Effects of jokes

Posted: April 12, 2015 by jennysaul in failure to perceive problem

I was at a professional conference concerning a specific area of philosophy when the following story took place.

At one of the sessions, two male philosophers, whom I know to be fairly respected in this area of philosophy, were about to present a paper. Just before the two started one of the speakers — the more senior — attempted a joke poking fun at his co-author. The joke said something about how we shouldn’t trust his colleague owing to his colleague’s ethnicity (he is Italian). It was clear that this was intended to be funny. Perhaps because anti-Italian racism is (supposedly) no longer a wide-spread attitude among Americans today?

I did not think this remark was funny. It conveyed to me a level of disregard for how racism operates. It also revealed to me how little weight this person must place on creating a healthy, positive climate where graduate students of all stripes are made to feel comfortable engaging in philosophy. I stated something to this effect so that my neighbors at the conference could hear. (Several of whom spoke to me afterwards expressing their agreement.)

I’m angry that this remark was made and that it was passed off by some as a humorous joke. I’m angry that at that moment, I lost all interest in reading the works authored by this person. I’m angry that all I can think about in relation to this person is this remark. Luckily this person’s work has not intersected with my interests, but who knows what sort of enrichment I am missing out on by keeping a wide berth from this person? I may one day need to take this person’s work seriously. But I simply don’t want to. And I’m not even sure I can get passed my disdain long enough to appreciate his arguments.

I am sharing this story because I think some philosophers do not fully appreciate how their behavior can negatively impact diversity in the profession. Students who are socially aware and sensitive to systems of injustice are likely to be “turned off” from working with a professional who is insensitive to how oppression functions and how their behavior perpetuates injustice.

Comments are closed.