwhelmingly white slate, it seems like this is precisely the sort of thing where one could make moral demands that the organizers do a bit more to remedy the situation, precisely because all they have to do is hunt around a bit more. Probably even this shouldn't be regarded as a strict obligation, but I don't think moral demands arise only in the context of obligations; sometimes moral desirability plus practical considerations are enough. Sometimes it's just reasonable to start drawing lines in the sand. (For instance, one might say with some exasperation, "If you won't even try to diversify on such a relatively simple platform where it would require such relatively minor effort, then where does that leave everyone? At the very least make some effort here.") Of course, practical considerations may also weigh the other way; as you say, some moves are counterproductive.

    In the particular case at hand, though, with the Choice and Inference I think it clear enough that the major problem wasn't in the original set-up, but simply that there were missteps made in handling it. For instance, according to usual blogging conditions, blocking comments is an escalating move: it indicates that you think the commenter is wasting your time or has content you deem unfit for publication. Emailing the author, which was the path taken here, is not adequate because (1) as with doing something that appears very rude and then writing a letter to explain, it doesn't change the fact that your first impression was coming across as very rude, and you've already irritated the person in question; (2) Since people aren't always checking their email it might be hours or even days before the commenter in question got the message; (3) the commenters in the question might not be the only ones worried about this sort of thing (and this was the problem here; the organizers were at least making some efforts to respond behind the scenes while there were people who were getting more and more irritated that the moderators seemed to be doing nothing but blocking comments without explanation). There were several others that could be pointed out that led to this becoming much more of a blow-up than it might have otherwise been. One lives and one learns, I suppose.

  2. I agree that haranguing might be counterproductive. That's an empirical question about what helps. I think we can follow an 'anything-goes' model here though - unless something is clearly counterproductive, it isn't obvious that it shouldn't be done.

    But there are three points I thought went by a bit quickly in the post.

    So long as everyone feels welcome to join the blog, there doesn't seem any further moral issue at stake.On the one hand, I think this is almost a point of agreement. (Though note C&I isn't a purely 'open-ended' blog - there were a lot of invites went out, and they seemed to mostly go to men.) But it takes a lot for everyone to feel welcome.

    Note that the main point that people were making over at Feminist Philosophers was that the makeup of the blogging team itself was a way that women could feel unwelcome to join. If that's right (and I think the evidence suggests that it's plausible), and we agree that blog administrators have some kind of obligation to make everyone in the field welcome, then plausibly the administrators have an obligation to do something about the makeup of the blog.

    If it really is unwelcoming for women, then I'm not even sure that starting the blog is a net good thing. There's an upside of increased communication, and a downside of reinforcing gender barriers. Is the trade-off worth it? I would probably guess not.

    Just to second something Branden said, the number of ways this could have been cleaned up is really staggering. I strongly dislike this practice some group blogs have of listing 'contributors' who have never posted a thing. There are people who have been invited to post on TAR, and have passwords to do so, but who have never taken up the invitation. When they do, they'll be added (automatically, by WordPress) to the author list in the sidebar. If C&I had done that, they wouldn't have looked so exclusionary, and the impression that women weren't particularly welcome could have been cut off.

  3. Brandon - good points. (Though I guess I'm more interested in the general issue Brian raised than anything peculiar to the referenced case.)

    Brian - Just to clarify, that quoted claim ("So long as everyone feels welcome to join the blog, there doesn't seem any further moral issue at stake") occurs in the context of a "closed" contributor base, i.e. whereby every potential contributor receives an invitation right at the start. I agree that things become more complicated in cases where some people are invited and other potential contributors aren't -- hence the rest of my post!

    I guess I find it pretty hard to understand how the demographic makeup of the blogging team would in itself make women feel unwelcome. This might make sense if one took the makeup of the team to indicate that women were being deliberately excluded. But that seems an insane assumption to make. (Surely nobody actually wants to exclude women.) At the very worst, we're talking about implicit bias possibly causing people to simply not remember to invite women. None of this would seem to offer the faintest reason for believing that anyone was unwelcome. And in many scenarios, I expect the makeup of the team would result from many women being invited but choosing to decline for reasons of personal preference. So that makes assumptions of hostility seem even more incomprehensible.

    Am I just radically mistaken about whether attributions of hostility are unjustified here? Or do you think that very many women draw such unjustified conclusions? (I could understand some women being in this situation, if they'd had bad experiences in the past, say, which then colour how they interpret things now. But is this really common, among philosophers of all people?) It all seems rather baffling to me (and to the women I've discussed this with, too).

  4. I should add: I'm also pretty worried about the proposal that "anything goes" in the service of social justice. I think there's a range of permissible moral opinion within which holders of those views should not be subject to disrespect -- which includes overly aggressive haranguing. For an extreme example, it would pretty clearly be inappropriate for feminist activists to point and yell "Sexist pig!" whenever they saw a non-feminist colleague who was generally well-meaning and met all their negative obligations, but simply wasn't as concerned about taking positive action as self-identified feminists are. You could say it's an "empirical question" whether such haranguing would help the cause. But advancing the cause is not the only relevant consideration here. (Cf. Cultural Liberalism.)

  5. With regard to the point about hostility, at Richard 4:19, I'm not sure we actually require an attribution of hostility for a society to feel unwelcoming; under certain circumstances I think a mere appearance of indifference can seem unwelcoming as well. For instance, suppose we are in a society where blacks are still overcoming obstacles. And at social gatherings, etc., whites make no effort to interact with blacks -- they don't mind at all interacting with blacks if the blacks go to the trouble of of interacting with the whites, but they just make no effort themselves. That's still not a very pleasant society for blacks to be in; it means that whereas whites get automatically included, blacks only get included if they put themselves out on a limb to interact. So there are cases where much less than hostility is required for making things unpleasant and unwelcoming for someone. So context matters, too; it can be wearing to feel that you are being forgotten yet again.

    I worry a bit about an anything-goes approach, too; part of the problem with it, I think, is that you can rationalize a just-so story about anything being productive over a long enough period of time. I think that one really does need some positive reason to think that what one is doing is probably not counterproductive. Such reasons can be defeasible, of course.

  6. Brandon - that's very helpful; thanks for the correction. It's an interesting case, but I'm not sure that merely "being forgotten" is really the problematic feature from the perspective of the blacks in the described scenario. For it would seem natural for them to further worry that the whites' indifference reveals something about their preferences. While the whites "don't mind" interacting with blacks, the fact that they automatically make more effort to interact with other whites in their immediate vicinity may be taken to reveal that on some level they really prefer the company of their own race. And it's easy to see why this thought could be upsetting, and make the situation seem "unwelcoming", for the others.

    It's less clear whether this sort of inference carries over to cases of remote interaction (e.g. sending blog invites). Insofar as it does, then I could understand being upset about it. But it seems much more natural (to me, at least) to interpret the blog invites as simply revealing something about the organizer's cognitive/memory function, rather than their preferences. And merely "being forgotten" due to a cognitive malfunction doesn't strike me as nearly so upsetting.

    Aside: there's some curious nuance here. It seems problematically uncollegial for one to reveal (even implicitly, i.e. through behaviour -- at least in any overly obvious way) a preference for interacting with certain demographic groups, but intuitively it seems to me that the preference itself is a personal matter that isn't a legitimate target of moral criticism. Then again, perhaps this isn't so mysterious: it's a standard feature of politeness norms that permissible private thoughts aren't always permissible to communicate.

  7. Richard: I think Brandon is on the right track about hostility. Also, being systematically ignored because of someone's cognitive bias feels extremely unwelcoming, regardless of the person's intentions. I'm an utter people-pleaser, and I'd still prefer to be in a situation where people had negative explicit beliefs about me, yet noticed my ideas and evaluated them in a cognitively unbiased fashion, over a situation in which people had no negative explicit beliefs but were always failing to notice me, talking over me, and attributing my ideas to someone else. I'm lucky enough (also clever enough, white enough, rich enough, able-bodied enough, and young enough) not to have experienced much systematic ignoring, but I've experienced enough, and heard enough second-hand, to know that it is unpleasant for the victim regardless of the perpetrators' intentions. (Meh. I dislike this "victim/perpetrator" talk, which makes it sound like A bashing B over the head, but don't have a better alternative ready to hand.) And cognitively biased ignoring is not just unpleasant: it's harmful to the victim's epistemic growth and professional advancement.

    Your footnote does an excellent job of capturing what's wrong or worrisome about affirmative action. But in a sexist world, men tend to be "selected in part for their gender, and not just on their merits". People just don't make much noise about it.

    (Also, it feels somehow dishonest not to mention that I'm Rachael Briggs, who has played a minor role in the whole kerfuffle, although you may have figured that out already. I'm agnostic as to where the obligatory ends and the supererogatory begins, but giving some thought to diversity strikes me as good and not that difficult. My job is the easy formal stuff, not the difficult moral stuff.)

  8. There is something that seems distinctly troubling, or even harmful, (at least from a consequentialist perspective) about leveling criticisms about the notable lack of women in publicly visible endeavors like this.

    As Brian and Brandon have suggested the potential harm from having publicly visible bodies with few women is that they make women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome qua women and may suggest to female readers the prescience of some kind of latent hostility to their gender. Now I think this is a valid concern but notice that the harm entirely flows from the audience being pointedly aware of the bloggers gender balance and perceiving (or at least fearing) it as revealing underlying bias/hostility. Thus the worst thing one could do in such a situation is to publicly call attention to the gender balance of the bloggers and suggest that it must flow from some underlying discriminatory bias against women. This is just common sense. If you are worried about someone feeling unwelcome/threatened because they are the only person in some class (race, gender etc..) at an event it's pretty obvious that drawing their attention to the fact that everyone else is white/male/straight/etc.. and suggesting that it must be because they dislike/discriminate against people like them will make the situation worse.

    I mean not all women would have made note of the gender imbalance here and if they had not all of them would have drawn such threatening conclusions. Moreover, without the public criticism many other women would have been unaware of the whole situation. Thus I'd expect that the criticism did more to make women in philosophy feel threatened and unwelcome as well as to deter other women from entering the field. Sure, it makes sense to use public criticism when the harm is the concrete consequences of a particular behavior. You can just pressure people into changing that behavior. However, when the harm results from the inferred beliefs and attitudes of the actors public criticism can't really help.


    As an aside I think it's an idictment of our moral intuitions that we are more inclined to judge someone based on what their statements affiliate them with than on their consequences. Even if you don't buy my argument above surely it's plausible that these kind of criticisms are helping perpetuate inequality but yet that doesn't seem to impact our assesment of the people making them the way that finding out they didn't make the additional effort to invite more women to combat inequality does.


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