What I’m reading (May 2021)

This is a new column where I share ideas by way of links.

Here’s what I’m reading this week:


(1) This article by Jeremy Fischer in Ethics: “Racism as Civic Vice”. He argues that racism is a (bad) civic character trait. The first section is a standalone lesson in ways to think about racism:

Consider the disagreement about whether racism is primarily a moral vice of individuals (like cowardice, cruelty, or unfriendliness) or, instead, primarily a political feature of social structures (like inequality or injustice). Both accounts capture genuine insights and yield some plausible results.

Prima facie reasons to understand racism in terms of character (or lack thereof) include the following. First, racists, like cowards, the cruel, and the unfriendly, exhibit a wide variety of characteristic mental states, including thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Racists do not merely, and perhaps need not at all, accept certain theories or behave in certain ways, but they do tend to notice and imagine certain distinctive things (and not others) and experience certain distinctive emotions (and not others). Second, becoming racist—like becoming cowardly—involves developing habits: of thought, feeling, perception, and action. As with many or all moral virtues and vices, these habits are plausibly culturally inculcated. Third, the huge variety of racist things—including jokes, crimes, motivations, thoughts, people, symbols, practices (and the traditions they are housed in), interpretations of history, public policies, corporate policies, algorithms, and governments—and the diversity of types of racism within each category (e.g., demeaning, paternalistic, homogenizing, and dehumanizing racist jokes) warrant despair about finding a simple yet substantive principle that codifies racism. Plausibly, “racism” is not univocal but rather a core-dependent homonym centered on character: just as things are healthy insofar as they reflect, contribute to, exhibit, or stand in other suitable relations to the health of persons, things are racist insofar as racist persons would characteristically have, do, express, endorse, partake in, or stand in other suitable relations to them. Fourth, being racist involves lacking moral virtues, like kindness or justice. We care about whether we are racist partly because we care about whether we are morally flawed and how our flaws poison relations with others.

So that’s the character view. Then he goes on to describe the sociopolitical view:

However, there are also strong prima facie reasons to believe that racism is fundamentally sociopolitical. First, the heart of racism—perhaps even of the very concept of race—is plausibly the racial supremacist distribution of political and civic rights, as well as social, cultural, and economic capital, implemented by state-sanctioned exploitation and violence. This is a problem for moral vice accounts of racism because moral vices are logically independent of both highly contingent sociopolitical relations (such as racial supremacy) and beliefs about such relations. Second, unlike moral vices, individual racism is not restricted to one sphere of life or opposed to only one moral virtue. Individual racism is in this respect unlike, say, cowardice (a failure, opposed to courage, in the sphere of risking personal harm in pursuit of a greater good) and irascibility (a failure, opposed to mild-manneredness, in the sphere of attitudes to personal insults and damages). Indeed, it often involves cowardice and irascibility, as well as injustice, dishonesty, unfriendliness, stinginess, and ill-humoredness, among other moral vices that enable racial oppression. Third, analyzing racism in terms of moral vice plausibly mischaracterizes our concern about what might seem to be minor moral transgressions, like privately telling racist jokes. Such behaviors are bad not merely because they are unfriendly or because they disrespect or disregard their targets’ personhood (though they may do that), but also and perhaps more centrally because and insofar as they reflect racial supremacist sociopolitical norms. But it would be surprising if the central features in virtue of which an instance of racism is bad were inessential to its being an instance of racism. If racism is bad, then, plausibly, it is bad mainly because of what makes it racist. So, there is reason to believe that racism is primarily a sociopolitical, not merely a moral, ill.

Really good stuff here.

(2) This classic feminist work by Marilyn Frye: The Politics of Reality (1983). You’ve probably read her essay on oppression, which is fantastic:

The statement that women are oppressed is frequently met with the claim that men are oppressed too. We hear that oppressing is oppressive to those who oppress as well as those they oppress. Some men cite as evidence of their oppression their much-advertised inability to cry. It is tough, we are told, to be masculine. When the stresses and frustrations of being a man are cited as evidence that oppressors are oppressed by their oppressing, the word "oppression" is being stretched to meaninglessness; it is treated as though its scope includes any and all human experience of limitation or suffering, no matter the cause, degree or consequence. Once such usage has been put over on us, then if ever we deny that any person or group is oppressed, we seem to imply that we think they never suffer and have no feelings. We are accused of insensitivity; even of bigotry. For women, such accusation is particularly intimidating, since sensitivity is one of the few virtues that has been assigned to us. If we are found insensitive, we may fear we have no redeeming traits at all and perhaps are not real women. Thus are we silenced before we begin: the name of our situation drained of meaning and our guilt mechanisms tripped.

But this is nonsense. Human beings can be miserable without being oppressed, and it is perfectly consistent to deny that a person or group is oppressed without denying that they have feelings or that they suffer.

She goes on to describe oppression as a bird cage:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be hard to see and recognize. One can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced.

The rest of the essays are just as good. A feminist must-read.


(3) Probably the biggest first world problem you never heard of: the biggest private mental-health provider in Finland was hacked and patients’ therapy transcripts were posted publicly. Nightmare!


(4) A long essay that’s worth your time: Roy Baumeister’s “The meanings of life.” His team found “five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company. ” They are: wants vs. needs, present vs. future, receiving help vs. giving it, stress-free vs. stressful, and getting what you want vs. expressing yourself. This is a truly insightful piece and very well-written.


(5) Saw this one on Twitter: “Thank You,” by Ross Gay.

If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth's great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden's dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

‘Til next time.

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