Try Asking Martha Nussbaum a Challenging Question

I'm often intrigued by the ways in which folks interpret questions or arguments that challenge their own arguments or assumptions. In the field of philosophy, questions that appear "hostile" to casual observers are actually rather common, not because philosophers are a hostile bunch but because the main task of the philosopher, at least insofar as that task is understood by most Anglo-American philosophers, is precisely to challenge arguments and assumptions. Thus the questions are not intended to be taken personally, as affronts to a person's dignity, but as a professional (and, one hopes, disinterested) examination of a point of view.

So I was further intrigued when I read a story in today's Times Higher Education Supplement about women Lecturers in England, who feel very uncomfortable when they are asked challenging questions--especially when it is men who ask the questions:
Sara Mills, a professor of linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University, studied the attitudes of female and male academics to presenting papers after observing a normally "overbearing" female colleague go to pieces on stage.

She found stark differences in the way the sexes viewed public speaking and in their response to feeling nervous.

Professor Mills stressed that not all women suffered stage fright. But she said: "It is my contention that particular types of gender identity and preconceptions about the masculine nature of public speaking may be activated or challenged in the process of giving academic papers."

She found that women were more likely to freeze because they felt marginal within their university or expected their audience to be hostile in question-and-answer sessions.

She described the experience of one female colleague at a conference: "Male colleagues had aggressively asked her questions in a way that she felt aimed to destroy her argument. She felt personally undermined, and her confidence was so shaken by the experience that she subsequently felt very uneasy about giving papers at all."
I suppose it is entirely possible that some men ask questions for no other reason than to make somebody feel uncomfortable (I'm not all that sure that no women do this), but it strikes me as curious that this colleague of professor Mills felt that the questions she was asked were "aimed to destroy her argument." I'm not really at all clear on what would be wrong with that, if the argument is in need of being destroyed. This is what "hostile" questions are for, after all. Well, it made her feel "personally undermined", and that destroyed her confidence to the extent that she was uneasy about giving more papers.

The inference we are invited to draw, apparently, is that this feeling of having been personally undermined is a function, not of this woman's own psychology, but of the dynamic that exists between men and women in academia. My own experience has been rather different in this regard. I know plenty of women who, if you ask them a challenging question, will pretty quickly show you who is really wearing the pants in an argument. Mills grants that "not all women suffered stage fright", and she does not offer much evidence in support of her own inference other than the mere consistency of the data with her hypothesis, but this is a classic case of underdetermination if I ever saw one. A professor of linguistics (not psychology) offers an interpretation of observed behavior that purports to explain the psychological motivations of hordes of people on both sides of a public interaction. Although the story is not an implausible one, it is merely that: one plausible story among many.

Mills reports that male "respondents" did not feel the same anxieties, but we are not told how representative the sampling of male "respondents" is, or what their experiences had been like, or how they perceive the sexual dynamics in academia. We are offered only another guess: males feel differently "perhaps because public confidence is key to the construction of masculine identity".


Apollodorus said…
But what does this have to do with Martha? That she can take all the hard questions without flinching?

You're right about this, of course, but surely you can recognize the difference between a question or response that is meant to display the flaws of some argument, and a question that is meant to display the flaws of some argument and imply that the argument was a stupid argument to make in the first place, or that the person who made it must have been an idiot to make it. Having been on the receiving end of both types of response, I at least can recognize the difference. Whether or not men really direct those kinds of questions to women more than they do to men, I have no clue, but I doubt it. Then again, I have heard male professors say that they refuse to criticize the work of their female colleagues simply because they are male, so I may just be out of the loop.
Scott Carson said…
I might be able to recognize a difference between such questions in principle, but what I am unwilling to do, what Mills is too willing to do, is speculate about which particular question is being asked in any given instance and project my own speculation onto some other persons, whose intentions I can have no way of knowing. Since it is impossible to know which sort of question is being asked, the empirical data being identical in each case, surely it is better to err on the side of charity and assume that, sometimes, a question is just a question.
Apollodorus said…
Impossible? I don't know. Surely there will be cases about which there can be reasonable disagreement, but I think that open hostility is pretty easy to recognize. It can be something that comes across only in the tone and bearing of the person asking the question, or it can be thrown more or less explicitly into the question. If you are restricting your claim to instances in which a person asks a reasonable question in a reasonable manner and happens to be more interested in seeing the person humiliated than in getting the question answered, then of course it will be impossible to tell. I don't think that is what people complain about, though. People complain about more or less open hostility and more or less direct attacks on people.
Scott Carson said…
I'm afraid I'm pretty skeptical about what you're describing. One man's "hostile tone and bearing" is another's "gruff curmudgeonliness", and what one person reads as hostile another takes as perfectly normal. This is all massively underdetermined and not at all "easy to recognize". Easy to project, perhaps, and in some cases the projection may be accurate, but there's no way to confirm it short of asking the guy "Hey, are you trying to be an asshole or are you just doing a remarkably good imitation of one?" I'm not sure you're going to get very reliable responses to that one.

It's true that there are folks who openly attack people and are happy to admit as much, but after looking more closely at Mills' study it's pretty obvious that she doesn't have that sort of thing in mind. What she explicitly has in mind are cases where an argument is attacked and the attack on the argument is what leaves the female with the jitters and feeling personally attacked. Apparently direct, in-your-face ad hominem is easier to deal with.

Mills also has professional settings in mind, and it is not all that clear to me that folks routinely use professional settings as venues for spilling their bile, though I have seen a few performances that took my breath away in that regard. But if her claim is that this is a general feature of the male-female dynamic in academia then it simply isn't good enough to say that there are some people who behave this way. Evidently there are, but evidently there are some women who do the same thing--her claim is that this is a gender difference that arises out of other gender differences, and that is the claim that I am particularly skeptical about given the evidence she adduces. That's not to say that there could be no evidence in principal that would nail it a little more firmly, but if there were such evidence I would feel personally attacked by it and would be unlikely to ever mount another argument.
Paul Halsall said…
Angeliki Laiou, Professor of Byzantine Studies at Harvard, and (IMNSHO) truly brilliant, could act like Cruella de Ville at conferences. In fact I once saw her stride from the audience and grab the microphone to berate a (female) paper-giver. I never saw her do that with men, but she could ALWAYS hold her ground, and with absolute fluency in Ancient, Byzantine, and Modern Greek as well as French or English, she was very hard to face down.

In fact any academic who smokes in public with a cigarette-holder and Bergman-bought clothes is very hard to face down. [The fact that she was a PASOK MP in the Greek Parliament just showed how non-socialist PASOK really is.]

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