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.

On Pansexualism

  On Pansexualism At the time of this writing, I am 53 years old. When I was younger—in my teens, my twenties, my thirt...