Melbourne Constructing Social Hierarchy Conference (July 15-17, 2019)

Our first international workshop is held from July 15 to 17, 2019, at the University of Melbourne.

Talks will be held in the Lecture Theatre, Room 553 Arts West.

The conference is free to attend, but please register for catering purposes, by emailing Will Tuckwell.


July 15

  • 9:00 / Morning Tea
  • 9:30-11:00 / Teresa Marques (University of Barcelona): In a Sentimental Mode (how speech structures the social)
  • 11:00 / Break
  • 11:30-1:00 / Luvell Anderson (Syracuse University): Racial Realities
  • 1:00 / Lunch
  • 2:00-3:30 / Rachel Sterken (University of Oslo): Authentic speech (and its role in transcending hierarchy)
  • 3:30 / Break
  • 4:00-5:30 / Karen Jones (University of Melbourne): Why “it’s OK to be white” is not OK
  • 5:30 / Reception, Catered Dinner for Conference Participants

July 16

  • 9:00 / Morning Tea
  • 9:30-11:00 / Laura Schroeter and Francois Schroeter (University of Melbourne): Gender Concepts: Abandoning Univocity
  • 11:00 / Break
  • 11:30-1:00 / Robin Dembroff (Yale University): The real gender assumption
  • 1:00 / Lunch
  • 2:00-3:30 / Carolina Flores (Rutgers University): “That’s all you really are”: social trouble with cognitive essentialism
  • 3:30 / Break
  • 4:00-5:30 / Rachel McKinney (Suffolk University): Contested Histories
  • Late / Dinner for Speakers

July 17

  • 9:00 / Morning Tea
  • 9:30-11:00 / Ishani Maitra (University of Michigan): Unsettling speech
  • 11:00 / Break
  • 11:30-1:00 / Mihaela Popa-Wyatt (ZAS Berlin): How Words Oppress
  • 1:00 / Lunch
  • 2:00-3:30 / Samia Hesni (Boston University): How to Disrupt a Social Script
  • 3:30 / Break
  • 4:00-5:30 / Lynne Tirrell (Connecticut): It Takes a Village: Discursive Practice as Social Ontology


Teresa Marques (University of Barcelona)

Title: In a Sentimental Mode (how speech structures the social)

Abstract: In the postscript of 1984, Orwell wrote: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you” Recently, some authors have pointed to institutionalist or structuralist analysis of injustice, oppression and inequality. But, I’ll argue, institutionalist analyses are ill equipped to fully explain such “dangerous nightmare situations”. I’ll start by pointing to an inner tension in one such institutionalist account – Kate Manne’s analysis of misogyny, before indicating the limitations of institutionalist views more generally. I will then try to uncover “the heart of the malignancy – not the state, but the individual” (in George Packer’s words in a review of a biography of Orwell, in The Atlantic). We have to look at the actions and attitudes of individuals as speakers and interlocutors and their potential for harm. I’ll introduce first a view of the expressive and normative force of discourse, which I argue can explain some of the linguistic mechanisms that can harm directly and indirectly: derogatory language, dogwhistles, meaning perversions, and lies. Together, these are powerful tools that play a role in creating drastic social upheaval, and in inducing conformity under autocratic regime change. This framework requires input of a wider theory of collective action and responsibility, and I will illustrate the sketched view with research on dangerous speech and the expression of the motivational attitudes angercontempt, and disgust (which, according to the ANCODI model are instrumental in leading to violence), in combination with meaning perversions and lies. I’ll conclude with a hypothesis for assessing the moral responsibility of interlocutors.


Luvell Anderson (Syracuse University)

Title: Racial Realities

Abstract: Our current situation is one marked by stark divisions along several lines: race, gender, class, economic status, immigration status. This is especially so with respect to race. The depth of these divisions is often on display, for instance, when we engage in conversations about topics that draw on assumptions about our racial history. People from different racial backgrounds or who have different racial identities can often view things quite differently. That is, race and differing racial histories often have profound effects on how we think and speak about things. In this talk, I explore this influence and its effects. I start by summarizing notions of ‘realities’ thought to undergird practices of thought and speech. I then provide a characterization of ‘racial reality’ and an analysis of the relations between different racial realities. I conclude with some thoughts about my account’s implications for the possibility of cross-racial understanding.


Rachel Sterken (University of Oslo)

Title: Authentic speech (and its role in transcending hierarchy)

Abstract: In this talk, I provide an analysis of authentic speech. In addition, I pose and answer various questions about authentic speech: What are paradigm examples of authentic speech and inauthentic speech? Is authentic speech valuable? What are its purposes? Is authentic speech possible? How does authentic speech differ from sincere speech? Do any speech acts have authenticity conditions? I’ll also discuss the role of authentic speech in transcending hierarchy.


Karen Jones (University of Melbourne)

Title: Why “it’s ok to be white” is not ok.

Abstract: On October 15, 2018 a motion declaring that “it is OK to be white” was narrowly defeated (28 to 31) in the Australian Senate. The dominant media analysis of the problem with affirming the sentence “it is ok to be white” was that it constitutes racist hate-speech. This analysis tended to be supported with the observation that the phrase is used by white supremacists who routinely engage in hate speech. But on no plausible analysis of racist hate-speech does the phrase count as such. What, then, is wrong with it, and what is especially wrong with its near endorsement by the Senate? The talk canvases two alternative options: it is wrong because it is an ideologically motivated change of subject, on the model of replacing “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter;” and it is wrong because it says something false given an understanding of races as socially constructed hierarchical social classes. Instead I argue for the analysis that the primary wrong of endorsing the sentence is that one thereby endorses a suite of emotional attitudes, attitudes that support a narrative of white victimization. Non-accidentally, these narratives and the emotions they endorse are part of globally shared white supremacist recruitment strategies, and that’s why “it is ok to be white” is not ok.


Laura Schroeter & François Schroeter (University of Melbourne)

Title: Gender Concepts: Abandoning Univocity

Abstract: In previous work, we developed a model of concepts that prioritizes the search for univocal reference through the rationalizing interpretation of shared representational traditions. But Sally Haslanger has argued that contested social kind concepts like womando not fit within this model: (a) because there are too many competing interests at stake and (b) because our existing conceptual practices are morally or politically flawed. In response to Haslanger’s critique, we explore how our model can accommodate cases where the search for a single best interpretation may fail. We delineate three core interests underlying our deployment for the concept woman: (i) everyday communication; (ii) theoretical inquiry (explanatory and critical); (iii) legal and institutional regulation. We examine different pressures to abandon univocity within each of these domains, and we draw some preliminary lessons about conceptual amelioration and trans-inclusive conceptions of woman.


Robin Dembroff (Yale University)

Title: The Real Gender Assumption

 Abstract: A general assumption manifests on all sides of the gender debate. It says that someone should be classified as an X — for some gender X — if and only if that person ‘really is’ an X. This assumption turns arguments over how to classify someone’s gender into arguments over the metaphysics of gender: for example, it says that a trans woman should be classified as a woman if and only if she ‘really is’ a woman. I want to get clear about this assumption: what metaphysical, epistemic, or moral commitments it entails, what considerations weigh in its favor, and how it impacts both public and philosophical debate.


Carolina Flores  & Liz Camp (Rutgers University)

Title: “That’s all you really are”: social trouble with cognitive essentialism

Abstract: Feminist theorists have long criticized essentialism. In the analytic tradition, the focus has been on metaphysical essentialism and on linguistic mechanisms for the propagation of essentialist views. But what does social essentialist thinking consist in, and what cognitive mechanisms are involved in implementing it?

We argue that essentialist thinking does not require essentialist belief. Central instances of essentialist thinking are evidence-resistant, holistic, tinged with affect, and play a deep role in structuring the subject’s cognition. These features make appealing to belief inapt. Instead, prototypical instances of essentialist thinking involve the use of ossified frames: rigid interpretive devices which provide intuitive guidance for noticing, explaining, and responding to individuals in a social group.

We argue that essentialist thinking comes in degrees of ossification along a range of dimensions –centrality in thinking about others, cross-contextual application, and resistance to evidence -, and can be implemented either in how a subject structures their cognitive life, or in encoded representations. We use this view to explain why essentialist thinking is often hard to combat, and suggest that we need to shift gears from offering evidence and argument to bringing subjects’ essentialist commitments to a cognitive level where they can be so addressed.


Rachel McKinney (Suffolk University)

Contested Histories

Abstract: In this paper I discuss insights from the last 35 years of feminist theory that bear on recent public discourse on sex/gender systems, dominance hierarchies, and trans women. As with all philosophy, knowing a bit about the history of ideas can shed light on both the context and content of the terms of debate. This paper attempts to do just that for an analytic audience.


Ishani Maitra (University of Michigan)

Title: Unsettling speech 

Abstract: This talk aims to draw attention to a hitherto under-theorised way in which some speech can be harmful. Theorists have already offered a number of distinct ways in which speech can be harmful: e.g., by silencing others’ speech, enacting discriminatory norms, and more. In addition to these, I will argue that speech can be harmful by making it the case that certain questions that ought to be settled are not settled. I label speech that is harmful in this way ‘unsettling speech.’ In the talk, I sketch a framework for thinking about such speech, and explore what the resulting harm consists in. I argue, that though several kinds of speech can be harmful in this way, hate speech is especially prone to bring about these harms. Finally, I also argue that recognising the harmfulness of unsettling speech complicates several strategies for countering hate speech, such as via “more speech” or blocking speech.


Mihaela Popa-Wyatt (ZAS Berlin)

Title: How Words Oppress 

Abstract: Slurs are hate speech. A slur both harms and disempowers its target. This harm is not confined to conversation. It leaks out into the social game by shifting social norms about how the target ought to be treated. My claim is that this process can be modelled as a two-level hierarchical game: many conversational games are embedded within a larger social game. Oppressive actors in conversational games seek to acquire power in the larger social game so as to achieve later payoffs (e.g. an unfair distribution of economic and epistemic resources). I show that this hierarchical game can explain: (i) the effects of oppressive speech within a conversational game; (ii) how oppressive speech shifts norms that govern the social game; (iii) why people are motivated to slur. I conclude that game theory provides a powerful tool to study the short- and long-term effects of slurring.


Samia Hesni (MIT)

Title: How to Disrupt a Social Script

Abstract: Conversational scripts, as in when A gives a compliment, B says ‘thank you,’pervade and shape natural language discourse and social interactions. Scripts usually promote cooperation between conversational participants, but they can be co-opted to cause harm and perpetuate oppressive dynamics. For example, if A uses the compliment script to pay B a “compliment” like ‘nice legs,’ A puts B in a double-bind. Either B abides by the script, says ‘thank you,’ and is further humiliated, or B breaks the script and risks escalation. This paper aims to further philosophical conversations around scripts (following Appiah (1994), Oshana (2005), Stoljar (2012), and others). I give a theoretical overview of what it would mean to disrupta social script, offering a third way out of the double-bind. I argue that in some circumstances, disruptions can be a way to counteract the harms done by oppressive scripts. I provide an analysis of what it is to cooperativelydisrupt a social script, and in doing so challenge the notion that cooperation and disruption are conceptually at odds with one another. I end with a discussion of how micro-level disruptions are a means to large-scale social change.


Lynne Tirrell (University of Connecticut)

It Takes a Village: Discursive Practice as Social Ontology

A few years ago, it might have sounded hyperbolic to say that clear understanding of toxic speech should help us to diagnose, and perhaps prevent, serious risks to health and life. With the rise of extremism, fueled by toxic rhetoric that generates increasingly toxic everyday speech acts, this does not seem hyperbolic anymore. But, if toxic rhetoric (like slurs and derogations) can sculpt the social landscape, just how does this work? Quine said: “Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.”  I say: Essence is what meaning becomes when it is divorced from the word and wedded to the object of reference. This wedding and divorce metaphor is not particularly helpful for developing an account of how such characterizing, categorizing, and even essentializing speech can actually have social and ontological force.  This talk will argue that a social practice approach to understanding language is our best tool for explaining the dynamic mechanisms of toxic speech. A theory combining language games and inferential role semantics offers powerful tools for making sense of the enactment and enforcement of social categories.  Speech can insinuate, enact, and enforce social hierarchy without being riddled with slurs or explicit derogations, without the speaker even having the intention to harm. Much of the power of any particular speech act arises from its place in a language game, which is itself part of a set of discursive practices, which are in turn part of broader social practices. Practices are key. Tracking the interplay between discursive and non-discursive practices across a community can help us to understand (and perhaps alter) the dynamic force of social toxins that harm some people while leaving others potentially stronger. It takes a village—with its collective power of social uptake—to make meaning, and it takes a village to break damaging practices that undermine the health and well-being of its most vulnerable members.