This week I took part in a recorded interview. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Having viewed a few others in what I thought was the same series, I was expecting gentle questions such as ‘What first attracted you to philosophy?’ Instead, it was a deep dive, starting with the metaphysics of causation, which I’ve not worked on for over a decade, and then proceeding to emergence, mind and free will. I had to shift through the gears pretty rapidly.
A few days later I saw that it was posted on YouTube. I listened, but only to the first five seconds. I know that I am not alone in hating the sound of my own voice but I couldn’t bear to continue. I never do. I’ve never watched or listened to a whole recording of myself. It’s excruciating.
This self-consciousness has an additional source. In case the reader doesn’t know, I have a conspicuous Yorkshire accent. When I go home to Wakefield, friends and family say that I have lost it, but in academic circles there is no disguising the fact. Even I recognise that it seems incongruous to discuss metaphysics in a thick Yorkshire accent. It’s almost like something from Monty Python or Ripping Yarns. I have met one or two other philosophers from Yorkshire but none who have as broad an accent as me.
I know that I shouldn’t think like this. Two of the most brilliant philosophers I know have thick Glaswegian accents. Universities are more diverse places than they were a century ago and regional and working class voices are now part of the conversation. There’s more than that at play in my case, however. Yorkshire is associated with stubborn, no-nonsense, down-to-earth common sense: about as far away from the esoteric problems of metaphysics as you can get. A Yorkshire metaphysician is, to put it bluntly, a comical combination.
As I enter the later stages of my career, I think I am now in a position to confess the insecurities and vulnerabilities of challenging academic expectations this way. There have been many times when I have wondered if it has held me back. I encounter prejudices all the time: I am sure not as drastic as others do in virtue of their race, sexuality, disability or gender but, nevertheless, it is real and impactful. When I am in parts of southern England, I see the assumptions people make about me. In the university environment, too, I know that I do not fit the mould and I am bound to wonder whether I have been overlooked for opportunities because I did not match the model others have of what a philosopher should be.
My response has been to focus on the written word. I love philosophical discussion in person but certainly feel safer in writing, where my words stand for themselves, free of any prejudices my spoken voice might elicit. And I often feel more accepted speaking in other countries, where knowledge of the English regions and their associations is more limited.
I offer this confession because I know that there will be others in a similar position, experiencing some of the same thoughts and insecurities. Academia is becoming more diverse, which is to be applauded, but it needs more than that. New entrants to the profession should feel welcome, be nurtured and accepted for what they are. After all, the rational part of me knows that having a Yorkshire accent makes me no less of a philosopher, just as it wouldn’t if I had any other accent, race, gender or disability.
I know that I am not always perfectly rational and neither are others. The more ‘outsiders’ that can smash the stereotypes, the better. Once these are a thing of the past, we might be able to avoid internalising them too.