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  Holly Lawford-Smith’s work in its entirety because it so precisely encapsulates what is going in the gender debates.

 

Earlier this year, the Institute of Art and Ideas invited scholars and activists to consider the question, How Can Philosophy Help Us Understand Transgender Experiences? Following the publication of this article, three of the authors withdrew their contributions and issued a statement of retraction outlining their reasons for doing so. In this third article, one of the original contributors Holly Lawford-Smith responds to arguments raised in the retraction with her own perspective on the debate around gender.

Radical and gender critical feminists think the best way to understand gender is as a set of harmful norms, which are applied to people on the basis of their sex. A female person, for example, is subjected to norms that tell her to take great care over her appearance, to be helpful, kind, caring, and warm. A male person is subjected to different norms, for example telling him to be strong, bold, clever, and stoic, to not care much about his appearance. What’s key here is the subjection part: norms are applied to us by others, throughout our early childhood socialisation, both inside the family and in school and by peers and extended family members, and all the way through our lives. Some kinds of violations of the norms are tolerated; people are not generally too bothered about a kind boy. Other kinds of violations are policed: a boy likes to play with dolls, and his uncle berates him for being ‘gay’ or a ‘sissy’; a girl is full of ideas for play and takes the lead with other kids, the parents of the other kids call her ‘bossy’ or ‘too big for her boots’. Understanding gender as a set of harmful norms has a lot of explanatory power. It accounts for why particular male or female people are subject to bullying, social sanctioning, or victimisation—namely because they fail to conform to the norms applied to their sex. Feminists have for a long time preferred to understand gender in this way, and to advance the claim that those norms are pernicious and constraining. There’s nothing that one has to be like simply because one is female, or because one is male, they say. Be whatever you want to be.

Recently, this view of gender, and this ‘advice’ dispensed to male and female people, has become contested. Some insist now that gender is not harmful norms but rather is identity. Gender-as-identity is the view that everyone has an internal, subjective sense of their own gender, and that this—rather than their sex—is what determines how they should be treated by other people, and by the law. In the state of Australia where I live, the parliament has just passed a law that replaces sex with gender identity on birth certificates, in a way that is likely to be authoritative for other parts of the law which deal with what was previously sex discrimination. So gender-as-harmful-norms is not only contested, but its contestation has had serious social uptake in some places.

You might think this is a reasonable disagreement. And if it is, there’s a lot for both sides to discuss. Do we need both of these concepts? Does it make sense to get rid of the concept of gender as harmful norms while the norms are still in operation and harming people, in particular female people? Can both concepts exist side-by-side, or will the contestation have to be settled with only one victor? How exactly can the concept of a gender identity be made coherent? (See also this piece, where I say more on the topic of gender identity).

What is peculiar about this issue is that one side, radical and gender critical feminists, approach it as a reasonable disagreement. They argue for their views in popular and accessible venues, and defend the views on social media. They are willing to debate with their opponents, and they are willing to read what their opponents have to say. They are able to articulate what the concerns of their opponents are, accurately, and give responses to those concerns.

The other side, however, approach it as an unreasonable disagreement. For them, radical and gender critical feminist speech is hateful speech or harmful speech. Those who utter it are reprehensible humans and should be treated as such. Engaging with such speech only dignifies it, which makes engagement into a kind of complicity. People with this view will tend to block on social media rather than engage; and will tend to refuse to read what the other side has to say because they believe it to be beyond the pale. The inevitable result is mischaracterisation and straw-(wo)manning. If you don’t read what a person has to say, you cannot be in a position to give an accurate reconstruction of it, let alone to be charitable to it, to ‘steel-(wo)man’ it (to make it into the strongest possible version of itself before responding to it).

There was an example of this clash of perspectives recently, with a retraction statement authored by several academics on the side of gender-as-identity. The Institute of Art and Ideas had asked academics and activists to contribute to a forum, giving 200-word answers to the question “How can philosophy change the way we understand the transgender experience and identity?” The forum featured contributions from Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel, and myself, on the gender-as-harmful-norms side, and Robin Dembroff, Rebecca Kukla, and Susan Stryker, on the gender-as-identity side. As soon as they found out they were “co-platformed” alongside (which, note, merely means appearing on the same page as) us, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker called for their contributions to be withdrawn, and made statements on social media to this effect. In their co-authored statement they went a lot further, accusing the gender-as-harmful-norms side of speech acts that are “acts of violence”, as well as comparing engagement with us to participation in conversation with holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and over the question of “whether corrective rape should be used to cure lesbianism”.

If this is not hate speech, then it’s something awfully close to it. Stock, Bindel, and I are all lesbians. The choice to use that example was obviously intended to target us with violent, lesbophobic, and degrading imagery; to put us in our place. Our conception of gender-as-harmful-norms helps to explain it: we have violated the gender norm “be accommodating of males” by refusing to accept the claim that when a male asserts that he is a woman, he is in fact a woman. We are being subject to misogynistic policing (in this case, even more disappointingly, by two female people) in the form of a reminder of what male people can do to female people who don’t conform to the norms. This kind of policing is completely unacceptable in any context, and certainly in a disagreement between academics over what the right conception of gender is.

It’s also completely unacceptable to appropriate other social groups’ genuine and horrific suffering, including the genocide of the Jewish people, slavery and colonization of people of colour, and rape of lesbians, for political point-scoring against people who hold a philosophical position you don’t like. In making the last move against lesbians, Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker use speech that is more hateful than that they accuse us of using. Buried underneath the hyperbolic and incendiary rhetoric, there is a reasonable disagreement over what the correct conception of gender both is and should be. Kathleen, Julie, and I will continue to articulate our side of that disagreement in accordance with the norms of our respective professions. We look forward to Dembroff, Kukla, and Stryker doing the same in the future. If not, we request that they at least leave the rape talk out of it.

It isn’t just on Twitter where transactivists go blithely on ignoring arguments, nope.  Parallels exist in academia as well.  Holly Lawford-Smith writing at the Quillette illustrates the divide between gender critical and establishment (woke) philosophers.

 

“Perhaps another reason why things have gotten ugly is that the underlying disagreement is not one that can be settled by reason alone. Perhaps there is simply a fundamental moral disagreement over the extent to which a person’s internally experienced identity matters, and should be respected and affirmed by others. If you can’t settle things with reason, yet you think they must be settled somehow, you’ll have to deploy other tactics. Is this the explanation we’ve been looking for?

Let’s start with the idea that identity matters. In almost all the cases of identity we’re familiar with, there’s some fact that underwrites the corresponding identity. A white-appearing person who identifies as indigenous is accepted as indigenous because of her ancestry (and perhaps her cultural ties, acceptance by indigenous communities, and so forth). There are facts that make her identification true (and that, if absent, would lead to her identification being rejected). But when a male-born person asserts that they are a woman, what are the facts at issue? There are many answers we could give here, such as that the person has dysmorphia about their sexed body, or has dysphoria in regard to gender roles, or has lived life “passing” as a female person for some length of time, or is accepted as female by other members of the community. Unfortunately, establishment feminist philosophers—following trans activists in the wider society—tend to reject all such answers, and assert that subjective identity is all that matters: If someone asserts with apparent sincerity that they feel like a woman—or is a woman—then the person is a woman. But that’s like saying that a person is indigenous if she says she is, and that any questions about ancestry are tantamount to the denial of one’s humanity.

But we can supplement the claim that identity matters, and thereby get closer to fully explaining the ugliness of this debate.

Add to it the claim that trans people are one of the most vulnerable social groups in society; and that one of the most humane and effective means we have for lessening their vulnerability is to affirm their gender identity, and thereby lessen the suicide risk associated with dysmorphia and dysphoria. To the extent that questioning the veracity of gender identities may be said to interfere with the social acceptance of transgender people, such questioning may be cast as morally reprehensible, uncaring and dangerous.

If true, this would explain the abusiveness of establishment feminist philosophers—and the wider trans-rights activist community. This view presumes such high stakes that it can be invoked to justify even the most uncivil and abusive forms of discourse. But it also undermines the very idea of truth-seeking, since embedded within the argument is the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether transwomen are women: All that matters is that we act as though they are women, because the focus is on the instrumental value of assertions supplying trans women with a certain kind of emotional and moral support, not determining the existence of an objectively real truth.

Under this analysis, when gender critical feminists show up and argue that transwomen are not actually women, or that they shouldn’t be treated as women for all social and legal purposes, they miss the point and talk past the establishment feminist philosophers. The point of the discussion, as the establishment feminist philosophers see it, isn’t to determine the truth of the underlying claims, but to provide succour to a vulnerable community. They are doing politics and calling it philosophy.

Adding to the frustration and anger of the establishment feminist philosophers is the fact that there’s literally no way they can communicate their real argument—namely that we should act as if trans women are truly women, even if we know they are not—because if this argument were said out loud (or, worse, stated in print or online), the whole project would collapse. Transwomen would know what even their most vocal allies secretly believe. The only possible strategy is instead to yell out conclusory slogans and then protect them from contradiction with all available methods—insults, attempts to deplatform, social ostracism, reputational damage, complaints to employers, online harassment, the lot.”

Well it’s good to know that bullshite still flows downhill, I suppose.

I have not seen any episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.  And for me, that is quite shocking as I am very much a fan of decluttered, organized living.  I say ‘fan’ because in reality I’m stuffed into a small house that has entirely too much stuff and most of it is not mine, so I cannot purge away my clutter demons.  C’est la vie.

Olberding rasies the point that much of the success of Tidying Up has to do with the latent Orientalism still present in our North American culture.  Our internalized mystic notions are somewhat problematic to say the least.

 

“At a practical level, as a professor who regularly teaches East Asian philosophies, I die a little inside every time we experience a cultural phenomenon with a veneer of ‘wisdom from the East’ on it. Having imbibed pop culture’s mystical Orient, students will arrive to my classes craving a deeper initiation into Eastern mysteries. Teaching these seekers of wisdom then becomes deflationary.

I was once at an art fair where there was a booth selling temporary tattoos. One of the tattoos was a Chinese character that was translated on the tattoo’s plastic label as ‘bitch’, an appealing bit of body art for the tough girls among us, I suppose. Except a far more straightforward and accurate translation of the character would be ‘prostitute’, or maybe ‘whore’.

Teaching students who fell in love with ‘Eastern philosophy’ via our culture’s myriad Mr Miyagis is like being the one to tell someone her tattoo says ‘whore’. The tattooed will be better off knowing, but she won’t thank you for telling her. Pop-culture-induced orientalism usually does wash off, but the cleanup is far less alluring than wearing the myth. At least, I console myself, Kondo’s target market is the middle-aged, so maybe my young college students won’t show up with this particular ‘tattoo’.

In some ways, I admire the impulse to reach outside familiar cultural traditions in order seek wisdom, or even household aesthetic advice. Both the urge to improve ourselves and the curiosity to look beyond our own boundaries seem salutary. The problem, though, is when doing so looks like one more iteration of what started our troubles in the first place. The distracted impulse to acquire the new and shiny, as well as the desperate hope that novelty might alleviate anhedonic consumerist malaise – these are why Kondo’s clients have houses overwhelmed with stuff. We have homes joylessly cluttered by the artefacts of a fruitless search for joy, or at least a reprieve from bathetic numbness. And wisdom from the ‘East’ has long been marketed to Westerners hoping to escape their existential maladies by seeking what is exotic, what promises to be more meaningful than what they have or can find locally.

My cynical concerns, to be sure, are not about Kondo herself. I assume that she is sincere in what she offers, and indeed I expect some might find her counsel truly useful. It is the nature of her attraction to Westerners that gives me pause. This registers most powerfully for me when I re-imagine what she offers in a distinctly American guise. Before I became a professor, I sometimes earned my keep as a maid. And this class-conscious part of me is more oppositional still where the fascinations of ‘tidying’ are concerned.”

The level confusion that Olberding presents, I think, is yet more evidence of the need to teach philosophy earlier, rather than later in the educational process.

 

This is one of my favourite talks. It presents a very important perspective.

One lesson I’ve tried to take from this involves dealing with those I might view as more wrong than me. It is common to wonder at how people can possibly be as stupid as they are. I have heard this sentiment expressed by many different people in many different situations. It is so easy to just think of the offending idiot as a moron and be done with it. It is not the most charitable of moods. The proper thing would be to recognize that we are all idiots, and we should deal with the stupid people in our lives as we would like our own stupidity addressed: with patience and courtesy. I admit, I don’t live up to this standard very often, but I’m working on it.

As a Physicalist, I can get behind some of what Rachlin says.  I think I’ll have to read some more regarding his thoughts on pain though, because I’m finding it hard to take out the direct connection our nervous system has with the world out there and replace it with the notion that it is simply an interaction over time.

Interesting article none the less, and of course the three questions that get you thinking about what Teleological Behaviourism is reproduced here:

 

“As far as I am concerned, our minds are not mysterious entities in our brains but rather equivalent to the long-term patterns in our overt behaviour. This view stems from Aristotle’s philosophy of teleology, in which the end, not the means, is the most important part. For a psychologist, the viewpoint is known as teleological behaviourism, and that’s where I fall.

The concept might be difficult to accept at first, but give it a chance. Following are three questions and answers that are hard to resist; they might not convince you to become a teleological behaviourist, but they should demonstrate that teleological behaviourism is not as crazy as it might seem at first:

QUESTION: It is the far-distant future. Knowledge of the brain has progressed to the point where our brains can be removed from our bodies and stored safely in a room while communicating wirelessly with our bodies; such disembodied brains can control our movements as they do now in situ. American football teams use this brain-separation technique to protect themselves from concussions. Yet there are still broken arms and legs, and players writhing on the ground. Where is the pain?

ANSWER: The pain is in the players’ behaviour. The brains in the locker room contain the pain mechanisms, but pain itself is not an internal mechanism; it is an interaction over time between a person’s overt behaviour and the environment. It is the player writhing on the field, not his or her brain, that needs assistance; pain can function as a signal for that. For the hurt football player, as for us all, the pain of the moment exists in the context of a wider relationship over time between harmful stimuli (such as a hot stove) and overt and generally functional behaviour (such as pulling your hand away).

QUESTION: Again, it is the far-distant future. Suppose you lived then and married a wonderful person and had a great life together with perhaps children and grandchildren. After 50 years of marriage, on his/her deathbed, he/she tells you that he/she is a robot, manufactured rather than normally born. Would you be disappointed?

ANSWER: I would not be disappointed. If anything (say, a non-physical soul or some neural circuit in her brain) had been left out of my wife’s composition, that thing would have been entirely irrelevant to me. If her behaviour after all these years was that of a normal human being, her consciousness must have been that of a normal human being, by definition. Otherwise, consciousness would be a truly trivial thing. Consciousness evolved as did our less-extended behavioural patterns. The separation of consciousness from long-term behavioural patterns allows you to say that a normally behaving person, normal in every way (perhaps, over the long run, a better behaving person than you are), is ‘really’ inferior to you because his or her in-principle non-detectible consciousness is faulty or non-existent. Such a notion is not just wrong but destructive, and can underlie racism and prejudice of every kind.

QUESTION: Two people in a room are asked to imagine a lion. One closes her eyes and says: ‘Yes, now I see it; it’s walking around; I see the mane and the tail.’ The other person runs screaming from the room. Which one is imagining a lion?

ANSWER: Clearly the person running out of the room is imagining a lion. The other is imagining a movie of a lion. There are no sense organs in our brains; if there were, we would see nerves and not lions. To imagine something is to behave in the absence of that thing as you would normally do in its presence – as you would do if you perceived that thing. Thus, as Aristotle said, imagination depends on perception. Actors on the stage are performing acts of imagination. Good acting is not a consequence of good imagination but is itself good imagination.”

Helena de Bres writes about how Philosophy if you’re doing it right, is an absurd practice.  What I found interesting about her essay is the idea of the two perspectives we shift between as hypothesized by Thomas Nagel (“One [perspective] is that of the engaged agent, seeing her life from the inside, with her heart vibrating in her chest. The other is that of the detached spectator, watching human activity coolly, as if from the distance of another planet.”).  Us human types bring about so much of our own troubles, often failing to strike a reasonable balance between ‘living in moment’ and the detached ‘from the point of view of the Universe’.  Significant life events, whether positive of negative, can also foment imbalance between these two perspectives, in which I think require careful mixing in order to live a more meaningful life.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the literature about grieving and loss is how important it is to realize the ubiquity of the experience that happens to be engulfing you at the moment.  Most certainly, this is your own personal trauma, but realizing that others have and are experiencing similar feelings and going through similar motions can help frame your personal struggles in a slightly more hopeful context.   For example, people have been grieving the loss of their loved ones for centuries now, and most find a way forward.  There is some small solstice to be found (for the grieving person) in fact that others have found the means to go on after traumatic life experiences.

This contextual switching, I think,  plays a significant role in the rebuilding of the emotional resilience that is necessary to keep life going and for an individual to continue to grow after a major setback.  I see a fair number of parallels in this essay between the notion of dual experiential perspectives and some of the tenets of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

 

“There’s something especially absurd about philosophers, supine or not. The explanation for this might lie in the best-known philosophical account of absurdity, offered by Thomas Nagel in 1971. Nagel argued that when we sense that something – or everything – in life is absurd, we’re experiencing the clash of two perspectives from which to view the world. One is that of the engaged agent, seeing her life from the inside, with her heart vibrating in her chest. The other is that of the detached spectator, watching human activity coolly, as if from the distance of another planet. Nagel notes that it’s our nature to flip between these points of view. One moment we’re fully caught up in our mushroom-cultivation class, our infatuation with our sister’s husband or our intractable power struggle with Terri in accounting. The next moment, our mental tectonics shift and we see ourselves from an emotional remove, like a spirit hovering over its own body. It becomes evident to us that, ‘from the point of view of the Universe’, to use the 19th-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick’s phrase, none of these things matter.

Our sense of absurdity kicks in when we snap between these two perspectives rapidly, in a kind of duck-rabbit movement of the soul. The sense of absurdity depends on this instability. If we could retain the internal perspective forever, we’d never experience the shock of doubt about whether what we were doing was ultimately worthwhile or made any kind of sense. If, alternatively, we could permanently view all human affairs, our own included, from the perspective of the Universe, we’d never find ourselves eagerly attempting to adhere fungi to a damp log. We’d be full-time ascetics, to whom nothing human mattered at all, people who couldn’t be caught red-handed caring about something small.

Though Nagel says that we all adopt both the internal and external perspectives on our lives, some people clearly identify more with one than the other. And some of these people cluster in professions where one perspective is disproportionately valued. Academic philosophy is one such profession. When people say: ‘Let’s be philosophical about this,’ they mean: ‘Let’s calm down, step back, detach.’ The philosopher, in the public imagination, is set apart from the mundane concerns and fiery attachments that govern the rest of humanity. He or she takes the external perspective on pretty much everything. When Søren Kierkegaard collapsed at a party and people tried to help him up, he allegedly said: ‘Oh, leave it. Let the maid sweep it up in the morning.’

If this image is accurate, and if Nagel’s account is right, philosophers, parked forever in only one of Nagel’s perspectives, will escape the absurdity of the human condition. We philosophers, however, are among the most absurd people I’ve ever met. The reason for this has a whiff of paradox. Abstraction and detachment might be a philosopher’s stock-in-trade, but philosophers are often fiercely attached to those very things: passionate about impassion, abstract in the most concrete of ways. They spend years working obsessively on papers with titles such as ‘Nonreducible Supervenient Causation’ and then have public brawls about them at conferences. This is part of philosophy’s charm for me. There’s something especially absurd, yes, but also endearing, about people who are so serious about their core life endeavour that they regularly forget its ridiculous aspects, even though the endeavour itself is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder.”

What do you do when achievement becomes hollow and staid? For many of us, the life grind of pursuing and achieving (or failing) our ambitions becomes the very nexus of our unhappiness with life. Schopenhauer would agree with you, the achievement treadmill can be a recipe for a verdant midlife crisis. Kieran Setiya and I believe that there is hope.

“Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek word for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion. You teach a class, get married, start a family, earn a raise. Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.

We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.”

Valuing process and (the already hackneyed) living in the moment could be the gentle balm that soothes some of the turmoil in mid-life.  Every day moderately free of pain and anguish is a gift and we should be grateful for the chance to live it through.

 

 

 

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