Kate Manne in the NY Times

Kate Manne writes this week’s The Stone column in the NY Times, focusing on humanity, humanism, and race- and gender-based oppression. Here’s an excerpt:

I used to be a humanist in this sense of the term. But I am fast losing my religion. Dehumanization increasingly seems to me to be merely a symptom of the problem. The problem being precisely that black people are being seen as people — and they are seen as being threatening, and taken down, because of it.

The humanist line on Ferguson is unduly optimistic, and rests on a psychologically dubious assumption. Namely, that when people who have historically enjoyed a dominant position in society (in this case white men) come to recognize historically subordinated people (racial minorities, women) as their moral and social equals, they will welcome the newcomers.  But seeing others as similar to ourselves can lead to hostility and resentment under certain conditions. It’s true that Orwell’s vision of a person running across the battlefield holding up his trousers during the Spanish civil war transformed an enemy combatant into a vulnerable human being in his eyes — someone who must have been undressed or indisposed moments before the gunfire started. But this humanizing vision involved no loss of status for Orwell. He felt sorry for the man. He saw him as ridiculous.

The situation is different when it comes to white men’s perception of non-whites and women. Over time, as the fight for equality has allowed some advancement and social mobility for racial minorities, as well as for women, toward what we might call the inner circle of humanity, white men have experienced a relative loss of status. And they now have more rivals for desirable positions. Add to that the fact that they may find themselves surpassed by those they tacitly expected to be in social positions beneath them, and we have a recipe for resentment and the desire to regain dominance.

9 thoughts on “Kate Manne in the NY Times

  1. What Manne says makes a lot of sense: white people see their interests, power and money, threatened by blacks just as males see their interests threatened by women. Groups which see their interests threatened often react with violence.

    Of course, one can point out that everyone’s “real” interests lie in a just society, where there is no sexism or racism, but convincing people who see power and money as what counts in life that social justice matters more is an uphill struggle, to say the least.

  2. I think Manne is right, and I would even expand on it further.

    Manne makes a very important point when she says that a lot of racist attitudes depend on acknowledging the humanity of the hated group and saying that the people in that group must be punished and kept subordinate. This urge to discipline and punish is not something we ever get with mere things.

    I would go farther and say that many racists and other haters are operating with a concept of *negative* moral status. A person is someone who you might have a duty to honor or punish. Something with negative moral status is something that shouldn’t be at all. Something you have a duty to blot out. Punishing racism is motivated by a desire for hierarchy. This more genocidal racism is motivated by disgust. You see this happen when haters move from calling the hated group “animals” to calling them “cockroaches.”

    A lot of these attitudes have been untheorized by philosophers (at least in my limited experience) because we are used to thinking of an opposition between selfishness (bad) and moral systems which pull us out of selfishness (good). This is at least the the way Plato and Kant think of things. But really there are “moral” systems which pull us out of selfishness that are actively awful, and these are driving most of the injustice in the world.

  3. rloftis, I too think Manne is right. But I’m chary of your claim that racists are operating out of a belief that the group they hate shouldn’t be at all. Often, racists believe that the hated group should be, all right, because that group is supposed to shine my shoes and clean my toilets and do all the other service jobs my group is too important to do. And for sure, racists know that the group they hate is comprised of persons. Many of them get off on treating them the way they do BECAUSE they’re persons.

  4. Here in Texas sometimes things are a bit different. The leading candidate for governor is helped by a rock-singer, Ted Nugent, who declared Obama is a ‘sub-human mongrel’. Nugent sort-of apologized, an incident discussed wisely in the New Yorker.

  5. Anne, sure, bigots say things like that all the time. But they don’t actually believe the subordinated group is sub-human. Morally and socially and in all other ways inferior to Us, to be sure, but there is a frisson there too–they get off on subordinating those persons.

  6. Hi, hlinde. I meant more to address the idea of Manne’s that progress has led to a change. She says, ‘Over time, as the fight for equality has allowed some advancement and social mobility for racial minorities, as well as for women, toward what we might call the inner circle of humanity…’ I’m not sure the message has gotten to everyone. Not that Manne is claiming everyone has it, but we might remind ourselves the issue of universality is additional.

  7. Manne has a very good point, and for me it’s really about status or standing, not primarily interests, wealth etc. As long as “insert social group” is beneath me in the hierarchy, I can accept a comparatively low status in my peer-group. But when “insert social group” gets uppity, my status (about which I am already insecure) is threatened, so I need to teach them their place.
    The less it becomes acceptable to openly acknowledge and enforce the lower status of “insert social group”, the more frenzied the need to do it becomes. This also explains why respectful, non-violent protest meets with the worst reaction: the protesters are showing their maturity / responsibility: the worst kind of uppity. And a PoC as POTUS is the ultimate target for being “taught his place”.

    With this view in mind, the issue is not learning to value social justice vs. power and money, but learning that respect and (self-)worth is not contingent upon status. Learn to respect yourself unconditionally, and you can equally respect others.

  8. I take it that Kate was simplifying things a bit given the forum is a popular column.

    But the main point still came through and is super interesting. This is by *far* the most interesting Stone column I’ve seen. It’s both relevant *and* thought-provoking. Well done!

Comments are closed.