Daughters of the Dust

(From wiki) Daughters of the Dust is a 1991 independent film written, directed and produced by Julie Dash and is the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States.[1] Set in 1902, it tells the story of three generations of Gullah (also known as Geechee) women in the Peazant family on St. Helena Island as they prepare to migrate to the North on the mainland.

From ‘Watching’ in the NY Times

Hume, Bloom, and White Privilege: Update

Update: Correspondence with Janine Jones made me realize that I hadn’t gotten her view right. Since her view is being expressed in a paper in progress, I’m going to wait until I see the final version before I try again to present it.

In the meantime, I realized that I had really stated what could be read as a very strong thesis, one that might say no white people had any sense of the moral status of people of color. I’m grateful that no one in comments took me on for such a thesis, which is clearly false. Blog posts are not well worked over philosphy papers; if they were, I’d post very little indeed.

I also think that there’s an underlying concern that really isn’t about race or ethnicity. Claims of marginalization in Anglo-American philosophy can be made on behalf of members of many different groups, based on class, nationality, gender/gender-orientation, body-type, school prestige, and more. John Dovidio and his group at Yale in psychology have spent decades looking at the effects of insider-outsider status. Some emphasis has been on health fields, but I stronly recommend philosophers look closely at the work that has emerged.


A really brilliant paper at the 2017 Pacific by Janine Jones (UNC, Greenboro) led me to think I might finally understand why the feminism I am so invested in remains, at least for many people of color, white feminism. Her paper claimed that even well meaning white people fail in extending their empathy to people of color. The central problem, according to Jones as I understood her, is that we cannot share “the others'” perspective. Indeed, we don’t even try.***

I want first to look at another articulation of the white lack of empathy.  That is captured by the quotes below from WHY I’M NO LONGER TALKING TO WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACE by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

Next we will consider Hume, and Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy:  the case for rational compassion.   The word ’empathy’ and the 18th century word ‘sympathy’ are much the same in meaning.  As such, Bloom has recently objected to its having a role in morality while Hume is very pro-sympathy.  So nearer the end of this post, I’ll say why they are being brought in.

I suppose one example of the disconnect among white feminists and women of color became evident when women (in North American?  Elsewhere?) stage a ‘night out’ in often scanty clothing and sometimes calling themselves “Ho’s”.  The point being that such behavior was not an excuse for rape.  Then some members of the black commmunity objected that calling themselves “Ho'” would not be ironic or amusing to black women.  Why hadn’t white women seen that?

I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us. This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.

Why are white people so oblivious?

It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears.   The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further. That’s the emotional disconnect. It’s not really surprising, because they’ve never known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own.

What helps to hold their ignorance in place?

I’ve written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.

 Though Hume sees empathy as important to the foundation of morality and Bloom opposes that idea, each sees as vitally important our having an inclusive idea of the human moral community as having members very different from ourselves.

The question I want to ask is whether either sees that effective inclusion may require a great deal of work on our parts. And this is not, as each sees, because we need to let go of our specific interests. Rather, we need to get, as far as possible, a grasp of others’ specific interests.

And there is another and even more worrying question: is their confidence in our grasping the morally necessary perspectives in fact encouraging their readers to think they are already equipped for inclusiveness?  Is a deeply entrenched style of theorizing a source of the problem philosophy itself has with diversity?

***The Title of Jones’ paper is: “Disappearing Black People Through White Empathy”. Is (or a near relative of it) will be forthcoming from OUP in a volume on feminist philosophy of mind, edited by McWeeney and Maitra

On Westminster Bridge

From Ricard Menary on Facebook.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Wordsworth – Composed upon Westminster bridge.

We will still have the wit to see beauty like this.

Evolution: survival of the fittest? Maybe not, acording to female birds.

I’ve been watching ducks recently.  Mallard ducks show the remarkable difference beteen the fairly drab female and the quite glamorous male.  Is this just another case of an unfair asymmetry in nature?

Maybe not. An opposing proposal is that what we are seeing is the effect of female avian aesthetics.  Females are generally those who select the partner in a pair.  What we see is the effect of their taste, shared to some extent by females of at least one other species. Namely, human beings.

Another interesting fact is that female aesthetic preference does not always pick out the fitter male bird, fitter, that is, in birdly things like flight.  In fact, it very much looks as though the song of one species is improved by wing configurations that, when increased, create a bird less capable of good flying.

Yale Professor Richard O. Prum argues, as it is put, that sexual selection, unlike natural selection, is not always selection of the fittest. In fact, he thinks it is based on female avian sexual aesthetics.

To grasp his view, a little bit of history is in order. Darwin famously proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, what is often called survival of the fittest. To put it simply, living things vary in their inherited traits, from speed to color to sense of smell. The traits of the individuals who survive longer and have the most offspring become more common. So, over time, the faster antelope have more young, the fastest of them have more offspring, and antelope end up very speedy.

But reproduction isn’t just about surviving and staying healthy long enough to mate. You have to find a mate. And in many species, your mate must choose you. This process is sexual selection. Female birds are often the ones choosing. And their choices can produce male birds that are incredibly colorful, and some that are elaborate dancers or designers of striking boudoirs — like the bower birds. If, for example, females like males with long tails, then long-tailed males have more offspring, and the longest-tailed of those offspring reproduce more. In the end, that species becomes known for its long tails.

Whether he is generally right, there do seem to be cases of sexual selection that can degrade the species. What does this say about the survival of the fittest?

Crudely natural selection is supposed to select for those who meet the challenges in their environment in a way that enhances reproductive success. But if we include getting selected as a mate, then overall fitness need not be enhanced in the species. Or so two articles in the NY Times seem to suggest. See here and here. To be accurate, though, I don’t think anyone writing sees any problem in distinguishing natural from sexual selection. Justifying the distinction is another matter, or so Professor Prum’s reference to free will for female birds could indicate. See the end of the second article:


Once organisms evolve the capacity for subjective evaluation, and the freedom of choice, then animals become agents in their own evolution. One of the hallmarks of autonomy, of course, is the freedom to mess up




On Ageing: Nussbaum now online

(See comment 3 for URL.)

Martha Nussbaum will give a Kyoto Prize lecture tomorrow (May 10) in Oxford on ageing.  Here’s the impotant abstract:

The category of age is the only category of discrimination that includes all human beings – if they live long enough. With other categories – racial, caste-based, ethno-religious, gender-based, sexual, and disability-based, the dominant group can view itself as immune from the traits it imputes to the group targeted for discrimination. Because age and its signs are associated with death, this condition is regarded with particular fear and with a disgust closely linked to fear. It is thus no surprise that one of the most tenacious types of prejudice in all societies is prejudice against people who are aging. They are stigmatized in popular culture and discourse, and very often law gives sanction to those forms of stigma.

The bodies of aging people remind younger people of their own frailty and mortality, and popular discourse portrays those bodies as incompetent, unattractive, even revolting. Moreover, even aging people themselves often come to feel disgust with their own bodies, as new research proposes. This stigma is itself a social problem, producing much unhappiness, and it leads to various forms of injustice, such as discrimination against aging people in employment and in informal social interactions, not to mention the huge social evil of compulsory retirement. Age may well be the new issue for our time, since discrimination on the basis of age deprives all societies of valuable human capital. After situating this case in the context of her theory of disgust and stigma, Dr Nussbaum will focus on the special aspects of this case.

I wonder about her idea that the bodies of ageing people remind the young of their own fragility.  I am a bit embarrassed to recall my much earlier conviction that the ageing bodies showed these people could not have lived good lives.


A Concern Discussed at a session at the Pacific APA

I don’t think anything is gained by my identifying either the session or the speakers, particularly since the problem is quite general.  I should say that in the remarks I mention, both very mainstream analytic philosophy and philosophy of race and gender were discussed.

A speaker remarked that there was little feminist work done in an analytic area.  In the discussion another philosopher maintained that in fact there was on-going work by feminists in that area, but that it challenged the structure the speaker used to define the area.  The voices of such feminist philosophers are mostly at least muted since (a) it is extremely difficult to get such work published, and (b) if it does get into print, just about no one reads it or discusses it.  Several other women at the meeting registered that it was good that we were talking about gate-keepers.  Afterward a women who had given a paper I thought genuinely brilliant and illuminating told me that she had given up on publishing in journals and now relied on being invited to publish.

Another kind of example:  A recent paper in a visible publication said its main idea came from an impressive book by a woman philosopher.  Previously two mainstream presses had said they couldn’t find anyone to review it, and another editor completely reversed the main thesis and then rejected it as not interesting.

Our profession can ill-afford such silencing.  One remarkable contribution outsiders can make to a profession is to provide new and critical perspectives on traditional topics.  This contribution is just lost if people refuse to consider it.

Probably we all get self-published books from people who have discovered the secret of the universe.  In contrast, the outsiders I am describing tend to be highly credentialed.

Nancy potter on defiance & the social imaginary

The lecture looks fascinating. I’ve just ordered two of her books.


Reminder: Royal Institute of Philosophy Public Lecture at the University of Kent

1 March 2017, 3 pm – 5 pm
‘“Difficult people”: A theory of defiance and the role of the social imaginary’
Nancy Potter, Louisville

Abstract: Difficult and defiant people present problems to social cohesion, to law enforcement, to education, to psychiatry, and to the juridical system. But whose problems are these, and who bears the burden of responsibility to understand and address this problem? For example, Black children are suspended, referred to law enforcement or psychiatry, physically restrained, and expelled from school at a disproportionately higher rate than whites are. They may get diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Although some defiant people have gone down in history as heroes, most defiant people are vulnerable to being interpreted as criminals, as dangerous to the social fabric of society, or having a personality disorder such as Antisocial Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. In order correctly to interpret defiant behaviour, we need a theory of defiance. This paper gives a short version of that theory, focusing on the role that oppressive norms and the social imaginary play in conceptualizing certain people as exhibiting ‘mad or bad’ defiance. I argue that sometimes defiance is good and, as such, requires that teachers, law enforcement, social workers, and psychiatrists need to grapple with the difficult social imaginary. Understanding the social imaginary as both historically given and as contingent allows those in authoritative positions to work collaboratively in creative, engaged change. One ingredient in a shift toward creating an instituting, rather than instituted, social imaginary is to give uptake to those who exhibit—or seem to exhibit—defiant behaviour. I present cases to illustrate these ideas.

All are welcome to attend. The lecture will be held at Keynes Lecture Theatre 2:

Funding generously provided by the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

Questions about the series can be directed to: Camillia Kong, c.e.h.kong@kent.ac.uk