Interview with Tom Digby

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Tom Digby‘s bio: I grew up in Arkansas, steeped in fundamentalist, conservative values, like sexism, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and classism. I was gradually liberated from all that through the study of philosophy at William Jewell College, a relatively progressive Baptist school in Missouri. After a stint in law school, I went to Northwestern University to study phenomenology, but had to drop out because of the Vietnam War. After several years during which I worked as a professor, entrepreneur, and nonprofit administrator, I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a PhD, which led to an assortment of academic appointments, all with heavy teaching loads. I’ve managed to get two books published, most recently Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance (Columbia University Press, 2015). I published an anthology called Men Doing Feminism with Routledge in 1998. I’ve given numerous multimedia presentations on feminism, masculinity, love, and militarism, both as public events on various campuses and at conferences. Information about those public lectures and the books are available at my webpage.

Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?

TD: I’m mainly interested in how masculinity and misogyny (and the intersections of the two) corrupt love, sex, and life in general. But over the many years I’ve been a part of SPSL, I’ve been thoroughly engaged by the work that many SPSL members have done on a range of other topics.

Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?

TD: It’s hard for me to imagine any human being not being engaged by these subjects! But in my particular case, there was a confluence of life circumstances that sparked a special interest in the philosophy of sex and love.

One of my dissertation advisors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the late Phyllis Kenevan, introduced me to feminist theory in 1982. The impact was powerful and immediate. It changed my life as a philosopher and as a person, forever. It also happened to occur when I had been stunned by the breakup of a long marriage. From the first few paragraphs I read of a paper Phyllis had just written, it was clear that feminist theory could help me see mistakes I had made, and to understand how they had undermined a deeply loving and long-lasting relationship. Feminist theory also facilitated a warm friendship with my former wife that has continued in the decades since.

From the point of my introduction to feminist theory forward, I was never able to disentangle philosophy from gender, nor love and sex from feminist theory. I had also learned, in a quite compelling manner, what a profound difference philosophy in general, and feminist philosophy in particular, can make in a person’s life. In my own case, they have profoundly enhanced my relationships in the contexts of friendship, teaching, work, and love.

My interest in philosophy of love and sex eventually lead to teaching courses on the subject in the 1990s. Then I started giving talks on the subject on other campuses and at conferences. Those talks eventually morphed into my Love and War book.

Q: What project are you working on now?

TD: I’m working on multiple projects. First is to try to introduce the ideas in my recent book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, to the widest possible audience, in order to maximize its impact in people’s lives, and in society.  I just think that any progress related to either gender or militarism requires an understanding of the interrelations of gender and militarism that I describe and explain in the book. Toward the end of enhancing the impact of the book’s insights, I’ve been giving some extremely well-received public multimedia lectures. I’m also planning a YouTube series. Oh, and I finally have a website: www.tomdigby.com!

For several years, I’ve been working on another book project, consisting of a phenomenology of racism, rooted in my own experience growing up in (and being culturally programmed by) a white supremacist culture in Arkansas. That project will also incorporate some of the ideas about militarism that are discussed in my Love and War book.

Another project was going to be a chapter for Love and War titled “Post-Militaristic Philosophy,” but in the end it just didn’t seem to fit well. It started out as an invited talk for a FEAST panel on teaching, and then became a workshop for the faculty of Wabash College on “Post-Militaristic Pedagogy.” In the Acknowledgments section of Love and War, I say this: “Under the influence of Janice Moulton’s articles on adversariality in philosophy, I have striven to use description and explanation, rather than argument, in hopes of making this book an example of non-adversarial philosophy, or as I call it, postmilitaristic philosophy.” Obviously, much of the great work in philosophy, and in feminist philosophy specifically, has relied on argument. However, nonadversarial approaches to philosophy do offer some important philosophical and pedagogical advantages, which I’ll describe when I turn my notes for the FEAST talk and Wabash workshop into an article, or maybe something longer.

Finally, like so many other people, the shock of the election has re-energized my interest in political activism. I participated in the Women’s March (Hartford), have become involved with a local Indivisible group (Action Together Connecticut), and I’ve been doing phone calls. This is just a start, of course.

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

TD: Oh definitely! I have followed the news closely all of my life, and I think probably everything I’ve ever published was related to current events, even if that was not always explicit. Maybe that’s why I am so attracted to pragmatism: when I write, lecture, and teach, my main motivation is to make a difference in people’s lives. I cannot imagine doing philosophy any other way! Throughout the Love and War book, I make frequent use of items from the news and popular culture, and the last two chapters address how war and gender are changing in interconnected ways. That would be an example of how I think of philosophy can be a way to navigate a rapidly changing culture – isn’t that one of the reasons Socrates was so important in his time?

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

It has been my experience (and I’ve heard the same from many others) that it’s difficult to write or teach about sexuality without feeling constrained by the puritanism that pervades U.S. culture. I can give you a not so usual example: when I emailed the manuscript of Love and War to Columbia University Press as an attachment, it did not go through. After several days of detective work, I discovered that all the chapters could be emailed individually, except for chapter 3. That happens to be the chapter in which I discuss gonzo porn, with some quite graphic language. Apparently the email system had some kind of “moral filter” that objected to some of the descriptions of gonzo porn that I quoted from Gail Dines’ book, Pornland. (I was eventually able to get the entire manuscript submitted by emailing a dropbox link.)

Over the years, I’ve heard many other philosophers who work on sex and love talk about the puritanical constraints we experience regarding what can be discussed in class, and how explicitly it can be discussed. This factor limits the meaningfulness our philosophical work can have in the lives of our students. I have the impression that these constraints are even more problematic now than they were 25 years ago.

A bigger and broader challenge in writing about love is that even many professional philosophers have difficulty breaking free of what I call cultural programming (which is a crucial concept throughout Love and War). Philosophy offers some tools that can help us break free of our cultural programming, but we have to find them in what can be a rather cluttered methodological toolbox, as well as learn to use them for this specific liberatory purpose. I have found phenomenology and pragmatism to be especially useful tools, but the best tools – and strategies – have come specifically from feminist theory. I personally find it difficult to imagine how anyone can write usefully about love without relying on the insights and methodologies of feminist philosophy!

Q: Do you teach courses related to philosophy of sex and love? What kinds of topics do you include? What are some of the positive things or challenges you find teaching these subjects?

TD: I’m not teaching at the moment, having formally “retired” in 2015, although I do hope for teaching opportunities in the future. Two of the great things about teaching philosophy of love are (1) it is a topic that virtually all students find immediately engaging (which is not the case for all areas of philosophy, sadly); (2) it provides opportunities to exploit that starting point of student engagement to discuss so many other themes, topics, and areas of philosophy. E.g., selfhood, truth, free will, morality, and sociocultural criticism can all be addressed in the context of a philosophy of love course.

Q: Is your work interdisciplinary? If yes, what are other methodologies and disciplines you make use of, and how are they useful to you?

TD: I’ve been fortunate that my academic positions have never required me to stay within the disciplinary confines of philosophy. And certainly my Love and War book is not confined therein, either. I am especially fond of using diverse examples from anthropology to contextualize my teaching and writing about Western culture. For example, Manhood in the Making, by anthropologist David Gilmore, offers a wide array of examples of how masculinity is constructed in diverse societies around the globe, and students love it. In some ways, it is more pedagogically and philosophically useful than what some philosophers have written about masculinity. When students read this book, it becomes very difficult for them to generalize about men and masculinity, while simultaneously they can identify patterns that prevail specifically in culturally militaristic societies.

Complementary to the Gilmore book is Beyond War, by anthropologist Douglas Fry. He discusses many societies that are not, to use my term, war-reliant, quite effectively debunking the idea that humans are naturally prone to engage in war.

Together, those two books powerfully convey the contingency of gender and human violence, and of the intersections of those two things.

Q: Is it important to do “public philosophy” for philosophy of sex and love? If yes, what are some ways to facilitate that?

TD: Philosophy of sex and love are perfect areas for doing public philosophy, and engaging in that project is incredibly important to me.

I have to say that I view my  Love and War book as a contribution to public philosophy, in the sense that it was written for a general audience, and with the goal of having some measure of sociopolitical impact. From the time it was published, I have tried to use Facebook as a way to share some of the insights of Love and War, and to apply them to current events and the broader culture. It’s hard to know how successful that effort has been, but it has contributed to a lot of “friend requests,” and happily many of those are from non-academics. I’m still getting the hang of Twitter, so if anyone wants to mentor me, that would be welcome!

I should note that a number of younger philosophers are leading the way in public philosophy, and I greatly admire them. This blog is a great example – a big thanks to Helga and Patricia! Another great example is the Feminist Philosophers blog. I hope to do better soon at following in the footsteps of these younger philosophers.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to briefly clarify some points about my Love and War book.

First, Love and War was written for a general audience. I discuss the work of numerous other feminist writers in the book, but I did not intend the book to be a summation of important feminist work on militarism and gender. Hence, there are many important writings on that subject that I greatly value, but that did not fit into this particular project.

Second, as I said when interviewed by Myisha Cherry in The UnMute Podcast, Episode 17, “Although biological considerations are not altogether irrelevant to masculinity, prioritizing them often camouflages cultural factors. So in my Love and War book I try to bring those cultural elements out into the open, to expose them, so that there is more freedom around them.” I explain in the book why the assumption that biological factors are generally determinative of men’s violence is (1) ill-founded, and (2) reflective of cultural programming in militaristic societies, to which philosophers and other scholars are not immune. For anyone interested in a more thorough debunking of myths about science and gender, I recommend Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex, as well as her earlier work, including Delusions of Gender.

Third, throughout the process of writing Love and War I was mindful of various forms of resistance to feminism. That was the case when I offered what I call a “minimal” definition: “feminism is a preference that girls and women not be subjected (by society or individuals) to disadvantage just because they are girls or women.” I go on to explain several advantages of this definition, including that “it throws into relief the misogyny that is integral to opposition to feminism as I have described it: an antifeminist would be someone who rejects the preference that girls and women not be subjected to disadvantage solely on the basis of their being girls or women, thereby either endorsing such disadvantage or lacking concern about it, either of which allows an antipathy toward girls and women to come into full view.” My understanding of feminism is pragmatic, rather than normative, which has the advantages explained in the book, one of which appears in the just-quoted passage.

Obviously, many philosophers embrace a normative approach to social phenomena, but I’m part of a long and strong tradition that finds such an approach problematic. A thorough discussion of that would not fit here. However, if my book had not already gone to print, I would add a word to that definition of feminism, so that it would read “a committed preference….” That might have made it even clearer than it is already that I am by no means talking about feminism as a “mere” preference.  Anyone who knows me well knows that my commitment to feminism is profound, as well as pervasive in every aspect of my life. Indeed, I would say that my commitment to feminism defines me both professionally and personally.

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