Diversify or Die

There’s an interesting piece in the Stone today on the consequences of philosophy’s Anglo-European blinders: If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is. Garfield and Van Norden suggest that the systematic failure to address non-Western sources impoverishes the discipline and belies any claim to universality. And what a wonderfully provocative list of addenda they suggest!

We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the “Bhagavad Gita” as they do the “Republic,” that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926-2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’s, that Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), Kwazi Wiredu (1931- ), Lame Deer (1903-1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.

Thus, the more appropriate title for our departments would be “European and American Philosophy.” On balance, I applaud this argument: we ought to aim to live up to the universality of our disciplinary self-conception, or give up that self-conception entirely.

When I think about diversifying my own syllabi, I almost never reach for Asian philosophers. I aim for gender parity first, racial diversity second, and usually end up with only a few thinkers from outside the Euro-American tradition. Sometimes none. I am scared to get Confucius or Mencius or Wiredu wrong, and I’m worried about orientalizing or exoticizing their traditions. These are obviously resolvable anxieties, given a sincere commitment, but they exist. I have a comfort zone, I push against it in some ways but not in others, and there are biases in the patterns of which ways I leave the comfort zone that I must address.

My biases, though, largely reproduce the biases in the discipline as a whole. And it would be much easier for me to correct my individual failings if the profession would work with me, if my training had worked on me. Why didn’t my graduate school train these biases out of me? Kristie Dotson’s How is this Paper Philosophy? is my go-to answer for this question. I think it’s crucial, but it’s hard to excerpt well, so read it!

… … …

Okay, you’re back? Basically, philosophers are constantly engaged in a dual game of legitimating their work as philosophy and working to reconstitute the borders of what counts as philosophy. These practices–simultaneously forcing people to justify their projects and choices in terms of a shifting standard of legitimate philosophical research–are how we end up treating Chinese or Native American philosophy as merely “inert ideas,” or worse, as “religion, mythology, storytelling, poetry, or ‘dancing’ (as Levinas once so generously declared).”

This has the effect of making philosophy a mostly white man’s game, because what Dotson calls “diverse practitioners” usually find that philosophical borders are being continually redrawn to exclude them. Of course, she writes the essay in defense of Black American, feminist, and queer philosophy, but the point stands: Asians are excluded by the kind of discipline that philosophy has become.

So I think it’s not enough to say philosophy has a budget problem. It does! But maybe it wouldn’t have quite as bad a budget problem if there weren’t so many faculty working on the semantics of the left parenthesis. The discipline became scholastic to avoid the big ideological fights of the last half century, and now is paying the price.

Attending to other traditions might produce more majors and philosophy departments would be richer both financially and ideologically and could then be doing better work. But it’s still an open question which traditions to prioritize, since these decisions get made one hire at a time. The Garfield/Van Norden piece gestures towards African and Latin American philosophy, but it’s part of a project to specifically increase attention to Chinese philosophy. That seems good, but I do also want to see a continued? renewed? nascent? long-delayed emphasis on Black American philosophy, as well as a re-commitment to feminism.

Forgiveness and Revenge Seminar Retrospective

Whenever I teach an advanced class of thoughtful students, I like to offer a short retrospective at the end of the semester. I sit down without my notes or texts and try to makes sense of what we have done.

Below, you’ll find the retrospective I shared on our last day. (As background, we read five main texts with supporting articles: William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye, Susan Brison’s AftermathAntjie Krog’s Country of My SkullJoshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapeland Sara Ruddick’s Maternal ThinkingOther major figures: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Desmond Tutu, Maria Chenowith and Erica Stephan, David Kennedy, Susan Griffin, and Hannah Arendt. (Yes, this is too much! Yet the students were game and actually kept up with the reading, which was pretty satisfying.)

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Torture, Violence]

We began the class with William Ian Miller’s book Eye for an Eye on talionic cultures. For Miller (no relation, sadly), the cultures of honor that celebrate revenge and reprisal have a few distinctive features: they recognize the legitimacy of resentments and retributive desires and they try to channel those desires through procedures that limit their harmfulness. Thus they respond to the threat of revenge by quantifying harms and restricting reprisal. These cultures are sometimes thought of as primitive, but in vengeance they show remarkable insight and ingenuity. Miller makes much of the fact that revenge involves parties at odds who are trying to get even, and at times these metaphors suggest a seemingly inexorable calculation in justice, one which legitimates payback and every other possible settling-of-accounts.

One of the most interesting parts of Miller’s book is his account of how Christian theories of forgiveness seem to echo and rhyme with the original accounting that the scales of justice entail. St. Paul seemed to suggest that we forgive because vengeance is for the Lord, and so by repaying harms with kindness, we heap coals upon our perpetrator’s head. It almost looks as if the deprivation of punishment in life is a designed to lengthen the sentence or intensify the damnation to be carried out after death. For Miller, the best account of the quality of revenge comes in our discussion of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, because there we see the demand for forgiveness made by a superior foe, because Shylock seeks revenge as proof of his own humanity, and is denied it as proof of the inferiority of his Jewishness.

The echoes with Coates’ work on reparations struck a chord with the entire class. Ultimately Coates suggests that payback is required for spiritual renewal, that Blacks and whites cannot know forgiveness until we settle accounts. So long as Black children must deal with the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and the continual plunder of Black wealth by whites, calls for racial justice will be cheap talk. Coates certainly set the bar high, and I don’t know that we have yet found an argument to gainsay him, except that the racial accounting he demands is too difficult for us to bear. But Coates can easily see that we are unwilling to pay what we owe; the question is what hope there can be for equality so long as this debt remains unpaid.

Here, the South African experience ought to be instructive. When philosophers write books on forgiveness, we can never seem to do anything better than refer to Desmond Tutu, whose warm celebration of the strength and power of forgiveness strike us all as somehow worthy of emulation. And it’s in Tutu that we start to see the opposite side of Coates’ argument. Coates sets the stakes very high; for Tutu they were even higher, because his book and his constant refrain was that there can be no future without forgiveness. This is an interesting formulation: it does not promise South Africa an easy path, but rather makes a simple logical point: forgiveness is necessary. It may not be easy, it may not be fair, and it may not even be sufficient. But without it, the country is stuck.

Reading Antjie Krog’s book, Country of My Skull, helped us to see that a process can be inadequate and still work, a little. It can be a part of a reconciliatory project that none of the participants will live to see the end of. Sometimes it seems that even the #rhodesmustfall critique is able to point to colonial harms associated with Cecil Rhodes because the later harms of apartheid have been largely exposed and… not resolved, but rendered less pressing. The problem is that the past contains so many horrors, and even when resentments over recent atrocities like necklacing have been quelled, there is a whole previous century of atrocities to explore.

Forgiveness was nonetheless necessary for Tutu and for Krog, even while for Coates, forgiveness is nigh impossible. Necessary but impossible; impossible, but necessary. Something like that is at the heart of the problem of violence and trauma in Susan Brison’s work. How can a woman survive the aftermath of the crime that almost kills her? What Brison argued was that almost nothing about the experience of seeking justice through the police and courts can be said to serve her interests. Her hope and her healing were so very slow, and partial, and frail that I almost hesitate to mention them here: I worry that I shouldn’t “put them to work” as “conceptual resources” in the same way as many of the other texts we’ve read. Yet Brison offers them to us as evidence of considerable philosophical rigor, and I think the right move is to engage with her.

There was and will be no question of forgiveness for Brison; she showed us how irrelevant her attacker even was to these questions of survival and flourishing after violence. But revenge, too, seemed inadequate to her. What she needed was safety and respect, what she needed was to be restored to power and security. As a result, she focuses on a curious paradox: victims who blame their attacker feel much less safe than those who blame themselves. Even though the self-blame is in some sense obviously fictional and inaccurate, it is therapeutic and the source of the strength to grow and change beyond the trauma.

And in her dual conclusions, Brison seems to set up a very different and non-relational account of the aftermath of violence: that the goal of the survivor was to bend and not break, to cultivate in herself and in her child the openness to novelty and sociality that trauma and violence take from us. When I set up the syllabus I hoped this moment in Brison would set up a useful echo for the work of Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking with which we ended the class, because that’s where I put my sometimes dwindling hope: not in the promise of forgiveness from victims, but in the sense that revenge may be just as irrelevant to survival, no matter how powerful the impulse sometimes feels.

We began to learn just how irrelevant paybacks have become in our society when we read about the prisoners at Graterford in Pennsylvania. Much of what matters in Dubler’s discussion of faith in American prisons is in the background assumptions of the way his book is written, not often clearly stated or remarked upon: that the prisoners there are intelligent, good, and even wise; that they are not being punished, but merely waiting, living under conditions of arbitrary interference and capricious abuse. What Dubler found in Graterford’s chapel were men who are struggling to figure out how their own past acts have come to define them, and how to survive the evil that they have done and that is done to them. This suggests that one of the worst elements of revenge is the way we see perpetrators as irredeemable, the way we reduce those who harm us to those harms. Graterford makes me wonder what it could mean to love the sinner and hate the sin when we never stop thinking of them as sinners, and never let them forget that they have sinned.

Perhaps this “waste management” of criminals would be more acceptable if there weren’t so many of them. And indeed, I think Dubler’s book on Graterford starts to show us the problem with a world where we simultaneously treat some members of our society as if they are unworthy of our attention or support throughout their lives, subject to constant violence and depredation, until they lash out or misbehave–at which point we become desperately retributive. The men and women in prison are disproportionately poor and poorly educated, and yet the only injustices we’re willing to punish are the ones they commit. This asymmetry of responsibility is a kind of massive structural violence that undermines the entire project of criminal justice, and hampers the reprobative role of punishment in our society.

This is usually the place in the course where one would turn to restorative justice approaches. Instead, we turned to the literature on violence prevention, a transition that requires explanation. The criminologist John Braithwaite often tells the story of two US servicemen in Japan who raped a young Japanese woman. The rapists were called to a private reconciliatory meeting, where the woman read a letter indicating that she was willing to forgive them and ask that they not be punished. The servicemen did not understand, and when it was their turn to speak they told the judge, “We are not guilty, your honor.” This shocked everyone involved; had they been–or pretended to be–repentant, they would have been freed. As a result, they were sentenced to the legal maximum period of incarceration rather than freed as had been planned.

Now, Braithwaite tells the story as an example of a failure of reconciliatory norms in the US: confessions and repentance have been trained out of Westerners by the the procedural safeguards we have created to prevent coerced confessions. But I see the story differently: a young woman was raped by two foreign men, and the male authority figures in her society demanded that she absolve them of the crime for diplomatic purposes. They were only stymied by the rapists’ failure to make the proper ritualized speech acts in a crucial moment of the ceremonial subordination of the victim’s needs and interests.

This is not a story of frustrated reconciliation or failed forgiveness, but frustrated impunity. It’s not an indictment of the refusal of repentance rituals, but of the demand for them. I find myself sympathetic to the Black South African mothers Krog reports on, who argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a fancy way for powerful men to smooth over their own transgressions, leaving the mothers no less bereft of their sons and daughters than before.

But this too, is too simple, which is why we ended with Sara Ruddick. Ruddick is my kind of care ethicist: she resists gender essentialism while defending care ethics, and roots the phenomenology and ethics of care in practices of caretaking and peacemaking and the skills and competencies required to succeed in those matters. What’s more, Ruddick acknowledges the tension between the different modes of care, of holding safe, welcoming change, and attentively loving our children and vulnerable dependents, and shows that mothers (who can be men but have tended to be women) develop their skills and competencies in the difficult thinking through of those tensions in contexts and situations. It’s a powerful book of philosophy, and I’ll be teaching it again at JCI this summer.

On my view, Ruddick helps to spell out both the background attitudes required for forgiveness but that we can also only start to think of the role of forgiveness in a society and in a relationship when we foreground the purposes it serves. Women and men who mother understand that transgressions and injuries will occur, and they train their children to forgive them. They do this because resentments are unhealthy; they do this because revenge is unsustainable. But mostly they do this because maternal thinking is a kind of disciplined, cognitively-loaded thinking-through-emotions.

Anger is one of the most pernicious emotions a child must confront, and so mothers prepare themselves and their children for that confrontation. Mothers know that anger always presents itself as immediate, urgent, and correct, but that a child can only survive, thrive, and succeed when she can resist its pull. Mothers teach their children to master their anger; they train them to restrain it and to let it go. And they do the same for themselves: they learn that their anger and sorrow at the loss of one child must be subordinated to the safety of their other children, and other mothers’ children. And so they act out of anger but with reason, they force themselves to put their anger and revenge to use. Sometimes they harness their grief for peacemaking.

A mother’s anger can become violent, of course. But if it remains maternal in the way Ruddick describes, it will preserve the goals of preservation and cultivation, of survival and growth. Ruddick and Brison thus end on the same note: that the meaning of a trauma is ultimately the way it shapes us as mothers. The measure of our revenge or forgiveness is not whether it slakes our revenge but whether it makes the world a safer space for our children. Talionic cultures know this; they limit payback just because they want to settle accounts for the next generation. Reconciliation and forgiveness, too, work only to the extent that they settle old scores, that they bury the implements of violence in places where new generations will not dig them up.

I ended the semester significantly less hopeful about forgiveness than I began. Individual acts of forgiveness have a power to transform people and relationships in a way that still seems sublime, in the technical sense of “sublime:” a phenomenon that challenges our faculty of understanding. And precisely because it has this status, I worry deeply about the demands that we craft policies in such a way as to require that forgiveness become mundane, a quotidian part of the working of a system. Because in those cases it always seems to be the powerless who must forgive, and the powerful who use the rhetoric of forgiveness to demand that their victims ignore oppression and systematic violence.

This is not the hopeful ending I planned. And indeed, it’s not an ending at all; Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness came out too late to include in the syllabus, but it’s been helpful to my own thinking, and I shared a few useful passages with the students. Like Brison, Nussbaum treats our relationship to anger, resentment, and revenge as one that we must manage, one that we must prevent from gaining too much control over us. She treats anger and resentment as imprecise heuristics for pointing out injustice, but argues that both justice and individual happiness require the subordination of those passions to capability-expanding outcomes. She brings the literature on survivors together with the philosophical and theological scholarship on forgiveness, and uses that to frame the problems of mass incarceration and transitional justice. So there’s a lot in this book to be excited about, even as I worry that she’s put too much of her emphasis on South Africa’s “success.”

In particular Nussbaum worries about the status-degrading and payback moments in revenge, like when Paul uses forgiveness to get payback. What’s particularly good about the book is that Nussbaum is bringing together so many disparate strands of this problem, so that, for instance, she can show that these hyperbolic payback and status-lowering elements of our retributive impulses have contributed to the American problem with mass incarceration. It’s a big, sophisticated, and difficult text, and while I’ve read most of it, I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. So the semester is over, but the true retrospective is always forthcoming.

Clarence Thomas’s Black Nationalist Jurisprudence

I don’t know a lot about the role of Anita Hill in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I was just a bit too young to understand what was happening, and so I’m looking forward to watching the new HBO movie on that topic. Thomas himself famously called it a “high tech lynching.” My suspicion is that Thomas probably was guilty of sexual harassment, but that there was almost certainly a concerted effort to link it to his race in ways that we should find abhorrent. On the other side of the aisle, Bill Clinton certainly seems to have been guilty of similar activities.

In the spirit of preparing for that viewing, I’m revisiting an old post of mine on Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution wherein Corey Robin (of The Reactionary Mind fame) discusses the intellectual legacy of Justice Clarence Thomas:

“The first time Clarence Thomas went to Washington, DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.”

Reading Robin’s efforts to make Thomas intelligible always has me worrying about why African-Americans don’t take anti-statist positions more often (libertarianism, anarchism, localism.) After all, you can think that there is a government harm without thinking there is a government solution.

That’s basically the heart of the Black Panthers’ ideology: the white police can terrorize Black communities, but they can’t fix them. On the Black Panther view, only Black people can fix their own communities, because when white people try to do it it’s just as cover for more colonialism. Which is why their most powerful and dangerous program wasn’t the guns, it was the Free Breakfast for School Children program.

Tally up the affirmative action and racialized mass incarceration; the public housing and the brutal policing; the food stamps and the white social workers; the Black Presidency and the decades of shame and racism in every government office; integrated schools and two-hour bus rides that made accountability impossible; racial gerrymandering and the destruction of most of the neighborhood non-religious institutions in African-American communities.

Now ask yourself: did African-Americans come out ahead?

Becky Pettit did the math, and she says no. Lots of African-Americans are skeptical that a white supremacist government will ever offer solutions, simple or complex, that are actually tailored to the needs of their community. Perhaps the skeptics are wrong. Perhaps we can do better. But we haven’t so far. We’re again talking about a New Deal for whites, without ever having had a new deal for Blacks.

Many white conservatives (and more than a few white liberals) think these disparate outcomes can be explained because Blacks are inferior. A lot of movement conservatives follow either Charles Murray or Amy Wax on this: it’s either a natural inferiority (Murray) or a cultural one (Wax.) But Black conservatives like Thomas seem to think it’s something else: they think we white liberals just keep making the situation worse, and that we don’t care so long as we can assure ourselves that we’re well-intentioned.

And our treatment of Thomas is part of the problem: we ignore or disdain him, or worse, insinuate that he’s a race traitor who can’t recognize a simple self-contradiction. How could he come out against affirmative action given that he benefited from it? Consider the Parents v. Seattle concurrence and the Zelman concurrence. These are serious acts of jurisprudence: among other things, Justice Thomas points out that integration destroyed centers of Black excellence, took excellent Black teachers out of Black classrooms and put them in White classrooms, leaving majority Black classrooms with substandard instruction, frequently by whites who didn’t understand the culture and harbored unconscious racism.

On Thomas’s view, the 14th amendment isn’t race blind; it proscribes race consciousness except when responding to state discrimination. In Zelman, Thomas says that the history of poor performing minority schools DOES count as state discrimination in need of remedy; and in Seattle he says that the kinds of remedies that can be used should never include the individual racial classification of elementary school children. Lots of other remedies are still possible, but don’t go creating huge bureaucracies of racial classification, because that hasn’t tended to be a good thing in US history. Thomas’s point is that it’s not enough to say “this time it’s different,” because that’s what whites always say.

Has race-conscious hiring through affirmative action helped African-Americans? Certainly in some cases! And yet at every income level, Blacks have higher levels of educational attainment than whites, while they also have higher unemployment for their educational attainment than whites. Their unemployment rates reflect longer searches, with less success, even with equal or better qualifications. These are facts that should make us blush with shame, and panic that our worldviews and preferred remedies are inadequate.

It’s no better in universities, but here is where I begin to part ways with Thomas. We’ve gotten to such a weird place on the court’s race decisions that we’re forced to debate the benefit to white people of having African-Americans and other racial minorities in the classroom instead of remembering the serious racism that infects all of our institutions.

Cribbing from Elizabeth Anderson here, Fisher and the university-level affirmative action cases are a total muddle for advocating diversity for its own sake. The liberal justices have been backed into a corner and it seems that they know it. The real problem the court faces in cases like Fisher, Zelman, Seattle, etc. is justifying affirmative action or individual racial classification or school choice in the absence of de jure discrimination. Which is dumb, because we had a whole lot of that de jure discrimination not so long ago, and it clearly still echoes into the present.

The long history of de jure discrimination implicates every US institution, regardless of particulars, but the whole of the Supreme Court has disagreed with that reading. Thus, they’re having a pretty silly argument in cases like Fisher: instead of saying, “Hey, remember slavery, segregation, and the KKK? They’re still relevant here!” the court says, “Well, forget about slavery, segregation, and the KKK: wouldn’t it be nice if we had more skin colors and ethnic groups in Freshman composition?” The real problem is that everyone on the court accepts that “Forget about it!” rubric for thinking through racial remedies. That problem goes back to Milliken v. Bradley and the refusal to enforce interdistrict busing.

Yet Thomas is the one Justice who doesn’t forget about that history and continually brings it up. And what he says in cases like Seattle and Zelman is: as a Justice, it’s my job to keep my eye on the de jure. De jure justifications at the SCOTUS level affect national policy for centuries, and we can’t afford to make exceptions for racialized classifications just because the individuals involved think they’re doing the right thing. After all, that’s how we got segregation and internment camps in the first place.

And here’s where I think Thomas is offering a powerfully Black Nationalist perspective: he seems to me to be saying that as a matter of policy we should remember that we live in a white supremacist society, that Blacks are in the minority and the political institutions will usually be controlled by white politicians and white voters. So always be careful of the tools and remedies you make available to those white racists, because they’ll use the rubric of the white man’s burden to justify all sorts of evils. They’ll use well-meaning liberals as the tip of the spear, like colonial powers used missionaries or US neo-imperialism uses the Peace Corps.

I mean, as a white liberal, I find myself worried about the ways good intentions and reform get twisted into such terrible institutions for non-whites, as they’ve been twisted over and over and over again. We’re often told that when we tally up the costs and benefits of government we should ignore the effects of the police and prisons because they’re not justified in terms of helping African-Americans. But of course they are: law and order rhetoric is popularly justified by pointing to Black victims and support without noting that shock-and-awe policing and mass incarceration are a poor remedy that creates as many victims as it avenges.


Rachel Maddow: “Activism is a very specific and technocratic thing.”

Rachel Maddow’s interview with Ezra Klein on her life and HIV/AIDs activism for prisoners has this amazing extended riff starting around minute 53:

“What I tried to do as an activist was to approach each thing I wanted to get as a math problem.

So, here’s a thing that I think should be different in the world: I want people who are dying of AIDS in prisons to be allowed to die in secure hospices rather than dying in jail infirmaries. That’s what I want. Me just saying that and expressing the moral righteousness of that is not enough.

Who is the person who can decide to make that happen? The hospices need to be good with it, so, okay, let’s go to the hospices. Who is the person who makes the decision about who goes to the hospices? Well, there’s a category of decision-making here that is for people who do not have life sentences; they’re susceptible to these kinds of decision-makers. And then there’s a whole another category of decision-makers who say as a matter of policy … so let’s change the local decision-makers; now let’s change the law.

And just doing it piece by piece by piece, why won’t this law change? Because the committee chairman who is responsible for this as an issue doesn’t care about this. What does he care about? He cares about golf. Okay, let’s find whoever he golfs with’s wife, and find who his pastor is and talk to her about this.

…Activism is a very specific and technocratic thing….

On a lot of the activist issues I worked on it was very important that we get no press. And I think, from the outside, one of the things people assume about activism is that you’re trying to consciousness-raise around an issue, and get public discussion and raise public awareness and raise the profile of an issue–not if you’re talking about the comfort of death row prisoners. You don’t actually want that subjected to a popular referendum, because that’s going to be a kneejerk, regressive response.

And so sometimes what you need for people to be brave is to limit their risk, and some of the ways you limit risk is by keeping things quiet. And that has ended up being an interesting thing to know and thing to believe in, given that I’m now a person who’s in the business of making national news of that stuff.”