Featured Philosophers: Robin Dembroff & Daniel Wodak

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Robin Dembroff is an Assistant Professor at Yale University. They received their PhD from Princeton University after completing their MA at the University of Notre Dame. Robin’s research focuses on feminist philosophy and metaphysics, with a particular emphasis on the social construction of gender and sexual orientation.

Daniel Wodak is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. They received their PhD from Princeton University. Daniel’s research focuses on metaethics and philosophy of law, with a particular emphasis on moral and social norms.

More importantly, Robin and Daniel love dogs. They both, along with Sukaina Hirji, founded the blog Philosodogs.  

The Problem with Pronouns

Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak

Some languages—Hungarian, Finnish, Malay, Armenian, Bengali, Yoruba—have no gender-specific pronouns or grammatical gender. We think that English speakers should adopt the long-term goal of making English like these languages: we should stop using pronouns like he and she, and adopt gender-neutral pronouns like they or ze for everyone.

We acknowledge that this is a controversial and provocative thesis, but we think it is one worth talking about. For this reason, while we discuss some of the reasons supporting it, we hope this piece will foster critical discussion.

Consider a familiar scenario. You’re a professor. You have a fresh batch of undergraduates this semester. You start the first class by asking students to introduce themselves, including their names and preferred pronouns.

We think there’s something wrong with asking this question. To see why, suppose that you have a genderqueer student: i.e., a student who does not exclusively identify as a man or woman, and so falls outside of the traditional gender binary. That this student is genderqueer might not be publicly known or evident from their gender performance. What should the student do? They could answer honestly: they prefer they. To do this, though, would disclose their gender identity. It is not part of the semantic meaning of the singular they that it refers to a genderqueer person (by contrast, he presupposes that the referent is a man; ditto for she and women). But given the background assumption that he is for men and she is for women, using they for someone often pragmatically implicates that they do not identify as a man or a woman.

There is nothing wrong with someone disclosing that they are genderqueer. But there is something wrong with forcing someone to disclose this information. Your student should get to choose whether and when they disclose their gender identity to others; you should not force them to disclose this information to strangers, partly out of respect for their autonomy, and partly to protect them from serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination. (Some might object that gender-specific pronouns are used to mark so-called ‘biological gender’, rather than gender identity. If true, that wouldn’t justify your conduct. As Talia Bettcher has compellingly argued, people also shouldn’t be forced to publically disclose their sexed anatomy.)

At this point, you might think that you did not force your student to disclose this information, since they could have said she (or he, or whatever gender-specific pronoun would raise fewer questions given their gender performance). True. But to do so would be to lie about their gender identity. And there are many legitimate reasons why your student might not want to lie. They might care about their integrity. Or, since stigmatized gender minorities are already often treated as delusional or deceitful, they might worry that if they are later ‘outed’ their past use of pronouns will fuel such bigotry.

So, in effect, your student is forced to either disclose private information or deceive others: a seemingly innocuous question left them with no good option.

There’s nothing special about the context of the classroom. By using gender-specific pronouns in general we frequently force others to either disclose or deceive others about their gender identities. In fact, we force them to disclose or deceive others about their sexual orientations too: if you use she to refer to a gay man’s romantic partner, you force that man to either correct you (disclosing that they’re gay) or tacitly affirm your assertion and thereby deceive others. That’s wrong too.

Worse yet, because gender-specific pronouns presuppose information about gender identity, you may well violate people’s privacy in a wide range of contexts without recognizing it. Describing a job candidate as she, or their romantic partner as he, discloses information about gender identity or sexual orientation in contexts where such information should not be considered.

These problems are made inevitable by our system of gender-specific pronouns, as such pronouns are very difficult to avoid without conspicuous circumlocutions. We think this is a good reason to adopt the long-term goal of abandoning that system and adopting gender-neutral pronouns like they for everyone.

But it’s not the only reason to adopt that goal. Return to the start of your seminar. Say your student discloses their gender identity by answering ‘they’. There’s something further that’s problematic here. Men can answer ‘he’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. Women can answer ‘she’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. But ‘they’ does not disclose a specific gender identity. ‘Genderqueer’ is just an umbrella term for a large list of specific non-binary gender identities.

Why is that problematic? Having specific pronouns for two majority gender groups and a third catchall for a large list of minority gender groups is inegalitarian. It is like reserving marriage for a majority sexuality and a legally similar but less esteemed relationship status for folks with any other sexuality.

You might think the solution to this is to add more specific pronouns: one for each gender identity. But proliferating pronouns is infeasible. Pronouns, like prepositions, are ‘closed class’ words. It’s hard to learn a new pronoun. Learning thirty odd new pronouns is far harder still. And we don’t just need you to do this. For these pronouns to be accepted and understood, we need the whole linguistic community to do so too. Moreover, we think that even if this change were feasible, it would be too risky. Think how often you use gender-specific pronouns for strangers (like your students). How often would you make mistakes, and thereby misgender others, if you had to track 30-something gender pronouns?

Note that both of these concerns are easily addressed by ceasing to use he and she for anyone. Using they (or another pronoun, like ze) for everyone is egalitarian, feasible, and does not risk misgendering anyone because they is gender-neutral.

That’s a brief sketch of our positive case for adopting our long-term goal. Now let’s shift to playing defense.

A common worry for this proposal is that it seems at first glance to overlook the significance of gender-specific pronouns for transgender persons. For a transgender woman, for example, it may be incredibly important to be referred to as she, because she acknowledges that person’s gender identity, and using any other pronoun – even a gender neutral one – would deny that identity.

We agree. In any circumstances where using a gender-neutral pronoun misrepresents someone’s gender identity, we think the considerations in favor of using a gender-neutral pronoun clearly are outweighed. This follows from one of the central reasons for only using gender-neutral pronouns: to avoid communicating false information about individual’s gender identities. Using gender-specific pronouns to refer to genderqueer persons or closeted transgender persons is likely to misgender them. But it’s also undeniable that, in many current contexts, refusing to use she to refer to a trans woman almost certainly communicates a rejection of that person’s identity.

That said, one of these types of misgendering is easier to fix than the other. While gender-neutral pronouns can misgender in practice, they do not semantically convey misinformation about gender identities: the very definition of a gender-neutral pronoun is one that does not presuppose information about the subject’s gender identity. The problem, then, is not with the pronouns themselves, but with the fact that we have created an expectation that all women will be called she, and all men will be called he. Only within the context of this expectation can gender-neutral pronouns in effect misgender trans persons. The best way to get rid of this expectation is by pursuing a long-term goal of eschewing gender-specific pronouns. Plausibly, a trans woman wants to be called she because of the continued practice of using she for cisgender women; it is a preference to be treated like all other women. If we abandoned the practice of using she for cisgender women, this preference for she may well disappear.

Even someone sympathetic with what we’ve said so far might object that using they to refer to an individual is grammatically incorrect and potentially confusing. But this objection is hogwash (or as Justice Scalia would say, ‘pure applesauce’). English already contains a gender-neutral pronoun that is used both in the plural and the singular: you. In response, language has regionally adapted so as to mark when the term is intended as plural (e.g., y’all, youse, you guys). Why expect different in the case of they?

More importantly, though, this objection is premised on the idea that the moral duty to not misgender is secondary to grammatical duties. The term ‘grammar Nazi’ has never made so much sense: a moral should clearly defeats any grammatical should. Even if using they slightly complicates communication, it is preferable to further maligning minority gender groups. And anyway, someone truly worried about the corruption of grammar could advocate for adopting a new gender-neutral pronoun rather than expanding our use of they.

Philosophers have been relentless in pointing out that we often act using only words. Reliance upon gender-specific pronouns creates situations where we (often unknowingly) unnecessarily misgender and marginalize others. Maybe it’s time to find different words.

 

Featured Philosopher: Saray Ayala

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Saray Ayala (-López) works as an Assistant Professor of philosophy at California State University Sacramento. They received their BA from Universidad de Murcia, and a PhD from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Their research ranges across philosophy of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and social and feminist philosophy. They are especially interested in explanation, conversational dynamics, cognitive externalism, sexual orientation, and sex/gender & science. They enjoy philosophy almost as much as music.

English patrol at the borders of Philosophy

Saray Ayala

I’m grateful to Meena Krishnamurthy for this blog, such a valuable philosophy resource. I’m delighted to take part in it.

This post catches me during my first trip to Siberia. Besides black tea and foxberry jam, the main component of my days is deciphering cyrillic. I read streets signs and book covers like a child discovering the mental expansion that comes with learning how to read. I’ve learned new concepts for which I don’t know the word in English nor Spanish, the only two languages I speak. I wonder if these new concepts will end up becoming part of my repertoire, as it happened with the ones I learned when I started reading in English. In Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life”, the main character learns heptapod, the radically different written language of an alien civilization. As she masters her heptapod, her mental capacities expand in radical ways. While sipping tea in the very early Siberian sunrise, my mind drifts into a world in which I incorporate Russian into my conceptual tools and this expands my thinking in unimaginable ways.

This daydreaming leads me to what I want to share with you. Instead of the more or less sci-fi possibility of mental expansion that comes with learning and thinking in new languages (a la Sapir and Whorf), I’d like to reflect here on how contemporary philosophy seems to be going in the opposite direction, limiting itself to one single language. Is this something to worry about? Is there anything interesting to learn from reflecting on this issue? I believe that the English language is playing a doubly problematic role in philosophy. First, the English language is currently critical in demarcating the boundaries of the philosophy discipline, and second, it is infecting philosophy with the evils of its own demarcation problem. That is, contemporary philosophy relies on the same problematic signs that are commonly used to identify good and proper English.

  1. Demarcation and dominance

There is an old question in philosophy, which in relation to science is called “the demarcation problem”. That is, the question of what counts as philosophy, and what doesn’t. There is also a relatively new issue, and that is the dominance of the English language and Anglo philosophy in contemporary philosophy. We find two parallel questions within the English language: The old problem of distinguishing between proper and improper or bad English (this question arises in a broad range of contexts, from British colonies to UK streets and schools, from bilingual programs in non-English speaking countries to assimilation programs for immigrants in the US). The second, relatively recent issue, exacerbated by globalization, is the dominance of the English language across countries, which results in more and more non-native speakers who communicate in English.

  1. A clarification:

There are at least two comparisons that are relevant for a demarcation enterprise, one that contrasts X with pseudo-X, and another that contrasts good X with bad X. I won’t distinguish between these two.

  1. Learning from demarcating?

In his SEP entry “Science and Pseudo-Science”, Sven Ove Hansson writes “From a theoretical point of view, the demarcation issue is an illuminating perspective that contributes to the philosophy of science in the same way that the study of fallacies contributes to the study of informal logic and rational argumentation.” Can we say the same about demarcating philosophy and English? In principle, it seems so, for we do learn about philosophy when we identify cases of pseudo or bad philosophy. Take an immature student essay or a bogus Op-Ed. These cases can be valuable teaching materials to illustrate how not to write philosophy. Similarly, instances of bad English (e.g. bad grammar, bad pronunciation) can teach us something about good English.

  1. The English-Philosophy demarcation combo

There is a practice of demarcation both in the philosophy discipline and the English language (I won’t argue for this claim here). Interestingly, in contemporary philosophy the demarcation enterprise includes the English language. Let’s call this the demarcation combo. Both in English-speaking countries and also in many non-English speaking countries, most good and proper philosophy is currently done in English, and needs to be done in good and proper English. In non-Anglophone countries, learning the proper philosophical style involves learning also the proper English. Even in English-speaking countries, people who communicate in non-standard English need to include the learning of the proper English in their toolkit in order to write good and proper philosophy papers and present philosophy works in the appropriate manner.

  1. A diagnosis: the demarcation combo impoverishes philosophy

In spite of the possibility mentioned in 3, that is, that the demarcation endeavor can in principle teach us something about philosophy, and about English, I argue that the demarcation combo is not teaching us anything of interest about either philosophy or the English language. Furthermore, I argue that it is actually impoverishing philosophy. First, it limits philosophy by excluding all the non-Anglo philosophy and all the philosophy that is not in English. Second, it infects philosophy with the evils of English demarcation. Let’s start with the first problem.

  1. Poor philosophy

It’s a trivial observation that most of the philosophy that is being discussed and taught in Western but also in many non-Western countries, is a very limited sample of philosophies and philosophers. It focuses on a few authors, all too similar amongst themselves, a few ideas, and a few ways of discussing those ideas. It is also focused on a single language, English. This is obviously limiting, for many works and philosophers are left out in many contemporary discussions. A possibility I do not explore here is that by being done exclusively in English, contemporary philosophy might be tailored to the English language. If so, this would betray its aspiration to universality (Contessa 2014; Ayala 2015).

  1. The evils of English demarcation

The English language is limiting philosophy in yet another sense: it is infecting philosophy with its nefarious demarcation problem. The problem with English demarcation is that it takes standard uses of English as paradigms of proper and good English, and non-standard uses (e.g. African American Vernacular English, ASL, foreign and regional accents) as deficient. This has an important impact on philosophy.

When communicating, we identify the presence of proper or good English relying upon signs. One of those signs is accent. Even though language competence and accent are two different things, accent is usually taken as a sign of language competence, and more disturbingly, as a sign of competence more generally (Lippi-Green 1997). There is plenty of empirical research on how non-native speakers are generally perceived as being less competent (Boyd 2003), less credible and skilled (Giles 1973), and less intelligent (Lindemann 2003). And this is not a consequence of a lack of intelligibility. Several studies suggest that biased attitudes play a critical role here (Linderman 2002). For example, perceived ethnicity affects perceived accent, which in turn can affect perceiver’s comprehension (Rubin 1992). A recent study by Huang et al. (2013) reveals an accent bias against non-native speakers of English similar to the gender bias Steinpress et al. (1999) found in evaluations of CVs. Biased perception is not restricted to non-native speakers. Take the case of Rachel Jeantel, who was the most important witness for the prosecution in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvor Martin. In spite of her testifying for several hours, Jeantel’s testimony played no role in jurors’ deliberations. Her African American Vernacular English was considered “hard to understand” and “not credible”, as a juror said in an interview (Rickford & King 2016).

All this is relevant for philosophy because philosophers fare no better than any other language user, and inevitably rely on problematic cues to proper or good English when discussing philosophy in English.

Another sign that can be seen as the written parallel to accent is writing style. Writing can be accented, in the sense of having properties that are different from some accepted standard, e.g. sentence construction, choice of words. Contemporary philosophy has a standard of writing style, one that we need to learn as students. Deviations from this standard are perceived, like accented speech, in a negative way. They wrongly signal a lack of language command. Even worse, they can be perceived as a sign of defective thinking. Unfamiliar sentence constructions and peculiar choice of words, often found in texts by non-native speakers and many other non-standard users, are in this sense similar to references to unfamiliar sources and traditions of thought: they produce a sense of unintelligibility, whether or not accurate.

In a philosophy work, unintelligibility is dangerously close, if not identical, to lack of quality. While in data-based disciplines sounding good and intelligible (that is, sounding standard) is important, in philosophy it is critical. For a philosopher, this is all there is to convey your point (Ayala 2015).

  1. Anglosophy

Given all the above, intelligibility is not a good practical criterion to judge the quality of a philosophy work. When non-standard accents and writing styles kick in, people are very bad judges of intelligibility. We easily get an illusion of unintelligibility, and rush into a judgement of poor quality. However, contemporary philosophy relies on this and other signs of standard English to identify good and proper philosophy, and this jeopardizes non-standard and foreign accents and styles. Thus, besides being limited to Anglo-philosophy and philosophy in English, contemporary philosophy is also limited in another way: it relies on the same problematic cues to intelligibility and quality used in English demarcation. The dominance of the English language is part of the problem: it is because English has become the dominant language in contemporary philosophy, that demarcation practices for English are also patrolling the borders of philosophy.

The late sunset finally occurs. I’m sipping yet another tea, and daydreaming with a multilingual philosophy that exploits the resources of several languages. A richer, expanded, more inclusive philosophy.

References

Ayala, S. 2015. Philosophy and the Non-native speaker condition. APA Newsletter Feminism and Philosophy.

Boyd, S. 2003. Foreign-Born Teachers in the Multilingual Classroom in Sweden: The role of Attitudes to Foreign Accent. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 6: 283–95.

Contessa, G. 2014. Analytic Philosophy and the English Language: Some Data and Some Preliminary Thoughts. Yet Another Philosophers Blog?!?, September 29, 2014, accessed February 14, 2014, http:// yetanotherphilosophersblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/analytic-philosophy-and-english.html.

Giles, H. 1973. Communication effectiveness as a function of accented speech. Speech Monographs 40: 330–331.

Hansson, Sven Ove. 2017. Science and Pseudo-Science. SEP Summer 2017 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Huang, L., M. Frideger & J. L. Pearce. 2013. Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions, Journal of Applied Psychology 98(6): 1005-17.

Lindemann, S. 2002. Listening with an attitude: A model of native-speaker comprehension of nonnative speakers in the United States. Language in Society 31: 419-441.

—- 2003. Koreans, Chinese, or Indians? Attitudes and Ideologies about Nonnative English Speakers in the United States. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7: 348–64.

Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Rickford, J. R. & S. King. 2016. Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language 92 (4): 948-988.

Rubin, D. L. 1992. Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of non-native English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education 33(4): 511-531.

Steinpreis, R. E., K. A. Anders & D. Ritzke. The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants. Sex Roles 41: 509–28.

 

Featured Philosopher: Sandra DeVries

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Sandra DeVries is at the University of Waterloo where she is writing her dissertation on the role of multiracial identities in the philosophy of race. Her work focuses on the Canadian context, where the number of multiracial children being born annually is growing exponentially. In addition to her areas of concentration in race and language, Sandra has completed a cognitive science diploma also at the University of Waterloo. Sandra also works for the Center for Teaching Excellence, and has developed a workshop on social dimensions in the classroom. She is currently instructing this workshop, entitled Teaching Diverse Learners, and instructing a 100-level course on the philosophy of ethics and values. Sandra plans to finish her PhD in Winter 2018.

Why I study multiraciality in the philosophy of race

Sandra DeVries

As I work to understand multiracial identity formation, and the role that hybridity plays in philosophical discussions of race, I am motivated by my own experience of race in Canadian culture, and I hope to discover commonalities and differences between various ways of being multiracial. My work is on one role that multiracial identity should play in the philosophy of race, namely, the calibration of our race concepts away from centralizing the projects of whiteness, and toward justice for all races. Because of my own racial make-up, this work can raise red flags. Philosophers and friends might look at me and see that I am black, and question my politics and my reasons for exploring multiracial identity, which they view as at best a distraction, at worst, a false solution to racism[i], and opposed to blackness. Sometimes well-meaning friends come out and ask me. The question goes something like this. “Why would you choose to privilege your mixed identity over your blackness? Are you clinging to mixed heritage to take advantage of your white privilege? Do you hate your blackness?”

Initially I didn’t understand why people would suggest this. I responded with incredulity and defensiveness to the question. “I am mixed! Don’t you see? Mixed people experience racism and racialization differently than singly-raced people!” I wanted to explore those similarities and differences, and I felt that my blackness should not prevent me from doing so. The anger came later, when I thought more about the importance of black solidarity for anti-racism movements. I was angry that I had been taken to side with people who have rejected their blackness, whose minds have been colonized to the point of self-hatred. It hurt that other black folks saw me as an outsider and a threat. I was offended that my friends and colleagues would regard me as anti-black. I felt pressure to identify as only black, and rebelled against rejecting my white roots in favour of my black heritage. It felt like I was being asked to exorcise my Dutch heritage, in favour of my visible African heritage. But this too, was an imbalanced response to a legitimate concern. I still get a little hot and red-faced at the suggestion that I might be anti-black, but it also saddens me and reminds me of the fact that the black-white binary still dominates social understandings of race. The fact is, many black people are anti-black, I am not exempt from the worry just because I am studying race. I believe that in most cases, genuine concern motivates those questions, even though some people make erroneous assumptions about what I am doing in my focus on multiraciality. I also suspect that some of these assumptions are knee-jerk reactions to my work, evidence of a problematic adherence to the black-white binary.

I will explain what I mean by the “problematic adherence” to the binary. I am talking about the racial binary in the philosophy of race, the tendency for philosophers of race to talk about people as either white or black, ignoring or eliding the racial categories that are neither white nor black. Though this is not problematic in itself, nor universal in the philosophy of race, it is damaging when it dominates our discussions of race in general. In Ronald Sundstrom’s 2008 book, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, he breaks down the binary into six different conceptions, each with its own focus and motivation. The short version is that the black white (henceforth B-W) binary consists of the notion that racial problems in the U.S. can be understood with reference to the relationship between blackness and whiteness, which are taken to constitute two end nodes of a racial spectrum. Holding the B-W binary as the centre of the philosophy of race has certain implications for a black and white multiracial philosopher. The binary defines racial categories and understandings of racism against the backdrop of blackness and whiteness. It privileges the concerns of blackness, and rightly so. However, when centralized in the philosophy of race at the expense of other ways of describing racial reality, the B-W binary makes a claim of B-W multiracial identity seem like a rejection of blackness. For many reasons related to solidarity and resistance, because blackness and whiteness are politically structured in opposition with each other, if other people consider me black, I should also consider myself black, as opposed to mixed. I am sympathetic to this claim, but there are reasons why I think that the B-W binary should be limited to fields explicitly concerned with blackness and whiteness, and not be taken to represent all races and racial relationships prescriptively. I’m particularly concerned with how the dominating force of the B-W binary obscures the structure of settler colonialism in race studies.

I ultimately diverge from Sundstrom in my understanding of why the ubiquity of the binary is damaging to the philosophy of race, but I do find the clarity of his taxonomy of the six conceptions of the binary to be helpful for organizing my thoughts around the binary. The first three ways of latching onto the binary are not entirely problematic, but the fourth, the political conception is quite dangerous. Sundstrom describes the political view as held by “the majority of the proponents of the black-white binary. They do not claim that the binary provides a demographic description but that it describes prescriptive patterns of racial hierarchical organization.”[ii] He cites the political binary as according with Richard Wright’s 1957 claim that “The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written in vivid and bloody terms” and that of James Baldwin, who in 1962 wrote that Black person is “the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his.”[iii] Sundstrom suggests that this focus on the binary as prescriptive has historical specificity in the case of Baldwin and Wright, but that “their vision of black and white America swept away other relevant facets of American racial divisions, such as Native American legal struggles to guard and recover tribal sovereignty during those decades.”[iv] This intrigued me. How does the philosophy of race, in clinging to the B-W binary, obscure Indigenous political realities today? My friends pointed me in the right direction. (Thanks Amanda Plain and Ena͞emaehkiw Rowland Robinson!)

In Decolonization Is not a metaphor (2012, so good, read it!), Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write: “Native American is a racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land and usher in settler claims to property.”[v] Tuck and Yang explain Patrick Wolfe’s theory of the logic of elimination, which in his 2006 article, Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, is compared with the logic of capture and containment of the African slave for the use or exploitation of black bodies. Wolfe states: “Black people’s enslavement produced an inclusive taxonomy that automatically enslaved the offspring of a slave and any other parent. In the wake of slavery, this taxonomy became fully racialized in the “one-drop rule,” whereby any amount of African ancestry […] makes a person Black. For Indians, in stark contrast, non-Indian ancestry compromised their Indigeneity […] As opposed to enslaved people, whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive.”[vi] Wolfe goes on to state that race can only be understood with reference to settler colonialism. While xenophobia and cultural genocide pre-date racial categorization and targeting for extermination or exploitation, race is “made in the targeting”.[vii]

Taking these claims together, my focus, on the role that multiracial identity might play in the re-calibration of our philosophies of race, is granted more validity. Sundstrom’s political conception of the black-white binary, which claims that the American story about race can be understood by reference to the relationship between blackness and whiteness, when allowed to dominate our concepts of race and racial oppression, obscures the tri-partite nature of settler colonialism, which Wolfe shows to be at the foundation of the very concept of race, and the beginning of racism. If we can agree that the deconstruction of white supremacist aims depends in part on the full revelation of its central structure, one of the aims of anti-racist work should be to expose settler colonialism’s effects. Kim Tallbear points to the one-drop rule as a barrier to any other way of imagining racial identity. She argues that the binary, which she refers to as the “one-drop rule” is so deeply ingrained in North Americans that it makes it hard for us to grasp Native American identity.[viii]

Inquiry into the many ways we are racialized, including and especially the issues of hybridity and internal colonization can be useful inroads to understanding racial identity and what Wolfe calls “the grammar of race”.[ix] Indigenous and Latin American philosophies of identity and race necessarily include discussions of place, displacement, homelands and borderlands.[x] Importantly, these discussions overlap, but don’t completely replicate the discussions of place, displacement, homelands and borderlands in black studies. The B-W binary, when taken as inclusively representative of all races, silences and erases other ways of being racialized. Racial concepts should be accountable to real experiences of race and racism, some which come from the in-between spaces, what Gloria Anzaldúa called the “borderlands”.[xi] I will be drawing heavily on Mariana Ortega’s In-Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Mutiplicity, and the Self (2016), and other works of Latina/o philosophy of race and identity to provide narrative models of inquiry and examples of biographical account, which will calibrate our race concepts away from the settler colonial logics of extermination and capitalization, and toward specificity in our racial concepts, which will account for all racialized peoples. It is to these philosophies, and to philosophies of race that exist outside of the binary that we must turn, to decenter the aims of whiteness in the philosophy of race, and to enrich our understanding of what it means to be racialized.

Multiraciality is broad and deep and growing in Canada, but our understanding of multiraciality is shallow and narrow and just getting started. I want to understand why we are erased and silenced. Our stories are not being told, our faces are not being shown as multiracial in the media. Growing up mixed has been a lonely experience, racially speaking. The charge of anti-blackness makes me feel lonelier still. Multiracial people have relationships to race and racism that are not necessarily duplicated or discussed in monoracial spaces. I am motivated to explore race as a multiracial black person, I am motivated to understand our relationships to racism. I am not focused on my own blackness as opposed to whiteness, I am for the time being, focused on multiraciality, hoping to show how multiracial identity stands in relation to settler colonialism. My body includes blackness and whiteness. I am not ignoring my blackness or my whiteness, I am rejecting the idea that the B-W binary alone should dictate my racial identity, my racial concepts, and my discipline. To the charge of anti-blackness today, I might say: “why are you asking?” and I am genuinely interested in the reply.

[i] See Mahtani 2015 for more on the falsehood of the “multiracial saviour” trope. Mahtani, M. (2015). Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality. University of British Columbia Press.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Eve Tuck, & K. Wayne Yang. (September 01, 2012). Decolonization is not a metaphorDecolonization : Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1, 1.)

[vi] Wolfe, P. (January 01, 2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the nativeJournal of Genocide Research, 8, 4, 387-409. pp. 387-389

[vii] Ibid., p. 388

[viii] Latour, 2012

[ix] Wolfe, 2006

[x] Whyte, K. P. Indigeneity and US Settler Colonialism. In Zack, N. (2017). The Oxford handbook of philosophy and race. Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute., Alcoff, L. M. (March 01, 2009). Latinos beyond the binarySouthern Journal of Philosophy, 47, 112-128.

[xi] Anzaldúa 1987

Featured Philosopher: Grayson Hunt

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Grayson Hunt is an assistant professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University. He earned his PhD in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in 2013. He wrote his dissertation on the moral meaning of resentment as feminist resistance. Grayson’s current work examines trans-feminist and intersectional responses to oppression. Specifically, he writes on the intersection of biphobia and transphobia, and the shared struggle of bisexual and transgender people.

Loving Curiosity: On the Intersection of Bisexual and Transgender Oppression

Grayson Hunt

First I want to acknowledge and thank Dr. Meena Krishnamurthy for creating such an inclusive and exciting philosophy blog. I use the blog entries on this page to teach philosophy. I’ve used Heather Logue’s post, “How you know you’re not in the Matrix” to teach Descartes’s Meditations, and Myisha Cherry’s post, “What Does it Mean to Ask Blacks to Forgive and How Should They Respond?” to teach critical approaches to the philosophy of forgiveness. And every semester, I introduce my students to philosophy and trans* experience by pairing Talia Bettcher’s post, “Other ‘Worldly’ Philosophy” with Plato’s cave allegory. These essays on epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics help me create the kind of classes I enjoy teaching. Thank you Meena for all that you do!

While I’m trained in what we often call Continental philosophy—a tradition rooted in Existential, Phenomenological and Social philosophical approaches—my current work focuses LGBTQ philosophy and oppression. More specifically, whereas I began my philosophical career thinking and writing about the moral, existential, and phenomenological meanings of resentment, particularly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt, I am today concerned with intersectional analyses of oppression, especially in regard to Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (BTQ) communities.

I’ll proceed by introducing you to my current work on biphobia and transphobia and the possibility for BTQ coalition building. In terms of approach, I am committed to what Audre Lorde calls the “interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences,”[1] a phrase that I translate as a kind of ‘loving curiosity’ towards difference. Intersectional feminism is a politicized first-personal account of oppression. Before intersectionality became a concept in 1989,[2] it was first an experiential account through which Black feminists explained how discrimination and harassment were never fully compartmentalizable into separate categories of oppression. As both a concept and a metaphor, intersectionality enables feminists to describe how people who occupy multiple marginalized social positions experience oppression that is qualitatively (not simply quantitatively) different from those with fewer or different social disadvantages.[3] This is a starting assumption of much of my work on LGBTQ oppression.

But not all forms of curiosity are loving. In fact, I think a lot of philosophy is drawn to a form of morbid curiosity, which Perry Zurn defines as, “fundamentally drawn to pain. It is commonly expressed by an empty gaze, intent on seeing yet without any interest in understanding. Commensurately, it directs its line of sight toward pain and suffering in a fetishistic manner.”[4] Within philosophy, this often entails engaging in the pain of others theoretically without knowing much about that pain experientially or politically. But how we become curious, and how we treat people from that place of curiosity matters; it’s a political and ethical question.

The goal of my work is to engage in loving curiosity about bi and trans oppression and their intersection. I consider this work to be similar to what George Yancy called “high stakes” philosophy,[5] or what Zurn calls politically resistant curiosity that is “from and for the margins.”[6]

Zurn’s work on curiosity helps me figure out how to engage in curiosity about oppression that doesn’t amount to interest without understanding. Unlike morbid curiosity, curiosity driven by and for social justice is “activated in the recording of injustices [and] is primarily driven by pain and only secondarily drawn to pain.”[7] Zurn calls this curiosity painfully honest, in that to be curious in this non-morbid way is to be curious about something one already knows, and to discover it. This politicized curiosity mobilized for social justice “presupposes experience and understanding.”[8] Zurn suggests that because of this lived investment, oppressed persons who are so often the “butt of curiosity” are then able to “stake their claim to curiosity as a vibrant, collective practice of self-love and political resistance.”[9] My work is provoked by an invested curiosity in the lives of transgender and bisexual people, as a transgender bisexual person.

I use intersectionality as a theoretical tool and perspective because it helps me be critically curious about intra-group oppressions. Intersectionality, more than existentialism or phenomenology, is a politicized curiosity about oppression. It refuses to be complacent about power and how it works within liberation movements. For instance, how marginalized people themselves police queer boundaries and access to privilege.

In my current work, I argue that the oppressions experienced by transgender people and bisexual people are structurally identical insofar as they are premised on accusations of “reinforcing the binary,”[10] an accusation that undermines not only the legitimacy of trans and bi lives, but also the political efficacy of trans and bi activism and coalition building. Given this similarity and the empirical fact that bisexuality is the most common sexual orientation for trans women,[11] there ought to be thriving trans and bi coalitions and more suspicion against attitudes that pit bisexuality against transgender experience. BTQ coalitions don’t seem to exist, and my work attempts to show why.

Within both academic and non-academic queer and feminist communities, pansexual and non-binary identities have recently emerged to offer options “beyond the binary.” The gender binary is a system of gender identification based on a theory of sexual dimorphism according to which humans are taken to be “biologically male or female” (where “biological” might be said to be determined by genetics, hormones, or genitals, or some combination of the three). Because queer[12] theory is generally critical of gender binarism, identities that conform to that binarism are targets of critique. Many bisexuals, for example, have asked themselves or been asked whether the continued use of bisexuality is justifiable given the more inclusive, non-binarist options like pansexual, polysexual, and omnisexual. What I’m curious about is why, with the increased visibility for non-binary identities (non-binary, gender-non-conforming, pansexuality, omnisexual, etc), new scrutiny has been mobilized against bisexual and transgender identities for ’reinforcing the gender binary,’ and not other identities, like gay, straight, and lesbian, all of which also rely on binarist understandings of gender. Is the accusation of reinforcing the binary justified?

Before answering that question, I’ll explain how the “reinforcing the binary” accusation works. There are several “reinforcing the binary tropes” within mainstream understandings of bisexuality. The first and most troubling is the idea that bisexuality is the capacity to be attracted to men and women. This conceptualization misconstrues bisexuality as a matter of gender identity where there are two presumably cisgender options,[13] rather than an orientation towards sameness or difference (which is how we define heterosexuality and same-sex relationships). This conflation of sexual orientation with gender identity is, in my view, responsible for many of the cisnormative assumptions about bisexuality. The second assumption is that bisexuality entails being half straight and half gay, a move that again erases bisexuality as an orientation in its own right. Finally, given these two decidedly binarist understandings of bisexuality, a third assumption can be made, which is that bisexuality ignores or excludes trans and non-binary identities.

There are also several basic “reinforcing the binary tropes” within mainstream understandings of transgender identity. The first is that trans people are “born in the wrong body,” where the ‘wrong body’ is the one a person was ‘born with’ and the ‘right body’ is presumably a body of the opposite gender.[14] While this narrative rings true for many trans people, it is not a narrative avowed by all trans people. (I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with anyone’s body; the problem is the cissexist attitudes that get weaponized against trans people and which prevent or diminish gender satisfaction for trans people.) Nonetheless, this account has become a dominant narrative upheld by non-trans people as a way to understand trans experience. The second ‘reinforcing trope’ leveled against trans people is that we medically transition to become the “opposite gender.” These two binarist assumptions about trans experience culminate with the view that trans erase non-binary identities.

In the case of bisexuals, the “reinforcing the binary” accusation is what leads bisexual people to get accused of maintaining the gender binary by people who think bisexuals only consider men and women desirable (as if trans women and men aren’t women and men).[15] In the case of trans people, the “reinforcing the binary accusation is what leads trans people to get accused of maintaining the gender binary by upholding cisnormative standards of gender by transitioning, a move that is considered harmful to non-binary identities. Are these accusations justifiable?

The lessons of intersectionality tell me that no, this is not justified. These double standards are rooted in two different forms of oppression that stigmatize trans and bisexual people for identities and preferences that are totally acceptable for other groups of people to have. Cissexism is the judgment or belief that all people should align with the gender assigned to them at birth and that trans people are therefore deceitful, confused, and ‘inauthentic’. Cissexism gives rise to transphobia, which is the fear, hatred, and erasure of transgender people. The system of oppression that can account for the reinforcing trope leveled against bisexuals is monosexism. As Eisner, Julia Serano and others have argued,[16] monosexism is the judgment or belief that all people are or should desire in only one way and therefore bisexuals are deceitful, confused, inauthentic, etc. Monosexism gives rise to biphobia, which is the fear, hatred, and erasure of bisexual people. These oppressions are structurally similar, why isn’t there a more robust coaltion between bisexual and transgender people?

When I engage these two types of oppression from a place of loving curiosity, I find that what drives my research is the desire to reconceptualize oppression in a non-hierarchical way. The “reinforcing tropes” leveled against trans and bi people don’t just reveal oppressive double standards operating within queer and feminist communities, but they pit monosexist oppression against cissexist oppression. But asking ‘what’s worse, the gender binary or the sexual orientation binary?’ is an oppressive question. Lorde’s lesson that there is no hierarchy of oppression,[17] paired with Julia Serano’s insights on inclusive feminism have brought me to see that trans politics is not more important than bi politics, and bi politics isn’t more important than trans politics. Saying that trans politics or bi politics is more important or pressing or real is just an expression of biphobia or transphobia, in that it reinforces the belief that one group deserves less recognition and empowerment and therefore deserves to suffer or wait their turn. But it also does actual harm by erasing the empirical reality that many trans people are bisexual, a move that maintains conditions under which transgender bisexuals can be dismissed, harmed, or even killed. So while a politicized curiosity aimed at oppression is best driven by pain and only secondarily drawn to pain, I hope my work can help create more loving curiosity about the plight of trans bisexuals, particularly the plight of women and femmes who are most harmed by accusations of “reinforcing the binary.”

[1] Audre Lorde. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and

Education 14, no. 3/4 (1983): 9.

[2] Although Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 article is cited more often in reference to the concept, I find her 1989 article, and notably, her ‘basement’ metaphor,’ decidedly helpful for understanding how oppression gets meted out within and amongst marginalized groups. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.” U. Chi. Legal F. (1989): 139 and “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299.

[3] Grayson Hunt. “Intersectionality: Locating and Critiquing Internal Structures of Oppression within Feminism,” Philosophy: Feminism Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks, forthcoming 2017.

[4] Perry Zurn, “Curiosity: An Affect of Resistance,” Presentation, philoSOPHIA Conference, Boca Raton, FL. April 1, 2017.

[5] George Yancy, “Trayvon Martin, Philosophy, and white spaces,” Presentation, American Philosophical Association, Chicago, IL. December 28, 2014.

[6] Perry Zurn, “Curiosity: An Affect of Resistance,” Presentation, philoSOPHIA Conference, Boca Raton, FL. April 1, 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Julia Serano, Excluded: Making feminist and queer movements more inclusive. Seal Press, 2013, 88.

[11] Transwomen identify more as bi than as any other category of sexual orientation (where the options are same-gender attraction, heterosexual, queer, asexual, and other). Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011, page 29. http://endtransdiscrimination.org/PDFs/NTDS_Report.pdf Last accessed, May 31, 2017.

[12] I use queer not as an umbrella term for all LGBTQIA+ people, but to refer to queer politics, which values separatism over assimilation, and which disavows what is considered normal, legitimate and dominant by heteronormative standards. See David Halperin (1995). Saint Foucault: Towards a gay hagiography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, and Halperin, D. (2003). “The normalization of queer theory.” Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2/3/4), 339–343.

[13] Cis and trans are gender identity designations. Cis means “alignment,” where the person’s gender aligns with the gender assigned at birth. Trans means “to cross over,” where the person’s gender does not align with the gender assigned at birth. Cisnormativity is a set of values based on the belief that all people are or should be cisgender. Cisnormativity gives rise to oppressive standards of cissexism (the belief that cis people are morally better or more desirable than trans people) and transphobia (the fear, hatred, and erasure of trans people).

[14] I don’t ascribe to this view of “biological gender,” and believe instead that to be trans is to identify with a gender other than what was assigned at birth, or no gender at all.

[15] Meg John Barker, “Biphobia in the pansexual community” biUK: The UK national organization for bisexual research and activism. Available at bisexualresearch.wordpress.com, last accessed May 31, 2017.

[16] Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a bisexual revolution. Seal Press, 2013 and Julia Serano, Excluded: Making feminist and queer movements more inclusive. Seal Press, 2013. See also Yoshino, Kenji. “The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure.” Stanford Law Review (2000): 353-461.

[17] Lorde, Audre. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and Education 14, no. 3/4 (1983): 9.

Featured Philosopher: Mariana Ortega

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Mariana Ortega will be joining the Philosophy Department and Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities at Penn State in January 2018. Her main areas of research and interest are Women of Color Feminisms, in particular Latina Feminisms, 20th Continental Philosophy, Phenomenology (Heidegger), Philosophy of Race, and Aesthetics.  Her research focuses on questions of self, identity, and sociality, as well as visual representations of race, gender, and sexuality.  She is co-editor with Linda Martín-Alcoff of the anthology Constructing the Nation:  A Race and Nationalism Reader (SUNY, 2009) and author of  In-Between:  Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self  (SUNY, 2016).   She is the founder and director of the Roundtable on Latina feminism, a forum dedicated to discussions of Latina and Latin American feminisms.

Aesthetic Injustice, Practices of Othering, and Ignorance​

Mariana Ortega

Thank you Meena for inviting me to contribute to this important blog. I would like to share some thoughts on what I term “aesthetic injustice.” They were in part a response to José Medina’s work on insurrectionist epistemology as presented in an APA panel on contemporary critical race theory. These thoughts on aesthetic injustice were also generative for my new book project that analyzes issues at the intersection of visuality, practices of othering in connection to race and sexuality, and the production of ignorance.

At a time of wide-ranging injustice against those who are marginalized, those whose race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, ability, and nationality transforms them into the unwanted, the already criminal, the disposable, the ugly, we can hear or ignore the call for critical assessment of how our aesthetic practices are subtly or jarringly linked to oppression and to the production of ignorance. I think of Toni Morrison’s words in her moving commentary “No place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear,”

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art. [1]

We cannot forget how these bruises, bleeding, and malevolence that Morrison mentions are connected not only to political and economic events but also to practices that promote ignorance. Recently, philosophers have been attuned to the ways in which our epistemic practices foment and even cultivate ignorance, for example Charles Mills’ indictment of the flawed practices of Western liberalism; Miranda Fricker’s account of testimonial and hermeneutic injustice; Kristie Dotson’s analysis of the silencing of oppressed groups; and José Medina’s elaboration of an epistemology of resistance [2].

Medina’s and Dotson’s analyses direct me to the crucial, yet sometimes ignored relationship between the epistemic and the aesthetic. I would like to think (to see, touch, feel, hear) with Dotson and Medina as their views inspire me to take into account all the different spaces and practices where ignorance resides, all the ways in which we conveniently cover up “truths” dripping with racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other sticky, treacherous isms.

The aesthetic is itself a site permeated by practices that promote and cultivate ignorance. Monique Roelofs says it best in when she states in her recent text, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic, that “the aesthetic constitutes an uncannily resonant point of interest for a critical encounter with ignorance [3]. We thus need to think further about aesthetic injustice or the use of aesthetic registers in order to do violence to others and to relegate them to the world of the unwanted because of their race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, nationality, etc., hence undermining their particular cultures, contexts, narratives, or horizons and thus creating aesthetic ignorance. Here I hold on to the intricate intertwining between the epistemic and the aesthetic such that for me to ask a question of epistemic ignorance and violence is also to be reminded of the way in which ways of knowing and ignorance are connected to ways of seeing, looking, hearing, and feeling.

Inspired by Leonard Harris’s challenge to pragmatism, Medina calls for epistemic insurrectionary practices in order to disrupt patterns of silencing and erasure arising from epistemic injustice and to cultivate and mobilize what he calls an insurrectionist imagination, a counter imagination that will make visible patterns of ignorance and invisibility and will forge new representations of the social imaginary [4]. He calls for an insurrectionist epistemology that includes aesthetic, political, religious, and pedagogical practices that can create beneficial epistemic friction. Such epistemology needs to take into consideration everyday relational attitudes, social practices, interpretative frameworks, material conditions, as well as artistic and media representations that problematize the current distorted racial imaginary.

For her part, Dotson proposes an important account of contributory injustice that, contrary to influential analyses such as Fricker’s, includes multiple hermeneutical frameworks and calls for a solution that requires third order interventions or embodied engagements that extend beyond conversation and dialogue, thus in my view opening an important critical space for engagement with the aesthetic [5]. According to Dotson, contributory injustice happens because there are different hermeneutical resources that can be used by a perceiver and, yet, the perceiver willfully refuses to recognize or acquire requisite alternative hermeneutical resources [6]. To counter this injustice she recommends third order changes or changes that demand fluency in various sets of hermeneutic resources and the ability to shift such resources appropriately. They require world-traveling that includes appreciating of genuine differences, assessment of one’s motives, relations with an epistemic community, and a relationship of trust in order to alleviate epistemic oppression. Dotson’s analysis is revealing. Since third order changes go beyond cognitive modes, we may thus be able to appreciate the importance of the connection between contributory and other injustices and the aesthetic by highlighting the various aesthetic processes that are at work in maintaining prejudiced hermeneutical resources. The aesthetic, then, becomes a crucial site for the interrogation of practices of ignorance.

While traditionally the notion of disinterestedness has been considered the mark of the aesthetic, contemporary philosophers such as Roelofs propose a complex understanding of the aesthetic that precludes the possibility of hiding racist, colonialist views behind pretenses of a neutral aesthetic. For Roelofs the aesthetic comprises various sensory modalities intertwined in a vast web of relationships of being-in-the-world that make our world livable, enjoyable, and pleasurable—or deadly, miserable and painful. It is a multimodal vision of an aesthetic connected to promises and threats. To illustrate her view, Roelofs analyzes Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Spoon”:

And so the coming

of the new life

that,

fighting and singing,

we preach,

will be a coming of soup bowls,

a perfect panoply

of spoons.

An ocean of steam rising from pots

in a world

without hunger,

and a total mobilization of spoons,

will shed light where once was darkness

shining on plates spread all over the table

like contented flowers [7].

In the poem Roelofs finds a series of quotidian intersubjective connections that open up a number of patterns of address between people and objects. Such a web of interconnectedness points to shared culture and hence to the cultural promise of the aesthetic. Yet there are not only promises, as we need to consider not just the objects but who makes them, who gets to have them—not all of us will get a spoon and get to sit at the table. In the giving and taking away that is present in Neruda’s ode, Roelofs grapples with what I think is one of the crucial questions in her text, what is to be made of the promise of the aesthetic in the face of social difference [8]?

I am moved by this crucial question that harbors within it the link between the aesthetic and injustice. I am brought to what so many who study the history of aesthetics wish to forget, that our wonderful theories are deeply connected to the production of violence in both ontological and epistemic realms. In the very midst of the so-called disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment, there may lurk a certain brutality brought about by homogenization, standardization, racism, sexism, classism—the mark of the Western white male of taste or cultural critic, who, while claiming neutrality is thoroughly interested in elevating his own, race, gender, class, and country. Here we can simply consider the role of photography in assisting the new 19th-century “sciences” in creating, as Barthes would say, “desirable” or “detestable” bodies as well as “knowledge,” or better yet, ignorance, of these bodies [9]. Aesthetic conditions allow for the possibility of our understanding certain races, sexualities, classes in specific ways, providing the context through which we see these identities as beautiful or ugly, promising or threatening, civilized or uncivilized.

With Dotson, Medina and Roelofs, I see epistemology and aesthetics in need of attunement to the way in which ignorance resides when sound, vision, touch, or taste are prevented from going in certain directions or orientations as Sarah Ahmed would say [10]. The aesthetic is not disinterested and the epistemic cannot be completely separated from the aesthetic. We need to look more closely at the workings of what I am here calling aesthetic injustice and the aesthetic ignorance that it produces. Such ignorance is multidirectional and affects our understanding as well as attunement to those whose social identities are not our own. It also structures the way in which we see, hear, smell, touch certain “other” bodies and take up their aesthetic productions. A person’s willful ignorance, the person’s unwillingness to engage with other hermeneutical frameworks which consequently relegates another person’s view as unimportant in the realm of knowledge and of taste, may be created and sustained by the aesthetic. It is no wonder that, as Morrison reminds us in, “No place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear,” “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.”

In her famous analysis of photography, Susan Sontag alerts us about the dual power of the photograph both to generate documents and to create works of visual art. [11]. Given this duality, or rather, what I see as a multiplicity of power in the photograph, we can investigate the ways in which this medium may serve to create and perpetuate a hermeneutical framework that creates ignorance or one that offers a visuality that effects what Roelofs calls an epistemic unsettlement, or what Medina calls an insurrectionist epistemic practice. We can also investigate further how the photograph as well as other artistic media is connected to the third order change that Dotson takes as necessary to alleviate contributory injustice, a change that entails an affective turn, an embodied engagement that goes beyond the cognitive and beyond conversation, dialogue, and rational deliberation. The aesthetic is thus in a unique position, as Roelofs states, “to counteract the hierarchical and differentiating functioning of the relevant dualities” [12]. In other words, aesthetic experience occupies a middle ground between traditional enlightenment dichotomies such as mind/body, reason/affect, public/private and general/particular. The aesthetic opens a liminal space, an in-between space in which it is possible, as Gloria Anzaldúa would say, to see from various shores at once [13].

[1] Morrison, Toni. 2015. “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear, In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.” The Nation, March 23.

[2] See Mills, Charles. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press;

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice, Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing. Hypatia, Vo. 26, No. 2; and Medina, José. 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance, Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Roelofs, Monique. 2014. The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic. London: Bloomsbury, 108.

[4] Medina, José. “No Justice, No Peace: Racial Violence, Epistemic Death, and Insurrection.” Presented at the 2016 Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Parts of this presentation are forthcoming in Medina, José. 2017. “Epistemic Justice and Epistemologies of Ignorance.” In Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race, eds. Linda Martín Alcoff, Luvell Anderson, and Paul Taylor. New York: Routledge.

[5] Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale, On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 35.

[6] Dotson, “A Cautionary Tale,” 32.

[7] Quoted in Roelofs , The Cultural Promise, 14-15.

[8] Roelofs, The Cultural Promise, 11.

[9] Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 18.

[10] Ahmed, Sarah. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

[11] Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 76.

[12] Roelofs, The Cultural Promise, p. 146.

[13] Anzaldúa Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

 

 

Open Letter from the Editors of the Journal of Political Philosophy

Open Letter from the Editors of the Journal of Political Philosophy

We, the Editors, sincerely apologise for the oversight in not
including a Black author in a Symposium explicitly entitled ‘Black
Lives Matter’. We accept the point eloquently and forcefully made by
our colleagues that this is an especially grave oversight in light of
the specific focus of Black Lives Matter on the extent to which
African-Americans have been erased and marginalised from public life.
Part of the mission of the JPP is to raise awareness of ongoing
injustices in our societies. We appreciate and encourage having an
engaged and politically active scholarly community willing to hold
everyone working in the profession to account.

We have learnt important lessons here and will do our utmost to avoid
such oversights and errors in the future and to be more sensitive in
the manner we encourage, curate, frame and present work that engages
with issues of grievous and persistent injustice. In terms of concrete
steps: We have scheduled a meeting of the Editors to review our
procedures for Symposia, which we now see are plainly inadequate. We
will also be issuing invitations with a mind to adding at least two
African-Americans to our Editorial Board in the near future (there are
currently six persons of colour but, alas, no African American). More
generally, we will be working harder to encourage work from
philosophers and political theorists of colour as we have done with
women and young scholars in the past, and we will revise our editorial
guidelines to reflect this commitment.

Finally, we express the hope that the understandable disappointment
occasioned by this episode will be directed at the Editors alone and
not at the organisers and authors of the excellent papers in the
Symposium. While they were aware that these papers would be included
in a Symposium entitled ‘Black Lives Matter’, they had no control over
the next steps of the Symposium.

With regret,

Robert E. Goodin (Editor)

Lea Ypi, Nicholas Southwood, Christian Barry (Co-Editors)

An Open Letter to the Editors of the Journal of Political Philosophy; or How Black Scholarship Matters, Too

To the editors of the Journal of Political Philosophy,

First, a primer: the idea ‘black lives matter’ and the political movement bearing that phrase represent something expansive but specific. The idea ‘black lives matter’ is an ethical demand calling for an end to the erasure of black lives and presence by systems of racist power anchored in a history of white supremacy. The movement puts this ethical demand into action by seeking to influence city, state, and federal policies through acts of protest and civil disobedience. In our current moment, both the idea and the movement are aligned against the notion that black experiences are irrelevant or negligible for organizing our collective view of civil society.

So, if you might – please do – try to imagine my distaste when it was brought to my attention that your journal published a philosophical symposium on ‘black lives matter’ with not one philosopher of color represented, without one philosopher of color to convey her or his contextualized sense of a movement that is urgently and justifiably about context.  It certainly cannot be said there was no one to ask. I should know. I just published a book on the philosophical foundations of black lives matter.

Now, it might be the case that this particular symposium is merely unfortunate –the journal asked every black philosopher and political theorist it could find and was turned down. (Disclosure: I was not asked.) From an outside point of view, someone desiring to take on this more generous stance but not wanting to do so on blind faith would have only to do something simple: revisit the journal’s publication record and if it turns out that the topic of race or at least black philosophers, no matter the subject of their work, were decently represented in the journal’s pages, then we have some grounds to extend good faith. But things don’t look very good on this front, either.

Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman in the early months of 2012 and it was his shooting and the subsequent exoneration of Zimmerman in the summer of 2012 that sparked the movement. But we all know that. Right? Yes. So we are now five years on from that event, and since what is at issue is what appears to be a problematic mishandling of a symposium on the movement for black lives we can ask whether the journal has in these five years taken the political problem of race seriously as philosophically worthy. One might (or might not) be surprised to learn that at four issues a year, making a total of nearly twenty issues (including a special issue titled “Philosophy, Politics, and Society”), the Journal of Political Philosophy has not published a single article on the philosophy of race: voting, elections, immigration, global markets, and animals have gotten their time in the journal’s sun. But as black Americans, and the philosophers who study racial inequality – a political philosophical problem – have directly engaged one of our era’s most sinister moral and political quandaries, the journal has failed to represent race in its pages. Maybe more damning, so far as I can tell, not one black philosopher has seen her or his work appear in the pages of your respected journal, on race or any other topic.

You can see, then, how at this point the generous reading of the mishandling of the symposium comes under significant pressure. So much pressure, in fact, that it becomes compressed into something else: strained hope. The hope that intelligent and imaginative people can see the landscape of morality in its complexity and be sensitive to life-worlds beyond their range of experience. And the way we do this is to diversity the voices to which we listen. You see? – diversity really is an ethically important ideal. To be clear, I welcome the participation of non-brown voices in a symposium on black lives matter. It is important that there be a range of viewpoints on a matter that is democratically urgent – we are all involved in this problem. So my issue is not in the least with those authors whose papers were appropriated for the symposium. Rather I am directly challenging the editorial staff to account for their offense against a movement and community.

Sometimes in an instance like this, when a topic is mishandled, blame is quickly cast on something other than the insensitivity or short-sightedness that is really at the base of the problem. One kind of excuse usually points toward a lack of familiarity with a literature or area of specialization. Another kind of excuse, one that I suspect the journal may trot out, but I would caution against it doing so if saving face at all is important, is to indicate the symposium was modeled on a conference that it itself did not organize. In such matters, final responsibility rests with the editorial staff – it is their job to curate an intellectual experience that adequately and appropriately speaks to the issue at hand. And this is especially important as what we do – when we write and publish – contributes to the historical record. What is so deflating about the journal’s misstep here is that this contribution to the historical record is in fact a kind of replaying of history that the movement for black lives has dedicated itself to eliminating from a society struggling to be decent – the erasure of black presence when and where it counts and is needed.

With regret,

Chris Lebron

[Chris Lebron is currently Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale; he will be Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins beginning this summer.]

Featured Philosopher: Dan López de Sa

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Dan López de Sa is ICREA Research Professor at Univeristat de Barcelona, after visiting ANU, St Andrews, NYU, and Columbia. He works in metaphysics (truthmaking, grounding, response-dependence), the philosophy of language (vagueness, contextualism, slurs), and metaethics (values, disagreement, relativism).  He also has an increasing interest in topics around gender, race, sexuality, love, and the law.

Significant Verbal Disputes and So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations”

Dan López de Sa

[What follows is a brief version of a longer paper I am currently working on. Many thanks to Meena for the opportunity to post it here.]

Significant verbal disputes

To claim that a certain dispute is verbal is often regarded as implying some sort of deflationism about the issue in consideration—particularly when the dispute was not overtly and explicitly verbal, i.e. overtly and explicitly mentioning the word in dispute. It turns out that the dispute is “merely verbal”, “just about words.” And hence less serious, important, worth of disputing about.

As many have emphasized, this attitude is, in general, misguided. Some disputes are indeed verbal and significant. Here some illustrations by David Chalmers:

Sometimes words matter. For example, if we are arguing over whether a law has been violated, one often needs to settle the meaning of relevant words. Questions about what falls into the extension of ‘marriage’ and ‘murder’ may in some sense be verbal, but the answer to these questions may also make a serious difference to people’s lives. In cases where words have fixed connotations and associations, too, verbal issues often have serious practical import. This applies especially when those connotations are normative. What counts as ‘torture’ or as ‘terrorism’ might be, at one level, a verbal issue that a philosopher can resolve by distinguishing senses. But in a rhetorical or political context, words have power that transcends these distinctions. If the community counts an act as falling into the extension of ‘torture’ or ‘terrorism’, this may make a grave difference to our attitudes toward that act. As such, there may be a serious practical question about what we ought to count as falling into the extension of these terms. (Chalmers 2011, 516-17)

Some verbal disputes are thus verbal but not merely so. This is so because there are issues where, given how things are, how a given expression is to be used turns out to have significant consequences. In the form of a slogan: significant verbal disputes are verbal disputes where words do matter. As the examples illustrate, this is can be so both with respect to the descriptive question concerning how a word is in fact used but also, and importantly for our purposes, with respect to the normative question concerning how a word should be used. Such normative questions concerning which words should be paired with which concepts constitute what can be called terminological ethics. This goes beyond conceptual ethics—provided this is understood as the project concerning which concepts should be used for some particular purposes. To illustrate, it may well be that for purposes in connection with inclusion, one should use not one but two different concepts of gender, one concerning gender as class and the other concerning gender as identity (Jenkins 2016). This is a claim in conceptual ethics. A further question concerns which of these two, if any, should be the one paired with words like ‘woman’. This can give rise to further significant verbal disputes in terminological ethics.[1]

Recently, David Plunkett (2015) and Amie Thomasson (2017) have illustrated, in my view quite compellingly, how in philosophy there are verbal disputes to be had—which are, also, significant. Words like ‘art’, ‘free’, ‘race’, ‘person’, ‘knowledge’, ‘good’, among many others, are words that, arguably, do matter, in the envisaged sense. So contending that some debates in philosophy are, in fact (perhaps appearances notwithstanding) or should be seen as, verbal disputes need not deflate their significance—provided the relevant words do matter.

(Some verbal disputes are merely verbal, of course—in philosophy as well as elsewhere. As such, they may trigger some clarifications and distinctions. But once these are in place, any further dispute can be dismissed—precisely because, in these cases, words don’t really matter: nothing of significance hinges on how the word is to be used. This may provide an illuminating model for dismissivism with respect to some particular debates in metaphysics: according to some, with respect to debates on composition or the persistence of objects, verbal disputes are merely so, as the relevant words don’t really matter, in the appropriate sense.[2]) 

So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations

As I said, I see Plunkett (2015) and Thomasson (2017) as showing how there are significant verbal disputes to be had in philosophy—negotiations in terminological ethics as to how words that matter should be used. In the papers, however, they contend that some debates in metaphysics are to be seen as involving so-called metalinguistic negotiations.[3]

Not every negotiation about words qualifies as a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense, as these are specific forms of expressing the disagreement in language—in sharp contrast with disputes that are overtly and explicitly verbal.

Drawing on earlier work with Tim Sundell (Sundell 2011, Plunkett & Sundell 2013), Plunkett characterizes metalinguistic negotiation as a dispute about what a word should mean involving a metalinguistic usage of a term, that is

one where a speaker uses a term (rather than mentions it) to express a view about the meaning of that term, or, relatedly, how to correctly use that term. (Plunkett 2015, 834).

This is the key element: in their metalinguistic negotiations, the word is used rather than mentioned.

Plausibly, there are uncontroversial enough cases of a metalinguistic usage of a term. The clearest examples probably are those where the speaker communicates views on the existent aspects of the context that are relevant for the value of context-dependent expressions such as ‘tall’, as when one utters:

(1)      Feymann is tall.

pointing to Feymann in a conversation that wonders about what counts as tall around here.

Also, there are conversations where, by using a expression, the speaker aims to set a certain aspect of the context that is relevant for the value of that context-dependent expression that was previously undefined, or to alter it in certain ways—be this the relevant respect, the standard of precision, or others.

(2a)    This knife is sharp.

Cooperative conversational partners will tend to accommodate, collectively succeeding in setting or altering the relevant aspect of the context as to make (2a) true (see Lewis 1979). Unless, of course, the issue is controversial, in which case the disagreeing party may object:

(2b)    No, it’s not sharp enough.

If what is at stake in the conversation is which kind of food is to be prepared, after both cooks have jointly tried out one of the new knives. This is a case where a verbal dispute gets expressed by a metalinguistic dispute, in their sense.

But metalinguistic negotiations should cover the expression of disagreements about which of alternative concepts should a word be paired with.[4] Plunkett and Sundell illustrate with a case borrowed from Ludlow where, with respect to racehorse Secretariat making it to the list of the fifty greatest athletes of the twentieth century, people may express their disagreement with:

(3) a.  WTF. Secretariat is not an athlete. He’s a horse!

  1. So what? He is an athlete. And one of the best.

I am happy to grant that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, this (or some other similar case) will indeed constitute a negotiation in terminological ethics as to how the word should be used. The problem is that it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense. Because it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic dispute in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves a metalinguistic usage of the term in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves using as opposed to mentioning the relevant expression.

The reason is that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, sentences in (3) seem similar to

(4) a.  We don’t eat tom[a:]tos here, we eat tom[ei]tos.

  1. I haven’t deprived you of my talk; I’ve spared you it.

Which is the right account of the linguistic phenomenon exhibited in (4) is controversial—particularly concerning precisely the issue of whether (or how) it involves use, mention, or both, of the relevant expressions. In particular, on one proposal,

The material falling in the scope of the ‘not’ is mentioned (metarepresented, quited, echoic) rather than used (Carston 1996, 312).

I don’t have yet a view on the matter, myself. Maybe the right view has it that, on the contrary, expressions are used rather than mentioned in (4). Or maybe it turns out that cases like (3) are relevantly different than those in (4). So maybe it turns out that (3) constitutes a metalinguistic negotiation, after all.

Interesting as the issue is in itself, it depends on the best account of complex linguistic phenomena concerning the expression of disagreement. Vindicating the significance of some verbal disputes—in philosophy as well as elsewhere—depends only on the nature of the disagreement, not their linguistic expression.[5]

References

Belleri (2016): “Verbalism and metalinguistic negotiation in ontological disputes”, Philosophical Studies, DOI: 10.1007/s11098-016-0795-z

Burgess & Plunkett (2013): “Conceptual Ethics I”, Philosophy Compass 8(12): 1091–1101.

Carston (1996): “Metalinguistic negation and echoic use”. Journal of Pragmatics 25, 309–330

Chalmers (2011): “Verbal Disputes”, Philosophical Review 120: 515-566

Jenkins (2016); “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman”, Ethics 126: 394–421.

Lewis (1979): “Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Journal of Philosophical Logic, 8: 339–359.

López de Sa (2015): “Expressing Disagreement”, Erkenntnis 80, 153–165

Plunkett (2015): ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’, Inquiry 58, 828-874

Plunkett & Sundell (2013): ‘Disagreement and the Semantics of Normative and Evaluative Terms’, Philosophers’ Imprint 13/23, 1-37

Sundell (2011): ‘Disagreement about Taste’, Philosophical Studies 155, 267-288

Thomasson (2017): “Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation”, Analytic Philosophy, 57(3), 1–28

[1] I take my labeling to be itself a move in terminological ethics in order to vindicate the significance of significant verbal disputes. For an alternative usage, see Burgess & Plunkett (2013).

[2] As I understand it, (Belleri 2016) argues that it is conceivable that the dispute between endurantism and perdurantism could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. As I am suggesting to construct it, dismissivism can very well accept this. After all, arguably it is conceivable that every merely verbal dispute whatsoever could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. Just conceive of a context where it turns out that something of significance depends on how the expression is to be used—imagine the world is taken by some aliens are disposed to kill whoever drinks in a martini glass.

[3] And prominently so, notice both titles: ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’ (Plunkett 2015) and ‘Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation’ (Thomasson 2017) (my underline).

[4] “[A] metalinguistic dispute can target the most general aspects of the meaning of a term (whatever that amounts to on one’s specific theory of language). Using Kaplanian terminology, a key part of this basic point is this: a metalinguistic dispute (including a metalinguistic negotiation) might target the basic character of a term.” (Plunkett 2015, 840).

[5] For more on the importance of distinguishing disagreements from their linguistic expression, see López de Sa (2015).

Featured Philosopher: Manuel Vargas

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Manuel R. Vargas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and (through the Spring 2017) Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes, he writes about the moral, psychological, and legal issues concerning human agency and freedom. He also writes about issues within Latin American and Latinx philosophy. His book, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility won the APA Book Prize in 2015. He was also a winner of the inaugural APA Prize in Latin American Thought.

If Anglo-American philosophy is so great, where is its Las Casas?

Manuel R. Vargas

Many of my philosophical friends are puzzled by my interest in Anglo-American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend my time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Las Casases, no Sor Juanas, no Villoros? If Anglophone philosophers—especially those who have studied in the U.S.—have done anything important, anything that matters, they tell me, surely there would be evidence in the other humanities, in the architecture and ambitions of the great universities, or in the visible structure of the political world. Unlike philosophy’s obviously important achievements, there is no trace of specifically U.S. Anglophone philosophical work in the symbols of state, in (for example) the mottos of universities, or in the political discourse of the day. Instead, the tradition relies on its European heritage for anything of world-historical importance, and it seems to produce barrenly scholastic irrelevancies that are of no interest to anyone outside their cloistered world.

When my friends working in Latin American, Asian, Africanist, Indigenous, and comparativist philosophy press me in this way, I protest their parochialism. I tell them that there is a great deal of interest, potential, and even payoff in the work of my colleagues in Anglophone philosophy. But to see how and why there is something of value there requires some work. You can’t expect to be familiar with the value and virtues of Anglophone philosophy without actually studying it. At the very least, before we condemn it we should have some serious study of it.

This response is usually met with some skepticism, and mutterings that from what they’ve heard, it is all derivative dreck, not particularly good, and generally irrelevant to anything that matters for real philosophy. I then hasten to acknowledge that some Anglophone work is derivative dreck, uninspired, or of little real importance. I go on to insist that other Anglophone work is wonderful, inspiring, and about things that genuinely matter.

When my friends in Latin American philosophy and beyond learn that a good deal of Anglophone philosophy has not been translated into their locally preferred philosophical languages, their interest in reading it wanes. The idea that a scholar should have to study another language in order to read material not already in their own tongue(s) strikes them as vaguely repellent, given how much good philosophy is already available to them. I sometimes detect a whiff of dismissiveness about the philosophical potential of the English language.

I suppose I could attribute their attitudes to racism or ethnocentrisms of various sorts, but that seems unlikely. After all, like philosophy elsewhere, Anglophone philosophers are of a wide and diverse set of races and ethnicities, and the neglect of Anglophone philosophy seems unlikely to be explained by something so simple and crass.

Sometimes, friends will tell me that Anglophone philosophy is just “me-studies.” My response is sometimes ill advisedly strident. I would have hoped that others would readily grant that reflections on the nature, interests, and challenges of the groups with which I affiliate might be worth some reflection, at the very least by those of us who are members of those communities. Even though Anglophone moral psychologists and metaphysicians are mostly members of a particular and easily identified social identity group this does not mean that our work fails to aspire to universality, or that it does not speak to more-than-parochial interests.

That my Anglo-American philosophical colleagues self-identify as, for example, “analytic” philosophers, and tend to overwhelmingly restrict their attention to other self-described “analytic” philosophers and their colleagues, does not mean that they are doing “me-studies.” And just because those who occupy the social position of analytic philosophers overwhelmingly fit particular demographic categories does not mean that their interest in that work is merely narcissistic interest in themselves and the ideas produced by that ilk. They—we!—earnestly think the work is good, worth reading, and genuinely valuable. Moreover, the widespread symptom of not reading outside this literature is not necessarily a judgment about other work, I tell them. It is only a reflection of their communities of discourse, their personal interests, and how they have been habituated by their local metrics of value.

At this point in the conversation, I am sometimes met with a vaguely skeptical silence, as though my other-than-Anglophone friends are too polite to voice the thought that the only reason I’m interested in Anglophone philosophy is because I was raised in a context where English was widely spoken, and that I identify in various ways with the culture and circumstances that produced this work. I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting to study issues and topics that are familiar, valorized by one’s idiosyncratic and local culture, or that one finds personally interesting. Moreover, it isn’t as though Anglo-American philosophy is one thing. There is a considerable diversity of topics, orientations, and methods in philosophy in the Anglophone world.

When I say these things, my other-than-Anglophone philosophy friends tend to get a bemused look on their face. They tend to gently press me on the hard question: why it is so hard to find work in my tradition with actual evidence of importance? Why aren’t your philosophers culturally significant figures, architects of culture and policy, or involved in the major national issues of the day, they ask? Anglophone philosophers seem exclusively concerned with the narrow topics of interest only to members of their own tribes.

I gesture at the possibility of different metrics of interestingness. This does little to alter their dissatisfaction.

In older surveys of Anglophone philosophy, written for those outside of the Anglophone world, I sometimes come across a suggestive but now impolitic idea. The idea is this: maybe there is a cultural defect in the spirit or character of Anglophone people, especially in the former colonies, that undercuts the possibility of any real philosophical value to their thought. The idea is, roughly, that the particular legacy of colonialism in much of the English-speaking world has left Anglophone philosophers in those countries inclined to flee from reality and the central challenges of human existence. So, Anglophone philosophers fixate on and regard as prestigious work on metaphysics and theoretical epistemology because these subjects are the purest escape from what is unavoidably immediate and real—ethics, politics, culture. Many but not all of my non-analytic friends think this reflects a disorder of merit. Metaphysics and epistemology have their place, of course, but it is manifestly not at the center of what matters, they say. So, they read the Anglophone preoccupation with metaphysics and epistemology as a kind of pathological cultural neurosis (helped along, perhaps, by the evident irrationalism of the English language). As one author has put it, if philosophy can be done without personal risk, then it is not worth the name.

Fortunately, diagnoses of cultural pathologies are—like satires—less commonly proposed than they once were.

I’ll close by noting that sometimes my Anglophone philosophical friends express puzzlement about my interest in Latin American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Humes and so on. The ensuing conversation is oddly familiar.

Featured Philosopher: Serene Khader

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Serene Khader is Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. She works in ethics, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy, with an emphasis on the normative questions raised by transnational feminisms. She is the author of Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment (Oxford 2011) and is completing a book on transnational feminist solidarity, also for Oxford University Press. She is also co-editor, with Ann Garry and Alison Stone, of the Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy.

I’d like to begin by thanking Meena for her work on this important blog and for inviting me to contribute. I will be using this opportunity to discuss the role arguments linking feminism and freedom play in justifying policies that harm and marginalize Muslims and claim that feminism can do without the notion of freedom operative in these arguments. I have developed these ideas further in my 2016 article, “Do Muslim Women Need Freedom?”[1]

After Khizr Khan’s comments at the Democratic National Convention, President Trump wondered aloud whether the reason Ghazala Khan had not spoken was that she had not been “allowed” to say anything. His revised Muslim ban included a clause ostensibly designed to respond to violence against women, stating that “the secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney general, shall … collect and make publicly available … information regarding the number and types of acts of gender based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.” Trump’s comments typify a common contemporary phenomenon: the use of feminist ideas to mobilize anti-Muslim sentiment. In Trump’s case, as in many others, the use of feminist rhetoric is instrumental and straightforwardly opportunist; after all, Trump supports outlawing abortion and punishing women for having abortions, has loosened federal regulations on sex discrimination and employment, and is the object of numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations. But not all cases of the invocation of feminist concerns against Muslims involve such straightforward opportunism. Many supporters of policies ranging from the de facto ban on the hijab in public schools in France to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have a history of consistent support for feminist causes.

Feminists become co-opted into supporting such policies because of a perceived conceptual connection between traditions, religious and otherwise, and women’s subordination. This perception arises from recognition of a deep and genuine problem: supporters of patriarchal practices often believe those practices are traditionally dictated, and exhort women to participate in them on such grounds. Feminism thus cannot retain its status as a normative perspective, one that deems certain forms of treatment gender unjust, without being willing to criticize traditions.

Feminists who find themselves in league with supporters of policies that harm and stigmatize Muslims often appeal to the value of freedom to explain why traditions need to be criticized. Consider, for example, this defense of banning the hijab from French public schools, written by a collective of French feminists, including philosopher and public intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter:

            To tolerate the Islamic veil is not to accept a free being (in the form of a

young girl); it is to open the door to those who decided, once and for all,

to try to bend her to their wills. Instead of offering her a space of freedom,

you send her the message that there is no difference between the school

and her father’s house. . . . It is no longer the equality of the sexes, or free

decision making—that is the law of France . . . [You want] a school in

which each student is always reminded of her parents, riveted to her roots

—a school of social predestination. (Badinter et al. 1989[2] ; translation mine)

Though there is brief mention of gender equality, the ability to cover one’s head in public is conceived in the quotation primarily as an infringement of freedom. According to the quotation, a “space of freedom,” is, by definition, a space where the markers of tradition are absent. Even to be reminded that others engage in a behavior associated with traditional adherence is to deny a young woman the ability to come up with her own ideas, to “rivet [her] to her roots.” The thought seems to be that, in order to choose freely, a person must reject tradition or not be shaped by it at all. This idea is echoed by other feminists who portray Islam as causing women’s oppression. For example, Dutch public intellectual Ayan Hirsi Ali, in a memoir describing her life in Kenya, Somalia, and Saudia Arabia, describes her journey to the West as one wherein she discovered that “faith itself was the root of oppression.”[3]

It is worth saying explicitly that this notion of freedom gains much of its plausibility from an unstated non-normative view: namely, the view that Westerners do not have traditions. To consistently apply the notion that traditional adherence, or even unquestioned traditional adherence, undermined a person’s freedom would require seeing most dress practices as freedom-undermining; yet the hijab is specially singled out.

The notion of freedom to which Ali and Badinter refer is not the one that appears in contemporary liberal political philosophy. Many contemporary liberal views allow the possibility of autonomous adherence to at least some traditional dictates. But it would be a mistake to say that the version of freedom they defend is unrelated to liberal philosophy. The ideal of freedom from tradition has important resonances with the ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberal thinkers, such as those found in Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and the lines of argument in Mill that paint tradition as an impediment to individuality. But regardless of whether the notion of freedom in question aligns with a single philosophical view, it is worth paying theoretical attention to because of its effects in our contemporary political world.

In her highly influential book Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood describes another connection between freedom from tradition and politics that harm and marginalize Muslims.[4] In addition to noting that freedom from tradition plays the Islamophobic justificatory role I described above, she argues that many Muslim women simply do not value it, and hold views about the good life that make valuing it impossible. Mahmood is an ethnographer of a group of conservative Salafist women in Cairo who have a particular understanding of what it means to lead a pious life. According to them, self-actualization is achieved through practices that must be adopted before they are fully understood, and whose value adherents are not in a position to question. For example, one of the women in Mahmood’s book describes only coming to know what modesty was after she had begun covering her hair and body.

The class of women captured by Mahmood’s concern is narrower than Muslim women in a sense and broader in another. Many Muslim women reject the view that practices that are thought to be religiously dictated cannot be questioned, and many also reject the particular practices Mahmood’s Cairo women take to be religiously dictated. On the other hand, many women who are not Muslim take some practices to be traditionally dictated, and worth doing for that reason.

So value for freedom from tradition seems to justify harm and marginalization of Muslims in two ways: it suggests that traditional adherence is essentially harmful to women (while marking only Islam and other “other” traditions as traditions), and it suggests disrespect for ways of life that place a high value on traditional adherence. Neither of these problems will seem like problems to the feminist who sees a conceptual, or just a very tight, relationship between sexism and tradition. Instead, it will seem that the same value that is the root of feminism causes Islamophia, and that feminists must choose one. Given a choice between being a relativist (or more accurately, a patriarchal apologist) and being an imperialist, it is not surprising that some feminists decide to bite the bullet of chauvinism and imperialism.

I believe instead that this dilemma is false. Feminists need not embrace wanton destruction of traditions, because feminism does not require value for freedom from tradition. Feminism, I think, is not best understood as a project of liberating women from traditions. Feminism is instead, as bell hooks wrote in an early piece, is opposition to sexist oppression.[5] Oppression, as Marilyn Frye argues in her classic work, is systematic disadvantage and powerlessness that accrues to one because one is a member of a social group.[6]

This conception of feminism accommodates the fact that traditions, and particular traditional practices, are often antifeminist without suggesting that tradition as such is the enemy. To the extent that traditions, or what are called traditions, cause women, or members of other gender-subordinated groups to be socially disadvantaged, feminists should want to change these traditions. But the link between traditionalism– that is, perceived historical external dictatedness– and oppression is contingent. Traditions can be emancipatory, and new, ostensibly chosen practices can be oppressive. For an example of the latter, consider the existence of seemingly new practices, such as the expectation that women’s genitals conform to those displayed in pornography, that disadvantage women.

Actual Muslim women’s movements reveal that calls to adhere to tradition can be deployed in ways that are explicitly feminist. Some of these movements even share the view of that tradition is unquestionable shared by the Cairo women; they just have a different interpretation of the content of Islam. For example, Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, in her early work, argues that the Qu’ran is unquestionable, but also that the Qu’ran dictates gender equality. In fact, according to her, the Qu’ran provides better tools than human reason for discerning what is wrong with oppression.[7] Many Muslim women have organized movements that oppose oppression by appealing to the value of tradition.

Once we recognize that feminism is opposition to sexist oppression, and that freedom from tradition is only contingently related to it, we can see, not only that the dilemma pitting feminism and opposition to imperialism against one another is false, but also that many feminist proponents of the marginalization of Muslims seem more strongly motivated by a parochial morality than concern about gender equality. Margot Badran, in a discussion of Islamic feminisms, writes that feminism is a tree that can grow in many kinds of soil, and perhaps a feminism that is less easily co-opted into Islamophobia would do well to recognize this.[8] Mahmood rightly ends her book with a wish for a feminist “vision of coexistence that does not require making the lifeworlds of others extinct or provisional” (2005, 199). Detaching feminism from value for freedom from tradition makes it possible to oppose sexist oppression without surrendering that hope.

[1] Politics and Gender 12: 727-753.

[2] Badinter, Elisabeth, Re´gis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Elisabeth De Fontenay, and

Catherine Kintzler. 1989. “Profs, ne capitulons pas!” Le Nouvel Observateur,

November 2.

[3] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. 2007. Infidel. New York: Simon & Schuster

[4] Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[5] hooks, bell. Feminism from Margin to Center, 1988. More recently, hooks has also offered a definition of feminism as the struggle against all oppressions. I employ her old definition, not to deny the fact of intersectionality but rather because of the problem I am trying to address in this post. The problem this article focuses on stems from the possibility of two anti-oppression aims as conflicting—the end of imperialist domination and the end of sexism. Keeping the forms of oppression analytically distinct helps us see the problem, even if the two forms of oppression are often deeply intertwined with one another in practice.

[6] Frye, Marilyn. 1983. “Oppression.” In The Politics of Reality. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press,

1–16.

[7] Wadud, Amina. 2006. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. London: Oneworld.

[8] Badran, Margot. 2001. “Locating Feminisms: The Collapse of Religious and Secular

Feminisms in the Mashriq.” Agenda 50: 41–57.