Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes on a prolegomena to any future theory of microaggression

During the 2008 campaign, Senator Joseph Biden, seeking the Democratic nomination for president characterized his rival Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean…”

Articulate, bright, and clean are doubtless very worthy things to be. Nonetheless this was deemed by some as offensive to Obama.

Biden’s remarks are an example of what has come to be called ‘microaggression.’

Microaggressions are acts whose common factor is the production of a particular kind of offense in an observer. The observer must be a member of a ‘marginalized’ group, which in an American context includes certain racial minorities, gays, women, and the disabled.

The offense which the observer takes is produced by (i) the act’s apparent appeal to stereotypes regarding a marginalized group and (ii) the suggestion that the observer, as a member of the group, fits (or, in the case in question, fails to fit) the stereotype.

So Biden’s remark traded on a stereotype of African-Americans and seemed to praise Obama by contrast.

In Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue gives the following examples.[i]

· Clutching one’s purse/crossing the street when a Black man approaches.

· “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

Can there be a Theory of Microaggression? To the extent there can be such a theory, we already have it.

One thing becomes evident from this list: Except for producing a particular kind of offense, purported examples of microaggression have nothing else in common. Some are speech acts; some are not. Some presuppose an audience; some are actions the agents would prefer remain unobserved.

That is, ‘microaggression’ does not demarcate a kind. There is no theory of gifts, after all, since entities of almost any category can be gifts.

For a subset of microaggressions a theoretical treatment has long been available: Grice’s theory of conversational implicature.

Compare Biden’s remark to Grice’s example of an Englishman saying (smugly) of a fellow citizen, “He is an Englishman; he is, therefore, brave.”[ii] Grice insists that that the utterer has not explicitly said that it follows from being an Englishman that you are brave. Rather the utterer has implicated it. Indeed, the conclusion does not logically follow, yet Grice insists that the utterance in a given case is not false.

Implicature depends precisely on the sort of cooperative, common understandings that stereotypes represent.

Stereotyping is an unavoidable social heuristic – and furthermore in some cases a useful and helpful one. In many social situations a stereotype is the only information available. In the right lane in front of me is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Town Car; in the other lane is a twenty-something young man in a muscle car with flames painted on the hood. Whom should I pull up behind? When the light turns green Granny might lay rubber through the intersection; The Dude might drive off sedately, keeping five miles under the speed limit. But that’s not the way to bet.

If something of moral importance hung on the choice, you would be irresponsible to ignore the stereotype.

Someone who secures her purse, who acts in a self-protective manner in the face even of an improbable threat, is just acting sensibly.

We cannot be required to pretend that we are unaware of stereotypes. Indeed, if we were to become unaware, the stereotypes would still persist, driven below the conscious level; but a critique of microaggression would become unstateable.

The more diverse society the more socially important stereotypes will become. Consider Sue’s example: “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

According to Sue, this example presupposes the ‘Myth of Meritocracy,’ suggesting that “people of color are given unfair benefits because of their race.” But believing (i) that the most qualified person should get the job and (ii) that people of color occasionally receive preference in hiring is neither inconsistent, nor unreasonable, nor even illiberal. A liberal could accept both of these propositions as a general principle. What does seem unreasonable, though, is to avail oneself of preferential hiring and then take offense at the presumption that one has in fact done precisely that.

A further conceptual point. Whether an act is offensive depends on facts about the agent, the observer, and the context. An act can be offensive even though the agent did not intend it so. Just as conversational implicatures are ‘cancellable,’ so are offenses. “I didn’t mean to offend” can be uttered truthfully and sincerely. But the observer has something to say about whether it was offensive, and can accept that disavowal.

But whether an act is an aggression depends on facts about the agent’s intentions. The observer can take to it to be an aggression and just be wrong. He has very little to say about it. Therefore, most microaggressions, whether or not they are offenses, are not really aggressions.

Besides the conceptual resources of Grice’s theory we also have the moral resources to give a critique of many of the acts factitiously bundled under the concept of ‘microaggression.’ To characterize an act as offensive is to give a moral reason to refrain from doing it. But the moral ban on offending others can be overridden by more urgent moral obligations, including duties of self-preservation.

What seems more important in this realm is to develop a reasonable standard for non-offensiveness in social dealings. The ancient definition of a gentleman as ‘one who never unintentionally gives offense’ implicates (among other things) that no one can be a gentleman all the time.

So what level of sensitivity to what might offend others is required for ordinary social dealings? Individuals differ in their awareness of the potential for offense. (They don’t call him ‘Clueless Joe’ for nothing.) Demanding a level that the averagely-sensitive but good-hearted cannot sustain will render ordinary social interactions more difficult and conflictful than necessary.

A certain amount of amused tolerance seems preferable on all sides.

Tom Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[i] Sue, Microaggression in Everyday Life (Wiley 2010).
[ii] Grice, “Logic and Conversation”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I liked white better

“I liked white better.”

The thought flashed across my mind the moment I saw the White House lit up in colors to celebrate the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage.

The thought need not reflect any particular position about the wisdom of that ruling.

Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate.

Or even about the aesthetic preferences for exterior home lighting.

But in my case, I know exactly what it reflected.

The thought simply occurred to me, quite apart from my choosing to call it up, because I had recently read the exact same words in Tolkien, in Gandalf’s retelling of his fateful meeting with Saruman.
“So you have come, Gandalf,” he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

“Yes, I have come,” I said. “I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.” And that title seemed to anger him.

“Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed. “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”

‘I looked at him and wondered. “But if I am not deceived,” said I, “things are now moving which will require the union of all our strength.”

“That may be so,” he said, “but the thought is late in coming to you. How long, I wonder, have you concealed from me, the head of the Council, a matter of greatest import? What brings you now from your lurking-place in the Shire?”

“The Nine have come forth again,” I answered. “They have crossed the River. So Radagast said to me.”

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
By this point some of my readers may be starting to lose patience.

They are either asking “Why is he giving so much context?” or else “How dare he compare the White House and the white robes of Saruman?”

“After all, it’s not like our leader repeatedly lied for the sake of increasing his power—like Saruman.

“And it’s not like our world has nine black-clothed people whose power is all but impossible to overcome—like Ringwraiths.”

“And it’s not like, in our world, the leader joined the side of the Nine.”

OK, I could go on, but if you have now lost all patience, good!—that’s exactly how Saruman felt with Gandalf at this point.
“You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,” said he. “I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.”
That choice, as Saruman explained, was between joining him in the service of Sauron, or joining him to try and get the One Ring for himself, or becoming his prisoner. Gandalf choose imprisonment.

Let me here recognize something that may reassure some of you.

It really is the case that, despite their starting with the same English letters, the battle over Marriage Equality is quite unlike the battle over Middle Earth.

For example, those in favor of it are not necessarily in Sauron’s service. Nor, it should be said, are those who are against it.

And yet.

And yet I recently read that one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellen—who plays Gandalf, of all people!—boasts about regularly ripping pages out of hotel bibles whose contents are not to his liking.

This response to those with whom one disagrees is not what I used to expect from typical liberals. (At least he doesn’t do it, or boast about it, with the Koran.)

When McKellen was asked what he would like to ask Tolkien, he said this:

“Would he be the sort of Catholic who wouldn't understand why someone like me would be openly gay and think myself God's creature as he was?”

Seriously? Not one Catholic I know (or know about, save in someone’s fantasy world) would have any trouble at all understanding the things McKellen mentions, either separately or together.

The idea that being openly gay undercuts being equally God’s creature is a projection, entirely of some people’s own making.

And the suggestion that merely believing that certain sexual choices are wrong commits one to believing the above idea is a lie from the pit of hell.

Which brings us back to our story.

I know we might see our nine, not like Ringwraiths, but like the chosen nine in the Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps the four conservatives are like hobbits, the two remaining men like humans, and the three women like an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard (though one of the men already thinks he’s the wizard).

OK. Fine. But even those nine were tempted with a lie from the pit of Mordor…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two policy truisms

The faithful at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC have reacted to the evil attack on their community with a quiet and loving strength and dignity. The remarks by the church’s Senior Bishop, Right Rev. John Richard Bryant, at the funeral service for the nine victims were particularly moving. And the families’ expressions of forgiveness to the shooter, Roof, were simply astonishing.

Contrast their response with what has been much more common in the media (on both sides of the political spectrum). I wish it weren’t so common to use tragedies like this one to advance a political agenda. It’s unseemly and smacks of opportunism. That said, I admit I’m hopeful that propriety won’t stop the developing head of steam to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. Whatever else that flag is supposed to represent, it’s also a big, government sponsored middle finger to something like 28% of the state’s population.

A more important objection to folks who use tragedies like this to advance a political agenda is based on a presumption that political responses to relatively rare albeit tragic events will just make things worse. Various factors work together to get the policy through the legislative process despite plausible concerns about unforeseen and unintended bad consequences.

First, in the wake of such an event, natural emotional reactions – sympathy for the victims and fear related to being one – are running high. Second, this fear is all out of proportion to the probability of the event recurring. We’re just not that good at risk analysis. Limited, anecdotal evidence tends to weigh heavily in our evaluations of risk. And modern news reporting makes us think that certain kinds of events happen with a greater regularity than they really do. Third, elected politicians are subject to this same psychological pressure, but also a great deal of political pressure to respond. Would you want to be the one asking questions about the expected costs and benefits of, e.g., the Patriot Act after 9-11 or Caylee’s Law, let alone the one voting against them? Would you if you were contemplating an upcoming reelection campaign? Constituents want their representatives to DO SOMETHING, and a vote against the law is viewed as a vote against freedom or children or whatever. Sometimes bad, not-very-well-thought-out policy is good politics.

So here’s policy truism #1:
 Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.
Many have used the Emanuel AME tragedy to argue for stricter gun control. I’m agnostic about the effectiveness of gun control generally and, specifically, about whether proposed changes to existing gun control laws would have prevented Roof’s murders. But I’m fairly certain that racial minorities will disproportionately suffer under a stricter gun control regime.

Last year, 48.6% of people convicted under federal firearms legislation were black. The racial disparity in this category of federal offense is greater than any other. Most proposed changes to firearms legislation would crack down further on illegal possession and sale of firearms, which comes with the need for police, agencies and prosecutors to exercise a great deal of discretion in how to go after these activities. Given the extent of violations, they can’t go after everyone. And we probably shouldn’t expect them to enforce new laws in an unbiased way when they already don’t enforce existing laws in an unbiased way.

New firearm offenses also mean new reasons to stop and search people that police tend to suspect of criminal activity or who present easy targets. In the end, there would be more people in prison, and that tends to mean more black men in prison. So the question isn’t whether it's broadly possible to have effective gun control without more and worse civil rights violations. The question is whether that's what we'd actually get.

Here then is policy truism #2:
The fact that a policy, if expertly tailored and benevolently administered, would make things better isn’t a good reason to implement it.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State