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.


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.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Microaggressions and Harm—Part I

Microaggressions and Harm — Part I

In this post, I address the concept of “microaggressions.” I will argue that it is an unnecessary concept, one that does not capture anything not already captured by existing concepts. It is also best discarded given its potential to confuse. In the next post, I will address its connections to the concept of “harm” and fortify the reasons why the concept is best discarded.

The definition of “microaggressions” given by Derald Wing Sue is the following: microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (

By philosophical standards, this definition is inadequate. For one thing, there is a confusion of categories: it adds the category of “environmental” to those of “verbal” and “nonverbal,” whereas it can of course be one or the other—if environmental microaggressions are those “that cause individuals to feel excluded from a space on the basis of identity” (Christina Friedlaender, “On Microaggressions,” Hypatia 33: 1, pp. 5-21, at p. 7), then logically they belong to either verbal or nonverbal actions, since either type can make someone feel spatially excluded. For another thing, it is unclear how the slights, snubs, and insults can be unintentional yet still communicate what the definition claims that they communicate, given that “communication” is typically an intentional concept.

Another definition is that microaggressions are “subtle acts of bias that reflect a structural form of oppression toward a specific group of people, such as racism, trans-phobia, or sexism” (Friedlaender, 6). They are the “behavioral consequence” of someone’s “implicit bias against a structurally oppressed group” (Friedlaender, 6). This definition is better than the above, given that we agree that such behaviors surely exist or, at the least, can exist. But the problem with this definition, a problem it shares with the first, is vagueness: how do we individuate or distinguish those acts that are only of bias from those of structural and implicit bias, or from those acts that are hostile and subtle but that are not biased at all?

I think that there are no successful criteria that we can use to individuate acts of micro-aggression and distinguish them from acts of non-micro-aggression. This problem is all the more pressing with moral concepts such as “micro-aggression,” because if we are to introduce it into our moral language, and if we are to do so in order to urge people to “call out” microaggressions (“If you see something, say something”!) or in order that people can self-monitor to purge themselves of these unethical (bed) bugs of the soul, we need to distinguish them from other similar acts and do so with confidence.

(Do not confuse this problem with that of identifying a specific act as micro-aggressive. We might know that the criterion for an act’s being micro-aggressive is, say, the intention of the aggressor, though we might have no access to the intention in a particular case. To understand this point better, compare it to a [false] definition of “art” that basically says that an object is an artwork if it were made with an aesthetic intention. This definition gives us a criterion—aesthetic intention—for something to be art even though we might not be able to know in any particular case whether the object was made with such an intention. The problem I am raising with “microaggressions” is that we have no criteria of identification to begin with.)

Before I get to this, I want to note a few things about microaggressions and give some examples of them, examples that will prove useful for more than illustrative purposes.

The first thing to note is that microaggressions are a species of a larger family of acts that communicate negative or hostile messages, intentional or unintentional. Consider: X and Y are coworkers or acquaintances who belong to the same superior, privileged group—in the United States and Canada, they would be cis, white, straight middle-class (or higher) men (soon it will be clear why my example is between two people both of whom are from a privileged group). X has always been jealous or resentful of Y for some reason having to do with their relationship. Let’s say that X thinks that Y is a lot dumber than people think Y is, and that this belief has led X, petty and morally frail as he is, to say and behave in ways towards Y that communicate X’s resentment, be it in intentional or unintentional ways. So X might snicker loudly when he hears Z say to Y, “Once again, your intelligence shines through” (intentional) or X might send a customer to Z for help instead of to Y (unintentional). We are familiar with such subtle acts of aggression in our daily lives.

Well, microaggressions are a subclass of such actions, but what distinguishes them from the larger class is that they are directed at members of oppressed groups (“marginalized group membership” in Sue’s definition, and recipients of a “structural form of oppression” in Friedlaender’s). So for X’s action of snickering at Y to count as a micro-aggression, Y will have to belong to a structurally oppressed group and maybe X’s act of snickering has to be a type of act (snickering) that has counted historically as an act of superiority against members of the group to which Y belongs, much like, say, the word “bitch” has acted as a put-down for women (more below on why I wrote “and maybe”). Thus, what sets microaggressions apart from other daily acts of hostility, snubs, slights, and insults is their connection to structural oppression.

(For those readers who are unclear on “structural,” you have my sympathies, but also don’t be difficult, because it’s meaning is generally clear. To see it better, substitute other words such as “social,” “historical,” “political,” “systematic,” or “systemic.” Basically, the word is intended to refer to a type of relationship that exists between individuals who belong to groups that are historically related to each other in an oppressor / oppressed way, such as racial, sex, gender, class, ethnic, and religious groups.)

A second thing to note about the definition is this. While the membership to oppressed groups serves to distinguish microaggressions from other acts of daily, subtle hostilities, it is their subtlety that serves to distinguish them from acts that are not subtle and directed at members of oppressed groups. So, angrily calling a taxi driver (who cuts the caller off), “Fucking towel-head!” is not an example of a micro-aggression because the insult is not subtle and relies on a common hateful expression hurled against Arabs or Arab-Americans.

(An amusing anecdote: in addition to “towel-head,” “camel-fucker” is another hateful expression used against Arabs or Arab-Americans. A friend once told me of a bigot who confused his hate speech expressions and called someone a “towel-fucker.”)

The subtlety of microaggressions, then, is what sets them apart from regular hate speech or other forms of speech that have served to attribute false or immoral stereotypes to a people. So if a store owner says to a customer while haggling over a price, “Do not Jew me down,” this would not be an example of a micro-aggression but of an explicit use of hate or racist speech. (This is an example used by Sue of a micro-aggression against members of a marginalized religious group. As I have mentioned, I don’t find this to be an example of a micro-aggression. Actually, I think that a lot of the examples that Sue lists are not obviously ones of microaggressions, and it is an interesting exercise to go through them.)

So, belonging to an oppressed group and subtlety are two criteria that help distinguish microaggressions from other acts of hostility, insults, and snubs. You might see this more clearly by the use of Venn diagrams: within the large circle of aggressive actions, there is a circle of actions based on oppression, and within that circle, there is another circle of subtle, everyday actions. It is the members of that circle that are microaggressions.

A third thing to note about the definition is its implications for who can microaggress against whom. The answer is basically anyone can microaggress, as long as the target of the aggression belongs to a marginalized group. (I don’t want to give the impression that I identify marginalized groups with oppressed groups or with minority groups. These three are by no means necessarily identical to each other. I use the terms interchangeably only for ease of reference.)

So a woman can microaggress against another woman (“Which foundation do you use? It covers your wrinkles really nicely.”), and a gay man can microaggress against another gay man (“Is that jacket a real Michael Kors?”). But no one can microaggress against dominant, oppressive groups, given the definitions. If a gay man says to a heterosexual couple, upon seeing the pregnancy of the woman, “Wow. I see that you decided to breed again,” that would not count as a micro-aggression because heterosexuals are the dominant group with respect to homosexuals. (Perhaps a white man can be microaggressed against in virtue of his old age [ageism], his poverty [classism], or his trans status [trans-phobia].)

A fourth thing to note is the name. Basically, do not let it mislead you. Even though the prefix “micro” is in there, it is not meant to connote moral levity or lack of seriousness, as some commentators have thought (who say things such as, “If they’re micro, why bother with them?”) Their advocates intend them to be morally quite serious, because they think that a large number of them over a course of a lifetime can amount to a lot of harm to their recipient. This would not be a problem when referring to non-structural or non-oppression-based daily slights, because these probably occur quite haphazardly and not consistently enough—X and Y might not work with each other for longer than a few months, and Y does not have to deal with such slights because of Y’s group membership. So whatever harm X’s slights subject Y to, they are not usually serious enough. (I suspect that children are often the brunt of such harmful acts on the part of parents with tortured personalities, or just personalities not fit for parenting.)

Microaggressions are thought to be problematic, then, because the harm can be compounded over the course of a lifetime when one is a member of an oppressed group. It seems to me that this is the main reason why microaggressions are thought worth discussing. The idea behind them is that members of oppressed groups have to deal with many obstacles as it is, and microaggressions add to the already-existing misery of an oppressed life. And they do so in two ways. First, each micro-aggression is an additional harm to the list of the usual harms due to oppression, and, second, an accumulation of microaggressions can make the burdens of oppression much, much heavier—hence the emphasis on membership to a marginalized or oppressed group. If we remove the requirement of belonging to an oppressed group, we can just say to the person who complains about the daily slights, insults, and snubs, “Welcome to humanity, bub, and suck it up!” But because racism, sexism, and classism can be erased without human beings ceasing to be human (and thus morally fraught), no one needs to “suck up” the harms of microaggressions.

What, then, are some examples of microaggressions? Here are some (a few are from Sue, which I marked with an asterisk): (1) Opening the car door for a woman. The message is sexist: she is too “precious” to open the door by herself. (2) Telling someone with an accent, “Your English is good.” The message is that because they are foreigners their English is not expected to be good. (3*) Seating a black couple in a restaurant near the kitchen even though there are empty, more desirable tables. The message is that the couple are second class citizens. (4*) A white woman clutches her purse (or a white man checks that his wallet is still in his pocket) as she sees a black or Latino man walking in her direction. The message is that black and Latino men are robbers. (5) Asking a black person at a fancy store where to find something. The message is that black people are not rich enough to be shopping there. (6) Referring to a black person as articulate. The message is that black people are uneducated. (7*) A woman doctor wearing a stethoscope being asked a question because the questioner thinks that she is a nurse. The message is that women are usually not good enough to be doctors. (8) Asking a gay man where it is best to go clothes (or furniture, or d├ęcor) shopping. The message is that gay men know about fashion, etc. (9) Asking an Algerian person what she thinks about the situation in Syria. The message is that just because one is Arab one knows everything about all things Arab. (Here, you can substitute any group in the example and it will work.) (10*) Referring to the clothes of a reality-TV Mom as “trashy.” The message is that poor people have no taste. (11) Asking a man to help move a desk, even though a woman is also present in the room. The message is that men are stronger than women, or that women are too weak to move furniture. (The message is not that all men are strong enough to move furniture, even if the particular man is obviously physically weaker than the woman.)

How do we determine whether an act is micro-aggressive? Three criteria come to mind: (a) the intention of the agent (the “actor”), (b) the impact that the act has on the receiver, and (c) whether the act itself (the sentence or behavior) is an instance of a type of act that is micro-aggressive. (Or [d] some combination of them, which I won’t discuss because any combination inherits the problems of its constituents.) Let’s briefly consider them.

By definition, microaggressions need not be intentional, so the intention of the actor is not going to help, certainly not in all cases. Even if we speak of un- or sub-conscious intentions or motives, especially since many microaggressions are supposed to be the result of implicit bias, we normally have no access to the hidden consciousness of a person to excavate such intentions or motives. (I usually like to distinguish between intentions and motives, but I will treat them interchangeably for now.) So, one way to decide whether an act is micro-aggressive is to go by the motives of the actor. This is what we usually do, after all, when we try to figure out whether subtle, daily acts (self-conscious or sub-conscious) between individuals are hostile.

But what is the motive (or intention) to? Consider the example of the woman who clutches her purse upon seeing a black or Latino man walking in her direction. Her motive (self-conscious or sub-conscious) seems to be to ensure that her purse will not be stolen, not to snub, slight, or insult the man. (Ditto for some of the other examples: asking the gay man where to shop, opening the car door for the woman, etc.) True, her motive might be based on a stereotypical, racist, or false belief about black and Latino men, but this is not the same as a micro-aggression. Plenty of people have such problematic beliefs, and we do not need the concept of “microaggression” to refer to them—we have other concepts for that (even though some of them are in need of philosophical clarification), such as “implicit bias,” “stereotypes,” and “false generalization.”

Thus, although the criterion of motives or intentions can capture some microaggressions (e.g., someone telling another, with the self-conscious motive to exclude, “You have an accent”), it does not capture a crucial aspect of microaggressions. Because microaggressions are acts that communicate something, the role of the receiver is crucial. (On Friedlaender’s definition, no such communication is evident, but given her view’s commitment to harm, as we will see in the next post, she needs to build into the definition the notion of “messaging” or “communication”; as long as this notion is left out, her definition of “microaggressions” will be defective.) If we stick with the example of the purse-clutching white woman, we see that the issue is not simply what she thinks or does, but what she does to someone, namely, snub, slight, or insult.

So perhaps the way to distinguish microaggressions from other subtle acts of hostility is by the way they are received—whether they are received as an insult or not (I will use “insult” as a stand-in for “snub, insult, or slight”). But this clearly will not work, for the simple reason that leaving it up to the receiver to decide whether an act was insulting is allowing too much subjectivity to make the criterion definite. For instance, every single Latino friend of mine who is an immigrant to this country has laughed off the example of being told that one’s English is good as an example of a micro-aggression. Pretty much their reaction is, “Are you joking? I am flattered when someone tells me that my English is good.” For every example in the above list, we can imagine (at least) two variations of it, one in which the recipient of the action feels insulted by it and one in which they don’t. This is because many recipients of such actions, even if they recognize them as problematic in some way, might also chalk them up to human ignorance, idiocy, lack of awareness, etc., and so not perceive them as insults.

This leaves us with the third way to distinguish microaggressions: as instances of types of actions that are in themselves insulting, regardless of whether the actor intended them to be insulting or of whether the recipient found them to be so. To see this clearly, consider any example of a racist word or expression. Calling someone a “wetback” is insulting regardless of the speaker’s intentions or the recipient’s feelings. (We can imagine cases in which both speaker and recipient are ignorant of its racist history and meaning.) So if X calls Y a “wetback,” X cannot get off the hook by pleading ignorance (even if X’ plea were truthful), and Y cannot absolve X of an insulting act simply because Y was not bothered by it.

I’m not using this example as an example of a microaggression, but of an expression that is racist regardless of the motives (or intentions) of the speaker and regardless of the feelings of the receiver. So, one might claim, a similar idea applies to microaggressions: we can give a list of micro-aggressive words, expressions, actions, etc. that are in themselves insulting, regardless of the intentions of the actor and the feelings of the receiver.

But there are two reasons why this suggestion won’t work. The first is that many advocates of the existence and immorality of microaggressions link them to harm, and they often understand the harm in subjective ways, so they need the feelings of the receiver to distinguish microaggressions from other acts. (This will be the core subject of the next post.)

Still, because the notion of “harm” need not be subjective (despite what the advocates themselves say), and because “harm” can be conjoined with the type of act that a micro-aggression is, the first reason is not strong enough to sink the third way of distinguishing microaggressions from other acts.

This leaves us with the second reason, namely, that there is no such list. With hate speech, there are generally recognized terms and expressions that would go on such a list, and I do not need to rehearse them here. But this is not so with microaggressions: although we can recognize some instances of speech that could count as microaggressions, most are controversial. Why would asking a gay man where to shop be a micro-aggression? Why not say that the inquirer saw the man as well-dressed so thought that he would know where to go shop? (Compare this to calling a gay man a “faggot”: there is no controversy there as to whether what was said is morally wrong.) Asking a woman doctor a question thinking that she is a nurse need not be an act of micro-aggression and, whether it is, depends on the specific details of the situation. The problem is compounded when we remember that microaggressions are not confined to verbal acts, but include non-verbal ones as well. This compounds the problem because most acts do not carry their micro-aggressive nature on their sleeves. If they are microaggressions, they are so contextually, which defeats the point of a list.

Someone cries out, “So what? We can now claim that whether an act is a micro-aggression depends on the context. So we do have a standard—the context—by which to determine whether an act is a micro-aggression.” True enough. But now the problem is this: two crucial factors are often part of the context for determining an act’s nature as a micro-aggression: the actor’s intention and the receiver’s reaction (the latter is becoming more prevalent as more people take offense at more things). But this takes us right back to the problems with intention and reception in determining whether an act is a micro-aggression.

I suggest that the best way to capture the actions that advocates of “microaggressions” wish to capture is by relying on the actor’s motives or intentions, be they self-conscious or sub-conscious. It is a person’s motive, explicit or implicit, that would identify the person’s action as insulting, snubbing, or slighting someone (or aiming to do so) on the basis of the target’s (perceived) group membership. But for this, we have good concepts already in existence that can work together in rich and nuanced ways to identify the action for what it is, concepts such as “sexist,” “racist,” “implicit bias,” “prejudice,” and “intention.” These allow us to say something like, “John called Rafael an immigrant! This was an insult because we all know what John thinks about immigrants.” (This example still works even in the case when John’s thoughts about immigrants are not self-conscious.)

So “microaggressions” does not add anything to the repertoire of our moral concepts, and so is not necessary. But I also want to suggest that we discard it insofar as its use is dangerous: to persist in using the concept might lead us to hyper-inflate our human inventory of immoral acts, and to accuse each other of such imaginary wrongs, which in turn leads to the usual conflicts between people. So perhaps we are better off without it altogether.

In the next post, I will explain the alleged connections between “microaggressions” and “harm,” and I will show why these connections have not been thought through carefully. This further supports the idea that “micro-aggressions” does no necessary work. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Using Identity to Halt Conversations

Using Identity to Halt Conversations

More and more we are witnessing the injection of our identities into conversations by using them as trump cards—as ways of, if not halting the conversation, putting our fellow discussants in the awkward position of having to face the attitude, “You’re not gay, or Arab, or middle-aged, so you do not / should not know what you’re talking about.” By “identity” I refer to currently popular aspects of one’s who-ness, especially on college campuses in The United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Examples of identities include one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, cultural belonging, ethnic belonging, age, and religious identity. Here are four examples of relying on identity to stop a discussion (the examples are based on actual incidents, but kept anonymous and with some adjustments to bring out the point):

(a) While discussing in class the (famous) essay by the philosopher Don Marquis against the moral permissibility of abortion, a student states that Marquis is a man and thus has no standing to debate abortion.

(b) While discussing in class the views of the philosopher Lawrence Blum’s on racism, a student states that Blum is white and thus has no standing to debate racism.

(c) During a conversation on preferred pronouns, X, a non-trans person, politely asks Y, a trans person who takes themselves to know much about the experiences of trans people, to explain how some trans people come to adopt the preferred pronouns of their choice—why “they” in some cases, “ze” in others, and “ey” in yet others. Y responds by saying that it is a complicated process and that X, as a privileged cis-person, is denying the experience of trans people by disrespecting it. If X were truly respectful, X would trust that trans people know what they are doing.

(d) Z, a man, is critical of the practice of the veil: the practice in which (some) Muslim women veil themselves, whether they wear a basic hijab or a full body chador. W, a veiled Muslim woman, responds by saying that people like Z should not speak about things of which they know little, given that they have no experience of wearing the veil. W also adds that it is disturbing when men tell women what they should and should not do.

In these examples, people rely on some aspect of identity to terminate the discussion. They also do so in a bifurcated way: first, they claim a specific type of knowledge on behalf of the person with the identity, and they then deny access to that knowledge to the person who does not have the identity. (The two are conceptually distinct, because someone can claim that members of group G have a type of knowledge that members of Group H can access.) I will focus on the denial of access, because this is the crucial element in identities as conversational trump cards.


Injections of identity in conversations and discussions might have to do not only with the rise of subjective experiences as ultimate justifiers (“I feel hurt” or “I feel offended by what you said, so what you did was wrong”), they might also have to do with the rise in popularity of standpoint theory in epistemology, a view that roughly states that one has a different perspective depending on one’s social situated-ness in the world, which, in turn, depends crucially on one’s gender, race, ethnic belonging, and so on.

Moreover, the contribution of one’s identity to one’s perspective is crucial in a world in which social inequalities abound. A world that privileges “white” ways of knowing over other ways of knowing, so it is a world that diminishes non-white ways of knowing, making one’s oppressed identity all the more prominent in one’s perspective on the world. Put slightly differently, if being Muslim is not a valued identity in North America, then relying on what one knows as a Muslim in North America becomes all the more important.

Note four things. (1) According to standpoint theory, what is important is not simply that one has a perspective different than another. This is because in principle anyone can come to adopt the same perspective. For example, if I have a particular perspective on, say, whether Freud’s theories are basically sound, anyone who understands what I have to say can adopt my point of view (“can” because they have to agree with it). But a crucial factor that informs standpoint theory is that of experience: the experience of, say, being an immigrant, middle school Arab student in a small town in Oklahoma, surrounded by American students (white or black), is different from that of an African-American middle school student in a small town in Oklahoma surrounded by only white students.

Because we are talking about experience—something that is undergone by an individual—it is difficult, if not impossible, for others, especially those belonging to other groups, from undergoing or having such an experience. Thus, a middle school white student in that school in Oklahoma cannot know what it means to have the experience of the African-American student, though another African-American student might, depending on what other things he or she shares with the first one. Keep in mind that the experience under discussion is a type of experience—of, say, a cis-male, adolescent, African-American, middle class student in a predominantly white school in a state like Oklahoma—not singular (or “token,” in philosophical parlance) experiences. Singular experiences can only be experienced by the individual him or herself.

(2) The idea of social inequality is important for standpoint theory. One reason is that in unequal societies, members of oppressed groups are placed in an interesting position: they understand (or know) and have access to the perspective of the dominant groups because they work with, under, or even for them, but they also have their own perspective, stemming from their own social positioning. They thus have at least a dual perspective on the world; I write “at least” because they might have more than two. (Let’s not worry about whether every member of an oppressed group would have such dual or more perspectives or whether some have only one.)

(3) The second reason why the idea of inequality plays a crucial role in standpoint theory is that it explains why perspectives of dominant groups have no cache in such a discourse: claiming that your situated-ness as a white, Christian, straight, and cisman gives you an interesting perspective on the world is redundant at best and troubling at worst. It is redundant because that perspective is the one that has been dominant for as long as standpoint theory advocates wish to claim. (In another possible world, in which, say, the United States was invaded soon after the Civil War by an alliance of Japanese-Chinese-Korean forces, buttressed by other East Asian troops, the White-Christian standpoint might be the one with the cache.) It is troubling because someone who asserts his white, cis-male, etc. identity seems to be exercising his power or his privilege in an unequal world.

(4) Often, on top of asserting one’s identity with finality as far as a discussion is concerned, we find that the asserter refuses to engage in the “emotional (or intellectual or any kind of) labor” on behalf of the other—the attitude seems to be: “If you don’t understand what it means to be Arab in America, you can go educate yourself and then come back and talk to me. I’m not going to bother and explain it to you.”

I will not comment further on (4) because such refusals are not essential to identity assertions. I do want to say that I find the refusals’ presumption problematic: setting aside buzzwords such as “emotional labor,” I do not find it inherently a problem that sometimes we do have to engage in the “intellectual labor” of informing others about who were are, why we believe certain things, etc. After all, we don’t assume that everyone knows everything about everyone else. Even in cases in which someone ought to know better (e.g., a case in which a white person ought to know about what Latino immigrants face in the United States), a lot will depend on the specifics of the case—do we expect any white American to know everything about Latino immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, of what they do, of their legal status, etc.? (Moreover, there is the potential difficulty of a contradiction: if the refusal is referring to their experiences, and if these experiences are closed off from out-group members, then the other person cannot go and educate himself because he cannot have access to these experiences. So things get a bit bumpy and unclear here.)


In explaining standpoint theory, I am doing just that, explaining it. I am not necessarily agreeing with it. Indeed, although I find much about it to be intuitively appealing, I also find a lot that is problematic: if standpoint theory must rely on the notion of “experience” (more on the “if” below), then the idea of discounting certain experiences simply because they are of individuals of certain groups of people is troubling, given that the inequality to which many advocates appeal is simplistic and conveniently neglects the fact that, say, white people occupy multiple axes so they cannot be dismissed as such (this is often referred to as “intersectionality,” though this concept can mean different things). Of course, the reply is that some people’s experiences ought to be heard, such as poor white people’s or those who are generally disenfranchised. But this brings me to my main worry: the simplistic notion of “experience” on which this theory relies.

People are not passive recipients of experiences. Yes, when an anvil falls on my head from the sky it causes me pain (severe pain), and this experience of pain is a passive one: I undergo it, period. But most experiences are filtered by our mental and conceptual frameworks. What I mean is that we typically understand our experiences in particular ways, and how we understand them depends on our conceptual lenses. So, for example, if I am prone to paranoia, I might experience my department chair saying to me, “Oh, you’ll definitely hear from me about that” as a threat or warning, whereas if I am less prone to paranoia, I might hear it as just a promise for further discussion of a certain issue. In normal human situations, our conceptual frameworks, which depend heavily on language and shared meanings in that language, will tend to overlap with each other, and we tend as a result to have shared understandings of most situations and experiences.

But my point is not about conceptual frameworks in general, but about moral ones specifically. And what I want to say is this: how we experience the world is filtered by our moral views and values. A white, rich young man might walk by a homeless black person without so much as batting a mental eyelash. But another white, rich young man might pass a homeless black person and feel as if he were punched in the stomach. He sees it as another reminder of the sorry state of the United States and of how it treats its poor people, its black people, and its poor black people. So, even the experience of privileged white people cannot be taken for granted. To dismiss it as always reflecting privilege would be to dismiss it on simplistic grounds. Yes, its possessor might come from privilege, but this does not mean that his experiences are of unfiltered privilege—of privilege unfiltered through moral and critical lenses. He might not experience oppression, but his experience is neither redundant nor troubling: it need neither replicate “dominant” experiences nor need it be an exercise of power.

It is also worth mentioning that bringing in conceptual filters of experiences indicates how relying on experiences is simplistic in a different way, which is that it does not account for the fact that experiences can be unjustified or mistaken because they are understood or valued in a mistaken way. For example, if I feel tremendous anger at a colleague’s criticism of something I said in a meeting, then my experience of anger is unjustified because it is based on one or more misconceptions (that I am infallible, that my mistakes should not be pointed out in public, that my colleague was “attacking me,” and so on). For another example, if I find the concept of “mansplaining” impressive, I might start understanding many of my male colleagues’ interactions with me as instances of “mansplaining,” whereas in fact they are not.


Above, I wrote that “If standpoint theory must rely on the notion of ‘experience,’ ...” Why? This is because I do not think that standpoint theory needs to be wedded to the notion of “experience.” All that it is committed to is the idea that our social positioning gives us access to some form of knowledge not readily accessible to others in other social positionings. And this in itself says nothing about what form of knowledge this should be (experiential, conceptual, sensual, etc.), and it says nothing about just how accessible or inaccessible this knowledge is to others in other social positionings. Indeed, standpoint theory might not even be committed to the idea that the access is to a form of knowledge, if knowledge is tied to truth (which it is) and if standpoint theory wishes to make room for error in whatever it is that we have access to. Perhaps “perspective” or “conceptual tools” are better, though whether they are strong enough for the purposes of the theory remains to be seen.


Let us go back to identities. I want to say what I think is obvious: that if identity is to enter the discussion at all (I think that it has no place in some discussions), it should enter as a starter, not as an ender. It should not be asserted in such a way as to close the discussion, but as a way to either start it or to add to it, to branch it out, to enrich it. Why do I say this? Well, the knowledge claimed on behalf of the person with the identity is experiential knowledge. It is true that I, as a non-African-American person, simply cannot know what it means to experience anti-black racism as part of my life. No amount of disguising myself and “passing” as black can help me experience what it means to be African-American who experiences racism, certainly not as a way of being or existing (which is not the same thing as experiencing racism on a daily basis), unless I do so for most of my life—and even here, knowing that I can at any time quit being “black” might make a crucial difference to my experience, much like Muslims who fast during Ramadan cannot fully fathom what it means to go hungry all the time given that they know that they will have a meal at the end of the day, especially when the meal is a feast. (Empathy with the hungry is one of the reasons given for why fasting is morally laudable.) Here, we see again how the conceptual filters through which our experiences go affect the way we have these experiences.

However, from the fact that I cannot have that type of experience it does not follow that (i) I cannot have an experience similar in crucial ways to the one to which I am denied access, (ii) that I cannot understand what the experience means, or (iii) that I cannot understand any of it to the point that I am deemed epistemically unfit to contribute to a discussion about it. Thus, even if I cannot know what it means to be the victim of anti-back racism, I might have experienced anti-Arab racism that would allow me to share something with the victim of anti-black racism. After all, entire books have been written on comparisons among various forms of prejudice to each other. If experiences of such prejudices are completely walled off from each other, it is hard to see how such comparisons can be made. Moreover, we are all human beings—we have a shared humanity, which means that our experiences of being oppressed and of oppressing have common elements. There are only so many ways that we can “other” each other!

But even if I have no way of experientially knowing how you might feel as a victim of, say, racism, I can surely understand it at an intellectual level. I can understand what it means (though not how it feels, per our assumption) to be denied service, to be spoken to as if I were a child, to be the subject of contemptuous looks, and so on. Now, I admit that I have a hard time envisaging how someone can understand such things at an intellectual level but not at an emotional or experiential one (and if understanding such cases requires both an intellectual and an emotional aspect, then in my view this further supports [i]). That is to say, because I can understand what it means to receive contemptuous looks because I am, say, obese, I can, to some extent, understand what it means for someone to receive contemptuous looks because she is black. Being the recipient of contempt might very well have a shared element across various sources of contempt, not because being obese is similar to being black, but because contempt is contempt.

Of course, there might be some experiences that are so unique to a certain identity, such as having an abortion or giving birth, that no similar experiences can provide an adequate window of shared understanding. Even if we offer “excruciating pain” as a common element to the experience of childbirth, perhaps not enough men (or people who have not and will not give birth) undergo such pain for it to provide an adequate common ground. But even with such unique experiences, it would still not be true that people who cannot have them are barred from a discussion about them. One ought not be prevented from discussing the pros and cons of giving natural birth simply because one is unable to give birth. At best, one should approach the topic with humility and openness, but this is a far cry from having to shut up and listen.

In examples (a) and (b), it would be perfectly appropriate for the teacher to not steer the students’ remarks so that they constitute a “teaching moment.” That is, given that philosophy classes are devoted to a discussion of arguments for various views, philosophers’ identities (typically) have no place in such discussion. I submit, however, that if there is enough time, the teacher could use the students’ remarks as an opening to a discussion about the place of such identities in discourse, why it is not apt in philosophical discourse but apt in some non-philosophical ones (or in philosophical discourse, too, if the teacher thinks that). More importantly, the teacher can definitely discuss the role of the experience of having an abortion and the role of experiencing anti-black racism in the respective arguments by Marquis and Blum: do they affect any of their premises or inferences to their conclusions? How and why? But note that once the teacher does this, we are outside the realm of experience per se, and solidly within a discussion of the role of experiences in philosophical argument, which are two very different things.

In example (c), Y could at the least have delivered their answer in a less combative way; they need not have seen the question as disrespectful (indeed, it might very well be motivated by respect, namely, trying to better understand the experiences of trans people), and could have answered it in a less defensive way. Substantively, and if Y knows about the subject, Y could have said that there is not enough research on such experiences to provide a definite answer, or Y could have provided examples of one or two such processes. Depending on where they are in the conversation, Y could have also added a question to X, namely, what an answer to the question provides X with: Why is X asking?

In example (d), the experience of wearing the veil could have been used to enrich the discussion. Assuming that she knows the subject, W could have offered various reasons for why some women wear the veil, and she could have explained the varied ways in which women experience wearing the veil and how it affects them at different levels. Such intellectual offerings allow the discussion or dialogue to proceed.

In all conversational cases, insertions of identities can always be made in such as a way as to move the conversation forward, instead of halting it. If we are to use identities, let’s use them that way. Using them to halt the conversations is bad not only because it is counter-productive, but also because it smacks of cowardice and immaturity: the infantile desire to hide behind an experience with or against which people feel they cannot argue.

There have been various definitions of what a human being is. In their old incarnations, they always began with “man”: “man is a rational animal”; “man is a political animal”; and “man is a social animal.” Some are funny, including ones intended to be so: “Man is a laughing animal”; “man is a smoking animal”; and “man is a porn-watching animal” (this last one is literal about “man”!). But my favorite (and it is dead serious) is this: “man is a reason-giving animal.” Using our identities to halt conversation is the opposite of giving a reason, and, if the last definition is onto something, it goes against the defining characteristic of being human.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Should Controversial Speakers Be Invited to Speak on University Campuses?

Should Controversial Speakers Be Invited to Speak on University Campuses?

My theme for this post is the topic of inviting controversial speakers to give talks on college campuses. I will begin with two types of case, whose commonality should be obvious to anyone who is even mildly aware of what is occurring on many campuses of American, Canadian, Australian, and other universities and colleges.

(1) A university invites a speaker with whose views a student group (or a specific student population) disagrees. Some of the students in question go to the event and drown the speaker with shouts in such a persistent way that the speaker is not able to deliver the lecture.

(2) Some faculty members in a university get wind of the fact that the university is thinking about inviting (or tentatively planning to invite) a famous person whose political views are opposed to those of the members of the university. (Although not all members of the university share the same political views, the majority of them does, and this is reflected in the university’s explicit and publicized values.) The faculty members in question urge the administration to not go ahead with its plans.

Let’s start with (1).

(1) I recently watched on YouTube an episode of a Canadian show whose host had four people debate the theme of shutting down speakers on campuses. One panelist, who is opposed to such silencing, said that freedom of speech ought to be respected. Another panelist—to my horror, a philosopher, and one who even used John Stuart Mill’s views in On Liberty to support her claim—replied that it was also the students’ right to free speech to go and shut down the talk. Now, obviously, such logic won’t take us very far, because it can be used to shut down any event whatsoever: my students (and I hope I’m not unwittingly giving them any ideas) can shut down my class by screaming over my words, and then justify their action as a form of free speech. Then what?

I don’t imagine for a second that Mill had in mind such potential chaos, even though he does not address in his book the specifics of regulating opposed, simultaneous speech, or cases in which a group shouts down a speaker. If I were to venture a guess, I bet that Mill would decidedly align himself with the speaker given his argument that even if the opinion and views that the speaker expresses are false or abhorrent, we gain by allowing them to be expressed—by contesting them, by arguing against them, or by testing our own views against them.

In any case, I will assume the truth of something similar to what the philosopher on the show said, namely, that students who silence speakers should be able to do so under some circumstances, even if it is not their right to do so. I will also assume that a moral principle of free speech is operative on universities, even if, legally speaking, private universities (as in the United States, e.g.) are not bound by the laws of the state (e.g., the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution). How should we tackle the above types of situations?

I propose that we imagine the university or college to be a community composed of various parts that are supposed to work, learn, and live together—parts such as academic departments, administrative academic offices (e.g., Office of Student Affairs) and positions (e.g., the Dean of Curriculum), student groups, research centers, and libraries. My use of “community” in this context implies no looser or stricter standards than those by which we usually understand what a community is: a group of people, with shared interests or goals, a shared history and (usually) physical space, and governed by an explicit or implicit set of regulations. I propose that when a part of the university invites a speaker, call him or her “X,” the other parts and individual members of the university have the (defeasible) obligation to respect the decision to invite X. This obligation stems from the fact that all the members and parts belong to the same community, and that they trust that every part of the university has the educational good of the community as its goal, even if every now and then a part makes, from the perspective of another part, a mistaken decision in inviting a particular speaker. So, for example, if the Department of Political Science invites speaker S, who advocates for a reunification of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Indian (or Pakistani, or Bangladeshi) Student Group on campus, who believes that because of S’s views the decision to invite S was mistaken, would still have the obligation to respect the decision.

This obligation—which is moral-cum-educational—implies many things, one of which is that no member or part of the community will act in such a way as to derail the invitation (by, say, shouting the speaker down), and another of which is that the university is entitled to use campus security to remove any persons who are derailing the event. The obligation does not imply, obviously, that all the members or the other parts of the university must attend the lecture, and it certainly does not imply that those who do attend cannot ask the speaker critical questions, or object to X’s lecture at the venue (say, outside the hall) by, for example, distributing leaflets about X’s views.

I wrote that this obligation is defeasible, which means that it can be overridden in some cases. Which cases? Perhaps the speaker is not intellectual enough—is a rabble rouser, a political demagogue, not someone of a caliber to be invited to a university (though here the lines are fine indeed between who has, and who has not, enough intellectual caliber to be invited to a university). Perhaps the speaker has a case or two (or a history of) of alleged sexual harassment. Perhaps the speaker has a history of making racist remarks, of speaking in favor of ethnic cleansing of a particular group (though here we also have to be careful not to police political speech, for even racist speech contains ideas, albeit nasty or wrong ones).

At this point, we should distinguish between two avenues of stopping a lecture: formal channels and taking it into one’s own hands. I will explore the first in (2) below, but it basically involves that part of the university who objects to the speaker going through the proper channels of convincing the inviting party to not issue the invitation or to rescind it (if it was already issued). Such channels could include directly talking to the inviting party, going to the relevant dean, and so on. The second, taking matters into one’s own hands, would involve something like blocking the entrance to the venue of the lecture, shouting the speaker down, etc. And it seems to me that the only case in which this should happen is when the university has prevented a part of itself from inviting speakers whose views are opposed to other speakers it has been inviting.

To illustrate, imagine a university inviting a series of speakers all of whom are pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian (so they are not only pro-Israeli), and such that the university consistently prevents some departments or student groups from inviting pro-Palestinian speakers. Such groups would then be justified to shut down a pro-Israeli speaker from speaking. It is crucial that in this case the aim of shutting down the speaker is not to suffocate what S has to say, but to send the message to the community that as long as pro-Palestinian views are not heard, neither will pro-Israeli ones. It would be to shut down a speaker not by targeting their right to speak, but by targeting the university’s actions of prohibiting the opposite speech.

The above discussion indicates that there should be some university-wide process, regulations, or procedures about inviting speakers and challenging such invitations. Such regulations should not be difficult to create and maintain, and they can be created by the university itself, through a proper representation of its various parts. Moreover, the regulations need not be set up in such a way as to micro-manage every decision to invite a speaker. But they should contain a way to appeal decisions and to allow a part of the university to make a case for its own speakers. Thus, in the above example, the pro-Palestinian student groups should be able to use existing channels in the regulations that allow them to make their case to invite particular speakers.

This brings me to (2).

(2) The just-mentioned process can be devised in such a way so as to contain restrictions on what type of speaker would be invited. For instance, the university can decide that only speakers with a certain type of view (radical leftist, e.g.) will be invited to campus, on the ground that such views align with the university’s values. Or that certain topics will not be addressed by speakers—no speaker shall be asked to address sexual issues of any kind, because, say, the university is super Catholic or super Muslim. (Or that no speaker with a history of sexual assault or harassment would be invited. Note how the third type of restriction has nothing to do with the the speaker’s views or the topic, but with the speaker’s moral actions—the university might decide to not give a platform to people with problematic moral histories. I will not discuss this third type of restriction.) Such decisions are well within the rights of the university, especially since the university is a community and the various members of the community have come to agree to these restrictive decisions.

But there is a problem. The problem is that these restrictive decisions (the first two types) might very well rob the students and other members of the university from opportunities to have their points of view challenged and discussed, in a setting to which all members of the community are invited. Here, we are back to Mill’s reasons for why false views (or what members of a community consider to be false views) should be heard—to test one’s own truths, to keep these truths fresh in one’s mind, to remind oneself of the reasons why one holds these views, and most importantly for educational purposes, to allow each new generation of students to make up its own mind about these topics. And all this is best done by exposing students and other members of the community to opposite points of view, and by allowing these opposing points of view to come from the horses’ own mouths; that is, to be articulated and defended by the people who espouse them, not only by teachers who present both sides of an issue in a classroom setting. (As we all know, teachers often ridicule or do not present the strongest case for views with which they disagree, especially views of social and political import.)

Indeed, the points in the previous paragraph strongly support the idea that universities, especially small ones whose members tend to share and accept a common set of values and beliefs, might have a general moral-educational obligation to invite speakers whose views do not align with the university’s, so that their members can test their beliefs and values against opposed ones for the reasons stated above. So, for example, a strongly Christian school should every now and then invite speakers whose secular views would challenge and (perhaps) help strengthen the school’s Christian values. A strongly left-leaning college should every now and then invite speakers with conservative views for the same reasons. The students and other members of the community can hear these views, challenge them, hear questions and answers, and thereby benefit from the intellectual exchange.

This does not mean that any speaker should be invited. Just because, say, a famous celebrity has conservative views does not mean that she can articulate and defend them well. After all, the point of such invitations is intellectual exchange, not controversy for the sake of controversy. So the university (or whichever part is inviting a speaker) should ensure that the invited speakers can argue for their views and defend them. And although there is a fine line between who is able to argue and who is not (owing not only to the speaker’s abilities but also to our own views of what it means to argue well), this vagueness is no reason to sink the general idea of inviting speakers who are clear and articulate.

One might ask whether there are any topics at all that are off the table. Should a university invite a speaker who believes in the moral or intellectual inferiority of a group of people on the basis of their race or ethnicity? After all, it is impossible to find a single college whose values (explicitly, at least) do not agree on the equality of all human beings. My answer is that no topic is off the table, period, no matter how abhorrent the view is. But we must keep in mind that, first, this answer does not imply that people with such views should be invited, only that there is no reason to not invite them; and, second, that such speakers would have to be able to defend and articulate their views—not just any foaming-at-the mouth racist would fit the bill.

Today, many colleges and universities are witnessing an interesting phenomenon: more and more students, supported by some faculty, are becoming so sure about the truth of certain doctrines that they have become not only self-righteous and smug about them, but have taken it upon themselves to shut down views with which they disagree (often citing in defense a stretched-to-over-the-limit concept of “harm”). A university’s insistence that such actions are not only unacceptable but also go against the point of what it means to be in college is the right thing to do. I have proposed in this post a justification for such insistence.

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