Whatever Happened to Understanding the Authors we Cite?

James Baldwin understood moral complexity, but James Baldwin also understood power and privilege. This New York Times article (asking Whatever Happened to Moral Rigor) purportedly holds up Baldwin as a thinker in whose footsteps we ought to follow. But it also uses him to criticise recent trends associated with things like the #MeToo movement, which seems to fly in the fact of the fact that so much of what Baldwin wrote had to do with injustice and inequality. It seems insulting to use a person who made great contributions to the literature on racial justice, in the service of a cause that most feminists are painfully familiar with: asking “what about the men?” Lee Siegel bemoans what he sees as our rush to moral condemnation and our relatively recent lack of willingness to suspend moral judgement in many cases (and of course the cases he considers are those of sexual harassment/assault, and racial profiling). He takes this as a sign of a collective decline in moral rigour and a general social unwillingness to engage with genuine moral complexity. In his article, Siegel writes,

If, in a spirit of free intellectual and imaginative inquiry, you dared to suggest that a man who masturbated in front of a woman he barely knew without her consent might have been acting out, in an attitude of aggressive contempt, his own shame and emasculation — if you tried to understand his actions, without justifying them — you would be shouted down and vilified.

Imagine the outcry if you went further and speculated about why Harvey Weinstein allegedly manipulated some actresses dependent on his power into watching him while he was naked. Could it be that Mr. Weinstein, who reportedly had often been mocked for his appearance, wanted to dehumanize these women as well, while at the same time turning himself into a person who is watched and admired, like a person of beauty?

The problem is, plenty of feminists do this kind of speculation. Plenty of feminists, and philosophers who write about oppression more generally, talk about the reasons why oppression exists, and why people are treated poorly as a result of it. And plenty of feminists even write about the problems that patriarchy causes for men. bell hooks, in her Feminism is for Everybody, writes (in a chapter about feminist masculinity!) that

what is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis for identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.

This sounds an awful lot like an explanation of why patriarchal masculinity might result in people like Harvey Weinstein acting in the way that they do. But guess what? It’s perfectly compatible to say that there are social factors that result in people becoming sexual predators while at the very same time condemning that predatory behaviour. I’m not sure what made that bit of logical complexity go unnoticed in this article, but it seems like quite the oversight.

The point is that a lack of empathy for men (see also: Kate Manne’s concept of himpathy) is not the driving and urgent problem facing us today. In a society in which assault victims are regularly disbelieved, and people tend to be very sympathetic to perpetrators, especially those who are young and white, what we need is more justice, and more ways to dismantle the oppressive social structures that enable and exonerate predatory behaviour. Doing that without condemning that behaviour seems quite difficult, and really, why would we want to refrain from condemning it? It’s possible to condemn things like sexual assault and simultaneously argue against seeing perpetrators as some kind of moral monster (at least I happen to think so).

Just to close this rant with a bit more Baldwin, though. I think Baldwin did understand disagreement and moral complexity, but he also understood ways in which one might come to view one’s oppressors as terrible people.

Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning—and neither can this be overstated—a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him—for that is what it is—is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.

Maybe there’ll be a bit more room for more moral complexity after we’ve made room for believing BIPOC, women, disabled people, and all the rest of us. I’ll look forward to that.

4 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Understanding the Authors we Cite?

  1. Perhaps this is relevant: “His unwillingness to abuse his position as a tutor and sleep with a sixteen-year-old caused a decades long shame so acute he finally had to exorcise it, 13 years after the fact, in the pages of a national magazine, copiously detailing the years of regret and resentment he endured. Siegel did not commit an act of pedophilia (or, for that matter, statutory rape), and he spent a decade plus feeling ashamed of it. And now, he has the gall to accuse Kincaid of pedophilia for believing that our culture sexualizes children. Children, like the sixteen year old English student who “an open face and slightly swelled features and pale blue eyes that seemed wide with surprise and also moist with deep recognition of the nature of their surprise…[and] looked like she was on the brink of physical ecstasy.”” http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2006/08/projection.html

  2. You had me until the last bit, which sure seems like it makes Siegel’s case for him. Siegel’s bemoaning the fact that lots of people appear unable to see moral differences between things like violent rape and sexual harassment, or between police killing of an unarmed black man and retail clerk profiling.

    But your last point (any maybe Baldwin’s too) is something along the lines of, “Well, you can’t expect people who are victims of this level of oppression to take an objective, nuanced look at things. Talk to me when we have a freer society.”

  3. That’s certainly not what I intended as my last point so maybe I should have made it more clearly. I think that when Siegel uses the term “moral complexity,” he is really talking about more sympathy for offenders. If he is talking about trying to understand the social factors leading to them becoming offenders, then there is lots of philosophical work on that already much of which is done by people from marginalized groups. So if it’s that sympathy he wants, let’s talk about making society better first, and then maybe later we can entertain the idea of being sympathetic towards the people who have been making it worse.

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