Well, it's been over three years. The editors never apologized, although they did give a kind of half-hearted implied acknowledgement of error. Everyone has moved on. I spent three years declining special issue invitations, referee requests, etc. I am disappointed that more people didn't join me in this kind of statement, but I guess the profession on the whole thought enough had been done. Reluctantly, and a little sadly, I'm ending my little protest now. The next time I refuse to referee a Synthese paper, it will be because I'm too busy, not because I'm unwilling to contribute my labour to this particular journal.
Original post follows:
Like most philosophers who are active on social media, I was amazed and horrified this week to learn from Feminist Philosophers about an article by Jean-Yves Beziau, nominally on logical pluralism, published in Synthese and containing irrelevant and incoherent sexist and homophobic ramblings. (See also the Daily Nous coverage/discussion here.) The article represents an extremely serious editorial failure; in my opinion, its publication is inconsistent with Synthese's status as a high-prestige philosophical journal. The editors need to apologize (really apologize) and retract the article. Unless and until that happens, I plan to exercise the little bit of personal power that I have in this matter, and refrain from contributing any more of my labour to a journal that has so dramatically failed to live up to its responsibilities.
So just what happened? The whole article is a mess, but the passage that has drawn the most outrage is this one:
"Logical pluralism" is linked in another way to sexuality: it is connected to homosexuality. The flag of homosexuality is the rainbow seen as a general symbol of pluralism opposed to the black and white dichotomy. It is a bit weird to promote plurality through a sexual activity between people of the same sex. It would be similar to promote democracy through dictatorship saying that democrats are open to every politicians including dictators. However supporting homosexuality is politically correct.Set aside the dubious grammar and orthography, which I have transcribed faithfully. Set aside even the fact there is nothing argumentative or illuminating about this passage (or in my opinion, in the rest of the paper). Set aside the ableist metaphors, and the author's apparent ignorance of the connotations of the phrase 'politically correct'. Pause briefly to note that this is merely a rambling series of nebulous associations of thought and focus with me on the blatant homophobia and misogyny. Those with greater expertise should correct me if I'm wrong about this, but I'm pretty confident that Beziau's assertion that logical pluralism is 'connected to' homosexuality is mere assertion—it is connected only by his own rather bizarre train of thought. The connection he has in mind seems merely to be that he considers each a perversion, tolerated only because of an insincere commitment to an arbitrary moral standard. Beziau is arguing, in a paper about logical pluralism, against tolerating homosexuality.
To be pluralist is a politically correct way of being. The expression politically correct has progressively flourished during the last 30 years. It is now being used to characterize what is correct or not in the same sense that morally correct was used before. Moralism now looks quite old-fashion, but politically correct is just a new skin for the old ceremony. What is correct or not has changed by the correctness mood is the same: political correctness shares with the old-fashioned moralism the same blind normative aspect. One has to think or behave in a way without really understanding why and if one disobeys she (to use a politically correct way of speaking, contrasting somewhat with the sexism of using "sexy expressions") is considered as an eccentric or/and a dangerous female. And political correctness like the old moralism is full of absurdity and hypocrisy: for example, it is not politically correct to eat dogs; at the same time it is politically correct to eat cows; although it is politically correct to recognize the plurality of religions, the fact that for Hindus eating cows is not good.
Logical pluralism is fashionable and fashion is ephemeral and superficial, like a sexy young woman that 1 day will be a not so attractive old lady. (pp. 1947–8)
Then he drops a completely gratuitous simile, identifying the value of women with their sexual appeal—and assuming that older women are unattractive and therefore without value. In a paper about logical pluralism.
This is not just bad taste, or 'politically incorrect', or a mere oversight in judgment. This is a toxic denigration of most people. Philosophers who spend their entire lives surrounded by the perception that their sexual identity is a perversion, or that their value is essentially tied to their appearance (which is essentially tied to youth) should at least have a break when reading philosophy journals. (At least articles about logical pluralism!) The so-casual-it's-supposed-to-be-obvious message is: if you're not a straight man, you're a deviant or an expiring sex object (or both). The publication of this article was a very serious harm to the discipline of philosophy.
Rightly or wrongly, journals play a very important role in academia. Publication in peer-refereed journals is the single biggest factor in hiring and promotion decisions. Journal editors, therefore, are in positions of tremendous responsibility; editors regularly make decisions that dramatically impact people's careers. This is especially true for journals like Synthese that occupy a high-prestige status. Publishing this paper bestowed a significant degree of philosophical prestige on repugnant and ill-considered ideas.
In this instance, the paper in question was part of a special issue, guest edited by Gergely Székely. The stated procedures for guest editing at Synthese (laid out in the Daily Nous post) involve the same refereeing standards as regular issues do, and involve peer review by the editors-in-chief—Otávio Bueno, Gila Sher, and Wiebe van der Hoek. The editors-in-chief are ultimately responsible for the publication decisions of the journal, as they themselves observed in a statement given to both Daily Nous and Feminist Philosophers:
We are truly sorry about any offense caused by the special issue article published in Synthese. We are strongly committed to feminist and LTGB values. We take full responsibility for every article of published in Synthese, and are committed to learning lessons from every problem that arises. We are now looking into the problem, and although we would like to react as soon as possible, we also want to do a thorough investigation and discuss this with all concerned. Thank you very much for your concern and patience.While I appreciate the difficulties of timely coordination, it is disappointing to me that the most they've said is that they are sorry about any passive-voice offense caused. This is a very obvious case of a very inappropriate publication decision. There is no reason they shouldn't be apologizing for printing the article. Do they doubt whether it was a regrettable mistake? Then they lack the judgment necessary for their positions of responsibility. If they know it was a regrettable mistake, then the very first, instant step should be to apologize for it. And yes, a full accounting of how it came to be is also crucial. But mistakes of this magnitude do not occur in a properly functioning organization. Either someone in a position of high editorial authority read this material and decided it was appropriate to publish it, or it was published without having been read by such a person. Each possibility implies a serious problem with a journal that can make or break a philosophical career.
Journals depend on the free labor academics give them, as editors, authors, and referees. I cannot in good conscience contribute to a journal that is so clearly failing in its responsibility to the academic community. To do so would literally be to be part of the problem. (Students and untenured philosophers have little choice but to play the game and be part of the problem, but I am tenured.) So I will do what I can do: I'll make some noise about this issue, for instance by writing this blog post. I'll also refuse, until it's clear that the situation has been rectified, to contribute my labour to Synthese. I won't edit, referee, or write for the journal. (I have just withdrawn from their planned special issue on epistemic justification, to which I'd previously been committed.)
Some people will say that I should wait until the editors have provided a fuller explanation of how this paper came to be published. I don't want to wait, for two reasons. One is that it's too easy to lose attention, to forget, over time—if they say, give us a bit of time to figure it out, it's only just come to light today (though one hopes the editors-in-chief didn't only just learn what they've previously published!), the community may give them time until it forgets about it and focuses on the next big scandal. The other is that, for the reasons I've already articulated, it's clear that whatever the explanation is, the journal has misused its power in an unacceptable way.
As far as I'm concerned, at this time, Synthese is not a professional publication worthy of prestige or respect. To be one again it must, at least, apologize for publishing the article, and retract it. It also must demonstrate clear, substantial reform—probably with at least some people in positions of authority stepping down—to ensure that enormous errors of this kind aren't made again. Until this happens, I for one will have nothing to do with it.
I also encourage my tenured colleagues to consider whether they are comfortable supporting a journal that behaves in this way.