Ishani Maitra (University of Michigan) presents her paper, Unsettling Speech

Constructing Social Hierarchy: Conference Recap

How do hate speech, slurs, and other speech acts contribute to and perpetuate oppression? What does it mean to be a ‘woman’ in today’s society? How do our gender concepts impact the ways in which we are able to relate to the world and those around us? How should we strike a balance between freedom of speech and suppression of harmful speech?

Trans rights, freedom of speech, gender concepts, and racial profiling, have rarely been more topical than in the current global political climate. Recently, SHAPS hosted the first Melbourne Constructing Social Hierarchy Conference, aimed at addressing these and many other issues.

Featuring a range of local and international speakers, the conference was organised by Karen Jones, Greg Restall, François Schroeter, and Laura Schroeter of the SHAPS Philosophy program, and was part of a larger ARC Discovery Grant project. Topics spanned a range of social issues, including gender, race, and speech acts. A full list of all speakers and abstracts are still available on the conference website.

This week, Forum’s Carley Tonoli, caught up with Greg Restall to recap the event.

L: Lynne Tirrell (University of Connecticut) ‘It Takes a Village: Discursive Practice as Social Ontology’ R: Luvell Anderson (Syracuse University) ‘Racial Realities’

Can you tell me a bit about the project?

It’s an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant project, entitled Constructing Social Hierarchy, funded for four years (2018–2021). It’s a project involving four of us in the Philosophy program – Laura Schroeter, François Schroeter, Karen Jones and Greg Restall – and a colleague, Sally Haslanger, in Philosophy and Women’s Studies at MIT.

The project aims to bring together work in various strands of philosophy – work on mind, language and action to better understand how social hierarchies are created and sustained, often as the unintended outcome of the actions of groups over time. We aim to not only understand how social hierarchies are formed and sustained, but to address the practical question of what can be done to remedy these inequalities, with a focus on race and gender.

R: Robin Dembroff (Yale University) ‘The Real Gender Assumption’ L: Karen Jones (University of Melbourne) ‘Why “it’s OK to be white” is not OK’

What inspired you to organise the conference, and what were you hoping it would offer to attendees?

A central theme of our project has been to make connections. One of our aims is to make connections between people working in different areas of philosophy, to address these practical and pressing issues.

This is the first large ARC project involving four different researchers in our own Philosophy program, spanning a wide range of areas of expertise, from logic, language, philosophy of mind, ethics, social philosophy and moral psychology. We wanted to broaden these connections out to the wider academic community, and to form new connections with international colleagues doing similar work. Philosophy works through dialogue, and we wanted to have extended discussions; three days of conference talks with people all working on social hierarchy, using a variety of different philosophical tools and traditions was a great way to make many new connections.

Samia Hesni (Boston University)’How to Disrupt a Social Script’

What were some highlights of the conference?

All of the talks were rich in ideas and practical applications, but I’ll single out one example. Ishani Maitra, from the University of Michigan, gave a talk on ‘Unsettling Speech’ in which she raised the issue of a distinct kind of harm that is caused by hate speech – a kind of harm that has been rarely studied and is little understood. The harm is the unsettling of an issue that had been previously settled. (It puts back on the table for discussion a question that had previously been taken as settled.)

In Ishani’s talk, she connected some recent work from the philosophy of language on the way questions function in discourse. She showed that many of the responses that are offered to incidences of hate speech don’t ameliorate this harm but rather exacerbate it by validating the question as one which calls for an answer. Ishani was able to illustrate the point with some of Donald Trump’s recent tweets calling on U.S. Congresswomen to “go back to where they came from”, and some of the attempted responses, which merely served to underline the point that people from ethnic minorities had to answer a case for their inclusion in the US polity.

So, it was really exciting to get a diverse group of philosophers, both established figures and early career researchers, both from Australia and from all over the globe, addressing new questions; bringing current research in philosophy of language and moral psychology to bear on practical applications and pressing problems.

In addition, it was great to be a part of a conference where – unlike many philosophy conferences – most of the speakers were women, and there was a good mix of junior and more senior colleagues. All who attended the conference modelled the kind of collaborative, constructive and critical philosophical engagement we strive for.

L: Carolina Flores (Rutgers University) ‘”That’s All You Really Are”: Social Trouble With Cognitive Essentialism’ R: François Schroeter and Laura Schroeter (University of Melbourne) ‘Gender Concepts: Abandoning Univocity’

How do you feel it went overall?

We had 13 speakers and 50 in attendance. We’ve had enthusiastic feedback from local participants and international visitors. We scheduled things so there was lots of time for Q&A and discussions after talks, and people appreciated the many different connections and overlapping themes in the talks, which allowed for conversations between presenters and audience members, and which sparked new ideas and fresh applications of different sorts of analytical tools. Our international visitors really enjoyed getting to know the graduate students who are studying in Melbourne too.

Will you be hosting any future or follow up events, if so, what plans do you have?

Yes, this is the first of two international conferences we’ll be holding over the life of the project, and we also hold shorter workshops at various times. We held a small workshop in Melbourne last year, and have another workshop scheduled for MIT in December, and we’ll run a conference in Sydney in 2020. For more details, when they are settled, check our website.

Feature image: Ishani Maitra (University of Michigan) presents her paper, ‘Unsettling Speech’