Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze

One thing I have found particularly hard to navigate as a feminist is finding a balance between respecting women’s autonomy and ability to thrive in a male-dominated society, and denouncing practices and institutions which have their roots in patriarchal ideology. More specifically, how to find that balance in my own actions.

I partake in practices which, despite my claims that they are “for me”, have roots in my desire to cater to the male gaze: wearing makeup, dressing in revealing clothes, sharing provocative pictures on Instagram, and the like. (This is not to say that I do these things specifically because they cater to the male gaze. I used to. Nowadays I do them to make myself feel good, but I think deep down the reason that they feel good to me is because in the past I have learned to associate them with male approval.) There are some such practices that, through some work, I have managed to cease finding desirable or pleasurable, such as shaving my legs and underarms, but others I want to keep around.

Obviously I can do what I want with my body, but sometimes I wonder if I should actively try to rid myself of aesthetic preferences which, at their core, stem anti-feminist ideology. As a feminist and an activist, I wonder what my own responsibilities are with respect to this issue, and I also wonder whether or not it would be better for me (on account of my identifying as a feminist/activist) to speak out on such issues and challenge other women to be more reflective and critical of their actions. Or, should I simply accept that living under a patriarchy has placed impossible demands on myself and other women, and respect and support us in whatever way we choose to respond to those demands without challenging our choices?

Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

One thing I find myself idly wondering about sometimes is how far it is permissible to modify someone’s body – with their consent, of course. (I want to clarify here that I’m specifically wondering about cases in which A is seeking a modification to be done by B (who is qualified), and I am focusing on the permissibility of the actions done by B.)

There are some things which are obviously permissible to administer to others: braces, corrective surgeries, manicures, and hair cuts/colors to name a few. I would also place most tattoos and piercings in this category.

Less clear are more dangerous/higher-risk body mods. Eyeball tattoos, for example, might be questionable because of the lack of knowledge about their long-term risks – permanent blindness and glaucoma being very real worries. Facial tattoos on young people who do not yet have a stable source of income or have no other tattoos are also questionable. Some tattoo artists go so far as to refuse to do them under these conditions.

My intuition is that most people would not blame a (qualified) mod artist for administering the above procedures, though. I think most of the judgement would fall on the recipients. That is, it’s not the provider’s fault for offering these mods so much as it is the recipient’s fault for seeking them out.

If we push this to an extreme, though, I think it’s possible we do cross the boundary from blaming recipients to blaming mod providers. There are, for example, people diagnosed with a condition called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), who feel an intense disconnect from their abled bodies and wish the removal of (a) limb(s) or sometimes their sight. Lots of energy has been spent within the field of medical ethics attempting to settle the question of whether or not it is permissible for doctors to carry out such a person’s wishes. Even more controversial (but perhaps less plausible) are people who do not have BIID but nonetheless want to modify their bodies in similar ways. What are we to say of body modification providers (I don’t know whether use of the term “mod artist” here is appropriate) who carry out these requests? My intuition here is that many people would not merely be willing to say that it is still just the recipient’s fault for seeking out the body mod; this time, some of the blame does rest on the provider.

I suspect the permissibility of the mod artist’s actions in cases like these are largely dependent on 3 things: First, the intensity of the desire for modification – Is it a desire which, if left unfulfilled, leaves the potential recipient with psychological damage? Second, the preparedness of the potential recipient – Are they aware of the impact this mod will have on their life? Will they still be able to earn a steady income? Do they have any dependents? And lastly, the intentions of the mod provider – Have they shown appropriate concern for the potential recipient?

Going from here, I think a really interesting question to ask is whether or not it’s ever permissible for a mod artist to modify someone’s mental state rather than just their physical state. We already permit some forms of this – hypnosis, for example. But what about, say, lobotomies? What if someone of sound mind were to ask a mod provider to alter their brain such that some of their mental functions were to diminish? And, if technology advances far enough in the future, what if we were able to modify very specific mental traits, like the ability to feel emotions, or wiping certain memories? Would it be permissible to perform such procedures? (I realize this last bit may be a bit of a reach to fall under the umbrella of “body modification”, but strictly speaking it is a modification to a part of the body.)

Themed Social Media Accounts: Who Should Be Allowed A Platform?

One thing I’ve been wondering, especially recently, is when it’s appropriate to allow people (or groups of people) a social media platform.

Lots of people (especially within the circles I associate with) support the idea of administrators deleting Nazi YouTube/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. accounts so as to deny them an easy way to propagate their ideas, strengthen their communities, and influence others. This seems permissible (even obligatory?) to me, especially given how many hate crimes, violence, and even deaths have been caused at least in part by white men becoming radicalized through such social media communities.

There are, however, instances where it is less clear what we should do. An example that immediately comes to mind is social media accounts which – either implicitly or explicitly – support starvation and extreme thinness, or “pro-ana” accounts.

It is easy to find reasons why we might not want to allow such accounts: anorexia is potentially life-threatening and we do not want it presented in a glamorous or desirable manner to impressionable young children, nor do we want those already suffering from the disease to find encouragement to “give in” to it. On the other hand, arguments have been made that it is important that those suffering from anorexia have an expressive outlet and community which understands them, and to take this away from them by forcibly deleting pro-ana accounts would harm them in a different way.

This puzzle can be generalized to other sorts of social media communities. Should we allow blogs which romanticize depression and suicide if they also serve as an outlet for such thoughts? Or subReddits for pedophiles, which provide a place for sharing disturbing and objectionable fantasies but also for the non-judgmental exchange of coping mechanisms and helpful therapeutic/psychological treatments?

When it is permissible to forcibly delete themed social media accounts or communities seems like an incredibly difficult and nuanced question. While there are some clear cases of when it is permissible (e.g. pro-Nazi accounts), there are a multitude of cases wherein the verdict is unclear. I wonder if a principled approach to this issue can ever be formulated such that when it is applied we can come to an intuitively correct answer in every scenario. I am doubtful. I think each case will have to be dealt with individually, with factors unique to each situation having to be taken into concern.

A Short Writing Sample: Maitra on Licensing Authority for Subordinating Speech

I am currently taking a seminar in which we were assigned to read Maitra’s “Subordinating Speech” in Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech (2012) and then write up an 800 to 1,000-word response. (We were given lots of freedom in how we wanted to respond, but were given the general guidelines of it likening to part of a paper rather than a whole paper, and targeting a specific aspect of the work rather than the whole.) The aim of these assignments, and this seminar as a whole, is not to help us learn any particular topic in philosophy, but instead to make us better academic philosophers by honing our reading, writing, and engagement skills.

I thought it might be helpful, both to my future self and to those reading this (especially undergraduate students looking to improve their writing skills in philosophy), to share my writing response and the comments I received. Overall I felt pretty good about this paper. It’s not the best piece of philosophical work I’ve ever produced, but it’s exactly what it needs to be: a good sample of academic philosophical writing.

So, a few preliminary notes:

  • As I mentioned, this is written in direct response to Maitra’s piece on subordinating speech. Given the short nature of the assignment, I do not provide a summary of the arguments I am responding to thoroughly enough for my paper to be fully appreciated without first reading Maitra. The PhilPapers link to her work is here.
  • I will add numbers throughout the paper to mark where my professor has added her comments. In text, each number will be bolded and underlined to distinguish it from other numbers that may appear in my paper. The note attached to each number will consist of nothing but her commentary, verbatim, and will be compiled at the end of my paper.
    • I can’t fucking figure out how to add regular footnotes in a WordPress blog post???
  • This paper was not formatted according to any particular style (APA, MLA, etc.). I’m beginning to think no one cares until the papers become ~*official*~, because I legit made up a style for all the final term papers I submitted last semester and no one docked me for nor commented on it.
  • Below the line is a direct copy & paste of the essay I turned in. The formatting has changed slightly in the process of C&P-ing as plain text to WordPress, though all the emphasis is found in the original paper.

Against Maitra’s Account of Licensing Authority

Maitra’s main project in her piece Subordinating Speech is to broaden our conception of authority. The idea is that subordination, which includes “[ranking] their targets as inferior, [depriving] them of rights and powers, and [legitimating] discriminatory behavior towards them,” (95) 1 requires authority, and thus some have argued that ordinary instances of racist hate speech cannot constitute subordination. By expanding what it means to possess authority in the relevant sense, Maitra aims to refute this position. 2

I want to focus on one way in which Maitra claims the authority to subordinate can be granted: licensing. Roughly speaking, licensing is “a kind of granting of authority” which “depends on (relevant) others refraining from challenging the speech.” (107) In the example given, an Arab woman is verbally harassed by a white man in a subway car. Maitra claims that because none of the other passengers challenged him, we can consider this a licensing of the man’s authority and thus a case of subordination of the Arab woman. (115) Hers is an argument from analogy: 3 She compares this to a clear case of a man being licensed by his friend group to delegate tasks to them in preparation for a hike, despite no one putting him in charge of planning. Because none of his friends objected to his ‘taking over’, so to speak, he is granted authority in the relevant sense. (106-107) The reasoning employed by Maitra in this section of her chapter strikes me as reaching. In what follows I want to express my concerns, particularly in what I take to be two significant disanalogies between the subway and hiking cases.

First, Maitra claims that in both the subway case and the hiking case, a person is granted authority, or licensed, because of a failure on part of the involved parties to express disagreement to their speech acts. But this is not the only reason that the man comes to have authority in the hiking case: not only do none of the man’s friends object, but furthermore they carry out the tasks assigned to them. (106) 4 Had this man’s friends stayed silent during his delegation of tasks yet also refrained from acting on his directions, it is doubtful that we would be correct in still considering this a case of licensing. Thus, it is not merely a lack of action that needs to take place (if such a thing can be said to ‘take place’ at all), but rather a lack of dissent coupled with some positive sense of action on the basis of the speech act. In the subway case, no such action (i.e., action in the positive sense as opposed to merely a withholding of it) is present. Neither the Arab woman nor any of the other passengers do anything except remain silent. Thus it is not clear that Maitra is justified in concluding that the subway case is an instance of licensing in virtue of its supposed similarity to the hiking case. 5

And second, the hiking and subway cases are also disanalogous in virtue of the different ‘groups’ involved: In the hiking case, there are two distinct groups: the friend delegating, and the friends being delegated. 6 In the subway case, however, there are three distinct groups: the Arab woman, the white man, and the rest of the passengers. (I will not attempt here to justify these divisions to the reader, but I expect them to make intuitive sense.) 7 In order to make these cases truly analogous, Maitra needs to either a) alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks or b) treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing. As I will show, Maitra faces a dilemma in that either option results in objectionable consequences for her.

If Maitra chooses option (a), to alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks, then it seems much more likely in such a scenario for someone to object. A thought experiment in which friends are planning a hike and it is suggested, and then accepted, that one person shoulder all the burdens of preparation seems highly implausible. 8 And thus she would not be able to use it as an intuition pump for why we also ought to consider the subway case an instance of licensing.

If, on the other hand, Maitra chooses option (b), to treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing, then this would lead to the unpalatable result that she contributed to her own subordination by not defending herself. All the Arab woman needed to do was speak up and the white man’s authority would be nonexistent. But we obviously do not want to blame victims of racist acts for their situation and perceived status in society. Since this is precisely what we would be forced to do in this case on Maitra’s view, we should reject this option.

Since there are disanalogies between the hiking and subway cases in the actions taken (or lack thereof) as well as in the division of groups, I do not feel Maitra is justified in claiming that the white man was granted authority in the subway case on the basis of it being similar to the delegating friend being granted authority in the hiking case.

One interesting implication of my objections, which unfortunately I will not be able to delve into in this paper, is what this means for our moral obligation to intervene when we witness ordinary instances of racist hate speech. Putting my objections aside for a moment, Maitra’s theory accounts for this obligation quite nicely: “in staying silent, the other passengers are…complicit in what the hate speaker does.” (116) But if I am correct and the subway case does not display an instance of licensing, then a new explanation is needed to explain the (intuitively correct) sentiment that we ought to step in when we witness ordinary racist hate speech.

  1. I’m glad you included these criteria of subordination – it refines the subject matter.
  2. This intro paragraph is good: it manages to introduce Maitra’s project well without a lot of superfluous stuff.
  3. I’m not sure it IS an argument from analogy, so much as the camping example is meant to show that a certain thing is *possible*.
  4. OK, good. That seems relevant.
  5. Good.
  6. delegated to.
  7. They do.
  8. What if there’s one task that no-one wants and the bossy organiser assigns it to the lowest status person?

* Please do not use or quote this paper without express permission. The link to my WordPress contact page is here.

Responsibility Absolution in Society

Recently – mostly due to conversation I’ve witnessed over the internet – I’ve become really interested in certain situations of responsibility absolution in society. The particular case which sparked my curiosity was a post my friend shared to Facebook:

Source: Capitalism Kills, Facebook Page

Obviously as a vegan and environmentally conscious consumer, this immediately struck a wrong chord with me (it comes off as one-dimensional, rash, and defensive), but it got me wondering about when we ought to be adopting this sort of mentality and when we shouldn’t.

Certainly there are situations in which it would be wrong to hold someone morally responsible for participating in wrongdoings, but it also seems wrong to uncritically absolve people of their wrongdoings when, despite external factors pushing or influencing them to act in ways that are wrong, they do have some control over their actions. I think the line is a hard one to toe.

Some other social phenomena which have prompted similar worries:

  • Controlling toxic traits such that they don’t manifest in other relationships. For example, depression often manifests itself via a need for isolation, and oftentimes those with depression will abruptly cut off relationships with those around them. But for us to excuse this type (and similar kinds) of behavior simply because it stems from a mental illness suggests the troubling conclusion that people with depression or anxiety (and potentially other mental illnesses/disorders) can get away with, well, being shitty.
  • Distancing yourself from bigoted or harmful ideals you were raised with/around. We often excuse certain groups of people for holding morally incorrect views (e.g. those which are racist, sexist, or homophobic) because “they don’t know any better” or “that’s how they were raised”, but is this really an appropriate reason to excuse someone? Should we not expect some level of autonomous thinking and critical self-reflection from people, regardless of the circumstances they grew up in?
  • Conscious consumerism in general. The influence of a bad capitalist economic system cannot be ignored; big companies and those in the very top financial bracket play the biggest role in the wrong resulting from consumerism. But it seems wrong to completely absolve the average consumer of any responsibility for directly participating in and contributing to wrongdoings – whether it be buying meat and dairy or paying for tickets to SeaWorld or a circus which involves wild animals or buying from a store which uses sweatshops – especially if they have the option not to.

In all cases, there is something about the agent’s situation outside of their control which makes them more inclined to act in wrong ways, yet there is still some significant degree of autonomy. Given that, I think it would be, in a sense, dehumanizing not to hold them responsible (to some degree) for their actions. To treat a person as though they have no agency, as though what they do does not merit our serious consideration, is to hold them to a standard lower than they deserve.

Again, I think the line between taking into account circumstances which prompt agents to act in wrong ways and recognizing that their choices were still made with some level of autonomy is a thin one, but I believe it exists. We should not be absolving agents of all responsibility for their actions in these sorts of situations.

The question, then, is what a principled approach to determining how much responsibility (and thus, how much blame) to attribute to the agent would look like.