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Listening To The Oppressed

Three things I've seen in the blogosphere recently have touched on the issue of listening to the oppressed. First there's the dust-up among UU bloggers ostensibly* over whether one seminary was right to change the title of a seminar from "brown bag lunch" to "lunchtime conversation" over concerns that it would be offensive to black people due to associations with the "brown bag test" once used to distinguish between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I haven't read every post and comment written on the issue, but I did notice a conspicuous absence of anyone saying "hi, I'm black, and I (am/am not) bothered when a talk bills itself as a 'brown bag lunch'." It seems like that would be essential input -- or else it's just white people (and at least one person who's neither white nor black) speculating on what "those other people" do or do not find hurtful. And it contrasts unfavorably with the race debates in the feminist blogosphere, where you get lots of women of color offering their experiences (though the white women often fail to fully grapple with them).

The second thing that I've recently read on this topic is a good post by David Schraub on the complexities of listening to the oppressed. He raises two important issues that complicate the simple (albeit rhetorically very useful) demand to shut up and believe the oppressed. On the one hand, the members of a given oppressed group do not all tell consistent stories (nor can all but one of those stories be dismissed as obvious false consciousness). On the other hand, it's not always self-evident who the oppressed are (even straight white men sometimes tell sincere stories of feeling oppressed), meaning we need a way of listening that's critical without unfairly invalidating people.

The third thing that inspired this post was a post by tekanji that quoted the following comment by Yonmei about gay men objecting to how women write slash:

If you find it comfortable to play in the slash sandbox, as is, I donít think youíll find any female slash fans telling you you canít. If what you want to read is slash, no one can stop you. If what you want to write is slash, slash fans will want to read it. If you want to join in metadiscussions about slash, this is also possible - so long as you do so as a slash fan, and not as a gay man arguing that you know how gay men experience the world, and this or that in a slash story isnít it. Because then you are not trying to join in metadiscussions as just another slash fan: you are trying to distort metadiscussions about slash with male privilege.

If I actually knew what I was talking about with respect to anti-oppression issues, I'd know the term for this phenomenon, but as it is I think of it as "non-Pareto oppression." The classic examples of oppression dynamics are "Pareto** oppression" -- cases in which one person is indisputably the oppressed because they suffer from every form of oppression suffered by the oppressor plus at least one more. Non-Pareto oppression is when each party suffers from a type of oppression that the other does not. Black men versus white women is the classic example, of course. (I should acknowledge that it's a bit tricky for me to pontifficate about how to deal with non-Pareto oppression since, as a person who falls on the privileged side of any concievable non-trivial line, I can only be a party to Pareto oppression.)

My discussion here is not about who is right in the example of gay men versus slash-writing straight women. I know next to nothing about slash*** and even less about what's apparently an ongoing debate. My point is about how tricky non-Pareto oppression is and how it disturbs our easy paradigms based on Pareto examples.

The temptation with non-Pareto oppression is to reduce it to Pareto oppression. The presentation of Yonmei's quote in tekanji's post seems to do that -- since the parties are respectively men and women, the issue is treated as a man trying to use his male privilege to take control of a women-dominated space. But what struck me is how easily it could be reframed in a way that reverses the lines of privilege, since the parties are just as obviously homosexual and heterosexual, respectively. So it's easy for me to imagine seeing this from the gay man's perspective, from where it appears to be a case of some straight people exercising their privilege to define what gay sexuality is all about and appropriate it for their own entertainment.

The trick in dealing with non-Pareto oppression, then, is to ensure that you're not using your privilege on one axis to defend yourself against oppression on another. Even trickier is to ensure that your feeling of oppression on a legitimate axis of oppression is not inflated as an excuse to excercise your privilege against your ostensible oppressors. Tekanji and Yonmei clearly believe that gay slash-critics are doing that, using resistance to homophobia as an excuse to wield their male privilege against women. And perhaps the women have done just the kind of honest privilege-checking that I've described in order to come to that conclusion, rather than letting their straight privilege blind them to the harmful ways their stories deal with gay sexuality. My point is just that the way they confidently asserted that gender, not sexuality, is the important axis in what is clearly a case of non-Pareto oppression stimulated a clarification of my thoughts on the issue.

* I say "ostensibly" because the debate is also about the larger principle of when something is over-PC hypersensitivity to motes in people's eyes, and when it's genuine anti-oppression work that challenges comfortable assumptions. And there's also preexisting views of the seminary in question, which is widely viewed as representing one side or the other of that larger principle.

** The term comes from the Pareto principle, which says that a course of action is undeniably better than another if it makes at least one person better off and nobody worse off.

***Not because of any hostility to it -- it's just not my thing, as I enjoy worldbuilding from scratch.

Stentor Danielson, 20:28, |


I'm amused that my previous post on abortion -- a topic I normally make efforts to avoid posting on -- seems to have gotten more attention than anything else I've ever written. I guess now I know what to do if I ever decide I'm not satisfied with having 20 readers a day.

Stentor Danielson, 12:12, |


No Abortions For Sluts

I almost never write about abortion, but sometimes people make it too easy. Here's Kathryn Lopez's latest criticizing Planned Parenthood:

Browse on over to their Web magazine for minors,, and you'll find, among the question-and-answer, a question from a teen who says she had an abortion "a little over a month ago," is pregnant again, and wondering if a second abortion is safe. Not only does the staff cavalierly tell the girl (who, I remind you, got pregnant again a month after her first abortion) that abortion is "very safe" the first or second time around, but that abortion "is much safer than giving birth." While they do throw in a line about preventing pregnancy by using birth control, there's no talk about adoption or other alternatives - such as raising the child, and getting help to do so - that a desperate girl could afford to hear.

I'd really like to believe that pro-lifers are actually pro-life -- that is, that their position on abortion is based on misplaced but sincere concern about taking the life of the fetus. But Lopez's parenthetical gives the game away, showing that to her it's all about punishing women for failing to stay chaste. Lopez can sort of see how someone might think it's OK to get an abortion if you're a good girl who made one mistake. But if you're a little slut who went and got pregnant a second time -- well, you had your chance, now you've made your bed and you'll have to lie in it. Someone who's genuniely pro-life or pro-choice wouldn't care how many times, or how closely spaced, a person's abortions are. Either abortion is murder and so every abortion is equally bad, or abortion is just fine and so it's fine to get one on your first or hundred and first pregnancy. But to a person with a puritanical view of sex, the mother's "number" is a critical piece of information in deciding whether she's a good girl who can be cut some slack or a bad girl who needs to face the consequences.

Stentor Danielson, 01:09, |


Rawls The Communitarian

People seem to be all worked up about the recent revelation that John Rawls' undergraduate thesis argued for a basically communitarian position. Rawls is the founder of modern Political Liberalism, a school of political philosophy whose core idea is that justice is about being neutral between ideas of the good life. The first and biggest criticism of Political Liberalism came from the Communitarians, who argue that communities should endorse and promote a shared conception of the good life.

The interesting thing to me is that Rawls has always struck me as having a fairly communitarian theory, even though he makes a point of framing it in Liberal terms.

Feminists (notably Susan Okin) quickly recognized that Rawls maintains a communitarian conception of the private family sphere, presuming it to be harmonious and holding a shared conception of the good. And he is quick to resort to communitarian solutions when he encounters a problem. For example, in order to produce the kind of intergenerational savings principle that he wants, he adds the ad hoc condition that the parties in the original position are not individuals but rather heads of lineages who therefore care about their descendants (an idea that's certainly not neutral between the childfree and grandkids-having conceptions of the good life).

Rawls's theory can be reconstructed in order to eliminate his communitarian baggage with respect to the family and intergenerational concern. But his communitarian instincts are woven deeper into his theory.

Despite his rhetoric about neutrality and the priority of the Right over the Good, Rawls is not in fact completely neutral between ideas of the good. He bases his philosophy on a "thin theory of the good," specifying certain "primary goods" like freedom and respect that are necessary to most comprehensive conceptions of the good. His theory is then neutral only between "thick" conceptions of the good that are consistent with his "thin" conception. Rawls is probably right that some conception of the good is a necessary starting point for a political theory -- but that's a communitarian idea, not a purely liberal one. There is much room for debate over how thick or thin that starting-point theory of the good should or must be (since thinness is a matter of degree), but that debate gets obscured when liberals insist that the thin theory of the good isn't really a theory of the good in the relevant sense.

What's more, Rawls's theory is motivated by an overarching meta-value of having a well-ordered society. Rawls presumes everyone would want a well-ordered society, and that they'd make significant sacrifices of their other values (such as saving infidels' souls) to achieve it. The quest for order as something intrinsically valuable (not just useful for ensuring the achievement of other values) is a basically communitarian idea.

The meta-value of a well-ordered society motivates Rawls's concept of an overlapping consensus. He rejects agonism (in which differing views are engaged in unresolved tension or struggle) or a modus vivendi (in which differing views agree to compromise on a political plan) in favor of an overlapping consensus, in which different views of the good all endorse the same political setup as being right and fully consistent with their own premises. Rawls's acceptance of consensus as an ideal is a clearly communitarian position (compare it to the surprisingly liberal conception of a leftist like Chantal Mouffe, who sings the praises of agonism). What's more, the possibility of an overlapping consensus is far narrower than Rawls presumes. That is, the range of comprehensive theories of the good that could fully endorse Rawls's political position (and hence be endorsed by him as "reasonable" and worth being neutral between) is rather small.

Finally, at times Rawls admits that his theory is applicable only to modern "Western" cultures -- a strange admission for a theory whose ostensible neutrality between conceptions of the good life ought to make it universalizable. This mission does, however, help to constrain the number of conceptions of the good life that he has to try to be neutral between, allowing his communitarian groundwork to fade into the background as unobjectionable within this one cultural context. (Though the facts of colonialism and immigration make one wonder just where a society made up solely of "Westerners" is to be found.) And here the meta-value of a well-ordered society pops back up again. In The Law of Peoples -- Rawls's proposal for an international political regime -- he states that nations based on other cultures need not be Liberal in the sense of adhering to his full political program. All he demands of other nations -- even authoritarian ones -- is that they be "well-ordered."

My point is not that Rawls is a full-fledged communitarian, but rather that he seems to have a significant communitarian basis in his theory.

Stentor Danielson, 13:32, |


You're Not Just Trying To Start A Debate

Todd Zywicki quotes Greg Lukianoff making the standard argument supporting people (in his case conservatives, but the same argument is used by liberals when the situation is reversed) who have been censured in some way for expressing distasteful views:

As we often have to point out, while politeness is a virtue, it is of minuscule importance when compared with robust debate and discussion.

The problem with this argument is not that it's wrong (though calling political correctness "politeness" tends to trivialize the real motivations behind it), but that it's so rarely actually applicable. Incidents of "PC censorship" are very rarely provoked by someone trying to honestly engage in "robust debate and discussion" about their unorthodox view, though the provocateur and his defenders immediately claim that motivation. The forum and the phrasing are almost never what one would choose if one wanted to start a genuine debate aimed at open-minded exploration of ideas.

The "I was just trying to start a debate" defense concedes too much, because speech need not be aimed at open-minded debate in order to be defensible. Speech is valuable as expressive conduct -- it allows you to make your views known, and make them known in the terms that you hold them, rather than terms chosen carefully to appeal to others' framings. Expressive speech lays a claim to recognition, as an agent who can frame his or her own viewpoint. I would note that far-left protests against center-left demands for "civility" tend to get this point right -- the right to be uncivil is typically grounded in the need to authentically express oneself, not in claims that they are just trying to engage in "robust debate."

Stentor Danielson, 02:35, |