Diversity and Vulnerability (Part II)

My parents were both refugees. In 1945, when my mother was five and my father thirteen years old, they both left their homes in what were villages near Kaliningrad and Wachlin, and started moving west. Eventually they both ended up in a small town near Düsseldorf where they met in the sixties. I’m told it wasn’t as bad as it is now for refugees by far, but they never felt very welcome. Thinking about their lives, it dawned on me rather late that one of the crucial driving factors in their conduct was the constant attempt to avoid attracting attention at all costs. “What will the neighbours say”, was a repeated phrase. While the phrase is rather common, I guess the intensity of the shame behind it will vary. For better or worse, it didn’t stick with me too much. But the issue of shame and hiding oneself is another one that keeps coming back when I think about diversity and what blocks it. – In what follows, I don’t want to speak out against diversity. Quite the contrary. But I want to reflect on what needs to change if we really want at least some of it.

So what has shame to do with diversity? – One of the assets of a fairly diverse team is that, at least after a while, people take fewer things for granted, ask more questions, and get to see things they hadn’t expected to see. In one word, multiple perspectives. But even if the members of a team are diverse (in whatever ways), this is hard to achieve. The reason is that, for this to occur, people have to be open. People have to make themselves visible. Being open, not as in calling a spade a spade, but as in showing your perspectives with all their possible shortcomings, that kind of being open is hard even among friends. Showing yourself like that creates great potential but leaves yourself vulnerable.*

Obviously, the vulnerability of people from “diverse backgrounds” or “underrepresented groups” (of whatever kind) is infinitely greater than of those who conform to perceived majorities. That shouldn’t be surprising because the very fact that someone stands out with ‘diversity markers’ puts them on the spot. Now in professional contexts, we are trained to conform as much as possible. Despite all the talk about fresh ideas people will call you “weird” (rather than “inspiring”) before you finish your sentence. Of course, it’s fine to be weird, but only if you’ve got tenure. So you’ll rather do and talk as everyone else does. And if you try otherwise, see what happens. Perhaps you get to be the token weirdo and people put you in a nice bowl and keep you on an extra shelf in the department, but it’s more likely that you just created more space for the next conformist. The reason is quite simple: academia is a competitive environment; the expectation is that you excel in common features, not in something no one else does. Accordingly, hiring committees look for “fit”, not for fun or something they need to look at or think about twice.

Now what’s going on here? I think that employers should stop pretending to be looking for diversity. What employers actually do when they pretend to look for candidates from “underrepresented groups” is attempting to circumvent common discriminatory behaviour. That is not a particularly noble end but a political necessity. In such cases, people are not sought out because one wants to diversify teams, but because discrimination is unjust and unlawful (in some places at least). Of course, discrimination is still a thing, and it should end. But ending discrimination is not the same as implementing diversity.

So how do we implement diversity? While discrimination can be countered by amending formal procedures such as hiring processes, diversity is something that is not or not necessarily owing to the fact that someone is from an underrepresented group. Of course, this can go together but it doesn’t need to. A diversity of ideas, approach or method is something that anyone might have for whatever reason. The crucial step to enable such diversity is a climate in which people trust each other. Trust each other sufficiently to be open and make themselves visible in their vulnerability. That would be a climate in which even strangers would feel welcome to share their views. That is something we need to work on all together. For the shame and pressure to conform is a thing for all of us. They more we let go of it, the better for everyone involved, not least for those from “underrepresented groups”. It’s a matter of solidarity, not a policy.

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* On vulnerability, I learned a lot through Brené Brown’s talks (here’s a ted talk) as well as the work by my former colleague Christine Straehle (here’s a collected volume).

Some observations concerning diversity (Part I)

(1) This morning, I took my daughter Hannah to a nice playground in Berlin. She is just over two years old and particularly enjoys climbing. As we approached the climbing frame, one of the boys on top shouted that they wouldn’t allow girls on the climbing frame. The girls around him smiled …

(2) Two years ago, I joined an initiative designed to keep a far-right right party (AFD) out of parliament. The initiative was founded by a group of social entrepreneurs, and the first workshop was attended mainly by social entrepreneurs, most of them in their late twenties or early thirties. At the beginning, we were asked whether we actually knew anyone who would vote for the AFD. This was affirmed only by one man, somewhat older than most. He told us that he knew a few people in the village he came from. Later in the day, we had to form smaller groups. Guess who had difficulty finding a group …

(3) Quite a number of years ago, I was on a hiring committee while still being a postdoc. For the first round of going through the applications, we were advised to focus on CVs. Discussing the candidates, I listened to a number of meritocratic arguments: they mostly, but not solely, concerned numbers of “good” publications (“good” means in prestigious venues, in case you were wondering). Then someone pointed out that we should perhaps take more time for reading. Someone else pointed out that we should scan cover letters for reasons of interruptions in the CVs, such as times for child care work. Guess what didn’t carry any weight when we drew up the list …

I could go on. These are minor observations; anyone could have made them. Nevertheless, in all their banality, these stories of exclusion form the daily fabric of our failures. But where exactly can we locate the failures? The people involved in these situations were not bad people, not at all: lively children on a playground, ambitious young entrepreneurs fighting for a good cause, a hiring committee focussed on selecting the best candidate. The events didn’t result in catastrophes: Hannah climbed up anyway, the initiative went nowhere, someone certainly deserving got a job. – The point is that these situations are so ordinary that hardly anyone would consider or be willing to cause much of a fuss. Or so it seems. The harm might be done: The next little girl might be discouraged from going to the playground; the next lonely man from the village will perhaps find better company among the far-right; a number of candidates, who would have been equally deserving even by the committee’s standards, were not even considered. Even if no one tells them, the stories of exclusion go on. But what can we do?

The first thing is that in all these situations, there was a possibility of making a difference. Contrary to a widespread belief, we are not powerless minions. The fact that we cannot save the whole world doesn’t mean that we cannot change our ways here and there, or listen for a change. But there are two things that make me doubtful:

  • Despite all the fashionable talk of diversity, such stories suggest that many of us don’t really want diversity. What these situations reveal is that the exclusive attitudes seem to be very deeply ingrained.
  • Even if such attitudes can be overcome, I sense a sort of paranoia amongst many people in positions of public leadership. If you look at more and less well-known people in politics, such as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors etc., many of them display a fear of everything that is different. But while it’s easy to call them names for it, we shouldn’t forget that they get elected by majorities.

It’s complicated. The exclusions we see are not ad hoc, but fostered by long-standing structures. There’s much of that I dislike or even hate, while I continue to be a beneficiary in some way or another. That is probably true of many of us. Thus, the charge of hypocrisy always seems justified. But if that’s true, the charge of hypocrisy shouldn’t cause too much worry. The worry of being called a hypocrite might be paralysing. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that hypocrisy is structural, too. It can’t be amended by targeting individuals. Everyone who’s is trying to interfere and make a difference, can be called a hypocrite.

Do ideas matter to philosophy? How obsession with recognition blocks diversity

When suffering from writer’s block, I spent much of my time in the library browsing through books that were shelved beside the ones I originally looked for. Often these were books that didn’t have any traces of use: neither, it seemed, had anyone read them, nor were they cited by anyone. The names of the authors were often unfamiliar and a search confirmed that they sometimes were no longer in academia. Funnily enough, these books often contained the most refreshing and original ideas. Their approach to topics or texts was often unfamiliar to me, but the effort of figuring out what they were arguing was time well spent. Nevertheless, my attempts to bring them up in discussions weren’t picked up on. People continued to cite the more familiar names. Why are we letting this happen?

Most of you probably know the following phenomenon: During a discussion someone proposes an idea; the discussion moves on. Then an established person offers almost a repetition of the proposed idea and everyone goes: “oh, interesting.” Put as a rule of thumb: prestige gets you attention; interesting ideas as such not so much. There is a gendered version of this phenomenon, too: If you want to listen to an interesting idea authored by a woman, better have a man repeat it. Now, an important aspect of this phenomenon is that it seems to incentivise that we relate our philosophical work to that of prestigious figures. In other words, we will make sure that what we say picks up on what established figures say. As Kieran Healy has shown, citation patterns confirm this. Cite David Lewis and you might join the winning in-group. We hope to get recognition by citing established people. Now you might just shrug this off as an all too human trait. But what I’d like to argue is that this behaviour crucially affects how we evaluate ideas.

I think Healy’s citation patterns show that we are inclined to value such ideas that are either closely related (in content) to those of established figures or that are presented in a similar manner or method. Put simply: you’re more likely to get recognition if you imitate some “big shot” in content or method. Conversely, if you don’t imitate “big shots”, your work won’t be valued. Why is this important? My hunch is that this practice minimises diversity of content and method. Philosophers often like to present themselves as competitors for the best ideas. But if we track value through recognition, there is no competition between ideas.

Now if this is the case, why don’t we see it? My answer is that we don’t recognise it because there are competing big shots. And the competition between big shots makes us believe that there is diversity. Admittedly, my own evidence is anecdotal. But how could it not be. When I started out as a medievalist, the thing to be done to get recognition was to prepare a critical edition of an obscure text. So I learned a number of strange names and techniques in this field. However, outside of my small world this counted for, say, not much. And when the German Research Foundation (DFG) stopped funding such projects, a lot of people were out of a job. Moving on to other departments, I quickly learned that there was a different mainstream, and that mainstream didn’t favour editions or work on obscure texts. Instead you could make a move by writing on a canonical figure already edited. Just join some debate. Still further outside of that context you might realise that people don’t value history of philosophy anyway. But rather than seeing such different approaches as complementary, we are incentivised to compete for getting through with one of these approaches.

However, while competition might nourish the illusion of diversity, the competition for financial resources ultimately blocks diversity because it will ultimately lead to one winner. And the works and books that don’t follow patterns established in such competitions seem to fall through the cracks. There is more evidence of course once we begin to take an international perspective: There are people who write whole PhD dissertations that will never be recognised outside of their home countries. So they have to move to richer countries and write a second PhD to have any chance on the international market. In theory, we should expect such people to be the best-trained philosophers around: they often have to familiarise themselves with different approaches and conventions, often speak different languages, and are used to different institutional cultures. But how will we evaluate their ideas? Will they have to write a bit like David Lewis or at least cite him sufficiently in order to get recognition?

Now you might want to object that I’m conflating cause and effect. While I say that we assign value because of prestige, you might argue that things are the other way round: we assign prestige because of value. – If this were the case, I would want to see some effort to at least assess the ideas of those who don’t align their work with prestigious figures. But where do we find such ideas? For reasons stated above, my guess is that we don’t find them in the prestigious departments and journals. So where should we look for them?

My hunch is that we ‘ll find true and worthwhile diversity in the lesser known departments and journals. So please begin: Listen to the students who don’t speak up confidently, read the journals and books from publishers whose names you cannot recognise. Listen to people whose native language isn’t English. And stop looking for ideas that sound familiar.

Against leaving academia

For quite some years, newspapers and the academic blogosphere have been packed with advice for those considering leaving academia. There are practical tips of how to enter the non-academic world or pleas against the stigma that one might see in “giving up” etc. Many pieces of such advice are very helpful indeed and imparted out of the best intentions. However, I am troubled to see that there is also an ever growing number of pieces that advise leaving academia or at least imply that it is the best thing one can do. The set of reasons for this is always the same: academia is bad, bad, bad. It is toxic, full of competition, a threat to one’s health and exploitative. On a famous philosophy blog I even read that it is “unethical” to encourage students to stay in academia. In what follows, I’d like to take issue with such claims and present three reasons against leaving academia.

Given my own academic biography, I’d be the last person to underestimate the downsides of academia. Surviving, let alone “making it”, is down to sheer luck. All your merits go nowhere unless you’re in the right place at the right time. However, that does not mean (1) that we don’t need academics, (2) that academia is worse than any other place or (3) that work in academia can’t be fun. Let’s look at these points in turn.

(1) We need academics. – Believe it or not, even though politicians of certain brands, taxpayers and even one’s parents might ceaselessly claim that most academic work and the humanities in particular are useless, the contrary is true. Discourse and reflection are an integral part of democracies. Academia is designed to enable just that: research and higher education are not just some niches; they are the beating heart of democratic cultures across the globe. Of course, our actual daily practice might often look somewhat differently. But there is more than one response to the fact that the nobler ends of our work are often under threat, from inside and outside. The alternative to leaving is attempting to improve academia. That might be quite difficult. But if masses of good people keep leaving academia, it will lead to increasing corrosion and undermine our democracies. To be sure, ultimately anyone’s personal reasons are good enough, but I find the general advice in favour of leaving slightly (if often unintentionally) anti-democratic.

(2) Academia is part of the rest of the world. – Academia is often called bad names. We are living in an ivory tower and some philosophers never even leave their armchairs. I often talk to students who have been advised to pursue their “plan b” before they really got started with their studies. They unanimously seem to be told that “the world outside” or the “normal world” is better. It seems that academics have a lot of special problems that don’t exist outside or at least not in such numbers. Again, I do not wish to downplay our problems, far from it. I truly believe that there are a number of issues that need urgent attention. But then again I wonder why leaving should help with that. Many problems in academia are problems owing to (bad) working conditions and policies. But why would anyone think that these very same problems do not exist in the rest of the world? Plan b won’t lead to some sort of paradise. The conditions apply to the workforce inside and outside of ivory towers. In fact, I know quite a number of people who have non-academic jobs. By and large, the conditions don’t strike me as much different. Competition, (mental) health issues, exploitation, harassment, misogyny, bullying, you name it – all of these things abound elsewhere, too. So if you want to leave, look around first: you might find the same old same old in disguise.

(3) Academic work can be fun. – We’re often told that our kind of work causes a lot of suffering (not solely in our recipients). Again, I don’t want to downplay the fact that a lot of things we are asked to do might feel quite torturous. But when I listen to myself and other people describing what it actually is that makes it so troublesome, it is often not due to the actual work itself. Writing might be hard, for instance, but the unpleasant feelings are not owing to the writing, but to the idea of it being uncharitably received. Similarly, interacting with fellow students or after a talk in the q & a might be stressful, but as I see it, the stress is often created out of (the fear of) unpleasant standards of aggressive interaction. Imagining talking through the same stuff with an attentive friend will not trigger the same responses I guess. Again, my advice would not be leaving but working towards improving the standards of interaction.

You might still say that all of these considerations are cold comfort in view of the real suffering going on. I won’t deny that this is a possibility. In fact, academia can be full of hidden or overt cruelties and people might have very good reasons indeed to leave academia. I don’t see doing so as a failure or as wrong. What I find problematic is the current trend of advising such measures on a general basis. But of course, for some this advice might still be helpful to embrace a good decision or an inevitable step. What ultimately encouraged me to write this post today are my students, two of whom came to me this week to tell me that, contrary to their previous expectations, they found their fellow students ever so supportive, charitable and encouraging. Where they were warned to fear competition, they were actually met with the friendliest cooperation. I don’t hear this all too often, but who would want to let this hopeful generation down?