Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The LCC Backlash

About a week ago I wrote a post in which I proposed a Languaged Conference Campaign to highlight the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in the line-ups of philosophy conferences and volumes. I was expecting this to be a relatively uncontroversial move, since many support the Gendered Conference Campaign, whose aims and methods the LCC was supposed to co-opt. Boy, was I wrong!

After Jennifer Saul kindly posted a link to my post about the LCC on Feminist Philosophers, all hell broke loose (mostly on the social media but also via e-mail/personal message). The objectors seemed to fall into two groups. A first group were NES philosophers who seemed to be mostly intent on trying to undermine the campaign aims and methods, while seemingly asking innocent questions. In the past few days I have been asked numerous times all sorts of questions on all sort of issues related to my proposal (from the vagueness of the definition of "native English speaker" to the difficulties of identifying someone's native language from their name and from public biographical information available about them).

While I agree that there is no 100% reliable method to do that, I suspect that NES philosophers tend to overestimate the number of cases in which there would be much doubt as to whether a philosopher is a native English speakers (I guess that that's part of the point of the campaign). Also, while the definition of "native English speaker" might be somewhat vague (in a number of ways), I suspect the borderline cases are few and far between in the philosophical community (and, anyway, since when has the vagueness of a definition prevented us from applying it outside of the philosophy seminar room?) Also, since it would be practically impossible to flag all conferences/volumes that feature only NES speakers/contributors anyway, my policy would be to desist from flagging a conference/volume whenever the publicly available evidence is inconclusive and, in any case, all one needs is to track reliably NES philosophers.

But, of course, philosophers being philosophers, I was subjected to a barrage of improbable scenarios, possible counterexamples, borderline cases of nativeness, and requests for definitions clarifications, most of which was totally irrelevant and had little or no real-world significance. Some people even questioned the notion that native English speakers tend to be more fluent or have less of an accent than non-native English speakers (probably misunderstanding the notion of NES and thinking one has to speak a language from birth to be a native speaker, which, of course, it's not the case---a native language is a language acquired during the so-called critical period of language acquisition). Many of these requests were posed as innocent questions (but we all know that philosophers often like to dress up what they take to be their most lethal objections as innocent questions (see the translation of "I'm puzzled" here)). Others were posed much more directly as (supposedly) lethal objections to the campaign's aims and methods.

One of the things I found most surprising is that not even one of these "challenges" was preceded by some acknowledgement on the part of the challenger of the enormous privilege and native speakers of (the "right" dialects of) English (roughly British, American, Canadian, Australian English) enjoy within analytic philosophy. In fact, only a handful of NES philosophers have been ready to acknowledge their linguistic privilege (interestingly, not one of them had any "innocent" questions to ask).

Another thing that I found particularly interesting was that many of those who questioned the practice of guessing one's native language from one's name are supporters of the GCC. To be honest, I have a hard time believing that guessing whether a person self-identifies as male from their name is less problematic than guessing whether their first language is English from their name and their publicly available biographical information. First, the gender guesser is probably assuming that the people whose gender they are guessing have names such as "John", "Paul", and "George", but what if the names they are not familiar with such as "Andrea" (which is a male name in some languages and a female name in others), "Kara" and "Maxime" (which is unisex in some languages), or "Aditya" or, indeed, "Gabriele" (which most English speakers assume are female name)? In a philosophical community that were truly representative of the world at large, wouldn't guessing one's gender require guessing at least what language their name is? Second and more importantly, whether's one's first language is English is pretty much an objective question. If you have grown up in an Anglophone country from the age of, say, 5 and have done most of your schooling in English, then your first language is English even if your parents spoke only, say, Urdu at home. Moreover, I cannot see how even falsely assuming that someone's first language is English can be hurtful or damaging to them. I happen to live in a city in which much of the population is non-native English speakers and sometimes my interlocutors falsely believe English is my first language. I cannot see how that could be offensive or hurtful to me in any way. One's gender, on the other hand, is a much more complex, personal, and private issue. What if a trans* woman finds a volume she has contributed to flagged as an all-male volume because the editors of the volume refused to update her name? Note that I am not raising these issues to raise doubts about the GCC, whose aims and methods I support. Rather, I'm trying to argue that guessing a person's gender from their name is not less problematic than guessing their first language (in fact, at most the opposite seems to be true).

One more interesting observation is that the debate quickly turned to a debate about tone. First, it's well known from online discussions of feminism that the tone card is often played to distract the attention from the substantial issues being discussed. Second, I think that it is important to understand that tone is one of the most difficult aspects of a language to master for non-native speakers and that to play the tone card in this context is particularly problematic because it seems to be part and parcel of the issue that is being raised. Tone is very language-, culture-, and context-specific and assessing tone on such a non-transparent medium as the internet is difficult even for native speakers. For non-native speakers, it's only worse. Kieran Healy has two funny tables that "translate" between British English and American English (http://kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2013/08/16/academic-feedback/). According to the table, when the British academic wants to say "You are an idiot", they'll say "I'm confused". This is of course a joke but there is some truth in it. British tone is difficult to master for speakers of, say, American English and vice versa. I wish NES philosophers would give some thought to how hard it is to master these different standards of tone for non-native speakers and made as much of an effort to understand that non-native speakers might also have different tone standards just like Brits and Americans do according to those tables.

The second group of challengers were potential allies who thought that the LCC's focus on language is mistaken. One subgroup seemed to think that linguistic bias is ultimately racial bias. While I do not deny that language is often a proxy for race (in fact that's partly the point, as far as I am concerned), I doubt that if you manage to achieve a better racial representation you thereby achieve better linguistic representation. I feel that a scenario in which the philosophical community has achieved a better racial representation by including only people of, say, East Asian and South Asian descent who grew up in America and are native English speakers but without including any people who grew up in Asia and are non-native speakers is far from ideal. In fact, it seems to me that in that scenario the racial problems have not been fully addressed. I would like analytic philosophy to become as global as its intellectual ambitions seem to require.

A second subgroup includes people who think that we should focus first on more urgent and serious issues such as race, gender, and disability. Of course, as I said many times, I take these to be compatible aims. In fact, I think that diversity breeds diversity and that the more diverse and inclusive the philosophical community becomes along a number of dimensions, the better. Second, I don't know how feasible and advisable is to rank biases in terms of strength. It seems to me that insofar as a majority of philosophers enjoys the benefits of an unearned advantage (be it being male, being white, or being a native English speaker) the situation is somewhat unfair and we should try to find ways to make it fairer. The idea that we should address underrepresentation/diversity/inclusiveness problems one-by-one and in order of "importance" seems to miss the intersectional nature of these problems and requires that those who are affected by the problems deemed less "important" wait patiently for the solution to the other problems. But this is just naive. These sort of problems are never completely solved, not until our societies will completely rid themselves of racism, sexism, ableism, which probably won't be for a long time. In the meantime, we should strive to make philosophy more inclusive and hospitable along a number of dimensions.

One more point. Some of the philosophers in the last group were non-native speakers and some NES philosophers used them as a reason to suggest that the language issue might not be really there. If even some non-native speakers do not feel they are subject to linguistic bias, however, this is hardly an argument. Consider an analogy. Many women seem to think that feminism is bad and sexism does not exist  (or at least that it no longer exists in the "Western" world)? But is the fact that some women are oblivious to sexism a reason to think that sexism does not esxist?

Finally, I want to thank all the EFL philosophers who contacted me privately to express their support. I find it a bit chilling that so many of them told me they were concerned about expressing their support more publicly but, to be honest, I don't blame them as I was not expecting the full extent of the backlash I have received. At this point, I really don't know if I have the time, the patience, and the energy to deal with the level of scrutiny and criticism I have been subjected to by so many NES philosophers for the last few days, so I'm not sure what the future will hold for the LCC. It has become clear to me that I have all to lose and nothing to gain from this and, frankly, I don't know how far I am willing to go.


  1. I think this is a very important point, and even if you have done nothing else but draw a lot of people's attention to it, then that is good.

  2. Gabriele, I fully support your ideas and aims! Thank you for having taken the time and effort to point these issues out. Don't get distracted but some people's lack of appreciation. Hang in there.

  3. Yes, thank you for this. Things are fraught in philosophy at the moment. Maybe there will be a more auspicious moment to raise this again before too long.

  4. Three words: Meta Blog

  5. Those are two words or at most one :-P and I refuse to read the MetaBlog but thanks for the pointer! :-)

  6. Plus, as far as I'm concerned, being trashed on the MetaBlog seems to be a sign that you are doing something right...

  7. Nope. The Metablog (one word :-) is a place where real and serious philosophy takes place. Wade through a swamp (i.e., the Metablog), and you will surely find treasures. You should wade through the swamp.

  8. I'm very sorry you've received so much backlash on this. As a most definitely native English speaking philosopher (and a unilingual one, at least with respect to doing philosophy), you have my full support.

    This might be overly charitable, but I wonder how much of the lack of appreciation of this issue comes from the fact that it is trivially easy to be a unilingual English speaking analytic philosopher. I suspect few of your critics have ever struggled to do philosophy in a language they were not not native speakers of.

  9. Great job on drawing attention to this issue! Thanks for your time and efforts! Don’t let people who really cannot speak to the situation (because they simply don’t know what it is like to do philosophy in a different language) discourage you. One can of course discuss the pros and cons of different approaches, and analogies and disanalogies to other forms of discrimation. But it is worth bringing the issue to the fore. Monolingualism in philosophy is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while it has advantages, it also has costs!

  10. You really need a "like" button. Thank you.

  11. I'm coming late to this, but I want to second the point that Nicole Wyatt makes above. Based on my experience as a foreigner in the US for about a decade, I find it highly plausible that many Americans have absolutely no conception of the difficulties one incurs as a non-native speaker of English, precisely because they have never had to face the difficulties one encounters as a non-native speaker in a foreign country. After all, the world speaks their language, and the American philosophy world is increasingly one where departments cut back on any foreign language requirements. (This leads to many bizarre results such as people writing on Nietzsche or Kant when they can barely read any German.)

  12. "Being able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy".
    Quite laughable seriously. The mistake is so gross. How can someone who pretends to be a feminist and interested in problems encountered by minorities can be so blatantly blind and not even notice that what they are writing is in direct contradiction with what they (supposedly) defend.