Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is Linguistic Bias Unfair or Just Unfortunate?

In a guest post at Feminist Philosopher, Sara Protasi argues that, while gender and racial biases are unjust, linguistic biases are merely unfortunate (click the link "ESL philosophers" at the bottom of this post to see my posts on the topic so far). Since I take this to be an argument against my attempt to raise the issue of linguistic bias, I would like to respond.

Before addressing Protasi's main argument, I should note that what we might call the unfairness argument is only one of the arguments that I have offered so far to the effect that we should start thinking about linguistic bias in academic philosophy. A second argument is the cross-cultural variation argument---much philosophy relies heavily on intuitions about how concepts apply to specific cases (pace the few philosophers who have argued that it doesn't) and one worry is that these intuitions might be somewhat affected by one's cultural/linguistic background (a worry that has been raised, for example, by experimental philosophers). In my view the best way to address this worry is to make sure that the analytic philosophy community is more diverse and more representative of the overall world population. A third argument, the rhetoric argument, is that, if analytic philosophy is about logic as opposed to rhetoric (as its practitioners claim), then it is not clear why one should achieve more than a certain level of fluency to practice it. (More on this in a future post!).

Anyway, even if the only argument in favour of discussing and trying to remedy linguistic bias were the argument from unfairness, I don't find Protasi's objections convincing. In fact, I think that her argument relies on very questionable assumptions and it has questionable consequences. Here is what I take to be the core of Protasi's argument:

"[The fact that the best analytic philosophy departments are currently in the Anglophone world and] the fact that analytic philosophy journals and conferences and even Facebook discussions take place in English, [are] very unfortunate. But it doesn’t seem to me to be unjust. That it is not unjust doesn’t mean that we should not try to alleviate the difficulties of people like me, or people who fare much worse than me. We should help non-native speakers to achieve the level of fluency required to succeed at philosophy in the context in which they want to do philosophy [...]. But it’s not an injustice in the same way that racial and sexist and ableist and homo/transphobic discrimination is. Being able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy. Being White, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied is completely irrelevant."

First, I would like to note that Protasi concedes that, even if linguistic bias were not unjust it does not follow that one "[...] should not try to alleviate the difficulties of [non-native speakers]." So, I'm not exactly sure why the distinction between "unjust" and "unfortunate" matters to this debate. Since Protasi seems to agree that we should do something to address linguistic bias (even if it's not unjust) I'm not sure exactly whether we are disagreeing on anything here (I have never claimed linguistic bias was unjust---I only claimed it was unfair insofar as it makes the playing field less level).

Second, I would like to note that it seems to be plainly false that "[b]eing able to speak good English is essential to do good philosophy", as Protasi claims. I can only assume (or at least I hope) that Protasi didn't really mean what she said (although, after reading Brian Leiter's post at 3am, nothing surprises me anymore in this department). I hope Protasi would not deny that excellent philosophy can be done (and has been done) in Arabic, Sanskrit, (Ancient) Greek, and German just to pick four uncontroversial cases. I take it that, at most, what is essential to do good philosophy is to be able to speak some natural language or other.

But what did Protasi mean then? I'm not sure but the problem is that, as soon as her original claim is weakened, it is not clear if the distinction between unjust and unfortunate can withstand scrutiny. I take it that what Protasi meant was something along the lines of "In the current social/historical context, fluency in English affects one's ability to do philosophy, while being white, or male, or straight, or gender-conforming, or able-bodied do not." But, if this is Protasi's criterion for distinguishing the unjust from the merely unfortunate, not only her claim seems to be patently false but also her criterion seems to have extremely troubling consequences. Consider, for example, how, in the current social/historical context, being sighted affects one's ability to do philosophy. Just to take two examples,  one need to read papers that are often filled with formulas and symbols that are very inaccessible to screen-readers and other devices used by people who are blind or visually impaired and conference presentations often rely on slides and handouts that contain crucial bits of information that cannot be easily accessed on the spot by people who are blind or visually impaired. Contrary to Protasi's claim, being sighted would seem to be highly relevant to one's ability to do philosophy (in the current ableist context). However, according to Protasi's criterion, the fact that philosophy is so inaccessible to people who are blind or visually impaired may be unfortunate but it is not unjust.

Clearly, something has gone wrong with Protasi's argument! I think the problem is that Protasi tries to draw a moral distinction that doesn't exist. Any unearned advantage is to some extent unfair (or unjust if you prefer). The only distinction that matter is the one between the cases in which we can mitigate to some extent the consequences of those unearned advantages so as to make the situation fairer and the cases in which we can't mitigate them at all. Of course, in the real world, the difference between the two is usually just a matter of degree. The effects of unearned advantages can be often only mitigated and not completely eliminated. This is probably the case with language and with sight and, hopefully, it is not the case with race and gender. Hopefully, one day we'll manage to completely eliminate all unearned advantages people enjoy in virtue of their gender or their race and live in a post-gendered/post-racial society, but until then the best we can do is to work as hard as we can on trying to mitigate the effects of those unearned advantages as much as possible. So, Protasi's distinction between the unjust and the unfortunate seems to be ill-conceived.

One last note. Towards the end of her piece, Protasi writes:

What worries me the most, of this discussion, is that we seem to be slipping all too easily in the usual wars about who is the most disadvantaged, but at the same time forgetting that *it does make sense to worry about who is the most disadvantaged*! What I mean is that it is a psychologically harmful tendency: we should all unite to fight injustice of all kinds!
But, as far as I can see, Protasi just engaged in the sort of behaviour she is denouncing here---she seems to be the one who just tried to convince us that some disadvantages (the ones that are unjust) were worse than others (the ones that are unfortunate). And, although it does indeed make sense "to worry about the most disadvantaged", first, it is important to remember that to be able to even consider pursuing a career in academic philosophy is in itself a symptom of a huge amount of privilege, the sort of privilege that most of the world population can only dream of, so that even the most disadvantaged among us are still extremely privileged compared to the majority of the world population and, second, it seems a non sequitur to think that, in order to worry about the most disadvantaged, we have to focus exclusively (or even predominantly) on the "worst" disadvantages. As far as I can see, it would be like saying that we are not going to work on a cure for diabetes until we have found a cure for cancer. Even if the mortality rate for cancer is much higher than the one for diabetes, it seems that, nevertheless, we can (and should) work to try to find a cure for both insofar as we can. It would seem extremely callous to tell someone who suffers form diabetes that we'll only focus on diabetes after we have taken care of cancer. Moreover, contrary to what Protasi is claiming, it is exactly by prioritizing some privileges over others that we might end up pitting underprivileged groups one against the other. Finally, given the intersectional nature of privilege, the most disadvantaged are likely the ones that are subjected to multiple negative biases especially when there is significant overlap (as in the case of language and race).

I said it already many times but I'll repeat it again---diversity breeds diversity in these circumstances. The more diverse and inclusive our discipline is the more diverse and inclusive it will become.


  1. I agree with pretty much all you say here, Gabriele! Except with: "I have never claimed linguistic bias was unjust---I only claimed it was unfair insofar as it makes the playing field less level". It seems to me what you call 'the cross-cultural variation argument' and 'the rhetoric argument', (versions of) both of which I also endorse, would at least in some cases mean that linguistic bias is "unjust" in the sense that Sara has in mind (insofar as I understand her train of thought there). Philosophy, insofar as it is universal pursuit of truth etc., ought not to be so concerned with (such a high level of fluency and style in) the English language as it is. Judging the quality of one's philosophy under the influence of such considerations of language is therefore unjust.

    1. Yes, I didn't claim it is unjust but I might nevertheless think it (and, in my case, the reasons for thinking it unjust would be that the hegemony of English is tightly linked to colonialism and imperialism, a point made particularly well by Stacey Goguen in a comment on Sara Protasi's guest post)

  2. Moti Mizrahi has raised very similar concerns to mine on Sara Protasi's argument in a post at the Philosopher's Coocoon

  3. I never thought or gave a crap about this before, and I am not involved with analytic philosophy (it seems to me this isn't such a problem for people wanting to do continental philosophy). But I'm appalled by the reaction, particularly at Feminist Philosophers of all places! It reminds me of my students who say "We should not worry about animal welfare because there are so many human problems to worry about!" This is just ignorance.

  4. Hi bzftg: many feminist philosophers have been (more or less publicly) supportive of my raising these issues, so I would not take the reaction of *one* blogger at FP to be representative of the opinions of *all* feminist philosophers or even *all* FP bloggers. Also, as I said many times, these are not competing claims made by separate factions (as the animal welfare case might suggest), as the nature of privilege is intersectional. In particular, language is often a proxy for race and, IMO, we cannot truly address the race issue without making our profession more inclusive from a cultural/linguistic point of view (unless we take a purely tokenistic approach to race).