Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

Should everything be philosophized about?

One thing that I think philosophers as a whole struggle with is discerning which topics are appropriate to philosophize about. Many philosophers are very gung-ho about pursuing all lines of inquiry – if there’s a question to be explored, they’ll explore it. While I love the zealousness and unabashed approach that philosophers take to doing research (“Are there objects?”, “Is there a blue or are there just blue things?”), I strongly believe that there are just some topics philosophy ought not touch.

For example, in exploring the metaphysics of gender, an unsettling number of papers have been published which essentially come to the conclusion that trans identities are not valid. These inquiries are masked in questions such as “What is gender?”, but at their base imply that respecting trans identities is up for debate.

In general, I think any line of inquiry which essentially puts the humanity of a group of people, especially marginalized groups, into question ought not exist. If are to philosophize about the metaphysics of gender – or about anything, really – our exploration should begin with a baseline of respect.

It’s no secret that the discipline of philosophy is filled with over-privileged people, and oftentimes this leads to work which is disconnected, offensive, and ignorant. We as a collective need to do a better job at being conscious of these issues – in checking ourselves and our own work, but furthermore in refraining from adding legitimacy to the work of others which does not meet this baseline of respect.

I don’t like meta-ethics.

Ethics is divided up into (at least) two parts: normative ethics, the goal of which is to provide action-guiding theories of right and wrong (or permissible, impermissible, and obligatory) action; and meta-ethics, the goal of which is to answer questions about morality itself (Is it something objective or subjective? What do we mean when we say something is wrong?).

I really don’t like meta-ethics.

Firstly, I don’t like meta-ethics because it’s really hard.

On a less petty note, I also don’t like it because I’ve consistently found it to be something that “the folk” (non-philosophers, the everyday person, whatever) fall back on to defend themselves when there isn’t really anything else going for them.

“That’s just your opinion! Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong?”

“Well I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what’s right.”

This tactic is especially troubling when deployed in political or social justice discussions, because it stops the conversation from going any further (like we’re supposed to answer one of the great meta-ethical questions succinctly and sufficiently in the context of a conversation?!) on matters that we really need to do something about.

I hate that people use meta-ethics as fallback and I hate that there’s not really anything you can do in response.

This has been my rant of the day.

Against White Fetishization of Non-violence: Justifying POC Aggression

I recently shared this screenshot of a tweet to my Instagram story with the caption “A WHOLE MOOD”:


A friend of mine replied, “The lit base on this topic is huge, and many academics (of all sorts of backgrounds) think non-violence is the best strategy for defeating oppressive power structures. Not sure why you think these arguments are only made in bad faith by racist white people.”

I think the dangers of the “fetishization of non-violence”, as it is put, is something a lot of (white) people Just Don’t Get™, so in what follows I will recount my response to my friend and explain my stance. My aim is to facilitate a better understanding of why I and many other POC oppose the “always be kind and peaceful and respectful” ideology privileged and/or white people push.

So, the first thing to address is that “violence” here is vague. When we think of violence we often think of aggressive actions (rioting, use of weapons, fighting), but the concept of violence could also be expanded to include aggressive words (candidly expressing anger, blunt language, etc.). And indeed, it seems people often do consider this to be a form of violence – especially within this context: Whenever I see a POC angrily express a general statement about white supremacy or use the terms “YT”, “cracker”, or “wypipo”, there is inevitably a white person who will respond with something along the lines of, “This is a big too aggressive. No one is going to listen to you if you talk about them like that. You need to be more respectful if you actually want people to hear what you have to say.”

So if we’re talking about what sorts of things to include under the umbrella of “violence” in this context, it seems more than fair to include the blunt, harsh, or aggressive manner of speaking that POCs sometimes use when discussing white people, white supremacy, and white privilege. Lastly, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that Twitter user uses the term “non-violence” in response to a piece of paper with the heading “BE KIND”. To avoid confusion between the colloquial sense of violence and the sense of violence I am using here, I will hereafter refer to the latter as POC aggression.

With this in mind, we now turn to the second thing: The mistaken assumption that the only – or even the primary – goal of PoC aggression is to end oppressive power structures, namely, white supremacy and white privilege. There is, I suggest, another purpose for POC aggression: affirming self-worth.

In a society in which POC are systematically oppressed, we are constantly receiving (both implicit and explicit) messages that we are less valuable and less respected than our white counterparts. Our accents are mocked, we feel pressure to assimilate, our cultures are stripped or appropriated, and we do not see ourselves represented in the media, government, or other powerful institutions. I could go on at length about how POC are disrespected and mistreated in modern day American society, but this is not the place for that. The point is that we are.

Thus, POC aggression can also serve as a means of affirming one’s self-respect and self-worth. The idea here is that the transgressions POC face are not to be taken “sitting down”, that is, not to be passively tolerated. In responding aggressively, POC are sending the message, not only to others, but more importantly, to themselves, that they are valuable, and that the way they are viewed in society is unacceptable.

It was at this point that my friend admitted that he found a lot of what I said compelling, but nonetheless insisted that it doesn’t justify what is said in the tweet: that white people use the promotion of non-violence to attack POC.

My reply to this is simple: POC aggression is an important means – and sometimes, the only means – with which POC can affirm their self-worth in a society that systematically denies them that. Thus white insistence on non-violent expression is a form of attack because it denies POC these means.

Thus we can draw two conclusions. The first is that POC aggression is permissible and justifiable as it serves an important and necessary purpose for the aggressor. The second, probably more shocking, conclusion is that it is wrong for white people to attempt to suppress this aggression, as it is in effect an attack on the dignity of POC.

A potential objection which could be raised against the second conclusion is that white people are not intentionally attacking POC by denouncing and suppressing their aggression. Their intention in doing so, rather, is something else: perhaps to facilitate more peaceful and productive discussion, to defend themselves because they feel unfairly generalized – whatever the case may be, it is something else. They are ignorant that their actions are in effect attacking POC. Thus, they are not doing something wrong in pushing for non-violence.

This objection relies on ignorance as an exculpatory factor, but I do not see why we should accept this outright. Surely there are times when ignorance can function in this manner, but it seems just as clear to me that surely there are times when it does not. Take, for example, someone who leaves their infant in their car on a hot day while they go grocery shopping. The parent did not realize the car would be several degrees hotter than the air outside nor did they know this is a dangerous situation for the baby to be left in, but nonetheless this is wrong because they should have known.

The case of a white person pushing for non-violence, I argue, is also a case of such culpable ignorance. White people do not understand the anger of POC. They don’t understand it because they can’t; as white people they have never experienced systematic oppression due to their race. Furthermore they should recognize this fact. Just a man can never understand the fear of a woman walking alone at night, just as a person born into wealth can never understand the plight of the poor, a white person can never understand the societal and institutional harms that befall POC simply for being POC. And thus they also cannot understand their anger towards white privilege and white supremacy. The culpable ignorance comes in the form of criticizing something they cannot understand, and should know they cannot understand.

I stand by my conclusions, however uncomfortable they may be to stomach: POC aggression is justifiable. In most cases white people are wrong to attempt to stop it.

A note: I am considering expanding this into a paper. Please do not redistribute or circulate without permission.

Half-Assed Activism – A Rant

Something that bothers me so much and angers me to my core is people simultaneously calling for change and yet carrying out actions that directly go against their values.

For example, all of my friends claim to be anti-Trump and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights yet many continue to buy from Chick-Fil-A even though they know this company donates huge amounts of money to anti-LGBTQ+/homophobic and pro-Trump organizations.

Similarly, all of my friends claim to be concerned about the environment and climate change, yet are unwilling to adopt a vegan diet (and are financially within their means to) despite animal agriculture being the source of a huge chunk of environmental destruction and pollution – and certainly one of the easiest to change (as opposed to, say, transportation).

I feel like so many people are all talk and act only if it doesn’t limit them in any significant way. Otherwise, they’re unwilling to make sacrifices and find some excuse for not making them. It’s frustrating and infuriating to witness.

The Ethics of Attraction

I think I have a view different than most of the people I tend to associate with when it comes to dating preferences. At the base of my view is the idea that you can’t really control who or what you’re attracted to, and that’s okay. So long as you’re treating everyone with respect, you’re not doing anything wrong if you don’t find yourself attracted to certain features of a person (and therefore, the person as a whole).

We can find some insight into why I hold the views that I do about attraction by looking at same-gender attraction. It is widely acknowledged that gay people cannot control the fact that they are gay. Furthermore, it is quite common among people who experience same-gender attraction to fail to realize they do until later in life because heteronormativity is so ingrained in today’s society. That is, due to overwhelming societal influence, they believed themselves to be straight. (To add some weight and credibility to these statements, it’s worth noting that both of them apply to me.) Both of these things we generally take to be okay, i.e., it is okay to be gay and it is okay to mistakenly think you are straight. Also noteworthy is that we do not pressure straight people to critically examine their feelings to make sure they are genuine and not merely the result of societal pressure.

My unusual views (within my circles, at least) on dating come from generalizing this analysis of same-sex attraction.

Thus, failing to be attracted to fat people, refusing to date a man who isn’t over 6′, not wanting to date a trans woman as a straight male, preferring that your female partner have shaved legs or your male partner have a six-pack, not finding yourself attracted to a specific race, and finding blue eyes to be the most attractive are all permissible to me. At the very least, I suspend judgement on their wrongness. This may seem unpalatable to many, but I fail to see how these cases are significantly different from what is described with regards to same-gender attraction above.

That is, we ought not blame someone for failing to be attracted to a fat or trans person because they have been influenced by the fatphobic or transphobic attitudes of society, in the same way we do not blame someone for mistakenly believing they are straight because they have been influenced by the heteronormative culture of society. In all cases, we ought to just accept it. (The same argument goes, mutatis mutandis, to the other things I’ve mentioned.) It is even puzzling what the correct course of action would be if we didn’t accept it – as evidenced by thousands upon thousands of testimonies from gay people, attraction is not under our control. It cannot simply be demanded that we alter our feelings of attraction (or lack thereof) towards any person or group of people, nor is it plausible that there is some sort of process we can undertake to change our feelings overtime, as evidenced by the failure of conversion therapy.

Again, the key point is that, regardless of who or what we are attracted to, we still treat everyone with respect. This means supporting people’s right to use whichever public restroom they identify with, denouncing body-shaming done under the guise of “concern for their health”, defending women’s right to do what they want with their body, standing up against the racism propagated by the Trump administration, and the like. So long as we are being good members of society in this respect, our dating/attraction preferences are not the appropriate objects of moral scrutiny.

We do not owe our attraction to any specific group of people, nor are we required to critically examine and consequently change our attractions. How could we be? This seems impossible.

I will admit that one phenomenon I have not managed to completely square away with my intuitions regarding attraction is that of fetishization, e.g. white men exclusively dating Asians precisely because they are attracted to the feature of “Asian-ness” (often referred to as “yellow fever”). As a preliminary response, however, I will say that this sort of attraction seems phenomenologically different from the ones listed above. We might also say that in the case of fetishization one is failing to see an individual as a person, whereas in the aforementioned cases it is merely a failure to be attracted because of some feature of that person, so the former is necessarily dehumanizing while the latter is not.

If I were trying to make my argument conservatively, I would say that at the very least there is some tension between the way we regard some instances of selective attraction in comparison to others, and there is at present no principled way in which to distinguish them. However, I am more inclined to take the stance I currently have, and tentatively suggest that there are ways to address the fetishization problem. More work needs to be done on the topic, but the point is that work can be done. I do not think this is an insurmountable problem for my position. And, if it were, what are we to say of same-sex attraction? It seems any route we go which deviates from mine runs into problems.

Being a Filipina in White Academia: Why Affirmative Action isn’t Enough

Recently Jennifer Morton gave a talk at my university on the undermining of representation at elite universities. She argued that merely enacting affirmative action practices in the admissions process (i.e., making sure a certain percentage of the incoming class comes from some underrepresented group) will not necessarily lead to an increase in diversity.

Morton’s focus was primarily on the divide between those from an upper middle class background versus those from a low income background, and she noted two phenomena within the group of low income students in elite universities: firstly, that they try not to draw attention to themselves as low income students, and secondly, that they try to assimilate their interests and perspectives to better match those of their upper middle class peers. Thus the result of affirmative action (in this case), rather than increase diversity, is the assimilation of students of an underrepresented group into a homogeneous, upper middle class culture.

This part of Morton’s talk really struck me, and I was shocked at how well this captured my own experiences. I’m not from a low income background, but I’m a Filipino who’s been attending predominantly white academic institutions since high school. My (public) middle school was comprised overwhelmingly of people of color, with white students making up only 10% of the student population. Instead of continuing to a public high school with roughly the same demographics, my parents instead placed me at a private high school in which the majority of students were white and came from families with a much (much) higher average income than those of my middle school. It was a huge culture shock for me – one I wasn’t at all equipped to deal with.

I ended up doing exactly as Morton described: assimilating. My friend group (for most of high school, at least) was almost exclusively white and my hobbies, tastes, and even mannerisms changed to more closely mirror those of my peers’. A lot of this I carried into college with me, especially the first few years, and now I think it’s just part of who I am. I’ve been forcing myself to “fit in” for so long that I really don’t know what it’s like to not be a white-washed Asian.

But the past three years or so I’ve been really working to accept my Filipino/Asian heritage instead of actively trying to hide it. And I’m doing a lot better – even if some of the changes are only noticeable to me.

So anyways, all this is to say, if Morton’s argument can be generalized to me, it can probably be generalized to lots of other underrepresented groups (it’s worth stating explicitly here that the experiences of people from different marginalized/underrepresented/minority groups aren’t so straightforwardly comparable, and just because you’re part of an underrepresented group doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be part of any underrepresented group), and that’s a big problem. More needs to be done to diversify academia; affirmative action in the admissions process isn’t enough. Beyond that, we need to be actively working to make sure that these students feel accepted as they are and comfortable using their unique experiences and backgrounds to enrich the educational experience for everyone.

I’m not really sure how to best go about doing that, but it’s something I promise to keep as one of my primary goals throughout my entire academic career.

Ramblings of an Angry Atheist

Last week in one of my seminars we were assigned to read “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” by Elizabeth Anderson. The other day I came across a New York Times article discussing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops – a surprisingly common practice which has long since been covered up by the church. These events have prompted a few thoughts regarding Catholicism to swirl around in my mind as of late.

First is the different ways in which certain groups of people come to reject Catholicism. What I have noticed is that those from marginalized groups tend to reject Catholicism on the basis of some personal, internal conflict whereas those who are not from marginalized groups tend to reject it on some externally principled, epistemological ground. To illustrate this point, here is a conversation I had with someone sometime at the beginning of this school year, several months ago:

Me: They were playing Gospel music in the store. It made me really uncomfortable.

Friend: I’m not religious or anything but it wouldn’t make me uncomfortable.

Me: Well the music makes me uncomfortable because it suggests a heavy presence of religious people, which I don’t like.

Friend: Well I mean…yeah, it’s bad to believe in something that doesn’t exist, but–

Me: Oh, that’s not why it’s bad to me. It’s bad because people who are extremely religious tend to have certain sociopolitical views which are bad. Oftentimes these views are misogynistic or homophobic or otherwise dangerous to me personally.

My friend, who (big surprise) is a straight, white male, objects to religion on the basis of it being epistemically irresponsible: It’s bad to believe in something for which there exists no evidence. I, on the other hand, reject to religion (specifically, Catholicism, which is the only religion I have sufficient experience with to even be making these sorts of claims), because of the effects Catholicism and Catholic movements have had on my personal life. As a straight, white male it is easy to miss the sociopolitical effects of a Catholic influence: taking an anti-choice stance and denying women rights to their own body, active campaign against gay marriage, a culture of slut-shaming women and forcing standards of modesty and purity upon them – all things that I, a queer woman of color, have very directly felt the impact of. I think this contrast of reasons for rejecting Catholicism is really important, and often overlooked or unrecognized.

The second thing I have been thinking about, which is very intimately related to the first point, is whether my attitude towards Catholicism is warranted. I’m an atheist. And a pretty ardent one at that. When asked my opinions on religious matters I voice them without restraint, sometimes offending believers with my harsh words. I also have an aversion to Catholics. It’s not a very deep one, nor does it prevent me from interacting and connecting with them on meaningful levels, but I could never become best friends with or date someone who was Catholic. I used to wonder whether these actions and attitudes of mine were permissible. I have since come to the conclusion that they are. Here’s why:

I was abused, physically and emotionally, by my parents in the name of Catholicism. (I was raised Catholic. I’m part of the first generation in my family to be born here in the U.S. My parents, uncles, and aunts immigrated here from one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and they brought those traditions with them when they came here.) I won’t go into details, but suffice to say my home and family life was pretty terrible as a child, due in large part to religion. This is personal for me.

Furthermore, as mentioned before, Catholics are responsible for pushing lots of dangerous sociopolitical ideals that harm me directly – most notably, those which are homophobic, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive to women and queer people. And these attitudes often find their basis in Scripture: They act this way in part because they think this is what God wants. Depending on your interpretation of the Bible, they’re not wrong.

And finally, zooming out, it’s astounding how much abuse, violence, and chaos has been caused by the church throughout history: genocide, sexual abuse of nuns and children, subjugation and forced conversion of native peoples, wars, and so much more. Historically, I’m not sure there’s any institution out there that can match – or even come close to – the sheer amount of human rights violations committed by the Church.

There’s just so much for me to detest about Catholicism as a religion and as an institution. And the way I see Catholics is this: You are committed to the idea of an all-powerful God. Thus, you are committed to the idea that God could have stopped all these atrocities – especially the ones done in his name – but instead he did nothing. And you worship him. That doesn’t sit right with me, and I can’t ever bring myself to fully be okay with someone like that. How could you worship a God who actively allowed these terrible things to happen to me? And to the world?

I would never go so far as to start pointless fights about religion, but I’m not silent about my hatred of Catholicism. And while I respect believers as humans, I don’t respect the religion itself, and I can’t be bothered to make sure my criticisms of Catholicism come across in a respectful tone. I harbor so much hatred and resentment towards Catholicism, and justly so, I think, given my history with it and its history with the world.

I don’t view Catholicism as something that merits my respect. If the way I talk about the religion offends believers, then so be it.