Featured Philosop-her: Carol Hay

Carol Hay

Carol Hay is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her work focuses primarily on issues in analytic feminism, liberal social and political philosophy, oppression studies, and Kantian ethics. She received the 2015 Gregory Kavka/UC Irvine Prize in Political Philosophy for “The Obligation to Resist Oppression,” chapter 4 of her 2013 book Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression. She’s the Secretary/Treasurer of the Society for Analytical Feminism.

Contrarian Resistance

Carol Hay

I’d like to thank to Meena for maintaining this blog for the philosophical community and for offering me the opportunity to contribute to it.

If I had to characterize my general philosophical approach in the broadest terms, I’d say it’s basically been to try to see what we can do with the philosophical canon that we’re not supposed to be able to. In some ways, my work is the antithesis of Audre Lorde’s admonition about not being able to dismantle the Master’s house with the Master’s tools.  I want to see just how much dismantling we can do with these tools. I think the description I like best was when Charles Mills called my work “contrarian.”

I became a philosopher and a feminist simultaneously—I was a first generation college student so I didn’t really come across any of this stuff until my formative twenties, when I was introduced to it all at once—and so a part of me has always resented feeling like I was supposed to choose one over the other.  I love the canon of analytic philosophy, especially the social contract tradition, but I also take seriously the feminist criticisms of how this tradition can and has been misused for regressive social purposes. Analytical feminism has given me a community of like-minded folks who think we should criticize this philosophical canon without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

My grad school advisor, Louise Antony, used to say that just as the bullies on playground take the good toys for themselves and won’t let anyone else play with them, people with power have tried to take all the good philosophical toys—the best ideas and conceptual frameworks—for themselves. So we see, for example, the historical claim made by many mainstream philosophers that women are less rational than men and thus less suited to philosophical thinking. Some feminists respond to these bullies by rejecting ideals like rationality and autonomy as masculinist and individualist and abstract, advocating that we replace them with concepts that are more relational or embodied or particular. I’m drawn to a different strategy, arguing that there’s a radical liberatory potential in both Kantianism and liberalism, even though other feminists have written these philosophical frameworks off as irredeemable.

My biggest project to date culminated in my 2013 book Kantianism, Liberalism, & Feminism: Resisting Oppression, where I argued that people who are oppressed have an obligation to themselves to resist. The project started when I came across an anecdote in an essay by David Foster Wallace, where he describes an incident when a friend is sexually harassed on a carnival ride and then disagrees with him afterward about whether she should complain to the management. It was one of those light bulb moments where you stumble across a lacuna in what’s being theorized, and I spent years putting together an account of how a Kantian duty of self-respect can be used to think about the duties that exist in contexts of oppression. Rather than rehashing the details of those arguments for you here, I’ll point you to an op-ed I wrote for The New York Times’ Stone column where I present the central arguments of this project.

Sometimes my contrarianism leads me to areas of philosophy outside feminism. So, for example, I have a forthcoming paper where I pull a similar move with Kant’s views on animals as I do for his views on women, arguing that he’s not nearly as retrograde as we’re used to thinking he is.  Basically, the argument here is that even on a Kantian constructivist account we can still get fairly robust proscriptions on the permissible treatment of non-intrinsically valuable things and we can build an account of what we owe to animals out of this.  And I’ve published a few other papers in the subfield of American philosophy, arguing that there are more similarities between liberalism and pragmatism than many contemporary pragmatists want to acknowledge.

But most of my work remains squarely within feminist philosophy. In some of my more recent works-in-progress I’ve started branching out to analyze kinds of oppression other than sexism. I’ve been a bit tentative about this, not because I think these other kinds of oppression aren’t important, but because I think one needs to be careful when speaking to oppressions she doesn’t herself experience. Also, I don’t want to pretend that having an area of expertise in feminist philosophy automatically entitles me to make claims about other kinds of oppression, and I’m still in the process of immersing myself in these other literatures. I’d intended my earlier arguments about resisting sexist oppression to apply, mutatis mutandis, to other oppressions, but I’m now actually starting to explore the details of this. One thing I’ve started looking at is the potential conflicts that can arise in oppressive contexts between the duty of self-respect and the duties of solidarity. As feminists at least as old as J.S. Mill have argued, solidarity simply doesn’t exist between many women, at least not in any straightforward way. Women often have more in common with the men who share their race or class than they do with women across race and class lines. This means that individual women often share stronger bonds of solidarity with other men than they do with other women. But attending to contexts of multiple oppression makes questions of solidarity more clearly relevant.

Most of us are familiar with Marilyn Frye’s description of the experience of oppression as akin to being caught in a birdcage, as being trapped, constrained, closed in on all sides. What I want to suggest is that another experience of oppression can be to be pulled in different (competing, incompatible) directions—pulled this way by one’s commitments of solidarity to one group, another way by commitments of solidarity to another group, and perhaps another way by the commitments of self-respect. Instead of a birdcage, then, oppression might sometimes be better thought of as a rack—a torture device that rips its victims apart by pulling their limbs in opposite directions. Just as Frye’s metaphor has us think of the harms of oppression as bars in a cage that function in concert to restrict the options of its inhabitant, this metaphor encourages us to think of the harms of oppression as forces that pull a victim to and fro, undermining her quality of life by preventing her from pursuing her chosen projects, living up to her chosen ideals, or fulfilling her chosen obligations.

Frye’s metaphor has stuck with us, I think, because it’s so good at illuminating some of the harms of oppression—helping us understand as harms things we might otherwise be inclined to write off as minor inconveniences or annoyances or problems that are unconnected to larger systemic and structural forces. My hope here is that the rack metaphor can do the same for other oppressive harms. And while any oppressed person can be subject to harms that result from conflicting commitments (or even any non-oppressed person, just not in virtue of their membership in a group), a multiply oppressed person is more likely to face these harms. It’s especially when thinking about the commitments of solidarity that this metaphor seems apt, then, because the more oppressed groups an individual is a member of, the greater the likelihood will be that her commitments will conflict. (Of course, being multiply oppressed can also provide opportunities for some of the most inspiring and creative activism.)

I recently received tenure, and one of the things I want to do with the freedom that comes with it is to spend more time making philosophy accessible to non-experts. There’s a growing movement in public philosophy that I think is important for both crass practical reasons and also for more lofty reasons. The crass reasons are that, even though it isn’t fair, philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, needs to be worried about justifying its existence in response to the growing corporatization of academia. The more lofty reasons are that I think there’s an important role for philosophers as public intellectuals who can provide important perspectives on social issues, and who can give people conceptual tools to think more clearly about what’s going on in the world around them. This has always been what we do in our teaching, but I think there’s now a growing recognition that there’s a place for this outside conventional classrooms. So I’ve slowly started writing op-eds in places like Aeon Magazine and the above-mentioned piece in the Times, and I’m also working with Macmillan on a handbook of feminist philosophy for a new series they have that’s pitched at making philosophy accessible to undergrads with no previous experience.

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