An Open Letter to Mark Mercer and Saint Mary’s University

culture, ethics, feminism, philosophy, politics, psychology Leave a reply

Dr. Mercer,

I recently read your article in the UBC’s Ubyssey, and I have to admit: it raised some serious questions for me. I’ve spent some time thinking on them, so I hope that you’re not immediately dismissive.

These questions pertain to being a Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy, and yet failing to act in accord with the principles that you should be teaching.

Ignorance

My first question would be why you choose to wade into a conversation you are clearly under-prepared for. As someone with a PhD, nevermind being the head of a Philosophy department, it would seem to me that “doing research on a topic before proffering an opinion” should be your starting position. I’ll grant that I don’t have a PhD myself, but it was my understanding that, should I aspire to a Doctorate, I would be expected to defend well-researched and understood positions, and that just mouthing off any old rubbish would draw disdain and contempt upon myself, my university, and The Academy in general.

So when you say things like:

Now, any lecture, discussion or performance on campus has the potential to scald people, tossing them into the hot water of punishment.

you intimate not only is there a single Type of discussion to be had such that the only variable is one of degree (thus making a basic Category Error), but you seem to imply that the only danger involved is for the organisers/speakers, thus failing to recognise the well-researched and documented fact that speech, in-and-of-itself, affects others directly. As someone who specialises in Philosophy of Mind, you are (of course) up to date on this kind of research? It being in your wheelhouse, so to speak? Here is an extremely brief list of studies (of varying quality) that you should use to start your research from:

Stereotype Suppression In High Versus Low Stigma-Conscious Women Experiencing Stereotype Threat (PDF)
Current Issues in the Study of Social Stigma: Some Controversies and Unresolved Issues (overview)
The Effect of Patronizing Behavior and Control on Men and Women’s Performance in Stereotypically Masculine Domains
Interacting with sexist men triggers social identity threat among female engineers
A Summary Review of Literature Relating to Workplace Bullying

If you spend any amount of time reviewing the literature on this topic, you will see over and over that the endorsement and statement of messages that devalue and demean particular groups of people will result in an actual loss of productivity on their part, in addition to the emotional distress that it causes. I focus on the loss of productivity, as (in your article) you seem very focused on the material harm that is caused by these actions, and entirely dismissive of the emotional damage that is caused.

So this isn’t about “Those who like to claim to be offended”, as you so dismissively put it. This is about the real world, and the impact of these actions on that real world. I would hope that as a modern Philosopher you have some basic commitments to Empiricism, and aren’t committed to a Rationalist approach that was shown to be error-prone several centuries ago.

Of course, when you say things like:

I cannot see how members of a university community may properly be punished, even lightly, unless their actions count as coercive, disruptive, harassing or discriminatory.

I’m put in mind of Samuel Clarke (not a compliment): your inability to see something merely demonstrates your lack of research on the topic. Your failure to understand something does not imply that that thing is false. Ten minutes on Google Scholar (nevermind your University Library’s search tools… You have access to JSTOR, right?) would provide you with ample reading material on this topic.

Critical Thinking

The second question that is raised is regarding your competence as a teacher. In addition to the above basic failure to engage in the relevant literature (is this the behaviour you should be modeling for your students?), you engage in a number of errors of basic reasoning in your writing. I am concerned for your students that you, the head of the Philosophy department, are unable to avoid 1st year Undergraduate errors. To wit:

As far as the reports I’ve read have it, the chanters were chanting willingly. No one participated under threat or duress. Sure, likely enough, a few students unhappily went along in order to fit in or to please the senior students. But succumbing to feelings of peer pressure isn’t even close to being coerced.

Actually, modern research in Psychology indicates that coercion occurs on a continuum, and “succumbing to feelings of peer pressure” does, indeed, lie on that continuum. This would appear to be another instance of your lack of familiarity with the topic. Please see the links I posted above.

The chanters did not impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic as they chanted, and they did not disturb any university class or function.

They disturbed the university function of ‘being a place where all people are treated equally’. They disturbed the function of ‘being a place where education, not ignorance, is inculcated’. There are a variety of ‘university functions’ that were disrupted. Defining ‘impede’ and ‘disrupt’ in these extremely narrow ways is not conducive to understanding, nor to honest discourse. It is dismissive, and insofar as you are attempting to counter an opposing view, you are either committing the Strawperson Fallacy, or the Fallacy of Irrelevancy: you are redefining these terms to misrepresent the position you are arguing against, or no-one is making the argument you are countering.

No one was harassed by the chanters. That is, the chanters didn’t chant at anyone, and they didn’t follow anyone around while chanting at them. No one said to the chanters, “Stop it, you’re bothering me.” Since one is unable to culpably harass another before that other signals that the behaviour is unwelcome, no one was culpably harassed.

Again, you are using an exceedingly narrow definition of ‘harass’, ignoring the literature on how contributing to oppressive world-views and encouraging the mindsets that oppress is a form of harassment, albeit less direct than ‘a person following someone around while chanting at them’.

The chanters did not discriminate against anyone. All present were welcome to join in. No one was given the cold shoulder, certainly not on account of sex, race or religion.

The complaint is that the chant itself was discriminatory. Your counter argument here is entirely irrelevant.

I’ll stop there, though I’ve only moved through half of the article.

In this open letter, I call into question your ability (or interest) to research a topic prior to your engagement, and your facility of basic 1st year Undergraduate critical thinking. Your usage of multiple fallacies is concerning. I call into question your ability to teach these fundamental skills, given your demonstrated lack of application above.

Please note, even though you have posted variations of this crap in a variety of locations, I am not explicitly calling into question your motives: I cannot see into your mind. But I can see your actions, and your actions are not the actions of a competent Professor of Philosophy.

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