Philosophy and Social Norm Violation

Philosophers enjoy being weird.  My logic professor in graduate school taught in his bare feet.  I know faculty members who swear in class, ask students what they're listening to on their iPods, throw candy to students who make good points, indulge in frequent political diatribes, and wear converse sneakers despite being over the age of 50.  I personally don't act too too weird, though I'm probably weirder (in my students' eyes) than I think.

Now, this all seems pretty so-what-ish, but Rebecca Kukla, guest blogging for Brian Leiter, says it's a problem.  Social norm violation has some connection to sexual norm violation, she says.  But even apart from that, she seems to think there's a problem:
The problem with all of this (or one of the many problems) is, again, that it comes at the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession - those likely to be the targets of the boundary-violations and judgmental expectations rather than their instigators. Likewise it leaves us with no recourse when we feel violated. If we complain, we are just not understanding how to be a cool philosopher, or we are not intellectual enough to get the joke. It also generally puts women, people of color, and other disciplinary minorities in a different kind of impossible position: we can’t get away with the hobo look without repercussions, but we also get dismissed if we look like we care about social conventions...
I'm puzzled how it is that anyone is the "target" of non-sexual "boundary-violations" -- the ones that come to my mind, anyway -- and how it is that anyone is "violated."  But yes, I agree that "we can't get away with the hobo look" or whatever it might be -- candy-throwing, bare feet.    Eccentricity seems to be associated with brilliance in men, but not in women.  So women have fewer tools in their "how to impress" toolbox. 

Yeah, it's true and it's irritating, but I can't imagine expecting men to cut back on the eccentricity, just because it's not as much of an option for women.  And as for there being any connection to sexual norm violation, I'm just not seeing it. All the barefoot candy-throwing faculty members I know are not sexual norm violators in the slightest.  It's an intriguing possibility, but to believe there's any correlation between one type of norm violation and another, I'd need to see some evidence.


Ardent Skeptic said...

I've read Kukla's blogpost and I'm not quite sure what she means. I do have a question, however, which is:

When does eccentricity become affectation? If philosophy professors are dressing like hobos or adopting some unusual behavior because of the stereotype of geniuses who don't pay any attention to appearance or social conventions, then isn't what these professors are doing becoming a caricature of that stereotype and, therefore, should be dismissed as such? What I call conforming non-conformity.

I also think that it is easy for women to adopt an "eccentricity" which makes them "stand out in a crowd" so to speak.

Queen Elizabeth is famous not just for being a queen but for her hats. Isadora Duncan was not only renowned for her dancing but her long flowing scarves (a fatal choice in eccentricity, unfortunately). Secretary Madeleine Albright was a diplomat who used her choices in pins as a diplomatic tool. The book "Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box" is a fascinating read.

Women have plenty of options for adopting a particular clothing style or accessory that make them unique, IMO.

Jean Kazez said...

The thing about the eccentricities open to women (hats and the like) is that I don't think they give people the impression of brilliance. For some reason, a guy who doesn't wear shoes gets extra credit for high intelligence, but a woman in a hat is just unique, or quirky, or amusing. I'm not sure what I could do style-wise, or behavior-wise, to rack up this sort of extra credit. Maybe cut my hair extremely short? There's not a lot .... So it seems like men have an advantage here!

Wayne said...

But women also have advantages that men don't have. Its easier for women to seem caring than men, its easier for men to be perceived as sexually aggressive (and in our profession, that is not a small issue), etc. So do these inequalities balance out in the end? Or do we need pure equality in every aspect of our lives?

Scu said...

bell hooks mentions something like this in either Teaching to Transgress or Feminist Theory (I will try to look it up later) that white males are often allowed experimentation, while women of color have to spend time to prove they are competent at the basic issues. When I read this as an undergrad I immediately understood that the sort of intellectual experimentation I had taken for granted was a type of privilege. What Kukla seems to be doing is showing this extension into personal expression traits. Take for the example that men in general have far less personal grooming expectations than women, and then add into the fact that philosophy frequently lowers those expectations for men even more (while creating a double bind for many women). So, the morning of a conference when I am suppose to present, I show up in my big beard and easy wardrobe, giving me more time to continue working on my paper or socializing/networking at the conference, or getting more sleep, or whatever. These norm breaking gives obvious material advantages to men. So, to follow up on what Jean just said--women can make themselves stand out, but not usually in ways that make people automatically take them more seriously as intellectuals. Also, those things women can do are almost always going to be more work, whereas men can be seen as smart, path breaking, *just by being lazy*.

Ardent Skeptic said...

Jean, I agree that some things women do can be perceived as just unique or quirky, but done with thought, they can make a statement about a woman's intellectual abilities.

That's why Madeleine Albright's choices in the pins she wore is so fascinating. She was making subtle diplomatic statements with her pins (and that's why there has been a book written about her pins). People learned to look at her pins to get a read on what she was thinking.

I don't consider dressing like a hobo a reflection of someone's intellectual capabilities if it has just become "the thing to do" to appear to have intellectual capabilities. Hobos dress like hobos. I don't think we consider the way they dress to be a reflection of their great intellects. In fact, I think it's just the reverse. Looking like a bum requires no thought whatsoever.