Should we invert conventional norms of moral responsibility? Lessons from Hannah Gadsby


Perhaps this is an unusual starting point for a discussion about moral responsibility, but I think that a recent cultural phenomenon is relevant to the conversation – namely, Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette. In her special, Gadsby overturns western comedic conventions by refusing to subject herself, as a gender-non-conforming person, to ridicule, and by turning comedic conventions against fragile masculinity, making it the butt of the joke. Gadsby reveals that western comedic conventions disguise social injustice by misrepresenting it as a funny punch-line, instead of a core moral violation. She reveals that the same maculinist norms are at play in the art world, and they underpin the respect given to known misogynists and pedophiles like Pablo Picasso. Gadsby provocatively insists that she has to “quit comedy,” but what she really does is expose, and overturn, the patriarchal-colonialist foundations of the comedy world, thereby creating epistemic space for non-normative identities like hers in western comedy.

In what follows, I explain how Gadsby exposes and inverts the fragile masculinity at the root of western comedy, turning it against the masculine ego (section 1); I relate how she does the same for the art world, exposing the myth of the male artistic genius as a patriarchal norm (section 2); and I explain how her insights are relevant to moral responsibility as an interpersonal practice (section 3). Specifically, I say that moral responsibility, as a system of relationships governed by subtle norms – just like comedy – is susceptible to the same critical analysis, and the same inversion of prevailing norms.

  1. Comedy

Gadsby’s Netflix special has attracted considerable attention because it defies the norms of western humour, refusing to follow the convention in stand-up comedy of setting up a joke and resolving it with a punch-line. She defies this norm using her personal philosophy of humour. On her theory, jokes build up tension in the narrative arc, and then diffuse tension in the punch-line. Thus, comedians expertly control people’s emotional responses and meticulously guide them toward a welcome release of pent-up tension – a response that Gadsby admits can be highly therapeutic. There is, however, a downside to this therapeutic exercise, and the downside may not be worth the release. Gadsby explains that punch-lines disguise or preclude the traumatic aspect of the narrative (the real ending, in her view), spinning the story into an easily digestible joke. The punch-line is something that everyone can related to (either by experience or acculturation), especially cisgender white men, since virtually all humour panders to the comedic expectations of the privileged. When members of marginalized groups perform stand-up comedy, they effectively enact the role expected of them (and imposed on them) by the cisgender white male gaze. That is, they make themselves – their identity, experiences, and traumas – the butt of the joke. Performing comedy as a minority is therefore, in Gadsby’s words, “not humility, but humiliation.” When cisgender white men efface themselves, they’re pretending to be vulnerable; when minorities efface themselves, they’re exposing their vulnerability, and then covering it up with a joke, as if to say that their vulnerability is inconsequential. Moreover, by performing comedy at all, minority comedians are conforming to toxically masculine norms that represent them as inherently ridiculous. Culture critic Aja Romano perceptively observes that “Gadsby uses her identity — the reality of her physical presence, and the literal wear and tear of discrimination on her body — to deconstruct what it means to be a comedian who has been failed by comedy. Nanette’s uneasy relationship to comedy is a reflection of what it means to exist as a queer, butch woman (or in Gadsby’s phrasing, ‘gender not-normal’) in a social system that has always made you the punchline to the joke” (July 2018). Minority comedians risk demeaning themselves by delivering humour in the western tradition – humour constructed by conventions of cisgender white masculinity. These conventions are, on average, hostile to underrepresented groups, and hospitable to cisgender white men.

This is why Gadsby says that she has to “quit comedy,” by which she means either that she must literally quit the profession (in order to be true to herself), or she must break the conventions of western humour to create epistemic space for non-normative identities like hers. In Nanette, she does the latter. She ‘finishes’ her narratives, continuing past the punchline to the traumatic denouement – the conclusion that marks her as a survivor of systemic injustice, a “gender-non-normal person.” For example, she tells a joke (from her early stand-up days) that follows the conventions of western humour, in which she is mistaken by a homophobic man (who doesn’t understand sexual orientation) as a gay man flirting with his girlfriend. Realizing his mistake, he apologizes:

“‘I don’t hit women’, he said! What a guy! What a hero!… I do understand that I have a responsibility to help lead people out of ignorance at every opportunity I can, but I left him there, people. Safety first!” 

Later in the show Gadsby returns to this story and explains that what she excluded in the original telling is that the homophobe turned around and assaulted her for being gender non-conforming. In the first version, the traumatic conclusion was suppressed for the sake of laughter and therapeutic release. This illustrates how comedic conventions prevent humour from being a potent political tool and a vehicle for the expression of non-standard identities: these norms shape narratives into jokes that conform to dominant cultural scripts. Comedians relieve the audience’s tension by making light of social injustice and thereby preserving the audience’s Just World Bias; they incite us to treat homophobic insults as benign violations, not core moral infractions. No worries – liberal democracy can survive a few homophobic slurs, surely! (we might think). Minorities are disproportionally oppressed by dominant comedic norms because their life experiences are sanitized by the demand that they conform to prevailing social conventions, including both the requirement that they make light of their own marginalization, and the demand that they trivialize injustices perpetrated against them. Western comedy, in effect, provides a safe space for fragile CWM egos, treating the offenses of the privileged as droll anecdotes instead of contemptible moral violations. Yes, Gadsby was accosted by a homophobe, but her joke suggests that we can laugh at this person and move on to the next joke, satisfied that he’s been deftly ridiculed.

In reality, the homophobe physically assaulted Gadsby and was never reported to authorities due to forces of epistemic injustice (suppression, silencing). The ‘laughable homophobe’ turns out to be – surprise! – an unprosecuted violent assailant. This punchline is hardly laughable. On top of the inherent contemptuousness of his offense, who can say what other offenses he’s committed, protected by his cultural status? Can liberal democracy survive this kind of threat – the systemic oppression of minority citizens by the unaccountable privileged? It’s hard to laugh when confronted by the essential failure of democratic institutions to apply the harm principle to cases of gender-based violence – a failure that continues unimpeded. This is the reality of toxic masculinity that most people don’t want to face – least of all at a comedy special. Gadsby’s inversion of comedic conventions reveals an uncomfortable truth – that white male privilege is a problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed, and the comedy world is complicit. She won’t let us trivialize experiences that, for her, were both formative and deeply traumatizing – though the trivializing of such experiences is the very basis of western comedy, at least as historically enacted and reinforced. Being forced to confront the reality of Gadsby’s traumatic experiences denies the audience the ‘therapeutic release’ that they expected, but this denial has its own value – it is epistemically, emotionally, and morally therapeutic. Gadsby seems to acknowledge this in her closing statement: “I want my story heard. Because what I would have done to hear a story like mine.”

Gadsby doesn’t just make the audience uncomfortable by defying the convention of stopping at the punch-line. She makes cisgender white males especially uncomfortable by ridiculing the fragility of the masculine ego. At one point in her set, she explains why she “love[s] making jokes about straight white men…” “They’re such good sports. They’re like, ‘Aw, good joke about me! That’s a refreshing perspective.'” She then makes the masculine ego the butt of the joke by launching classic miogynistic jokes at cisgender white men: “May I just suggest that you learn to move beyond your defensiveness… you need to laugh, learn to lighten up… how about a good dicking? Get a cock up you, drink some jizz… It’s not very good advice, now is it?” Gadsby continues to deploy masculine norms of humour against straight white men, saying, “very confusing time… and you’re not coping, because for the first time ever you’re a subcategory of human… not’ human neutral’… You fellas, bit soft in the belly… It’s not [reverse sexism]… You wrote the rules, read them!” Gadsby thus defies conventions of western humour in two ways – both by refusing to be the object of ridicule, and by making fragile masculinity a victim of its own prejudicial norms – specifically, by depicting men as a subcategory, susceptible to ridicule. Gadsby exposes the contradiction inherent in the masculine ego, a construct that despises vulnerability but is eminently fragile. As such, masculinity is susceptible to ridicule by its own facile logic.

2. Art

It’s not just comedy that caters to the fragility of the masculine ego – the entire art world does. Gadsby draws on her background in art history to show that Picasso doesn’t deserve to be remembered as an artistic genius, but rather as a flagrant misogynist. Picasso famously referred to women pejoratively as “either goddesses or doormats” and “machines for suffering” (Lee 2017), and he had an affair with a 17-year-old girl (6 months under the “conventional age of consent” in France, making him a rapist by conventional standards), when he was 45-years old (Richardson 2011). There is no mention of Picasso’s notable misogyny in his Wikipedia entry, aside from my own addition to the ‘talk’ section, under the heading ‘controversy.’ Perhaps Picasso deserves to be known for his contributions to the art world, but (surely) he also deserves to be known for his hatred of women. To strike his misogyny from the historical record is an injustice – one that perpetrates the myth of the male artistic genius, whose transgressions are justified by his ‘craft.’ Historian Martine Jay calls this the ‘aesthetic alibi’: a cultural excuse exploited by male artists to commit transgressions, particularly against women (Hess 2017). It’s consistent with the masculinist norms of our culture that we would see Picasso’s artistic contributions as more significant than his contributions to prevailing norms of toxic masculinity and the normalization of patriarchy-colonialism as the dominant frame of reference. Gadsby argues that Picasso’s misogyny is just as worthy of historical note as his cubism, if not more so. (What’s more important: cubism or social justice?) The fact that we privilege the aesthetic over the moral when it comes to judging pedophiles is a symptom of our commitment to patriarchal-colonialism, an order that privileges adult white men. The art world, like the comedy world, reinforces male privilege.

In criticizing Picasso, Gadsby rejects the popular division between the artist and the artistic product – a division upheld in the comedy world by the likes of Seinfeld and Chris Rock (Lowry, July 2018). She argues that artists must be judged by their character, not just their products. On scrutiny, all social institutions are harmed by the myth of male artistic genius – not just the art world, but comedy, politics, academia – indeed, democracy itself is harmed by this myth, insofar as a true democracy treats all citizens as equals. In reality, men in positions of power have succeeded in raping, harassing, and demean women with impunity from social and legal sanctions, relying on the facile alibi of ‘male ‘genius.’ Gadsby forces us to reconsider the norms that privilege men in all artistic spaces.

3. Moral responsibility

What does all this have to do with moral responsibility? Well, maybe we should question the norms of moral responsibility as well. Moral responsibility, like comedy, is a system of norms expressed through interpersonal relationships, shaped by asymmetries of power. Norms of moral responsibility, like norms of comedy, are constructed in conditions of social injustice, against a backdrop of colonial-patriarchal power. Hence, norms of moral responsibility, like norms of humour, are subtly biased against marginalized groups. I say ‘subtly’ because patriarchal-colonial norms are so pervasive and so normalized by dominant cultural narratives that they tend to be invisible. Cultural norms tend to operate through implicit bases, which are non-conscious and automatic responses to salient eliciting conditions. These factors explain why masculinity is typically seen as strong and resilient, even though the masculine ego is eminently fragile, hyper-sensitive to perceived threats, and inordinately incapable of taking a joke. Our cultural conception of masculinity isn’t just wrong – it’s positively backwards. These collective misconceptions are the result of dominant cultural scripts.

It’s widely accepted that moral responsibility is a system of relationships that operate according to subtle norms, but until recently, the fact that these norms involved patriarchal-colonial biases was under-theorized. In Michael McKenna’s earlier work (2012), he described moral responsibility (in the Strawsonian tradition) as “something analogous to an unfolding conversation of the sort occurring between competent speakers of a language, a dialogue between the morally responsible agent and who is responsible, and those in the community holding her responsible,” and he held that “being responsible is… understood as in part a function of the practices or norms informing holding responsible” (2012: 4, emphasis mine). In his more recent work, he notes that “asymmetrical power dynamics… shape the interpretive framework that in turn influences the context in which morally responsible agents act” (2018: 37). That is, social injustice informs our reactive attitudes (praise, blame) in distorting ways. This is partly because of the unfair distribution of trust in our society. McKenna observes that,

“those massively disenfranchised and without the power to guide the aim of various inquiries will be far more likely to merit some form of mitigation or excuse in certain contexts, although it should be noted that, ironically, they are often the same group of people far less likely actually to be excused. Likewise, of course, those with greater access to epistemic resources are liable to bear a greater degree of moral responsibility for their conduct since the charge ‘You should have known better’ will apply more liberally” (2018: 41).

The unequal distribution of trust in our culture is a result of cultural stereotypes. Katrina Hutchison notes that “biases and stereotypes that are widely held within a community [can] lead to systemic, discriminatory moral responsibility practices” (2018: 208).

These observations help to explain the ‘aesthetic alibi’: because men (particularly cisgender white men) are more trusted, esteemed, and valued as members of society, they can use this cultural capital to effectively escape blame for culturally normative offenses, such as raping, sexually assaulting, and demeaning women. Rape, while considered a very severe moral infraction in theory, is trivialized in practice. Traditional comedians traded in rape jokes; artists and musicians who committed statutory rape have enjoyed profitable careers (Powers 2015; Freeman 2018), the Marquis de Sade – a serial rapist – is considered by many to be a venerable philosopher. The myth of the male artistic genius is a cultural narrative that distorts our practice of holding-responsible. It makes artistic men’s violations seem forgivable, and women’s testimony, dismissible. This is just one example of a distorting cultural stereotype – there are countless others.

When holding people responsible, we should be cognizant of these cultural myths. Although we cannot introspect our implicit biases and unconscious heuristics, being vigilant of the fact that we live in a patriarchal-colonial culture could help us correct our acculturated propensity to easily forgive cisgender white men and easily blame members of marginalized groups. Strawson writes extensively about the role of excusing and exempting conditions in our responsibility practice (1963), but he never mentions the constructed alibis that are available only to privileged group-members, or the epistemic powers that privileged group-members wield against justified blame. Like Gadsby, we need to question the norms that regulate our interactions if we want to give credit where it’s due, not where social conventions tell us it belongs. This applies just as much to our responsibility norms and practices as our comedic and aesthetic norms and practices.

4. The future of comedy

While Gadsby criticizes the prevailing norms of western comedy, she doesn’t think that comedy is hopeless. She doesn’t quit comedy: she reconceptualizes it as politically potent.  (She says that, whatever she does in the future, “it will involve humor and it will involve telling a story,” though after “a good nap” (Sherer 2018). Gadsby is doing the kind of feminist humour that I promoted in earlier posts, only more radically. She’s rejecting not only the masculinist logic that underpins rape jokes and other sexist conventions, but the logic that comedy should be comforting to the majority (and discomfiting to everyone else). While she points out that comedy entices us to trivialize politically significant events, she offers us hope that comedy can be – and to some extent already is – a potent political tool.




On ‘civilizing blame’: How I learned to stop worrying and love the F-bomb

“If you speak in an angry way about what has happened to our people and what is happening to our people, what does he call it? Emotionalism. Pick up on that … You’re supposed to watch your diction … You’re supposed to be respectable and responsible when you holler against what they are doing to you.” – Malcolm X.




  1. Blame as civil discourse 

In my last post, I discussed the functionalist account of moral responsibility defended by Victoria McGeer, on which blame should not be “sanitized,” or expunged of emotional content, the reason being that the sanitizing approach isn’t psychologically realistic and misrepresents the way blame operates as a regulative force in interpersonal relationships (2012: 132). In contrast, McGeer recommends that we “domesticate” blame by “developing practices and institutions of blame that do a better job of supporting its more constructive functions” (ibid.). This project aims at “civilizing blame” or “showing that it can be a morally acceptable, even constructive feature of social life” (ibid.).

I more or less support McGeer’s project, except that I think that civilized (constructive, effectively regulative) blame can be attributed to reasons-unresponsive people as a coercive measure (consistent with traditional consequentialist approaches), specifically to contain, control, or ‘quarantine’ the recalcitrant agent for the sake of vulnerable community members – those who could be killed, injured, or marginalized by the norm violator. This type of blame can serve to signal a threat, protest a norm violation, or ‘side with’ victim-survivors, expressing allegiance, integrity, and moral sensitivity, consistent with Macalaster Bell’s multi-functional account of blame (2013). I take these aims to be consistent with the project of civilizing blame, as they can facilitate constructive social interactions. Specifically, they can serve to “change” or “inhibit” antisocial behaviours and interactions, which is blame’s principal regulative aim according to McGeer (2013: 172).

The aim of civilizing blame implies that blame should be civil. Types of blame that are consistent with ‘civility’ are, nonetheless, ambiguous, because we don’t have an uncontentious idea of what types of interpersonal practices are civil. One might assume that coercion, ostracism, yelling, shouting, and name-calling are ‘uncivilized,’ and thus inapt forms of blame, because civility calls for ‘rational,’ calm, unemotional dialogical exchanges. In my last post, I described these notions of ‘civility’ as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of ‘rationality,’ an ideal that is antagonistic to emotionality, physicality, and interdependence – traits stereotypically associated with women and racialized minorities. Feminist philosophers, however, have effectively killed this Enlightenment paradigm – a paradigm that operated to marginalize vulnerable groups within the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, I believe that residues of these associations persist in the academy, as elsewhere. These residues can be seen, for example, in accounts of blame that confine ‘apt blame’ to unemotional (sanitized) exchanges that appeal to the norm violator’s rationality. While these constraints might be philosophically appealing (to some), they’re not necessarily ‘constructive’ – in fact, they may be contrary to the aims of social justice. There is ample evidence that some people are reasons-unresponsive and pose a disproportionate threat to the community, and blaming them (in the attributive, not the accountability, sense) might serve to alert others to their presence, contain their behaviour, or reduce their reputational clout.

When McGeer says that blame should be ‘civilized’ she means that blaming norms should be structured so as to promote prosocial outcomes. We might assume that civil discourse promotes these outcomes, consistent with the orthodoxy in political philosophy. Political philosophers, more precisely, tend to agree that civility promotes the central aims of liberal democracy, such as consensus, social justice, equality, and non-domination. As such, civility is dialogically and democratically valuable. Recently, however, philosophers have challenged this orthodoxy, noting that civility norms tend to oppress marginalized groups, and consensus might be less epistemically and politically valuable than its opposite: dissent, disagreement, and diversity. If these critiques are right, then civility might not be as valuable as we tend to think, not only in the marketplace of ideas, but in the blaming exchanges that occur within this dialogical space.

In this post, I question the value of civility in our blaming practices, and in liberal democracies in general. ‘Civility’ is canonically associated with ideals of moderation, tolerance, temperance, social etiquette, and social conformity – qualities that don’t necessarily promote prosocial interactions, though they are perceived as conducive to the ideals of liberal democracy in the political treatises of Locke, Rawls, Holmes, and others. In reality, conventional norms of civility often serve to oppress marginalized groups and suppress political activism, suggesting that civility might be less valuable than the competing ideal of moral respect, i.e., respect for the dignity of moral agents.

I don’t say that civility in the conventional sense is of no value, but I argue, following critiques of civil discourse as a democratic ideal, that civility norms are politically and epistemically dangerous, and that they are of much less political and epistemic value than moral norms, with which they can compete. Often, calls for civility serve no purpose or distract from salient moral reasons, in which case civility appeals are epistemically and politically corrupt. Moral claims that violate civility norms, moreover, can be epistemically and politically potent, because incivility can be an effective rhetorical device. For these reasons, we should be cautious of appeals to the value of civility.

In section 2, I survey the arguments against the epistemic and political value of civility in moral and political philosophy; in section 3, I respond to a popular defense of conventional civility; and in section 4, I outline the implications for theories of blame.

2. The perils of civility 

Recently, journalists have touted the political value of “incivility” (in the conventional sense of impolite, emotional, dissenting). For example, Jessica Valenti (2018) praised Robert Deniro for using his airtime at the Tony Awards to yell “Fuck Trump,” and lauded Samantha Bee for defying civility norms to mock Trump’s supporters on her show. Velenti argues that “expecting those of us who are scared and angry over what our country is becoming to speak with civility is absurd – civility died the day Trump took office. It’s like telling a woman to smile as she’s being sexually harassed on the street: we’re not just supposed to put up with injustice, we’re meant to be cheerful through it, as well.” Valenti also argues that “meeting extreme injustices with polite banter plays right into the hands of this administration, because it paints their outrageous actions as just being on one side of a well-meaning debate. They’re not. This is not about disagreement, or political discourse. This is about fighting for what’s right over what is clearly and demonstrably evil.” Finally, “being spittingly angry will not drive more people to Trump and will not diminish us – the high road is about morals, not a few curse words.” Velenti, in sum, argues that calls for civility can be morally disrespectful, and perhaps even harmful, to socially marginalized groups; they can be contrary to social justice; and they are unlikely to further embolden Trump supporters, who are already highly politically enfranchised, and, in some cases, insensitive to criticism, if not evil. (Case in point: Jeff Sessions, who defended the practice of tearing children away from their parents at the border and putting them in cages in an abandoned Walmart, if they’re not handed over to sex traffickers first). If civil discourse promotes social justice (as McGeer says), then these arguments in favour of ‘incivility’ prompt us to reconsider what we take civility to mean. Incivility in the conventional sense might actually be ‘civilized’ in McGeer’s terms.

Political scholars have raised similar questions about the meaning of ‘civil discourse.’ Andrew Calabrese (2015) highlights the tensions between ‘civility’ as conventionally understood and social justice. He describes civility as speech constrained by principles of moderation, tolerance, temperance, and respect. These principles have been extolled by the likes of Aristotle, who deemed temperance and continence more valuable than courage, because the former virtues operate to constrain passions and bodily pleasures stereotypically associated with women and enslaved persons; Locke, who described petty theft and property damage as ‘uncivilized’; and Mark Kingwell, who defends civility as a preeminent democratic virtue because it “increases the likelihood of [mutual] understanding,” which putatively coheres with Mill’s ideal of the marketplace of ideas, in which citizens exchange ideas in the pursuit of truth (Calabrese 2015: 541-7). Calabrese doesn’t dispute the idea that civility in the conventional sense has democratic/epistemic value, but he denies that it is more valuable than social justice and equality, while highlighting that civility as such is often antagonistic to these democratic aims.

On scrutiny, all of the prevailing defenses of ‘civility’ are misguided or myopic. The Lockean description of ‘uncivil’ crimes neglects the social substructures that make theft a necessity or rational choice for politically disenfranchised groups and misrepresents corporate crimes and government corruption as comparatively “genteel and civil,” because perpetrated by the privileged (Calabrese 2015: 543). In fact, neoliberal economic theories tend to whitewash the fact that economic transactions in the West rest on “a history of barbarism, not civility” (543), involving the disenfranchisement and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples and other racialized minorities. Conventional notions of civility still serve to marginalize racialized minorities by quelling political activism. Malcolm X cautioned African Americans to be wary of calls for ‘civility’ that exhort them to ‘moderate’ their “emotions” and “diction” – rhetorical maneuvers that Calabrese identifies as an exercise of “the disproportionate ability of the powerful to define the terms of civil discourse and to question the civility of the weak, thereby discrediting the validity of the latter’s message” (547). Calls for civility in response to leigitmate political dissent are, consistent with King’s observations, a tool of epistemic injustice, used to silence dissidents. People who defend norms of civility often invoke Mill as their inspiration, but Mill acknowledged that civil discourse isn’t necessarily egalitarian, since the privileged are capable of using their political clout to silence the oppressed: “There is an unfair advantage,” he wrote, “for the powerful in defining ‘intemperate speech’. Those so accused have to go to great lengths to gain acceptability and may fail anyway because the judges are the ones being challenged. Conversely, the judges have full rein over how bitterly they can assault the challengers without consequence to themselves and their views” (Calabrese 2011: 547, citing Mill 1974: 117). Mill recognized the naive platitude according to which civil discourse will produce democratic consensus as “one of those pleasant falsehoods,” “a piece of idle sentimentality” (1869: 90, cited in Calabrese 2015: 546). Taking into account the history of ‘civility rhetoric’ as a tool of political oppression, Calabrese describes the orthodox belief in civil discourse as “the most likely means of ensuring just outcomes” as “liberalism’s greatest pathology,” a misguided “article of faith,” and ” a belief against all evidence to the contrary” (2015: 540). Political philosophers have been far too sanguine about civil discourse’s capacity to produce voluntary consensus around shared political principles, let alone consensus around principles of social justice. In reality, political protest tends to be perceived as ‘uncivilized’ because it is a response to forces of political oppression that have been normalized, institutionalized, and theorized as the result of a fair decision-making procedure.

Christopher Zurn is more optimistic about the value of civility, but he still describes it as “another illusionistic ideal” (2013). By this he means that civility functions better as a mechanism for social justice in theory than in practice. Following Cheshire Calhoun’s definition of civility as a personal virtue (2000), Zurn defines political civility as an inherently ambiguous notion, involving both social conformity and moral regard. Specifically, civility is “the use of prevalent norms of interaction… to communicate basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance, and considerateness” (Zurn 2013: 344). The notion of civility is intrinsically ambivalent because social conventions are often morally disrespectful, particularly toward marginalized groups: for example, sexist social conventions may require men to ‘show respect’ to women by holding doors open for them, thereby (implicitly) infantilizing them and reducing their social status (Turn 2013: 345; Calhoun 2000: 262). Political philosophers like Rawls and Holmes have defended civility as a political ideal on grounds that it generates “reliable knowledge” and facilitates “productive political reasoning” on the basis of that knowledge (Zurn 2013: 348). We have already seen, however, that J. S. Mill was skeptical of the epistemic value of civility, and worried that “the despotism of custom” could undermine productive political negotiation (1978, cited in Zurn 2013: 355). Calls for ‘civility’ in conditions of political oppression could easily serve to silence or smother political minorities, facilitating the dreaded “tyranny of the majority” (Mill 1878). Conventional norms of civility have historically served to politically disenfranchise not only racialized minorities, as Malcolm X noted, but also women. When Fannie Wright, one of the first American feminist activists, spoke at a public event for the first time, The New York Free Enquirer described her as having, “with ruthless violence broken loose from the restraints of decorum, which draws a circle around the life of a woman”; The Louisville Focus wrote that she had “leaped over the boundary of female modesty,” and The New York American stated that Wright had “waived all claims” to courtesy, since by speaking in public she “ceased to be a woman” and became, instead, “a female monster” (Cmiel 1991, cited in Zurn 2013: 356). These are examples of cultural norms of civility operating to undermine women’s democratic standing. Iris Marion Young (2000) notes that the politics of ‘civility’ often serve to marginalize women, whose public speech is deemed ‘uncivil.’ Marginalized groups are particularly susceptible to being painted as ‘unreasonable’ and epistemically incapable of making ‘civil’ contributions to public discourse.

Like Calabrese, Zurn acknowledges the potential political and discursive value of civility while emphasizing its dark side. He cautions that, while “the justification for civility is egalitarian at its core,” oppressive uses of civility rhetoric reveal that “civil discourse may actually undermine its own central normative goal of contributing to an egalitarian society” (357). This doesn’t mean that civility isn’t an ideal, but it may be a subordinate ideal compared to the more important democratic aims of equality, social justice, and non-domination. Indeed, even well-intentioned calls for civility can be politically harmful, in that they can stand in the way of political progress. Mill and Richard Boyle both recognized the conformity dimension of civility. They cautioned that an excessive focus on civility could provoke dangerous social conformism and stymie progress toward liberal ideals of social justice and equality. Similarly, modern political activists worry that an emphasis on civility could “impinge on traditions of activism and dissent that have been so important to progressive political change in American politics” (Zurn 2013: 355). In the era of inhumane immigration policies and xenophobia, these worries are particularly germane. While Trump has been defended by Fox & Friends as a “defender of Western civilization” (Derespina 2017), his critics have been called “raunchy,” “profane,” and “vulgar” (HR 2018). This exemplifies how civility norms tend to be yoked to partisan political interests, instead of deployed in the service of egalitarian goals.

Calhoun (2000), as we saw, tries to give civility a coherent philosophical definition that distinguishes it from other virtues, drawing on the tradition of political philosophy (e.g., Rawls, Kingwell). On her definition, civility communicates moral regard through established social norms. Respectful actions can thus be uncivil, and civil actions can be disrespectful. As an example of the latter (disrespectful civility), Calhoun cites the U.S. Government’s erstwhile “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which required military personnel to hide their sexual identity. While Calhoun recognizes that social conventions can be in tension with moral respect, she denies that civility, as a virtue constrained by convention, is without value; instead, she defends the political orthodoxy on which norms of civility “regulate discussion of controversial subjects so that dialogue among those who disagree will continue rather than break down,” which facilitates democratic consensus (269). She also holds, however, that because duties of civility can conflict with moral duties, civility must have limits, and these limits are set  by social consensus as opposed to individual conscience. That is, it is not for the individual to decide whether civility can be suspended: this question is decided by “extensive social consensus” (Calhoun 2013: 271). For example, “given extensive social disagreement over the moral status of homosexuality…, civility may require what, from one’s own socially critical moral viewpoint, seems excessive accommodation to prejudice” (Calhoun 2013: 273). Civility thus requires us to forsake our moral integrity in favour of norms of civility on contentious issues – issues that have not been decided by general agreement. Refusing to favour consensus over integrity, says Calhoun, is “a kind of hubris” (275), which should be avoided.

Although Calhoun is aware of the oppressive role that norms of civility play in political discourse, she is still optimistic that civility generally plays a positive role in regulating discourse and producing democratic consensus, which grounds the value of civility over moral integrity. Calhoun’s optimism, however, rests on a flawed epistemological model – one that places too much faith on the value and viability of democratic consensus. By defining the parameters of civility by ‘extensive social consensus,’ Calhoun gives too much epistemic and political power to the majority, and too little to minorities whose situated insights are marginalized. Minorities are in a position to offer insight into moral flaws in our system of civility conventions – flaws that mistake productive dissensus for ‘uncivil disruption,’ perceive gender and racial attributes as ‘uncivil,’ and see non-violent political oppression, such racist incarceration norms, as a ‘civilized’ use of state power.

Jose Medina raises a potent criticism to so-called “consensus views” in political philosophy, which neglect “the epistemic value of dissent” (Medina 2012: 11). He agrees with prominent relational egalitarian Elizabeth Anderson that “conditioning decisions on the achievement of consensus often leads to undue pressure on and even coercion of dissenting minorities” (Anderson 2006: 16, cited in Medina 2012: 11, emphasis mine). These pressures undermine substantive equality and promote majoritarian tyranny. Medina proposes an alternative model of deliberative democracy – the resistance model, on which democratic citizens are deterred from seeking consensus, and encouraged instead to “actively search for dissenting viewpoints and… benefit from critical engagement with them” (Medina 2006: 11). On this model, we are called on to resist assimilation and focus on the epistemic value of dissent, contention, and diversity. The resistance model explicitly rejects the classic ‘idealistic illusions’ of political philosophy, which envisage democratic consensus as a realistic goal; by contrast, Medina takes dissensus as the starting-point for political theorizing, and seeks to resolve “specific problems and complaints” (or points of dissent), rather than forcibly assimilating minority standpoints into an epistemic melting pot, a static social contract (Medina 2013: 12). Medina’s view rejects generalizations about the value of consent-fostering mechanisms (e.g., civility), instead promoting the neglected value of “oppositional discourses” and “counterhegeominc publics” (2013: 16). While Medina doesn’t explicitly deny that civility is a virtue, he does deny that consensus is a preeminent democratic goal (contrary to the philosophical tradition), and, since consensus is the foundation of the value of civility (on Calhoun’s view), the resistant model deflates the instrumental value of civility, replacing it with the ideals of dissensus, diversity, and dynamic negotiation.

Another patent problem with Calhoun’s view is that she expects “us” to sacrifice “our” moral integrity for the sake of political consensus, but, in practice, it is clearly political minorities who are called on to sacrifice their moral integrity, since they are the ones being trammeled by the ‘extensive social consensus’ that favours the standpoint of the majority. Sexual minorities, for example, are the ones required to forfeit their moral integrity for the sake of ‘civil discourse’ and ‘consensus,’ with no reciprocal sacrifice expected from the cisheterosexal majority. This one-sided demand is patently unfair, epistemically unjust, and gives too much power to the privileged. This example perfectly illustrates why the consensus model is flawed: it obliges minorities to submit to epistemic marginalization, allowing the privileged to decide the parameters of civility. In fact, minorities are not only obliged to conform to dominant conventions of civility, they are obliged to participate in the means of their own oppression – to accept norms of civility that represent their political claims, lifestyles, and identities, as ‘uncivil.’ Refusing to conform to these norms, however, is ‘a kind of hubris,’ i.e., a moral and epistemic failing. Dissenters are thus painted as ‘uncooperative’ and ‘selfish’ for defending their basic moral worth. The demand that minorities sacrifice their moral integrity and epistemic standing for the sake of a consensus that prioritizes the values of the majority smacks of gaslighting (David & Ernst 2016) – it ropes minorities into complicity in their own oppression. This demand also rests on a theoretical ideal of democratic consensus that may never come to fruition, and, if Medina is correct, isn’t particularly valuable. More valuable than consensus is dissensus, and dissensus is compatible with – perhaps even requires – epistemic resistance, political activism, and opposition to assimilation.  Acts of civil disobedience that violate norms of civility can be a valuable form of dissent.

This isn’t to say that civility has no value, but its value has been greatly exaggerated by political theorists who overstate the importance and viability of democratic consensus. Oppressed minorities don’t just lie down and accept their own oppression – they fight back. ‘Consensus’ is often political oppression disguised as agreement; it is a denial that dissenting viewpoints exist at the margins of the marketplace of ideas, which ignores their democratic legitimacy. Demanding that political minorities relinquish their moral integrity for the sake of political consensus is insulting and unfair, and neglects the fact that minorities have situated insights unavailable to the privileged – insights that challenge conventional norms, ideals, and practices. These insights are dismissed in majoritarian decision procedures. When conventional and moral norms come into conflict, surely morality should take precedence. To insist on norms of civility when political activists are asking for basic moral recognition is, frankly, borderline psychopathic (Nichols 2004): it fails to recognize the priority of the moral over the conventional.

Devonte Torriente (2017) eloquently explains why calls for civility in the current political climate are disrespectful to marginalized groups, those most harmed by the status quo:

“At a time when there is a man in power who has a history of sexual violenceagainst women, wants to deport millions of undocumented Latinx people, seeks to ban Muslims from entering the country, is a certified racist, and has a blatant disregard for anything or anyone who does not serve to inflate his ego and support his demagoguery, civil discourse is not a virtue. Instead, civil discourse functions to uphold the violent and oppressive norms of white supremacy, the patriarchy, and any other system that targets marginalized communities. It silences our resistance efforts, backing us into a corner where we are powerless and unable to dismantle the very systems that exploit us and threaten our existence” (Devonte Torriente 2017).

Often, even earnest appeals to civility do little more than divert attention away from compelling moral claims. When Michelle Wolf called Mike Pence a flaming sexist by saying that he would enjoy the misogynistic dystopia “A Handmaid’s Tale” – alongside a battery of other conventionally uncivil criticisms leveled at Trump’s cabinet –  she was called “vulgar” and “profane” by critics who lost the moral force of her message (Keneally 2018). Would it be better if she had written a precise philosophical critique of Pence’s policy commitments, bereft of ‘incivil’ criticisms – criticisms that defy conventional norms of considerateness, tolerance, respect, and agreeableness? If Wolf had written a ‘civil’ and ‘balanced’ critique, she wouldn’t have been invited to speak at the White House Correspondents Dinner, because her rhetorical practices would have been considered mundane, boring, and toothless. Her ‘uncivil’ rhetorical practices are what enabled her to speak in front of millions of people – they are what make her funny. Conventional civility violations, in fact, are constantly on display in liberal democracies, in which they are protected speech. Comedy is a dialogical space in which civility violations are common, and in political satire they are typically deployed in the service of a political or moral message. Michelle Wolf and Samantha Bee, for example, use incivility to promote a feminist agenda and to defy cultural norms of femininity, advancing women’s rights. If incivility makes their feminist message more visible, persuasive, or compelling, then incivility facilitates the democratic aims of social justice, equality, and non-domination. In general, if uncivil speech promotes moral regard for marginalized groups, thereby enhancing equality, it has redeeming democratic value.

Civility violations aren’t common in academia, but they’re found almost everywhere else, and when academics dismiss them as ‘undemocratic’ or ‘inappropriate,’ they’re being fusty, supercilious, impractical. Academic treatises – especially historical ones – aren’t popular in part because they’re completely out of touch with the rhetorical norms enjoyed and expected by ordinary people. By contrast, Samantha Bee reaches millions of viewers because she uses ordinary, conversational English, humour, and profanity, and if she were to trade these ordinary discursive practices for academic conventions, she would be off the air in a minute. Conventional incivility is a normal part of the dominant culture, a persuasive rhetorical device, and a vehicle for cultural knowledge. As such, it can be politically potent. If the dominant aims of civil discourse include promoting social justice, equality, and non-domination, then conventional incivility has a place in the marketplace of ideas, and can even be a virtue if used with discretion. While we might want to restrain civility violations – particularly those that either transgress moral norms or serve no moral purpose – there is no compelling reason to eliminate them. Indeed, violations of conventional norms of civility can enhance democratic participation and equality by re-focusing attention on moral norms, rejecting conventional norms of gender, race, and class, and recognizing the epistemic value of unconventional insights. Eliminating incivility from our speech, in any case, would confine us to fusty old Ivory Tower conventions that simply bore and alienate ordinary English speakers – conventions that perhaps enjoyed their heyday in the Victorian Era, when etiquette (a marker of ‘civility’) was highly valued as a means of marking class distinctions and oppressing the poor. Fortunately, etiquette is losing its cachet, making room for genuine moral concern. In modern liberal democracies, incivility is expected, persuasive, and politically efficacious, and can serve to advance the core aims of liberal democracy.

3. Objection

The likely objection to this position is that people like Donald Trump use ‘uncivil’ language in problematic ways, and their incivility is harmful to democracy. But this claim is something of a red herring. The real problem with Trump’s speech isn’t that it’s uncivil, but that it’s immoral – he spews moral venom and press briefings and commits moral infractions in 64 characters or less, every day. Focusing on his uncivil language simply distracts from the central issue – his abysmal moral character. When Trump called Hilary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the primaries, the real issue wasn’t that he used the word “nasty,” but rather that he used a familiar misogynistic slur, which is an offense against women and, as such, antagonistic to the democratic ideals of gender equality and inclusive democratic participation. Perhaps expressing sexism in uncivil terms is worse than expressing sexism in civil terms, but “civil sexism,” otherwise known as casual misogyny, is more pervasive, insidious, and potentially more harmful than explicit sexism, as it tends to go under the radar. If Trump had simply said that women who run for office are vulgar creatures, we wouldn’t have t-shirts emblazoned with “Nasty Woman” as a sign of feminist pride. So, Trump’s penchant for uncivil language might actually be good for democracy, because it’s pithily stupid. If his sexism were more intelligent, it would be less transparent – it would be the ordinary, mundane misogyny that we encounter everywhere, including academia. Sexism presented in the guise of intelligent criticism is harder to protest, because it’s protected by a thin veneer of intellectual respectability; people tend to dignify it with civil responses instead of dismissing it as the intellectual diarrhea it is. Whether a misogynist says that he “grabs women by the pussy” or that he sexually assaults women because he doesn’t respect them, he’s committing the same moral infraction, but in two different rhetorical guises. By focusing on the speaker’s diction, we risk neglecting the moral content of his speech.


Civilized oppression, in general, is arguably more malignant than uncivilized oppression. Jean Harvey uses the term “civilized oppression” to describe seemingly small actions that generate “long-term patterns of exclusion, subordination, and denigration, that can have a devastating cumulative impact, not only on the psychological wellbeing of the victims, but also their opportunities, life-path, and chances of fulfillment” (2010: 15). These oppressive forces can be difficult to detect because they are non-violent and culturally normative. They include tacit forms of discrimination like casual sexism and implicit racism (Mikkola 2016: 227). Because civilized oppression is subtle, pervasive, and systemically reproduced in all major social institutions, it can’t be eliminated by legal reform – it requires a collective political response (Harvey 2010). When people respond to civilized oppression with criticism, however, their criticism can be mis-perceived as ‘uncivilized,’ in relation to an ostensibly ‘civilized’ political system, ‘justified’ by political consensus. Similarly, covert forms of racism and sexism tend to be perceived as ‘civil,’ while responses to those infractions are misperceived as ‘uncivil.’ Because ‘civility’ is constructed by forces of civilized oppression, we should be wary of invoking conventional norms of civility in response to political dissent. When evaluating acts of civil disobedience, we should choose a moral evaluative framework over a conventional one.

4. Implications for civilizing blame

This post is about how we should go about civilizing blame, consistent with McGeer’s functionalist proposal. McGeer describes the project of “civilizing blame” as “showing that it can be a morally acceptable, even constructive feature of social life” (2013: 132). In particular, civilized blame serves to inhibit antisocial behaviour and promote prosocial behavior. McGeer doesn’t explain what ‘civility’ means, but the term has well-known cultural connotations, rooted in moral and political philosophy. Civility is canonically associated with moderation, tolerance, temperance, and conventional expressions of moral regard. Civility is also canonically taken to facilitate civil discourse, producing un-coerced consensus around values of social justice, fairness, and non-domination. It is far from clear, however, that civility actually serves these aims. In practice, conventional norms of civility often function to oppress marginalized groups and protect social hierarchies. They may facilitate epistemic and political gains in some cases, but fastidiousness about civility can lead to political oppression, epistemic marginalization, and the quasi-psychopathic fetishization of conventional norms. Moreover, violations of civility norms are an ordinary and pervasive part of liberal democracies, and these violations often facilitate social justice, equality, and democratic participation. Violations of civility norms, then, can have positive democratic value. Rather than censoring f-bombs and other ‘uncivilized’ locutions, we should be using them for democratic purposes.

Since McGeer defines ‘civilizing blame’ as developing moral practices that promote prosocial behavior, conventional incivility is, on her definition, often ‘civilized.’ Conventional incivility thus has a place in a civilized blaming system.


What kind of functionalism is the right kind? Blame as contemptuous attributions of moral flaws

1. What kind of functaionalism is the right kind?

An edited volume on moral responsibility entitled “Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibility” (2018) recently came on the market, and it is consistent with my current project of exploring moral responsibility as an interpersonal practice embedded in conditions of epistemic injustice. In this post, I will respond to Jules Holroyd’s endorsement of one species of functionalism over another: Victoria McGeer’s “scaffolded-responsiveness view,” in contrast to Manuel Vargas’ “circumstantialist view” (both of which I have discussed favourably in previous posts).

Both views hold that praise and blame should function to morally influence the target agent in positive ways; Vargas, however, believes that responsibility attributions should influence the target agent through the operation of the person’s reasons (as opposed to coercively), holding fixed the person’s motivational profile, while McGeer believes that responsibility attributions shouldn’t merely appeal to the person’s existing reasons, but should sensitize the person to new reasons. (Her view, in other words, hedges more closely to reasons externalism). McGeer’s view thus allows for a broader notion of blame: insensitive people are amenable to blame if they can be sensitized to relevant reasons by exposure to the right reasons or circumstances or people. Thus, on McGeer’s view, moral responsibility attributions are fitting if the audience is capable of “capacitating” the target agent (Holroyd 2018: 145). Vargas’ view, by contrast, deems agents non-responsible if they are insensitive to relevant reasons in the circumstances, which is the defining feature of “circumstantialism” (Holroyd 2018: 137). For example, if Bill makes a sexist joke because he was unaware of the impolitic nature of the joke, he is circumstantially non-responsible, and thus impervious to blame (on Holroyd’s interpretation of circumstantialism). McGeer allows that agents can be responsible (and blameworthy) if they weren’t sensitive to relevant reasons in the circumstances, but were sensitive to audience expectations. That is, she rejects the circumstantialist constraint.

In a co-athored paper with Philip Pettit, McGeer argues that reasons-responsiveness (the basis of the capacity for moral responsibility) entails not only a sensitivity to relevant reasons, but also the capacity to “adjust in the presence of [new] reasons and, after adjustment, to register and act on them” (2015: 174). This stipulation lends responsibility an appealing “ecological character” (ibid.). On this view, your responsibility status depends on both your reasons-responsiveness and your audience-responiveness. You ought to adapt to the expectations of your audience, and if you don’t, you may be responsible for an infraction precisely because you failed to exercise due audience-sensitivity.

Holroyd says that the scaffold-responsiveness view is more plausible than the circumstantialist view because (1) it fits better with our ameliorative aims, which include sensitizing people to moral reasons (McGeer’s view sensitizes more people across more contexts), (2) it is more consistent with our general belief that most people are responsible across various circumstances, as opposed to having domain-specific agential capabilities, and (3) it better coheres with our standard practice of holding almost everyone responsible, or of assuming what Strawson calls “the participant stance” toward virtually everyone except for young children and severely cognitively impaired adults.

I think that this response taps into a subtle but important difference between the two versions of functionalism, and I agree that an apt account of moral responsibility should be fairly broad, licensing us to blame more than just circumstantially reasons-responsive people, contra Vargas; but I think that McGeer’s view is, in some respects, too conservative, by which I mean that the scope of civilized blame is still too narrow. This is partly because McGeer, like most responsibility scholars, is concerned with restricting blame’s extension (rather than expanding it), because blame is seen as an ‘unruly’ and ‘dangerous’ emotional response to perceived norm violations and norm violators. To her credit, McGeer (2014) rejects the commonplace attempt to ‘sanitize’ blame by expunging it of negative emotional content (anger, resentment, indignation), and proposes a more psychologically realistic model that aims to  ‘civilize’ blame by confining it to emotional and unemotional responses that effectively regulate behaviour – specifically, responses that inhibit antisocial practices and promote prosocial practices. Thus, the ideal of civilized blame preserves the affective character of ordinary blame, but confines blame to effective regulative interactions, i.e., interactions that positively influence the target agent(s).

I should also clarify that, while Holroyd describes McGeer’s position as one on which blame functions to ‘capacitate’ the norm violator, it’s not clear to me that civilized blame only serves this regulative function. In Civilizing Blame, McGeer describes blame as a “dynamic trajectory of unfolding events,” which “we recognize as having a normatively appropriate, even desirable structure because of the potential power it has to develop the moral understanding of all parties in a normative dispute—most importantly, the offender’s, but often as well the moral understanding of those who would call the offender to account.” (McGeer 2015: 175). The scope of blame is somewhat ambiguous here, but the passage seems to suggest that civilized blame could have a regulatory effect on people other than the transgressor – perhaps the blamer, and perhaps also witnesses to the exchange. If this is not McGeer’s understanding of blame’s extension, then I reject her view, for reasons that I will outline shortly.

Although McGeer’s account of blame is broader than most of the competing views (e.g., eliminativism, sanitizing, and circumstantialist approaches), it is, to my mind, still too narrow. It is too narrow because it still excludes many examples of ordinary, well-motivated, and effective regulative blaming practices – examples that we encounter in our daily lives, though they are arguably underrepresented in the philosophical literature. These are examples of individuals blaming reasons-unresponsive agents for norm violations that pose a threat to the community. While Holroyd champions McGeer’s view because it rests on the assumption that most people are rational, in reality there is abundant evidence that many people are reasons-unresponsive, and we tend to blame them (in the sense of affectively attributing negative moral traits to them). Indeed, when state interventions fail to defend people against violence and harassment, blame is our only resource for identifying and isolating wrongdoers, protesting their actions and values, and expressing due sympathy and solitarity with victims of the agent’s offenses.

In this post, I will propose politically important modifications to preeminent functionalist theories of blame – theories that define ‘apt blame’ in terms of negative reactive attitudes that can be reasonably expected to influence the rational faculties of the norm violator. I argue that this definition is too narrow as well as too politically conservative. In my view, apt blame doesn’t need to have expected or predictable effects – it only needs to have conceivable (hoped for) effects (section 2); it doesn’t need to influence the norm violator per se – it can serve epistemic and motivational aims that have nothing to do with the norm violator, including the aims of imposing costs on the perpetrator against that person’s will and expressing sympathy with victims (section 3); it rejects the premise that almost everyone is reasons responsive as an optimistic illusion (section 4); it accepts consequentialist interventions, such as conditioning, controlling, and confining recalcitrant agents, provided that these methods promote social justice and equality (section 5); and it rejects conventional ‘rationality’ constraints on blame – constraints rooted in the outdated racist and sexist paradigms of the Enlightenment (section 6).

On my definition of blame, blame is not necessarily a reaction to a reasons-responsive norm violator (though it can be); it can also be a contemptuous attribution of malignant attributes to a reasons-unresponsive norm violator. Thus, blame is appropriate for both reason-responsive and reasons-unresponsive wrongdoers. Blame is appropriate in both cases because in both cases it can serve epistemic, motivational, and moral purposes. In the second case (reasons unresponsive wrongdoers), the demand for accountability is suspended in light of the agent’s inability to respond sensitively, but negative emotions are not necessarily suspended. This is because negative emotions can (I shall argue) serve important moral functions. This account fits nicely with a functionalist reading of Strawson, on which participatory reactions demand accountability, whereas objective attitudes seek to isolate, manage, handle, or treat reasons-unresponsive offenders – precisely the things that blame in the contemptuous-attributive sense does, on my view.

 2. Radical blame vs. expected blame

On McGeer’s scaffolded-responsiveness view, blame is civilized (and justified) if it serves a moral-regulatory function. This means that civilized expressions of blame can be expected to positively influence the target, either by connecting with the target’s subjective reasons, or by motivating the target to adapt to the audience’s expectations (McGeer & Pettit 2014). Holroyd describes the scaffolded-responsiveness view as one on which “responsible agency is constituted by the capacity for responsiveness to reasons directly, and indirectly via sensitivity to the expectations of one’s audience (whose sensitivity may be more developed than one’s own)” (2018: 137). People who lack sensitivity to reasons and/or sensitivity to audience expectations are therefore not amenable to blame, as blaming them would not have the desired regulatory effects.

My first, and most minor, objection is that the notion of expected regulative efficacy is too conservative, because it rules out radical blaming acts based on non evidential political ambitions – the kinds of motives that spark political movements. Instead of expected efficacy, I propose hoped-for efficacy as the minimal constraint on civilized blame. The reason is that counter-cultural blame tends to be culturally unintelligible when first deployed, but those blaming acts or tokens are a necessary precondition for radical epistemic and political change. For example, when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter, they couldn’t have foreseen the massive political impact that it would have, thought they surely hoped it would spark political change. The hope for regulative efficacy is sufficient, in my view, for a blaming act to count as civilized, whereas the expectation of efficacy is too politically conservative – it doesn’t allow legitimate blame to take place under conditions of severe political and epistemic oppression.

Hope differs from both expectation and belief in that it is not supported by the balance of evidence. McGeer, in fact, describes hope as a type of forward-directed “energy”, an “investment of our efforts toward some state or condition that has value for us” (2004: 109). Unlike expectation, hope isn’t based on evidence – it “renounces the very process of weighing whatever evidence there is in a cool, disengaged, and purportedly objective way” (McGeer 2008: 240). When political dissenters (appear to) blame harmful political actors, they often hope for uptake, even when uptake is unlikely – indeed, even when it is ostensibly epistemically impossible. Richard Lear demonstrates this aspirational state in his work on “radical hope,” a type of hope that “transcends one’s current understanding of the good” (2012: 92), and surpasses the boundaries of “practical reasoning,” allowing the hoper to imagine a radically different world (2012: 104). Lear applies this concept to Crow Nation, an Indigenous community that suffered cultural genocide under the American government. Despite the loss of their cultural touchstones, the Crow people summoned the courage to overcome despair and hope that “something good will emerge” (2005: 95) – something that they couldn’t envision in detail, but some new normative system that would make space for a positive “Crow subjectivity” (2012: 104). Radical hope was the motive that enabled the Crow people to protest the dominant cultural narratives of American exceptionalism, colonial conquest, and white supremacy that erased their agency. Their radical hope allowed them to survive as a culture in the midst of cultural oppression. This type of hope is a virtue – “a paradigm of courage,” “dignity,” and “ability” (Lear 2012: 65, 108). Although the Crow people couldn’t have expected uptake from the broader culture, they hoped to establish the epistemic preconditions for uptake for their cultural identity through hopeful political activity. Hope, and even more so radical hope, can motivate radical political and epistemic change. In my view, hope, in the absence of expectation, can ground  legitimate moral claims.

In general, oppressed people living in conditions of severe epistemic injustice expect their moral claims – including blame – to be silenced because they don’t fit with the dominant cultural narrative. For Indigenous peoples to effectively blame the U.S. government for cultural genocide, they have to be recognized as persons; for African Americans to effectively blame the police for racial profiling, they have to be seen as people whose lives matter; for women to effectively blame employers for sexual harassment, ‘sexual harassment’ has to be an intelligible concept with negative moral valence, not a type of ‘innocent flirtation.’ In spite of the reasonable expectation of silencing, members of disenfranchised groups do express negative attitudes of resentment, indignation, contempt – that is, reactive attitudes – to people who commit normalized harms. These hopeful blaming acts are patently civilized, even if uptake is a long shot.

In his work in social epistemology, Jose Medina (2012) argues that initial acts of political resistance (that foment social movements) are typically culturally unintelligible, because the culture lacks the epistemic resources to make sense of nascent political statements as a type of protest. Not even activists themselves can fully grasp the transformative potential of their actions, which only gain cultural resonance through repetition. Medina argues that social networks (or ‘chained actors’) differ from ‘group agents’ (like corporations) in that they don’t share joint intentions or recognize themselves as part of a collective. Chained actors “are unaware that their action contributes to a particular performative chain through which they become linked to others. In this sense, there is an important distinction between a social network and an organized social group or movement: the former can be implicit, unconscious, spontaneous; but the latter has to be at least minimally explicit, self-conscious, and deliberate” (2012: 226). Chained actors are a “hybrid” category between a private individual and a group agent (ibid.). Even if chained actions aren’t recognizable as political symbols at first, they are “memorable and imitable,” and “have the potential to lead to social change” (2012: 225). Activists can’t predict whether their political actions will be recognized, understood, or imitated, so it would be wrong to say that they expect cooperation, or that they believe that others will support them; but surely they at least hope that their actions will be politically, epistemically, and morally efficacious, if not immediately then in the long run. Their hopes differ from the joint intentions of group agents because hopes don’t involve a belief that others will contribute to the chain, or even a belief per se (a hope isn’t a doxastic state); but, if we think that chained actors express blame in their political activism, then we must grant that hope, and not just expectations and beliefs, can ground blame.

The upshot is that hoped-for prosocial change – not just expected prosocial change – can be the basis of civilized blame. That said, I agree with McGeer that blame shouldn’t be useless or counterproductive: don’t blame someone if he’s holding a gun to your head. But if we restrict legitimate blame to contexts in which we can reasonably expect a prosocial response, we rule out courageous, dignified, and potentially transformative expressions of blame that call on the community to stretch its epistemic horizons. When our normative claims call for a paradigm shift – a radical departure from the ‘accepted wisdom’ –  we might need to express those claims in spite of expected epistemic, political, and moral oppression. We can call these courageous, hopeful expressions of blame ‘radical blame,’ whereas blame based on the reasonable expectation of uptake is ‘expected blame.’ I contend that radical blame should be seen as a civilized response to social injustice, even though, by its very nature, it can’t be expected to product change.

3. Non-positional blame (educational, protest, & identification aims)

Holroyd characterizes both Vargas and McGeer as saying that blame is apt (agency-enhancing, civilizing) if it serves to “sensitize agents to the reasons at play in a moral exchange” (Holroyd 2018: 158). She also notes that Vargas and McGeer mutually reject consequentialist theories on which blame promotes positive behaviour through operant conditioning and other “coldly manipulative” strategies, which “subvert… the agential capacities that we might hope to be engaged in moral communications” (Holroyd 2018: 140). To avoid descending into consequentialism, Vargas stipulates that apt blame must exclude “cajoling, threatening, enticing, and so on” – that is, “influencing” methods that work on “infants and most non-human animals,” but are inappropriate for adults (Vargas 2013: 169). He holds that blame must influence the target agent through her rational faculties, not non-rational cognitive systems (e.g., unconscious states). McGeer similarly stipulates that blame must be expressed in ways that connect with the “rational faculties” of the agent, which should be the “proximate causes of the [desired changes] in the agent’s beliefs,” in contrast to non-rational conditioning techniques such as “hypnosis, drugs, neural tinkering,” and “rhetorical tricks” (2018: 179). These constraints are consistent with Strawson’s exhortation that the reactive attitudes should be authentic  “expressions of our moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ for regulative purposes.” (1962: 93). This is Strawson’s reason for rejecting earlier consequentialist models, including J.C.C. Smart’s (1961), on which blame motivates compliance through any utility-enhancing means whatsoever, including, in some cases, coercion.

For this precise reason, most modern functionalists hold that blame is justified only if it influences the rational faculties of the norm violator; blame is inappropriate if the norm violator is fundamentally irrational. A clinical psychopath, malignant narcissist, or child might be classified amongst paradigmatic non-rational agents. These individuals are, on Strawson’s view, proper objects of “the objective attitude,” a stance that includes the use of “behavioral conditioning and control” (McGeer 2018: 176) as well as “exclusion” from “ordinary adult human relationships” (Strawson 1964). Norm violators who lack rationality are not blame-susceptible on the standard functionalist approach because blaming them would not enhance their sensitivity to reasons, but would instead treat them as objects of control, conditioning, and social exclusion – aims that fall within the remit of the objective attitude, not the participatory stance. In a vague way, then, Strawson sees the participatory stance and the objective attitude as serving different purposes.

 This is the standard interpretation of Strawson. The view that an irrational norm violator is not amenable to blame (as Strawson suggests) can be seen as a version of the “positional constraint,” on which the blamer must have the authority to hold the blamee responsible (Bell 2013). When the norm violator is fundamentally irrational, the victim lacks the authority (or standing) to express blame, i.e., the positionality constraint isn’t met.

Not everyone endorses this constraint. Macalester Bell objects that “the ethics of blame is not exhausted by considerations of fittingness and standing. As critics, targets, and third parties, we have special responsibilities” to blame (2013: 263) – responsibilities other than capacitating those who have wronged us. These are responsibilities to the victim or witnesses or each other (hence agent-relative or ‘special’ duties). Bell disputes the standard assumption that apt blame necessarily serves to sensitize the norm violator, and that this aim exhausts its functionality as a social regulator. She proposes several additional functions. Specifically, she says that blame can serve to (1) mark the damage done to our relationships through wrongdoing, (2) educate the target, (3) have motivational value for the target, (4) educate and motivate others in the moral community, and (5) constitute a way of standing up for one’s values or protesting wrongdoing (norm violations) or wrong-being (i.e., exhibiting character flaws) (2013: 267-8). The major points of departure from standard functionalism are (4) and (5), which postulate aims that have absolutely no value for the norm violator (in fact, they may harm the norm violator), but are beneficial to the moral community. Bell’s multi-functional proposal sees capacitating the norm violator as only one of blame’s functions, and allows that blame can also admissibly treat the wrongdoer as a moral example or pedagogical tool for the benefit of the community, or protest the wrongdoer’s actions, values, and ideals, without engaging with the agent at all. The fifth aim can be expanded to involve expressing sympathy or solidarity with the victim, as this is typically taken to be one of the central functions of protest. Sympathy, moreover, has long been regarded as a moral motivator within the sentimentalist tradition, and on this picture of moral psychology, expressing sympathy with victim-survivors can have communal moral value – it can unify people around a common moral cause and motivate people to defend the moral integrity of the community or group (Maibom 2009). Blaming reasons-unresponsive norm violators, then, can (contra the standard view) serve the purposes of (4) sensitizing community members, (5) protesting a type of offense, and (6) expressing sympathy and solidarity with victim-survivors. Although (4)-(6) don’t engage with the norm violator as a rational agent, they are justified as a response to harm done to members of the moral community. This view recognizes that the offender’s rationality is not the only object of concern to the community – the more important concern is the moral integrity of the group.

 This multi-functional approach shares with consequentialism the idea that blame can have zero value for the norm violator – in fact, it can socially, economically, and epistemically harm the norm violator, imposing severe costs and constraints on that agent. Indeed, conditions (4), (5), and (6) can be expected, under epistemically hospitable conditions, to impose burdens on the norm violator, such as social isolation, reputational damages, lost earning potential, and so on, for the sake of indemnifying the community against the offender, educating the community about the offender’s moral character, protesting the offender’s actions and values, and denying self-identification with the offender.

Notably, this approach poses a bit of a problem for the Strawsonain view. If blame can serve to educate an audience and protest wrongdoing without conferring any benefits on the norm violator, then blame must be part of the objective attitude – the attitude that treats the norm violator as an object of treatment, control, coercion, or social exclusion. That is, if blame can be deployed toward or expressed about a reasons-unresponsive agent, then the objective attitude must be a form of blame, not its suspension, pace Strawson. Bell’s multi-functional account, in other words, necessitates a revision of Strawson’s demarcation between the participatory stance and the objective attitude.

If so, this wouldn’t be the first attempt to revise Strawson’s theory. Katrina Hutchison argues that we should see the “participant stance” (in which blame is fitting) and “the objective stance” as “opposite ends of a spectrum, with many social interactions involving a stance somewhere in between” (2018: 206). She rejects Strawson’s view that the objective attitude involves a complete suspension of moral respect, and proposes instead that the two stances involve two different kinds of moral regard (appraisal respect and recognition respect), with these attitudes lying on a continuum. This better accommodates the view that blame can be inclusive to the objective attitude, but the difference between ‘participant blame’ and ‘objective blame’ still needs elucidation. What, exactly, is suspended when we adopt an ‘objective blaming stance,’ so to speak?

One way of carving up the reactive attitudes can be found in Gary Watson’s proposal that there are two ‘faces’ of moral responsibility: the accountability face, on which we demand a response from a reasons-responsive norm violator, and the attributability face, on which we attribute a character defect to the norm violator, whether or not the agent is responsive to reasons (1986). The accountability face fits with the participatory stance, within which we demand a response from the norm violator. The attributably face, on scrutiny, fits better with the objective attitude, in the sense that, when we adopt this attitude, we necessarily suspend the demand for accountability. We do not, however, thereby suspend judgment of the agent’s moral qualities. Indeed, we may judge the agent to have a putative moral defect – a lack of moral accountability – in which case we attribute a moral failing to the agent. In addition, we may judge the agent to have more specific moral failings – psychopathy, malignant narcissism, Machiavellianism, etc. –  which cause, sustain, or comprise the agent’s reasons unresponsiveness. This further judgment may, in turn, evoke moral indignation, contempt, and other negative emotions. (Conversely, we may judge the norm violator to be morally incompetent due to morally innocent moral deficits, such as being a child or being in a state of psychosis – the kinds of extenuating cases that Strawson focused on, in which case no hard feelings are warranted). In the case of sensitivity-defeating character flaws, negative emotional reactions are normal, natural, and perhaps even psychologically inevitable, if McGeer’s naturalistic account is correct. These hard feelings are also, according to Bell, motivationally and epistemically efficacious responses to unaccountable wrongdoers with malignant character traits (more on which in a moment). On this way of parsing Strawson, adopting the objective attitude is compatible with attributing moral deficits to the norm violator, and, in case those deficits are malignant, expressing negative moral emotions to the norm violator. Consistent with Strawson, this attitude involves a suspension of a core part of the participant stance: the demand for a response. ‘Objectivity blame’ as such involves hard feelings, but a suspension of accountability.

One might question whether the objective attitude ought to include hard feelings. The demand for accountability is suspended (on a functionalist reading) because it serves no purpose, but it is debatable whether hard feelings should be suspended as well. According to Bell, negative emotions do serve prosocial purposes, which justifies their deployment.

Bell argues that “hard emotions,” such as resentment, indignation, and contempt, “have positive roles to play in confronting injustice,” and in constructing “an adequate normative system” (2013: 9). Specifically, these emotions play a role in “holding people accountable for who they are [attributability responsibility] as well as what they’ve done [acountabilty responsibility]” (2013: 10). Resentment and contempt motivate two morally valuable responses to norm-violating behaviour: resentment “focuses the subject’s attention on the wrong done and motivates engagement—albeit hostile engagement—with the person. Contempt, on the other hand, motivates withdrawal” from the wrongdoer in sensitive witnesses and critics (Bell 2013: 154-155). Contempt in response to a reasons-unresponsive wrongdoer, she argues, has epistemic value because it disseminates information about the norm violations or character flaws in question; it has motivational value because it prompts onlookers to avoid and socially exclude wrongdoers and to protest the norms expressed in wrongdoers’ offenses; and it has moral value because it provides “an important way of maintaining our integrity as moral agents” (Bell 2013: 163). In expressing our moral integrity through contempt, furthermore, we thereby express “non-identification” with the wrongdoer and, conversely, identification with the victim-survivor – that is, we take the survivor’s side (Bell 2013: 49). These are all justifiable aims of a well-functioning responsibility system – aims that suggest that narrower reasons-responsiveness accounts are too parsimonious.

Bell acknowledges concerns about the value of contempt, including the legitimate worry that contempt is the basis of racial hatred and misogyny. But she argues that “the best response to being a target of race-based [and gender-based] contempt is to marshal a robust counter-contempt,” as this type of response can challenge and change cultural norms (2013: 22). Bell rejects the (recently popular) notion that all moral responses should be “civil” in the conventional sense of polite, temperate, and unemotional. She responds,

“it is far from obvious that respectful conversation is, in fact, the only way to achieve [normative] consensus. Consider a historical example: there is now broad agreement that chattel slavery is abominable, but 150 years ago there was difference of opinion and a great deal of debate concerning the morality of slavery. Did the progressive moral consensus we have achieved regarding this issue come about through a process of respectful conversation and civil argumentation?… Even a cursory look back at our history reveals that scorn, angry protest, bloodshed, and war played a much larger role than respectful conversation in bringing about our current consensus concerning the indefensibility of slavery” (Bell 2013: 222).

While moral interactions should, of course, be fruitful, it doesn’t follow that they should be ‘civil.’ In fact, conventional norms of civility and moral norms are often at odds (Calhoun 2000, Zurn 2013). When they come into conflict, morality should take precedence. In fact, on a functionalist account, norms of civility are only valuable when they promote prosocial aims. (For more on the defeasible value of civility, see my next post).

On careful reflection, Strawson’s view involves so few demarcations that it should be seen as an oversimplification, albeit a fruitful oversimplification because at least it recognizes the importance of social relationships, unlike its predecessors (mainly metaphysical accounts). In light of recent discussions, however, we should grant that blaming responses might not fit neatly into the bipartite moral psychology (participatory/objective) envisaged by Strawson. Revisionary approaches should be welcomed.

That said, which revisionary approach should we endorse? While there are many possibilities, functionalists are committed to defining the reactive attitudes by their primary functions. The participant stance functions to sensitize reasons-responsive agents to new reasons on the dominant view, whereas the objective stance functions to “manage…, “treat,… control” and “exclude” recalcitrant agents from “ordinary adult relationships,” according to Strawson (1963: 69). On scrutiny, the aims internal to the objective stance are consistent with attributability responsibility, which involves a suspension of accountability and an attribution of moral incompetence, as well as related (causal, sustaining, constitutive) moral deficits (e.g., malignant narcissism). While the objective stance is typically taken to involve a suspension of moral emotions as well as the demand for accountability, on a functionalist view, hard emotions such as contempt should be included in the objective stance in light of their epistemic, motivational, and moral value. If Bell’s account of hard feelings is right, then the objective attitude, as a regulative mechanism, should encompass efficacious hard feelings.

This approach carves up Strawson’s psychological model in a unique way, albeit in a manner consistent with a robust functionalism (in fact, a multi-functionalism). This view has the advantage of being both psychologically realistic and politically potent. It doesn’t restrict blame to interactions with reasons-responsive norm violators who can be expected to respond sensitively – these constraints are too apolitical. A theory of responsibility should be naturalistic but consistent with our moral and political ideals – our aspiration to foster a more equal, viz., less patriarchal, colonialist, and classist society.

 In the next section, I address in more detail the values of realism vs. moral aspirations.

4. Psychological realism

Bell’s view is, I think, more psychologically realistic than the alternatives, because we actually do (in most cases, and certainly as victim-survivors) have hard feelings against reasons-unresponsive wrongdoers like unrepentant serial rapists. Psychological realism is taken as a desideratum by theorists like Vargas, McGeer, and Holroyd. Holroyd, in fact, says that McGeer’s view is preferable to Vargas’ because it captures our shared practice of assuming that almost everyone is capable of responding to blame. Vargas’ view, in contrast, involves “a form of skepticism about morally responsible agency that does not cohere with the plausible assumption that we can adopt the ‘participant standpoint’ in our daily interactions; that we can engage with each other as responsible agents—albeit imperfect, often defective responsible agents, with much to learn—much of the time” (2018: 152). Holroyd assumes that it is a psychological fact that most people are reasons responsive, and an empirically accurate theory should accommodate that fact. If her first premise is mistake, then her preferred version of functionalism is on shaky footing.

In contrast to Holroyd, I think that a lot of people are reasons-unresponsive. While it’s true that the people we interact with the most – our friends – are morally sensitive (as far as we know – otherwise be wouldn’t dignify them with our friendship), there’s also a lot of available evidence that quite a few people are reasons-unresponsive, and, in some cases, positively evil. The knowledge that someone is reasons-unresponsiveness, moreover, doesn’t seem to prevent us from blaming him in the affective-attributive sense.

Today, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that a senior White House official described Trump’s doctrine, accurately, as “We’re America, Bitch” (June 2018). Goldberg also observed that “many of Donald Trump’s critics find it difficult to ascribe to a president they consider both sub-literate and historically insensate a foreign policy doctrine that approaches coherence.” Unlike Obama, “Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy” (ibid.). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t attribute a coherent ideology to Trump, an ideology that is intelligibly sexist and racist. That is, we can attribute a malignant ideology to someone with ostensible rationality deficits. According to some mental health experts, Trump possesses a combination of “clear, dangerous mental impairment” (grandiosity, impulsivity, compulsiveness) and moral flaws (authoritarianism, contempt for the rule of law), which, in combination, make him a threat to democracy (Lee & Lifton 2018: 5-7). These critics defend their decision to violate the Goldwater Rule (which bars psychiatrists from diagnosing public figures whom they haven’t examined) by appealing to their democratic duty to alert the citizenry to a threat to the common good. That is, they appeal to the epistemic and motivating value of this kind of public statement. This statement, on scrutiny, has all the hallmarks of ‘objective blame’: it is an attribution of malignant character defects to an ostensibly irrational agent, expressed for the epistemic and political good of the community.

In a similar vein, feminist comedian Samantha Bee recently criticized Garrison Keillor, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose for committing sexual harassment, then disappearing for a few weeks, and then reappearing to stage a second act (relaunching his radio show, making a biopic, and producing a show about sexual harassment, respectively). After Rose’s grotesque attempt at professional revival, an additional 27 women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, which effectively shamed him back into obscurity. Bee offers Rose a piece of “advice,” which is really a critique of his male hubris: “No one knows better than you how many women you’ve assaulted or harassed. Maybe before you pitch a TV show about it, ask yourself, ‘have all the women I’ve non-consensually shown my penis to come forward in the press?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ go away.” Rose is an apt target of contempt because he is, by all appearances, completely unrepentant, remorseless, and insensitive to criticism – in fact, he perversely sees himself as the victim. Yet this doesn’t prevent Samantha Bee from ridiculing him in a spirit of contempt. This attitude, in effective, shows solidarity with Rose’s victims and non-identification with Rose’s perverse value system. It also motivates her viewers to treat Rose with disdain, creating a collective movement of rejection and social exclusion.

Not only is contempt in response to unaccountable norm violators justified, it is, on Bell’s view, often morally obligatory. She argues that failing to blame a norm violator can constitute complicity in the norm violator’s wrongdoing, as well as a failure in our duties as witnesses and third-party critics (2013: 268). To deny these third-personal blaming obligations would be an epistemic, political, moral, and ontological mistake. It is an epistemic mistake because it denies that our blaming acts have epistemic consequences that depend on cooperation. It is a political mistake because it denies that we have duties of allyship, i.e., duties to stand by members of marginalized groups and defend their rights and entitlements. It is a moral mistake because it treats our moral obligations as self-directed as opposed to collective, and this atomistic standpoint permits us to ignore the persecution of vulnerable groups, acting in the spirit of the banality of evil (Arendt 1963). And it is an ontological mistake because it treats people as atomistic entities instead of inherently interdependent beings, with intertwined capacities and duties. As interdependent agents, we have inviolable duties of solidarity, allyship, and collective action that require us to defend each other’s moral and epistemic standing within the community. Denying third-party blaming responsibilities perversely places the burden of moral condemnation, protest, and criticism on victims of injustice, who are already over-burdened. Our collective duties require us to blame with those who have been wronged. We all have a role to play in changing the moral ecology and scaffolding egalitarian values. Thus, blaming wrongdoers in solidarity with survivors is mandatory, not merely optional.

As I said, I think that McGeer would allow that civilized blame can serve functions other than capacitating norm violators, but this allowance nudges functionalism perilously close to consequentialism, a view that she rejects. I am more willing than she is to accept (limited) consequentialist methods, for reasons that I will outline in the next section.

5. Conditioning, control, coercion

Strawson’s account of moral responsibility makes it look as if the boundary of our moral relationships is state intervention, specifically incarceration, involuntary hospitalization, and other coercive mechanisms that (in theory) protect the moral community from unaccountable malignant actors (e.g., serial rapists, versatile criminals). We can call the use of state interventions “moral quarantining” (see Caruso 2017). The objective stance qua attitude doesn’t necessarily involve the use of state interventions, but it can involve the desire that state interventions be imposed on the norm violator, so as to “handle…, manage, treat…, cure” or socially isolate the recalcitrant agent (Strawson 1963; Sommers 2007). In an ideal world, if you can’t reason with a dangerous person, you can call the police or the local mental hospital to ‘handle’ the reasons-unresponsive offender in the appropriate (civilized) way. With the threat to the moral community safely ‘quarantined,’ you’re now free to pursue constructive interactions with your moral peers. Problem solved! On this idealistic illusion, the moral community is protected from moral threats by state interventions that non-violently detain and treat unaccountable offenders.

This is clearly not even close to how state interventions actually work. State interventions aren’t equally available to everyone, and they’re systematically biased against certain groups because they were constructed in conditions of gender, sexual, and racial injustice – conditions in which they still operate. As a result, state interventions disproportionally serve the political interests of cisgender white men, and oppress (e.g., underserve, persecute, brutalize, profile, antagonize, deport, kill, etc.) historically disenfranchised groups (e.g., women, POC, sexual minorities, refugees, etc.). Not only are marginalized groups harmed by state interventions, privileged people use their reputational clout and cultural capital to escape prosecution for crimes. Harvey Weinstein is a pertinent example: he sexually harassed and assaulted his female coworkers for years, creating a hostile work environment for women, and he easily got away with it for decades. Either his victims were “epistemically smothered” by forces of epistemic gender bias, or they were “epistemically silenced” by lack of uptake (De Cruz 2018: 21). In either case, Weinstein succeeded in committing crimes against women in his social network, and, by the same stroke, in contaminating the film industry with norms of toxic masculinity, male chauvinism, and white supremacy. What should women do when they (we) can’t depend on the state to defend their right to freedom from sexual violence and political oppression – indeed, when they can depend on the state to stand by their assailants? They can’t desire that the state intervene on their behalf, because they know that it won’t, and to desire the impossible is delusional as well as useless.

This means that legally disenfranchised people can’t simply ‘adopt the objective attitude’ in the sense of adopting a desire for the state to intervene to ‘handle’ their offenders. Their only recourse is to use attributability blame to as a substitute for state interventions. Blame can serve to condemn, protest, and socially isolate un-prosecutable offenders.

Strawson’s bipartite model of moral psychology (participant/objective) is misleading in the sense that it seems to suggest (though I’m significantly extrapolating!) that there are only two rational responses to norm violators: (a) an emotionally loaded response to a suitably sensitive person, and (b) an unemotional, impartial demand that the state intervene to contain a reasons unresponsive offender. In reality, there is, I think, a median space: The attitude that we take to irrational offenders who are immune from state interventions due to their cultural capital. There are, then, three types of response to norm violators: (a) the stance that we take toward morally sensitive people who participate fluently in moral exchanges, AKA the participant stance, (b) the stance that we take toward unaccountable moral incompetents who are susceptible to incarceration, involuntary hospitalization, and other state interventions, AKA the objective attitude as commonly understood, and (3) the stance that we take toward un-qurantinable moral incompetents who persecute vulnerable members of the community without compunction or fear of legal sanctions, exploiting their cultural status and contaminating the social imaginary with toxic norms, AKA (in my view) a pseudo-objective stance in which contempt is appropriate. The third stance is similar to the second except that it doesn’t include a demand for state interventions – one of the main elements of the objective attitude on the standard interpretation – since the state is against the victim-survivor due to identity prejudice. That is, the state is on the assailant’s side. This third stance includes contempt toward the unprosecuted wrongdoer as well as the unresponsive legal and social institutions that effectively take his side.

If you think that this account is unrealistic because people aren’t usually aware of unprosecuted sexual assailants and harassers in their social network,then you’re probably a man or a social recluse. Women have always warned each other about sexual predators. Journalist Alana Massey (2017) observes that women often circulate compilations of anecdotes about predatory men in their industry with names redacted for liability reasons (to avoid a defamation lawsuit); however, one day Massey surprisingly received a list of the full names and alleged transgressions committed by men in the publishing industry (which was later published by Vox Magazine). This is an industry example of a broader culture of “whisper networks,” by which women privately identify and condemn dangerous men and their transgressions as a way of protecting, educating, and standing by one another (Tolentino 2017). Women don’t usually confront their rapist/harasser because they know the person wouldn’t respond sensitively to their moral claims – the person’s violations reveal that they are indifferent to the moral status and moral claims of women. Moreover, accusers often face reprisals such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, defamation litigation, and rape threats if the accusation is made public (‘epistemic suppression’). Sometimes, the rational response is to blame the assailant through a ‘whisper network’ until the culture’s epistemic norms change, making testifying against an assailing a constructive thing to do instead of social death wish.

This attributive-contemptuous type of blame seeks to ‘manipulate’ the wrongdoer in the sense of pushing him out of the community, imposing sanctions on him, containing his behaviour, or conditioning him to modify his behaviour through the use of punishments, incentives, and threats. These consequentialist strategies are rejected by functionalists as uncivilized and perhaps even barbaric. As methods, however, they are compatible with the (final) aims of blame identified by Bell: the production of epistemic, motivational, and moral gains for the moral community. It would, of course, be preferable to reason with an offender or, as a second-best solution, subject an unaccountable offender to state sanctions (in certain cases), but in the absence of such options, coercive blame may be the only way of repudiating an insensitive norm violator and siding with victim-survivors.

This is all to say that the consequentialist strategies of conditioning, coercing, and controlling norm violators are acceptable as means of protesting injustice and standing up for victim-survivors. J.C.C. Smart was wrong to think that these methods are appropriate for anyone, including reasons-responsive people, but he was right to recognize that these methods can be a part of a well-functioning responsibility system.

6. Against Enlightenment-rationality constraints on blame

While functionalists want their theories to be psychologically realizable, they also have normative aims. Holroyd says that her aims are not simply revisionary, but “ameliorative” (Haslanger 2000), by which she means, her “analysis starts by asking what we want the concept of responsibility for and what concept will serve those purposes, with no assumption that the answers we give will yield an analysis that closely tracks our existing understanding of moral responsibility” (2018: 139). Thus, psychological realizability must be balanced against our ameliorative aims. We don’t want a conservatively naturalistic account, nor an unrealizably idealistic one. The correct balance of naturalism and idealism are critical to the construction of a good theory of blame.

One of the values that academic philosophers prize very highly is rationality, and many functionalist approaches to moral responsibility putatively aim to ‘rationalize’ our blaming norms (even if theorists don’t explicitly say that this is their aim). The philosophical notion of rationality has changed over the years, but the classic Enlightenment paradigm sees rationality as pure, unadulterated cogitation, untarnished by emotionality or physicality. Rationality in the Enlightenment tradition was seen as antagonistic to emotions and the body, which were coded as feminine and racial, in contrast to the “rational ideal” of white masculinity. While the Enlightenment ideal of rationality prevailed in western philosophy for hundreds of years, it has been deflated by feminist philosophers. Debra K. Heinkes says that, because of feminist critiques, the Enlightenment paradigm of rationality as unemotional, un-embodied, “objective universal, [and] autonomous” is “no longer a live philosophical option” (2010: 4). That said, we can see residues of this tradition in many aspects of western philosophy, including blame.

The sanitizing approach can be seen as partaking in the Enlightenment tradition insofar as it seeks to expunge blame of all emotional content, a putative ‘contaminant’ of blaming cognition (which is a species of moral cognition). McGeer rightly criticizes this approach as psychologically implausible, but the sanitizing view is also amenable to critiques from feminist moral psychology (viz., Superson 2012). These include the objection that emotions are disvalued only because they are associated with femininty and (non-white) racial identity as opposed to on their own merit; that anti-emotion views discount the critical role of care and sympathy in moral reasoning; and that anti-emotion view ignore the motivational value of moral emotions such as contempt, disdain, and anger (Little 2007; Noddings 1984; Superson 2012). It is now widely accepted that emotions play a constructive role in the production of sound moral decisions, which is why people with severe emotional deficits make abnormal moral judgments (Koenigs et al. 2007).

Another problem with the Enlightenment paradigm of rationality (which has received slightly less attention) is the fact that certain demographic groups are coded as ’emotional,’ and are therefore particularly susceptible to being illicitly discounted from the ambit of ‘legitimate blaming interactions’ on the basis of the proposed emotionality constraint, simply because their contributions are disproportionally (on average) perceived as ‘too emotional’ or ‘extremely emotional.’ So, if we exclude (ostensibly) emotional expressions from the category of ‘admissible blame,’ we thereby discount or marginalize many of the legitimate blaming contributions of women and racialized minorities, who are stereotyped as ’emotional’ by our dominant cultural schemas. Their speech, in other words, will be classified as ’emotional’ and therefore ‘not-blame,’ while the contributions of cisgender white males, on average, will be coded as ‘rational’ and ‘blame.’ Salient examples of dominant cultural stereotypes that discredit marginalized groups include “the hysterical woman” and the “angry Black woman.”These false stereotypes have deep roots in western culture, and are encoded in our implicit biases. Thus, the emotionality constraint, in interaction with implicit biases, is likely to epistemically marginalize negatively stereotyped groups within the cultural space of blame.

The association between rationality and physicality is also problematic, for analogous reasons. First, physical processes play an essential role in ordinary cognition. For example, the gut microbiome influences cognition through the brain-gut axis, and microbiome disorders can cause mental disorders (O’Mahony et al. 2015). Second, the cultural associations between the physical and femininity/non-white racial identity can serve to discount women and racialized minorities from the space of ‘admissible blame’ if we accept a physicality constraint on blame. Those perceived as ‘too physical’ or ‘histrionic’ in their blaming expressions will be inadmissibly excluded from the space of blame.

The physicality constraint can be seen not only in theories that restrict physicality, but also, to a lesser extent, those that restrict non-cognitive or non-conscious contributions to blame. These theories confine ‘legitimate blaming tokens’ to those that interact with the blamee’s rational (reflective, conscious) faculties, barring operant conditioning, subliminal messages, “rhetorical tricks,” and other non-cognitive persuasive methods (McGeer 2018: 179). Interestingly, there is an entire literature of philosophical thought experiments that lay out creepy ‘manipulation cases,’ in which a helpless victim is brainwashed by a nefarious neurosurgeon or an evil Philosophy Department Dean, and we are asked to evaluate the victim’s subsequent responsibility status (e.g., Mele 2013). While these non-voluntary interventions are no doubt uncivilized (in every sense of the word), it doesn’t follow that any interventions that operate on the target’s non-conscious cognitive processes are uncivilized and inappropriate as means of sensitizing people. Manipulation cases are unacceptable types of moral intervention because they are non-consensual, not because they operate on the agent’s non-conscious cognitive systems.

We can imagine cases of admissible interventions that operate partly or primarily non-consciously. One salient example is the use of ‘nudges’ to capacitate people. While some nudges are morally problematic, many are patently benign. Placing an image of eyes near a coffee service non-consciously induces people to make more deposits (Doris 2015). Posting signs in guests’ hotel rooms asking them to “join [their] fellow guests in helping to save the environment” boosts the towel re-use rate by 10% compared to signs that merely ask guests to “help save the environment,” because the former signs appeal to the reader’s non-conscious social cognition systems (Gino 124). Erik Angner endorses ‘the nudge agenda,’ which urges governments to use non-conscious ‘nudges’ to enhance social wellbeing, provided that these nudges are non-coercive (Happiness Conference talk, 2018). There’s no obvious reason to take such nudges off the political agenda, or to see them as ‘uncivilized’ means of sensitizing people. Indeed, Susan Hurley has explicitly defended the use of imperceptible nudges as part of a functional political ecology (2012).

A more local example of a ‘nudge’ (so to speak) is the strategic adoption of Standard English as a rhetorical device (or “trick,” if you like) to persuade an implicitly biased speaker to trust one’s testimony, character, or standing. This code-switching tactic is similar to what Alison Bailee calls “strategic ignorance,” or the exploitation of cultural stereotypes by racialized minorities to advance an anti-racist agenda (2007); in the present example, however, the speaker exploits cultural stereotypes to seem trustworthy, competent, or intelligent (as opposed to ignorant) in the eyes of an implicitly biased person or community, thereby gaining trust, status, and other desirable ends – ends to which one is entitled, but denied due to identity prejudice. Appealing to people’s unconscious rhetorical biases in this way isn’t ‘uncivilized’ so much as strategic, clever, prudent, and, in some situations, perhaps even necessary for survival. To treat these code-switching tactics as ‘uncivilized’ or ‘tricky’ discriminates against linguistically oppressed groups who may need (and are certainly expected) to use code-switching to gain trust and respect in dominant cultural spaces. To disparage these rhetorical strategies as ‘uncivilized’ excludes linguistically oppressed groups from the space of blame.

Humour is another example of a rhetorical device that operates at least partly non-consciously, via heuristic and peripheral systems (Lyttle 2000). Although humour can influence the listener through non-conscious cognitive processes, no one (except maybe Plato) thinks that we should all stop watching comedy. Humour, too, can be part of a functional political ecology.

None of the non-conscious/imperceptible prods considered here is patently uncivilized, and many nudges are effective ways of influencing people to act prosocially. More importantly, ruling out non-conscious prods as ‘uncivilized’ has the perverse effect of discriminating against minorities, whose code-switching strategies are perceived as ‘tricky.’

Coercion, of course is even more of a departure from the ideal of ‘rational engagement’ on the Enlightenment paradigm, since it doesn’t even seek to persuade the norm violator – it only aims to manage the person. That said, non-violent coercive blame, which seeks to confine, condition, deter, or socially isolate a reasons-unresponsive norm violator, for legitimate epistemic, motivational, or moral purposes, is a justified blaming response.


Philosophers would perhaps be more amenable to rationality constraints on blame than most people, since philosophy gave rise to the Enlightenment notion of rationality, which was seen as the defining feature of human beings (rational animals). This construct has been used to marginalized women and People of Color ever since. The Enlightenment notion of rationality as incompatible with emotions and the body has perhaps left an indelible mark on academic philosophy, which seems reluctant to relinquish the disciplinary ideal of cool, impartial, purely reflective reasoning, in spite of hard-won victories by feminist critics. Some theorists assume that we should approach public discourse in an impartial, civil, and cooperative mood, and let the marketplace of ideas work its magic, fostering democratic ideals. This isn’t bad advice when we’re dealing with our epistemic peers, but sometimes our ameliorative aims require a very different response: resistance, conflict, and political activism (Medina 2013). Blame is a vehicle for these aims – when we blame, we often criticize, protest, and condemn (Bell 2013). If we are committed to a politically progressive, egalitarian, and resistant theory of responsibility, we should reject (or at least loosen) Enlightenment rationality constraints, as well as optimistic idealizations about human psychology (as universally reasons-responsive, paradigmatically unemotional, and emblematically un-embodied). These constraints are psychologically unrealistic and, in practice, subtly discriminatory.


Critical injustice in academic philosophy

  1. Critical injustice

In his recent work, Allan Hazlett argues that “critical injustice” is a type of epistemic injustice, defined by “an unfair deficit of criticism” (in progress). Critical injustice perpetrates ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ harms, including disrespecting or impugning the dialectical competence of the target, silencing the person’s criticism, and failing to create opportunities for the person to engage in criticism and develop their dialectical competence. Further, critical injustice targets people on the basis of their demographic attributes or social identity, consistent with Fricker’s (2007) definition of epistemic injustice as a type of ‘identity prejudice.’  Interestingly, both liberals and conservatives can commit critical injustice – liberals because they may go ‘too easy’ on visible minorities, failing to respect their dialectical competence, and conservatives because they may go ‘too hard’ on them, denying them the credibility they deserve. An epistemically virtuous critic gives the right amount of criticism, neither too much nor too little.

This position connects with my earlier posts on the value of criticism. Feminists have argued that the underrepresentation of women in the New York Times Book Reviews – which in 2016 published only 1/3 as many reviews of women’s literary fiction as men’s – signals a lack of respect for women’s work and undermines their standing in the profession. The gender gap in literary criticism can be seen as a kind of critical injustice.

Hazlett, however, is more concerned with critical injustice in educational settings, in which teachers must decide how to critically engage with students, some of whom are from underrepresented groups and are therefore susceptible to identity prejudice (including implicit bias, which is not directly introspectable). How should teachers engage with these students? The straightforward answer is that they should give them the right amount of criticism, taking into account the possible role of implicit bias in their unconscious cognitive architecture, and the possibility that students from underrepresented groups may have non-transparent epistemic privileges rooted in their lived experience. These epistemic complexities make critical justice harder than it may seem at first glance. Still, the goal is to express the right amount of criticism to each student.

I wouldn’t deny that quantity of criticism is a factor in critical justice, but I think that quality of criticism may be just as important. What Hazlett doesn’t explicitly address is, once you’ve epistemically evaluated a speech context and determined that criticism is warranted, how should you express that criticism? Most of the examples of epistemic injustice offered by Miranda Fricker (2007) involve someone expressing criticism in a demeaning way. For example, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, when Marge Sherley correctly discerns that Tom Ripley is the murderer, Herbert Greenleaf dismissively retorts, “Marge, there’s female intuition and then there are facts” (Fricker 2007: 9). The problem isn’t so much that Greenleaf criticizes Marge – if he had ignored her suspicion, this, too, would have been critically unjust. Both arrogant silence and dismissive sexism are instances of critical injustice, because both express contempt for the speaker’s epistemic standing as a woman. More specifically, both responses have the same “ethically noxious” content (Fricker 2007: 34) – implicit gender bias. This suggests that simply increasing the amount of criticism directed to minorities won’t necessarily reduce critical injustice – it might just open the floodgates to a deluge of epistemically corrupt criticism.

Similarly, if teachers take steps to fairly distribute the quantity of criticism in their classroom, this would be no guarantee that critical injustice would be reduced, because the content of the newly expressed criticism could be epistemically problematic. That is, the criticism expressed to minority students, albeit in the correct ratio, could contain epistemically corrupt content, such as condescending superiority, dismissive contempt, or hostility activated by implicit bias. Indeed, this is perhaps the predictable effect of increasing criticism to minority students (without taking any other measures), especially if the initial lack of critical engagement was caused by implicit bias. Simply increasing criticism toward minority students could allow the problematic content of the initial prejudicial disengagement to take a more overt form – namely, prejudicial criticism. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to distribute criticism fairly – it’s simply to say that, in doing so, we need to think about the motives that underlie both prejudicial critical disengagement, and prejudicial critical engagement. These are two sides of the same coin.

To bring this into relief, consider a comment on the philosophy blog Daily Nous, cited in a paper on the diversification of philosophy by Luvell Anderson and Verena Erlenbusch:

“I am very ignorant of non-Western philosophical traditions and perhaps this post will only expose my ignorance. Perhaps someone who knows non-Western traditions better will comment on my post. However, I am under the impression that the best arguments are generally to be found in Western philosophy. When I last read Confucius, just to take an example, I don’t recall finding any arguments at all. That doesn’t make Confucius unworthy of study, but it does make him a lot less philosophically (as opposed to anthropologically) interesting to me” (Weinberg 2016, cited in Anderson & Erlenbusch 2017).


This is an example of someone who criticizes non-Western philosophical traditions (and, indirectly, people who specialize in these sub-disciplines), but only to dismiss them as epistemically inferior. This illustrates the point that suspending criticism toward someone whose standpoint you don’t respect may be better than critically engaging with the person, given your motivational architecture. (If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!) The lesson for critical injustice is that robust critical justice probably requires remediation of implicit biases, not just a fairer distribution of criticism.

 In sum, we should try to criticize others both in the right proportion, and in the right spirit.

2. Hermeneutical injustice: Background conditions for testimonial injustice

This task is easier said than done because, even if a teacher has the intention to criticize fairly, the context might not allow the person to do so. Indeed, many teachers don’t have the contextual epistemic resources (or ‘hermeneutical resources’) required to criticize epistemically marginalized students fairly, precisely because their epistemological community deprives them of those resources. In psychology, for example, most Western psychology research uses disproportionally WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) subjects (up to 80% of samples) although these subjects comprise only 20% of the global population (APA 2010). Until recently, findings based on WEIRD samples were generalized as universal psychological truths – a norm that marginalizes non-WEIRD frames of references. On the standard psychological model, traditional societies are seen as outliers with ‘abnormal’ psychological traits. This is a type of epistemic injustice insofar as non-western frames of reference are construed as less credible.

One of the worst offenders is arguably my discipline – philosophy – which is one of the whitest and malest of all Humanities disciplines, even though everyone apparently truly values diversity. Notwithstanding everyone’s good intentions, most academic philosophers are white, male, and middle-class (Cruz forthcoming). Registered members of the American Philosophical Association (APA) are 76.4% white and 74.6% male (Trott 2018). Of published authors in prominent journals, POC comprise only 0.5% (Cherry & Schwitzgebel 2013), and women comprise only 14-16% (Wilhelm et al. 2017). Historically, virtually all philosophers were white and male, and these philosophers are still overrepresented on college syllabi. Interestingly, representation varies by sub-discipline;  60% of women in philosophy have a research interest with a value theory keyword (which includes feminist philosophy), but only 40% have a research interest with a LEMMING keyword (Jennings, Hypatia Conference presentation: 2015); and women specialize in philosophy at seven times the rate of men according to placement data (ibid.). For Black philosophers, the top areas of specialization are Africana, race, social and political philosophy, ethics, and continental philosophy (Botts et al. 2014); yet ‘specialist’ journals (e.g., in feminist philosophy, Africana) are considered less reputable than ‘generalist’ journals, receive less attention as measured by citations, and are un-ranked on ranking websites like Scimago (2018). As Helen de Cruz points out, top-ranked philosophy “journals avow themselves generalist, but in practice they tend to publish a narrow range of specializations, with a heavy focus on analytic philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind, the so-called ‘Lemming’ subdisciplines. This leaves many areas of philosophy underrepresented in these journals” (forthcoming), including feminist and Africana theory, which are also underrepresented on college syllabi (Baron et al. 2015; Figdor & Drabek 2015; Shepherd 2014).

There are a multitude of explanations for the diversity problem in philosophy, including the course content hypothesis, the role model hypothesis, the aggressive argumentation hypothesis, the gender schema hypothesis, the field-specific ability belief hypothesis (viz., Baron et al. 2015), the perfect storm hypothesis (Antony 2012), and the prestige bias hypothesis (Cruz forthcoming). Regardless of the cause of the diversity problem, there’s a case to be made that the diversity problem constitutes a type epistemic injustice because it is a situation in which underrepresented groups are epistemically marginalized, not because they lack philosophical qualities, but because of epistemically corrupt features of the community. This is consistent with Louise Antony’s explanation, on which the underrepresentation of women is caused by a “perfect storm” of implicit bias, stereotype threat, disciplinary conventions, and schematic assumptions about women’s capacities (stereotypically irrationally) and philosophical values (rationality, critical thinking) (2012). These factors interact in such a way as to produce, reinforce, and intensify epistemic injustice against women (and, by parity of reasoning, racialized minorities) in the field.

This explanation is closely related to an empirically-supported hypothesis – the gender schema hypothesis. On this hypothesis, women are underrepresented because of internalized schemas (Valian 1998), “which directly code philosophy as a male discipline (Haslanger 2008; Calhoun 2009),[3] or indirectly code it as male, e.g., through the combination of a ‘field-specific ability belief’ that philosophy requires natural brilliance and a societal stereotype of women as lacking this brilliance (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland 2015)” (Baron et al. 2015). Because philosophy is coded as male, women are less likely to choose philosophy as a major. Notably, Baron and colleagues find that pre-university effects explain women’s failure to continue in philosophy, as opposed to classroom effects, the reason being that men’s and women’s attitudes toward philosophy are not differentially affected by their classroom experience (in one semester). However, this doesn’t mean that gender schemas don’t exist in academic philosophy; gender bias might be operating in academic settings in such a way as to confirm students’ pre-existing gender schemas. Classroom experiences certainly don’t disconfirm these preconceived notions according to the evidence, which shows that gender differences in intention to major, perception of ability in philosophy, ability to imagine becoming a philosopher, and comfort in philosophy class are relatively stable across the semester, while interest in philosophy decreases in women but not men (Baron et al 2015). If philosophy disconfirmed pre-existing schemas, we would expect women’s attitudes to change. Perhaps gender schemas in philosophy are equivalent to extra-philosophical gender schemas (which are sexist!); perhaps in-classroom factors have small, cumulative effects over time, producing “micro-inequalities” that gradually discourage women from majoring in philosophy (Brennan 2013); perhaps gender schemas in philosophy are stronger or more salient than in other disciplines – it’s impossible to know for sure because the study was limited to 13 weeks and there was no control group. But what we do know is that gender schemas that exist outside of academic philosophy persist in undergraduate philosophy classes, as opposed to being extinguished by classroom experience.

Antony proposes the ‘prefect storm’ hypothesis as an alternative to the ‘different voice’ hypothesis (Code 1987, Scheman 1987, Moulton 1993), on which women are underrepresented in philosophy because their gender-specific standpoint is marginalized by the dominant male frame of reference. Antony is right to reject some different-voice theories – for example, the theory that women have gender-specific philosophical intuitions, a hypothesis that failed in replication (Sayedsayamdost 2014). However, I think that there is evidence for a certain type of different-voice theory, which goes like this. Seeing that women specialize and publish disproportionately in value theory (including feminist philosophy), and Black philosophers specialize disproportionately in Africana and race theory, there is a dominant sub-disciplinary focus specific to these demographic groups, and this sub-disciplinary focus is less publishable in top-tier generalist journals, less cited and discussed, and less visible on college syllabi – that is, less epistemically respected. Because women and Black philosophers disproportionately specialize in these sub-disciplines (for whatever reason – that cause is irrelevant), their speech in academia (comments, analyses, critical insights) is epistemically marginalized. And their speech is marginalized not because these sub-disciplines are inherently less credible, but, again, because of internalized gender schemas.

This situation can easily result in critical injustice. Let’s say you’re a woman presenting a paper on trans feminism at a generalist philosophy conference, and the participants reflect the APA registration demographics – they’re mostly men. These philosophers, suppose, have male-dominant specializations – LEMMING subjects. They earnestly want to give your talk the epistemic respect it deserves, so they listen attentively and in the spirit of epistemic humility. At the end of the talk, having absolutely no background in trans feminism, the audience members either don’t ask any questions, or they ask naive questions reflecting their total ignorance of your area of specialization. In this (not-too-hard-to-imagine) scenario, the philosophical audience wants to treat you with critical justice, but can’t. Meanwhile, you have the standard basic knowledge of LEMMING subjects conferred by most American departments, so you’re in a position to ask them interesting and engaging questions, but they can’t reciprocate your level of critical engagement – not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the epistemic means.

Now imagine that you’re a college professor at a top-tier department and you have a standard philosophical background, meaning that you know more about LEMMING subjects than non-standard sub-disciplines. A student asks you a question about consciousness and you describe higher-order, representationalist, narrative interpretive, and cognitive theories of consciousness, and then field questions from the class. Then another student asks you about Eastern heart-mind and things-event theories of consciousness, and you make a few naive comments before admitting that you’re not conversant in Eastern philosophy, sorry. Then you go back to Wester theories of consciousness. You want to fairly critically engage with your student… but how can you?

This is just to say that good intentions won’t fix critical injustice in philosophy, or any other discipline. The hermeneutical climate has to be one that supports critical justice. A corrupt hermeneutical climate virtually guarantees the commission of testimonial injustice, particularly by privileged individuals (like professors) against disadvantaged individuals (like minority students), regardless of the privileged person’s intentions and beliefs.

Miranda Fricker addresses specifically disciplinary types of epistemic injustice, which she describes as “a very weak sense of injustice” (2007: 22). She gives the example of a philosopher who doubts a colleagues’ authority on her project because she (falsely) assumes that the colleague doesn’t share her specialization – ethics. So maybe the disciplinary imbalances I’m describing are merely instances of these ‘weak’ epistemic injustices, not ‘strong’ epistemic injustice, which is based on identity prejudice per se. I would argue, on the contrary, that sub-disciplinary biases in philosophy are rooted in strong identity prejudice, for several reasons. First, there is good reason to think that feminist philosophy, Africana, and other non-standard sub-disciplines are less respected, cited, discussed, and taught (basically, marginalized) because they are favoured by minorities, and minorities are less respected in the profession. That is, our epistemic practices as a profession reflect our collective implicit gender biases and implicit racial biases (as per the ‘perfect storm’ theory). There’s no reason to assume that LEMMING subjects are inherently more epistemically respectable than other sub-disciplines – and, indeed, no diversity researcher ever says they are – but because men prefer them (and men historically respected them exclusively, seeing other frames of reference as inferior), they receive more uptake. A similar phenomenon affects the U.S. economy: predominantly-female jobs pay less on average than predominantly-male jobs (IWPR 2016), and Black and Hispanic Americans are overrepresented in low-paying service and sales jobs compared to white and Asian Americans (BLS 2015). When women migrate into male-dominant jobs, the average pay drops (Miller 2016). This suggests that male-dominant jobs pay more because men are more respected (and a similar logic probably explains low pay in racialized economic sectors). The same white-male bias may explain topic bias in philosophy: LEMMING subjects are more respected in philosophy because they’re male-dominant, and (correspondingly) associated with emblematic white masculinity. This isn’t to say that we explicitly value white-male preferences more than others, but the profession is structured around implicit biases that favour white-male preferences, and give these preferences (and associated norms, perspectives, and conceptual frameworks) pride of place in journals, discussions, and class materials. Because our preferences are constructed in a corrupt hermeneutical climate, our preferences are likely to reflect the tacit gender and racial schemas of the field, especially if we specialize in dominant sub-disciplines that reinforce these preconceived notions.

If the reason we epistemically marginalize female-dominant and Black-dominant sub-disciplines is implicit bias, then these marginalizations are arguably strong epistemic injustices, because they aren’t just biases against an individual’s subjective (a-contextual) disciplinary preferences – they’re biases against a person’s disciplinary preferences because those preferences are coded as ‘female,’ ‘Black,’ or ‘other,’ and thus as ‘inferior,’ according to our shared gender schemas. This results in critical injustice, insofar as our gendered and racialized topic biases prohibit us from fairly critically engaging with minorities in their dominant areas of specialization – and other sub-specializations, too. Minorities who specialize in dominant sub-disciplines are epistemically disadvantaged by the gender and racial coding of their sub-discipline. This points to an epistemic double-bind in which, as a minority in philosophy, you can either choose to be underrepresented in a sub-discipline that’s respected because it’s coded as white and male, or your can choose to be overrepresented in a sub-discipline that’s disvalued because it’s coded as ‘other.’ Either way, you’re facing structural epistemic disadvantages.

Philosophy’s hermeneutical background conditions, then, practically guarantee that critical injustice will take place, because philosophers are inculcated into a culture that values sub-dsciplines emblematic of white masculinity, and disproportionally preferred  by white men, above other subjects. Institutional changes are needed to create hospitable ecological conditions for the virtuous deployment of criticism in the field.

3. Prestige bias

Another compelling explanation of the diversity problem in philosophy is the prestige bias hypothesis, recently advanced by Helen de Cruz, who holds that prestige bias ramifies institutional inequalities (forthcoming).* De Cruz argues that prestige bias is “an unchallenged phenomenon in philosophy,” as well as a neglected factor in diversity discussions (3). She shows that “there is a structural lack of upward social mobility in hiring practices: someone from a prestigious school may end up in a lower-ranked institution, but the reverse is unusual,” and “this advantage of prestigious institutions also appears in graduate school admissions, citations, and research assessments” (4). Although pedigree is often taken as a heuristic for competency, there is no substantive evidence for this association: teaching excellence and publication record play little role in hiring decisions; candidates selected for tenure-track positions have a median of two publications – less than the number of publications by job candidates from unranked departments. In fact, “the lower the rank of the PhD granting institution, the more papers in peer-reviewed journals a candidate was likely to have” (De Cruz: 11). Cruz links the pedigree heuristic to the field-specific ability belief (FSAB) on which philosophy is “a special aptitude that can’t be taught” (ibid.) – the same attitude that Baron and colleagues describe as a type of internalized gender schema (because it stereotypes men as innately talented). Cruz points out that this attitude is more salient in philosophy than any other discipline (Leslie et al. 2015). Philosophers also believe (correctly) that this attitude is prevalent in their discipline, but that doesn’t mitigate their predilection for FSAB. In fact, philosophers tend to openly admit that they hire on the basis of prestige bias (though they would call it a ‘reliable heuristic’ as opposed to a bias). As one hiring committee member said without reservation, “How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university” (De Cruz: 14).

Prestige bias, says Cruz, leads to the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and people of low socioeconomic status in philosophy, and to the testimonial “smothering and silencing of philosophical work outside of the dominant traditions” (21). Asians outperform all other ethnic groups on SATS and all other measures of academic excellence, yet their admission to prestigious U.S. universities is 30% lower than that of white students (Espenshade, Chung, & Walling 2004). African American students are also underrepresented at prestigious universities because of the racial wealth gap, educational inequality, and lack of cultural capital, which harm their admission chances. As a result of these inequalities, white people – who are overrepresented at prestigious universities – benefit from pedigree bias. Because racial injustice gives white people educational advantages in elementary school, high school, and college, they’re more likely to get tenure-track jobs, even if they’re not the best candidates by objective measures.

De Cruz says that the prestige of top-tier journals, which publish mainly on LEMMING sub-disciplines, results in a testimonial “smothering” and “silencing” of non-standard philosophical positions, because these positions appear less often in prestigious journals (‘silencing’), and because people who specialize in non-LEMMING subjects submit only half as often to top-5 journals (‘smothering’) (24). When philosophers don’t meet their publishing goals, they may “try to compensate for this by changing their topics of work to fit more prestigious fields” (22) (more ‘smothering’). Women in philosophy are also epistemically marginalized because they earn less than men, are underrepresented at prestigious universities, and, as a result, “may have less access to institutional funding” (26).

De Cruz doesn’t connect pedigree bias to the gender/racial schema hypothesis, but I’ve already indicated how they might be related. If pedigree bias is connected with field-specific ability belief about men’s philosophical talents, then implicit bias is a factor in pedigree bias. This is actually the dominant explanation of FSAB, viz., that FSAB interacts with gender bias to produce overt discrimination against women. As Myer, Cinpian, and Leslie explain the phenomenon, FSAB, “in combination with the stereotypes against women’s intellectual abilities… lead a variety of individuals (parents, teachers, peers, etc.) to see women as somewhat unsuited for ‘brilliance-required’ domains” (2015). If FSAB were gender-neutral, it wouldn’t motivate people to favour men. Cinpiani and Leslie say that “the same logic extends to race: our country has a long history of portraying African Americans as intellectually inferior, which is particularly likely to affect their participation in a field that focuses so single-mindedly on the quality of one’s intellect” (2017: 63). One can’t ignore that FSAB has gender and racial dimensions. Thus, it has what Fricker calls “ethically noxious” content – biased attitudes toward minorities. Pedigree bias is typically justified on the basis that the selected candidate is the better choice, regardless of any supporting evidence, and often in spite of evidence to the contrary – in other words, on the basis of a discipline-specific ability belief about the candidate. This is a species of FSAB, which is activated or partly constituted by implicit bias.

These considerations imply that hiring decisions in philosophy tend to be instances of testimonial injustice – interactions that epistemically marginalize women and racialized minorities. Implicit biases are so robust that even people who know they are pervasive in the field still hold them (albeit under a false representation of them as reliable heuristics). These biases have a number of downstream epistemic consequences, such as epistemically smothering and silencing minorities who work in philosophy, who must choose between specializing in a marginalized field, or being marginalized in a valued one.

De Cruz offers a number of solutions for minimizing pedigree bias, including citing more philosophers, especially philosophers from underrepresented fields; citing more publications from less prestigious journals; and ranking job candidates on the basis of non-pedigree-related criteria. These strategies could help to establish the hermeneutical background that I have described as essential to the reduction of critical injustice in philosophy. We need to take steps at all levels of the profession (and, ideally, outside of the profession as well) to limit the role of epistemic injustice in philosophy. More than individual tokens of good will, we need institutional change to promote critical justice in the field.


*All subsequent citations of De Cruz refer to this forthcoming paper.

Why POC’s blame is epistemically marginalized


My last post was on why women’s blame means less than men’s in conditions of epistemic injustice. By ‘means less’ I mean is less intelligible, speakable, and amenable to uptake, compared to men’s blame. The reason is that epistemic injustice toward women, or ‘epistemic gender bias,’ silences and suppresses women’s speech, and, since blame is a speech act, epistemic gender bias silences and suppresses women’s blame. I examined three speech contexts in which, and through which, women’s blame is silenced: (1) western erotica, (2) western literary fiction, and (3) western humour. Women are epistemically marginalized, and correspondingly underrepresented, in those contexts.

In this post, I add an intersectional dimension to this analysis by examining how race and gender are co-constructed by the dominant frame of reference of white masculinity. The social construction of racialized sexualities and gender identities positions racialized masculinities and femininities as ‘other’ relative to white masculinity, and this negating representation results in social marginalizations, particularly lack of visibility in historically white-masculine spaces. That is, because POC are eroticized as ‘other,’ they are marginalized in mainstream culture. Analogous to my last post, I examine three contexts in which, and through which, racialized minorities are marginalized: (1) western erotica, (2) western literary fiction, and (3) western humour. I find that all three contexts represent People of Color (POC) as racialized in problematic ways, and all three contexts therefore promote epistemic injustice against POC – namely, ‘racial epistemic bias.’

In the remainder of this post, I analyze (1) the racialization of gender through the erotic lens of white masculinity, and the lingering socioeconomic effects of that lens, (2) the marginalization of racialized minorities in literary fiction, where Authors of Color and non-white narratives are underrepresented, and (3) the marginalization of racialized minorities in western comedy, which tends to erase POC, or exploit racial stereotypes for comedic effect. I argue that white masculinity is still the dominant frame of reference, but is quickly losing ground to anti-racist perspectives, narratives, and comedic norms. Insofar as white masculinity is still the dominant point of view, POC’s blame is marginalized in these contexts, but there is evidence that the normative landscape is shifting.

2. Western erotica

In my last post, I argued that women are sexually objectified by ‘the male gaze’ (i.e., the heteronormative, masculine perspective promoted by mainstream pornography), and this erotic paradigm discredits women as speakers and knowers, including as people who speak reputably and know things about blame, its nature, and its norms. The eroticization of women as emblematic objects of male sexual desire – and thus paradigmatically infantile, submissive, and irrational – undermines women’s epistemic standing, particularly in stereotypically male contexts, including the literary canon and comedy. Since women’s blame is expressed, or expressible, in their literary and comedic products, women’s blame is epistemically marginalized along these dimension.

Here, I will argue that similar considerations apply to POC, who are not eroticized in a uniform way, but are eroticized in a series of problematic ways by the white-male gaze. Specifically, racialized gender identities tend to be stereotyped as either hyper-feminine and childish, or aggressive and unruly, or both. This binary logic creates epistemic double-binds and contradictions that cast POC as not-credible in one way or another, precluding the possibility of epistemic authority. I’ll look at four categories – Asian femininity, Asian masculinity, Black femininity, and Black femininity – and argue that all fall under a racialized erotic lens that undermines the epistemic standing of the target group.

Asian women, as I mentioned in my last post, are the most ‘sexually desired’ by all men (except Asians) according to surveys (NPR Staff 2013), but they are, by the same token, the most eroticized by Western popular culture, which ‘fetishizes’ them as “dually exotic and subservient creatures able to please men in special ways” (Chang 2006). This racial stereotype emerged during the Vietnam, Korean, and World wars of the 20th Century, during which American soldiers routinely has sex with, and raped, Asian sex workers and sex slaves.* After WWII, Congress passed the War Bride Act, which allowed American servicemen to bring Asian wives home – women who “symbolized the winning of the war; they were war prizes” (Chang 2006). At the same time, American culture was “saturated with impressions of Japanese women as excellent homemakers with ‘wifely virtues and male-pleasing attributes’—not so different from the geisha as they both represent the same image of an ‘Oriental Woman who exists to please men'” (Uchida, 1998, p. 166; cited in Chang 2006). American servicemen thus exported a misogynistic ideal of the geisha, and infused it with a racial logic that further dehumanized Asian women.

These racial sexual icons eventually entered into American mainstream pornography, in which, as of 2017, ‘Hentai’ and ‘Japanese’ are the 2nd and 8th most searched-for terms on (PH 2017). Hentai, which is Japanese animated pornography, is described by feminist blogger David Occhart as extremely sexist, full of rape scenes, and, “even when the sex is consensual…, [involving] a constant a sense of shame and embarrassment… the girls are frequently seen frowning—often with tears collecting at the corners of their eyes” (2015). Because the characters are animated, there are fewer constraints on sexual violence, and more opportunities for enacting misogynistic rape fantasies, including child rape (Rpiley & Whiteman 2014). Commenting on popular culture, Chang says that Asian women are still stereotyped as “exotic and submissive or treacherous and lustful,” and “it is ‘as if the century of life experiences of Asian women in the United States has had little impact'” (citing Uchida, 1998, p. 167; 2015). The submissive-treacherous dichotomy creates an epistemic double-bind for Asian women, since being submissive and being treacherous are both incompatible with being a credible speaker.

Notably, Audrea Lim (2018) speculates that the extreme sexual objectification of Asian women may explain why members of the “alt-right” often accept, and even date, Asian women: if Asian women are framed as objects of men’s racialized sexual desires, they can ‘belong’ to a white supremacy group, but not as people –  as sexual play-things for white men. That is, white supremacist don’t see Asian women as peers – on the contrary, they objectify them to the extent that they no longer see them as persons. Audrea Lim says that the ‘alt-right”s acceptance of Asian women rests on a combination of two mutually-reinforcing stereotypes: the ‘model-minority’ and the ‘submissive hyper-sexual,’ the first of which “deludes white men into seeing a retrograde feminine virtue in Asian women, which at the same time cajoles Asian women into living up to that stereotype as though it were flattery” (Alive 2018). The ‘model minority’ stereotype, then, depicts Asian women as too submissive to resist the subjugating gaze of white masculinity, and this positions them as non-threatening from the standpoint of White Supremacy.

By a similar racist logic, Asian men are rated as the ‘least sexually preferred’ by women in surveys. This is the flip-side of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women, which precipitated the de-sexualizing of Asian men, who were perceived as white servicemen’s competition for sexual access to, and possession of, Asian women. In the post-war era, popular culture continued to associate white men with prototypical masculinity and Asian men with prototypical femininity, and these associations were codified in American law. As Michael Park notes, 20th-Century “immigration practices and laws… barred citizenship to Asian men, and in effect designated[ed] them as ‘other’ and emblematically ‘non-male'” (2013: 6). This included barring Asian immigrants from marrying, effectively preventing them from having families or procreating under the law, and barring Asian Americans from pursuing stereotypically male jobs, forcing them into ‘feminized’ contract occupations, such as “cook, waiter, tailor, and laundryman” (Park 2013: 11). To diffuse what policy-makers regarded as “threats to white racial purity” (Park 2013: 10), Asian American men were ’emasculated’ by social policy and classified along with women as second-class citizens – a species of ‘second sex.’

These stereotypical associations persist to this day, as evidenced in the results of machine-learning algorithms showing that the adjectives most associated with Asians in the 1910s were “barbaric,” “monstrous,” and “cruel,” but the current top adjectives are “inhibited,” “passive” and “sensitive” – an improvement, but evidence of the lingering cultural associations between Asian Americans and prototypical femininity (Shashkevich 2018).

These adjectival associations reflect the now-dominant paradigm of the ‘model minority’ – a stereotype that is, on reflection, simply a re-fashioning of the classic motif of passive, femininized ‘Orientalism’, albeit presented under the false guise of a compliment. (For example, the  stereotype of Asians being “good at math” is a racist slur, disguised as a gesture of respect). The ‘model-minority’ stereotype relies on the cultural paradigm of Asians as passive, compliant, and apolitical – indeed, as “the symbolic antithesis of militant Civil Rights activists and feminist groups,” who are depicted as, in a sense, grotesquely masculine (Kim & Chung 2005) Asian Americans are still racialized, but they are seen as a less threatening racial minority than Hispanic and Black Americans, who are effectively criminalized in the collective consciousness. This contrast between ‘model minorities’ and ‘criminal minorities’ fuels the military-industrial complex and protects the hegemony of white masculinity – the only erotic identity that is neither racialized nor femininized. As Gina Marchetti observes, popular culture “uses” Asian Americans “as signifiers of racial otherness to avoid the far more immediate racial tensions between blacks and whites or the ambivalent mixture of guilt and enduring hatred toward Native American and Hispanics”; the ‘model minority’ paradigm provides a contrast to the “images of violent and vociferous African Americans and feminists” (1993: 6). These associations serve to protect the cultural and epistemic hegemony of white masculinity.

African American women are the ‘least sexually preferred’ by men according to surveys. Like Asian sex-trafficking victims, enslaved African American women (and men) were systemically raped by white men, producing a ‘white sexual gaze’ that construed Black women as both financial resources and objects of colonialist rape fantasies. Black women were not hyper-feminized in the way that Asian women were because, as Naomi Zack notes (1999), the genealogy of Black femininity is sui genesis. Zack argues that colonialists were driven primarily by monetary incentives to rape and ‘breed’ Black women for profit, while African American men were seen as equivalent to male workhorses, with an ‘inconvenient,’ ‘unruly,’ and non-monetizable sexuality (1999). These frameworks linger in the current popular eroticization of Black women as “Jezebels,” “lascivious by nature,” “innately promiscuous, even predatory” (Pilgrim 2012) – a cultural script that exonerates the colonialist raping of Black women, and preserves the constructed innocence of ‘boyish’ white masculinity. Black women are also objectified under the cultural schemas of the “Angry Black Woman” and the “Welfare Mother” (ibid). (Green 2017) – negative scripts that, again, sanitize America’s legacy of racial segregation, slavery, and institutionalized rape. These racist sexual constructs grew out of America’s colonialist history, but they persist as mechanisms for sanitizing white masculinity and justifying white men’s sexual conceit. If Black women are hyper-sexual but morally worthless, then they are supremely fuckable, as they can be used as a convenient sexual resource without regard to their moral standing. The fact that Black women are seen as ‘not sexually desirable’ does not entail that they are ‘not fuckable’: ‘sexual desirability’ entails more than regarding someone as a sex toy. In America, African American women experience sexual violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and 2.5 times the rate of other races, and have less access to social resources (WCN 2006) – statistics that reveal the lack of regard for Black women’s moral agency.

African American men are less ‘sexually preferred’ than white men in surveys, again, because of the entanglement of racism and sexism in the cultural erotic imagination. Like Black women, enslaved Black men were systematically raped by white colonialists, although this is less widely recognized (Curry 2018). Tom Curry examines the construction of African American masculinity in Americawhich he identifies as a paradoxical mix of childish innocence and violent barbarism. Specifically, Black men are stereotyped, on the one hand, as “childish and immature” (2018: 9) – a cultural schema reinforced by the systemic rape and enslavement of African American men – and on the other hand, as sexually aggressive, lascivious, and susceptible to “abominable lust” (2018: 9) – a cultural schema created under colonialism to protect white men’s sexual access to, and possession of, white women. This stereotype of Black masculinity is famously portrayed in the American classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which a Black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman – a lie that everyone believes because the American mythologization of the Black male rapist has been so deeply ingrained. The irony is that white men blamed Black men for an offense that they themselves not only committed more than anyone else, but legalized as an exclusive right under colonialism (which allowed them to legally rape their white wives and POC). To preserve this position of sexual dominance, ethnologists, anthropologists, and biologists constructed an impossible “bogeyman” of Black masculinity, envisioned as infantile-and-predatory, feminine-and-aggressive, innocent-and-criminal – a chimera that erased the very possibility of an intelligible cultural identity for Black men (Curry 2018). This binary construct persists to this day, and explains the dual feminization and criminalization of Black men – reflected, e.g., in the fact that they earn less than white women (Patten 2017), but are incarcerated for 19% longer than white men for the same crimes (Pryor et al. 2017).

These intersections of racism and eroticism in the popular imagination results in a complex ‘othering’ of POC, engendering specific social and epistemic marginalizations. In my last post, I drew on Rebecca Solnit’s work in feminist sociology to show how women as a group are silenced by pornographic representations of women as sexual objects as opposed to agents in their own right. The present analysis allows us to make finer-grained discriminations amongst differently-racialized femininities and masculinities. According to this analysis, Asian women are hyper-sexualized in the cultural consciousness, represented as emblematically infantile, passive, compliant, and easily assailable into the logic of white masculinity and white supremacy. Asian men are depicted as stereotypically feminine, but also male, positioning them as non-threatening but also non-gendered, or perhaps gender-nonconforming, according to the dominant racial lens. Black women are eroticized under dehumanizing schemas that justify colonialism, racial segregation, and sexual violence against them. Black men, finally, are placed in the paradoxical category of the ‘child-rapist,’ a category that precludes the very possibility of a coherent cultural identity. All of these stereotypes, which enmesh race and sexuality in complex web of negative, eroticized gender prototypes, effectively erase the subjectivities of members of these racialized groups. Rather than seeing these group-members as individuals, popular culture imagines them as static tropes, constructed as absences (not-white-men) through the dominant lens of white masculinity – that is, the irreducible subject whose hegemonic frame of reference racializes all other gender categories.

Because racialized minorities are eroticized in these problematic ways, they are less likely to be represented as individuals with epistemic authority – as authors, narrators, main characters, etc. – in popular culture. And indeed, POC are underrepresented in across many dimensions of popular culture, with one salient example being the entertainment industry. I will briefly outline epistemic marginalizations in that industry here.

To begin, women, African Americans, and Asian Americans are underrepresented in Hollywood films. In a sample of 414 stories, “half the films and TV shows… had no Asian speaking characters, and more than one-fifth… had no black characters with dialogue,” while “just one-third of characters with speaking roles were women” (Deggan 2016; Smith et al 2016). Researchers concluded that “the film industry still functions as a straight, White, boy’s club” (ibid.). Films with POC in the roles of director, writer and producer are more diverse (ibid.), but these positions are overwhelming occupied by white men. POC are underrepresented amongst film directors, film writers, show creators, studio executives, studio managers, and studio unit heads, and the situation is hardly improving: “the numbers of women and minorities represented in entertainment productions haven’t budged in 10 years” (Austin 2016; Smith et al. 2017).

The television and film industries are, of course, major producers of dominant cultural narratives. These industries produce stories that are consumed by millions of people, and these stories express blame and praise. When POC are underrepresented amongst all ranks in the entertainment industry, their speech is epistemically marginalized in these contexts, which entails that their blame, as a speech act, is epistemically marginalized.

In modern TV and cinema, there are salient examples of counter-cultural blaming narratives, including such productions as Black Panther, which critiques American colonialism through an Afro-futuristic lens; Dear White People, which ridicules perennial racist practices, like going to a party in Black Face; and Key and Peele, which similarly critiques cultural racism (more on which later). These screen productions invert the racist logic of the ‘golden age of Hollywood,’ which glamorized slavery (e.g., Gone with the Wind), depicted POC as racial stereotypes (e.g., I. Y. Yonoshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s), or, more often than not, erased POC and normalized racism. More recent screen products perpetrate historical racisms, by, for example, appropriating African American narratives (e.g., Friends is allegedly a sad re-make of Living Single (Blay 2017), casting white people as POC (e.g., Ghost in the Shell, The Outsider, The Prince of Persia), and segregating white people from POC as if they inhabited different worlds, or as if racial segregation were natural and inevitable (e.g., A Different World alongside Beverly Hills 90210, Full House alongside Family Matters). These filmic conventions suppress, silence, or white-wash the normative insights and blaming expressions of POC. It is only in recent years that anti-racist screen productions have begun to gain cultural momentum and epistemic capital, but these products are still liminal compared to the white-male frame of reference, which depicts POC as tokens, tropes, and supporting characters.

When POC are depicted in film and TV as racial stereotype, or as supporting characters at the periphery of the white-male experience, they are subjected to epistemic injustice, because their perspectives are suppressed and silenced. Epistemic injustice involves not only the discrediting of a person’s testimony (i.e., testimonial injustice’), but also the unfair distribution of opportunities to speak, which Fricker calls ‘pre-emptive testimonial injustice’ – a type of injustice that fails to provide opportunities to speak (viz., Hazlett 2017). POC are subject to both types of epistemic injustice in the entertainment industry, as they are represented as negative archetypes that are inherently discrediting (‘laundryman,’ ‘Jezebel,’ ‘rapist’), and, partly because of this, their speech is pre-empted. Because their speech is epistemically marginalized in these ways, their blame is, too.

  2. The Western Literary Canon

The racial-sexual erotic stereotypes that epistemically marginalize POC have implications not only for film and TV, but also for the western literary canon, which is predominantly white and male. Since literature is a vehicle for people’s speech, it is a vehicle for people’s blame, which is therefore marginalized in literary fiction.

While demographic numbers are changing, most of us grew up with an overwhelmingly white, male literary canon. Today, literary fiction still isn’t keeping up with demographic trends: “of children’s books published in 2013, only 10.5 percent featured a person of color,” whereas half of all school-aged children are non-white (Black 2018); “in 2016, this number doubled to 22 percent, but white is still the ‘default identity'”; in New York City’s public school system, only 14.9% of students are white, but almost half the books in the district’s curriculum feature white characters (ibid.)

In addition, the top-5 ranked titles at college English departments in America are all by white authors and feature white characters (Osborn 2016). In 2012, 88% of authors reviewed by the New York Times were white males (Hess 2012), and in 2013, only two out of 23 authors featured in the Paris Review’s interviews of top authors of the decade were Authors of Color (Berry 2013). Because literary criticism signals respect for the author under review, and also increases book sales, the underrepresentation of Authors of Color in critical reviews reflects a lack of respect for their authorial credibility, and results in a lack of financial investment in their literary projects (a ‘secondary harm’ of epistemic injustice).

These epistemic marginalizations could also have effects on our moral attitudes. In my last post, I discussed Rebecca Solnit’s claim that the underrepresentation of women in literary fiction primes us to empathize more with men than women, producing a gender empathy gap. I pointed out that this theory is consistent with research on intergroup empathy bias, which finds that, in conditions of competition, empathy enhances hostility toward perceived out-group members, including women. It would be an overgeneralization to say that women are completely starved of empathy, but we seem to lack empathy for women precisely when the authority of white masculinity is at stake – for example, when women are raped by men, which is the theme of Lolita  – a tragic rape story warped into a ‘compelling romance’ by critics, marketers, and audiences.

The empathy-gap hypothesis is also consistent with evidence that we respond differently to pain in men and women: for example, women are less likely to get CPR from a bystander and more likely to die of cardiac arrest (Brauser 2017); women are less likely to be referred for specialist care for certain conditions, and are subjected to longer wait times for certain conditions (Jaakkimainen et al. 2014);  and, globally, women have higher mortality rates than men for infectious and non-communicable diseases (WEF 2017). This empathy bias is consistent with Solnit’s theory that the overrepresentation of men’s perspectives in literature affects our empathic sensitivity to men and women –  though perhaps, in light of the competition aspect of inter-group empathy bias, this bias is more salient in contexts where white masculinity competes with women’s pain (rape stories), or where men’s and women’s pain compete for costly resources (healthcare).

A similar analysis can be applied to POC, who are also ‘othered’ in the western literary canon. The ‘othering’ of POC is on display, for instance, in the Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (2015), in which the top five – Don QuixotePilgrim’s ProgressRobinson CrusoeGulliver’s Travels, and Tom Jones – are all written by white men, all center white masculinity as the dominant frame of reference, and, in many cases, include racist caricatures of POC. Don Quixote‘s author Cervantes regularly “mocks [POC] as liars and thieves, portraying them as useless cheapskates who deserve their exile from Spain because they threaten the king’s rule” (SparkNotes; cf. George Mariscal 1999); Pilgrim’s Progress almost completely excludes POC, except for a racist passage in which “Fool” and “Want-wit” wash an Etheopian man “with [the] intention of making him white, but the more they washed him the blacker he was” (1909: S8.357); Robinson Crusoe presents Crusoe’s island-mate Friday in the racist guise of The Noble Savage, a stock character who embodies an exoticized, African ‘other,’ supposedly uncorrupted by ‘modern civilization’; Tom Jones doesn’t include any POC or references to race, but treats slavery as a natural institution; and Gulliver’s Travels, though generally interpreted as a symbolic critique of the slave trade, still uses racist language, and only criticizes slavery (if at all) in a symbolic form, not explicitly (Robinson 2006). This isn’t to write off all of these books as garbage, but it is epistemically significant that they all marginalize POC, and, when they do center on POC, exoticise them and describe them in racist terms. Once you get to the end of this reading list, it might be a good idea to cleanse your palette with some anti-racist narratives, to say the least. Solnit goes farther and suggests that we should eschew some canonized literature completely, as it might be bad for your moral character.

Notably, the empathy gap in our perception of pain also extends to POC, revealing a ‘racial empathy bias.’ For example, nurses assume that Black people feel less pain than white people (Fogiarini et al. 2011); physicians underestimate Black patients’ pain more than white patients’ pain (Staton et al. 2007); and physicians withhold opioids from Hispanic, Black, and Asian patients more than white patients (Forgiarini et al. 2011).  This is consistent with the theory that the hegemony of white masculinity in the literary canon – and other cultural spaces – creates an empathy bias in favour of gender-conforming white men.

That said, the western literary canon is being increasingly diversified. I am currently contributing to an edited volume on Octavia Butler (1993, 1998), an under-appreciated Black women author whose dystopian fiction was more prescient than her peers,’ because it foregrounds race and gender in her post-apocalyptic universes, bringing into relief how democratic collapse and tyranny disproportionally harm historically disenfranchised groups (and often confer advantages on the privileged, contrary to the anxieties of many white authors). Rather than centering white masculinity, Butler foregrounds the narrative perspective of a Black woman, and focuses on how capitalism, sex slavery, and colonialism intersect with racial empathy bias. Butler does not have the same cultural status as authors like Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, precisely because she is a Black woman and she explicitly addresses the inconvenient truth of racial injustice, but I am optimistic that her work will be re-appraised and popularized in the near future (especially after the success of Black Panther).

3. Western Humour

The stereotypes that silence POC have implications not only for film, TV, and the western literary canon, but also for western humour, which is also predominantly white and male. Much of Western Humour is rooted in the use of racial stereotypes as a form of humour, with prominent examples including Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons, Han from Two Broke Girls, and Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. Other comedies simply erase POC, in spite of being set in some of the most diverse metropolises in the world, prime examples including FriendsSeinfeld, and Sex in the City. Although 3 out of 10 of Netflix’s ten highest-paid comedians of 2017 were Black men, there were no other racial groups and no intersectional identities in the top-ten list (Fritz 2017). While POC have produced some groundbreaking comedies in recent years, many of these productions have been denied funding from major movie studios, including Dear White People, produced by Justin Simien, and The Top 5, produced by Chris Rock (King et al. 2104; Bernstein 2014) (which were financed by crowdfunding). In the Hollywood Reporter’s list of the 30 Most Powerful Film Producers, there were only 2 Asian men, 1 Black man, and zero women (THR Staff 2015). The underrepresentation of POC amongst producers is a factor in the underrepresentation of POC at every other rank in Hollywood.

Recent trends in comedy, however, challenge the racist logic of mainstream comedy – a logic that either trades on racist stereotypes, erases POC entirely, or whitewashes Black narratives. Just as rape jokes (about rape survivors) are being replaced by rapist jokes (about rapists) told by feminist comedians like Amy Schumer, Amy Pohler, and Tina Fey, racist jokes are being replaced by anti-racist jokes (about racists), told by Comedians of Color like Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Amber Ruffin, Ronny Chieng, and Jessica Williams.

To bring this into relief, I’ll start with Key and Peele’s recent sketch on civil war reenactments. A group of white Civil-War reenactors are playing Confederate soldiers, and Key and Peele’s characters show up uninvited to play Jim Crow racial stereotypes. The person playing the Confederate General defends the group, arguing that the re-enactors aren’t “pro-slavery,” – they’re just trying to “preserve the pure and beautiful slice of southern history” – to which another participants adds the emphasis, “yeah, pure and beautiful slice.” At the end of the clip, the ‘General’ almost says the n-word, accidentally exposing his explicit racism, and the interlopers take this as license to rob him, which is, in my view (and presumably in Key and Peele’s) a piece of delicious retribution, confirming what I argued in an earlier post, viz., that crimes that ‘punch up’ (e.g., disenfranchise racists, effectuate a fairer distribution of wealth) can have prima facie redemptive moral value. (Whether theses crimes are all-things-considered justified depends on the particularities of the case). By showing up as racial stereotypes at the reenactment, Key and Peele’s characters ridicule the facile logic on which Civil-War re-enactments are about appreciating Southern history as opposed to celebrating racism.

Another example is Ronny Chieng’s response to a video featuring Jesse Watters as he interviews residents of China Town, produced for The O’Reilly Factor (before Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox in light of evidence that the company had paid multiple sexual harassment settlements on his behalf). Although Chieng’s video contains some problematic content, it features a biting criticism of Watters’ white ignorance, conspicuous in his use of racist iconography, such as clips of Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid and excerpts of the song ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ to reduce his interviewees to the one-dimensional racial stereotype of the Kung Fu Hero. Notably, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ features a melody known as the ‘Oriental Riff,’ which is an American invention dating back to the 19th Century, historically used to depict Asian Americans as Perpetual Foreigners, as seen in this racist Betty Boop episode ‘Making Stars’ (Chow 2014). Chieng ridicules Watters for failing to ask his interviewees if they speak English and depicting them as ignorant. He responds with a counter-video in which he interviews China-Town residents in Chinese, eliciting intelligent responses about American politics. This response-video turns the tables on Watters, revealing the clown to be, not Asian Americans, but Watters himself, who is a buffoonish embodiment of White Ignorance. 

A third example can be found in Amber Ruffin’s send-up of the TV series Roseanne, a 1990s sit-com recently revived as a racist show about a Trump apologist (as Roseanne Barre is in real life). Ruffin begins with a bit of funny-because-true humour, informing the audience that “Roseanne is back and she’s better than ever… at being racist.” She goes on to explain how Roseanne illustrates a pervasive kind of American racism, on which white Americans accept POC if they’re useful to them, but otherwise don’t hesitate to call the police on them and report them for fake crimes. Ruffin proceeds to give real-life examples of this phenomenon, including a woman who calls the police on two Native Americans who she claims “don’t belong there,” to which Ruffin replies, “They’re Native Americans – they’re the only people who do belong there.” These rebuttals are funny because they bring into focus the buffoonishness of White Exceptionalism, the belief that white Americans have special moral status and everyone else has to prove their moral worth.

These comedic portrayals of white privilege are fairly recent in popular culture, which historically relied on the opposite comedic norms – racist caricatures as a source of humour. Because anti-racist humour is being popularized and and recognized as funny by a wider audience, POC’s blame, as expressed in their comedic speech, is receiving more uptake. POC’s comedic blame includes ridiculing, and thus censuring, white privilege. Whereas doing this was previously difficult because white masculinity was held up as a bastion of rationality, dignity, and authority, the popularity of anti-racist humour is chipping away at this false icon and revealing white ignorance as the absurd spectacle that it is. Covert and banal forms of racism are being exposed as ridiculous spectacles of white ignorance, and the absurdity of these racisms are increasingly obvious.

4. Concluding remarks

In my last post, I argued that women’s blame is silenced by epistemic gender bias perpetrated by, and within, mainstream erotica, western literary fiction, and western humour. In this post, I have given this analysis an intersectional dimension by analyzing how gender and race are intertwined in the construction of racialized gender identities (Asian femininity, Black masculinity, etc.), enacted through the dominant erotic standpoint of white masculinity. This standpoint produces epistemic racial bias, which works to marginalize POC in white-dominant spaces, including literary fiction and comedy. Recent trends, however, show that POC are inverting the racist-sexist logic of white masculinity, by producing, marketing, and popularizing their own brands of anti-racist literature and comedy. These speech products contain blame, and therefore provide a vehicle for POC’s blame to be voiced, heard, and integrated into the social imaginary.



*I hesitate to use the colonialist term ‘slave,’ though this is the most recognized term for women forced into sex trafficking. By ‘sex slave’ I mean, more precisely, victims of sex trafficking.


Why women’s blame means less than men’s in conditions of epistemic injustice

  1. Introduction

Women’s blame means less than men’s in conditions of epistemic injustice because women’s speech means less, and blame is a type of speech (McKenna 2011). ‘Epistemic injustice’ is a species of injustice that harms someone in her capacity as a knower. It functions by recruiting ‘identity prejudice,’ or cultural stereotypes and biases, to discredit the testimony of socially marginalized groups. Women, as a socially marginalized group, are vulnerable to epistemic injustice on the basis of their gender identity – that is, they are susceptible to gender-based epistemic injustice, or (what I shall call) “epistemic gender bias.” When I say that women’s blame ‘means’ less than men’s, I mean that it is less articulable, intelligible, and authoritative than men’s. Because women are affected by epistemic injustice, they can ‘do less’ with blame than men can (Austin 1962).

There are many sociological factors involved in the epistemic marginalization of women’s speech (and thus women’s blame). Rebecca Solnit addresses several intersecting causal vectors in her recent book, “The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions” (2017). I use her work as the starting point for my analysis of epistemic gender bias and its effects on women’s blame. By women’s blame, I simply mean blame expressed, or expressible, by women. Women’s blame doesn’t necessarily have distinct (‘feminine’) features, though it might; ‘women’s blame’ encompasses any criticism, censure, resentment, disapprobation, and related negative responses that women express, or would express if the epistemic resources required for uptake were available. Some instances of women’s blame are unspeakable due to epistemic injustice, and some are speakable but ‘unhearable,’ or unheard, because they lack a receptive audience.

In this post, I will explain, following Solnit, how (i) mainstream pornography, (ii) canonic literary fiction, and (iii) mainstream humour, all function to silence and suppress women’s speech. I will argue that (i)-(iii) all produce, reproduce, and naturalize “the male gaze” (Laura Mulvey 1975), by depicting the world from a cisgender male, or masculine, perspective. (By ‘the male gaze’ I mean, more precisely, the masculine point of view, into which many birth-assigned males are acculturated; but the ‘male gaze’ as I understand it is associated with gender, not sex. ‘Male’ from now on should be taken to denote ‘cisgender male’ or ‘masculine.’ Not all males, or men, take the perspective of the male gaze).

2. Sexual objectification

One factor in epistemic gender bias is the sexual objectification of women, perpetrated largely by mainstream pornography, which is a man-made cultural artifact that depicts women through the ‘male gaze’ – that is, as objects of male sexual pleasure, not agents in their own right (Laura Mulvey 1995; Andrea Dworkin 1981; Catherine MacKinnon 1989). Solnit notes that, while pornography has become more diverse in recent years, mainstream pornography has only gotten more violent, suggesting that porn may have evolved into “a compensatory parallel universe where male privilege has been augmented and revenge on female power is incessantly exacted” (Solnit 2017).

There is evidence that mainstream pornography impairs recognition of sexual assault: for example, “Male and female college students who report recent porn use have been repeatedly found to be more likely than others to believe ‘rape myths,’ [such as] that only strangers commit sexual assault or that the victim ‘asked for it’ by drinking too much or wearing ‘slutty’ clothing or by going to a club alone” (Peggy Ornstein 2016, cited in Solnit 2017). It would be naive, however, to think that the male gaze only impairs women’s ability to rebuke rapists and exercise sexual autonomy; the sexual objectification of women is so pervasive that it impairs women’s ability to say anything with the same credibility as a man. That is, it impairs women’s general epistemic standing.

In 2016, the Guardian reported that “eight of its most attacked columnists were women, two were men of color, and the most attacked of all was feminist Jessica Valenti” (Solnit 2017). Valenti is a vocal critic of rape culture and toxic masculinity, and her blame, as expressed in her feminist critiques, is rejected, dismissed, and attacked by her detractors, some of whom have threatened to murder and rape her. Rape threats are a common misogynistic threat, and even if they are not sincere, these threats are part of a broader system of male aggression that does provoke “women to change their behaviour to minimize harassment and worse” (Paul Crider 2017). Men who deny that rape threats can be consequential simply lack the ability to empathize with women (ibid.). Valenti is a particularly public example of a woman whose blame is epistemically marginalized, but her experience should be seen as a symptom of a deeper problem, not an anomaly. Harassment helps to explain why, while the Guardian‘s publication rate has increased over the last 15 years, the gender gap has remained the same (Gardiner et al. 2016).

Mainstream pornography doesn’t just normalize misogynistic violence against women – it depicts women as stereotypically infantile, naive, inexperienced, subordinate, and complacent. This is evident in Hugh Hefner’s casting of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields, along with at least nine other minors, in Playboy Magazine – not to mention countless depictions of childlike models posed as “cheerleaders, students, babysitters and sorority girls,” for the sexual gratification of a heterosexual male audience (Michelle Smith 2017). The popularity of  “barely legal” and “teen” pornography over the last few decades also speaks to the infantilization of women through porn (Griffith 2017). Hefner, who was touted by many as a champion of freedom of speech, was in reality a sexist jerk who belittled and harassed his female employees, plied them with drugs, refused to use condoms or be tested for STDs, and “require[d] depressing group sex at regularly scheduled times” (Robinson 2017). Though he portrayed himself as a cheerful hedonist, by all appearances, “he didn’t even care about pleasure: he cared about the taming and conquest of women” (Robinson 2017). Playboy illustrates Foucault’s argument that sexual discourse doesn’t just break taboos; it creates an “authorized vocabulary” (1976: 17) that codifies how one can discuss, think about, and perform sex. Mainstream pornography didn’t simply liberate us from conservative sexual mores of the past: it also constructed male sexual desire in Hefner’s image, as demeaning, infantilizing, and hateful to women.

The objectification of women is also evidenced in the fetishization of Asian women (who are the most ‘desirable’ group according to white men), which can be traced back to racist cultural artifacts like ‘Madame Butterfly,’ which depicts ‘the ideal’ Asian woman as “pretty and not much bigger than a doll,” “dainty,” and “little”, and the Korean, Vietnamese, and Second World wars, during which American soldiers had sex with, and raped, Asian sex workers and sex slaves, many of whom were underage (Juliana Wang 2014; Essertier 2018). Some American men ‘had sex’ (by their lights, but in many cases it was actually rape) for the first time with an Asian sex worker or sex slave, and there is evidence that first sexual experiences strongly influence future mating preferences (Quintana et al. 2015) – in this case, producing a lifelong ‘Asian fetish.’ The male sexual preference for (stereotypically childish) Asian women thus represents a culturally constructed desire for a thoroughly objectified, infantilized, and possibly enslaved, woman.

How can you respect blame from a woman if you see her as a child, if not a sex slave? The intergenerational sexual objectification of women partly explains why women’s speech products – women’s literary fiction, humour, and conversation – are less valued than men’s. Since these produces contain blame, women’s blame is epistemically marginalized.

Before exploring these vectors of epistemic injustice, I should clarify that I am not saying that all men contribute to epistemic gender bias. Solnit identifies three types of men: (i) the “raging misogynists and haters,” who actively perpetrate epistemic gender bias, (ii) the allies, who support gender equality, and (iii) the well-meaning but ignorant men who discredit women by accident (2014). The third category includes, for example, mansplainers, who condescendingly explain complex concepts to women as if they were speaking to a child. This infantilizing attitude is another aspect of the male gaze: it is an objectifying stance that treats women as epistemic recipients as opposed to epistemic producers. Even if not all men contribute to epistemic gender bias, we still live in what Miranda Fricker (2007) calls a climate of ‘hermeneutical injustice,’ in which shared interpretive resources for accurately framing (and adequately responding to) women’s epistemic marginalization is lacking. The ‘hermeneutical gaps’ in our epistemic climate, caused in large part by the pervasive ‘pornographication’ of women, discredit all women’s speech, even if allies are hard at work refuting the slut-shaming, rape-threatening, infantilizing, manterrupting, mansplaining speech of other men.

A second necessarily qualification is that women are not discredited across every domain; women in general are perceived as more credible in traditionally female domains, and less credible in traditionally male domains. For example, male experts are rated as more credible in murder trials, whereas female experts are rated as more credible in custody hearings (Larson & Brodsky 2010; Swendon, Nash, & Roos 1984; Walters 1994;  Neal 2014; Mill 2018). This shows that gender bias is context-sensitive. That said, because stereotypically female roles are poorly respected (and poorly compensated), women’s perceived credibility in these roles does little to enhance their overall epistemic standing (or socioeconomic status). Women are seen as experts on ‘trivial’ subjects, and non-experts on ‘serious’ subjects. This creates a double-bind: should women gain expertise on ‘frivolous’ subjects, or face adversity in ‘serious’ discursive spaces?

3. Women’s literature

Solnit notes that Esquire‘s 2015 list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read” included only one book by a woman (Flannery O’Connor). This isn’t a rare case of literary sexism, but a symptom of a deeper problem. Amy Hungerford, an English Professor at John Hopkins, argues that we should read, cite, and promote fewer canonized authors because these authors are predominantly male. In a journal called Modernism/modernity, created specifically to diversify literary scholarship, “the top 11 (mostly male) authors cited as subjects [still] claim 41 percent of the articles. Most authors not already canonical appear only once or twice each, never achieving the critical mass of scholarship that motivates further study and writing within the context of scholarly careers, let alone further reading by the general public” (Hungerford 2016). Thus, canonized men still dominate modern literary criticism. Students at Yale recently protested a two-semester course requirement on canonic English literature, in which 100% of the assigned authors were male (Flood 2016). In a press statement, the university argued that it had a responsibility “to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition,” no matter how white and male those concerns happen to be. The problem is not just that junior scholars are forced to cite and analyze predominantly white, cisgender, male writers if they want to be taken seriously, which might harm the career prospects of junior women. The problem is that immersing students in a swamp of dead-white-male perspectives is harmful to their emotional development.

Departments that prioritize the literary canon are churning out graduates who have been inculcated into a historical-white-male worldview, which is essentially misogynistic (and racist). It’s not just mainstream pornography that teaches men how to objectify women; it’s the classic literary canon. The male gaze was constructed by the literary canon long before Hugh Hefner and his fellow pornographers recruited those masculinist schemas, images, and ideals into the pornographic medium. The mix of pornography and literary fiction in Playboy‘s pages, which may prima facie seem paradoxical, is actually a perfect fit, insofar as both mediums strive to promote and naturalize the male gaze. On pornography, Sandra Bartky writes, “it powerfully reinforces male dominance and female subordination because, by linking these phenomena to our deepest sexual desires – desires defined by an ideologically tainted psychology as instinctual – it makes them appear natural” (2012: 48). What better way to naturalize misogyny than by pairing mainstream (male) literature with mainstream (male) pornography, intertwining the two in the male psyche? The convergence of male sexual appetites and male intellectual curiosity, which Plato would describe as fundamentally antagonistic, are merged harmoniously in the motivational psychology of the average Playboy reader. While anti-pornography feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin see pornography as the original cause of rape culture (viz., Papadaki 2017), pornographers didn’t invent the male gaze – they simply up-cycled the misogynistic scripts of the male literary canon into a more modern and simplified visual format.

Solnit provides several examples of emotionally harmful canonic literature, from Ernest Hemingway to Normal Mailer to William Burroughs (2015). Other masculine literary heroes, like Jack Kerouac, are less toxic, but still harmful if read in large quantities and through a passively masculine (as opposed to critical) lens. Anyone who fails to empathize with the Latina farmworker from Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ who is abandoned by Kerouac’s protagonist (a “free-spirited maverick”) to raise their child on her own (no child support!), is reading the story through the lens of the male gaze – the gaze through which Kerouac, in fact, tells it. Sharing in the mirth of Charles Bukowski’s protagonist from ‘Factotum,’ (‘Chakowski,’ based on himself), while he rapes a house-bound woman on his mail route, reveals more than a smidgen of toxic masculinity. Empathizing with Lolita’s rapist HH, the protagonist of Nabokov’s iconic novel, is hardly any better. (Note that Nabokov didn’t intend, or anticipate, this popular, revisionary reading of his work). Submersing oneself in the male canon, with no counter-narratives to offset the male ego, can make these acts of objectification, erasure, and rape seem natural, if not romantic.


‘Lolita,’ in fact, has been advertised by publishers as a novel about a “teenage seductress” as opposed to its true subject matter: the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl by her step-father (Noelle Talmon 2018). The cover of my own issue from high school (pictured above) was labeled with a blurb from Vanity Fair describing the novel (about a pedophile who literally ruins his step-daughter’s life) as “the only convincing love story of our century.” The author of the blurb, Gregor von Rezzori, parsed ‘Lolita’ as hovering between “a delightfully frivolous story on the verge of pornography,” and “a literary masterpiece, the only convincing love story of our century” (Shapiro 2009). While Rezzori admitted that his reading didn’t necessarily coincide with Nabokov’s authorial intentions, he defended it as “one of the novel’s many dimensions” (ibid.). Nabokov’s wife Vera, meanwhile, lamented that nobody seemed to “notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…”; and Azar Nifisi, an Iranian author, empathizes with Lolita as “a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (in Solnit 2015). Nabokov himself requested a cover with “no girls,” perhaps only a “white jacket,” but subsequent publishers increasingly eroticized the eponymous rape victim, responding to a market that already traded in the hyper-sexualization of young girls (Siobhans Lyons 2015).

The worry about the sexualization of young girls and the infantilization of women isn’t so much that these cultural scripts make men into rapists (although Peggy Orenstein notes that there is a correlation between frequent porn use and rape proclivity [2016]), but that these scripts prevent men – indeed, everyone – from empathizing with, and respecting, women. Solnit remarks that “there’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not” (2015). Indeed, research has shown that reading literary fiction improves various empathic measures, such as role-taking ability, motivation for prosocial behaviour and altruism, and theory of mind (Koopman & Hakemulder 2015). Theorists posit a cluster of psychological explanations for these effects, including role-playing, or mental modeling of the protagonist’s narrative world, and perspective-taking, or mentally simulating the narrator’s thoughts and emotions (Koopman & Hakemulder 2015).

This is consistent with Solnit’s theory that reading literary fiction increases empathy by enticing the reader to imaginatively take the perspective of the protagonist. But, in spite of empathy’s positive connotations in the popular imagination, empathy isn’t always a good thing, and this, too, is empirically demonstrated. For example, research shows that empathizing with in-group members in a competitive environment increases “intergroup empathy bias: the tendency not only to empathize less with out-group relative to in-group members, but also feel pleasure in response to their pain (and pain in response to their pleasure)” (Cikara et al. 2014). In an environment in which pornography, classic literary fiction, and other cultural artifacts depict women as infantile, unknowable, ‘mysterious’ (Friedan 1963), and ‘other’ (Beauvoir 1949), one would expect intergroup empathy bias to be part of the cultural fabric, and to operate in such a way as to marginalize women. This is because, while women are part of the group, they are ‘othered’ by cultural stereotypes, giving rise to within-culture out-group bias against them – that is, masculinist empathy bias. Even though men and women share common interests, the male gaze depicts women as devious, threatening, and – as male “dating gurus” see it – intent on withholding sexual resources from men, which is allegedly part of a ‘battle of the sexes’ (Berit Brogaard 2015: 9). This competitive framework forces one group into a position of subordination, and precludes any fair social contract. Masculinist empathy bias may be part of the explanation for why violence against women is a staple of mainstream pornography: it is both the cause, and the effect, of excessive empathy with the male gaze.

Solnit correctly observes that empathy is not enhanced in a robust way when we only encounter narratives that present “versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination” (2015). By fetishizing the male canon, we imaginatively project ourselves into a historical male perspective – a perspective that feminist sociologists have identified as misogynistic. It’s one thing to read about misogyny in a history book or a newspaper, and quite another to experience it through the simulated perspective of the perpetrator in a piece of literary fiction. Research confirms that reading literary fiction enhances empathy more than reading expository non-fiction or popular fiction (Kidd & Castano 2013). While theorists have had difficulty explaining the empathy gap between literary fiction and popular fiction, one possible explanation is that masculinist empathy bias makes it easier for us to empathize with the male gaze as presented in male-dominant literary fiction, and harder to empathy with the protagonists of popular fiction, a genre dominated by women.

In sum, reading literary fiction might be a healthy exercise if you read the works of many different authors, but if you read mainly books by men (or any privileged social group for that matter), or you read books by many authors, but disproportionally respect those written by men, this can impair your capacity for ‘robust empathy,’ i.e., the capacity to empathize with a diversity of perspectives. Intergroup empathy bias implies that empathizing too much with one perspective can make it harder to empathize with many.

Sonit’s work illuminates how the dominance of the male gaze silences women’s voices. By extension, the male gaze also silence’s women’s blame, insofar as women’s blame is expressed in women’s voices. The silencing of women’s blame can take several forms. For one, the loss or epistemic marginalization of women’s literary fiction in which blame plays a role entails an erasure of women’s blame; women’s blaming speech is literally lost, ignored, or misunderstood. Second, the loss or epistemic marginalization of women’s literary fiction makes women’s blame less intelligible in every context – not just literary fiction – because it creates hermeneutical gaps that discredit women as blamers, or as people who know things about moral norms, blame, and blame-relevant concepts. Third, the loss and epistemic marginalization of women’s blame is the flip-side of a cultural apparatus that exalts, promotes, and normalizes empathy with men. Men’s blame is therefore more likely to be taken seriously. This might allow men to ‘manblame,’ or blame with more perceived credibility than women. Stiegg Larsson (2005) sold millions of copies of a story about a rape survivor who seeks to punish her rapist, and though this is a refreshing departure from the classic male gaze, the fact that he outsold many women writing on the same subject, and that he arguably still replicated several masculinist ideals – such as the idea that “in order for a woman to be considered beautiful, she must be unhealthy” (Serdar 2014: 14; Robles 2015) – suggests that his critique of rape culture is not completely epistemically virtuous. ‘Lolita’ was not only written by a man, but re-interpreted by critics as a grand romance. Overall, women’s blame has been subjected to the same epistemic marginalizations as women’s writing in general.

An important caveat is in order here. The male gaze is currently losing traction because of a collective effort to diversity the literary canon, and all academic canons. Still, more men’s books are reviewed than women’s. Although women publish and read more than men, they are less cited and less respected as ‘serious authors.’ Research shows that “women are less likely to be published in top tier literary outlets, or to have their work reviewedespecially by men”; additionally, “women are less likely to receive reviews when writing about topics that aren’t deemed ‘feminine'” (Jane C. Hu 2017). Author Jennifer Weiner characterizes the credibility gap as “a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that, when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention” (2010). In the New York Times Book Review in 2016, two thirds of reviewed authors were men, and reviews tended to reflect gender stereotypes, revealing “topic bias” (Hu 2017). This means that women are taken less serious when writing about ‘serious subjects,’ and taken more seriously when writing about ‘frivolous subjects,’ resurrecting the classic double-bind: should I write frivolously about serious subjects, or write seriously about frivolous subjects?

Pornography is also becoming much more diverse. “Porn for women” surged in popularity by 1400% between 2015 and 2016 (Pearson 2018). This trend, however, doesn’t erase decades of misogynistic pornography, which has permeated mainstream culture, from television to magazines to advertisements. ‘Teen’ was still the second-most popular category on in 2016 (PH 2017). The most popular category was ‘lesbian,’ and explanations include that more women are watching porn and that men are more interested in porn for women. But neuroscientist Ogi Ogas offers a darker explanation: “To the extent that lesbian erotica is popular, it can be explained by the fact that men are most aroused by visual cues that emphasize youth and downplay drama and emotional complexity. Lesbian porn, therefore, works for straight men by ‘doubling up’ those visual stimuli… The only thing better than one nubile, personality-free woman is two of them” (Khazan 2018; viz., Ogas 2012). Ogas adds, “very few men visit websites containing erotica featuring actual lesbians that is targeted at actual lesbians” (ibid.), implying that the lesbian pornography that men watch still has elements of the male gaze.

It is worth mentioning that philosophy, my discipline, shares with literary fiction the dubious distinction of having a gender gap. Schwitzgebel and Jennings have found that “gender disparity remains large in mainstream Anglophone philosophy,” and “by most measures, women’s involvement and visibility in mainstream Anglophone philosophy has increased only slowly [since the 1970s]; and by some measures there has been virtually no gain since the 1990s” (2016). This means that academic philosophy is not immune from epistemic gender bias. Women’s blame (including criticism, censure, disapprobation) in philosophy, then, is subject to epistemic marginalization. Feminist blame – produced mostly by women – might be especially susceptible to epistemic marginalization, as it may be harder to publish feminist content in generalist journals, and ‘disciplinary’ journals are ranked fairly low on ranking lists (Jender 2007; Haslanger 2008).

Another aspect of women’s speech that is subject to epistemic marginalization is women’s humour, and women’s humour, like women’s literary fiction, contains blame. Thus, if women’s humour is silenced, then women’s blame, as conveyed in women’s humour, is silenced.

4. Women’s humour

Solnit notes that it is only recently that people have started to see rape jokes as not very funny, and this coincides with growing recognition of ‘rapist jokes’ (about rapists) as an intelligible type of humour. In 2013, comedian Sam Morril ‘joked’ that, “my ex-girlfriend never made me wear a condom. That’s huge. She was on the pill.” [Pause]. “Ambien.” (in Solnit 2015). This is just one example of a dominant theme in Western humour: making fun of rape survivors. (Surely we’ve all heard the rape joke about prison inmates being careful not to ‘drop the soap,’ which trivializes the human rights violations perpetrated in, and by, the U.S. ‘justice system’). Lately, many feminist comedians have turned the tables by making fun of rapists. Amy Pohler and Tina Fey made fun of Bill Cosby at the Golden Globes in 2015, and Amy Schumer wrote a parody of ‘Friday Night Lights’ that featured a football coach trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his football players that they’re not allowed to rape women (Solnit 2015). The fact that rape humour has been a staple of Western comedy for centuries, while rapist humour is a recent invention (stoked by the #MeToo movement), reveals that western humour is steeped in epistemic gender bias.

Not only have women been unable to make fun of rapists – or, more specifically, their jokes about rapists were not recognized as humour – women have generally been considered ‘unfunny.’ This is exemplified in Netflix’s comedy lineup. From Netflix’s inception in 1997 until 2014, 57% of comedy specials featured men, 36% featured men and women, and only 7% featured women exclusively. In 2014, 82% of Netflix comedy specials were male-only, while a paltry 14% were female-only (Muller 2016). The top male comedians on Netflix this year were paid much more than the top female comedians (Lynch 2018). These numbers reflect broader trends in the cultural perception of humour. Women appreciate humour in men more than vice versa (Barelds & Dikkstra 2010). Teaching evaluations show that male professors are rated as funnier than female professors across every discipline (Khazan 2017). These are all examples of epistemic gender bias in Western humour, which depicts men as funnier than women.

Feminist humour is especially vilified. In 2012, after comedian Daniel Tosh was criticized for saying that it would be funny if a woman in his audience got raped, Louis C.K. commented that this is part of the “fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” (Solnit 2015). Hugh Hefner expressed similar views about the relationship between feminism and pornography, saying that “these chicks [feminists] are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them” (Altman 2008). The feminist response to the male gaze is a visceral threat to both male-dominated pornography and male-dominated comedy, which is why pornographers and comedians have gone to such lengths to bash feminists, depicting them as unfunny and unsexy. Mainstream pornography and mainstream comedy, with their naturalization of misogynistic violence through rape fantasies and rape jokes, are perfect bedfellows. They work together to solidify male entitlement.

Feminist comedian Michelle Wolf was the most recent target of epistemic gender bias. At the 2018 White House Correspondents Association Dinner, she used humour to attack Trump, his supporters, and other high-profile misogynists. She opened her set with, “like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with.” Then she proceeded to criticize Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway for lying on Trump’s behalf and sanitizing his sexist, racist, xenophobic behaviour (“Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies”). Through insinuation, she called Roy Moore a child rapist (“I’m 32 years old, which is an odd age: 10 years too young to host this event and 20 years too old for Roy Moore”); she described Roger Ailes and Bill O’Rielly as sexual harassers (“Fox News is here. So, you know what that means, ladies: Cover your drinks”); and she ridiculed Mike Pence’s anti-choice views (“He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You’ve got to get that baby out of there”). What topics would you expect a feminist comedian to address in her comedy? Sexism, rape, sexual harassment, and abortion are high on the list. Wolf’s comedy relentless roasts public figures who don’t support women’s rights, and this is one of the reasons many critics have denounced her as “mean-spirited, vulgar, and unfunny” (Smith 2018).

Feminist humour is Wolf’s comedic brand. In her HBO special, Wolf warns the audience, “I should just let everyone know: I am a feminist” (Cunnigham 2018), and then proceeds with the type of feminist humour that she displayed at the WHCA dinner. Wolf seems to recognize that gender bias is a factor in the comedy world, or at least, she realizes that being recognized as having a sense of humour is connected with being seen as a person. In an interview with Marlow Stern, she says, “to do stand-up, you have to have a strong point of view, and doing stand-up gave me that strong point of view… It made me a person” (Stern 2018). Because of epistemic gender bias in comedy, women have been prevented from having a strong comedic voice: they have been stereotyped as, to paraphrase the title of Wolf’s comedy special, “nice ladies.” If women are funny, they aren’t nice ladies: they are un-ladylike, mean, unattractive, unsexy, and corrupt. Women face a double bind in comedy, as elsewhere: be funny, or be a nice lady, but not both. Wolf is one of the comedians deconstructing this binary logic with unapologetic feminist humour.

Because women’s humor is susceptible to epistemic gender bias, women’s blame, as expressed in humour, is susceptible to epistemic gender bias. If rape jokes are funny but rapist jokes aren’t even recognized as a type of humour, women can’t use humour to blame rapists (or to defend themselves from rape jokes). More broadly, women can’t use humour as a vehicle for blame at all, or at least, they can’t use it as effectively as men. This is a tragedy, because humour has always been deeply political. Wolf has been compared to George Carlin, a comedian “whose goofy delight in the sounds and cadences of American speech never obscured the genuine irritation, bordering on rage, that fuelled his jokes” (Cunningham 2018). Humour by its very nature violates cultural norms (McGraw & Warren 2010). If women can’t make fun of misogynistic cultural norms, they can’t reveal those norms as, not just wrong, but absurd. While some theorists worry that humour is apolitical because it trivializes norm violations (see Benatar 2014), what current trends show is that humour is a potent political tool that can be used to resist social injustice, and hold its protagonists and apologists accountable (e.g., Weinstein, Cosby). Feminist humour is such a tool, because it punches up rather than down.

Feminist comedy, then, is an important vehicle for blame, but it is still not as respected, on average, as male humour. This produces gender bias in our shared blaming practices.

The epistemic gender biases reflected in (i) pornography, (ii) the literary canon, and (iii) the world of comedy are brought into stark relief in the recent New Yorker short story, ‘Cat Person,’ by Kristen Roupenian (2017). In the next section, I analyze how this story illuminates the intersection of epistemic gender bias, pornography, the male canon, and humour.

5. Cat Person

‘Cat Person; is the first piece of literary fiction ever to go viral. It has been widely characterized as a story about ‘bad sex,’ where ‘bad’ has multiple connotations (Bennett 2017). The story describes the protagonist Margot’s sexual encounter with a virtual stranger, Robert, who initially appears to be sympathetic (albeit enigmatic), but is exposed as a misogynist when he harasses Margot through text messages and calls her a ‘whore.’

Although ‘Cat Person’ is one of the most read ‘New Yorker’ stories of all time, it has not been treated with the seriousness accorded to most literary fiction. As Constance Grady observes, “The trivializing of women’s stories also plays into one of the persistent oddities surrounding ‘Cat Person’; namely, the frequency with which readers have called it an ‘article’ or an ‘essay’ or generally treated it as a piece of nonfiction rather than as a short story” (2017). While ‘Cat Person’ has few of the hallmarks of autobiographical writing (e.g., it was written in the third person, and in an elevated style), the fact that it features the narrative perspective of a female protagonist marks it as a ‘confessional tell-all’ to many readers. “Women’s subjectivity,” after all, “is not for serious literary fiction…; it’s for unserious, uninteresting, unpaid-for online writing” (Grady 2017). Responses to ‘Cat Person’ therefore illustrate ‘topic bias’ and the trivialization of women’s literary voices.

In spite of epistemic gender bias, how did ‘Cat Person’ attract so much attention? One reason is that it gave a voice to an experience shared, in silence, by so many women: the experience of ‘bad sex’ – not just in the sense of unpleasant or disappointing or awkward sex, but more specifically, objectifying, infantilizing, and alienating sex – the kind of sex represented in Hugh Hefner’s depressingly mechanical orgies, in mainstream pornography, and in the masculinist perspective of classic literary heroes. When Margot has sex with Robert – or, more accurately, when Robert fucks her – Robert is described as “mov[ing] her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.” Robert is, in effect, assuming Hefner’s role as pornographer, posing Margot in postures that one would find in mainstream pornography, and treating her as a ‘doll,’ reminiscent of the girls depicted in ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Lolita.’ Robert isn’t the least bit worried about Margot’s being 14 years younger than him (20 versus 34), that she is presumably a virgin, or that she is very intoxicated (having been illegally served alcohol by him); in fact, her youth and presumed inexperience seem to turn him on. (He’s irritated when she denies being a virgin, and later slut-shames her for being sexually active). Robert never thinks to ask Margot what she wants from him; instead, “he slapped her thigh and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you like that,’ with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order.'” Feminists like Rae Langon have noted that “pornography carries authority as instruction as well as entertainment, and [Langton] cites evidence to suggest that a high percent of boys and young men regard men’s satisfaction as a right and women’s rights as an irrelevancy” (in Solnit 2015). Pornography, it seems, instructed Robert to direct Margot in a glib pornographic film that completely erased her agency, in an encounter that fell precipitously short of the ideal of affirmative consent. (How can you consent if you’re never asked a question?) The only time Margot experiences any pleasure is when she imagines herself through Robert’s eyes: “Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” While this might feel empowering to Margot, it is actually an empathic simulation of Robert’s point of view as he objectifies Margot through the lens of the male gaze. Margot, too, has been instructed by mainstream pornography: she has been directed to empathize with the male gaze to the extent that she loses sight of her own agency.

This sexual encounter involves epistemic gender bias, then, because it erases Margot’s agency. This loss of agency is reflected in Margot’s inability to say ‘no’ to Robert. She cannot say ‘no’ because (1) she can’t fully recognize that what Robert is doing is wrong, (2) she is ‘too nice’ to hurt his ‘feelings,’ (3) she worries that Robert might be a rapist, in which case, he wouldn’t listen anyways, and (4) if Robert is a rapist, it might be easier to go along with getting fucked by him than to resist him and get raped while struggling.

Margot wonders multiple times throughout the story whether Robert might be a rapist (“And, as though fear weren’t quite ready to release its hold on her, she had the brief wild idea that maybe this [his house] was not a room at all but a trap meant to lure her into the false belief that Robert was a normal person, a person like her, when in fact all the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains”). She continually dismisses this worry as absurd; but is Robert a rapist? We don’t know. Although Robert doesn’t rape Margot, what would he have done if she had resisted? At first, Margot thinks that Robert is a sensitive person, and this seems confirmed when he starts “talking about his feelings for her” after fucking her, admitting that during her reading week, “an entire secret drama had played out in his head, one in which she’d left campus committed to him, to Robert, but at home had been drawn back to the high-school guy, who, in Robert’s mind, was some kind of brutish, handsome jock, not worthy of her but nonetheless seductive by virtue of his position at the top of the hierarchy back home in Saline.” This might (superficially) suggest that Robert is a sensitive person who cares about Margot, but this illusion is dashed when Robert texts Margot after seeing her at a bar with a friend, disclosing his toxic masculinity: “Is that guy you were with tonight your boyfriend… Or is he just some guy you are fucking… Sorry… When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys?… Are you fucking that guy right now… Are you… Are you… Are you… Answer me… Whore.” Robert doesn’t have “feelings” for Margot – he has toxic masculinity. He doesn’t care about Margot’s feelings, or autonomy, or sexual pleasure – he only cares about being ’emasculated’ by another man.

Margot is – like the title of Michelle Wolf’s comedy special – a ‘nice lady’: too nice to say ‘no’ to Robert’s degrading fuck fest, which she describes as “the worst life decision I have ever made!” Margot worries repeatedly about the prospect of hurting Robert’s feeling, on the false assumption that Robert is a sensitive person and a ‘nice guy.’ But Robert isn’t sensitive, unless you count fragile narcissism as a kind of sensitivity, and he isn’t a ‘nice guy,’ except in the stereotypical sense of a mediocre white dude who feels entitled to sex with women. As Erin Tatum writes, “the most stereotypical incarnation of the Nice Guy is a fedora-clad dudebro who spends too much time on Reddit and would probably push a six-year-old girl out of the way to get his hands on My Little Pony merchandise, [but] the more garden-variety Nice Guy can be more difficult to spot” (2015). That nice guy is Robert. Roupenian intentionally wrote Robert as an ambiguous character, and this makes it easier to project positive qualities onto him (at least, until he calls Margot a ‘whore’). Margot can’t say ‘no’ to Robert because, aside from fear of rape and empathizing with the male gaze, she can’t discern whether Robert is a nice guy or a Nice Guy™. 

While Margot is disgusted with Robert, she also finds much to laugh at in her encounter with him. ‘Cat Person,’ in fact, reads much like a comedy of manners, a genre of comedy epitomized by Oscar Wilde, which satirizes the manners and customs of contemporary society, and represents social conventions in stock characters (e.g., the foppish rake). If ‘Cat Person’ achieves anything, it is the satirizing of toxic masculinity, as embodied in Robert. Robert is depicted unflatteringly as “awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair,” and hovering above Margot with his “fat old man’s finger inside her.” Robert is, in effect, a clown, and not just any clownish figure, but the incarnation of toxic masculinity as ridiculous and absurd – yet also inescapable and irrepressible, penetrating Margot (symbolically) with its fat, hairy, probing finger. Robert, as a clown, is a narcissist full of sexual confidence, but completely stupid when it comes to sexually pleasing a woman. He stumbles through sex like a clown stumbling across a stage, making a fool of himself, all the while full of preening confidence. ‘Cat Person,’ on scrutiny, is an excellent, albeit subtle, example of feminist comedy. If it is not recognized as comedy, this is because feminist comedy lacks cultural uptake. Roupenian seems aware of the lack of uptake for this type of humour. At one point, Margot imagines herself relating her sexual fiasco to a future boyfriend: “‘And then he [Robert] said, ‘You make my dick so hard,’ and the [imagined] boy would shriek in agony and grab her leg, saying, ‘Oh, my God, stop, please, no, I can’t take it anymore,’ and the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.Why can’t such a boy exist? Perhaps because our culture lacks the hermeneutical resources to frame Robert as a clown, to see toxic masculinity as ridiculous, or to take Margot’s perspective, not Robert’s, as the dominant frame of reference.

‘Cat Person,’ then, nicely illustrates how epistemic gender bias operates through the male gaze to sexually objectify women, treat women as pornographic objects, discredit women’s literature and women’s literary perspectives, and render women’s humour virtually unintelligible. All of these threads come together in this short story, and perhaps this is one of the reasons ‘Cat Person’ is one of the most-read stories of the year.

What does all of this imply about blame? It is notable, and disturbing, that Margot never blames Robert for his demeaning, objectifying fucking-of-her, for asking if she’s fucking her friend, or for calling her a whore. One has to wonder: has anyone ever blamed Robert, or is Robert another Donald Trump, non-consensually grabbing women’s pussies to his heart’s content? If Robert has no idea that he’s terrible at sex, that he treats women like garbage, maybe this is because no one – not Margot, nor anyone else he’s fucked – has held him responsible. Maybe Robert lives in a world, as Solnit describes it, “in which other people only exist to help reinforce [his] magnificence.” When women can’t say ‘no,’ can’t tell men that they’re bad at sex, can’t make fun of male egos, can’t tell men that it’s wrong to harass, stalk, and slut-sham them, then women’s blame is silenced. ‘Cat Person’ is a story about how women’s blame is suppressed, and sometimes can’t even be spoken. How many other women does Robert ruthlessly fuck after Margot ghosts him? Who knows? Robert might not have “a house full of horrors,” but he has a closet full of skeletons.

6. Conclusion

Mainstream pornography, the male literary canon, and mainstream humour all contain strong overcurrents of the male gaze, although the masculine point of view is being overturned by feminists and their allies. Yet we still live in conditions of epistemic injustice in which women’s voices are marginalized, and this includes women’s blame. With enough political will, women’s speech can receive equal credit with men’s.


Gaslighting & its effects on the moral community


This post is about gaslighting as a distinctively morally ‘dark’ type of epistemic injustice, which impairs our moral relationships. In section 1, I describe gaslighting as a type of epistemic injusticewith distinct moral features that render it particularly morally pernicious, following Kate Abramson’s illuminating discussion (2014). In section 2, I argue that, because there are two types of epistemic injustice – testimonial and hermeneutical – there should also be two corresponding types of gaslighting. I say that, while paradigmatic cases of gaslighting are instances of testimonial injustice, some cases of gaslighting are examples of what Alyssa Cirne calls “willful hermeneutical marginalization” (2012: 46), a type of epistemic injustice involving the manipulation of hermeneutical resources to harm a vulnerable person or group. In section 3, I argue that the suppression of pertinent knowledge, as described by Charles Mills (2007), is an undertheorized type of “hermeneutical gaslighting,” though this type of gaslighting is increasingly visible in public discourse. In section 4, I give a prominent example of hermeneutical gaslighting – namely, Sam Harris’ interview with Charles Murray (“Forbidden Knowledge”)on the putative connections between IQ, “race,” and genes, and I explain why this interview is a case of hermeneutical gaslighting. In section 5, I argue that cases of hermeneutical gaslighting via the suppression of knowledge tend to involve or invoke just world bias, and I give some examples from professional philosophy. Finally, in section 6, I argue that gaslighting perpetrates distinct moral and epistemic harms; specifically, it undermines the epistemic and moral standing of its victims and creates epistemic and moral inequality.

  1. Gaslighting as a distinct moral violation

Gaslighting is commonly understood as the act of psychologically manipulating someone into questioning her own sanity. Kate Abramson gives this definition more substance by characterizing it as “a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories, and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds – paradigmatically, so unfounded as to quality as crazy” (2014: 2). Gaslighting, then, has a pathologizing effect. The gaslighter can have any number of subjective motives; not all gaslighters have the same motivational profile, or even substantively overlapping motivational profiles, except that they all wish, on some level, to have their worldview validated and “placed beyond dispute” (Abramson 2014: 10). The act of gaslighting nonetheless has certain paradigmatic features, including that (1) it undermines the victim’s standing to make moral claims, and thereby excludes the victim from the moral community (viz., Darwall 2002, Strawson 1963); (2) it undermines the victim’s self-conception as a person, i.e., someone capable of making intelligible moral and epistemic claims; and (3) it involves manipulation. Gaslighting, seen in this light, is a type of epistemic injustice, or an act of epistemic marginalization rooted in identity prejudice (Fricker 2007). But gaslighting is not just an ordinary type of epistemic injustice; it is especially morally heinous, or ‘dark,’ because it involves a number of overlapping violations, including: (i) it is manipulative, (ii) it involves a lack of recognition respect, (iii) it silences and pathologizes the victim, and (iv) it is a type or torture.

Gaslighting is particularly heinous because it doesn’t just involve a depreciatedcredibility rating of the victim’s speech; it involves a credibility rating of zero. The victim is depicted as “crazy,” “irrational,” and incapable of understanding the world and her place in it. Galighting is also a type of torturebecause it deceives the victim into thinking that there is something she could do to gain credibility in the eyes of the gaslighter, which is a false hope; and it destroys the victim’s sense of self – it persuades her that she is not even a minimally rational agent. False hope and loss of agency are characteristic features of classic torture, and also of gaslighting. Gaslighting involves a lack of recognition respectbecause it depicts the victim as an outsider to the moral community, a ‘moral refugee,’ as it were. From this epistemic position, the agent cannot make intelligible claims to be treated with respect, and she cannot negotiate effectively with members of the community. Because gaslighting has all of these features, it is a “horrifying puzzle” of injustice, a distinctively ‘dark’ moral violation (Abramson 2014: 18). Interestingly, gaslighting cannot simply be seen as a straightforward violation of the categorical imperative, because it’s worse than ordinary cases of objectification, too; it doesn’t justundermine a person’s agency; it usesthe person’s agency to undermine her own sense of self, and this is an especially egregious form of abuse (Abramson 2014). The agent herself is co-opted into doubting her own epistemic authority as well as contributing to the maintenance of the gaslighter’s narcissistic worldview.

Abramson adds that gaslighting has a distinctively genderedcharacter, given that paradigmatic cases of gaslighting involve a man-identified perpetrator and a woman-identified victim. Thus, gaslighting typically serves to entrench misogynistic cultural norms, on top of silencing individual women. This was the relational dynamic depicted in the original play by Patrick Hamilton(1938), in which the protagonist Paula was relentlessly gaslighted by her husband Gregory. This abusive relationship provides the frame through which we tend to interpret gaslighting. However, Abramson notes that gaslighting is not always so explicit, and can encompass a variety of motives and relational dynamics. Nonetheless, Abramson focuses on dyadicrelationships involving a gaslighter and a victim. To illustrate the paradigm case, she cites familiar examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and includes Beauvoir’s (in)famous relationship with Sartre, in which Sartre manipulated her over many years into believing that her “opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith, or thoughtlessness,” leaving her wondering whether she was capable of “think[ing] at all” (Beauvoir 2007, cited in Abramson 2014: 4). Beauvoir was essentially gaslighted into doubting her epistemic agency.

While gaslighting is stereotypically gendered, it is a type of epistemic injustice that can target members of anyepistemically marginalized group (or the group as a whole, I shall argue). Thus, gaslighting can be used against not only women, but People of Color, members of the LGBTQIA community, and virtually any other marginalized social group. As epistemic injustice, it relies on identity prejudice to gain purchase. Gaslighting exploits cultural stereotypes to silence members of marginalized groups, to withhold knowledge from members of marginalized groups, and to suppress pertinent knowledge about the lived experiences of marginalized groups – or so I shall argue.

  1. Gaslighting as epistemic injustice

Abramson focuses on dyadic, intimate cases of gaslighting, and these are indeed the paradigms supported by Hamilton’s play and popular culture. Construed as types of epistemic injustice, these are tokens of what Miranda Fricker calls “testimonial injustice,” in which a hearer gives a speaker a “deflated level of credibility” due to identity prejudice, i.e., bias triggered by the perception of a person’s demographic attributes (Fricker 2007: 1). While these cases of testimonial injustice are especially morally pernicious because of the distinctive features of gaslighting (e.g., pathologizing effects, torture), they are still essentially instances of epistemic injustice. Abramson mentions that testimonial injustice can contribute to a second type of epistemic injustice: “hermeneutical injustice,” which Miranda Fricker describes as a “gap in collective interpretive resources that puts someone at un unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experience” (2007: 1); but, beyond this, Abramson doesn’t elaborate on the relationship between the two types of injustice. Fricker herself says that hermeneutical injustice occurs at a “prior stage” to testimonial injustice (ibid.), meaning that it creates fertile ground for testimonial injustice, normalizing and naturalizing prejudiced credibility assessments. In fact, it might be more accurate to see the two types of injustice as mutually implicated in a positive feedback loop, wherein testimonial injustice produces deficits in hermeneutical resources and hermeneutical deficits cause testimonial injustice, which again produces deficits in hermeneutical injustice, and so on. This process can be seen in Sartre’s treatment of Beauvoir: he exploited gaps in the hermeneutical resources pertaining to women’s credibility to perpetrate testimonial injustice on Beauvoir, which in turn reinforced the very hermeneutical gaps he was using against her – cultural ignorance about women’s epistemic authority. As a result, Beauvoir quit philosophy and we lost invaluable epistemic resources within the field and popular culture (Fricker 2007). Hermeneutical deficits are not free-standing cultural facts; rather, they are instantiated in people’s cognitive architecture, in the form of implicit biases, heuristics, and other psychological states (Scorberg 2007). The mental states that give rise to a backdrop of hermeneutical injustice also cause distinct acts of testimonial injustice perpetrated by individual agents.

That said, the distinction between the two types of epistemic injustice is not insignificant. One of the key asymmetries between the two, according to Fricker, is that people perpetratetestimonial injustice whereas “no agent perpetrates hermeneutical injustice – it is a purely structural notion” (2007: 159). “Moments of heremeneutical injustice,” she says, are caused by the epistemic conditions of the time (ibid.). Therefore, perpetuators and victims of testimonial injustice are both victimsof the same climate of hermeneutical injustice that they mutually inhabit; people who epistemically marginalize members of oppressed groups are also often victims of “epistemic bad luck” (2007: 151). Alyssa Cirne argues that this picture is flawed because it omits an important type of hermeneutical injustice, “willful hermeneutical marginalization,” in which an agent “obstructs or withholds hermeneutical tools from those agents who need those tools the most,” for purposes of self-aggrandizement and self-conceit (2012: 45). This subspecies of hermeneutical injustice allows us to realize the “agency and culpability” in such scenarios, and to identifyperpetratorsof hermeneutical injustice (ibid.). Hermeneutical injustice, then, is not simply a set of background conditions, but the cumulative effect of people’s willful choices.

Notably, although Cirne describes acts of hermeneutical injustice as “willful,” this doesn’t entail that they are intentional harms. Social epistemologists generally accept that epistemically marignalization can be unintentional, as they can operate through implicit states such as implicit biases and heuristics, as noted above (see also Peels & Blaauw 2016). Acts of epistemic marginalization are nonetheless ‘willful’ in that they are motivated by a vested interest in unfair asymmetries of power, and, as such, they express the agent’s ‘will’ or value system or deep self. ‘White ignorance,’ for instance, is not caused by intentional racism – if it were, it would not be a case ofignorance; but white ignorance is always motivated by a personal stake in relations of power that favour white people (Mills 2015). White ignorance reflects the ignorant person’s deep self.

While Cirne focuses on the willful withholdingof valuable epistemic resources from a victim of epistemic injustice, I think that willful epistemic marginalization could extend further, to the willful suppressionof epistemic resources, which doesn’t necessarily involve the epistemic marginalization of any individual directly, but rather involves the marginalization of an entire social group. Mills provides a good example; he observes that white ignorance is sometimes manifested in the pervasive cultural myth that, “after the abolition of slavery in the United States, blacks generally had opportunities equal to whites,” and he attributes this myth to the “suppression of pertinent knowledge.” (2007: 21). Following Cirne’s analysis, the “suppression of pertinent knowledge,” like the withholding of epistemic resources, can’t be seen as an inert historical fact, but must be recognized as a result of human agency– something perpetrated by people. This suggests that speech acts that suppress pertinent knowledge could potentially count as instances of willful epistemic marginalization, even if the speaker doesn’t withholdknowledge from anyparticular victim. Instead, they suppress cultural knowledge about a social group’s shared experiences, thereby rupturing, or “poking holes” in, the heremeneutical resources of the community, making it difficult for the target group to accurately frame and express their shared experience of oppression. Speech acts that suppress knowledge in this way may be instances of willful hermeneutical marginalization, acts that epistemically marginalize an entire social group.

Testimonial injustice and willful hermeneutical marginalization tend to go together, but they are nonetheless conceptually distinct. Someone who denies the harmful effects of slavery on the life prospects of African Americans is likely toalsodiscredit the speech of African Americans to their faces (because this person harbors racial bias), but the person commits twodistinct actsof epistemic injustice, one hermeneutical and one testimonial. These types can be differentiated in practice.

  1. Testimonial and hermeneutical gaslighting

Now, if gaslighting is a type of (especially pernicious) epistemic injustice, and there are two types of epistemic injustice, then there should be two corresponding types of gaslighting. Gregory’s dismissal of Paula’s speech as “crazy” is an example of the first type, “testimonial gaslighting”; he gives her speech zero credit. But Gregory also commits willful hermeneutical marginalization by barring Paula’s family from visiting, knowing that her family could debunk her false beliefs about her nil epistemic standing. Thus, Gregory also commits “hermeneutical gaslighting,” the willful withholding of hermeneutical resources to manipulate Paula into subordination and false consciousness about her situation. Gregory thus commits two epistemically distinct types of gaslighting. Both instances of epistemic injustice are also examples of gaslightingbecause they involve manipulation, undermine the victim’s moral standing, assault the victim’s self-conception, and they pathologize, disrespect, and torture the victim.

Is the willful suppression of knowledgealso a type of gaslighting? Paradigm cases of gaslighting involve an intimate relationship between a gaslighter and a gaslighting victim, as opposed to a statement of false belief about a social group (with which the gaslighter may have no contact at all, particularly in a segregated society). Abramsom says that in paradigm cases of gaslighting, the gaslighter uses the promise of love and intimacy to manipulate the victim; he appeals to the victim’s empathy; and he threatens the victim with reprisals for non-compliance (2014: 20). When someone suppresses pertinent knowledge, that person doesn’t necessary rely on intimacy, affection, empathy, or reprisals to manipulate the target group, but the person’s act of epistemic marginalization still has central characteristics of gaslighting, i.e., manipulation, moral disrespect, pathologizing, torture (albeit of a group). The ‘manipulation’ in question here is not the physical manipulation of an individual, but rather, the manipulation of epistemic resourcesso as to render the shared experiences of a marginalized group unintelligible and ostensibly “pathological.”

Another salient difference between the two cases of gaslighting is that testimonial gasighting targets a specific victim, whereas knowledge-suppression targets an entire social group, without directly harming any individual. Hermeneutical gaslighting, in effect, creates fertile epistemic groundfor tokens of testimonial injustice, by infusing the social imaginary with pernicious stereotypes – stereotypes that ‘testimonial gaslighters’ can exploit to effectively discredit and pathologize members of the target group. People who commit willful knowledge-suppression give others ammunitionfor committing testimonial injustice behind a cloak of plausible deniability.

One way of framing this difference is to think of testimonial injustice as akin to quid pro quo sexual harassment, which affects an individual victim, whereas hermeneutical injustice is akin to hostile workplace sexual harassment, which creates a hostile environment for all members of a protected group. If an employer posts sexualized pictures of women in his office, this is an example of hostile workplace sexual harassment because it affects all of the women who enter the office. Similarly, hermeneutical scapegoating creates an epistemically hostile environmentfor a marginalized group. Even if only one person complains, everymember of the group is affected.

This type of scapegoating may not fit the classic paradigm, but it fits with an emerging popular conception of gaslighting, which we see in, for example, claims that Donald Trump is “gaslighting” the American public by lying, distorting the facts, and disparaging the press (Leve 2017).

We also see this type of gaslighting in Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst’s theory of “racial gaslighting,” defined as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist” (2017: 1). This type of gaslighting is not part of an intimate relationship, but is instead part of a complex network of discursive relationships and power structures. Racial gaslighting relies on “racial spectacles,” or “narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure” (ibid.), so as to normalize and perpetuate racism. Racial spectacles, in effect, suppress knowledgeabout the shared experiences of racialized minorities. While Davis and Ernst describe racial gaslighting as a sociopolitical process, and while they focus on the historical and sociological foundations of racial gaslighting (similar to Fricker’s analysis of hermeneutical injustice), they nonetheless affirm that people (and groups of people) commit gaslighting – for example, “The U.S. government usedracial spectacles at the macro level to publicly justify its use of concrete state action against those of Japanese ancestry during World War II” (2017: 6). Thus, they do not deny the agency implicated in racial gaslighting; they admit that it can be perpetrated.

We can see Mills’ example of a white person (or people) denying the reality of racial inequality in America as a type of “racial spectacle,” a performance of white ignorance. And I think that we can apply my analysis of that case to racial gaslighting in general. That is, I think it could be useful to frame racial gaslighting as an especially morally pernicious type of willful hermeneutical injustice, i.e., hermeneutical gaslighting. These spectacles gaslight Black people by suppressing knowledge about their lived reality. While these spectacles do not, as Davis and Ernst note, effectively deceiveall, or even most, People of Color, they create an epistemic climatethat pathologizes, stigmatizes, and epistemically marginalizes them, placing them at an epistemic and moral disadvantage. These acts of injustice have the characteristic features of gaslighting: moral disregard, assault to the self, and torture. Racial gaslighting undermines the standing of racialized minorities to make intelligible moral and epistemic claims; forces them to choose between dominant cultural narratives and their authentic experiences; and represents them as fundamentally irrational, “mad,” and unworthy of having their knowledge inscribed in public discourse.

  1. Suppression of knowledge as gaslighting: Example and analysis

There are many, many topical examples of hermeneutical gaslighting via the suppression of knowledge. One that got a lot of publicity recently was Sam Harris’ interview with Charles Murray on his book on race and IQ, “The Bell Curve” (1994). In short, Murray holds that there are genetic differences between “races” that explain average differences in IQ. The critical flaw in this theory, as noted by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige, Richard E. Nisbett (2017), David Reich (2018), Ezra Klein (2018), and many other people from many disciplines (including genetics), is that Murray’s view falsely explains average differences in IQ by reference to genes shared by racial groups. As Klein says, “There is currently no reason at all to think that any significant portion of the IQ differences among socially defined racial groups is genetic in origin” (2018).

To make matter worse, Murray neverdiscusses environmental causes of IQ in his conversation with Harris, even though this relationship is extensively researched and well documented, as Harris and Murray are well aware. To give a few examples: we know that the black-white IQ gap is closing; there has been an 18-point gain in average IQ in the U.S. from 1948 to 2002 – more than twice the current racial IQ gap, which is only 10 points (misquoted as 15 points by Murray, whose data set is outdated); adoption from a poor family to a wealthy family is the strongest predictor of IQ gains, and so on. Harris and Murray never mention these clear relationships between environment and IQ. Their critical error, then, is not only to explain average IQ differences by reference to racial genetics, but also to willfully suppressknowledge about environmental causes of IQ differences.

But this is just the most basic error – there are many other errors that follow from this flawed axiom. One is that Murray commitspreciselywhat Mills identifies as a paradigmatic act of white ignorance – he says that Black people and white people have approximately equal social opportunities, which means that average IQ differences must be genetic. (In fact, Harris says this, and Murray confirms it: they both make the same mistake). Here is that part of the interview:


HARRIS: I have here a quote from Flynn — I don’t know when he wrote this or said this — but he says, “An environmental explanation of the racial IQ gap need only posit this: that the average environment for blacks in 1995 matches the quality of the average environment for whites in 1945.I do not find that implausible.” So what you just said seems to close the door to that [environmental] interpretation of the black-white gap.

MURRAY: Yes, it does, and this is a case where I am citing someone who has done analyses that are at a level of complexity that I am not independently competent to pronounce.


Second, Murray says that because IQ differences are genetically-based as opposed to cultural, social policies that address putative social inequalities between white populations and Black populations (which Murray doesn’t believe in) are misguided and should be eliminated:


HARRIS: I guess one thing that must be occurring to listeners now — and this is my misgiving about having this conversation and going into this area at all — the question is why talk about any of this? Why seek data on racial difference at all? What is the purpose of doing this?

MURRAY: Because we now have social policy embedded in employment policy, in academic policy, which is based on the premise that everybody’s equal above the neck, all groups are equal above the neck, whether it’s men and women or whether it’s ethnicities. And when you have that embedded into law [i.e., in the form of employment equity policies], you have a variety of bad things happen.


Third, Murray and Harris both believe that Murray is the victim of left-wing fascists and other ‘enemies of science.’ In their view, racialized minorities are decidedly not victims of Murray’s “junk science,” as described by his peers(2017); Murray is in fact the victim. This is an example of what I described in an earlier post as politically motivated scapegoating: denying responsibility by shifting blame onto a socially marginalized group, which is already stigmatized by pervasive cultural stereotypes, making them an easy target. Harris is clearly in on the scapegoating and epistemic marginalizing. He calls his talk with Murray “Forbidden Knowledge,” depicting it as the dissemination of repressed truths, instead of what it really is: yet another iteration of familiar racial stereotypes. The idea that Black people are unintelligent due to shared genetic deficits isn’t a radical new perspective, it’s an old racist myth! Indeed, it’s part of the very fabric of American society, which was founded on a principle of equality for white men, slavery for Black people, and domestic servitude for women. The original American social contract was, as others have pointed out, a racial (Mills 1997) and a sexual (Pateman 1988) contract, which legally codified white male supremacy as the de facto natural order. The legacy of this inegalitarian contract can still be seen in every major social institution. Every American with an elementary school education surely knows about America’s colonialist roots and racist cultural narratives; therefore, literally no one was enlightened by Harris’ interview with Murray. But many probably enjoyed it because it justified their privileges to them, mitigating any white guilt they may otherwise have felt.

What Harris and Murray did was, on my description, hermeneutical gaslighting. They didn’t discredit any individual person, which is the paradigmatic case of testimonial injustice. They also didn’t exploit an intimate relationship or emotional interdependence, which are characteristic features of classic gaslighting. But they did discredit Black people by saying that Black people as a group are genetically unintelligent. They didn’t exactly withholdhermeneutical tools from the target group; members of this group still have access to the same hermeneutical resources as before, though the Internet, libraries, and so on. But Harris and Murray suppressed knowledgeabout the shared cultural experiences of Black people by disseminating junk science about dubious connections between “race” and IQ, and willfully omitting pertinent information about historical and contemporary racial inequality. Their talk made salienta false narrative of racial inferiority, which serves to overshadowand obfuscate objective knowledge about racial injustice.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that Harris and Murray are trying to gaslight their audience; I’m saying that they are gaslighting their audience. Their intentions are irrelevant to the question of whether their speech counts as a case of joint gaslighting, since gaslighitng is often unintentional.

How can we identify their speech acts as instances of hermeneutical gaslighting per se? Because these acts serve to: (1) undermine the standing of the target group, (2) undermine the self-conception of the target group (i.e., their self-conception as full persons), (3) involve manipulation. The manipulation, again, isn’t the manipulation of another person’s actions and choices, as represented in the movie “Gaslight,” but rather, the manipulation of epistemic resourcesrelevant to the target group’s standing. Harris and Murray are distorting the facts in a way that undermines the moral and epistemic standing of Black people – specifically, their standing to make intelligible claims to be seen as members of the community and to be respected as credible witnesses to their own lives. These violations are especially morally ‘dark’ because they discredit, silence, and pathologize their target; they misrepresent Murray’s opponents as left-wing fascists and enemies of science; they attempt to convince Black people that they don’t deserve better, and if they were to succeed in this aim, their target audience would be divorced from their authentic selves as people worthy of respect, and forced to “introject” white ignorance.

I doubt most people would be taken in by Murray’s flawed scientific perspective, but his speech still counts as a case of functionalgaslighting, as it has all the core features of hermeneutical gaslighting. If it succeeds in suppressing knowledge, then it is both functional and effective gaslighting.

  1. Just world bias as a paradigmatic type of gaslighting

Let’s revisit Charles Mills’ example of white ignorance, which I have classified as a typical example of hermeneutical gaslighting. In that example, the gaslighting consists in the speaker’s claim that abolition led to racial equality, i.e., that society is now fair. We see this myth echoed in Murray’s claim that racial equality emerged in the mid-20th Century. By denying the reality of racial injustice, the speaker functionally gaslightsvictims of social injustice. This typical example of hermeneutical gaslighting is also an example of “just world bias,” the tendency to see the world as if it were just (Hazlitt 2017; Burkeman 2015). Privileged people are susceptible to just world bias because they have a vested interest in denying the reality of their privileged status, as admitting to that unearned status would induce guilt and other negative emotions, and perhaps create a moral incentive to act differently (See my post on white guilt as a fitting moral emotion. To avoid feeling bad, privileged people invoke a false image of a fair world. Many cases of hermeneutical gaslighting, it seems, are caused or constituted by just world bias.

It’s best that we recognize the pervasiveness of this bias to avoid perpetuating it in our own expressive practices. As a rule, don’t say that any social space is equal. Just world bias isn’t necessarily about the state of the world; indeed, it’s usually expressed in a domain-specific way, regarding a specific social space, which is framed as being better than the ‘tawdry mainstream.’

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that someone were to proclaim that philosophy is ‘flat,’ meaning an even playing field for all. Although the world is unfairly hierarchical, philosophy is immune from the injustices of mainstream culture. This is an example of domain-specific just world bias, and therefore a paradigmatic case of hermeneutical gaslighting on my view.

The claim is patently false for too many reasons to list, but if we just focus on gender inequalityin the profession, we can see many counterexamples to the just-world hypothesis. As my colleague Jill Delston observed in a recent St. Louis ‘Faculty Forward’ talk (2018), men make up the majority of high-ranking and full-time faculty in philosophy in the U.S., whereas women are overrepresented in contingent faculty positions; women’s work is less likely to be accepted for publication, less likely to be read, and is less cited than men’s; co-authored papers help men’s careers but hurt women’s; having children helps men but hurts women in academic philosophy, etc. These are just a few quantifiable examples of gender bias in the field, and they don’t speak to the qualitative experiences of women who face these injustices in their daily work lives.

Denying the reality of women’s experiences as philosophers is hermeneutical gaslighting. The claim of disciplinary gender equality rests on a false, cisgender, white, male perspective. It implicitly denies women’s claim to be treated fairly and with epistemic respect, since the demand for equality, within a field construed as already-equal, can only possibly be irrational, selfish, and “crazy.” If women accept this false narrative, they’re deceived into thinking that they don’t deserve more credit and respect from their colleagues. The just-world claim also implies that women can succeedif they just try as hard as men, which is false, since women already try harder than men (on average) and get less recognition (on average) due to gender bias and systemic inequality. The deceptive framing of philosophy as equitable is, in fact, torturous, in the sense that it tells women that they are capable of achieving equality with men if they just try harder, which is false; and if we were to accept this myth, we would be alienated from our authentic experience of oppression in the field. We would also be forced to accept or “introject” the male gaze, which isthe typical phenomenological effect of being gaslighted by a man(Abramson 2015).

I bring this up because this is a philosophy journal, and I believe that gaslighting happens in philosophy, perhaps quite a lot. One way to avoid gaslighting your colleagues is to reject just world theory. Don’t pretend that philosophy is fair. But by the same token, don’t pretend that the demographic composition of the profession is fine as it is. Don’t say, for instance, that demographic diversity has no significant pedagogical value(Leiter 2018) when it patently does (Harding 2015; Ciurria 2016; Pammarota 2011; McLaren 2018). In sum, don’t pretend that the profession is or was or soon will be an even playing field, but don’t pretend that it’s no big deal that full professors are overwhelmingly white and male, either (Cherry & Schwitzgebel 2016).

To be fair, I’m not saying that everyone who gaslights is some kind of monster. In conditions of epistemic injustice, it’s hard to know when you’re committing epistemic injustice, including gaslighting and scapegoating, and these transgressions come in degrees. I’ve probably committed acts of “micro-gaslighting” – the gaslighting equivalent of a “microagressions” – given that I have epistemic blindspots rooted in my white privilege. Admitting that you’re susceptible to implicit gaslighting is part of the solution.

  1. The epistemic and moral harms of gaslighting 

The harms of testimonial and hermeneutical gaslighting are both epistemic and moral. Miranda Fricker describes the “primary harms” of epistemic injustice as the silencing and epistemic marginalizing of the victim, and the resultant loss of valuable epistemic resources to the community (2007). These epistemic harms are both individual and collective – they harm the victim’s epistemic standing and the community’s shared knowledge. They are ‘primary’ in the sense that they are epistemic in nature. The “secondary” harms of epistemic injustice are political, socioeconomic, and moral. Epistemic injustice inflicts socioeconomic and political hardships on victims of identity prejudice, who are seen as less eligible for jobs, housing, political representation, education, and other social goods. But victims of epistemic injustice also suffer distinct moral harms– harms that Fricker does not discuss in any detail. (Fricker says little about the ‘secondary harms’ of epistemic injustice in general, leaving it to others to examine them). Abramson points out that the moral harms of gaslighting, a type of epistemic injustice, include injuries to the victim’s (i) moral standing, (ii) moral self-conception (as a moral agent worthy of basic moral regard), and (iii) moral autonomy (specifically, freedom to live according to her un-coerced moral values, or to be herself). This account suggests that the moral harmsof epistemic injustice mirror the epistemic harmsof this type of act: just as epistemic injustice harms the victim’s epistemic standing (or ability to make intelligible claims about what is true), epistemic injustice harms the victim’s moral standing (or ability to make intelligible claims about what is just, fair, or morally permissible); just as epistemic injustice harms the victim’s self-conception as a knower, someone with functional truth-tracking capacities, epistemic injustice harms the victim’s self-conception as a moral agent, someone with functional moral-reasons-tracking capacities; just as epistemic injustice harms the agent’s epistemic autonomy by manipulating her perception of what is true or credible, epistemic injustice harms the agent’s moral autonomy by manipulating her perception of what is just or fair. Furthermore, although Abramson never says this, the moral harms of epistemic injustice are not only individual, but also collective; epistemic injustice derives the communityof valuable moral resources –namely, knowledge about what is right, fair, decent, and morally upstanding. Thus, just as epistemic injustice harms the community’s epistemic resources, it harms the community’s moral resources, too.

Notably, Fricker nowhere says that the ‘primary’ harms of epistemic injustice are worse than the ‘secondary’ harms of epistemic injustice. Epistemic harms are ‘primary’ only because they belong to the same category as the ‘primary’ offense (epistemic injustice) – though it should be noted that epistemic injustice as also a moral transgressioninsofar as it involves morally problematic content, i.e., “ethically noxious motiv[es]” (Fricker 2012; 34), and it produces morally problematic effects, e.g., the loss of moral autonomy. But there is a case to be made that the loss of moral standing is more injurious, or ‘darker,’than the loss of epistemic standing, because our personhood just isour moral agency, and that the loss of moral knowledge is worse than the loss of factual knowledge, because moral wrongs are worse than factual errors.

On the first point, influential theorists like Strawson (1963) and Frankfurt (1971) have argued that personhood just is moral agency, seeing that moral agency is the critical factor that distinguishes persons from both moral incompetents and simple organisms. This view of personhood has recently been corroborated by research showing that people tend to rate their loved one as “the same person” if they lose their memories, distinctiveness, emotional qualities, and global mental function, but not if they lose their moral capacities (Strohminger & Nichols 2015).When subjects are asked to judge the persistence of moral personality in Alzheimer’s patients, “the extent to which [the] patient seems different is predicted almost entirely by the extent to which their moral traits changed and not at all by their memory loss” (Chituc 2015), contraJohn Locke, but consistent with Strawson and Frankfurt. On the second point (on collective harms), the loss of moral knowledge is arguably more harmful to the community than the loss of factual knowledge because we need moral knowledge more than factual knowledge to live well. The application of factual knowledge to evil purposes gives rise to dystopian scenarios like the Holocaust; a society without cell phones is less horrifying than a society riven by genocide. There is reason to believe, then, that the secondary harms of epistemic injustice might be moral injurious on balance than the primary harms, both individually and collectively. In any case, the primary and secondary harms of epistemic injustice are commensurate, in that they involve a simultaneous loss of epistemic, moral, and siociopolitical standing, respect, and autonomy in victims, and a loss of valuable factual, moral, and sociopolitical resources in the community.

It is worthwhile for moral theorists to note the severe moral harms perpetrated by epistemic injustice. In fact, in neglecting the role of epistemic injustice in the moral community, we fail to adequately frame this system of interpersonal relationships. Strawson (1963) made this mistake when he described ‘the moral community’ as a collective of moral agents who deploy ‘the reactive attitudes’ (e.g., blame, praise) so as to consolidate the community around shared moral values, while deploying ‘the objective attitude’ to exclude moral incompetents. Of course, this is not how society works. Instead, we systematically deploy the objective attitude toward socially marginalized groups on the basis of systemic identity prejudice, in such a way as to ‘other’ and exclude those groups. This increases the perceived moral standing of privileged in-group members, making it easier for them to gaslight, scapegoat, and discredit disadvantaged groups who threaten their position of control. Whereas Strawson cited children and morally deranged people as targets of the objective attitude, in conditions of epistemic injustice this attitude is (illicitly) extended to women, People of Color, and other classic gaslighting victims, who are framed as infantile, incompetent, ‘crazy,’ and corrupt. Strawson’s theoretical resources are useful for understanding idealdeployments of blame and praise, but he does not delve into the distorting role of identity prejudice in our moral economy. This is the new horizon for responsibility scholars.

This topic is explored, amongst other places, in the new edited volume,“Social Dimensions of Moral Responsibilty.”










Refusing to read more in order to read better: on moral and epistemic injustice in academia

Identity prejudice in literature 

In my last post, I wrote about trait criticism as a virtue, and I argued that criticizing well is more important than criticizing more. I also argued that the vice of judgmentalism reflects a distorted critical compass and a fixation on trivial norm violations to the exclusion of more significant ones. I called this disposition ‘critical fetishism.’ The critical fetishist practices criticism to excess on a narrow range of critical targets, becoming too critical relative to those targets, and insufficiently critical outside of that domain. I then argued that critical fetishism is a problem in academic philosophy because it marginalizes non-standard perspectives in  the field, and this translates into discrimination, content bias, and a lack of strong objectivity in academic research (Harding 2015).

Recently, Amy Hungerford (2018) has noted a similar issue in English. She argues that literary scholars should refuse to read more, in order to read better. By declining to read every new publication recommended by the literary press, literary scholars are choosing to be, in a sense, academically irresponsible. They are conscientiously embracing a “distinctively nonscholarly form of reasoning,” deciding whether a book is worth reading prior to reading it. They are, in a sense, judging a book by its cover. This method of literary curation is necessitated by the ever-increasing speed of publishing, which makes it impossible to read every new piece of writing; but it is also a moral imperative: by ignoring the literary press, the canon, and the conventions of the discipline, the conscientious critic makes room in her life (and her discipline) for non-standard content and marginalized voices – content and voices that she would otherwise not have read.

Hungerford explains how literary conventions favour conservativism and white-male-bias. In ‘Modernism/modernity,’ a journal created to promote diversity in literary scholarship,

“A handful of major canonical authors — Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Stein, Beckett, etc. — continues to preoccupy the journal’s attention while subjects outside that canon fail to create a similarly shared body of criticism. The top 11 authors cited as subjects claim 41 percent of the articles. Most authors not already canonical appear only once or twice each, never achieving the critical mass of scholarship that motivates further study and writing within the context of scholarly careers, let alone further reading by the general public. Such poorly known and rarely taught works are not reissued as their canonical cousins are — in cute new formats, anniversary editions, or as the object of some fresh backlist marketing effort.”

Rather than letting literary traditions and market forces determine which books are worth reading, critics ought to prioritize talented but overlooked and under-appreciated authors and subject matters. Hungerford doesn’t explain precisely how to decide what to read, but one small step in the right direction would be to retain core disciplinary standards while venturing outside of the normal canon, exploring writing by women, people of color, and other underrepresented authors and critics. This is a fairly conservative, but effective, way of diversifying the field of literature and of distributing epistemic respect more fairly. (More radical revisions would be beneficial, but less accepted by the majority; I’m identifying the least controversy method, not the ideal one). Literary conventions essentially create a climate of epistemic and moral irresponsibility in the literary community, which spills over into mainstream society.

Critical fetishism

This connects with my last post, where I argued that “critical fetishism,” or an obsessive focus on a limited range of critical targets, is a vice, whereas critical curiosity is a virtue (inspired by Kate Norlock 2017 and Mariana Alessandri 2018). The world of literary publishing is marred by critical fetishisim, an obsession with a limited range of (predominantly cisgender, white, male) authors and critics and their academic products. Critical fetishism creates a climate of epistemic injustice in which the literary talents and insights of marginalized groups are discredited, and it creates a climate of moral injustice in which historically disadvantaged groups are silenced and oppressed due to systemic identity prejudice. Critical fetishism reproduces mainstream social inequalities in knowledge-producing systems, giving cisgender white males privileged access to the means of production. Thus, they work less hard for more acknowledgment and respect than they deserve.

In my last post, I suggested that critical fetishism is a vice because (1) it sanctifies certain disciplinary subspecializations and discredits others, and it channels attention, money, and respect into canonized subspecializations; (2) it promotes extreme specialization, which may cut off connections between disciplines, and between academic research and community issues; and (2) it can consume a person’s whole life, resulting in ‘alienating saintliness’ (Wolf 1982). This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t specialize, but rather, that specializing to the exclusion of important connections across disciplines and extracurricular boundaries carries epistemic and moral costs. Hungerford shows how the sanctification of canonized authors produces epistemic and moral injustice within the literary community. This is an illustration of the kind of critical fetishisim that I’m describing as a vice – the fetishization of privileged voices to the exclusion of the marginalized.

Hungerford gives a concrete example from her own discipline: David Foster Wallace (the author of the abstruse, 1000+-page tome ‘Infinite Jest’) has been effectively deified within literary criticism, elevated to the status of a literary saint. Hungerford speculates that the marketers of ‘Infinite Jest’ intentionally catered to the intellectual hubris of their target clients, designing a “marketing campaign that appealed to a Jurassic vision of literary genius” (a vision that was a social construct). Rebecca Solnit, too, has called Wallace’s book an example of literary hubris, a conventionally male trait (2017). One thing that men like to mansplain about is esoteric literature, which gives them intellectual cred in the eyes of their academic peers. Women, by contrast, are punished for appearing ‘too smart,’ which is why the job market favours modestly academically successful women but highly academically successful men (Quadlin 2018). In the time it takes to read, analyze, or review ‘Infinite Jest,’ a critic could read several books written by underrepresented authors. This would be ‘academically irresponsible’ in a narrow sense, but it robustly academically responsible, as it would increase epistemic, moral, and social responsibility in academia. There may, then, be an all-things-considered imperative to read less canonized scholarship in favour of exploring more uncharted territory.

Because conventional academic standards are so pervasive within the Ivory Tower – and so imperative for publishing and getting a job – academics tend to feel guilty for not reading the core canon. Hungerford explains how a famous Americanist was reluctant to admit that he had never read Moby Dick; he felt shame over a what he took to be a disciplinary transgression. I don’t think that this is a strange case; rather, it reflects the normal process of academic enculturation, whereby academics internalize the value of the canon and related disciplinary norms so deeply that these norms become part of their personal identity. Questioning disciplinary norms, then, can feel like blaspheme, or a rejection of the self. Implicit bias against non-standard perspectives is probably, in part, a result of this process: the value of the canon is tied up with the value of the Academic Self. This may also partly explain the casualization of academic labour: academics’ over-identification with their discipline makes them highly vulnerable to market exploitation. Being deeply (as opposed to superficially) academically responsible, then, requires not only changes in academic culture, but changes in the inner lives of academics. It requires that we commit what we may perceive as acts of academic irresponsibility: refusing to prioritize canonized scholarship above other types of writing.

Is there identity prejudice in philosophy?

That title is a rhetorical question – of course there’s identity prejudice in academic philosophy. In response to Aleander Rosenberg’s “philosophy is flat” comment, I responded:

“Philosophy is notoriously plagued by pedigree bias (de Cruz 2014), gender bias (Schwitzgebel & Jennings 2016), and racial bias (Botts et al. 2014). Moreover, 35% of philosophy professors are neither tenured nor tenure-track (AAAS Report 2013), and many of these instructors are living in poverty or very close to it. Philosophy is one of the least diverse disciplines in the Humanities (Schwitzgebel & Jennings 2016). Proposed reasons for the lack of diversity in the profession include naivety, conservativism, pride, and hostility to the interests and insights of underrepresented groups amongst the privileged (Kidd 2017).”

Helen de Cruz then wrote a more thorough response to the ‘philosophy is flat’ (‘just world’) theory in the Disability and Disadvantage Blog (2018), with a focus on pedigree bias.

Some of the inequalities in philosophy may be caused by contingent factors, but many are caused by implicit and explicit bias and stereotype threat (Jenkins & Hutchison 2013), which are psychological vehicles for what Miranda Fricker calls identity prejudice (2007), i.e., bias activated by the perception of a person’s demographic attributes, which produces epistemic injustice – a climate that systematically discredits the target’s speech.

 In my last post, I wrote that philosophy is beset by critical fetishism, or a disciplinary obsession with specific objects of philosophical scrutiny. Critical fetishism sanctifies certain philosophers to the exclusion of others, and it has distinctive gendered and racial characteristics. Philosophers have a remarkable fetish for David Lewis, whose work comprises 6 of the top 20 most-cited publications in philosophy (Healy 2013). Of the top-20 most-cited publications, 6.3% are by David Lewis, and 6.3% are by women. That’s right: David Lewis is more cited than all of the most-cited women combined. Saul Kripke is the second-most cited philosopher, and John Searl is high on the list, both of whom have been accused of sexual harassment. According to Jennifer Saul, maybe we shouldn’t be citing sexual harassers at all, let alone citing them more than all of the women in the field (2017). Most philosophers in the profession are also white, so there are racial exclusions as well. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read and cite canonized philosophers, but that the amount of attention we give them has epistemic and moral costs.

The sanctification of these scholars is an example of critical fetishism, which is, in effect, a kind of epistemic injustice. Critical fetishism is a problem not because it elevates some philosophers above others, but because it elevates philosophers with privileged socioeconomic status above members of historically disenfranchised groups, creating epistemic injustice in the field and tainting the production of philosophical knowledge. This is a moral and an epistemic problem because it discriminates against minorities (a moral transgression) and it undermines epistemic equality and the production of objective knowledge (an epistemic transgression) (viz., Harding 2015). Therefore, critical fetishism is something that we should care about and try to remediate, as scholars and as moral agents. Obviously this is not an easy feat, since it requires a reconsideration of our very identities as academics and a restructuring of the means of academic production, but effectively practicing any virtue is hard. The virtue of critical responsibility is no different.


A colleague pointed out that there is a difference between literary criticism and philosophical criticism, so we can’t treat criticism in both fields as if it were the same. I am using the term ‘criticism’ loosely to denote critical scrutiny of any piece of writing, so any differences across disciplines are immaterial. The main point is that in both fields, analysis is focused on scholarship with disciplinary credibility, and that credibility is partly constructed by conventions within the discipline rather than objective (unbiased) criteria. We should work to ‘un-bias’ the distribution of credibility in all academic fields.

Virtuous blaming/criticizing: Is there such a thing?

  1. Is criticizing a virtue? (Is blaming a virtue?)

In my last post, I commented on Kate Norlock’s paper on criticism (2016), and remarked that blame can take the form of criticism (and that unintelligible blame can be morally valuable). In a recent response to Norlock’s paper, Mariana Alessandri commends Norlock’s insight that “complaining, if rightly understood and employed, is a virtue” (Pea Soup 2018). Alessandri continues, “If we can win this one and convince people that complaining is a virtue, then there would exist, at least theoretically, a phronimos of complaining: the one who knows how and when and in what way to complain. Very few complain virtuously; most fall to the extreme of deficiency or excess” (ibid.). Rather than cautioning people to complain less, Alessandri says that we should complain more, since, “in [her] opinion, we as a society fall into the deficiency category of complaining…; shouldn’t we [therefore] shoot for excess and see where we end up?”

This is an interesting subject for responsibility theorists because blame can take the form of criticism. More specifically, blame, according to Michael McKenna (forthcoming), can involve a criticism about the quality of someone’s action (a deontic judgment) or a criticism about the quality of someone’s character (an aretaic judgment). If blame can contain, or simply be, a criticism, then perhaps blaming, too, can be virtuous. Virtuous blaming, like virtuous criticizing, would be the mean between extremes of deficiency and excess.

In what follows, I will dispute the idea that we should advise people to criticize more, full stop. Instead, I think that we should advise people to criticize better. If criticism is to be virtuous, it must satisfy Aristotle’s conditions of correct (1) frequency, (2) degree, (3) duration, (4) target, and (5) activating circumstances. These conditions produce epistemically responsible criticism. Arguably, epistemically irresponsible criticism is a bigger problem than insufficient quantity of criticism. I note that the term ‘critical’ is ambiguous, and can denote either the capacity for criticism or the tendency to criticize. Following Michael Brownstein’s treatment of self-control [2018]), I argue that the capacity for criticism cannot be in excess, but criticalness (or ‘trait criticism’) can be – that is, one can be too disposed to exercise one’s critical capacities. A ‘viciously judgmental’ person, as described by Gary Watson (2013), is an example of a vicious critic. But is this person too critical in general, or simply too critical about certain things? Although the vice of jugdmentalism may seem to reflect excess trait-criticism, I argue that it may actually represent a deficit of critical priorities and a corresponding fetish for trivial norm violations. An example of a critical fetishist is someone who complains excessively about white-person-problems and doesn’t care about racism – racism isn’t even on the person’s critical radar. The fetishist doesn’t complain too little; he complains too much, but about the wrong things. He has a domain-specific excess of trait criticism, and, at the same time, a domain-general deficiency, because his critical field of vision is too narrow. Even if his domain-specific criticisms are valid, they’re the wrong things to care about. What the fetishist should do is not increase his output of criticism, but rather expand his critical horizons. Once the fetishist has achieved a more balanced life, he will be in a position to criticize in the right way and to the right extent. Lastly, I argue that if someone can be too trait-critical, then she can also be too trait-morally-responsible (meaning too disposed to express vicious moral criticisms). And I make the case that academic philosophy may be suffering from a case of domain-specific trait criticism.

Here’s a break-down of the entire argument. In section 2, I’ll argue that the main problem with our society is not insufficient criticalness, but epistemically irresponsible criticism, especially critical fetishism; in section 3, I’ll argue that trait-criticism, but not capacity-criticism, can be in excess; in section 4, I’ll outline Brownstein’s account of self-control for illustrative purposes; in section 5, I’ll apply this account to criticism; and in section 6, I’ll argue that academia’s obsession with effortful, educated criticism is pernicious because it downplays the epistemic value of experiential (effortless) criticism.

2. To criticize or not to criticize – is that the question?

Alessandri advises us (tentatively) to criticize more often, because criticism is ‘deficient’ in our society. This argument (I think) treats deficiency as a quantitative state: as too little of something. Deficiency, however, can also be qualitative, such as when we criticize irrationally or without grounds. Imagine someone named Wohn Jayne who hardly ever complains. When WJ does complain, though, his complaints tend to be sexist. WJ thinks of himself as a “man of few words,” someone who doesn’t like to “whine” because “whining is effeminate” (in his mind). As a result, WJ expresses criticism sparingly, but when he does complain, his complaints tend to be sexist. WJ doesn’t strike me as someone who complains too much, although, given his sexist disposition, one could argue that any complaint from him is one complaint too many. But the real problem with WJ is not so much the quantity of his criticisms as their quality. If a lot of people in our society are like WJ (i.e., biased), then it’s not clear that we should encourage them to complain more, seeing that their complaints are, on balance, epistemically worthless and socially harmful. Biased speech, in effect, undermines the ideals of deliberative democracy by disseminating misinformation, undermining discursive parity, and reducing receptiveness to diverse contributions (Fishkin 2009). Similar considerations apply to other types of biased criticism (racist, xenophobic, etc.). So, increasing the quantity of epistemically irresponsible criticism is not desirable.


A person can complain too much even if her complaints are generally well-founded. Imagine someone named Academic who only criticizes people for valid reasons, but criticizes people constantly, even for the most trivial infractions. Her criticisms are annoying and intrusive and they alienate other people. Academic also turns her critical lens on herself and develops a depressive mindset, which undermines her wellbeing. Even if Academic’s criticisms are valid, they don’t improve the moral ecology.

It’s difficult to show in the abstract that we should promote more criticism, quantitatively speaking. It’s less controversial to say that we should promote better criticism. That said, one might think that practicing criticism refines one’s sensitivity to criticism-relevant factors (or salient norms), in which case, more criticism leads to better criticism. (Practice makes perfect, as they say). On the other hand, practicing hateful criticism can lead to more effective antagonism, so practicing criticism can also cultivate viciousness. Online trolls practice vicious criticism all the time, and in doing so, hone their skill for antagonism and needless provocation. Some people become addicted to (or at least enjoy) trolling because it triggers their reward system, making it hard to stop. This suggests that the practice of criticism is not necessarily something to be promoted.

Alessandri is right, however, that most people are complacent in the face of severe moral infractions. But these same people most likely complain about petty annoyances, like monthly subscription costs, property taxes, and other people’s grammatical errors (McInnes 2012). That is, they don’t complain too little; they complain about the wrong things. As a retired lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Airforce lamented in a recent article, most Americans don’t know how many wars the U.S. is waging in foreign countries at this very moment (Astore 2018), but they can probably tell you when the price of a latte goes up at Starbucks. The U.S. government is invested in waging a “forever war” in the Middle East while increasing GDP by promoting consumer excess and political ignorance at home, and most Americans either don’t notice or don’t care (ibid). People who are insensitive to moral infractions but hypersensitive to minor annoyances shouldn’t complain more; they should refine their critical faculties so that they can complain better.

3. Can criticizing be a virtue? 

Ultimately, the question of whether criticizing is a virtue depends on how we conceive of critical faculties. (Likewise for blaming and blaming faculties). There are two dominant models of human faculties: the capacity model and the trait model. Is criticizing a capacity or a trait? The difference between the two models if significant. If criticizing is a capacity, like literacy, then one can never be too critical (just as one can never be too literate). Capacities are typically described as a sensitivity to relevant factors: The capacity to play the violin, for example, is described as Neil Levy as a patterned sensitivity “to the contours of strings, the pressure [the violinist’s] other hand is exerting, the volume of the orchestra (if relevant), and so on.” Levy uses violin-playing to illustrate the capacity for moral responsibility. Analogously, the capacity for criticism would be a patterned sensitivity to criticism-relevant factors or critical norms (and norm violations). This capacity can be perfected, but can never be in excess, just as a violinist can play too much, but never too well. To give another example, no one has ever complained that Gauguin painted too well, but people have complained that he painted too much, to the neglect of his familial responsibilities (Williams 1981). His obsession with art was a vice.

So, if criticizing is a trait, like agreeableness, then a person can have an excess of criticalness (or ‘trait criticism’), just as one can have an excess of agreeableness. High agreeableness, according to research, correlates with susceptibility to groupthink, exploitation, and alienation (Wong 2017) Virtuous agreeableness, then, is the sweet spot between naivety (groupthink, gullibility) and curmudgeonliness (antisociality). On Aristotle’s view, excesses of traits are vices: for example, an excess of courage is rashness; an excess of temperance is insensibility; an excess of friendliness (similar to agreeableness) is obsequiousness (see this chart by Thompson 1955 for a complete list). An excessively courageous person rushes into battle without forethought; an excessively temperate person fails to enjoy the good things in life, etc. In this way, vices tend to be bad for the person and the community; they impair individual and group flourishing. If criticalness is a trait, then it, too, can be in excess, in which case it would presumably be something like captiousness, pettiness, or ‘jugdmentalism.’ In a paper on blame, Gary Watson cautions us to avoid the “vice of judgmentalism,” which is the tendency to judge others uncharitably and without generosity (2013). The vice of judgmentalism is, in effect, an excess of trait-criticism. The judgmental person is disposed to judge too often, too harshly, too severely, without cause, in the wrong circumstances, or all of the above.

Even if someone has a well-honed capacity for criticism, she can exercise that capacity to excess, becoming too critical. Academic, for example, has a refined critical sense, but exercises that capacity gratuitously. WJ has a defective critical capacity, and exercises that capacity poorly. A virtuous critic has a refined capacity for crticism and exercises that capacity well, to the right extent, and at the right times. Aristotle says that a virtue satisfies five criteria that lie on a continuum. They are: (1) frequency, (2) degree, (3) duration, (4) target, and (5) activating circumstances (Losin 1987). Prima facie, Academic criticizes (1) too often, (2) too severely, and (3) for too long, whereas WJ criticizes (4) the wrong targets in (5) the wrong conditions (i.e., women, all the time). On scrutiny, however, Academic and WJ are both deficient across all of (1)-(5), since both are fixated on a narrow set of norms. Academic is too responsive to (4) academically-salient targets and (5) activating conditions for academic criticism, which is why she criticizes excessively vis-a-vis these targets. WJ, on the other hand, criticizes stereotypically feminine targets (1) too often, (2) too severely, (3) for too long, and for no reason. While both critics are too fixated on certain critical norms, WJ is the more vicious critic because his criticism are utterly baseless and misogynistic, whereas Academic at least gets academic criticism right. What they share in common is a narrow range of critical interests.

Usually, when someone is ‘too critical,’ the person has skewed priorities. Although Angela Davis is very critical of the U.S. military-industrial complex, the target of her criticism is evil, so it’s hard to imagine how her criticism of it could be excessive. Davis also frames this criticism as part of a broader analysis involving global vectors of injustice. In her view, a systems analysis that encompasses a network of intertwined political injustices is the correct method of critical analysis, so a fixation on any particular political injustice in isolation is methodologically flawed and criticizable (2016). Davis specifically criticizes our tendency to focus narrowly on Western politics, and to ignore links between local and international political systems. In other words, she argues that a narrow (local) critical focus can be a critical failing, or a critical vice. A virtuous critic has a broad range of interests.

Interestingly, research shows that criticism can be harmful in certain cases. For example, one study finds that self-criticism, in contrast to perfectionistic striving, correlates negatively with self-efficacy and aspiration level (Stoeber et al. 2008). Another study finds that online partisan criticism increases affective polarization between groups (Suhay et al. 2017). These studies don’t show that criticism is inherently negative, but that certain types of criticism (e.g., partisan), in certain contexts (online), can be harmful. Notably, the research highlights generalizations, not universal truths. In some cases, affective polarization could be beneficial, in which cases partisan criticism is virtuous. Virtues are context-specific, meaning that their normative valence depends on the context. Rushing into battle is rash, unless it is part of a rational plan of action, in which case it is courageous. The “thick” description of the action (as a virtue) is partially specified by the context (Burton 1992). For this reason, acting virtuously requires practical wisdom, including sensitivity to the demands of the situation; there is no rulebook for virtuous conduct that would eliminate the need for lived experience redundant (McDowell 1979). Criticizing virtuously, then, requires a range of experiences.

In sum, to avoid the vice of critical fetishism, we should expose ourselves to a variety of norms, as opposed to fixating on any insular set of norms (e.g., Western political systems, analytic epistemology, norms pertaining to scholarship on William Coleridge). Exposure to various domains increases our sensitivity to a range of domain-specific norms, which cultivates domain-general trait criticism (within limits). There will likely be a trade-off between domain-specific competency and domain-general competency, and we should seek the right balance between the two. Being too specialized is just as bad as being too unfocused.

4. Self-control

Michael Brownstein discusses the capacity-trait distinction in his recent paper on self-control, in which he disputes the accepted wisdom that there is no such thing as too much self-control (2018).* I think that there are interesting parallels between trait self-control and trait criticism, which I will examine here and in the next sub-section.

Brownstein says that, while it may be impossible to have an excess of self-control as a capacity, this is not true of self-control as a trait. Researchers nonetheless tend to describe trait self-control as unequivocally positive, neglecting this distinction. For example, Tagney et al. (2013) say that trait self-control correlates positively with achievement and task performance, impulse control, psychological adjustment, moral emotions (specifically, propensity to feel guilt and shame), productivity, and other putatively “positive” outcomes. Brownstein objects that these are not necessarily positive outcomes, and I have raised similar concerns elsewhere. Empathy, for example, can increase out-group bias and shadenfreude toward perceived out-group members’ pain, potentially escalating intergroup conflict (Cikara et al. 2012, cited in Ciurria 2017); shame and guilt-related distress are associated with clinical PTSD (Beck et al. 2011); people high in productivity experience excessive self-evaluation and high self-control regret, i.e., regret over lost opportunities for enjoyment (Brownstein citing Keinan and Kivetz 2006). Excess self-control, as described by Brownstein, sounds a lot like Aristotle’s description of “insensibility” as an excess of temperance, characterized by an inability to enjoy the good things in life. Aristotle, in a sense, prefigures Brownstein’s critique of the scientific view of self-control as unequivocally positive. Any trait, on Aristotle’s view, can be a vice if expressed too strongly or too mildly, in the wrong contexts, or in response to the wrong targets.

More interesting still, Brownstein notes that self-control can have mixed results for people with low socioeconomic status (SES): for example, “for low-SES Black teenagers, high trait self-control predicts academic success and psychosocial health, but at the expense of epigenetic aging (i.e., a biomarker for disparities between biological and chronological aging)” (citing Gregory Miler et al. 2015). To interpret academic success and psychosocial health as a net positive outcome would be to impose a privileged frame of reference on members of socially disadvantaged groups, which is a type of epistemic injustice. Accordingly, Brownstein rejects the view that self-control is unequivocally positive, which is (in effect) an erasure of the lived reality of socially disadvantaged people, who do not derive unqualified benefits from the exercise of self-control. Promoting the exercise of self-control without qualification stigmatizes members of socially disadvantaged groups who (rationally) choose not to exercise self-control because they value their health more than their grades. The accepted scientific wisdom falsely presents this as an irrational choice and a failure of self-control, instead of a rational exercise of self-control, which accurately weighs the pros against the cons.

Brownstein gives a good example of when ‘uncontrol’ (or the failure of self-control) could be admirable: if his children become so enraged about slavery during history class that they cannot concentrate, no matter how hard they try, this would make him proud. (I share this sentiment entirely). Brownstein also remarks that spontaneity, which only occurs in the absence of self-control, can be admirable and conducive to flourishing. Thus, self-control may be good in some cases, but it is not an unequivocal good.

5. Criticism again

The capacity-trait distinction can be applied to criticism as well. A virtuous critic (call her VC) is reliably sensitive to criticism-relevant factors (norms), i.e., she has the capacity to detect norm violations. But she also exercises that capacity virtuously. VC, that is, has trait criticism: she is disposed to exercise her critical faculties in the right way, to the right extent, and at the right times. Although VC is sensitive to a broad range of criticism-relevant norms, she doesn’t express criticism in response to every perceived norm violation, as doing so would be captious, petty, ungenerous, and perhaps epistemically arrogant. If VC’s friend is distraught about a break-up and texts her, “I’m devistated right now,” VC doesn’t text back, “I’m sorry; p.s., it’s ‘devastated,’ not ‘devistated’ (sic).” If VC fails her dissertation defense, she doesn’t ruminate over everything she could have done differently and berate herself for months one end, as this would serve no purpose. On the contrary, she might try to forget about what she did wrong by relaxing her critical faculties vis-a-vis this particular disappointment. It is reasonable to think that a temporary or partial suspension of criticalness may sometimes be the best course of action.

VC also prioritizes severe infractions over petty infractions. Rather than hyper-focusing on trivial annoyances, she turns her attention to severe moral infractions. She doesn’t complain if the barista at Starbucks gets her order wrong, but she is outraged about racist incarceration norms in the U.S. prison system. She is sensitive, in other words, to the priority ranking of various criticizable offenses, and focuses on the more severe violations.

Practicing virtuous behaviour, according to Aristotle, cultivates virtuous traits. This may seem to suggest that we can’t practice criticism too much. But this isn’t true. One can practice any skill to excess. In sports research, there’s evidence that over-training could harm one’s career prospects by increasing the risk of injury, and training above a certain number of total hours (10,000) may not increase performance (Reider 2017). Athletes, moreover, can become obsessed with their sport to the exclusion of worthier pursuits, like connecting with one’s community. After many years of dedication to tennis, Andre Agassi became so disenchanted with his life as a tennis player that he started self-medicating with crystal meth (AP 2009). Although practicing criticism doesn’t cause sports injuries and probably won’t lead to crystal-meth addiction, it could foster a hypersensitivity to perceived norm violations, and thus a propensity for jugdmentalism. A critic could also practice criticism redundantly if there is an upper limit on net gains, in which case the person’s criticalness could crowd out worthier pursuits, such as spending time with friends. (Notably, criticizing friends too much could undermine one’s friendships, and reveal a lack of the normal optimistic bias that extends to loved ones; thus, some degree of un-criticalness, or generosity, towards friends may be a virtue).

On the other hand, what appears to be an excess of trait criticism may actually be a narrow range of critical interests. Take a hypothetical graduate student, Jack, who is obsessed with critically analyzing the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Jack, say, spends years cultivating Coleridge-relevant critical sensitivities to the exclusion of more important critical sensitivities, such as responsiveness to moral violations. In the end, Jack is too critical of Coleridge’s work (and meta-analysis), and he also (partly for that very reason) is not sufficiently critical of non-Coleridge-related norms, which don’t interest him. In the non-academic world, Jack might be a jerk or socially incompetent due to a lack of critical sensitivity to social cues and moral norms, and basically any other norms unrelated to 18th Century literary criticism. A domain-specific critical fetish, in other words, may correspond to a lack of domain-general critical competency in a person’s cognitive architecture. Hence, what may at first appear to be a general excess of trait criticism (e.g., a judgmental personality) may be a deficiency of domain-general trait criticism (indifference to a plurality of norms), due to an obsession with a certain topic. We should not advise Jack to be more critical (without further specification), as he would likely take this as a cue to probe even deeper into Coleridge scholarship. What we should advise Jack to do is try to be less trait critical of Coleridge, and more trait critical of virtually any other subject matter, especially those that affect his capacity for democratic citizenship. If Jack is an excellent scholar but bad citizen, this is a sign of a fetish.

Another problem for Jack is that, if for some reason he cannot pursue a life of Coleridge scholarship (say, because he doesn’t get tenure), he will end up, as Susan Wolf puts it, “bankrupt,” or incapable of living a meaningful life by his own lights (2007). Wolf doesn’t say that the bankrupt person was living a meaningless life from the start, but she does say that an obsession with a domain-specific set of norms, to the exclusion of other values, is indicative of an impoverished life (1982). A “moral saint,” obsessed with cultivating saintliness, is not living a flourishing life in her view. If the moral saint isn’t living a flourishing life, then surely the Coleridge fanatic isn’t. But the Coleridge fanatic also isn’t living an ethical life, insofar as he is neglecting citizenship norms for the sake of a self-interested critical project. Jack is too trait critical of Coleridge scholarship partly because he lacks the disposition to cultivate other critical interests, which is a vice. (Essentially, critical fetishism and domain-general critical incompetency are two sides of the same vicious coin). The solution to this problem is to cultivate the disposition to explore other critical domains, even at the expense of one’s integrity or psychic integration (Arpaly 2000). Jack might transcend his limitations purposefully, or do so against his better judgment, in a moment of akrasia. Either way, he’s better off.

6. Moral responsibility

Moral responsibility is often described as a sensitivity to moral criticism. Can a person be too morally responsible, then? Not if responsibility is a capacity, but perhaps it’s possible if responsibility is a trait, i.e., a disposition to respond to moral criticism. If you internalize criticism to the point of pathological guilt, or criticize others to the point of psychologically injuring them, then perhaps you are too trait morally-responisble, and you would would do well to relax your critical faculties. On the other hand, your disposition to criticize people to excess may reflect an insensitivity to more important norms. If so, then you are not too trait-responsible, full stop, but too trait responsible relative to a particular normative domain – specifically, one with trivial inclusive norms. Jack is too trait critical when it comes to analyzing Coleridge because he is obsessed and doesn’t value other things. Similarly, a moral fetishist could be obsessed with criticizing people’s trivial faults (e.g., unpunctuality), but disinterested in more significant moral violations (e.g., racism), because the person’s moral compass is broken. It is, of course, easier to criticize trivial and illusory norm violations in the conditions of epistemic injustice that we live in. The upshot is that a person can be too trait morally-responsible relative to a particular domain, but that narrow critical specialization most likely reflects a deeper trait-irresponsibility – an indifference to other normative considerations. A robustly trait-responsible person, it seems, lives a well-rounded life (Wolf 1987), one that exposes her to a broad range of norms. A moral fetishist lacks curiosity about other people’s normative concerns, and focuses too intently on norms that affect her own life.

If a person is too trait-responibsle in a particular domain, then akrasia, or weakness of will, may be a virtue in that person. For example, if Jack were to quit studying early and go out with friends, then what he perceives as a lapse in responsibility (akrasia) would actually be virtuous, and would facilitate a more domain-general responsibility, viz., a sensitivity to non-Coleridge-related norms. Akrasia (much like ‘uncontrol’) can ostensibly be positive, in spite of its negative connotations. Nomy Arpaly persuasively argues that “inverse akrasia” (2014) in which someone does the right thing against her better judgment, is a virtue, and an expression of responsible agency, as it reflects the person’s deeper values. This confirms that what may at first blush appear to be a lapse of responsibility –  and is a lapse of domain-specific trait responsibility – may also be an expression of a deeper kind of responsibility: domain-general responsibility. The inverse akratic may be spontaneously sensitive to her (possibly subconscious) reasons to stop being so domain-specifically responsible in a moment of akrasia. Acting ‘irresponsibly’ in one domain, then, may represent a a deeper, or more domain-general, responsibility – a (possibly repressed) disposition to explore alternative normative spaces. Being curious about other people’s lives and concerns may be the best defense against ‘shallow responsibility,’ the fetishistic exercise of the capacity for responsibility on a narrow set of problems.


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7. The politics of criticism

Does the unqualified promotion of critical thinking have negative political consequences, similar to the unqualified promotion of self-control? I think that it does. Consider the over-intellectualization of knowledge as represented in Enlightenment philosophy, most notably, Descartes’ “Meditations.” Descartes believed that everyone has equal access to knowledge by virtue of reflective deliberation. This is just false. As standpoint epistemologists have pointed out, knowledge is situated (viz. Harding 2015). Therefore, no one has unfettered access to knowledge; knowledge is a function of the synthesis of our situated experiences, under conditions of epistemic justice in which uptake (or epistemic respect) is equally distributed. Knowledge, then, is a hypothetical ideal, given that members of historically disadvantaged groups are marginalized by asymmetrical power relations. Critical thinking, in the Cartesian (non-situated) sense, is still lauded by universities, and while I wouldn’t deny that it is a valuable skill, the inclusion of marginalized voices in epistemic communities is equally valued, but under-appreciated. Universities, in effect, overvalue critical thinking skills (which they can market), while downplaying the epistemic vale of diversity. Both are necessary for knowledge, but they are not equally touted as academic values. Philosophy is a notable example: cisgender white males occupy a majority of tenure and tenure-track positions. This climate doesn’t maximize the production of objective knowledge; in fact, it fosters critical fetishism about historically male perspectives. This is a critical vice within the profession.

Trait criticism, in sum, is not simply, or even primarily, the product of deliberative effort; it is also the natural byproduct of effortless life experiences. People with low socioeconomic status, for example, are more sensitive to the value of low trait self-control than are scientists, who experience self-control as an unqualified good, and inscribe this experience on their research. Although trait criticism can be enhanced by practice, it is also conferred effortlessly by lived experience. There are, in effect, two types of trait criticism: ‘practiced trait criticism’ and ‘experiential trait criticism.’ It is dangerous to promote critical thinking as a practical exercise (i.e., ‘practiced trait criticism’), without promoting, at least to the same extent, experiential trait criticism. In other words, we should not advise universities to produce more critical work, full stop, without also advising them to promote diversity at all ranks of every department. Thus, as with individuals, universities should not simply produce more criticism – they are already producing too much domain-specific criticism, arguably; but they should produce better (viz., more epistemically responsible) criticism. Increasing the quantity of criticism without increasing its quality will only normalize and reinforce existing biases.


*You can read Brownstein’s whole paper here.