Four Dimensions of X-ism (and ‘Seminal’ Is Sexist)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 66 min.

A long first draft on a difficult topic. Feedback is welcome!

Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape (ca 1645–1672), Giovanni Stanchi

I. A Critical Distinction

It’s a common occurrence for someone to be publicly called out for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or some other mode of X-ism (as I’ll collectively call these and similar -isms/-phobias), only for the accused to earnestly self-defend, “I’m not X-ist! I love X’s! There are X’s among my most cherished friends and family!”

Debates then follow about the person’s status as (an) X-ist. (From here on I’ll use “X-ist” with the understanding that it could be replaced with “an X-ist”; I’ll leave unexplored what I sense to be a significant difference between these phrasings.) These debates often fail to reflect the important distinction between performing an X-ist act and being X-ist. To recognize this distinction is to acknowledge the possibility of there existing an X-ist act without the presence of an X-ist actor. There are further important distinctions to notice; to make sense of these, I propose four dimensions of X-ism: Cognitive, Affective, Behavioral, Dispositional.

My claim is that a person’s activities (or potential activities)1 must span some combination of these dimensions in order for the person to merit the X-ism label—in other words, to be branded as someone who engages so habitually in morally reprehensible activities of the sort we call X-ist, that we are justified in saying that person is X-ist (particularly when these activities defy readily observable evidence; that is, when the agent “should know better”).2 3

This aligns, I think, with popular ways of talking about X-ism—i.e., aligns with popular implicitly (if not explicitly) held attitudes about X-ism—but the problem is that the label is too often applied under the assumption that one or more X-ism-promoting behaviors are representative of an actor’s internal beliefs and feelings.4 My aim is to show that we should apply the X-ism label more carefully, given the difficulties in determining whether the requisite convergence or overlapping of dimensions has been satisfied by an agent’s X-ist activities. I won’t try to work out what the requisites are, but will attempt to give a cursory explanation of each dimension, in the process showing them to be distinct and, unsurprisingly, problematic in application (individually and jointly).

I take it that this is an important project, as recognition of these (or similar) distinct dimensions, along with their attendant difficulties, will be necessary if we’re to have productive discussions about social group dynamics in a world in which one of our most pressing questions is: How can we, as individuals and groups, get along in our shrinking, increasingly multicultural global society, given our shared history and lack of access to one another’s internal thoughts and feelings?

Before outlining the four dimensions, a case example.

II. Is the word seminal sexist? Or: If using the word seminal promotes sexism, does using that word make you sexist?

I recently read an online comment that went: “You must read this book, it’s a seminal work of feminist literature.”5 I was puzzled. A semen metaphor in order to emphasize the significance of a feminist’s work? Does this not promote the idea that masculinity (or maleness) is a necessary feature for something to attain cultural, intellectual, social importance? Why not use ovulary?

Perhaps my response was exaggerated. Perhaps I’ve become overly careful about such things, if even due to my own fear of being—or of being accused of being—sexist. Or/and maybe I’m right. Figuring I wasn’t the first to be so struck by seminal, I dug around a little and found some discussions on the topic. Of particular interest were two short articles from April 2014 by sociologist Jenny Davis, posted at Cyborbology; I recommend both, comments included.

In “Don’t Say Seminal, It’s Sexist,” Davis convincingly argues (in colorful terms informed by the metaphor in question), for one thing, that using a semen metaphor to refer to groundbreaking intellectual work doesn’t make sense given that most semen doesn’t manage to grow into anything at all. More importantly, “the metaphor is blatantly sexist. … To refer to something as seminal is equivalent to the compulsory use of the masculine pronoun he when one really means person.”

She offers some alternatives:




Path blazing



Ovulary (?)

About a week later, Davis posted “Seminal is Still Sexist: A Response to the Critics” as a reply to what she summarizes as the four themes most commonly invoked by her critics. I’ll briefly mention one: “I don’t think of sperm when I use the word seminal, therefore my use of the term is not sexist.”

Davis responds by pointing out that the deeply embedded nature of language makes the effects and implications of words easy to miss—indeed, much of language’s work is done in the domain of the cognitive unconscious (more about which below).6 The upshot of this powerful observation is that whether the term’s usage works against gender equality is independent of what users imagine (or don’t imagine) when they utter the word.

To elaborate on this point, consider a more precise expression of the above justification: I don’t think of semen when I use the word seminal, therefore my use of the term doesn’t contribute to the perpetuation of the idea that women are inferior to men. The conclusion doesn’t follow. Think of it the other way: If intended meaning determined a word’s effects, you could make any word in any sentence you utter sexist or not by imagining it as such. In reality, however, your outward behavior is identical, and thus has identical effects in the world, whatever you intend. So, a convincing defense of seminal will need to be grounded in how the term operates in the world.

I (and other commentators I’ve observed) get the feeling, though, that what many defenders of seminal are really defending is their own status as anti-sexist. On the other hand, I imagine that some people just aren’t convinced by the evidence against the word. Whatever the case, it seems clear that the thought of its being sexist had not previously occurred to the word’s defenders, many of whom continue to claim they see so no basis for viewing the word as sexist. They seem genuinely surprised by the “accusation” of having committed a sexist act (much as I imagine many today will feel when confronted by our grandchildren with, “How could people in 2016 so casually use the offensive phrase he or she?!?”).

But, to be clear, there was no accusation. Davis’s initial request was that people not use the word in an upcoming conference, about which she noted that if some seminal‘s found their way in—perhaps because some presenters hadn’t seen her request—this shouldn’t distract from an otherwise productive exchange of ideas. She heavily emphasized that she wasn’t calling anyone out or trying to make anyone feel bad. And, in her followup post, noted, “The fact that many people—including myself until someone pointed it out—do not intentionally code seminal as masculine does not refute my original argument, but rather, acts as strong support for the problematic implications of the word.”

And here an important distinction emerges: It is possible to acknowledge a word’s usage as sexist, without accusing the word’s users of sexism. For a user to be sexist, we need something more than behavior. Perhaps the utterance would need to be accompanied by a certain kind of thought or a certain kind of feeling. And so I propose that, in order to bring greater calm, clarity, and discussability to situations such as these, we acknowledge four dimensions of X-ism.

Perhaps you’re unconvinced that seminal is a sexist word. It seems obvious to me that it is, even if subtly (subtlety accumulates nearly invisibly; that’s its special danger). I suppose that, in theory, one could settle this empirically. Perhaps, as a naive example, by presenting subject groups—whose members are not aware of the controversy surrounding the word—with two versions of a writing, one featuring the word seminal, the other replacing that word with foundational (or what have you). Then ask: Are subjects primed in the former case to exercise greater gender bias? Is stereotype threat ignited in women readers? One could also borrow from methods that have been used to show that the “gender-neutral” use of heman, etc. primes readers to think in male-oriented terms.

While such studies could yield interesting results, they strike me as too simple, given that what we’re asking about is the subtle contribution seminal makes to a time-spanning, complex, society-wide system of activities. Isolating the word in a controlled study wouldn’t have the same effect as, say, removing it from four years of college curriculum, or, even better, a large portion of society responding to the word’s alleged sexist character, as has been the case with the “gender-neutral” use of he, then ask: Does society become less sexist? Of course, such collective moves may be outcomes rather than origins of progress, though I presume there’s a dynamical relationship there, and someone has to get the process started (e.g., the people who first convincingly suggested avoiding the compulsory he).

In lieu of such studies, and for the sake of exploring the four dimensions, let’s suppose the word is indeed among what are likely many unexamined, unconsidered widespread practices that help sustain X-ism.

III. Four Dimensions of X-ism

The goal here is to establish: the plausibility of there being at least four distinct dimensions of human X-ist activity; the importance of acknowledging these distinctions in discussions about X-ism. I won’t attempt to work out what’s required in order to label someone X-ist, though I do assume that committing an X-ist act isn’t enough; there must also be some combination of X-ist attitudes present, even if they are unconscious. Thus we may see fit to label a behavior X-ist, but not the person performing the behavior.

I also presume that a person who maintains a set of X-ist (behavior-informing) attitudes is X-ist, despite whatever sincere feelings that person may have to the contrary. Indeed, I’ve seen this sentiment presented as blatantly as, “I’m not X-ist, I’m just stating a fact when I say Y’s are born superior to X’s.”

But where the line is between non-X-ist and X-ist, I don’t know.

Finally, I should note that the first three dimensions I discuss—cognitive, affective, behavioral—are common subject matter for cognitive scientists, philosophers, et al. interested in attitude models or questions that rely on such models. I adhere to no particular theoretical framework in this regard, though I try to remain consistent with the possibility that a behavior can be X-ist in absence of, and without leading to, any cognitive or affective X-ist attitudes.

Ok, let’s start with the cognitive dimension, the longest by far of the four segments.

(1) COGNITIVE X-ISM involves thoughts and other mental activity. These may be conscious or unconscious, and need not be connected to X-ist emotions or behaviors.

1.a. Conscious Cognition

Conscious X-ist thoughts are just what they sound like: explicit thoughts such as All X’s are contemptible; Members of Social Group X are inferior to members of Social Group Y; and Typical X! These come down to propositions that can be evaluated as true or false, believed or disbelieved, accepted or rejected (i.e., acted on or not), etc. by the person thinking them. What we are really concerned with here is not thoughts per se, but their evaluation. To see this, consider one of the cognitive dimension’s most important features: belief.7

i. First Pass at Belief:

Belief plays a critical, but difficult to pin down, role in determining whether the thinker of X-ist thoughts is X-ist. It’s a common intuition, for example, that to believe an X-ist thought—say, X’s are bad news—“makes” that thinker an X-ist (whether or not the thinker considers the thought to be X-ist). This is misleading, however, given that people generally come to believe a proposition because they were disposed to evaluate it as true in light of available evidence, rather than merely because it is an X-ist proposition. In other words, it doesn’t seem that from one moment to the next one is made into an X-ist merely as a result of coming to believe an X-ist proposition. A more accurate expression of this intuition, then, is: “Your belief in that proposition provides evidence that you’re X-ist.” In simpler terms: “You’d have to be X-ist to believe that”; or even: “Believing that suggests/indicates/means you’re X-ist.”

These expressions imply that some X-ist-making quality precedes belief. What might that be? It can’t merely be enculturation or conditioning, because we wouldn’t say the enculturated person is X-ist unless they believe the X-ist ideas they’ve been taught. To make matters even more complicated, this precondition—i.e., the X-ist-making quality that disposes one to believe X-ist propositions—could come down to an existing system of beliefs and attitudes, none of which are of an explicitly X-ist character, yet in whose context the X-ist proposition is either implied or “rings true.” Presumably, the first X-ist proposition one comes to believe would be of this class.

But wait. I now find myself at the soggy edge of a philosophical quagmire overrun with thorny questions:

What if your first explicit belief ever is X-ist, and you had no preceding system of explicit beliefs? Were you born X-ist, and thus disposed to believe X-ist propositions, or does this just plain mean that you became X-ist at the moment you naively formed that belief (perhaps when you heard a parent matter-of-factly state the proposition at dinner)? Is there a leniency period, or do we think it possible for 5-year-olds to be morally blameworthy X-ists? Or is it the case, rather, that you carry your X-ist beliefs across some vague, now-you-should-know-better point in time and, suddenly, even though your evidence hasn’t changed, your sensitivity to evidence is expected to have matured, and thus your status changes from non-X-ist to X-ist?

Or suppose you’re older and all of your beliefs are non-X-ist (some are anti-X-ist, even). One day, you’re confronted with an X-ist proposition and evaluate it as true—i.e., you come to believe it. Were you an X-ist before believing the proposition? If so, how? If not, why would you evaluate an X-ist proposition as true? Bad evidence? Bad evaluation skills? Not born with the contemplative, analytic, or lucky affective nature one would need to see through or otherwise disbelieve the proposition?

These questions are beginning to point to the uncomfortable possibility that, if not born X-ist, then one could be born with a disposition unresistant to X-ism; or, more precisely, receptive to falsehoods more generally, a subset of which consists in X-ist propositions. If so, should this lead us to revise our expression as: “Your belief in that proposition demonstrates that you lack the analytic skills (or intuitive affective constitution) to properly evaluate (or respond to) evidence purportedly in support of an X-ist proposition, and thus you are X-ist”?

I’m assuming, by the way, that X-ist propositions are false by definition. This means that if an X-ist proposition seems to have a great amount of supporting evidence, you have to either disavow the evidence or determine that the proposition is not in fact X-ist (i.e., given that facts per se cannot be X-ist). Disavowing evidence isn’t always easy: try disavowing the evidence that you’re reading this right now. Alternatively, there is the possibility that we sometimes do think X-ist propositions true, but think that a genuine non-X-ist would reject the proposition (i.e., refuse to behave as though it’s true), much in the way we expect a genuine fan of a sports team to disagree with the referee who’s made a perfectly fair call against their favored team. In which case, our expression becomes: “Your unwillingness to pretend like you don’t believe that proposition means you are X-ist”; or: “Your inability to recognize that you must at least behave as though any seemingly X-ist proposition, or X-ism–sustaining proposition, is false, regardless of evidence, means you are X-ist.” From certain perspectives, this alternative turns cynical, suggesting we apparently expect self-interested, willful ignorance of non–X-ists just as much as we claim to abhor that quality in X-ists. A less cynical view of this may be that to not reject a seemingly true proposition that undermines efforts to combat X-ism is an X-ist act insomuch as the proposition should be—and (ostensibly) always can sincerely be—rejected unless accompanied by mitigating facts contributing to the proposition’s truth (e.g., historical and socio-cultural oppression, etc.): otherwise, the proposition may become embedded as a kind of absolute truth, rather than a historical or contingent one, thus sustaining the proposition’s truth. This less cynical view may indeed be at times valid and productive (those aren’t the same thing), but at other times not, or even the opposite.

ii. Second Pass at Belief:

Ok. Let’s take a step back. With this thorny tangle of difficulties in mind, perhaps it would make for a more productive exploration of belief to consider some responses one might have to an X-ist proposition.

Meet Felix, a young adult who has the thought that X’s are bad news. Who knows why. Maybe his culture takes the idea for granted; or he heard it a lot from his uncle while growing up; or a few bad experiences have overcharged his receptivity to popular stereotypes about X’s. Whatever the case, our hope is that Felix would have the wherewithal to reflect on and evaluate the thought as a false generalization. Even if he never meets an X, we might think his general experience with humans—in other words, his evidence—should teach him that individual members of any given social group are capable of good and bad deeds, and thus shouldn’t be judged on the grounds of social group membership alone.8 Unfortunately, things don’t always play out this way. Consider these responses:

(a) Unquestioned Belief: Felix blindly believes the proposition. Maybe he was taught from birth that X’s (all of whom live on the other side of the planet) are bad news, and, just like everyone he knows, it’s never occurred to him to questioned it. It would take an exceptional endowment of insight for him to correct his misconception. This might still earn him the X-ist label, but I presume we’d judge him less harshly than if he were to fail to question the thought while living in a society that includes X’s. In other words, our judgment’s harshness is proportioned against the salience of his evidence.

Evidence, like so much else here, makes for an important but intractable topic. What’s salient for me—e.g., the evidence that seminal is sexist glares as far as I’m concerned—might not be for you (for whatever reason). Another difficulty is that one’s own activities may serve as evidence (and thus justification) for belief. Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that subjects often unconsciously look to their past behavior in order to answer the question, “What do you believe?” It’s not hard to see that, when activities are relevant to one’s identity, a tautological circle may arise: “I’m not X-ist, so my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors must not be X-ist; and if my activities aren’t X-ist, I must not be X-ist.”

X-ism resulting from a lack of (sufficiently salient, for whatever reason) evidence invites discussion of moral ignorance, which I’ll touch on below.

(b) Disbelieve and Reject: Felix, despite his upbringing around unrepentant X-ists, has come to disbelieve and reject (i.e., he doesn’t act on) the proposition, though it still occurs to him as a kind of conditioned response whenever he sees an X (or some subset of X’s). When that happens, he self-reproachfully shakes off the thought. This, I think, would merit Felix a (positive?) moral evaluation as a non-X-ist (though if X is a racial category, we’d apply to Felix the popular saying, “we’re all a little bit racist”; in other words, this seems to be the category in which popular opinion presumes most non-X-ists to exist).

(c) Disbelieve and Accept: This time, Felix comes to disbelieve the proposition, but he doesn’t reject it as his working attitude towards X’s! Perhaps out of social pressure, fear, or, most interestingly, in order to maintain his own superior position in society. Extending the latter, he might even attempt to install this false belief in others for the purpose of sustaining (or attaining) his social group’s superior status. I claim that this version of Felix is not only X-ist, but is the worst of the bunch precisely because he does not believe the X-ist proposition. He’s more blameworthy than the Felix who is not insightful or contemplative enough to question—much less transcend—his upbringing.

And so we see that disbelief can afford a more egregious kind of X-ism, though a calculated form that’s not really about viewing X’s as inferior, but about arbitrarily using X-ness as a convenient means of sustaining class dominance (e.g., by spreading the idea that X’s are inferior and by instituting social structures that make X’s appear inferior by virtue of their inferior position within those structures, etc.). Indeed, this is precisely the origin of many forms X-ism, including racism.

The popular sentiment seems to be that most X-ists fall under this category, expressed in terms like, “X-ists are willfully ignorant” (that is, they intentionally ignore, and thus pretend to be ignorant of, salient evidence).

(d) Trivial Disbelief. In this scenario, Felix doesn’t believe the proposition, but neither does he think it false. He simply has no opinion about it because the proposition has never even crossed his mind. Indeed, he’s never encountered it at all. He doesn’t believe the proposition in the same way that Confucius didn’t believe Ronald Reagan to be a good president: Confucius had no beliefs at all about Reagan.

In most such cases, I assume we wouldn’t consider Felix to be X-ist as, in general, forming a belief about something one’s never encountered would go well beyond reasonable requirements for non-X-ism. Such cases include being an infant and not having yet formed hardly any beliefs at all, or living in a society—on a desert island or on a distant planet, even—far away from anything to do with X’s or X-ism. A more difficult case, in the other direction, would be for Felix to live in a society in which X-ism is a staple, but he’s too aloof to notice it; he simply never forms an opinion one way or another. This last case might earn Felix the X-ist label; again, it’s down to questions about evidence.

The space that concerns us is somewhere between these extremes. Within that space, perhaps we think only an X-ist could encounter an explicitly X-ist idea like Xs are bad news and not think to evaluate it. We might even expect a genuine non-X-ist to make efforts to illuminate their ignorance so that they may correct it. In some cases, though, as with the word seminal, the potential for evaluation may not arise due to there being no explicitly X-ist proposition attached to the word (at least not in its everyday usage).

In other words, most users of the word seminal are (currently) in the mode of trivial disbelief: they don’t believe the word sexist, because they haven’t thought to evaluate it in that context. If seminal is sexist, the evidence is easy to miss. Which brings me back to moral ignorance, a kind of cognitive lacking.9

iii. Moral Ignorance:

Descartes (and others) used to vivisect dogs and other animals. He would tie or nail them down and cut them open in order to have a look inside. He believed that dogs don’t have souls (i.e., minds), and therefore were thought-less, experience-less living machines whose yelps of pain were mechanical responses to external stimuli, like the squeaks of a struck clock spring.

I’ve heard people call Descartes evil for doing this. Maybe he was. But what’s worse, to commit an atrocious act out of ignorance, or to do so knowingly? If it’s true that Descartes genuinely believed10 his specimens had no experience, then his cutting into a dog would have meant as much to him as my cutting into a fresh cabbage.

While, admittedly, plants don’t give us anything like loud yelps in response stimuli, the notion that they feel pain seems to be growing in popularity, including among some (minority, as far as I can tell, of) botanists. This (I think) farfetched claim is often countered by skeptics with a dismissive “no brain no pain”; some, like Daniel Chamovitz, respond in more nuanced terms: “plants sense, but to say they are aware of what they sense as pain in the way we are would be to anthropomorphize plants.”

Descartes’ view affords even less to dogs: “no soul, no sense of anything whatsoever—no more than that of a clock.” In fact, according to accounts I’ve read, Descartes seemed to take it as a matter of miseducation and ignorance that anyone would believe otherwise. Has Descartes, in light of subsequently discovered evidence, been exposed as evil? If it turns out fresh cabbage suffers, will we be exposed as evil? Would we feel remorse, or would the whole thing just be too foreign? I take it that Descartes would have been horrified had he come to believe that nonhuman animals feel pain, or at the very least would have minimized the torturous suffering he inflicted.11

In the context of X-ism, there are plenty of relevant examples. There’s the religious homophobe who genuinely believes that homosexuals will be subjected to eternal torture lest they at least attempt to change their ways during their infinitesimally brief time on Earth. How could such a person, in good conscience, not try to dissuade homosexuals from expressing their inborn nature? One can imagine this person acting out of what seems to be—even to themselves—love and compassion (a scene to which I’ve had some exposure—e.g., growing up, I witnessed exorcisms meant to cast out the demons of beloved congregation members who were, and no doubt thereafter continued to be, gay). Horrifyingly, in some cultures past and present, such “compassion” might lead to the torture of humans as a soul-saving measure.

And recently we’ve seen statements from politicians and other public figures that have been cast as X-ist, but which those figures claim to not be a function of X-ist bias, but rather to be expressions of their sincere beliefs about matters of cultural contingency (e.g., “socio-economic” realities) or biological fact (we especially see this latter claim made in cases that amount to what some aptly characterize as neurosexist; a book I always recommend in this context is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference). Generally, the popular assessment is that these figures are blameworthy for such beliefs, given that they have substantial defeating evidence—the same evidence you and I have—of which they are ignorant, either willfully (i.e., disingenuously for the sake of personal gain) or due to a kind of social blindness symptomatic of a deeper affliction/corruption of the mind or soul. Whatever the case, I don’t think we can be certain that these beliefs are never sincere.

While uncertainties such as these, which come down to questions about moral ignorance, are in part why I reject retributivist forms of justice, I hope it’s obvious that I by no means condone the activities in these examples. Ignorant or not, those who persistently commit harmful acts must be stopped—restricted from society if need be. That said, one thing that seems clear to me is that, had Descartes believed that dogs feel pain and vivisected them anyway, he would appear more evil than had he vivisected them ignorantly. I must say, I’m oddly more frightened by ignorance; there is something hopeless about the thought that someone could think themselves doing something mundane or even good that in fact amounts to torture. Likewise, a calm, calculating X-ist is perhaps the scariest kind—what Hannah Arendt meant by the banality of evil, particularly if we remove any genuine X-ist belief from the picture. I suppose this is partly why the popular sentiment is that most X-ists fall under (c): willful ignorance is less scary and easier to process.12

As I’ve noted, to accuse someone of willful ignorance is to accuse that person of justifying some theory by ignoring salient defeating evidence. There’s another sort of willful ignorance, however, which involves intentionally not investigating for evidence. This brings up interesting questions about to what extent we expect morally ignorant people to self-illuminate—that is, if you suspect the evidence will condemn you, then you must already have some evidence for thinking so, which puts us back at the first kind of willful ignorance. So we need some other answer to the question of why we, when morally ignorant, might fail to investigate more deeply. Perhaps we simply aren’t always aware of what our beliefs are. Indeed, self-illumination means digging deeper into oneself, into one’s belief system. So far, we’ve been at the surface mental activity—in the realm of conscious thought. But most cognition is unconscious, and unconscious mechanisms are well known to have import for X-ist concerns.

1.b. Unconscious Cognition

Unconscious biases that contribute to phenomena such as the fundamental attribution error (e.g., as a function of X-ist stereotypes), stereotype threat, and self-fulling prophecies result in behaviors that, in accumulation, sustain X-ism.13 Indeed, unconscious cognition is likely a greater source of X-ist discrimination and prejudice than are explicit X-ist thoughts. As it’s put at in an article on Social Cognition Theory: “Most research suggests that overt racism and conscious discrimination have declined steadily since the 1960s. What persists, however, are unconscious racial stereotypes that are less visible but no less pernicious.”

This makes sense, given that one cannot question implicit, deeply held, unarticulated beliefs until they’re made explicit (or “occurrent,” as philosophers put it). Once a belief occupies conscious thought, it can be questioned so that its influence on behavior may be mitigated. Bringing thoughts and beliefs to the fore is, of course, a first step in a process that involves not only evaluating those beliefs in their own right, but also considering how they integrate into one’s overall system of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors.14

Making unconscious biases explicit comes into play in a number of projects aimed at understanding and eradicating pervasive, systemic X-ism. Some examples:

Deep Canvassing, a recent advancement in socio-political discourse developed and pioneered by Leadership Lab (in affiliation with the Los Angeles LGBT Center) to combat anti-LGBT prejudice on the ground by means of thoughtful and conscientious discussions with individuals about their personal experiences and attitudes (for an excellent podcast episode on this, see You Are Not So Smart, Episode 80 (7/18/2016).

–The work of psychologist Patricia Divine, as described in her papers “Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components” (1988) and “Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention” (2012).

–The work of social psychologist Claude Steele and others interested in investigating stereotype threat (i.e., how an often unconscious fear of confirming, or being seen to confirm, negative stereotypes about one’s social group can affect one’s cognition, emotions, and behavior), as described in Steele’s 2010 book (one of my favorites!), Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time).

–Though it doesn’t deal with X-ism directly, for something like a bible on the influence of unconscious cognitive bias on attitudes and behavior etc., see psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow

1.c. Seminal Reconsidered

Understandably, it likely won’t occur to most people to give any thought to whether the word is sexist. Reading this, however, the question is now before you—it takes on a conscious cognitive dimension. Of course, that could be made true of anything. I could ask you to consider in this context the words stapler, Manhattan, grape, or piano. The difference is, I think, that you can evaluate those words quickly to (I think) rightly determine that they aren’t sexist (not that you couldn’t postmodern something into them… grape sounds like a merger of great and rape; stapler sounds like stable her). Seminal, on the other hand, is not so easily dismissed, for obvious reasons.

These reasons are enough for me to now avoid using the word (not hard to do, though the word continues to come to mind). For whatever reason, the word’s sexist qualities one day struck me as obvious. There was a time, however, when those qualities simply didn’t occur to me.

The point here is that if the question has never occurred to you, your use of the word would constitute a sexist act, though performing that act would not “make” you a sexist. For that, there would need to be some (at the very least unconscious, but more likely conscious, if only dimly so) cognitive dimension attached to your use of the word, which means you’d either have to happen to notice the sexist qualities of the word or have them brought to your attention. This suggests that our expectations for detection and rejection of X-ist qualities set a contextual threshold for what counts as sufficiently visible evidence such that one who holds or exhibits X-ist attitudes “should know better.”

Were the seminal question to go viral, and were the word to become taboo, many new difficult questions would arise. That is, it could be made into a word that causes emotional upset to many readers, as to use it would be seen and felt as a blatant defiance of feminist concerns and experience; while those using the word might view those feminists as representatives of the “overly sensitive and politically correct.” (Notice, though, that the same could not be achieved with the words grape or stapler.) Others might not experience the word as sexist, yet behave as if they do in order to not risk being seen as sexist, or in deference to the moral testimony of those who are offended.15 In other words, the term itself could be viewed as less sexist than would be an unwillingness to “adopt a posture” such that it is sexist, because of the message not doing so would convey to offended parties (or to those who themselves pretend to be outraged as a means of testing the willingness of others to adopt such gestures). And so on. 

Thankfully, untangling these and so many other complicated (meta-)questions is beyond the scope of this writing. Of importance at this point is the following simple observation: X-ist thoughts, feelings, and behaviors reside in distinct dimensions of human activity, and in order to be correctly considered X-ist, one must operate at some intersection of these dimensions.

(2) AFFECTIVE X-ISM is the felt or, for lack of a better characterization, emotional dimension of X-ism, which I’ve already touched on several times. This dimension need not be accompanied by X-ist thoughts16, but it can serve as a felt confirmation of—i.e., can serve as evidence or justification for believing—such thoughts. It can also serve as an originating source for such thoughts (e.g., when a rationalizing thought is concocted in order to explain a negative feeling about X’s).

The affective dimension is in play when, faced with X-ness, one feels anger, hatred, fear, resentment, contempt, delight in suffering, indignation, or even apathy (that is, when it should be compassion, sympathy, empathy, deference, admiration, or such; note that these positive emotions may arise on X-ness-related grounds, but, given that X-ist implies a negative moral valuation, we don’t label them X-ist, provided they are appropriately oriented—e.g., compassion for being an X in an X-ist culture may be appropriate, while compassion merely because someone is an X is condescending X-ism masquerading as compassion). X-ist feelings are negative feelings ignited principally in response to the X-ness of X’s—i.e., because an X is an X.

We might summarize the affective dimension as kind of generalized, prejudicial, moral repugnance about X’s.

More subtly, there is the feeling that X’s, by virtue of being X’s, deserve or are better off with something “other”—usually amounting to something lesser; this feeling might disguise itself as compassion, concern, or well-wishing.17

Indeed, someone might believe themselves to feel compassion, directed in particular at features about the collective situation of (usually some subset of) X’s that seem to cast, and thus justify, X-ist thoughts as pro-X. Consider again the aforementioned religious homophobe. Consider also Cliven Bundy’s racist comment in 2014 that many black Americans gained less rather than more freedom post-slavery. If he’s to be believed (e.g., in this CNN interview conducted after his comments went viral), he experienced his sentiments not as contemptuous ones borne of racial prejudice, but rather as beneficent ones aimed at pointing out an injustice against libertarian values at the hand of the federal government, an injustice felt in particular by black Americans. Indeed, his sentiment didn’t seem to suggest that he thought blacks deserved less, so much as they deserved more, and, in his (faulty) estimation, the government had failed to give them more.

This makes his thoughts, sentiments, and apparent ignorance no less appalling or dangerous, as when he contemplates, in the original video, “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” But it does complicate our picture of what it means to commit—or to be a vessel for—social evil, which again brings to mind moral ignorance. Bundy’s vehement identification as non-racist, in which he claims to have in mind the best interest of blacks as individuals, and which leads him to apparently sincerely tell CNN, “I want [Rosa Parks] to sit anywhere in the bus, and I want to sit next to her anywhere in the bus,” seems akin to similar claims from certain strains of monotheists who enforce what most in the West would consider highly sexist practices, despite their being framed as in line with a principle of gender equality and for women’s own good, perhaps even for the security of their eternal salvation (e.g., that women should be restricted in career choice, confined to the home, physically mutilated). Behaviors, again, that I find abhorrent; so much so, that I think it an incredibly important to ask: “Why do other humans find such abhorrent behaviors holy?”

That said, perhaps our evaluation of Bundy goes something like this: He points to anecdotal evidence, but the features he notices are made salient by what must be a fundamental system of racist beliefs and sentiments, and he is thus misled into racist behavior. A deeper look into these questions would need to address the role such sentiments play in moral assessment. Indeed, in moral philosophy (and subfield of moral epistemology), there’s a body of literature growing around the question of whether moral sentiments extend from a kind of moral perception whose function is to make salient potentially morally significant events in one’s environment, or even to impart moral knowledge of right and wrong, in the same way that visual faculties tell you that an apple is red.18 Such feelings serve to confirm X-ist beliefs, and they provide anti-X-ists with the challenge of meting out appropriately measured moral condemnation, and rooting out and correcting the deep sources of such feelings.

The recent Brexit vote may provided an interesting example of the role moral sentiments can play in making information salient, and in determining the relevance, interpretation, and evaluation of that information. Consider the surprise expressed the day after the Brexit vote over revelations about the falsity of the claim that 350 million pounds per week were being sent to the EU, and that those funds would be available for the UK’s National Health Service. The truth is that it was brought up plenty of times before the vote that the figure was false. I heard it a week before in a discussion with The Economist journalist David Rennie on Slate’s Political Gabfest (in which Rennie convincingly, to me at least, laments the nearly impossible challenge of persuading much of the public of the number’s falsity); and here is a selection of the many articles touching on the figure’s falsity in the weeks leading up to the vote (on June 23, 2016):

April 15, 2016:

May 25, 2016:

June 9, 2016:

June 16, 2016: (notice that some user comments say the article’s getting it wrong; and notice the article’s subtitle: Meanwhile Treasury forecasts are widely disbelieved.)

Post-vote reports about the number’s falsity should not have come as a big surprise to anyone, as folks should have at least considered it possible that reports such as the above were accurate. One might get the impression of a kind of emotion-driven willful ignorance aimed at justifying a racist and xenophobic agenda—or, more complexly, to justify, even if unconsciously, believing statements by politicians whose agendas happen to be xenophobic. Indeed, plenty of people have reported that they genuinely believed the lie, and now regret having voted on those false grounds. It may be impossible, though, to know what these folks genuinely believed, and whether they are using the lie to justify their actions and/or to distance themselves from a shamed party; whether it was just a matter of lacking the cognitive reflection to take falsifying reports seriously; whether it was simply unheard of among their social groups to question the figure, and so on—whatever the case, I take there to be psychological dynamics at play that will be important to understand if we wish to ever approximate anything like our typical conception of a well-performing democracy. This applies of course to people on the Right and Left, both of whom are prone to denying science and so on, if it benefits their political motives.

In general, there are important questions to ask about how sentiments inform the relation between evidence and X-ism. For example, about how cultural expectations regarding evidence differ in fashionability depending on the domain of discourse—e.g., when evidence (such as statistics) should be cited, ignored, or rejected; or, in fact, when it’s expected to manipulate evidence to bolster one’s party’s most fashionable political sentiments, much in the way that we expect—or even demand—the players on the sports team we support to not correct a referee’s bad call made in that team’s favor. There is also the sort of psychological phenomenon researched in studies such as this one from 2013, titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” that concludes “subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.” In other words, some people who are fine at math will get problems wrong when the correct answer threatens their political beliefs.

The point I’ll leave here is that our evaluation of evidence about X-ist beliefs has an affective dimension, rather than involving some purely rational process targeted at propositional content.

Returning to seminal: Again, I’m sure most people don’t experience anti-feminist feelings when using the word. Perhaps some users do have a vague sense that it’s the appropriate word for denoting seeds of greatness precisely due to its masculine associations, and thus perhaps there is a vague sense of superiority felt by some masculine persons when using the word, accompanied by the vague, self-gratifying feeling that to do so contributes to maintaining that superior status. I assume that few users of the word have (or would have) such sentiments, though it’s not so hard to imagine that many, once confronted with the possibility that the word is sexist, would continue to use the word, not because they find it sexist per se, but because they indignantly wish to rub it in to the “overly sensitive” (which could itself be felt as a gesture of masculine dominance). I won’t explore that here, as it would change the terms of the present debate, in which I’m using the example of seminal in order to demonstrate the possibility of performing a (culturally approved) sexist act without being sexist.

To close this section, I’ll note that affective responses can be conditioned (e.g., fear or anxiety following a bad experience coupled with little else in terms of exposure to X’s), and suppressed or mitigated by conscious cognitive (“executive”) control, or perhaps by even stronger, even if unconscious, anti-X-ist sentiments or beliefs. Here again we see that, in order to mitigate the influence of such feelings, it’s useful to facilitate the sprouting of some cognitive dimension (such as through Deep Canvassing, or empathy training). So doing, we stock or strengthen our conscience. That is, a new cognitive relation to X-ist ideas may contribute feelings of guilt to our old affective relation to those ideas (which raises a new form of an earlier question: which is more reprehensible for the X-ist, to feel guilty or not to?).

Were I to use the word seminal, my conscience would ping me (rightly or not); this is another reason I avoid the word.

(3) Behavioral X-ism involves outward action.

This dimension takes at least two forms: direct and indirect. If seminal harms as I’ve suggested, then it’s a direct form of sexism—i.e., the word’s usage directly contributes to sustaining the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity (or male-ness to female-ness, depending on how we parse these concepts).

I’m mostly concerned here with direct behavioral X-ism, but will say a few words about indirect behaviors, which are complex and provide great support to the lattices of X-ist structures. Indirect behaviors are not X-ist in their own right, but facilitate other behaviors that are. This could be anything from a doctor saving the life of an X-ist, to my buying a cup of coffee from a cafe whose owner watches a TV show of a network owned by a supporter of an X-ist politician. In other words, nearly any behavior can be assumed to be indirectly X-ist; and if we took that to mean that everybody is equally X-ist, than to call anyone X-ist would be utterly meaningless. Which is why I’m concerned with direct behaviors.

I think indirect behaviors are worth mentioning, however, so that we can weaken the criteria for what counts as an X-ist behavior: it must be, in some accountable way, about X’s.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what counts as indirect or direct X-ist behavior. Contributing directly to the profits of an organization known to be run by X-ists could count as direct X-ism, while doing so unknowingly could count as indirect X-ism, particularly if the company hides its X-ism; though ignorance doesn’t always get one off the hook—e.g., if the organization’s record of X-ism is public and well-documented. Does this mean anyone patronizing a sports team owned by a known racist is now guilty of racism? Perhaps there are other goods to be weighed, such as how it might hurt other members of the organization. In other cases, we might need to ask whether an organization has a monopoly on some needed resource.

This vagueness acknowledged, let’s focus on direct X-ism. I’ve given the example of using the word seminal, and think I’ve shown that users of that word need not be labeled sexist. This backs the general claim that the performance of a directly X-ist act does not necessarily signal the presence of an X-ist actor. I see far-reaching implications of this, ranging from discussions among friends and intimates to discussions surrounding high-profile, and sometimes high-stakes, cases.19

To be clear, I’m not attempting to excuse X-ist behaviors. Those who persistently perform harmful behaviors should be dealt with commensurately. What I wish to do, rather, is consider how we might address such behaviors in an appropriately nuanced way that promotes dialogue and positive change, rather than engaging them with unconsidered knee-jerk responses, name-calling, poorly gathered and interpreted statistics, and focusing on individuals when there is a much wider system to blame, a system in which most or all of us are complicit, myself included. For example, the word seminal is part of a language that has developed over centuries within a sexist context. This fact strikes me as undeniable. We can’t purge the language in one go, nor should we attempt to; but we can agree to take small steps in that direction. It strikes me that a non-threatening way to that—i.e., to address embedded X-ist behaviors—is to take into account the nuances and distinctiveness of the dimensions I outline here (or some improved, but similar, model).

An important question to answer here is: Why do some people act on their X-ist beliefs while others don’t? This is a subspecies of more general questions about why some of us are more able or likely than others to inhibit our darker inclinations. This remains mysterious, but increasingly investigated, territory in psychology, neuroscience, moral psychology, law, etc. In some cases, there may be biological or pathological facts that affect an individual’s sensitivities such that make that person more likely to react strongly–affectively and thus behaviorally–to X-ist thoughts and beliefs (obvious examples being: a brain tumor resulting in an overactive amygdala; glucose deficiency in the brain). Whatever the reasons, I emphasize again that those who persistently commit harmful acts should be stopped. I hope we can do so compassionately (though I realize that, in our culture, many people—most people?—are considered ineligible for compassion).

A final note about this dimension: It’s the only of the bunch that admits of group X-ism; that is, when one group behaves collectively in X-ist way towards another. The X-ist group in question need not be a social group parsed according to traditional social group members. Instead, it may be formed by the mere fact of being X-ist. For example, the {Set of All Racists} (which could be more and more finely parsed into subgroups, e.g., involving extreme, morally ignorant racism against some particular group).

(4) Dispositional X-ism: This dimension is the most difficult to make sense of, and I’m not sure how to model it in relation to the other three—namely, whether to conceive of it as distinct in its own right or as a characteristic of all three 20 while being qualitatively distinct enough to constitute its own category of discourse about what makes a person X-ist. (Indeed, in general it’s difficult to know where the lines between these dimensions are semantic, and when they lie between distinct phenomena per se in the world.) This difficulty makes it the most philosophically interesting of the four dimensions.

I use the term dispositional broadly and idiosyncratically (as I’ll show in a moment), breaking it into two subcategories:

i. Counterfactual Dispositionalism: The extent to which a person is disposed to believe, feel, perform, etc. in an X-ist manner when confronted with an X-ism relevant scenario. What this comes down to is: In terms of X-ism, what is entailed by your existing system of beliefs, sentiments, behaviors? Do these constitute fertile conditions for X-ism? If you have never been confronted with an X-ist proposition, how would you respond if so confronted? Etc.

A hard case might feature someone who fits the standard anti-X-ist description—says all the right things, supports the right politicians—but has never been tested by a call to action, a relatively difficult situation, or challenging evidence.

And then there’s the currently X-ist person who, when exposed to the right evidence, would be disposed to assume an anti-X-ist attitude—to have a change of heart or an “evolution of opinion,” as Barack Obama put it in 2012 when he switched his public position on same-sex marriage from contra to pro.

Here again we encounter the notion of evidence. How one evaluates evidence will come down to a mysterious and elusive array of factors. The homophobic parent who learns their child is gay might have a change of heart or might renounce the child. The politician whose public position on same-sex marriage is contra may reverse that position in accordance with the relevant opinion trends (or what we might cynically call “idea fashionability”), though it’s also possible that so disposed politicians are more likely to be members of progressive parties in the first place.21

Given the mysterious nature of our dispositions, the best bet is to assume that we are all capable of going either way, given the proper conditions, the proper evidence and proper epistemic sensitivities to that evidence; which means that we all are capable of rightly oriented moral attitudes, or dispositions, given the right evidence. This is admittedly an optimistic view, and one that I think should inform how punishment for X-ist behaviors should be meted out. Notice, though, that this is only useful in the case of the morally ignorant sort of X-ist; those who don’t believe in the inferiority of X’s, but instead knowingly use false ideas about X’s as a tool for dominance, already have a proper handle on evidence about X’s—their moral problems run deeper.

Some might reject my optimism on the grounds of the “born that way” view or, more likely, the middle ground view I expressed above. Here it is again:

A middle ground [between the “born that way” and “should know better” views] might involve a corrupted nurture, a “cannot know better” view, perhaps due to an unfortunate formative education. That is, when one has a system of X-ist beliefs so robust, so tightly woven, that anything that doesn’t neatly fit into it will simply bounce off. This is nurture too far gone; to unravel it would mean a complete dismantling of the person, an undoing of their identity. This, then, may be what we mean by a corrupted essence: it is not an eternal soul, but rather the metaphysical essence of one’s acquired personhood. If this is true, such individuals may be too far gone to be saved, but the cure for this social ill must be early exposure to proper evidence (e.g., early formal education).

If X-ism is most usefully conceived of as a disease, illness, or disorder, then its cure is exposure to proper evidence. Evidence may take myriad forms—formal education; formally compiled data; the behavior of one’s parents, children, leaders, and neighbors; one’s own intuitions. I’d wager that the most effective evidence will be that which inspires empathy, particularly in older people; though quantity might beat quality, particularly in the young.

That said, what to do with these observations? I take it that acknowledging this subcategory is most useful for the sensitivity it may inspire for one another’s special, dynamic, complex relation to X-ism, and the mysterious factors—education, geography, inclination for contemplative introspection and cognitive reflection—that influence that relation. Perhaps at the interpersonal level, this means inspiring us to empathically ask: “What would I have believed, felt, or done in that situation?”22 And perhaps at the policy level it’s best use is for understanding that, just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, most of us, given enough money, power, comfort, will endorse (even if tacitly, by looking away in “willful ignorance”) whatever must be endorsed in order to maintain that status—we should, then, make sure our moral voices are heard by the governing class (and hopefully the morally correct voices are louder than the morally incorrect ones).

I would be wary of pursuing this category in practical application; for example, by developing an “Are you a potential X-ist?” survey as a means of rooting out potential or hidden X-ists (though perhaps something for fostering self-knowledge could be useful, like an Implicit Association Test [though these aren’t unproblematic; two of many examples on this: “Rethinking Implicit Bias: I Want My Money Back” and “How to Think about ‘Implicit Bias‘”]; empathy training [how?] and inter-group discussions). Nor should we look for an “X-ist gene” or “X-ist neurophysiology.” I’m worried enough as it is about the prospect of Neuro Witch Hunts in general, consisting of glorified, more sophisticated variations of the sloppy pupillometry epitomized by the so-called “fruit machine” used in Canada in the 1950s and ‘60s to root out gay men from the civil service; methodologically cleaner work has been done more recently in tech that could be seen by some as useful for identifying potential pedophiles: “Pupillary Response as an Age-Specific Measure of Sexual Interest” and “Heterosexual, Homosexual, and Bisexual Men’s Pupillary Responses to Persons at Different Stages of Sexual Development.” Pupillometry and brain science have their place. A techno-eugenicist dystopia in which people are condemned before they’ve done anything wrong isn’t it (though some would vie for a more complicated picture—i.e., a techno-eugenicist [utopia?] in which such physiologies are “repaired” at the structural level, preferably in utero through genetic intervention, though perhaps later in life as well when it’s the most humane option; more on this later, maybe).

ii. Diachronic or Contextual Dispositionalism (DCD): Here the term dispositional is idiosyncratic. This category has to do with the external contingencies that frame a particular activity’s X-ist status, such as when a currently non-X-ist activity is viewed as X-ist in the future—10, 20, 100, etc. years onward—by backwards-looking observers. This turns out to be an extremely complex category. So, rather than attempt anything like a thorough overview, I’ll struggle through some key points that I think are important to consider (while also presenting some examples for contemplation).

First, a bit about what DCD isn’t. This is not simply about what sort of future will result from current behaviors. An act’s X-ist status should not be evaluated merely according to its contributions to a “better” or “less X-ist” future, as there are all sorts of immoral acts that could be performed now for the sake of making future humans better off.23 In other words, if backwards-looking observers see with moral clarity, they’ll evaluate activities according to the role they played in X-ism at the time they were committed; that is: Were those activities harmful to Xs at the time?

As I noted above, by harm I mean causing unnecessary suffering. (Cleaning a small cut with rubbing alcohol causes pain, but not harm.) What backwards observers count as harm might be different from what we count as harm. Many today view as harmful the common 1970s attitudes that children: need not wear bicycle helmets, could roam their neighborhoods freely, and could be left in a car unattended. Future observers might view the currently benignly viewed practice of driving with a child in one’s car as a harmful practice (after all, 30,000 to 40,000 people die in automobile accidents per year in the U.S.). There may be many things we are doing that are currently considered X-ism neutral or even pro-X-ist that, in retrospect, will be seen as X-ist (rightly or wrongly).

Note, however, that DCD does not necessarily cover fluid changes in the content of appropriate activities. For example, the word colored was for a time a favored term for referring to African Americans, thus the name of the National Association of Colored People. Appropriate use of prescribed terms at that time should now be seen as paying due respect to the timeless (meta)conditions for obviating harmful behavior between social groups. Historical context matters—the facts of the time give the word its meaning. One can imagine a time-traveler going back and forth to that time and now, adjusting her language appropriately (the further back in time she goes, the more she’ll have to adjust her language, even to be understood in mundane encounters). This isn’t to say that once-favored terms could not be correctly evaluated as having been harmful in their day; but if they are so judged, it must be according to the context of their own time, not the current context (e.g., in which it might be considered offensive were I to use the word colored).

Many words that were once standard in psychology have become taboo in certain contexts (e.g., retarded), and may or may not have been harmful in their own era. As condemnation of a word spreads among society, the sinfulness of using the word increases. Moral notions surround the use of an X-ist charged word are not just about uttering those syllables or not, but rather respecting standards of social acceptability as a way of saying, “This is a gesture consistent with believing X-ism is immoral.” Currently, I, along with a small number of other people, think seminal is sexist. If we get to a point where most people believe it is, to use it would take on additional meaning: “I’m the kind of person who refuses not to use seminal.” It would also give the word more power to offend, and thus to harm (i.e., those who are offended by its use would now see themselves as harmed, when they would not have before; perhaps even a kind of socially induced nocebo response would arise), making me wonder if it’s worth pointing out that I think it a sexist term.24

Yet more complexly, DCD means that an act may be considered appropriate, then inappropriate, then appropriate again, according to context, trends in historical analysis, and current social prescriptions. What’s difficult to understand is whether the opinions of each era were correct at that time, given the special historical conditions of that time. Consider changing attitudes among feminists about pornography, generally demarcated by disagreement between generations; perhaps the historical conditions in which pornography exist do determine pornography’s moral status (i.e., the extent to which pornography harms). Perhaps each generation is correct, but perhaps part of why it is correct is connected to a looping effect in which that generation constructs the conditions that make it correct. Which means a generation may be correct about its own era, but not necessarily correct in applying its judgments to other eras, given differing historical (and thus social, cultural, legal, technological, past-historical, global, etc.) contexts.25

Briefly put, the moral status of an activity comes down to the fundamental question: Does it harm? Other questions arise—e.g., for the sake of comparing the relative harm of two or more activities—but this is the universal question that we can apply across time. When we observe a family resemblance between many harmful activities, or for whatever reason wish to group activities according to some significant shared feature, we may give them a collective name, which results in subsets of the broader set of harmful, or immoral, activities. These may be relatively narrow or relatively broad: racistmurdergenocidestealingchild abuseanimal cruelty, and rape are a few of many examples. We also need other category words, such as those that refer to social groups.

Many harmful acts may not belong to any such category, and much effort and rhetoric is not doubt applied to keeping it that way, to keeping a category narrow or wide. How we define rape can have a big impact on laws and policy and, of course, how many cases are considered to have occurred in a given year. However defined, the word becomes a shortcut for saying, “this is a harmful, and thus immoral, act of a certain kind.” The conceptual boundaries of the words in question may change and may take on many connotations within changing historical contexts etc., so that people of different generations are discussing very different range of phenomena while using the same words. Or narrower sub-boundaries may be drawn (the range of pornographic genres has grown drastically in recent years; debaters seem to be increasingly careful to raise points about particular genres when forming their arguments).

But, and this is key, the fundamental question remains the same for any given activity: Does it harm? It’s critical to keep this in mind when discussing moral questions, particularly ones that are highly political.

And so it seems that some phenomena per se yield different answers to Does it harm? in different eras. However, some phenomena, like slavery, are clearly always wrong, regardless of historical context (though, again, the shape of our moral intuitions on this depend to some degree on how we define slavery; thus American slavery’s more accurate designation as chattel slavery). The point is that socially or culturally acceptable doesn’t mean morally acceptable, a result that extends not only across time, but across coexisting cultures. 26 27

An interesting result of all this is that a person (due to moral luck or due to being super-sensitive to the X-ist relevant conditions of their time) might be viewed as X-ist now, but vindicated as pro-X-ist in the future (rightly or wrongly, depending on the moral clarity of the backwards-looking evaluators). But, importantly, not if that person meant to perform X-ist behaviors that turn out to be pro-X-ist. This points to a strange result: The ill-intentioned person who tries, but fails, to be X-ist (contrast this with the well-intention person who tries but fails to be anti-X-ist). 28

So, what to do with these observations? One question it brings to the fore is whether there is some absolute sense in which something is X-ist, or if it is a status that a society defines as it goes along; that is, as culture emerges from society’s interactions. There’s a simple answer to this question, and a complex one. The simple answer is that the moral status of an activity comes down to the extent to which it harms (this is, admittedly, my own basic view of what grounds morality: suffering29). X-ist activities are a subspecies of harmful activities in general; i.e., X-ism broadly refers to people being harmed strictly by virtue of their being a member of a particular, identifiable, social group (usually ostensibly of a “natural kind”). The more complex answer involves things like how the notion of X comes about develops, and is sustained as a concept, and how  membership in {X} is established (these are questions about Social Group Ontology that I’ll save for future discussions; it turns out, unsurprisingly, that X is not a natural kind). From this follows complex questions about feedback loops (as noted above), rewriting history to change past and current contexts, and many other difficulties. I won’t explore these here.

This in mind, I think that, analogous with Dispositional X-ism, acknowledgement of DCD may inspire the question, “How might my current activities be viewed in the future?” when we are morally judging what were considered perfectly acceptable—perhaps even honorable30—cultural practices in the past that now appear to us (correctly or incorrectly) obviously wrong. I’m certainly not condoning any practices on these grounds (remember, I’m a moral absolutist!), but rather am suggesting that we might benefit from imagining how we ourselves are culturally conditioned in ways that are difficult to identify by us as current viewers, and that we should evaluate one another with sensitivity to that difficulty. Examining once honorable practices that now seem clearly wrong might inspire moral humility and promote more instances of (civil) cross-cultural dialog than there otherwise would be. (It will be interesting to see which thoroughly acceptable things asserted and enacted by the most well-intentioned social progressives today will be viewed as appallingly backwards [rightly or wrongly] twenty or fifty years from now.)

Seminal is not currently considered sexist in any popular sense, but were that idea to take hold (well-founded or not), then future usage would take on a more protruded cognitive dimension. One can imagine children two generations from now asking ancient millennials, “How could you use that blatantly sexist word?!?” They may correctly recognize that the word was sexist in the 2000s, but their moral condemnation would be misguided. Just as they’ll be misguided to morally judge people in 1990 for using the phrase he or she, and just as we are sometimes misguided for morally judging writers in the 1950s for the consistent use of he, or of man to mean humanity. These are obvious. I can only guess at what future generations would be horrified by were they to look back on discussions taking place in college Humanities classes these days. 31

IV. Conclusion

Having explored the four dimensions, perhaps we may define X-ism as:

Some combination of cognitions (implicit or explicit), feelings, behaviors, or dispositions in sympathy with the idea that X’s deserve some degree of harm—i.e., to suffer; to have lesser; for their concerns and needs to be given less consideration—strictly by virtue of their being an X, where X is generally considered to be a natural kind, such that one is born an X (even should X turn out to be socially constructed, and even should membership in the group {X} sometimes be voluntary or even denied to natural Xs).

I suspect we won’t find a perfect definition of X-ism, even if we attempt to specify kinds of X-ism (sexism, transphobia, etc.). Perhaps it appears that this definition fails to account for historical conditions for determining what counts as X-ist; for example: due to historical facts, many wouldn’t consider it racist or sexist to favor an equally qualified Latina female applicant over a white (cis) male applicant, strictly due to the latter’s race and sex/gender; but reverse that scenario and it would be considered racist or sexist (this may be further complicated by things like the male applicant being Jewish, gay, or in a lower economic class; and by fine theoretical distinctions, for example between racism and racial bias/prejudice). I think my definition does account for this however, as it relies on a notion of harm that allows for moves that correct systemic X-ism, while precluding the idea that the white male applicant deserves less strictly by virtue of his membership in the groups {White} and {Male}, particularly if that involves an absolute moral norm that is meant to continue indefinitely into the future (e.g., on the grounds that white people are inherently evil).

I also take it that this definition anchors broader or more nuanced variations, such as the idea that X’s are more likely to be evil, or most X’s in this time and place deserve less by virtue of being X’s in this time and place (e.g., on grounds of artificial selection shaping the genetic makeup of a subset of X’s), etc. These variations threaten to get so broad that they render the concept meaningless, and so the above definition grounds them on the presumption that such X-ists ideas imply those X’s that aren’t lesser are exceptional (e.g., have somehow repressed or transcended their X nature in favor of a non-X one).

Notice that this definition describes a mode of being for human persons. For activities and artifacts (including words and institutions or anything else that serve as tools for the expression of X-ist activities) themselves to count as X-ist, I take it that they simply must directly harm (even to a small degree) X’s by virtue of their being X’s.

At this point, the most obvious question left to answer is: What combination of the four dimensions must be in play in order to correctly say that a person is X-ist? I won’t attempt to answer this, but will briefly consider some ways that might be approached.

For a person to be correctly labeled X-ist, there must be some convergence of dimensions, and some magnitude or intensity or valence of each. A more thorough account might actually attempt, though who knows how successfully, to operationalize X-ism by assigning vectors to each dimension–so that we might have, say, .5 (conscious) cognitive, -.03 affective, and .8 behavioral; apply a formula, and we know if the person is X-ist. Perhaps at least attempting such a definition would reveal interesting things about our notions surrounding X-ism, though I’d again like to emphasize caution against attempts to venture too deep into the Dispositional dimension.

Still, X-ism does come in degrees. I mentioned the ideas of this article to a friend, and she said, “Oh, it’s simple. Everyone is sexist.” I don’t see how that’s simple or at all helpful. It would mean that it’s trivial to say Donald Trump is sexist, because we all are. She replied, “Oh, he’s MORE sexist.”

Given that it comes in degrees, perhaps one dimension could be enough if sufficiently robust. For example, I presume X-ist behavior to be neither necessary nor sufficient a condition for justly earning the X-ist label. A person paralyzed from head to foot could, I assume, have enough X-ist beliefs to earn that label (and not just on the Counterfactual-Dispositionalist grounds that were the person able to move, X-ist behaviors would likely ensue). How many such beliefs are enough? Would any system of measurement need to be calibrated according the degree to which a person can move, or even according to mental or neurological maturity? (E.g., young children might get a break.)

We now might as well complicated things further. For example, taking a Bayesian approach by rating the X-ist degree of an agent’s belief according to the probability assigned by the degree of an agent’s credence about an X-ist proposition. For example, if Felix sees an X and assigns an outsized probability to that X’s being bad news, strictly due to the X being an X (or apparent member of a sub-group of X), this could contribute to our measure of Felix’s is X-ism. (Notice that there may be much [politically motivated] debate about what the appropriate probability to assign is in such a case; this may be distinct from debates about what the actual probability is.)

This could quickly get (even more) ridiculous (e.g., we could also view an X-ist actor’s disposition for being robustly X-ist probabilistically). So we need some middle ground between running around calling each other X-ist on the one hand, and on the other hand having a conversation that reflects the complexity of the relationship between individuals, social groups, and the concepts that bind them together. Somehow, in order to be considered a (we might say) robust X-ist, there would need to be some consideration for how these dimensions converge.

Regarding seminal: we see the possibility of someone committing a sexist act without that act being reflective of any ill thoughts or feelings about women, without the actor deserving moral reproach, without meriting being labeled sexist. If it turns out the term isn’t sexist, this is trivially true. If you had a look at the articles I linked, you saw that many readers aren’t convinced that the word is sexist. Suppose they’re wrong. Does this change anything in terms of evaluating those people as potential sexists? Perhaps using the word doesn’t become sexist until people start to believe it is, or perhaps it then becomes more so—due to the effects that the belief creates in users (who might explicitly wish to use it in a women-are-inferior sense) and hearers (who might begin to assume that, as the idea spreads, only those who are insensitive to gender inequality would continue to use it).

At any rate, whether or not seminal is sexist, I presume we all unknowingly possess a collection of similarly subtle X-ist activities (and, in some cases, we knowingly benefit; e.g., men who benefit from systemic sexism; parents whose kids benefit from the poor education received by so many minority students). Our discussions about X-ism should reflect this, and thus should be about illumination of ourselves as well as of others, rather than about knee-jerk accusation.

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Further Reading


  1. For convenience, I use activity to refer to anything an agent does. E.g., thinking and feeling are internal activities; writing and talking are outwardly observable activities.
  2. Different people mean different things by morally blameworthy. Personally, I don’t mean by that term that someone is inherently evil or deserving of punishment. I mean something more like: this person is a persistent source of harm (whether “born” or “made” that way), and should be dealt with as such within some non-retributivist model. You might have a different idea in mind. Either way, the term morally blameworthy represents the broader category in which we operate when we someone is X-ist.
  3. By harm, I mean causing unnecessary suffering. Subjecting your child to the dentist’s drill may cause your child to experience pain, but it doesn’t count as harm.
  4. Contrast this “should know better” approach with another, less nuanced way of talking that treats X-ism as an essential feature of who and what a person is: the person is “born that way”; and so accusations of X-ism play out like the diagnosis of a congenital psychological disorder, which comes along with the old familiar and unfortunate Cartesian stigma: mental illness as an affliction of one’s immaterial soul, a symptom of one’s corrupted essence. I have no sympathy for this view, but will touch on it when appropriate, namely insomuch as “born that way” attitudes often seep into ostensibly “should know better” talk and stories.

    A middle ground might involve a corrupted nurture, a “cannot know better” view, perhaps due to an unfortunate formative education. That is, when one has a system of X-ist beliefs so robust, so tightly woven, that anything that doesn’t neatly fit into it will simply bounce off. This is nurture too far gone; to unravel it would mean a complete dismantling of the person, an undoing of their identity. This, then, may be what we mean by a corrupted essence: it is not an eternal soul, but rather the metaphysical essence of one’s acquired personhood. If this is true, such individuals may be too far gone to be saved, but the cure for this social ill must be early exposure to proper evidence (e.g., early formal education).

  5. Many philosophers observe a technical distinction between a word’s use and its mention. In that sense, I mention the word seminal several times in this writing, but I don’t use it. It seems, however, that if usage can be problematic, mention can be as well (even via euphemism). As an extreme example, imagine a child telling their teacher, “I’d never say <insert string of rude, dirty, racially pejorative profanities>.” Indeed, more than one screenwriter, comedian, and Twitter user (especially!; context matters) has gotten into trouble for their mention being taken as a use. I try to be mindful of this throughout the piece (e.g., by not inserting an actual string of profanities in the above mention of a mention).
  6. For two brilliant studies that touch on this, see: Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), a demythologizing work of critical theory in which she critiques, among other things, the language of warfare with which we characterize cancer; and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, a systematic analysis of metaphor as an inherent feature of human cognition, in which they critique, among other things, the language of warfare with which we characterize argumentation. In these works, metaphors aren’t just ways of talking about things; as Lakoff and Johnson put it: “…we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. … Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war” (page 4) … “Metaphorical thought is normal and ubiquitous in our mental life, both conscious and unconscious. … the metaphors we use determine a great deal about how we live our lives” (page 244).
  7. What, exactly, belief is—a mental event? a pattern of behaviors? the disposition to act in a certain way?—is not a question I address here. For that, see my post: “Do Groups Believe?
  8. There are two complications with worth noting here. First, I’ve observed public figures accused of X-ism for claiming even that some members of a some social group are bad news. The issue here seems to be twofold: (1) That the “X-ist” claim is framed in terms of the social group rather than in terms of humanity more broadly (this, however, is something I fear will be unavoidable so long as social groups continue as we currently form them (an ontological process dependent on our discursive, and other social, activities); it’s also worth noting that this concern often has to do with a statement not being directly X-ist, but being coyly made as an attempt at stirring up X-ist sentiments in those with less nuanced interpretations of such statements, generally as a political maneuver). (2) More significantly, it points to a more complicated (though theoretically more easily correctable) notion of X-ism having to do with (insensitively) assigning an outsized probability, despite salient defeating evidence, to an individual’s likelihood of exhibiting the most condemnable stereotypes about that individual’s presumed social group(s), particularly when strictly by virtue of that individual’s presumed membership in that (or those) social group(s) (or, more precisely, a subset of the social group(s) in question). The appropriate probability to assign need not always directly reflect available evidence, but rather sometimes might amount to a socio-political gesture meant to counterbalance the outsized probability of others thus resulting in an appropriate average. I won’t elaborate on this account here, but it might be the most important observation in this writing!

    The second complication is that individuals may be grouped according to a shared belief system. The social group comprised of X-ists, for example. Or, more specifically, given that not all X-ists are alike, the social group made up of all equally morally blameworthy X-ists. At any rate, I hope it’s clear that I’m not dealing here with arbitrarily thrown together groups. I leave it to the reader’s intuition to recognize what sorts of groups are prone to X-ist treatment. (Interestingly, it is possible for seemingly arbitrary, but ontologically non-trivial, groups to pop up, like the one made up of Pokemon Go players.)

  9. For more on moral ignorance: “Ignorance and Moral Blameworthiness” (2014, by Julia Markovits); “Moral Responsibility and Ignorance” (1997, Michael Zimmerman).
  10. Some today insist that Descartes must have willfully ignored what any sincere observer would agree is overwhelming evidence that dogs feel pain. I’ve often suspected that these folks just don’t want to live in a world in which there’s no one to blame for such heinous acts, particularly given that they were committed at the hand of one of Western history’s most revered minds! I agree, it’s a scary thought.
  11. I wonder what it would have taken to convince him. Some episodes of Lassie and a 20th century undergraduate textbook on neuroscience? At any rate, it’s hard to say whether he would have denounced vivisecting altogether, even if he did feel some remorse. Pain was a taken-for-granted feature of surgery until the advent of ether as an anesthetic in 1846, nearly 200 years after Descartes’ death; and Descartes likely still would have viewed the benefits of scientific advancement, at a time when such a thing was in devastatingly short supply, to outweigh the suffering those advancements caused to animals—indeed, researchers do terrible things to rodents today, often precisely because their brains are similar to human brains, and most people don’t care. Some do, such as the American Anti-Vivisection Society and the National Anti-Vivisection Society.
  12. If you’ve seen the “White Christmas” (2014) episode of Broken Mirror, reflect on the scene where Matt (Jon Hamm’s character) is eating toast while “torturing” the cookie into submission. Judging by online user comments (e.g., on YouTube), many viewers assume that the cookie has experience. Matt’s view on this, however, is ambiguous. He says the cookie is “only code,” but it’s not clear if he means this as, “there’s no more experience there than in the capsized Furby pleading to be turned upright,” or as, “yes, there is experience there, but it doesn’t count because it’s code.”

    My impression is that cookies don’t have experience, and that Matt holds this view as well. That is, cookies have merely been programed to act as though they have experience; more precisely: to act as their host would have in a given situation. Briefly summarized, my evidence for thinking this is: consciousness would not be necessary for the cookie to do its job; consciousness would require vastly more resources to program and run than mere behavior would; it would be highly unethical; we know the cookie is not merely a duplicate of the host’s memory, as the cookie Matt trains does not remember undergoing the cookie procedure; there is no evidence supporting that the cookie is conscious.

    Relevant to the discussion here, let’s suppose that this cookie is conscious. How do we judge Matt? There are three scenarios to contemplate (leaving out complications dealing with evidence; we don’t know what sort of evidence Matt has): (1) Matt ignorantly, but genuinely, believes that the cookie has no experience at all, no more than would a drawing or photo of a person. (2) Matt believes the cookie has experience but thinks it’s “only code,” and thus ignorantly believes that experience “doesn’t count.” Ignorant, that is, because he doesn’t understand that experience is never simulated. If an entity feels pain, that pain is real, whatever stuff the entity happens to be made of. (3) Matt believes the cookie has experience just as robust as that of a human, but only pretends not to in order to rationalize doing his job. Which would you say is the worst of the three?

    (In a terrifying turn, the police officer at the end of the episode seems to think the cookie he aims to “punish”—a cookie, by the way, that has a selection of its host’s episodic memories—does have genuine experience; his colleague seems to think so as well. Shudder-inducing stuff.)

  13. It would be interesting to more closely consider how accumulative activities considered virtuous form X-ism-sustaining social institutions—for example, against social groups whose small numbers fail to provide them with a competitive democratic voice. That is, if a (presumed virtuous) democratic system blocks or marginalizes the interests of a traditionally oppressed minority group, this serves as a public, popularly sanctioned confirmation of a group’s interests being “lesser”; notice, however, that Deep Canvassing, which I refer to later in this section, offers a promising solution to building empathy among larger groups for the interests and circumstances of smaller groups (or empathy among in-group members for out-group members more generally). For a discussion that touches on minority voices (with particular mention given of transgender persons) losing out to democracy, check out this (pro-democracy) interview on the Elucidations podcast: “Episode 84: Amanda Greene discusses the legitimacy of democracy.”
  14. Even once beliefs are occurrent, it may not be so easy to examine them for coherence. Suppose p entails w and q entails not-w. Believing p&q might seem fine until the inconsistency happens to be noticed.
  15. It would be interesting to consider here Karen Jones’s article, “Second-Hand Moral Knowledge” (The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 2 [Feb., 1999], pp. 55-78), in which Peter, a committed anti-sexist, rejects the moral testimony of close (female) friends who have deemed certain acts sexist on the basis of subtle experiences that Peter, as a man, cannot share, and thus cannot understand or factor into his own moral deliberation. On principle, Peter won’t accept moral conclusions he can’t arrive at on his own.
  16. At least not explicit ones. They may require non-conscious cognitions—e.g., implicit bias—but I won’t explore this here.
  17. We have to be very careful here in distinguishing between being better off with something other (a) due to accidental circumstances (even if these feature some hereditary component), particularly ones that must be corrected; versus (b) by virtue of one’s essential nature (spiritual or biological) as an X. For example, in historian Carter Woodson’s 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, he invokes (a) when he writes in Chapter 1, “Instead of teaching such Negro children less arithmetic, they should be taught much more of it than the white children, for the latter attend a graded school consolidated by free transportation when the Negroes go to one-room rented hovels to be taught without equipment and by incompetent teachers educated scarcely beyond the eighth grade.”
  18. For an overview, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia Entry, “Moral Sentimentalism“; for an extended argument, see Michael Brady’s Emotional Insight: The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience.
  19. An obvious high-profile example is that of an unarmed black man being shot by a police officer (of whatever race). In an earlier draft, I touched on this, citing especially from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent book, Between the World and Me (particularly starting on page 78 of the first edition [2014]). I found that I was unable to do justice to the gravity and complexity of the topic—to the complex psychological, socio-cultural and systemic, varying circumstantial, etc. contexts surrounding such cases—by merely touching on it, so instead I’ll direct you to Coates’ book, as well as a recent, somewhat related, Intelligence Squared debate: Policing Is Racially Biased. Part of what I find interesting about the debate is the differing styles of argumentation: the team in favor of the motion largely argues on the basis of anecdotes, personal experience, and historical context; the opposing team mostly relies on data. Coates’ book, by the way, lands for the most part in the former category. While I think data are important (as should anyone who claims to accept things like evolution and climate change), I also think the work of Coates and others is a powerful reminder of the complex, rich human contexts from which cold hard data are drawn. We need a way to make good use of data while not forgetting about the concerns of individuals, families, local communities.
  20. Or at least of the Cognitive and Affective, as these dimensions per se already determine how we are disposed to behave. I won’t explore this complication here.
  21. I can’t know what Obama* or Hillary Clinton’s personal views are or have been, and I can’t know for sure why Obama and Clinton didn’t change their official positions on same-sex marriage to pro until 2012 and 2013, respectively (for perspective, California’s Proposition 8 referendum was in 2008); but I do think it’s worth asking how a politician’s public positions relate to party expectations and popular opinion. Also, it’s important to see how changes of heart (or of public position) can be politicized: Any career-minded Democrat, whatever they actually believe, would be self-sabotaging not to support same-sex marriage these days. Yet, anecdotally, I’ve noticed many Democrats characterizing Obama and Clinton’s reversals as progress (I agree), while continuing to refer to Dick Cheney’s pro-same-sex sentiments, publicly expressed in 2000, as “something Cheney had to do because his daughter is a lesbian, and therefore he deserves no praise” (I disagree; it’s still progress and we should encourage it). Interestingly, I’ve also encountered Republicans adopting this “had no choice” view of Cheney’s statements, except in order to say, “…therefore Cheney deserves no blame” (these quotes are paraphrased from discussion board comments I’ve seen and in-person conversations I’ve had with various people).

    I won’t go much into this here, but I will say that I take politically strategic reversals to be progress namely because there does seem to be a kind of classical social cognitive dissonance resolution such that progressive behaviors, and the policies that follow, lead to positive attitudes, particularly in those who are raised with such behaviors. To be clear, this is progress only if the behaviors themselves are moral improvements, not because they express the will of the people: if popular opinions about same-sex marriage reversed back to contra, I would not consider it progress for the governing class to follow suit.

    *My gut suspicion pre-2012 was that Obama (who had expressed strong support for same-sex marriage in 1996) was pretending to be against same-sex marriage (while pro civil unions) in order enhance his appeal among black Christian voters. In 2015, this was confirmed by Obama’s election strategist, David Axelrod. Obama soon responded in a somewhat difficult-to-interpret BuzzFeed interview, claiming that he does distinguish between his personal and public positions, a distinction he seems to boil down to semantics (i.e., the term civil union versus marriage); it seems his evolution on the matter was the realization that what things are called matters. He seems to suggest that his semantic choice was politically motivated, but then suggests it was indeed civil unions, rather than “marriage per se,” he was personally in favor of from the beginning. I sympathize with the difficult position of having to remain sensitive to voters on controversial issues in order to get into office to effect change. If Obama’s semantic maneuver qualifies as a “dirty hands” strategy, I think it does so only barely, and would be one that seems to have worked out favorably in the end. Here’s a thoughtful piece on Four Emerging/Competing Views of the Black Church on Homosexuality, which suggests (disapprovingly) that attitudes about homosexuality may be loosening in some quarters of the black Church following, and likely influenced by, Obama’s 2012 endorsement.

  22. A glaring example, particularly for white Americans, is the question, “Had I lived in the U.S. in the 1830s, or even earlier, would I have been an abolitionist?” This is an impossible question to answer. But you can think about how you respond to current analogous situations. For example, for the last 15 years or so, some big chocolate companies have been pushing against federal policies that would publicize their reliance on child slaves—that is, children held and forced by threat of violence to perform free labor. More generally, the evidence for slavery’s current prominence is strong. There are an estimated 20 to 30 million slaves in the world. For more on this, check out Kevin Bales’ Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy; there’s also a Peabody-Award-winning (2001) documentary: Slavery: A Global Investigation; and a website:
  23. For example, I vehemently reject the idea that the coup of Chile in 1973 is vindicated by standards of living eventually surpassing those of ’73; a Central American grad student in Economics once tried to persuade me on those grounds. Similarly, I was once told by a (black American) minister that American slavery should be viewed as a blessing from God in that it made possible the salvation of millions of people of African descent. I emphatically reject this. I’m curious to know more, however, about how black Christians reconcile the idea that God let slavery happen. Does it fall under God working in mysterious ways as a part of a larger divine plan? A manifest expression of Satan’s worldly dominance? A sin perpetrated by non-Christians? Or is it something else entirely? If you personally know about this or know of any good writings, please fill me in. (A few Google searches revealed little by way of a direct response to this question, though did bring up the Reverend Earl Carter, whose sentiments more or less align with those of the above minister.)
  24. One might wonder if there could eventually arise a kind of feminist move of appropriating the word in explicitly feminist terms, the way other social groups have appropriated pejoratives about their groups.
  25. The term looping effect is after Ian Hacking. For a rigorous exploration of this sort of phenomenon, see his 2000 book The Social Construction of What? This phenomenon also has relevance for contemporary discussions about victim culture on college campuses (see the chapter, “Kind-Making: The Case of Child Abuse”).
  26. Strangely, some people still disagree with this. Recently, I was in a discussion about cultural relativism with a small group of Columbia University undergraduates. I brought up the example of American slavery as a clearly condemnable practice that was once culturally acceptable. One of the students declared—biting the bullet—that slavery must not have been wrong at that time, on the grounds of cultural relativism as a basis for morality, while another student in our group was unsure of what to say about it. I presume this was mostly an instance of theory beating out practical ethics due to our discussion happening in the context of a college classroom (something I’ve observed on many an occasion), though it was still certainly surprising hearing this opinion from a female student of color. On the other hand, I’ve encountered similarly founded opinions more strongly and methodically expressed—resulting in long arguments—on a range of what I take to be clearly morally wrong acts, including the 9/11 attacks and female genital mutilation. I’ll have more to say about this in a future writing, involving, for example, the paradox of morally judging the members of a culture for engaging in their standard cultural practice of morally judging cultural practices, on the grounds that its wrong to morally judge members of a culture for engaging in the standard practices of their culture.
  27. A recent example of backwards-looking judgment might be the November 2016 protest by a group of transgender students at a Q&A with Kimberly Peirce following a screening of her 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. The protest began before the event itself, when some of the students removed event posters, and put up their own signs reading things like, “Fuck this cis white bitch” (that was on the speaker’s podium; I should also note that other posters were not offensively worded, e.g., “trans is invincible”). Apparently, the students were responding to, among other things, the film’s casting of a cis woman in the role of a (real-life) transgender man, as well as the way in which the story (in their estimation) exploited that person’s life, suffering, and death for profit.

    Understandably, many who are familiar with the film’s history have pointed out that the its release, critical, and popular success constituted an advancement in bringing awareness to the transgender situation and the potential horrors thereof. I’ll direct your attention to this piece on the protest: Hiding the Tears in My Eyes – BOYS DON’T CRY – A Legacy. I urge you to read the comments, most of which defend Peirce and the film, or at least condemn the protestors. The comments get particularly interesting when a person claiming to be one of the protestors enters, describing on their behalf what I understand to be the following position: The protestors are aware of the film’s historical context. Its moral status in 1999 is one thing, but now that film is not what should represent trans concerns in discussions claiming to hold those concerns as central. If Peirce truly cared about and were sensitive to trans concerns, she would would retire it from the current discourse, where a trans-themed film staring a cis woman hurts the cause.

    This strikes me as a legitimate and understandable concern. It also strikes me that name-calling is absolutely the wrong way to get people to listen to this concern, to start a dialogue. I suspect, though, that not all the protestors were on board with these tactics (particularly not at the offset), and clearly many trans folks wouldn’t be (some of whom commented on the above-linked article). I hope we can separate this and other important messages from the offending maneuvers of a few misguided students as we go forward into these impossibly complex, emotionally charged, and historically rife-with-injustice social territories.

  28. I’m reminded here of “White Trash” (Episode 3, Season 1) of Maria Bamford’s show, Lady Dynamite, recommendable at least for its complicated portrayal of mental illness).
  29. I recognize, however, that this does not fit neatly into most current conceptions of morality. For example, one could murder an innocent person in some way that avoids suffering: the person is murdered in their sleep (or perhaps even by some pleasurable means), and the person has no friends or family to mourn the loss; indeed, the person’s absence might benefit some people. Perhaps the person who commits the act is a psychopath who derives intense pleasure from killing. We would still consider it morally wrong (and certainly illegal, but that’s another question).

    This scenario poses a problem not only to my own moral philosophy and intuitions, but also to those of other systems I’m aware of. Some philosophers try to address this with ideas about denying someone a future, though, aside from being philosophically flawed, these turn out to have uncomfortable (at least for Lefties) political implications for abortion.

  30. I’m reminded here of pederasty in the histories of Japan and Ancient Greece. An interesting aside: Pederasty refers to sexual relations between adult men and teenage boys. Historically speaking, the closest word for such relations among adult men and teenage girls is marriage. In the retrospection of history, as well as in the popular consciousness more broadly, this sort of relation gets treated differently than the pederastic relation, probably due to factors related to childbearing, views about homosexuality (e.g., homophobia), and the differing evaluations of male and female experience that result from our long history of oppressing women (e.g., Whenever I see a news item about a teenage female having sex with her adult male teacher, she’s generally viewed as a victim; when a teenage male is found to be having sex with his adult female teacher, he’s often characterized as lucky, or even a hero.

    I understand that the context of historical and systemic sexism is significant in the case of the female student. But I also often wonder if casting the female student as a victim perpetuates the idea that young women cannot make decisions for themselves. Casting the young male as a hero of course perpetuates the idea of males not only as autonomous moral agents, but also as sexual dominants, particularly given that teenage girls are cast as incapable of making such decisions. I suspect, to put it over-simply, the reality is that in some cases the male student is a victim, sometimes he’s a reasonably consenting agent; and the same goes for the female student, but with more to worry about [e.g., getting pregnant; being seen as a victim and, perhaps, thus as ruined or tainted; being seen as a “slut”… some of these worries have more to do with social attitudes and cultural practices about gender than with sex or romance per se; I’m reminded here of reports I’ve read from Korean comfort women (who of course were, unambiguously, victims; we don’t need anything like a sophisticated social theory to see that) who said they found their treatment—i.e., as tainted, dirty, ruined, etc.—once back home even worse than the experience of being a comfort woman]. That these cases tend to all be viewed through the same lens is standard for humans: “When faced with complexity, build a conceptual model and stick to it with the hope/assumption/conviction that it either somehow really does apply to all cases, will average out in the end, or at least will result in my belief system [e.g., my religious/socio-political/scientific… views] coming out on top.”).

  31. Provided, that is, the efforts to unroot invisible systems and sources of oppressive power continue, a practice especially gaining momentum following the Cold War (an era whose extreme anti-Marxism saw the replacement of material bodies with immaterial identities as acceptable frames for discourse; an era in which Marx was replaced by Foucault as the go-to intellectual guru). I hope these efforts continue, but with the reintroduction of materialist concerns into our discursive practices.

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