Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sexual Shallowness?


Sexual Shallowness?

CONTENT WARNING: I liberally and somewhat gratuitously use the word “ass” (meaning “behind,” not “donkey”) in this post.


Consider the following story (inspired, but only inspired, by a true event—many important details have been changed). A bunch of gay men in their forties and fifties are having dinner and reminiscing about their young dating days. One of them—let’s call him Carl—mentions his first dating experience with a guy named Eric. The others ask him what Eric was like, and Carl replies, “I don’t remember much about him. The only thing I clearly remember was his ass. He had a beautiful ass, and I can still see him walking down the street in front of me in tight shorts.” This provokes a mild outcry from some of the members of the dinner, who accuse Carl of shallowness, by reducing Eric to nothing but his ass. (Or is it to nothing but an ass? I mean if you’re going to reduce someone to his ass, you might as well be reducing him to an ass, period. I see no moral difference between the two.)

At that point, someone—Pedro—asks Carl, “Well, do you remember whether Eric was smart or intelligent or talented in some way?” There are supportive cries of, “Yeah, Carl, do you?” presumably thinking that Pedro is pushing Carl to find something loftier than Eric’s ass by which to remember Eric (Pedro, for the record, was doing no such thing). Carl responds, “I’m not sure. I don’t think he was stupid. Maybe he was averagely intelligent.” Pedro then replies, “Well, maybe there isn’t much to remember Eric by other than his ass.”

(Henceforth, I use “ass” as a stand in for a person’s physical qualities, especially those transformed into sexual ones through the desire of another person.)

The outraged friends at the dinner seem to be subscribing to the following principle: Even if X has worthwhile sexual properties (e.g., a nice ass), X should only be remembered (honored, thought of, etc.) by X’s worthwhile nonsexual properties. Eric has a nice ass, yes, but he should be remembered by his wit or his flute-playing skills. And if Carl fails to see that, then that is his fault, his blindness, not Eric’s lacking anything worthwhile.

The above principle is strong (let’s call it “SP”). It’s strong for three reasons. First, it assumes that for any person X, X must have worthwhile nonsexual properties. Second, it assumes that the nonsexual properties trump the sexual ones. Third, it assumes that the nonsexual properties are the only properties by which someone ought to be remembered.

Contrast SP with another, weaker principle (“MP”) that does not share SP’s first assumption. MP states: If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered only by the latter. MP is weaker than SP because it does not assume that every person has worthwhile nonsexual properties, only that if they do, they should be remembered by them. It is still a strong principle because it accepts that nonsexual properties trump the sexual ones, and that people should be remembered only by the nonsexual ones.

Here is an even weaker principle (“WP”): If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered by the latter (but not necessarily by only the latter). This is a weaker principle because it relaxes the claim that someone should be remembered only by their nonsexual properties.

I am not foolish enough to argue that our worthwhile sexual properties trump our worthwhile nonsexual ones, so I accept WP (or some version of it). I have no difficulty accepting the idea that if Eric had worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, then Carl should remember him by both. (I will, however, shortly modify this claim by making room for the type of relationship at stake.) But I am foolish enough to claim that not everyone has worthwhile nonsexual properties (of course, not everyone has worthwhile sexual properties either, but the present post is attempting to rescue sex from the intellectual clutches of non-sex). So here goes.

Why do we always assume that people are better than they are? We should seriously consider the possibility—the reality even—that many people have little that makes them special. Perhaps metaphysically speaking we are all endowed with inherent worth, dignity, a little mirror inside us reflecting God, etc. But if this is true, it does not always wear itself on its sleeve, given that people quite frequently exhibit properties that are, shall we say, the exact opposite of this inherent worth (present company definitely included—I ain’t no goldmine, for sure). People tend to be selfish, self-absorbed, vindictive, envious, jealous, full of unjustified self-importance, manipulative, unforgiving, deceitful, self-deceitful, ridden with anxieties, stubborn, irrational, stupid, uncaring, oblivious, pretentious, arrogant, cowardly, dishonest, self-rationalizing, cruel, insensitive, riddled with illusions, superstitious, shallow, greedy, prejudiced, ignorant, and just overall unwholesome. On top of this sorry heap, they manage the feat of also being self-righteous about who they are and thinking that they are special or unique. Why then presume that the Erics of the world have something about them that is better than their asses?

(Whether the people with these defects are to blame for them is an irrelevant issue, because being blameworthy or not does not negate the fact that they have the defects. For the record, I don’t think that we can say that they are or that they aren’t. A lot depends on the specific situation of each person. But in general, I do think that people are responsible for controlling their wayward emotions and for trying to become better when they have accurate self-assessments.)

Now imagine Carl, with Pedro’s moral and intellectual support, replying to his friends (and, unbeknownst to him, criticizing SP) as follows: “As it so happens, Eric was kind of a mimbo [male bimbo]. He wasn’t that intelligent, he was shallow—always chasing after every new fad—and he had no skills or talents to speak of. Really, he had no worthwhile nonsexual properties by which to remember him.” But his friends berate Carl: “Think, dude. Go back in time. Dig into your memories. Surely you can find something.” Carl says, “Yes, of course. I can find some things. It’s not all gloom and doom. He could be sweet at times. I loved how he used to be absorbed in whatever TV shows he watched. He loved talking about his childhood, and he could be psychologically insightful about people.” The friends chime in, “There you go. We have a few winners! Remember Eric by them!” “No,” Carl replies, “We don’t have winners. These properties are not worthwhile. They are certainly not worthwhile enough to remember Eric by.”

Surely Carl is right. To claim that (most, many, some, a few) people do not have worthwhile nonsexual properties is not to claim that they are utterly and always irrational, shallow, etc. This would be patently false. Instead, it is to claim that what they exhibit is nothing to drool over, it’s nothing so special as to make them stand out. It is to claim that people tend to be average, even sub-average, and if one encounters such a human being, let’s not insist that he must have more than a nice ass (if he’s lucky enough to have one).

So SP is false because it wrongly assumes that people have such worthwhile nonsexual properties.

Here’s an obvious (yet silly) objection to the idea that people might not have worthwhile properties. Being worthwhile is subjective. One can’t just decide that people don’t have such worthwhile properties, because being worthwhile depends on subjective values and a person’s point of view.

Maybe. (Please note that I have a hard time understanding this objection—understanding what it means that such values are subjective.) However, this objection does not help the friends at the dinner, because (and this is why it is silly) by their own lights every person is supposed to have something non-sexually worthwhile. If they go the subjective route, they undermine their own claim because they leave it up to subjectivity to decide whether someone has worthwhile properties. Put slightly differently, those who accept SP must accept the existence of objective worthwhile properties. If they don’t, they cannot fault Carl for not finding any, because he can just say, “Well, such properties are subjectively worthwhile, and I happened not to find any in Eric. So go suck on that.”

Here’s another, more respectable objection (but one that is ultimately also false) to the idea that people might not have worthwhile properties: the property of being worthwhile is a relational property when it comes to remembering (honoring, thinking of, etc.) someone. Whether Eric has a worthwhile property for Carl to remember him by depends on the two of them and their relationship. To see this, consider Zack, who was Eric’s friend. Zack remembers Eric by Eric’s nonsexual properties, specifically two or three of them by which Zack chooses to remember Eric. It is Zack who chooses (in a loose sense of “choose”) which properties by which to remember Eric, just as Carl chooses which other properties (sexual) by which to remember him. In this way, there is no non-relational property of worthwhileness.

This objection is subtler than the first, but it succumbs to a similar response. Although it is true that people choose which properties by which to remember someone, Carl’s friends, in endorsing SP, are not denying this claim. They accept that Carl has chosen Eric’s nice ass as his memorabilia for Eric, but they reject the aptness or correctness of the choice. They are in effect saying to Carl, “You made the wrong choice. You should have chosen a nonsexual worthwhile property.”

(On a side note, people often value choice too much, to the point of thinking that if something is chosen, then it cannot be bad, the idea being that it reflects someone’s autonomy. But this cannot be that simple, given that people often make wrong choices.)

The objection sounds right because it relies on a correct idea, namely, that in many cases a humdrum object becomes valuable because of our relationship to it. A deck of cards is usually an ordinary, almost worthless, object. But this deck of cards is special because my late father gave it to me (on his deathbed, if you want more drama). So it has value in virtue of its history and relationship to me. The objection, then, transfers this correct idea to the Carl-Eric case, and it says that Eric himself has neither worthwhile nor non-worthwhile properties, and that what makes such properties worthwhile is their relation to other people.

But it is in transferring the idea to human beings that the objection goes wrong, because human beings are not decks of cards, so their worthwhile properties are not exhausted or fully explained by the value with which other people endow them (perhaps a religious person would say that they are valuable only because God endowed them with value, but the SP does not need this claim). Thus, Carl’s friends are going to reject this objection. They will fault Carl for latching on the wrong property.

So these two objections fail in denying that people might not have worthwhile properties. In thus failing, they also fail to rescue SP. For all these reasons, Carl can say to his friends, “I prefer to remember Eric by his ass, because at least his ass was not entangled in all the mediocrity of being human. If you insist that I remember him by his average intelligence, you are insisting that I relegate Eric to the multitudes. And I won’t do that.” Carl’s answer gives us something to think about. Eric’s ass has the potential to lift Eric out of the muck of humanity and make him memorable. Carl’s friends, thinking that they are Eric’s allies, are actually the ones dragging him down by insisting that Carl remember him by something utterly mundane. This is an idea worth considering.

So if SP is false, should we accept MP? Recall that MP states, “If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered only by the latter.” Is MP true? No.

Let’s assume, in order to evaluate MP, that Eric has worthwhile nonsexual properties (ones that are not drowned out by ugly ones, though perhaps a worthwhile property is one that is good and shines through). Should Carl remember him by those properties? Is Carl at fault if he does not do so?

Suppose that Carl was in a long-term relationship with Micah, who was not only handsome and sexy but also intelligent, honest, witty, insightful, and loving. If Carl were to remember him mostly by his ass, Carl’s friends could, and rightly so, level at Carl the charge of serious unfairness to Micah, on the ground that Micah and he shared much more than mutual sexual desire. So when Carl latches only on Micah’s ass, his friends can legitimately protest, “Hey! He was more than that! By not remembering him by the other properties, you do him and your relationship an injustice. You distort it.”

But with Eric things are different. If Carl and Eric had only or primarily a sexual relationship, Carl’s remembering Eric by his ass seems perfectly fair to both Eric and to their relationship. To insist on other qualities should merit the same objection as that leveled above: it might very well distort the relationship that they had. Carl might have even been cognizant of Eric’s other good qualities, but to insist that he (also) remember or honor Eric by them is to distort not only the nature of the relationship itself, but also how Carl should relate to Eric.

So MP is not true in all cases (and hence not true as stated), because we have no reason to accept it in purely sexual relationships. And for the same reason, WP is also false. To recall, WP states, “If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered by the latter (but not necessarily by only the latter).” Moreover, given the reason for rejecting them both, they should be amended to include a clause about the nature of the relationship. Better stated:

MP, amended (MPA): “If X and Y are in a more-than-sexual relationship, and if X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, Y should remember X by only the latter.”

WP, amended (WPA): “If X and Y are in a more-than-sexual relationship, and if X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, Y should remember X by the latter (but necessarily by only the latter).”

Which is the true one? The true one is WPA, because MPA denigrates the sexual not only in general, but also when it might be a crucial part of the relationship. X and Y might have had a wonderful relationship, and one crucial reason it was wonderful was the sex, and the sex was wonderful because X had an amazing body after which Y lusted (so Y was focusing on X during the sex, not fantasizing about Justin Trudeau, because, amazing as it is, Y has lost interest in X’s body—not not only heals all wounds, but flattens all desires as well). MPA allows the parties to remember and honor each other because of both the sexual and the nonsexual.

So is Carl shallow for remembering Eric only by his ass? Not in those cases in which Eric did not have much else to be remembered for or (inclusive “or”) those cases in which Carl and Eric had a purely sexual relationship.

In concluding this post, I note one thing and raise a question. First, nothing I have said licenses the inference that Carl, in remembering Eric by his ass, views Eric as nothing but a body or body parts. That is, Carl’s attitude towards Eric need not, in the present or in the past, be one of viewing him as lacking humanity (no matter how we explicate the idea of this lack). As a matter of fact, in remembering X by whichever property P, Y is remembering X by P, not remembering merely P. In the case of Carl and Eric, it is Eric’s ass that is the window through which Carl remembers him. So there is no rejection or denial of Eric’s humanity. The opposite is what is occurring.

What should we say if Eric were Erica? Should we adopt the same answer? Would the answer differ if Carl were Carla? I leave the answers to another post (though definitely not the next one).

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Limits of the Academic Boycott of Israel

The Limits of the Academic Boycott of Israel


A few months ago, I got into a brief argument with someone on Facebook. The argument was mostly civil (except for another person who decided to jump in and, instead of arguing with me, resorted to name-calling), but it ended with, “Well, we just have to agree to disagree” kind of ending, which is fine, except that I would like to argue more (and better) for my view. (Two close and dear friends of mine [a married couple] who live in Beirut advised me, when I saw them there in January, to post a blog on what happened and to use the occasion to defend my views. I am acting on their advice, so thank you for that, May and Khalil.)

First, here’s what happened: I was on Facebook when I saw that someone had posted a video of a speaker at the American University of Beirut whose talk was momentarily shouted down (I’ll reveal his name in a bit); the video was of the audience members shouting him down. Eventually, I was told, he was able to speak, so that the shouting down was not fully effective. When I saw the video on Facebook, I commented that such actions are terrible and that speakers should be given the right to speak, especially since members of the university should respect the university’s decision (or the decision of whichever part of the university invited the speaker) to invite the person to speak (I have already posted a blog on this issue). I was told that the speaker had connections with Israel, specifically with the Hebrew University, and so it was right that he be prevented from speaking, given the academic boycott against Israeli academic institutions, which itself is part of the larger BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel. Finally, I was told that if I insist on his right to speak, I am in effect going against the academic boycott of Israel.

Throughout the back and forth, I didn’t know who the speaker was. I actually didn’t care, because I thought that no matter who he was, he should be able to speak, period. Of course, after thinking about it, I was a bit puzzled, because given that the reason for the resistance to him speaking was that he taught or worked at the Hebrew University, and given that if he did, he could not have entered Lebanese soil because no one who visits Israel is allowed in Lebanon (unless they change their passport or there is no Israeli stamp on the one they use to enter Lebanon), I was puzzled as to how he could have entered the country to speak at the AUB. (Note that part of the Hebrew University is on occupied land in east Jerusalem—land occupied in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. I mention this because it is one example of how Israeli universities have collaborated with their various governments to entrench the occupation and other vile policies, though whether intentionally or not is irrelevant.)

In any case, it turned out that the speaker, who was none other than the famous political philosopher Jeff McMahan, never worked at Hebrew University, and was merely an unpaid advisor for its Center for Moral and Political Philosophy. This raises the question: If someone who has never worked at or for an Israeli academic institution is a permissible target of the academic boycott, has the net been thrown too wide to be acceptable? And if someone defends the right of McMahan to speak once he has been invited, like I did, can they be legitimately accused of being against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions? That is, might one not be able to be for the boycott but still disagree with its scope? Surely the answer is yes. I will claim that individuals should never be the targets of the boycott, even if they are Israelis or have worked at Israeli institutions—indeed, even if they are Zionists or across-the-board Israeli apologists.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of the BDS movement do not call on us to divest from, boycott, or sanction individuals, but to do so against companies and institutions (https://bdsmovement.net/what-is-bds). Indeed, after an incident with George Galloway, the BDS movement had this to say on its website in 2013: “In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views. Of course, any individual is free to decide who they do and do not engage with” (https://bdsmovement.net/news/bds-movement-position-boycott-individuals).

In any case, my point in this post is not to debate the merits or demerits of the BDS movement, let alone boycott movements in general. I will assume that the BDS movement is right to be doing what it is doing, and I want to ask about the scope of this movement: should it, in the case of academics, target institutions and individuals?

For the record, I am a supporter of the BDS movement; I have, among a few other things, discouraged colleagues from attending conferences in Israel, and I refuse to review articles for Israeli journals, making sure to tell them why. These are my meager attempts at supporting the academic boycott. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is morally abhorrent, and its list of moral crimes against Palestinians covers individuals, institutions, and Palestinian society. That is, Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are not limited to actions against individual Palestinians, such as imprisoning them and shooting them, but extends to undermining the very fabric of their social and political life, including their universities and educational institutions. To my mind, Israel aims to reduce the Palestinians to the same status as that of Native Americans in the United States: not a complete wipe out, but a weakening to the point where they become voiceless, utterly helpless, mired in economic mal-being, and forgotten. Moreover, not only have Israeli academic institutions done little to protest the plight of their Palestinian counterparts, they have actively abetted the actions of their state by, for example, hosting departments and centers for archeological and demographic studies with the clear political aim of arguing that the land has always been Jewish and of finding ways to maintain a particular demographic balance, respectively (for additional examples, see http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=2613; see also http://www.monabaker.org/?p=286). Therefore, targeting such institutions for exclusion seems morally sound, especially since other means have proven futile given the wide and deep support that Israel has in the United States and the international community. So whether one supports the boycott because one thinks it is effective, because it is the fair thing to do, or because one simply does not want to engage with such institutions, the boycott is justified.

However, I disagree that the boycott should extend to individual academics. This stance was taken by my friend and colleague Mohammed Abed in a paper that he presented in 2006 (“Philosophical Arguments for a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”—to my knowledge, the paper was not published), but I will quote from a modified version of the paper which was published in Dissent (Fall 2007, 83-87), titled “In Defense of Academic Boycotts,” whose main points I accept and wish to reiterate and add to.

Abed argues that the boycott should target academic institutions (for reasons that I will not go into). Instead, we should work to halt all academic activity that takes place in Israeli universities, and to move that activity to Palestinians areas. This is all good and fine. But why not also halt work with individual academics who work at or with Israeli academic institutions?

First, not all academics who work with or at Israeli institutions (henceforth, “Israeli academics” for short) are politically or morally compromised as far as Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are concerned. Many of them are critical of these policies, some are anti-Zionists, etc. Of course, the reply now would be, “All right. The boycott does not extend to them, only to those who are morally and politically compromised.” But then we run into the serious problem of how we determine who is which. I do not mean to refer to the difficulty of accessing their CVs or finding their publications. The difficulty is deeper: because there is a diversity of views about what counts as an acceptable solution or remedies to the conflict among the supporters of the Palestinians, and because various individuals hold different views of what counts as a morally good resolution of the conflict, we will have a difficult time drawing the line between the “good” academics and the “bad” academics. Some support a two-state solution. Is that compromised because it does not give the Palestinians back all their ancestral homeland? Some support a bi-national state. Is that morally compromised because it maintains the state along ethno-religious lines? Some (e.g., I) support a secular state for both people. Is that compromised because it does not address the desire for the state to be specifically Jewish and/or Palestinian? Thus, not boycotting individuals allows us to not have to subject each individual to some sort of “litmus test” (as Abed put it in the presentation version of his paper), task not only time-consuming but one that will not garner universal agreement among the boycott supporters.

Second, by not boycotting Israeli individual academics, we allow for the proper give-and-take that is the stuff of academic discourse. Given that the Palestinian cause is just, such give-and-take would open the door for Israeli academics to help the cause by working from the inside of their institutions. Not boycotting individuals allows us to talk to them, which in turn increases the chances of having them go back and influence their institutions. In other words, working with Israeli academics increases the chance of having them change their minds about various issues, big or small, connected with the conflict. Having Israeli academics return to their institutions and work from the inside helps increase the chance of their institutions making an impact on Israeli policy. As Abed puts it, Israeli academics are influential in this respect because “First, they are the individuals best placed to pressure academic institutions into taking an official stand against the government’s appalling treatment of the Palestinians” (“In Defense of Academic Boycotts,” 86), and “Second, academics are well-respected members of society and thus in a good position to influence public opinion on important issues” (“In Defense,” 86).

Third, and connected to the above point, we need Israeli academics to visit the Arab world, to come to Arab universities, to engage with Arab audiences, especially with Palestinians, in the Palestinian areas, and at Palestinian universities. This allows for a direct contact between both sides and allows Israelis to see Arabs for what they are and to shed many of their stereotypes about them (and vice versa). Some will be upset by this suggestion and scream that this implies normalization with Israel. But I reply that it does not have to: Arab states need not have full and comprehensive peace treaties with Israel in order to allow their academics to enter their countries. Visa exceptions can be made for them.

Fourth, I have argued in another post that universities have an obligation to their students and to their members in general to expose them to views contrary to what the university’s values or dominant discourse is. In the case of universities on Arab campuses, this means inviting, every now and then, someone with a Zionist point of view and have a discussion with them about their beliefs (as presented in a talk, a lecture, a workshop, etc.). This would allow the members of the hosting university to keep their beliefs fresh and alive (this is Mill speaking) and it would allow testing them against what is being presented. And, connected to the above points, it would open up the possibility that the speaker might modify their own views. Of course, we need to exercise moral common sense: If Benjamin Netanyahu retires into an academic position somewhere, this does not mean he should be invited to speak. His policies, political past, and lack of actual academic credentials (though he did write a book on terrorism) would disqualify him from being an invitee (not to mention that his views are not going to change).

Fifth, engaging with individuals allows everyone to keep abreast of what people are writing and thinking regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It would contribute to a pool of knowledge that we can all use and benefit from to advance our thinking and research on this issue.

Sixth, boycotting individuals runs the risk of being charged with a form or racism or anti-Semitism, since it might be perceived as targeting people for who they are instead of for what they believe. (Again, if we reply, “Well then, let’s boycott them for what they believe,” we run into the political litmus test.) Although we cannot be responsible for other people’s perceptions, this issue does raise the question of whether boycotting Israeli academics is done on the proper ground or for the proper reasons. If it is not for who they are that the boycott is, and if we cannot boycott them on the basis of their beliefs (given the problems with the litmus test), on what grounds are we boycotting them? Here, one might argue that they represent their institutions and that this is sufficient ground for boycotting them.

This brings me to the seventh and final reason against boycotting individuals, namely, that the reason that academics represent their institutions is not plausible, because, simply, describing the relationship between academics and their institutions as one of representation is not true, except in a banal sense of “representation” that means “works there” or “the institution is the person’s affiliation.” Normally, academics present their own views on various issues, and as a matter of fact, in all universities (ideally) and in most (actually) universities, there is respect of freedom of thought, belief, and expression. This is one of the main bases of universities. But it is one which would be at odds with understanding academics as representing their institutions in any strong sense. Thus, academics do not represent their universities in the sense that they speak on their behalf. (There could be other pernicious notions of “representation” that I am neglecting; if so, I invite the reader to supply them in the comments section.)

I have provided various reasons for why the academic boycott of Israel should not target Israeli individuals. To my mind, the boycott should target the institutions themselves: no more exchange programs with Israeli universities, no more study trips to Israel, no joint research with Israeli universities, no conferences on Israeli campuses, and so on. But Israeli academics should not be the target.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Peter Singer vs Elizabeth Costello


Peter Singer vs. Elizabeth Costello

I recently finished reading the novel Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, the South African / Australian contemporary writer. The main character of the novel, Elizabeth Costello, is herself a world renowned fiction writer (in the world of the novel, of course). The novel tackles, through Costello’s voice and the voice of other characters (e.g., her sister’s and her son’s) various important issues, such as the humanities, the problem of evil, the non-Western novel, the role of the writer, and animal ethics (the focus of this post). If a college should ever adopt for its students a list of common novels for summer reading or as a junior or senior year “common experience,” Elizabeth Costello should be on the list (the novel’s worth has as much to do with its form as with its content).

Two crucial chapters in the novel, which originally were Coetzee’s 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures presented at Princeton University, deal with animal ethics; they are titled “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals.” These lectures became (before they made their way into the novel itself) part of a book entitled The Lives of Animals, edited by Amy Gutmann with four essays commenting on the lectures. Gutmann’s introduction opens the book, followed by Coetzee’s lectures, followed first by an essay by Marjorie Garber (a literary critic), by Peter Singer (a philosopher), by Wendy Doniger (a historian of religion), and lastly by Barbara Smuts (an anthropologist and psychologist). The essays are thought-provoking, and Singer’s will be the topic of this post, specifically whether it successfully criticized Costello’s views of our treatment of animals. I will argue that it did not.

First, however, something brief about Costello’s views. I do not assume that they represent Coetzee’s, especially since there are counter, even if sometimes sympathetic, voices to Costello’s. For instance, Norma, a philosopher and Costello’s daughter-in-law, vehemently disagrees with her views, so does Costello’s son (Norma’s husband) to some extent, and so do two professors at Appleton College (where Costello delivers her views on animals in the form of a lecture and a seminar), one of whom is Jewish and who objects to Costello’s use of the Holocaust in an analogy to our treatment of animals. I will thus speak only of Costello’s views, not of Coetzee’s. (Garber’s essay addresses the issue of Costello’s vs. Coetzee’s voice.).

Well, what are Costello’s views? The core view, around which the rest revolve, is that our treatment of animals, especially that which takes place in slaughter houses, is evil: “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed, dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (The Lives of Animals, p. 21).

This treatment of animals is abetted by a failure of empathy on our part to understand their lives, a failure in turn abetted by the idea that we have reason whereas they don’t. This belief in our deep separation from animals has been supported by various luminous philosophers, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Thomas Nagel. Costello takes special aim at Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” claiming that Nagel was wrong to think that being a bat was an alien life form for us, because both we and bats are full of being: “To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat-being in the first case, human-being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy” (p. 33).

Thus, in “The Philosophers and the Animals,” Costello’s lecture to Appleton College’s English Department, she rejects philosophers’ claims to human beings’ separation from animals. More than that, she raises doubts about our faith in reason, claiming that contrary to what we might believe, reason need not be the universal mechanism by which to understand the universe, and it might be merely “the being of human thought”; indeed, even merely one “tendency” of such thought (p.23). Reason might be our (human beings’) particular mode of understanding the world, nothing more. “Do we really understand the universe better than animals do?” (p. 45).

In “The Poets and the Animals,” Costello chastises scientific experiments that attempt to prove animal intelligence by not only assimilating it to our own way of thinking, but to even downgrading it to that aspect of our thinking that is practical thinking (how to put boxes on top of each other to reach a banana, e.g.). She also takes to task the line of philosophical thinking that tries to show that human life is more valuable than animal life because we have and use concepts whereas they do not, so their lives matter less to them than our lives matter to us. But anyone “who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve. When you say that the fight lacks a dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, I agree. It is not the mode of being of animals to have an intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh” (p. 65).

When we fail to occupy the consciousness of animals, we fail morally. We fail, according to Costello, just as all the Germans and Poles failed when they did not occupy the consciousness of the people in concentration camps or on trains being shipped to their deaths. In this sense, Costello is not comparing the moral wrongs of the Holocaust to those we inflict on animals, but finding a common element to our silence in both cases. And this is why Costello urges us “to read the poets who return the living, electric being to language; and if the poets do not move you, I urge you to walk, flank to flank, beside the beast that is prodded down the chute to his executioner” (p. 65).

Peter Singer is a very famous philosopher, whose work on animal ethics has been seminal and has given shape to the contemporary animal rights movement (though he himself does not subscribe to rights-talk). Singer’s response to Coetzee’s lectures takes the form of a fictional story involving a philosopher called “Peter” in conversation with his daughter Naomi. Peter was pouring over Coetzee’s chapters because he needed to write a response to them when Norma comes down for breakfast and asks him why he is frowning, which gets the conversation going. (I have to admit that I always cringe a little—in Raja-French it is called “Le Petite Cringe” and it refers to a sensation almost the exact opposite to that of Le Petite Mort—when philosophers attempt fiction; the fiction is often bad and sounds silly and pretentious. Singer’s attempt is no exception. In his case it is even worse because the story seems to have a slight mocking tone, which falls flat because Singer’s own argument against Costello’s falls short.)

Singer thinks that Costello’s view is too egalitarian to be acceptable. His own egalitarian view is that of equal interests—that, given each species’ interests, animals belonging to that species are entitled to proper consideration. So the equality in question is proportional: we ought to give consideration to a chicken’s interest equal in proportion to the interest of human beings.

To understand this better, consider having to compare the killing of a chicken with that of a human being. If we had to kill one, which ought we choose? Singer’s answer is that it should be the chicken, because a chicken’s interest in continued life is not the same as a human being’s. We have different and more complex interests in existing than do chickens, and equal proportional consideration means that we give each type of interest its due. Human beings’ lives are much more “future-oriented” than chickens, and that gives us much more to lose. So our interests should be given their proper consideration.

At this point, Naomi accuses her father of speciesism in his belief that human interests are more important than animals’, to which Peter replies that killing an animal, such as their dog Max, is not in itself wrong, because even though Max would lose the rest of his life and whatever joys it contains, other dogs can come into existence and “there would be just as much good aspects of dog-existence” (p. 88). Of course, the death of Max would still lead to some negative consequences, because, after all, his human family will feel his loss because they loved Max (p. 89). Peter, using pigs, makes his point as follows: “Let’s assume the pigs are leading a happy life and are then painlessly killed. For each happy pig killed, a new one is bred, who will lead an equally happy life. So killing the pig does not reduce the total amount of porcine happiness in the world” (p. 89). So as long as the total amount of pig-happiness in the world is not reduced, killing pigs is okay, because the individual life of a pig is not very crucial.

The pig example is just an example, and whether killing pigs is indeed intrinsically wrong (wrong in itself, aside from any bad consequences it has) depends on the extent to which pigs are self-aware (it is the complex self-awareness of human beings that makes killing them intrinsically wrong). If it turns out that pigs and dogs have self-awareness, then the more complex it is, the more intrinsically wrong it is to take their lives. In the case of animals that have no self-awareness or whose self-awareness is minimal, killing them is not intrinsically wrong (though causing them to suffer is; we should not confuse the capacity to suffer with that for self-awareness).

Peter grapples with Costello’s view only in one paragraph at the end of the story. He says that Costello would not agree with his views because of her acceptance of the idea of the fullness of being (explained above). Naomi seems to understand Costello better: “I see what she’s getting at. When you kill a bat, you take away everything that the bat has, its entire existence. Killing a human being can’t do more than that” (p. 90). That is, if fullness of being is what’s at stake, then whether you’re killing a human being or a bat, you’re taking that away, period. But Peter disagrees, because what you take away might have a different value in one case than in another: when you kill a human being, you take away more value than when you kill a bat or a chicken or a pig, precisely because human beings have more valuable capacities than the rest (p. 90).

Singer’s story, however, seems more of an excuse to showcase Singer’s own views than to seriously grapple with Costello’s. But since we should not assume that Peter’s views represent Singer’s, I will continue to speak of “Peter’s views.” (At the end of the story, Singer raises doubts about whether Costello’s views are Coetzee’s, saying that Coetzee’s fictional device allows him to distance himself from them. Perhaps Singer is doing the same in using a fictional story. This is good fortune for me because it enables me to not have to wade into all that has been written on Singer’s views to complete this post!) Still, Peter fails to take seriously Costello’s views, even though Naomi gives him a few opportunities to do that. This failure is serious when we remember that Peter is a philosopher, and philosophers are supposed to be charitable in their interpretations of their opponents’ views.

(Note that Peter commits a fallacy when he infers that more value is lost when you take away complex capacities than is lost when you take away less complex ones. The fallacy here is deriving an evaluative claim from a factual one. But since this is a thorny topic in philosophy, including how serious this fallacy is—if we take it seriously most moral discussions to date will have to be fully revised—I set this point aside.)

How does Peter fail to seriously take Costello’s views? The failure hinges on Costello’s idea that reason might merely be our way of understanding the universe, not the way to understand it. Part of what Costello means by “reason” is not just the ability to reason (e.g., making inferences), of course, but the whole gamut of abilities that come with it: self-awareness, self-conception, imagination, future projections, understanding of our finality, and so on. And these are exactly the same kinds of features because of which Peter thinks we have more value than animals. What Costello is proposing, and what Peter does not seriously engage, is the idea that our abilities are different than animals’ but not superior. Costello emphasizes this claim when rejecting, as imbecilic, the experiments we have designed for animals, such as whether animals can get out of a maze: such a program of scientific experimentation ignores “the fact that if the researcher who designed the maze were to be parachuted into the jungles of Borneo, he or she would be dead of starvation in a week” (p. 62). Costello’s point, by the way, is not new, and previous philosophers have made it (e.g., Paul W. Taylor). What is strange is that Peter the philosopher does not give it a fair airing.

Animals, like us, have their own ways of understanding the world, according to Costello. This is part of what it means for them to be full of being. I was watching recently one of the BBC nature shows narrated by David Attenborough. The episode was about the zebra’s stripes, and why zebras have them given that they make them stand out conspicuously, thereby making them easy prey for predators. One hypothesis has to do with flies. Apparently, and I don’t really understand this, flies have a certain way of seeing the world (of vision) such that having stripes makes it more difficult for them to see the zebras or to identify them as potential “feeding-lots.” This in turn enables the zebras to not be bitten as much as other animals (such as cattle) by dangerous flies, especially by the Tsetse, whose bites can be fatal. The point is not about the zebra’s abilities (having stripes is not as such an ability) but about the way that flies see the world, which is very different from ours. Indeed, nature is full of examples of animals and creatures whose mode of being is utterly different from ours.

What Costello is suggesting is that although these differences in abilities exist, they do not amount to differences in value and they do not prohibit our ability to understand animals’ desire and need to experience the joy and fullness of being.

Moreover, if each animal has its own fullness of being, then we cannot simply replace that fullness of being with another’s, as long as we have the same amount (or more) of fullness of being. Peter’s view of replacing a dog’s happiness with another neglects that Costello’s idea of fullness of being refers to something of intrinsic value to each animal, not something to be replaced, without any moral loss, by another animal’s fullness of being.

Peter’s view thus neglects to seriously take Costello’s idea of fullness of being.

I have only argued that Singer’s response, with Peter as its mouthpiece, does not seriously engage Costello’s views. I have not argued that Costello’s views are convincing. The idea of fullness of being still needs fleshing out, and there are some potential inconsistencies between viewing animals as possibly capable of theoretical thought (e.g., her discussion of Sultan the monkey) and the idea that their being is different than ours. There is also the additional, serious worry that if reason is merely our way of understanding the world, how we can use it to establish the equality of animals is problematic because it ushers in the possibility that our understanding of them can be utterly wrong.

But Costello is a writer, not a professional philosopher. Peter is. And as a philosopher he should have known better than to cherry-pick points in his intellectual opponent’s views for criticism. He thus provides an example of exhibiting the intellectual vice of being uncharitable to a fellow thinker.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Wearing Hand-Me-Down Fur


Wearing Hand-Me-Down Fur


I am pleased to post this from Beirut, the city of my birth and one of my two homes (Chicago being the other, of course).

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a dinner party in Chicago. I met a very interesting woman, with whom I chatted quite a bit about politics and psychology. At the end of the evening, when everyone was getting their coats to leave, I noticed that hers was genuine fur (I didn’t ask from which kind of animal the fur came). Given my occasional obnoxious nature, having taken an oath to speak up against animal cruelty, and having taken myself to have some “cred” with her by that point in the evening, I asked her, in the most morally outraged tone I could muster while also sounding amicable, “Is that real fur?” She immediately assured me that even though it was real fur, it was also a hand-me-down, and that she would never actually buy real fur.

That was somewhat reassuring. But I also decided to think more about the question, “Is it okay to wear hand-me-down fur?” I had always thought that the answer was yes, but this answer sat very uneasily with me. It nagged at me. And after my encounter with Ms. Fur at the party I decided to try to think through it more (it really did not need a lot more thinking through, as you’ll see).

Let’s first ask: What reasons might people offer for thinking that it is okay to wear hand-me-down fur even though they would never buy new fur? One reason is that they are proud or happy to wear something that is a family heirloom, that was given to them by a grandmother or a great-aunt.

Another reason, which I suspect is more prominent, is that by not buying the fur, they are not perpetuating or supporting a bad industry. This is true. But is not supporting a bad industry the only morally relevant aspect?

One other aspect is not sending the wrong message: (some) people who see the fur, not knowing that it is a hand-me-down, might think, “Oh, it’s not so bad buying fur. Maybe I’ll buy one next time I have a few extra dollars around.” Since, however, many people don’t really care about fur or animals, such thoughts probably do not occur to them. And even those people to whom such thoughts do occur, they might not act on them (that is, such thoughts might be fleeting or non-motivating). This is why I wish to focus on a third aspect: What it means to be a person who wears fur, hand-me-down, bought, found in a dark alleyway, or whatever.

How to explore this? One good way is through conducting a thought experiment. Suppose that in the recent past we used to breed a group of human beings (let’s call them the “brilliantly-skinned people”) whose skin had an extra shine or glimmer to it. After killing them, we harvested their skin and made bags, jackets, shoes, etc. out of it.

Now we know better. We no longer breed such brilliantly-skinned people, let alone harvest and use their skin. But their skin-products are still around, and many people have such products because their grandfather or grandmother handed them a jacket or a bag made from such human skin.

Would you wear it? Of course not. Why not? Not because it “perpetuates” the industry, especially since by hypothesis this industry no longer exists. You would not wear it because to do so would be to demonstrate a kind of disregard and callousness to a past practice that we would do best to not show off (which is not the same as not discussing it, writing about it, etc.). To wear or carry such products is to exhibit yourself as an inconsiderate, thoughtless, and morally immature person. You would be, in short, vicious, and no one wants to be that.

Moreover, even if it has some sentimental value (“It was my grandfather’s!”), you would recognize that your grandfather, kind man as he was, bought it during a time when people had a moral blind spot about the treatment and dignity of the brilliantly-skinned people. Perhaps you can keep it tucked somewhere, or maybe donate it to a museum. But wear it? Absolutely not.

Well, don’t the same reasons apply to fur? Harvesting fur is done under the most atrocious circumstances and by ending the lives of some of the most majestic and beautiful animals in the world. Your attitude to wearing it should be, if not the same as your attitude to wearing or carrying the products of the brilliantly-skinned people, pretty close.

Someone will object with ire: “You dare to compare our treatment to human beings and to non-human animals? They are vastly different, so the comparison does not support your point.” I reply: “There is no reason to not compare our treatment of human beings to that of non-human animals. But in this case I happen to be making no such comparison. The point is really about the moral justification of wearing or displaying something that was made through unnecessary cruelty. And to make this point, I need not believe that human beings and non-human animals are comparable with each other, let alone have equal moral status. After all, even if people have a higher moral status than non-human animals, the latter can still be treated terribly and with indignity.

So to wear and use their products as if none of the above were true is to show disregard and callousness towards their treatment. It is to be vicious. And no one wants to be that.

(P.S. 1: The same reasoning applies to showing or exhibiting objects that are not worn, such as statuettes made of ivory.)

(P.S. 2: The same reasoning applies to wearing or displaying products made out of more “humdrum” animals, such as shoes and belts made out of calfskin and cowhide rugs. Does the reasoning take us all the way to veganism? Not necessarily, because there is a principled difference between using animal products that do not necessitate the death of the animal or its cruel treatment and those that do.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Microaggressions and Harm—Part II


Microaggressions and Harm—Part II

In the previous post, I argued that the concept of “microaggression” does no necessary work and, given its potential to confuse, is best discarded. In this post, I will examine the supposed connections between microaggressions and harm. I will argue (1) that such connections are virtually impossible to establish, especially given the alleged nature of microaggressions; (2) that due to mental mediation (to be explained) the concept of “harm” cannot easily be used to justify the moral seriousness of microaggressions; and (3) that even if my first two points are wrong, it takes further argument to show that the harms are also moral wrongs or morally objectionable.

Let’s work with the following example of a microaggression: An Arab student in a class—let’s call her “Warda”—believes that the teacher—let’s call him “David”—corrects or argues with her when she participates in class discussion more than he does with other students. She thinks that he does this because he is Jewish, he is biased against Arabs, and he knows that she is Arab. As it so happens, the teacher in question does have an implicit bias against Arabs, so he does come down harder on her than he does on other students, though he does not do so intentionally or in a self-conscious way. (For those who do not like this example, you can choose your favorite ethnicity or religion.)

As I mentioned in the previous post, the main reason why microaggressions are thought to be worthy of attention is their causal connection to harm; supposedly microaggressions can lead to harms that, as they pile up over the course of a lifetime, can be quite serious. What are these harms?

Christina Friedlaender offers a taxonomy of six types of such harms (“On Microaggressions,” Hypatia 33: 1, pp. 5-21, at pp. 7-8):
            (i) A “single microaggression can cause negative emotional, behavioral, and cognitive responses in the target”—Warda’s heart palpitates rapidly when she raises her hand and David calls on her, and her mind panics as she listens to and takes in his comments on what she said.
            (ii) The target has to second-guess whether the act was motivated by their belonging to the marginalized group—Warda has to think whether David’s remarks were really based on the content of what she said or on her being Arab.
            (iii) Because of (ii), the targets of microaggressions don’t know whether to respond to them or not—Warda does not know whether to say something to David about his microaggressions because she is not sure whether they are microaggressions or not.
            (iv) “Microaggressions produce material harms and reinforce larger structural problems (for example, race/gender wage gaps)”—Warda’s learning environment might feel hostile, which might cause her to psychologically withdraw or just give up on some of her courses.
            (v) Microaggressions “can reinforce stereotypes about oppressed groups, putting individuals at risk for stereotype threat”—if there’s a stereotype about Arabs that they are not very smart, David’s constant arguing with Warda can reinforce it.
            (vi) The harms of microaggressions can accumulate over time, both in number and in intensity (the more there are of them, the more intense they become over time)—Warda’s subjection to microaggressions over time might result in many difficulties for her. Note here that even if later microaggressions are less individually severe than earlier ones, they might still intensify the harm simply because they are later or cumulative.

I have two serious reservations about this taxonomy, which I will mention and set aside. First, the taxonomy inflates the types of harm: it is obvious that (ii) and (iii) are variations of (i); after all, both are unpleasant or negative mental reactions, which should thus be classified under (i). Second, the last seems to not be a type of harm but a modification of the rest (e.g., in their intensity). Still, even if we subsume (ii) and (iii) under (i), and we discard (vi), we are left with an impressive number of harms (three) and a potentially problematic feature of them (their intensity and accumulation). So let’s look into them a bit.

(1) The language that Friedlaender uses in listing the harms bothers me. She uses “can” constantly: microaggressions “can” cause a hostile working environment, they “can” reinforce stereotypes, they “can” cause negative emotional and cognitive reactions. This bothers me because of course they can. “Can” indicates possibilities, but if we wish to provide a strong link between microaggressions and harm, these links cannot merely refer to possible outcomes, but to actual or probable outcomes, which should be linked in a strong way to microaggressions. What I mean is that microaggressions must be found in a large number of cases in which these harms are established and that they played a major causal role in leading to the harms, not merely a minor role or have been present as a mere correlation.

For instance, let’s suppose that those who suffer from micro-aggressions also suffer from racist hate speech and other racist acts, and who, as a result of years of struggling with racism, are emotionally, psychically, and cognitively exhausted. How confident would we be in attributing a major causal role for the harms to microaggressions? Not at all, because the large share of the blame falls on racism and racist hate speech.

One reason for this is that hate speech and other forms of racism are more serious than microaggressions (at least when the latter are considered individually). Another reason is that, given the definition of “microaggression” that heavily relies on the notion of group-based oppression, we can assume that members of these groups suffer the worse ignominies of oppression. Now, when microaggressions occur, they typically do so by targeting someone already targeted by worse forms of oppression, which makes attributing the harms she suffers to microaggressions all the more difficult.

A third reasons is that because many of the harms have a subjective nature or, put differently, rely on the mental mediation of the target, assessing the objectivity of these harms, and therefore their causal role in the overall harms of the target’s life, is all the more difficult.

What does “mental mediation” mean? It refers to the role that the beliefs, desires, and, more generally, the psychology of the person plays in how external events impact the person. Suppose that I am a hyper-sensitive individual. My friends often joke with me about my habits or character, but this makes me incredibly upset and anxious, and I spend hours dwelling on these remarks. No doubt, all this dwelling deepens my negative emotional and mental state. Yet how much of this harmed state of mine can be causally attributed to my friends’ remarks? Very little, because much of it is my own doing, and because “my own doing” is not justified at all in this case (as it would be in cases in which someone, say, is intentionally gas-lighting me). This means that an objective assessment of the causes of my harms cannot include only (or even mainly) my friends’ jokes.

(Judith Jarvis Thomson, one of the greatest minds of contemporary philosophy, argues in her book, The Realm of Rights [Harvard University Press, 1990, ch. 10], that we have no rights against others that they not cause us what she calls “belief-mediated distress,” precisely because how people feel stress is mediated by their beliefs. I think that Thomson takes her view too far to be true, but the idea that the role of our beliefs and character should be given careful consideration when assessing moral wrongdoing is correct. We will see this point again under [2] below.)

I want to say that something similar can easily occur in suffering the harms of microaggressions. Suppose that Warda is very sensitive about anti-Arab bias. It is then likely that the effects of microaggressions will be much intensified in her psyche than in someone else’s psyche that does not suffer from extra sensitivity. But, as in my example above, this intensification cannot be (fully) causally attributed to the microaggressions, and some of it is caused by Warda’s over-sensitive personality.

A final reason is that because by definition micro-aggressions are subtle and almost humdrum, because they are brief and commonplace, and because “due to their subtlety, it is often ambiguous as to whether an act was in fact microaggressive, making them rather hard to identify or point out to others” (Friedlaender, p. 6), their harmful impact becomes even harder to identify, let alone measure.

Because of these reasons, I see no way, let alone an easy way, to trace, identify, or be confident of the actual harms of micro-aggressions, and none of the accounts of the harms of micro-aggressions that I have seen corroborate these harms. Instead, they speculate about the harms with an unjustified confidence that, because we have latched onto a concept whose immorality and (micro)monstrosity seem to make sense, it must surely be the case that it leads to harm. This is “arm-chair philosophizing” indeed, with the worst connotations of this expression fully justified.

(2) Mental mediation causes trouble in another way for the idea of the harms of microaggressions. For virtually any act that we can think of as a microaggression, it might have a different impact on its receiver. Consider Zahra, another Arab student in another class with David. David does the same thing to Zahra that he does to Warda, and he does it because he knows that Zahra is Arab and because of his implicit bias against Arabs. Zahra does not know this, so she attributes his behavior to David’s wanting her to be more thorough in her thinking and education, and this not only does not bother Zahra, it also pleases her. It makes her want to go to class and intellectually wrangle with David.

(Note that the subjective nature of harm plays a different role in this point than in the point mentioned above. In the latter, it is about the ease with which to trace the causal role of microaggressions on the harm. Now, it is about whether microaggressions cause harm at all and to what degree.)

(Note also that it is an interesting question whether, for someone to suffer the harms of microaggressions, one has to identify them as such. There are good reasons for answering this question both positively and negatively.)

Now change the case a little bit. Suppose that Zahra and Warda are friends, and that Warda alerts Zahra to David’s implicit bias and, after a while of looking into things, Zahra comes to realize that David is, indeed, an anti-Arab bigot. David’s racism bothers Zahra, but, given her character, David’s interactions with her in class do not. That is, even though she knows that David has anti-Arab implicit bias, even though she dislikes this about him, and even though she knows that his bias leads him to crack the intellectual whip on her in class, this does not bother her. As a matter of fact, she likes it, because she now sees herself as the person to prove to David that Arabs can be as intellectual as the next genius, and she has come to relish the opportunity to argue with him in class, something that has also come to give her immense pleasure and satisfaction.

These examples show that the existence and severity of the alleged harms of microaggressions depend a lot on the person who receives him: depending on her character, they might bother her a lot, bother her a bit, or not bother her at all (this is not an exhaustive list of possible reactions). Like many psychic harms, their existence depends to a large extent on the receiver’s personality and circumstances. Although they exist in some cases, they do not or need not in others.

It is worth comparing the alleged harms of microaggressions to those of hate speech. First, anyone who is aware of the meaning and purpose of hate speech is almost likely to feel belittled, humiliated, demeaned, etc., when such speech is used against him. If I get into a verbal altercation with someone, my stress levels will surely go up, as normally happens in altercations. But if the person proceeds to throw racist epithets at me, telling me that my time would be put to better use “cleaning up the desert sand that is trickling out of my turban,” it is perfectly expected that my stress levels rise even higher. Hate speech leaves no room for doubt that it is meant to demean and to put one in one’s “place,” and the resulting negative emotional and cognitive state is probably swift and almost sure to occur. Even if someone somehow manages to shield himself from such emotional hurt, we can make the case that hate speech is still harmful because it is insulting and demeaning. That is, if we distinguish between harms and hurts, then even if someone were not hurt by hate speech, he is still harmed, given that such speech is an assault on his dignity or humanity. So when someone calls me a “towelhead” and I am not hurt by it, I am still harmed, given that the speech is an attack on my dignity.

Nothing comparable exists in the case of microaggressions: their hurtful nature highly depends on the personality and sensitivity of the receiver and on the extent to which the receiver is sensitive to the discourse about microaggressions and their seriousness. Moreover, given the ambiguous nature of many acts as to whether they are microaggressions or not (see the previous post), no clear connection can be made to their standing, demeaning nature, as can be made in connection to hate speech.

Mental mediation plays a third role, specifically, in turning the hurts of microaggressions into benefits or preventing them from becoming harms.

Let’s agree that being micro-aggressed against is not pleasant. However, this state of unpleasantness can be manipulated or mentally worked in three ways: to make it worse, to make it neutral, and to make it beneficial.

Consider a non-microaggression example. I meet with my teacher, who tells me that I am failing her class. This knowledge is bound to cause me pain, anxiety, and panic. Yet what I do with this state is up to me (barring exceptional situations specific to particular individuals). I can allow it to haunt me to the point of paralysis. I can try to set it aside and not dwell on it. Or I can use it to spur myself to work harder in the course. The last option illustrates how anxiety can be good for me. (This situation is common, by the way: many people’s anxieties keep them on their toes and prevent them from not taking things for granted, thus spurring them to continue to do a good job or to do a better one.)

Take the case of Warda again. She and Zahra have talked, and Zahra convinced her to stand up to David. Zahra tells her that perhaps these microaggressions are useful because “they build character.” “After all,” she adds, “it’s not as if David is intentionally doing this to you, right?” So Warda takes this advice to heart and uses the anxiety and stress she feels as motivational states to prove to David (and to herself) her intellectual capabilities.

The point is that even if microaggressions can harm, depending on the personality of their victim, their harms can stay as hurts and not be transformed into something uglier, and in some cases can become beneficial. (In case you accuse me of letting the perpetrator of microaggressions off the moral hook, keep in mind that I am discussing cases of unintentional microaggressions, those due to implicit bias. However, and if I may be so bold, even in cases of intentional ones the victim can still try to neutralize them or make them beneficial.)

Thus, mental mediation plays a crucial role in the alleged harms of microaggressions. Keeping this role in mind should prevent us from inflating the seriousness of the harms.

(Incidentally, mental mediation can play another pernicious role, but one not pertinent to our discussion, which is when someone misjudges the actions of another as microaggressions and experiences their harms as a result. We can imagine a case in which Warda takes a class with another Jewish teacher, Adam, who is also tougher on her than other students but only because he admires Arabs and wants Warda to excel. She, however, takes him to be another David and so experiences his actions as microaggressions, with all the attendant ensuing complexities. This case, which might be common among hyper-sensitive people, is not relevant because our theme are the harms of real cases of microaggressions, not illusory ones. Nonetheless, the case does alert us to proceed with caution if we try to establish the existence of a microaggression based on the experience of its “victim.”)

(3) Let us suppose that microaggressions cause harm and serious ones at that, at least as they accumulate. The question to ask now is this: Are all these harms morally wrong or morally objectionable?

People are often harmed by non-human causes, such as natural disasters. But when this happens, we do not claim that the harmed people are morally wronged, often calling such causes “acts of God.” Even when the causes are human people, the harm is not always morally wrong. Because of a parade, I am late going to an important meeting; because of competition, I lose a game or a job; because of my sensitivity to noise, I cannot sleep because the upstairs neighbors are making noise (the noise is expected given normal human activity and the thinness of the floor); because of a car crash, I lose a limb; and so on. These cases are especially true when the people who are causally responsible for the harm are also not morally responsible for it, and such cases often involve actions neither intended nor foreseen to cause harm. (In some cases, even if the action is foreseen to cause harm, it is arguable whether the caused harm is morally wrong.)

Now let’s get back to microaggressions. According to their advocates, many of them—perhaps the majority of them, if we are to give full due to the “micro” part of the concept—are unintentional, due to implicit bias. The Warda-David example above is as good as any: David unintentionally micro-aggresses against Warda in being intellectually tougher on her than on other students. But it is not clear that the harms Warda suffers as a result are morally wrong. That is, if the actions are neither intended nor foreseen by David to cause harm, it is not clear that they morally wrong Warda.

Someone might claim that David has the duty to scan his psyche and cleanse it of implicit bias. So even if he neither intends nor foresees his actions to cause harm, he could have foreseen this were he to have morally monitored himself better. (We do sometimes hold people morally culpable for things they should have known or done—think of the responsibility of drunk drivers.) So perhaps there is a sense in which he morally wrongs Warda in causing her harm.

Perhaps. But the conditions governing “could have” and “should have” are unclear. And they are especially unclear in cases in which we desire to hold people accountable for their sub-conscious characters. If, as many wish to claim, racism and sexism and other bad -isms run deep in society—if they are structural, systemic, and systematic; if the bias in question is implicit, not explicit, with all the trappings and complexities of implicitness; and if, as seems to be true, people tend to always believe the best about themselves and to deceive themselves about who they are in order to come out looking better (especially morally), then claiming that we can hold people culpable for their implicit bias is cavalier at best.

I think it is in those cases in which the micro-aggressor intentionally inflicts his microaggression on another that we can most easily assign the status of moral wrong to the resultant harm. In all other cases this status is unclear. Because of this, their harm is either not morally wrong, or, if it is, it is not because they are wrongs inflicted on people by other people, in which case we need a good account of the reasons for their being wrong (or morally objectionable in some other way) but not wronging.

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I have argued in this post that the harms of microaggressions are elusive because their impact is hard to measure, and because their nature is typically mentally mediated. I have also argued that even if we can securely establish their identity, whether they are morally wrong is a separate question, one not easy to answer. For these reasons, resting the moral wrongs of microaggressions on their resultant harms is not a good idea because it undermines the case for taking microaggressions seriously.

If harms do not ground the moral wrongness of microaggressions, I fear that not much else does. This further convinces me that the concept of “microaggression” is ill-founded.

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