Sex is Natural

It is typically thought that sex is one’s biological designation in the reproductive process, whereas gender is the socially constructed and assigned significance of sex. Judith Butler and Ásta Sveinsdóttir both challenge this assumption. They posit that gender is a social complex that designates which body parts ought to be assigned meaning, and which body parts are viable candidates for social meaning. As such, gender and sex are culturally constructed, and are virtually indistinguishable. Sveinsdóttir, while agreeing with Butler, also asserts that sex assignments are based on biological features. However, since it seems to factor into social explanations more so than biological explanations, it seems reasonable to think of sexual designations as social properties. In what follows, I will explore Sveinsdóttir’s arguments in-depth, then argue that sex is a natural property derived from the function of certain biological features.

Since Ásta Sveinsdóttir recapitulates Butler’s arguments, and is far clearer, I’ll simply focus on explaining her arguments. Sveinsdóttir, in “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender,” explains and adopts Butler’s views on sex and gender, with a few caveats. Along with Butler, she asserts that gender schemes provide the framework for sexual designations by identifying and defining human bodies (Sveinsdóttir 53). In order for the sex designations to be stable, the gender framework presents sex as socially prior and established in nature (Butler 9, 10; Sveinsdóttir 55). Furthermore, sex, like gender, has normative rules attached to it. The normative rules of sex are which gender one ought to conform to qua sexed person, and the rules of gender dictate individual comportment qua gendered individual. As such, individuals do not encounter gender norms passively, but rather appropriate them, act them out, and become them in some sense(Butler 34; Sveinsdóttir 53, 55, 57). Since sex is merely constructed within gender, and since sex designations have normative rules as well, it follows that the distinction between sex and gender either collapses completely or is blurred significantly (cf. Butler 9, 10).

Although Sveinsdóttir agrees with Butler that sex is constructed via gender, she insists that sexual constructions must have some biological foundations. For instance, she points out that it is readily observable that certain people do in fact play particular roles in the reproductive process; no amount of interpretation can change that (Sveinsdóttir 58). As such, any account asserting the social construction of sex would have to “[give] the constraints of nature its due”(ibid.).

Sveinsdóttir compromises with Butler, and argues that sex is a conferred property. Conferralism involves five elements: the property being ascribed to someone, the person doing the assigning, the attitudes or judgments relevant to the property in question, the conditions surrounding the ascription, and which traits are being tracked by the property(Sveinsdóttir 59, 60). To prove her point, she takes child birth as an example: it is not one’s sexual designation which determines fertility, but rather particular natural traits tracked by the sexual property (Sveinsdóttir 62). Furthermore, sex seems to primarily explain social phenomena, rather than biological phenomena (ibid.). Additionally, it is the judgment of authority figures at one’s birth which determines sex, rather than biological characteristics simpliciter (Sveinsdóttir 63). They determine sex according to certain “sex-stereotypes” rather than careful scientific inquiry, which lends strength to the idea that sex conforms to gender (Sveinsdóttir 64). As such, Sveinsdóttir concludes that sex is a conferred property.

Moving on to my critique, I’ll first analyze Sveinsdóttir’s argument that sex is a conferred property. As part of her argument, she claims that one’s sex assignment does not grant the ability to bear children, but rather it is “some other [set of] properties that the sex assignment is intended to track” (Sveinsdóttir 62). She further asserts that sex’s primary explanatory power is found “when it comes to the distribution of various social resources, privileges and burdens” (ibid.). To her mind, this “suggests that sex is a social property and not a natural one” (ibid.). In the paragraph being cited, it’s not clear whether the characteristics are natural or social. However, the characteristics would have to be natural, since social traits do not impact birthing capacity. In order for her argument to succeed, it must be established that the sexual property is not naturally contained within the biological characteristics tracked by sexuality. For the property to be contained within the characteristics means that it may be empirically derived from the function of the relevant characteristics. If the sex property can be derived simply from the function of certain characteristics, then we may say that sex is a natural, non-conferred property. Consequently, if the property is naturally derived from biological characteristics, then it need not explain any of the relevant functions of said traits; since sex would be a property derived from functional biological characteristics, it would not have to explain anything. Furthermore, so long as sexuality can be established as a natural property, it does not matter why they have a strong social role. As such, its primary role in social delineations need not be worrisome.

In order for us to assume that the sex property is separate from the natural traits it tracks, we have to ask two questions: first, how is sex defined? Second, what are the biological functions of the traits it tracks? A basic definition of sex could be as follows: it is one’s designated role in the reproductive cycle. The physical traits associated with the reproductive cycle are: the penis, the testicles, etc; the vagina, the uterus, ovaries, etc. The former characteristics clearly play an inseminating role; the latter traits play a “receptive,” “carrying,” and birthing role. It is readily observable that there are people who possess these body parts, and thus play particular roles in the reproductive cycle, all other things being equal. Given this information, it seems that two categories are immediately derivable: first, there is the category of people whose body parts, all other things being equal, would designate them as those who produce eggs viable for insemination. Second, there is the category of people whose body parts, all other things being equal, would designate them as those who produce sperm, and thus fulfill the inseminating role. The former obviously corresponds to the ‘female’ category, and the latter corresponds to the ‘male’ category. In other words, these designations are clearly derivable from certain biological traits and their functions. Therefore, male-ness and female-ness are natural properties.

To revisit what was discussed: Sveinsdóttir argues that sex is constructed within gender norms, and is a property conferred by authority figures. She asserts that since its primary explanatory role is social, it should not be considered a natural property. In response to Sveinsdóttir, I argued that apart from the biological characteristics relevant to reproduction, the properties of male-ness and female-ness would be non-existent. Thus, my arguments demonstrate that it is reasonable to assume sex as a natural property.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Sveinsdóttir, Ásta Kristjana. “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender.” Feminist Metaphysics. 2011. 47-65.

A Philosophical Response to “You are Born a Man or a Woman. You Don’t Get to Choose”

Gender

I’ve seen this article floating around, “You are Born a Man or a Woman. You Don’t Get to Choose,” by Matt Walsh, a blogger who writes on current events and social issues from a traditional Christian perspective. The particular article I’m referring to has argued that one’s sex and gender is fixed, and that no amount of surgery can change that. This particular assertion was in response to Fallon Fox, a female MMA fighter who underwent surgery to become a post-op transgender female. He names a few other examples: for one, a pair of parents who changed their sexes. So, the original father became the mother, and the original mother became the father. He cites another case of a pre-operative transgender male who became pregnant. His thesis is that sex and gender are both biologically determined, which means that transgender people are walking contradictions.

I will be upfront and honest about the quality of his article: it is filled with sweeping generalizations, unwarranted assumptions, ad hominems, genetic fallacies, straw men, equivocations, and a general lack of research; and it will only convince people who already agree with him. However, since this article has been floating around, and has annoyed me to no end, I’ll take some time to provide a thoughtful response. I won’t attack his character, and I will do my best to give his article a fair shot. I will not cover the whole article, but I will reply to some of his explicit assumptions in order to reply to his thesis as a whole.

His underlying assumptions:

“[1]…they [liberals] invented the false dichotomy between sex and gender and used the suspect distinctions to turn fundamental laws of science upside down.

[2] They say that the physical differences are irrelevant, but that you can become a woman by getting implants, or a man by getting a fake penis (which makes the physical differences crucial).

[3] They say that gender is a social construct, but that a man can be born a woman, and a woman can be born a man (which makes gender an inherent condition).

[4] They say that not all men conform to gender stereotypes, but if a dude wears a dress he’s a woman, rather than simply a dude in a dress. Gender roles are summarily rejected and rigidly enforced, all at the same time.” (Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/09/24/man-or-woman/2/#GL3AtTe2mTOZkK1m.99)

I don’t want to spend a lot of time going into detail regarding the logical fallacies contained within these statements. Like I said, I want to give him a fair shot. However, I do need to point one glaring error regarding #1. The sex/gender distinction was not “invented” by modern liberals. Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986), one of the founders of feminism and an Existentialist philosopher, is credited with establishing the distinction between sex and gender. She asserted that sex is one’s biological role in the reproductive cycle, whereas gender is constituted by the social norms that one must follow in virtue of their reproductive designation.

simone

Historical accuracy aside, the heart of his objection is this: there is no distinction between sex and gender. Now, this assertion is not particularly helpful, since he never defines the terms. However, since his complaints seem to be centered around biology, I’m assuming that he means to say that one’s gender is biologically determined as well. Based on some of his other blog posts, I’d also guess that he believes that one’s biological designation in some sense determines one’s habits or essential nature. Even though Matt Walsh clearly disagrees about gender being a socially constructed norm, I think his writings can fit into these two categories nicely: sex is one’s biological designation, and gender is the habits or proclivities which naturally arise from being a particular sex.

Based on some of his other writing, it seems that he believes men’s biological designation gives them a duty to defend women:

“…among a man’s duties is that ever-important charge to protect and honor women. Men are meant to use their strength to defend women against harm. When a man betrays this responsibility, we act as though he’s turned the world upside down, because he has.” (Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/09/09/why-is-everyone-so-mad-at-ray-rice-for-punching-his-fiancee/#G5GZy8OQkxpjw1tg.99)

chivalry

Now, in the same article, he mentions that men and women are innately unique creatures. Does he think they’re opposites, or complements? I do not know. However, if the essence of masculinity is ‘strength,’ that must imply that the essence of femininity is ‘weakness,’ or at least one of ‘support.’ Some significant implications of this: first, a woman can never have a completely autonomous identity. Her identity can only be defined in reference to someone else, or in reference to a function relative to someone else. Second — and I don’t like being particularly emotional or expressive in my writing, but it suits my purposes here — sorry single moms, but you don’t have the ability to take care of a family. Nope, you need a man. Third, sorry ladies, but it’s just not appropriate for you to defend yourselves. If there isn’t another man around, and you’re about to be raped, sorry, your biologically determined nature forbids you from doing anything. Sure, the man is abusing his strength, but it would be really inappropriate for you to do something completely outside of your nature.

(As a further note about the article just cited, it does deal with male violence towards women. He asserted that such violence is abhorrent because the male is abusing his strength. Well, why would it be wrong for a woman to hit a man, then? It would have to be because she is stepping out of her natural station: one of submission, or support, or weakness. In other words, it is wrong not because she’s abusing her position, but because she’s taking hold of a masculine nature. I don’t need to say why that proposition is morally repugnant.)

Matt Walsh might reply “no, women can defend themselves too.” However, that would require a more nuanced view of masculinity and femininity. Adding the nuance that women’s nature permits strength means that women and men are not as “unique” as he purports. This means that women could also fill the role of ‘protector,’ not just of themselves, but potentially of men who don’t know how to defend themselves, and of other women.

A further note about his gender essentialism: the article “Hormones, Sex, and Gender” notes that “neuroanatomical differences…when present, are not reliably associated with cognitive or behavioral differences, and conversely, that large behavioral differences [between genders] can occur independent of differences in brain structure or chemistry” (607). In the same article, the writer also notes: “If human development and function proceed through a context constituted by both culture and nature, then sex will also be affected by culture. Effects of culture on human biology have been intensively documented in human ecology and biology” (608). So, not only is one’s gendered behavior culturally determined, but one’s sex (biological designation) can be culturally affected. In other words, science doesn’t support the thesis that gender differences are essential, or even that sex is a fixed property.

So much for his first objection. What of the second one that I mentioned? Well, he claims that ‘liberals’ assert that the physical differences between women and men are insignificant, but they contradict themselves when they admit that transgender people feel the need to reconstruct their bodies. This does not seem like a contradiction, not on ‘liberal’ terms: our gender norms include the idea that there is a correlation between one’s gender identification and their body parts. That is, our culture tells us that in order to fulfill their designated gender role, they must have certain body parts. Thus, some transgender people feel like they cannot properly call themselves a woman or a man until they’ve gone through surgery. However, this does not admit of a natural gender difference; if anything, this speaks to the cultural impact that gender norms have upon individuals. In other words: under current gender norms, physical differences do matter, but they do not matter naturally — i.e. there is no reason for one set of behaviors to be associated with one body part rather than another.

(P.S. A transgender man does not have a fake penis. The material constituting the penis is made of the female organs that are already present, and the transgender male still has sensations down there — i.e. he can be aroused. The only artificial aspects are the testicles and the erectile prosthesis — in other words, the stuff that allows him to have sex. In other words, the guy has a functional penis — i.e. not fake. Get over it. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312187/)

Does Matt Walsh accept this? No, and he likely won’t. However, the point is that under liberal thought, there is no contradiction involved. They are being perfectly consistent with themselves.

His third objection: it is odd to claim that people can be born male/female, yet have a proclivity towards the girl/boy gender. This makes it seem as if gender is an innate trait. I will be the first to admit that this is probably the biggest problem for the sex/gender distinction. So, I will be upfront and admit that the response I provide here is, at best, a probable story. What’s probably going on is that the cis-male feels as if he should have been born a cis-female. Since cultural depictions of cis-females identify them with the girl gender, the cis-male feels like he needs to conform to the girl gender in order to fulfill what he feels to be his true identity: that of a cis-female. Once again, this does not admit of natural gender differences, although it does speak to the powerful influence that culture has on individuals.

As a further reply to his third objection: let’s say we accept his biological gender essentialism. Well, cases of gender dimorphism indicate that males need not be born with a masculine essence: they could have a feminine gender essence instead. This clearly goes against Walsh’s position regarding masculine and feminine nature. Being a Christian, he could always say that it’s because of sin, whether it be personal or ancestral. However, such a response either begs the question or is completely ad hoc, or it is both. Either way, it’s not a sufficient reply.

What of his fourth objection? It’s a complex assertion, not because of its sophistication, but because it is linguistically tangled up. I’ll do my best to untangle the language, and hopefully get at what he’s saying before giving a response. However, I realize that my efforts here may misrepresent him, and if I do so, I am open to correction.

    1. “They say not all men conform to gender stereotypes, but if a dude wears a dress he’s a woman, rather than simply a dude in a dress.” What I think he’s saying here is that it doesn’t make sense to say that a cis-male can put on a dress, be called a woman (gender), and in the same breath assert that he isn’t being defined by gender stereotypes. Furthermore, if I understand his mindset correctly, it would make more sense to say that he is a man (gender) in a dress.

I agree: it doesn’t make sense to say that the cis-male isn’t conforming to gender roles in this case. Depending on the context, it may be best just to call him a cis-male in a dress. However, in the case of a transgender woman, this would be completely inappropriate: Since gender norms are not fixed, and are certainly not biologically determined, it is perfectly acceptable to say that this cis-male is a transgender woman, or even just a woman (gender). This is especially true if they adopt all the behaviors of that particular gender role. (If you think I’m unwarranted in asserting this, see my counter-argument to his very first objection; I am being perfectly consistent: these statements logically follow from my critique.)

Where does all this leave transgender people, and the distinction between sex (biology) and gender (culture)? Well, if the fixity of gender is the case, transgender people are indeed contradictions. However, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case: it seems like gender is actually culturally constituted and influences how people understand their body parts. The fact that transgender people feel as if they should have been one sex over another is not a violation of a natural order. It is simply another region of human life that they have access to, whereas most of us don’t. They have not violated some natural order: they have only violated your cultural mandate that asks the world fit into a little box, keep everything nice and neat, and conveniently oust contrary phenomena as abominable and evil. The world is bigger and more complicated than you think. Get over it.

Synthetic Race and Modernity (Part 3)

Clearly the overall social context we find ourselves in makes it difficult to resolve persistent issues regarding racial injustice. Therefore, in order to most effectively mete out justice to various races, our social framework must be revised. Starting with the theory of identity: the synthetic paradigm of race implies that human identity is not unified and fundamental, but is multi-faceted and culturally created.

 This is especially true in the case of miscegenation, where it is quite obvious that one’s identity is being drawn from a number of sources. Even for those who are supposedly not “mixed,” their culture still “forms them into certain kinds of persons” and heavily informs their “modes of reasoning” (Parekh 240). As such, human identity is centered around the fact that each individual is culturally mediated, and is not socially independent. Since equal rights are derived from our shared humanity; and since the synthetic concept conceives of shared humanity being mediated through diversity, equal rights would include: 

    1. some basic rights that all citizens possess; 
    2. special group rights which account for their differences and allow for their expression (Parekh 243, 245). 

By allowing this, it must be ensured that neither group gains any kind of significant advantage over the other (Parekh 245). Such rights would make it illegal to act against a group simply because they cause discomfort, yet do not inhibit either your basic or special rights. This view requires us to adopt an aesthetic lens where variation is viewed as a good thing. In other words, when difference is encountered, the goal is not to search for underlying similarities, but to see the beauty contained in those differences. Such a perspective would at least mitigate potential discomfort in the face of diversity and produce a greater amount of interracial harmony instead of mere tolerance. 

Rejecting a uniform conception of identity and society would also require policies that address social issues in a way that is not applicable to all groups. In the case of groups that are already at a disadvantage due to their history of oppression, “universal” policies turn out to be of little to no help to them. As discussed previously, the synthetic paradigm of race would imply that minorities would have to be enabled, not simply allowed, to fully participate in the processes of society in order to autonomously define themselves. For instance, policies would have to be enacted which would allow them to have a stronger influence in the government (Parekh 246). Policy would also have to be geared in a way to acknowledge the economic differences that exist in virtue of a group’s history, such as increasing the salaries of low-skilled workers, who tend to be minority members. This is special treatment in a sense, but only because of their past experiences which put them in a relatively powerless position in society. This clearly goes against the idea that racial minorities must “earn” the right to participate thusly; it does away with the idea of personal merit in the realm where a group has been oppressed. This also seems to be a reasonable method for bringing about racial justice. First of all, any policies passed would have to ensure that no group gains an advantage over another, meaning that special policies could only have a reparative or equalizing effect. Secondly, given the tempered dictums, not only would it be safe to give political privilege to certain members of a minority group, but it may even be advisable given their familiarity with the struggles of the relevant group. Not only would they know which problems to address, but their sympathies would give them some idea of how to properly address the issue. 

To some degree, the synthetic concept of race would require the elimination of instrumental reason. The synthetic concept of race means that our universal humanity is expressed through diversity, rather than through similarity. As such, race or social misfortune can no longer be used as an excuse for exploitation or as a source of competition. Generally speaking, this means that workers – minorities in particular – must become ends in themselves, which means they and their work must be seen as valuable. The value of the worker comes from their basic and undeniable humanity derived from their diversity, and the value of their work would have to come from a holistic view of business. The holistic view would mean understanding how each role supports the other, thus making each role equally valuable to the company as a whole. Subsequently, it would be unfair to refrain from providing a living wage, as a minimum, to each worker given their value to the rest of the company. This is not only just in a broad sense, but would be a step towards reversing the deleterious economic affects of past racial oppression.

In summary, the synthetic paradigm of race leads us to a conception of human identity that is culturally imbedded. As such, humanity is expressed through diversity and culture, rather than through uniformity to universal reason. Furthermore, since race does not indicate anything about one’s humanity, that social classification cannot be used to justify labor exploitation and unfair competition in business. This concept of race also requires that we equalize the socio-political situation of minorities, rather than simply giving them legal rights to practically inaccessible opportunities. This requires us to sacrifice some aspects of modernity, but the payout would be this: a smaller disparity of wealth between all racial groups, a comparable amount of legal representation and cultural input between racial groups, and an overall harmonious and friendly interracial existence.

———-

Matravers, Derek. Pike, Jon. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Routledge 2003. Parekh, Bhikhu. Contemporary Liberal Responses to Diversity. Print.

Synthetic Race and Modernity (Part 2)

Can the synthetic paradigm of race deal effectively with racial injustice? At first glance, it seems like this concept has the potential to accomplish racial justice in America. However, the concept would require political decisions that run against some basic American intuitions: first of all, the idea that any group should be completely enabled to play an active and significant role in society goes against the ideal of individualized merit. Second, the idea of humanity being expressed through diversity goes against the idea that people are equal in virtue of their similarities rather than differences. Furthermore, since legal rights have already been extended to all American citizens regardless of racial identity, it seems unnecessary to adopt a view of race that would require us to compromise our basic values. However, it is undeniable that racial prejudice and injustice are still present in the United States. If legal equality hasn’t completely solved the problem, some new solutions must be implemented. I believe that the problems faced by racial minorities exist in virtue of our historical context. There are certain ideological features of the modern era which not only enable racial prejudice, but may encourage it to some degree. In order to establish this, first I will analyze the ideological attributes of modernity, and then demonstrate how racism fits into our historical context.

First of all, modernity is marked by a focus on the individual (Ahern 564, 565). Ontologically speaking, the individual is said to have a socially independent identity (Powell 56). This means that his identity is not derived from his place in the social order. People are generally seen as equal in terms of their human capacities (reason, emotions, morality etc.), and are believed to possess an equal right to pursue their own goals (Powell 31, 35, 44). In light of the former, it would therefore be unjust for the government to intervene in the private pursuits of its citizens (i.e. religious freedom, career opportunities, etc.). In order for citizens to be protected from government interference, they are given certain rights which the government may not violate. As a further safe-guard, the people have the right to govern themselves through voting and through holding public offices. Thus, any citizen is allowed to run for public office, regardless of their position in society.

Inevitably, a conflict between group interests and individual interests arises. The key to resolving the conflict is an appeal to universal reason, or the general will (Lopez 913). Given our views of the individual and his rights, the general will would seem to dictate laws that protect the rights of particular groups of citizens as much as possible without violating the rights of others. By doing so, the individual’s rights are not only protected, but the good of society overall is promoted since each person is left free to contribute to society and/or pursue their goals in whatever way they see fit. In order to make this resolution effective, the aim of social organizations becomes making people rational, such that their public interests are separated from their private interests. In doing so, they will be able to think in terms of what is good for society as a whole (i.e. all other individuals), rather than focusing on what benefits benefit one particular section of society at the cost of another.

Modernism is also linked to the rise of capitalism (Lopez 914). This economic system is marked by a kind of reasoning called instrumental reasoning. This kind of reasoning emphasizes thinking in terms of which means will obtain a particular end; the end justifies the means (Lopez 914). This kind of thinking could be tempered by the emphasis on universal reasoning discussed previously, thereby reducing the potential detrimental consequences of instrumental reason. Another significant feature of capitalism is the insistence on individual merit (Lopez 914). People do not earn their social positions through birth or natural right, but rather through their own efforts (Ahern 564). This works both ways: whether the person ends up successful or ends up failing, he is receiving what he put into the situation (Powell 188). This encourages a spirit of competition, which only further prompts the use of instrumental reason. Thus, there seems to be a tension between capitalism and individual rights.

If individualism is such a major component of modernism, how is it possible that blacks and other non-whites were denied the rights and privileges enjoyed by whites? This is easily explained by the fact that racial minorities were believed to lack the same faculties as the dominant group, and thus were considered inferior to whites. Since they lacked those qualities which were the foundations for equality, by no means could they be afforded the same rights and privileges as those who were already in charge. The conflict could thus be understood ontologically: whites were individuals, but non-whites were not. Since they lacked the relevant qualities necessary for citizenship and equal rights, there could be no injustice in exploiting them for economic gain.

The formal situation is presently different. Legally speaking, each citizen – whether they be members of a majority or a minority – is now viewed similarly: they possess the same basic human capacities, and therefore ought to be treated equally. However, the challenge that minorities face comes from the view that our basic humanity is based in our common capacities; our common humanity is based on the things that we all share. This view of the person minimizes the role that culture plays in shaping each individual (Parekh 239, 240). At best, liberals will acknowledge that “culture helps individuals develop their capacity for autonomy,” but once their individuality is developed, those cultural aspects of their existence are transcended and become irrelevant (Parekh 239). Said otherwise, once the individual’s autonomy is developed, the cultural aspects of their personality cease to play a large role in influencing how they interact with the world and others.

Viewing human identity thusly has had adverse consequences. If our moral and rational capacities are essentially socially independent, and any cultural attachments are irrelevant to our basic identity, then human beings only need to be treated “equally in those respects in which they are similar and not those in which they are different” (Parekh 242). The most obvious instance of this was the Jim Crow laws: although whites and non-whites had access to the same kinds of services, they could not access the same facilities. Since neither party was being denied any kind of service, they were still being treated equally. However, they were seen as so different that they could not be allowed to utilize the same instances of the relevant services. For example, one defense of the Jim Crow laws contained the assertion that by segregating whites from blacks, the latter would be protected from the bigoted opinions of the former (Wikipedia). In other words, the law implicitly acknowledged that the lack of uniformity was a problem, and the rationale behind the law explicitly acknowledged that diversity was an obstacle to the well-being of society.

Since racial differences are traditionally thought to be biological, and are expressed culturally, diversity of lifestyle turns out to be another obstacle to equal treatment of other racial groups. Believing that human equality reduces to similarity produces an expectation for cultural uniformity. A lack of uniformity comes to be interpreted as a serious essential difference, which either means that the other group shouldn’t be treated equally, or they need to be assimilated (Parekh 243). If the difference turns out to be persistent, it could be interpreted as potentially dangerous to society, or it could indicate that the group in question is somehow dangerous (i.e. the association of rap with gang culture) (Parekh 241).

The problem of diversity can be addressed politically through rational conformity to the general will. When each citizen transcends their personal interests and adopts “a general point of view” in order to make decisions tailored towards “the common good,” the problem of diversity is solved by laws which honor the rights of each citizen (Young 221). This method of political discourse has two consequences: first, it could lead to the explicit exclusion of groups who are supposedly unable to meet this standard. In tandem with this point, it could also lead to the suppression of diversity where certain practices are potential threats to the liberty of others. Secondly, it could lead to the implicit exclusion of groups who are not able to meet this standard because their social conditions and history deprives them of the necessary attributes for political participation.

Understood thusly, there are privileged groups that exist within a modern, liberal society. For the most part, these are white males: given their history, they are in a position to access the educational tools to make themselves rational. As such, they are socially conditioned to possess the traits that are relevant and necessary to entering public debate. They do not believe that they are advancing a particular agenda, but rather acting on the best interests of society. However, such a perspective ignores the diversity that is common to a modern democratic society. By trying to transcend particularity, political debate ignores the history of racial oppression in America. Thus, even though racial groups who once experienced oppression have the same rights as their former oppressors, active political attempts to rectify the social ramifications of their past experiences are un-guaranteed. In fact, to pass legislation “favoring” those groups would be non-liberal since they would be favoring one group over another in virtue of their differences. The correct course of action would be to pass legislation which addresses the similarities that people have, otherwise you are acting beyond what their rights merit.

The final problem that modernity poses to racial justice regards laissez faire/capitalist economics. The political obstacles just mentioned exacerbate the after effects of social oppression experienced by minorities throughout history. As such, they tend to belong to the lower rungs of society. Compounded with the individualistic ideal – that each person is ultimately responsible for their own lives – the facts about minority poverty make it more difficult for them to obtain justice. Since their histories are ignored in order to arrive at decisions which are aimed at preserving fundamental rights, and since it is already believed that they are responsible for their fate to some degree, there is no injustice to be perceived. They are not only met with indifference (“we don’t have to enact policy”), but with derision. Since it is believed that each individual is responsible for his/her destiny, and since minorities are impoverished, they are believed to be responsible for their economic status. As such, they are met with derision when they ask for policies geared towards fixing their situation.

The emphasis on using instrumental reason in business makes it permissible to use race as a competitive mark. Not only that, but it turns out to be profitable for business owners to give the lowest wage jobs to those who are not in any position to bargain for higher pay due to their lack of skill. Hence, the use of instrumental reason perpetuates situations of racial injustice. The permissibility of low-skilled exploitation could be further explained by an individualistic perspective: they have placed themselves in their position, thus I am not responsible for enabling them to work themselves out of poverty. So, not only is the use of instrumental reason a source of economic injustice, but so is the individualistic ideal.

In my next and final post for this series, I will discuss what changes the synthetic concept of race requires us to make in order to effectively resolve persistent problems of racial injustice.

———-

Matravers, Derek. Pike, Jon. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Routledge 2003. Parekh, Bhikhu. Contemporary Liberal Responses to Diversity. Print.

Matravers, Derek. Pike, Jon. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Routledge 2003. Young, Iris Marion. Polity and Group Difference. Print.

“Modernity.” Encyclopedia of Case Study Research, 2nd ed. 2010. EBook.

“Modernity.” International Encyclopedia of Organizational Studies, 2008. EBook.

Powell, Thomas. The Persistence of Racism in America. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, Inc. 1992. Print.

Synthetic Race and Modernity (Part 1)

It has been a long time since I have written something on here, and I have been scratching my head as to what I could possibly write after having taken such a long break due to school. Well, school provided me with the answer. I’ve decided to post two of my favorite papers from the end of this semester. I will publish them in parts, since they are fairly long. Without further adieu, here is the first part of my Advanced Social and Political Philosophy paper, which analyzes race, its role in modernity, and how a synthetic concept of race can be used to alleviate lingering racial injustice.

Legally speaking, all people are considered equal, and thus any member of any racial group may attain citizenship and possess the same rights as their white counter-parts. Even though our perspective on race has changed to some degree, racial injustice persists, and thus our perspective must be altered further. In this paper, I will explain the synthetic paradigm of race; this concept conceives of race as artificial, culturally mixed, and basically aesthetic. However, the social and philosophical implications of this concept turn out to be antithetical to modern thinking, which emphasizes a socially independent identity, individualized merit, and economic competition. Although we may be reluctant to relinquish these ideals, I will demonstrate that retaining them has a cost: the perpetuation of racial injustice. Although adopting the synthetic concept of race requires us to ground human identity in diversity and necessitates corrective egalitarianism in politics and business, it yields a greater amount of racial justice socially, politically, and economically.

The synthetic paradigm provides tools to critically analyze the concept of race as it has evolved throughout history. Under this critical framework, race is recognized as a concept that was invented during the period of the Spanish colonization of the Americas (Vacano 157, 158). As such, the analytical aspect of this paradigm recognizes that race is first and foremost a socio-political concept used to do two things: first, organize the world according to somatic classifications; second, the use of somatic classifications to organize social arrangements (Vacano 145). The first way this is done is through polity membership: one’s race determines one’s civic and economic standing (Vacano 143, 153). Furthermore, race is a concept that shapes social interactions between citizens. This is accomplished through moral evaluations about somatic traits which are determined via an aesthetic lens (Vacano 145, 151).

Additionally, power relations and political goals play a powerful role in shaping how racial interactions ought to proceed (Vacano 146). For instance, Vallenilla Lanz believed that a central government and a strong sense of national identity could resolve racial conflicts and transcend particular racial identities (Vacano 84, 88, 89, 101). This later changed with Jose Vasconcelos, who saw regional multiculturalism as the true means for achieving racial harmony (Vacano 126-129). Lastly, race is a flexible concept which can change over time. For example, there was a period of time in America when the Irish were not considered white. Only after setting themselves apart from other non-white racial groups through certain behaviors, and through the political actions of the powers that be to make it easier for the Irish to become naturalized, were they considered white. Thus, we see that race’s social role and inclusiveness is flexible and changes given certain socio-political circumstances.

This critical view of race also opens up the possibility of creating a substantial racial lens that is different from the traditional understanding of race. Under a traditional understanding of race, where biology and moral value are metaphysically linked together, miscegenation is seen as a negative process. In racial intermixing, the substance of the “bad”/”inferior” race dilutes the substance of the “good”/”superior” race. The critical-synthetic paradigm of race bars us from seeing biology and moral value as being metaphysically linked, and instead commits us to understanding race as a cultural identity (Vacano 154). As such, miscegenation is not only a neutral event, but potentially positive (Vacano 149). In addition to the mixing of phenotypes, cultural mixture occurs in the process of raising a child with a mixed origin. As such, miscegenation becomes a creative process which gives rise to new modes of living.

Even so, it is still possible to see miscegenation as negative, since there would be no way to classify people. As such, a positive aesthetic worldview would have to be adopted, where diversity is seen positively. Such a worldview implies a theory of human identity which emphasizes diversity and change as being fundamental to human nature. If diversity and change are actually what make us human, then there is no such thing as an inferior race. Subsequently, moral worth cannot be metaphysically connected to one’s biology, at least not as in the traditional understanding of race. Equal, positive moral worth instead rises from the diversity of one’s existence. Not only is it therefore wrong to exploit another human being in virtue of their differences, but it is right to encourage and allow for differences between people and groups.

The synthetic concept of race may also allow for the autonomy of racial groups. This means that racial groups ought to have the freedom to define themselves, rather than allowing some “superior” race to impose definitions on them, which has usually been the historical case (Mills 13, 14, 16, 20). Indeed, since racial stereotyping has caused terrible suffering throughout recent history, racial groups must be afforded the autonomy to define themselves. Since race plays out in socio-political realms, racial self-definition would require that the various racial groups in a society be enabled to invest in any social region that interests them. In doing so, they take charge of their own racial identity and discourage oppressive stereotypes.

In my next post, I will briefly analyze modernity, and how racism fits into it. Especially for this series of posts, I strongly encourage feedback and critiques, whether positive or negative.

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Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. New York: Cornell University, 1997. PDF.

Von Vacano, Diego A. The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity, and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Social Tragedy

There is much you can learn about a person from their Facebook page alone. You can learn what they are interested in, what movies they enjoy, where they go to school, where they work…you get the picture. It has the potential to make taking the effort to get to know somebody obsolete.

This is a terrible thing.

Online social networks could be called simulacrums. This is a postmodern concept, where the thing in question is meant to be a representation of something in reality, but actually lacks an external referent. It is a pure simulation; it is representation incarnate. What is Facebook but a simulacrum? It is meant to represent community; it simulates people living in the same space, 24-7. With smart phones, that consistent contact is possible; if you’re like me and never turn off your phone, there is never a time that you arent connected to Facebook. However, such a community doesnt exist; social networks don’t have an external referent.

Since Facebook is representation incarnate, it follows that anything that takes place on Facebook is a simulation of social interaction. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all interactions on Facebook are simulacrums, but I would say that most of them lack substance. Related specifically to getting to know someone, if this is done over Facebook, you haven’t actually learned who the person is. If you are like me, there’s a certain persona you adopt online. Whether this persona is actually part of who you are, or if it’s taken from an external source, it is not you; the full picture of who you are is not being presented online. Even in writing this blog, I have adopted the persona of an intellectual, a thinker. This is part of my individuality, but it is not the full picture of who I am.

However, by adopting a persona, you are making this claim: “Ryan Cook = Intellectual.” What this means is that you amount to nothing more than the persona, at least online. You have created a person who bears no resemblance to the actual individual, because the true individual is not just their online persona in reality; the online persona lacks an external referent. In other words, the online persona is a pure simulacrum. So, if you are learning about an individual through their interactions on Facebook, you are not actually learning about the individual. You are only learning about their persona; you have met a pure simulacrum.

This might seem like a rabit trail, but it leads into the discussion of how social networks have the potential to destroy our efforts to actually get to know someone and why this is terrible (although you might not need much convincing to accept the latter claim).

How often have you added someone on Facebook that you have only just met, and after that you don’t really hang out with them in person? Your interactions with them are limited to Facebook? I can think of quite a few people on my Facebook page where that is the case, and you most likely can as well.

Why is this so? You are already being fed the illusion of getting to know them via their various status updates, or by the information they have posted about themselves on their profile. This prevents us from actively learning more about the person because we think we are already learning about them, thus we don’t feel the need to reach out to them personally. This is illusory precisely because most, if not all people adopt a particular persona online. While it is likely already part of who they are as an individual, it does not represent the whole individual. As I said before, this persona is a pure simulacrum because it lacks a true external referent. Although we think this persona truly represents the individual behind the profile page, the odds are it doesn’t. Therefore, I propose that social networks destroy “getting to know someone” in two ways:

  1. You feel that you know someone because of the information posted on their profile page, whether it be in their “About Me”, “Interests”, or various status updates. Therefore, you don’t feel the need to reach out to them. (I realize that I have already said this)
  2. The person you are “getting to know” is a pure simulacrum; the person on Facebook lacks a true external referent. You are not learning about who you think you’re learning about.

    From my experience, the consequence of this is shallow, if not non-existent, interactions with the actual individual in person. The safety of the computer screen is gone; you no longer have the ability to interact with this complete stranger. You do not interact with them well beacuse you do not truly know them, and you don’t feel the need to get to know them because you have been deceived into thinking that you do know them. Thus, I conclude that social networks have the potential power to destroy human relationships.

    As always, anything and everything I write is open to criticism and debate. If you have any questions, comments, or criticisms, feel free to post a comment or write a post in response.

Words and Definitions (A Response to “I’m at a Loss for Words”)

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Recently, a friend of mine, Chris Woznicki, wrote about how our vocabulary is shrinking. I agree with his main idea, that due to our ever-shrinking vocabulary, we have become incapable of expressing ourselves properly. Perhaps one of my biggest beefs with our ever shrinking vocabulary is that many adjectives in our native language have been replaced with expletives. If you don’t know what that word means, you are likely part of the problem.

He uses the example of Domino’s Artisan Pizzas. They have taken the word “artisan,” and conveniently changed the word to simply mean “fancy;” this suits their purposes, of course. My friend interprets this as a symptom of America’s vocabulary deficit, and he may very well be right. As previously said, I agree with his big idea, but I think this is an example of how the meaning of words simply change over time. 

For example, take the word “faggot.” Previously, it referred to “a bundle of sticks or twigs, esp when bound together and used as fuel.” It also referred to “a bundle of anything.” Currently, it is used as a contemptuous term for male homosexuals. How did we go from using this word to reference fire wood to using it as an insult? I don’t know, but apparently there’s some kind of correlation between male homosexuals and fire wood. 

Let’s take a more benign example. The word “trunk” refers to many things. It can refer to the storage space in the rear of a car. It can refer to an elephant’s snout. It can refer to the main body of a tree. The word “trunk” did not always refer to these things, but was later applied to them.

Chris also proposes that words have objective definitions. Perhaps they do, but we have no way of knowing. Humans create languages, and human languages contain words. This implies that humans create words, words that at one point had no meaning until they were created, just like the language itself did not exist until it was created. Words do not have meaning until they are created, so to claim that they have objective meanings is a bit of a stretch. Since they don’t have objective meanings, words can technically be used in any way we please; no harm, no foul.

One might claim that words are like tools, however. Someone might say that like tools can’t be used in any way other than they were intended, words can only be used in one way. However, that simply is not true. For example, a pencil’s express purpose is to be used as a writing utensile. However, that’s not all it has been used for. It can be used as a weapon, as something that you can annoy others with, or as a makeshift drumstick. Even though a pencil is designed for a particular purpose, it can be used for other things. Similarly, even though words are meant to be used in a particular way, people inevitably use them in a way that was not originally intended. Would we call this bad? No, it simply “is”; it’s just there.

In fact, the flexibility of words is absolutely integral for philosophy. Quite often, philosophers are discussing or “inventing” concepts for which no term yet exists. The solution? Take a word that already exists and is close in meaning to the concept, and then apply it to the concept. Is this a bad thing? Once again, I don’t think so. At least there’s not anything obviously wrong with it.

I conclude not with agreement or disagreement, but with uncertainty. I think precision in communication is very important, but after considering this issue, I’m not sure if I can commit to such a position. The way we use words changes over time. This seems like an inevitability, nor is it always a negative occurrence. It would serve us well to broaden our vocabulary, but the fact that words are applied in a way that was not originally intended should not be seen as inherently bad, as long as they are not applied in a derogatory way.

To see the original article: http://cwoznicki.com/2013/07/06/im-at-a-loss-for-words-or-how-our-language-gets-watered-down