Shunning

Shunning 

We are social beings, so nobody likes to be shunned.  I first encountered shunning after I wrote a letter to Proceedings and Addresses.  That’s the journal where schedules for philosophic meetings are posted, academic publishers place ads for their books and journals, the editor lines up the obits for the fallen colleagues and the speeches of the recently renowned can be read.

My letter defended a woman philosopher who had publicly complained about certain feminist philosophers who, she claimed, urged the editor of a magazine not to publish her essay critical of their kind of feminism.  It seemed to me that women whose common goal was the liberation of women should not try to suppress views that differed from the ones they happened to hold.

Not long after, I was at a conference on Moral Psychology whose participants included feminists hostile to the woman philosopher I had defended.  At lunchtime they all sat together.  I was fully visible, seated nearby at a table for one.  They pointedly didn’t ask me to join them.

Later I had occasion to tell the story to a student, a bright young woman, as it happens, gay and feminist.

“Well,” she commented, “you didn’t want to eat with those people anyway.”

She had me pegged right.  I enjoy my own company and didn’t mind lunching alone.

Along the shunning lines, I think of what happened to Herman Badillo.  He had been borough president of the Bronx, a congressman, the first Puerto Rican mayoral candidate, and – at the time of this incident — Chair of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York.  Badillo had an abrasive manner and many enemies, but he was a strong supporter of higher education at the public universities, to which he felt he owed his own career in public service.  Anyway, somebody who didn’t like Badillo got wind of remarks he’d made about demographic changes in New York.  The new groups included Mayans and Incas whose facial features and customs showed no European admixture.  As Badillo described them, they resembled the figures carved on pre-Columbian bas reliefs.  His enemies needed no further ammunition.  They quickly denounced him as a bigot and he was shorn of his former political influence.

I was not a chum of Badillo’s, but I wrote a letter to the New York papers denouncing the gang-up.  I may have been one of his few defenders.  The formerly powerful New York politician called me at home to thank me.

Then there was the drumming out of Larry Summers when he was president of Harvard University.  Summers spoke at a conference convened to determine why there weren’t more women in the hard sciences.  (I can tell you why there’s not Abigail in the hard sciences, but let’s not go there.)  In his speech, Summers canvassed a wide range of possible answers.  Was the cause external, i.e. discrimination?  Or was it internal, e.g. women’s preference for other fields and activities?  The mere mention of the second possibility was all his numerous campus enemies needed.  Women professors in the audience complained of feeling faint when they heard the words of Larry Summers.  (That tells me why these ladies weren’t in the hard sciences.  Hard to concentrate when you have to keep reaching for your smelling salts.)

I got involved because, at that time, I belonged to the American Association of University Women.  The AAUW put out a brochure  explaining to Summers (himself no dummy) his “mistakes.”  Since the brochure had been issued in the name of the membership, this member read it through carefully.  Then I wrote the leadership, pointing out errors of fact and logic that I’d found in their brochure.  As I recall, they didn’t choose to answer.

Irritated, I forwarded my letter to Larry Summers who was soon to be removed from his post at Harvard.  Like Badillo, he wrote back, lonely but grateful.

My goodness! I thought.  You can meet a lot of formerly important people this way.  The way you could have met Parisian aristocrats if you didn’t mind riding along with them in the tumbrils taking them through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Revolution and the waiting Guillotine!

I know more stories like this — touching peers, colleagues and contemporaries – than there is room to tell here.  The tide is beginning to turn, I think, and the thought police no longer have the public space entirely to themselves.  But perhaps a moment of silence is due, to honor those unsung heroes who fought for the right to speak their minds long before the tide turned, and went down in the fight.

In 1933, Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a poem about Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  Mather was the Puritan divine who inspired the Salem Witch Trials, where people were accused of imaginary crimes and  hanged on the strength of the accusations.

Grim Cotton Mather

Was always seeing witches,

Daylight, moonlight,

They buzzed about his head,

Pinching him and plaguing him

With aches and pains and stitches,

Witches in his pulpit,

Witches by his bed.

Nowadays, nowadays,

We’d say that he was crazy,

But everyone believed him

In old Salem town

And nineteen people

Were hanged for Salem witches

Because of Cotton Mather

And his long, black gown.

Old Cotton Mather

Didn’t die happy.

He could preach and thunder,

He could fast and pray,

But men began to wonder

If there had been witches—

When he walked the streets

[They] looked the other way.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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