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Ashley Atkins – “Race and the Politics of Loss: Revisiting the Legacy of Emmett Till”

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”, part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial © Benjamin Norman / The New York Times / Redux

In this post, Ashley Atkins discusses the article she recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Ashley’s article can be found here.

The exhibition of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the 2017 Whitney Biennial sparked immediate and passionate criticism: a protest was staged in front of the painting on its opening day; a public discussion of the controversy surrounding the painting was held by the Whitney during its exhibition; and sometime in between, a public letter was penned that called for the painting’s destruction.

There are so few paintings of the dead in open casket that a painting of this kind was almost certain to capture people’s attention, even to shock. Helen Molesworth, a curator of contemporary art and former Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, articulates this shock in response to a recent exhibition of Alice Neel’s work, which included Dead Father (1946).

Image of a dead old man in an open coffin.
“Dead Father” (1946) Alice Neel © The Estate of Alice Neel

Though Molesworth “grew up in a tradition where you see dead people in coffin,” the act of making an image of this subject matter was felt to border on obscenity: “Nobody takes a picture of the dead person in a coffin, people don’t make paintingsoil paintings—of dead people in coffins. This is like […] almost taboo to me. Still, when I see that painting [Dead Father] I…I am a little shocked still.”

Obscenity was one of the charges presented against Open Casket (also an oil painting) but even so the feeling was that this bordered on something more sinister. Here we have a painting not of an intimate but of a stranger and, as Hannah Black—who led the call for its destruction—summed it up, a painting of a dead black boy by a white artist.

What propelled the controversy was the painting’s connection to its presumed—though not explicitly identified—subject, Emmett Till, a black teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955, whose disfigured and badly decomposed body was laid in an open casket for the duration of a four-day public viewing at the insistence of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. What exactly, critics pointedly asked, is the artist’s relationship to this legacy? What does it mean to look at this painting?

Open Casket and the criticism surrounding it presents us with an opportunity to revisit this legacy and to examine, in particular, the significance of Mamie Till-Mobley’s public presentation of the body of her son, including her sanctioning of the publication of photographs of his body in casket, which continue to circulate. What can her actions mean to us today?

Schutz’s stated aims in painting Open Casket offer an illuminating starting point. Till-Mobley’s relationship to her son needed, in Schutz’s view, to be reflected in some way in this image; though the violence done to him was horrific and real and should be acknowledged as such—one of the reasons for its continuing political significance—the painting could not simply be grotesque (and I think we can see something in it of the tenderness that appears in Dead Father, what Fran Liebowitz unguardedly describes as beauty in her discussion of Neel’s painting). The image would also be, somehow, an American image.

We can find a basis for these ideas in Mamie Till-Mobley’s own reflections on these events, particularly in her declaration that all Americans needed to be impacted by the sight of the body as a whole so that they might together say what they had seen (Till-Mobley & Benson 2003: 140). As she reveals in her autobiography, Till-Mobley had herself studied the violence done to her son. She could describe it forensically, inch by inch, she tells us, but something other than this kind of engagement with the body of her son was intended by her invitation to Americans to look together and say what they saw. This was something she alone could not do. Americans also needed to see pictures of her son as he had been, she proposed, so that they could see what was lost to them.

It was through being initiated into rites of mourning, as we might put it, that Americans were to participate in this legacy. The most provocative aspect of Open Casket—what was experienced by critics as its intrusion into the mourning of others—is also, in my view, the central thread linking it to this legacy, namely, its engagement with Till-Mobley’s invitation to mourn her son’s legacy as an American one.

If this is right, why have critics neglected to consider that the painting might be a mournful one or to at least judge its failure in these terms?

One important reason is that these critics do not understand this legacy in the terms that I set out; they would reject the idea that “racial losses” are to be mourned collectively. The critical reception of this legacy is a divided one. It assigns two complementary functions to the photographs of Emmett Till in casket: on the one hand, these photographs are understood to facilitate mourning (to provide shelter, warning, and inspiration) among those vulnerable to white violence and, on the other hand, these photographs circulate as evidence and are meant to expose those implicated in this violence (as Schutz was said to be through her painting). The aim of exposure can be seen in the rhetoric surrounding the violence associated with the iconography of Emmett Till’s death. The violence, critics insist, speaks for itself, bears its own witness, without any need for subjective response (of which mournfulness is a paradigm). It is on such grounds that Schutz’s painting is criticized for being too subjective.

But if this is right, why was there any need for Mobley to invite all Americans to look together? What use do we have for the idea that the loss of her son might be conceived of as a common loss?

It is tempting to understand Till-Mobley’s invitation to Americans within a tradition of political thought that sees democracy as requiring continual sacrifice and, relatedly, as requiring that citizens cultivate a capacity to mourn such losses (Allen 2004; McIvor 2016). Though this tradition is acutely aware of the ways in which the burdens of loss have historically been shifted onto to African Americans, among others, legacies of racial violence and loss engendered in this manner are thought to be no less collective for being borne inequitably. It is on these grounds that even these losses are to be mourned—that is, acknowledged as losses—by all citizens.

This tradition misses, however, the significance of and the challenge presented by Till-Mobley’s invitation. She did not assume that the loss of her son could already constitute a collective loss. She proposed that it be seen as such; i.e., that Americans come to think of themselves as people who had suffered this loss and needed, collectively, to put into words what it was and how it impacted them—an act of political re-envisioning so bold that its fulfillment would perhaps have been understood as a political refounding of the country. In this sense, we might see her as participating in the political lineage of Abraham Lincoln, who, it has been argued, also used a concrete occasion of mourning, in Gettysburg, to offer a vision of the country so bold in its re-envisioning that it has been conceptualized in these terms (Wills 1992; Nussbaum 2013).

On July 25, 2023, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation establishing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in both Mississippi and Illinois (the family’s home state). The new national monument “will help tell the story of the events surrounding Emmett Till’s murder, their significance in the civil rights movement and American history, and the broader story of Black oppression, survival, and bravery in America.”

We can’t yet know how this story will be told. Will it present Emmett Till’s death as a loss to be mourned and, if so, by whom (what nation)? Will it present these events with tenderness, with beauty, which helps us to bear the ugliness of death and violence? Will Mamie Till-Mobley’s contribution to the civil rights movement be memorialized, as is standard, as helping “catalyze” this movement? This implies not only that her gesture was of great significance but that it was significant mainly for what followed, what would conventionally be thought of as properly political actions. Seeing Till-Mobley in this way would reflect the view of her contemporaries, among them powerful leaders in the NAACP who eventually publicly cut ties with her. In describing her grief as a catalyst and a benefit to later generations—the living rather than to the dead—they were making the point that grief was not itself of political significance, but rather a dangerous distraction from these other, properly political ends.

The question of what Mobley’s gesture can mean to us today will depend on many things, including our understanding of the prospects for a mournful politics.

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  • Allen, Daniel (2004). Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. University of Chicago Press.
  • McIvor, David W. (2016). Mourning in America: Race and the Politics of Loss. Cornell University Press.
  • Till-Mobley, Mamie and Christopher Benson (2003). Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. Random House.
  • Nussbaum, Martha (2013). Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Harvard University Press.
  • Wills, Gary (1992). Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Simon and Schuster.

About the author

Ashley Atkins is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. She received an NEH Fellowship this year in support of a book project that examines grief through the lens of contemporary memoir. “Race and the Politics of Loss” is part of a series of papers exploring legacies of racial violence and loss in democratic politics.

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Christine Bratu – “How (Not) To Wrong Others with Our Thoughts”

image of two cherubs thinking
Detail of the San Sisto Madonna (c. 1513-1514) Raphael

In this post, Christine Bratu discusses her article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Christine’s article can be found here.

Imagine Jim attends a fancy reception and, seeing a person of color standing around in a tuxedo, concludes that they are a waiter (when, in fact, they, too, are a guest). Alternatively, picture Anna who, during a prestigious conference, sees a young woman setting up a laptop at the lectern and concludes that she is part of the organizing team (when, in fact, this woman is the renowned professor who will give the keynote lecture). In many of us, cases like these elicit the fundamental intuition that there is something morally problematic going on.

Some philosophers have used this intuition to argue for the possibility of doxastic wronging (Basu 2018, 2019a, 2019b; Basu and Schroeder 2019; Keller 2018). Cases like these, they argue, show that we have the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs about each other. On their interpretation, the situations above are morally troublesome because, by believing classic racist and sexist stereotypes, Jim and Anna violate a duty they have towards their fellow party guest and keynote speaker, respectively. According to proponents of doxastic wronging, positing this morally grounded epistemic duty is the best way to explain our intuition, since in the situations depicted neither protagonist acts in a reprehensible way (in fact, neither of them acts at all!) – it’s their racist and sexist beliefs as such that are the problem.

I think this proposal is intriguing. Group-based discrimination is a serious moral and political problem, and the moral duty not to have bigoted beliefs seems perfectly tailored to strike at its root. Nevertheless, in my article I argue that we should reject the existence of such a duty: there is no such thing as doxastic wronging. I argue for this by presenting what I call the liberal challenge.

I start from the assumption that positing any new, morally grounded epistemic duties comes at a price, because it constitutes a curtailment of our freedom of thought. We should only accept such curtailment if we can thereby gain something comparably important. I then point out three strategies that advocates of doxastic wronging could adopt to convince us that we are gaining something comparably important, and I explain why I think that all three of them fail.

First, the advocates of doxastic wronging could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid bigoted actions. This strategy fails, I argue, because we are already under the moral obligation not to act in bigoted ways. If the reason for limiting our freedom of thought is merely to decrease the risk of bigoted actions, then placing us under this new obligation is superfluous.

Second, these philosophers could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs helps us avoid practical vices that bigoted beliefs manifest such as, for instance, arrogance. This strategy fails, I argue, because – while we might be morally better, i.e. more virtuous, if we avoided vices like arrogance – we are under no moral obligation to do so.

Thirdly, they could claim that positing a duty not to have bigoted beliefs is necessary to avoid the intrinsic harm of being the object of bigoted beliefs. This third strategy starts off more promisingly as it is based on a correct observation. Most of us desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs. People who think about us in bigoted ways frustrate this legitimate desire, and so it seems that they thereby harm us. Yet even if we grant that bigoted beliefs harm their targets, we cannot conclude that the resulting harm is important enough to justify restricting our freedom of thought. People frustrate each other’s legitimate desires all the time. We frustrate our parents’ legitimate desire to see us flourish when we let our talents go to waste, and we frustrate our partners’ legitimate desire to continue the relationship when we break up with them. Cases like these show that frustrating someone’s legitimate desire is not sufficient for our behavior to count as morally impermissible. To make this strategy work, proponents of doxastic wronging must, in addition, argue that the desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs is so important that its frustration is morally impermissible. However, I contend that they can only do so by appealing to the impermissibility of either bigoted actions or vices that bigoted beliefs manifest. In other words, they can only do by falling back on one of the former two strategies. And since I’ve already shown that such strategies fail, so does this one.

If we reject the duty not to have bigoted beliefs – as I argue we should – what about our initial intuition? What is wrong with Jim’s assumption that a person of color is most likely a waiter rather than a guest , or with Anna’s assumption that a young woman at the conference podium is most likely an organizer rather than the keynote?

It seems to me that the best way to make sense of these cases is to explain them not in terms of doxastic wronging, but rather in terms of doxastic harming. People like Jim and Anna do not violate any obligations they have toward their targets when they think about them in racist or sexist ways. However, they do frustrate their desire not to be the objects of bigoted beliefs, and they thereby harm them. When we reproach people like Jim and Anna for their hurtful thoughts, we are accusing them not of having done something they were morally not allowed to do, but rather of having done something it would have been better not to do (even though they were morally allowed to do it).

The change in perspective I propose does not make light of the morally problematic nature of bigoted beliefs. On the contrary, it ensures that the criticism we level against people who entertain such beliefs hits its mark properly by avoiding moralistic overreach and by making morally grounded demands on what other people believe.

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  • Basu, Rima (2018). “Can Beliefs Wrong?” Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 1–17.
  • Basu, Rima (2019a). “The Wrongs of Racist Beliefs”. Philosophical Studies 176 (9): 2497–515.
  • Basu, Rima (2019b). “What We Epistemically Owe to Each Other”. Philosophical Studies 176 (4): 915–31.
  • Basu, Rima and Mark Schroeder (2019). “Doxastic Wronging”. In Brian Kim and Matthew McGrath (Eds.), Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology, 181–205.
  • Keller, Simon (2018). “Belief for Someone Else’s Sake”. Philosophical Topics 46 (1): 19–35.

About the author

Christine Bratu is a professor of philosophy at the University of Göttingen in Germany. She received her PhD in philosophy from the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Her research interests are in feminist philosophy, moral and political philosophy (especially issues of disrespect and discrimination) and topics at the intersection between ethics and epistemology. 

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Quill Kukla and Mark Lance – “Telling Gender: The Pragmatics and Ethics of Gender Ascriptions”

picture of gendered bathrooms where the gendered icons are replaced by a shark and a T-Rex.

In this post, Quill Kukla and Mark Lance discuss their article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of the article can be found here.

Debates over the validity or appropriateness of gender ascriptions, whether imposed on someone else (“You may pretend you’re a woman, but you’re actually a man!”) or self-proclaimed (“I am a man!”; “I don’t have a gender!”), typically turn to what gender “really is” and who “really” has which gender. We argue that such metaphysical turns are usually irrelevant distractions and redirections. We claim that gender ascriptions like “You are a man” or “I am not a woman” are not, first and foremost, functioning to make truth claims about substantive features of the world.

This may be a surprising claim. After all, a sentence like “You are a man” is grammatically a declarative. Declaratives are what we use to make claims about the world – Paris is the capital of France; metals conduct electricity; there is a deer in the meadow. The grammatical form of a sentence is generally an indicator of the pragmatic force of uttering that sentence, so sentences with declarative grammar normally function to make truth claims, which are appropriate if they match the world and not if they don’t. But this connection is not universal. If I say to my roommate “It’s really hot in here!” this can function as a request to open the window or turn down the heat. “The meeting is adjourned” might describe a social status of the meeting, but more typically, it functions to bring about or constitute the adjournment.

Imagine that one person says to another, “You and I are friends!” and the second person responds, “No, we are not.” It seems unlikely that they are disagreeing about a substantive issue of fact. They are likely not disagreeing over the empirical criteria for friendship, whatever those might be, or the evidence concerning whether they meet those criteria. Rather, the utterance “You and I are friends!” is a kind of social proposal. In calling you my friend, I am proposing that we relate to one another in specific ways and take ourselves as having various commitments to one another; I am making a claim on a certain normative relationship to you. The utterance functions more like “I bet you ten dollars” or “I take you as my spouse” than as a factual claim. To say “We are friends” to someone is to try to position us in social space with respect to one another. And to reject the friendship claim is to reject this proposed positioning.

Similarly, we want to claim that the primary function of gender ascriptions is to establish a normative positioning in social space. First-person gender ascriptions (“I am a woman!”) are attempts to claim a specific position in gendered social space, while second-person and third-person gender ascriptions (“You are no man!”; “He is a man!”) are attempts to impose a position in gendered social space. Most gender ascriptions mostly sustain a position that someone already has rather than constituting one from scratch, but they still work to incrementally solidify such a position.

Our position in gendered social space, or the gender we are taken as having (or lacking), inflects nearly every aspect of how we are expected and demanded to negotiate the social and material world. It shapes how we are supposed to hold our body and modulate our voice; what clothes we are supposed to wear; how we are supposed to manifest sexual attraction and attractiveness; where and how we pee; what hobbies and jobs we are supposed to have; who we compete against in sports events and which sports we take up in the first place; what our relationship is to our children; and so forth. Even fetuses, once recognized as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’, are expected to become babies for whom certain nursery and clothing colors and emotions and behaviors are appropriate. Such norms are modulated by race, age, ability, class, body shape, and more; there is not a single, consistent set of norms for each gender, but rather a complex and often contradictory web of norms in which we are all differently positioned. But these structures of social significance are inescapable. To occupy a position in gendered social space is to be situated with respect to this complex network of norms. One can transgress or resist any subset of these norms, of course, but they are still the norms that carve out expectations and evaluations and social uptake for almost every dimension of our social and material existence.

When people disagree over whether a gender attribution is appropriate, it is rarely primarily an empirical disagreement. There is no single, widely accepted empirical definition of gender. It is varyingly defined in terms of anatomy, gametes, genetics, psychology, social role, self-identification, and phenotype. But we argue that what is at stake in most disagreements over gender attributions is not which empirical features someone has, but rather whether it is appropriate to take someone as positioned in a specific way within gendered social space. When a trans woman claims, “I am a woman,” and someone responds, “No, you are a man,” they are not generally arguing about empirical matters, but rather, as in the friendship case, about how a claim on a social position will or won’t be ratified.

If the function of gendered language is not (primarily) to describe the world, but to establish, ratify, reinforce, or oppose the taking up of social roles, then the appropriateness of such linguistic performances is not a matter of truth and falsity. Rather, we should evaluate what we ought to say and how we ought to respond to one other’s gender ascriptions in terms of how we ought to organize social space, and how much respect individuals should be given for determining their own gender ascription.

We argue that core norms of self-determination and autonomy demand wide respect for and deference to first-person attributions (or rejections) of gender (“I am a man,” etc.). What gender is, or whether it is anything at all, is simply irrelevant to these core norms. Saying “Yes, you are a man” is endorsing a person’s right to choose the social role they wish to inhabit, similar to recognizing a person’s choice of career, spouse, or hobby. Indeed, people generally think of rules that force social positions on people, such as Jim Crow laws and caste systems, as paradigmatic antidemocratic violations of self-determination. Since gender norms govern many of the most intimate dimensions of our bodily lives, forcing gendered social positions seems especially unjustified. The only ethical reason to contravene someone’s first-person claim upon a social position is if their doing so harms others, and we find the idea that this is true in the case of gender completely without merit or serious evidence. (This is not always the case. If I declare, “I am your sovereign master!”, I am claiming a social position, but obviously one you have every right to reject, because it harms you and your own self-determination directly. We find the idea that one person’s gender claim has a significant chance of harming someone else absurd, although we recognize that transphobes do try to assert this.)

Thus, we claim that first-personal gender attributions are virtually always justified, not because people are infallible about their own gender, but because of the ethical function of these attributions. Likewise, second- and third-personal gender attributions that contradict or foreclose first-personal attributions are almost always unjustified. Debates over the metaphysics of gender may be of philosophical curiosity to some, but they are distractions when it comes to everyday questions about when and how to respect people’s claimed gender, or lack thereof.

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About the authors

Quill Kukla is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Disability Studies at Georgetown University. From 2021 to 2023, they also held a Humboldt Stiftung Research Award at the Institut für Philosophie at Leibniz Universität Hannover. They received a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in Geography from the City University of New York, and completed a Greenwall Postdoctoral Fellowship at The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Their most recent book is City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another (Oxford University Press 2021) and their forthcoming book is entitled Sex Beyond ‘Yes!’ (W. W. Norton & Co. 2024)

Mark Lance, PhD University of Pittsburgh, is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He has published in areas ranging from relevance logic, to philosophy of language, to metaethics and contributed to public education projects through The Institute for Social Ecology, the Institute of Anarchist Studies, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. He is an activist who has been arrested 13 times in civil disobedience actions protesting US government crimes. His most recent book is Toward a Revolution as Nonviolent as Possible (with Matt Meyer). Outside activism and philosophy, he is a rowing coach, chess player, and former orchestral trumpet player.

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Naftali Weinberger – “Signal Manipulation and the Causal Analysis of Racial Discrimination”

picture of fragmented parts of a Caucasian woman's face rearranged and surrounded by pearls.
“Sheherazade” (1950) René Magritte

In this post, Naftali Weinberger discusses the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Naftali’s article can be found here.

After the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the consensus was that Clinton came out ahead, but that Trump exceeded expectations. Some sensed sexism, claiming: had Trump been a woman and Clinton a man, there’s no way observers would have thought the debate was even close, given the difference between the candidates’ policy backgrounds.

How could we test this hypothesis? Some professors at NYU staged a play with the candidates’ genders swapped. A female actor played Trump and imitated his words and gestures, and a male actor played Clinton. Afterwards, participants were given a questionnaire. Surprisingly, audience members disliked male Clinton more than observers of the initial debate disliked the original. “Why is he smiling so much?”, some asked. And: “isn’t he a bit effeminate?”

Does this show there was no sexism? Here we need to be careful. Smiling is not gender-neutral, since norms for how much people are expected to smile are themselves gendered. So perhaps we need to rerun the experiment, and change not just the actors’ genders, but also modify the gestures in gender-conforming ways such that male Clinton smiles less. The worry is that the list of required modifications might be open-ended. The public persona Clinton has developed over the last half century is not independent of her gender. If we start changing every feature that gets interpreted through a gendered lens, we may end up changing all of them. 

This example illustrates how tricky it can be to test claims about the effects of demographic variables such as gender and race. I wrote “Signal Manipulation and the Causal Analysis of Racial Discrimination”, because I believe it is crucial to be able to empirically test at least some claims about discrimination, and that causal methods are necessary for doing so.

Studying racial discrimination requires one to bring together research from disparate academic areas. Whether race can be treated as a causal variable falls within causal inference. What race is, is a question for sociologists. Why we care specifically about discrimination against protected categories such as race is a matter for legal theorists and political philosophers.

Let’s start with whether race can be causal. Causal claims are typically tested by varying one factor while keeping others fixed. For instance, in a clinical trial one randomly assigns members to receive either the drug or the placebo. But does it make sense to vary just someone’s race or gender, while keeping everything else about them fixed?

This concern is often framed in terms of whether it is possible to experimentally manipulate race, and some claim that all causal variables must be potentially manipulable. I argue that manipulability is not the primary issue at stake in modeling discrimination. Rather, certain failures of manipulability point to a deeper problem in understanding race causally. Specifically, causal reasoning involves disentangling causal and merely evidential relevance: Does taking the drug promote recovery, or is it just that learning someone took the drug is evidence they were likely to recover (due to being healthier initially)? If one really could not change someone’s race without changing everything about them, the distinction between causal and evidential relevance would collapse.

We now turn to what race is. A key debate concerns whether it is biologically essential or socially constructed. Some think that race is non-manipulable only if it is understood biologically. Maya Sen and Omar Wasow argue that race is a socially constructed composite, and that even though one cannot intervene on the whole, one can manipulate components (e.g. dialect). Sen and Wasow do not theorize about the relationship between race and its components, and I believe this is by design. The underlying presupposition is that if race is constructed, it is nothing over and above the components through which it is socially mediated.

Yet race’s being socially constructed does not entail that it reduces to its social manifestations. To give Ron Mallon’s example: a dollar’s value is socially constructed, but this does not entail that there is nothing more to being a dollar than being perceived as one. Within our socially constructed value system, a molecule-for-molecule perfect counterfeit is still a counterfeit. The upshot of this is that even if race is a composite such that we can only manipulate particular components, it does not follow that race just is its components. The relationship between social construction and manipulability is more nuanced than has been presupposed.

Finally, how does the causal status of race connect to legal theories of discrimination? Discrimination law only makes sense given a distinction between discrimination on the basis of protected categories and mere arbitrary treatment. An employer who does not hire someone because the applicant simply annoys them might be irrational, but is not violating discrimination law. I argue that in order to distinguish between racial discrimination and arbitrary treatment, we need to be able to talk about whether race itself made a difference. This involves varying it independently of other factors and thus modeling it causally.

Where does this leave us with Clinton and Trump? I’d suggest that if we really can’t change Clinton’s perceived gender without changing everything about her, we cannot disentangle causal from evidential relevance, and causal reasoning does not apply. Fortunately, not all cases are like this. In audit studies, one can change a racially relevant cue (such as the name on a resume) to plausibly change only the racial information the employer receives. And this does not entail that race is only the name. Instead of asking whether race is a cause, we should ask when it is fruitful to model race causally, with a spectrum from cases like audit studies (in which it is) to cases like Clinton’s (in which it isn’t).  And even in audit studies, treating race as separable is an idealization, since one does not model it in all of its sociological complexity. If what I argue in the article is correct, however, this modeling exercise is indispensable for legally analyzing discrimination and designing interventions to mitigate it.

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About the author

Naftali Weinberger is a scientific researcher at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy. His work concerns the use of causal methodology to address foundational questions arising in the philosophy of science as well as questions arising in particular sciences, including: biology, psychometrics, neuroscience, and cognitive science. He has two primary research projects – one on causation in complex dynamical systems and another on the use of causal methods for the analysis of racial discrimination. He is currently trying to convince philosophers that causal representations are implicitly relative to a particular time-scale and that it is therefore crucial to pay attention to temporal dynamics when designing and evaluating policy interventions.

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Kevin Richardson – “Exclusion and Erasure: Two Types of Ontological Oppression”

Painting in which one half of the view is obstructed by a person looking out (but you can see some of the sky around her), and the other half is obstructed by a curtain (but you can see some of the sky from a cut-out)
“Decalcomania” (1966) René Magritte © Magritte Gallery 2021

In this post, Kevin Richardson discusses the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Kevin’s article can be found here.

Between July 2021 and December 2022, there were 4,000 cases of books being banned in US public schools. The most frequently banned books in the 2022-2023 school year was Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe. Kobabe’s graphic novel is a coming of age story in which the author questions the gender binary. The gender binary is the set of social norms that tells us that there are only two genders (man and woman), that these genders are biologically defined, and that everyone has exactly one of them. In the book, Kobabe comes out as a gender non-binary, identifying with neither of the two standard gender categories.

Gender Queer and other books that are directly or indirectly critical of the gender binary have been under attack. Not only is there legislation that bans books about trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people; there is also legislation that aspires to ban the people themselves. As of this writing, reports that 83 anti-trans bills have been passed out of the 574 proposed in the US this year. The bills are anti-trans because they target trans people by restricting their access to gender-affirming care, reclassifying drag shows as “adult entertainment,” codifying the right of teachers to not respect students’ preferred pronouns, and so on.

At a rapidly accelerating pace, we see more attempts to make the lives of trans people impossible. In Normal Life, Dean Spade, legal theorist and activist, writes:

"Trans people are told by the law, state agencies, private discriminators, and our families that we are impossible people who cannot exist, cannot be seen, cannot be classified, and cannot fit anywhere."

Republicans and conservatives everywhere are on a mission to eliminate the legal possibility of trans people and LGBTQ people more generally.

How should we understand this notion of “making impossible”? In my paper, “Exclusion and Erasure: Two Types of Ontological Oppression”, I describe two ways in which trans people are made impossible: exclusion and erasure.

Ontological exclusion is what happens when an institution wrongfully refuses to let you participate in it because of your social identity. For example, trans woman Calliope Wong was rejected from Smith College, a  women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, on the grounds that she was not properly eligible to be a student at the college. In 2013, Smith College defined being a woman in terms of being female, a biological property they took Wong not to have.

We also see ontological exclusion in the current movement for so-called gender critical feminism. According to these feminists, feminism should be a movement based on a person’s sex, not their gender. This means that women’s sports, and access to women’s restrooms, are to be legally restricted to cisgender (as opposed to transgender) women.

I contrast ontological exclusion with ontological erasure. A case of ontological erasure happens when an institution fails to determinately recognize your social identity. In my paper, I discuss the case of Bryn Mawr college, another women’s college. While Smith College outright rejected trans applicants, Bryn Mawr momentarily held an ambiguous position toward trans women. They did not determinately rule out trans applicants, but they also did not determinately acknowledge the legitimacy of trans applicants. Instead, they claimed that they would consider the legitimacy of trans applicants on a case-by-case basis.

This is a case of ontological erasure because the social institution erases the existence of the category of trans people itself. It does this by failing to have a determinate judgment about whether trans people can apply. Trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people defy the gender binary. As such, trans identities are often perceived as indeterminate. One is neither a man nor a woman, neither a woman nor a non-woman.

In my paper, I write about how erasure can also be oppressive to people who inhabit marginalized identities. I focus on the case of trans people, but erasure is possible whenever you have people who sit in the gaps between the dominant social categories: multiracial people, bisexual people, and so on. Being erased, I argue, is a case of what Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix call “agential identity discrimination”. You are discriminated against, not simply in virtue of your identity, but in virtue of your attempt to get others to recognize your identity.

There is much more detail in the paper, but in this blog post, I want to highlight a few things that are important in light of recent events. The political climate for LGBTQ people has changed drastically over the course of my writing and publishing this paper. While my paper focuses on erasure as a static, largely hidden phenomenon, I  want to emphasize that erasure is much more dynamic and public than it may appear in my article.

Today, there is an increased effort to enforce gender boundaries. This means there is an increased effort to engage in ontological exclusion. More institutions are removing the indeterminacy from their definitions of gender, ruling out the ability of many trans people to participate or feel safe within them. There is currently a “gender panic”, as sociologists Kristen Chilt and Laurel Westbrook call it. Gender panics occur when there is a perceived threat the the gender binary. In defense of the binary, there is an intense affirmation of the boundaries of gender.

At the same time as there is an effort to draw the boundaries around who is, and is not, a woman, there is also an effort to make this very boundary-drawing effort invisible. For example, the book Gender Queer is being taken off of shelves because it is likely to lead young people to question the gender binary. The goal is not simply to exclude genderqueer people from public spaces (and society more generally), but to eradicate the very possibility of the category genderqueer. Erasure exists alongside exclusion; erasure and exclusion complement and reinforce each other.

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About the author

Kevin Richardson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He mainly researches social ontology, with an emphasis on the ontology of gender, sexual orientation, and race.

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Ten-Herng Lai – “Civil Disobedience, Costly Signals, and Leveraging Injustice”

Anti-riot police aiming for students' heads and violently dragging them off the streets during a protest in Taiwan in 2014.
“Anti-riot police aiming for students’ heads and violently dragging them off the streets” © Courtesy of Democracy at 4am

In this post, Ten-Herng Lai discusses the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Ten’s article can be found here.

Illegal activities that are caught are normally punished, often with good reason. Activities that are harmful to others should be deterred (Tadros, 2011). Offenders usually take advantage of others, and it is sometimes the business of the state to make sure that offenders relinquish the unfair benefits they have unjustly acquired (Dagger, 1997). The state is also in a good position to convey blame and express disapproval towards wrongdoers in our name as citizens (Duff, 2001). 

Not all offenders, however, are appropriate targets of punishment. For one reason or another, one may be excused or even fully justified in breaching the law. Many have argued that civil disobedience—a deliberate breach of the law that is predominantly nonviolent, often highly restrained, typically respectful even if confrontational, and primarily communicative in expressing disapproval towards policies or political inaction and demanding political change—falls under the category of permissible law breaching (Brownlee, 2012; Celikates, 2016; Markovits, 2005; Rawls, 1999; Smith, 2013).

Accordingly, civil disobedience serves as an auxiliary mechanism to our legal system. Our democracy is imperfect at best. Individual laws may be unjust, even if the overall rule of law is worth preserving. Despite our best efforts to uphold political equality and ensure that the rights and interests of all stakeholders are taken into consideration, we make mistakes. Legal means of addressing democratic failures often work, but ocassionally they turn out to be futile or simply take too long to facilitate urgently needed political change while people continue to suffer from injustice and irreversible harm. Civil disobedience is a call for immediate action: we need racial equality now; we need climate action now; we need to end gender-based oppression now; we need to pay attention to the voices of the politically marginalised now.

It is wrong for the state to punish civil disobedients when their actions are called for. We would effectively be deterring and silencing this indispensable remedy for our democratic deficits. Moreover, these activists have taken no unfair advantage over their fellow citizens through their illegal actions. Ordinary citizens do their fair share in supporting fair and just institutions by obeying the law. Civil disobedients, in contrast, put effort into improving the institutions through their political engagement. They sacrifice their time and effort, and sometimes even risk the hostility of their fellow citizens, to make the state more just. They do more than their fair share (Moraro, 2019). It is not just that the state, through punishment, would be blaming those who are not blameworthy. The state simply lacks any standing to blame these disobedients: their actions are called for because the state fails to live up to the standards of justice and democracy.

However, a problem arises when we consider how civil disobedience works. Civil disobedience works, as I contend, as a costly social signal. To bring about the necessary political change, we must effectively allocate public attention to worthy issues. The voices of different groups and parties, worthy and unworthy, compete for this limited resource. Civil disobedience is a solution to this problem. It is a reliable indicator of the worthiness of the underlying issue it represents. Civil disobedients speak in a way those without the relevant sincerity and seriousness would be unwilling to speak. The speech is costly by being illegal and thus punished. Those with a less urgent pleading would be unwilling to incur the costs of punishment, as the gains realized through political change are not worth the costs. Those with unreasonable political proposals would also be screened out. They would be paying a hefty price just to be heard and quickly dismissed.

By refraining from punishing civil disobedience, however, the state risks rendering civil disobedience as “cheap talk.” It is no longer costly and thus unable to distinguish itself from other sorts of political noise. Those who suffer from oppression and marginalization would thus be robbed of one effective means to distinguish themselves from others, as this reliable indicator of worthy and urgent issues is neutralized. They would be left with no morally appropriate means to call attention to their plight or would have to escalate and resort to more radical means of protest should such means be morally permissible (Delmas, 2018; Lai, 2019). Disturbingly, by attempting to adhere to the apparent demands of justice regarding punishing civil disobedience, the state would effectively silence the oppressed and marginalized.

Maybe civil disobedience works merely by capturing attention through its illegality and disruptive nature; or maybe it is costly (and thus reliable) only because of the brutal arrests, the burdensome trials, and the hefty fines. Regarding the former, it is dubious whether merely forcing others to listen works without also demonstrating relevant sincerity and seriousness; otherwise, advertisement bombardment would be more effective than it actually is. Regarding the latter, brutal arrests and burdensome trials are by no means morally innocuous. These unjustified acts are not solutions because, well, they are unjustified. Fines, on the other hand, can be sponsored or crowdfunded. The commodification of civil disobedience is highly undesirable because neither “pay to protest” nor “being paid to protest” helps to demonstrate the sincerity and seriousness of protestors.

Overall, (Houston) we have a problem. It is unjust to punish civil disobedience when the latter is called for, but not punishing civil disobedience risks rendering civil disobedience useless. This is because civil disobedience is reliable because it is costly and costly because it is punished. Civil disobedience leverages punitive injustice to amplify its illocutionary force, and by taking away the punishment civil disobedience is cheap, no longer perceived as reliable, and thus useless.

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  • Brownlee, K. (2012). Conscience and conviction: The case for civil disobedience. Oxford University Press.
  • Celikates, R. (2016). “Rethinking civil disobedience as a practice of contestation—Beyond the liberal paradigm”. Constellations, 23(1), 37–45.
  • Dagger, R. (1997). Civic virtues: Rights, citizenship, and republican liberalism. Oxford University Press.
  • Delmas, C. (2018). A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil. Oxford University Press.
  • Duff, A. (2001). Punishment, communication, and community. Oxford University Press.
  • Lai, T.-H. (2019). “Justifying uncivil disobedience”. Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, (5), 90–114.
  • Markovits, D. (2005). “Democratic disobedience”. Yale Law Journal, 114 (8), 1897–1952.
  • Moraro, P. (2019). “Punishment, Fair Play and the Burdens of Citizenship”. Law and Philosophy, 38 (3), 289–311.
  • Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, W. (2013). Civil disobedience and deliberative democracy. Routledge.
  • Tadros, V. (2011). The ends of harm: The moral foundations of criminal law. Oxford University Press.

About the author

Ten-Herng Lai is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He received his PhD from the Australian National University in 2020. In 2021, he was a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow of the Society for Applied Philosophy at the Australian National University. Starting August 2023, he will be a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling. His research interests include social movements, democracy, statues and monuments.

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Thomas Brouwer – “Social Inconsistency”

A panorama of a chaotic social life in the Southern Netherlands in the 16th century, at a hectic time of transition from Shrove Tuesday to Lent, the period between Christmas and Easter.
“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

In this post, Thomas Brouwer discusses the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Thomas’ article can be found here.

Social reality consists in all the things that we humans layer onto the world by means of our social interactions. It includes social norms, customs, fashions, conventions and laws; organizations such as businesses and universities; social groupings like genders, sub-cultures and socio-economic classes; artifacts such as tools, artworks, currencies, and buildings; languages, cuisines, and religions.

The elements that make up social reality come about in various ways, some the products of conscious design, some arising spontaneously out of social interactions. In neither case is quality of construction guaranteed. We are all familiar with the variety of defects social institutions can exhibit. They can be wasteful, unjust, fragile, and easily subverted; they can prove inflexible when circumstances change; they can be opaque. The focus of my investigation is a further, less familiar type of defect: inconsistency

Inconsistency is a logical notion. A set of statements is inconsistent when you can logically derive a contradiction from it. In other words, when it implies that something is the case and also not the case. Since it is hard to act effectively on contradictory information, inconsistency can be practically problematic; but inconsistency is also tricky philosophically. In many systems of logic – particularly classical logic and intuitionistic logic – contradictions have the troubling property that they entail everything. Once a body of claims implies that something both is and is not the case, it also implies any other claim.

Philosophers have often taken this to motivate a metaphysical claim, namely that the world itself has to be consistent. If you could write down everything true about it, your list would not contain any contradictions. The idea is simple: if there were inconsistencies among the facts, and inconsistencies entail everything, then literally everything would be the case. The moon would be made of cheese and pigs would fly. So, if the world were inconsistent, you’d think we’d have noticed.

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, however, logicians have developed alternative logics which don’t ‘explode’ (as logicians like to put it) in the face of inconsistency. This logical innovation has spurred a philosophical one: some philosophers have been exploring the view, once regarded as a non-starter, that the world can sometimes be inconsistent. This view is called dialetheism, and it comes in different flavours, depending on where in the world you suspect inconsistency. Often, arguments for dialetheism focus on logical paradoxes such as the Liar paradox (‘this sentence is false’), for which satisfying consistent solutions are hard to achieve.

The social world has so far received little attention from dialetheists, with the exception of Priest (1987, ch. 13) and Bolton & Cull (2020). Yet it might be one of the likeliest places to find inconsistency. Here is why.

One major way in which we shape social reality is by laying down conditions for certain social states of affairs. For example, by developing shared expectations and aesthetic reactions, we make it the case that if you put on a certain cut of trousers, you will be unfashionable; by passing a criminal law, we make it the case that if you commit a certain act, you will be a criminal. The mechanics of laying down conditions – or, as we might call it, social construction – have been variously described by social metaphysicians. In my article, I build particularly on Brian Epstein’s (2015) theory. An appealing feature of his theory, as I see it, is that it allows for a realistic amount of disorderliness in the construction of social reality. It allows that the different elements of social reality are constructed through disparate processes, which may involve entirely different people with a variety of purposes, and it allows that the people involved in these processes may lack insight into or substantive control over what they are doing. Social reality is just what ends up emerging out of this dispersed, uncoordinated and often confused activity.

One among many things that can go awry, amid this activity, is that we can end up laying down a condition for something to be the case, and also a condition for it not to be the case, in such a way that these conditions are jointly satisfiable. This is not the sort of thing that we would do if we were clear-eyed and coordinated, but we are not always clear-eyed and coordinated.

Complex regulations are a good case to think about. Consider for instance the intricacies of a tax code, and the scenarios that it yields for devising and revising criteria in muddled ways over time. It is not so strange to think that a person can end up both qualifying and not qualifying for some tax break. Or think about games: the philosopher Ted Cohen argued in 1990 that under the then-current rules of baseball, if a runner hit the base at the same time as being tagged, they were in and also out (and therefore not in). Such scenarios are not surprising on the kind of picture of social reality which I sketched. On that picture, consistency in the social world is something that we would have to achieve through care and coordination, not something that is already built in.

Philosophically, this is just an opening move. One might admit that yes, we can screw up our social institutions in such a way that they appear to produce contradictions. But are these really contradictions, or will a more subtle metaphysics reveal that these contradictions are mere surface appearances? I think many philosophers would want to say so. In my article, I develop and consider several cases against social inconsistency on their behalf. Some are more promising than others – but my ultimate conclusion is that we should remain open to social inconsistency.

If this is right, what follows? First off, unless we also want to think that absolutely everything is true, we should embrace some form of paraconsistent logic. But there are further consequences to think about as well. Social facts often have normative import; if you fall in a certain tax bracket, for example, then you should pay that much tax. If there are social inconsistencies, however, some of them could generate dilemmas: situations in which you ought to do something, but you also ought not do it. Many philosophers think dilemmas cannot happen, because of the principle that ought implies can. Social inconsistency might, among other things, give us a reason to re-examine that commitment.

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  • Bolton, Emma and Matthew J. Cull (2020). “Contradiction Club: Dialetheism and the Social World”. Journal of Social Ontology 5(2), pp. 169–80.
  • Cohen, Ted (1990). “There Are No Ties at First Base”. Yale Review 79(2), pp. 314-22. Reprinted in Eric Bronson (ed.), Baseball and Philosophy (2004, pp. 73-86). McLean: Open Court Books.
  • Epstein, Brian (2015). The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Priest, Graham (1987/2006). In Contradiction (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the author

Thomas Brouwer is a Research Fellow and Research Development Assistant at the University of Leeds. He studied at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, did his PhD at Leeds, and worked at the University of Aberdeen before returning to Leeds. After working initially in metaphysics and the philosophy of logic, he now works mainly in social ontology. He is especially interested in the metaphysics of social facts, the actions and attitudes of groups, and the mechanics of social norms and conventions.

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Filipa Melo Lopes – “‘Half Victim, Half Accomplice’: Cat Person and Narcissism”

“Vanity” (c 1910) J. W. Waterhouse

In this post, Filipa Melo Lopes discusses the article she recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Filipa’s article can be found here.

At the end of 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, went viral. Published at the height of #MeToo, it described a “toxic date” (Nicolaou 2019) and a consensual but highly disturbing sexual encounter between Margot, a college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties. Within a week, the internet was filled with a fierce online debate about what exactly had gone wrong. This was clearly “bad sex” (Donoughue 2017), but what was so bad about it? One influential diagnosis formed among anonymous women on Twitter and feminist-influenced columnists: Cat Person was a relatable denunciation of women’s powerlessness, a story about how women can be subtly coerced into sex that they do not want to have. But these popular interpretations failed to engage with the rich phenomenological description that gave the story its “skin-crawling” effect (Nicolaou 2019). Indeed, Cat Person paints a darker and much more complicated picture. The problem here is not simply undesired sexbut sex that is desired in a tragically alienated way.

To see this, I propose that we read the story through the lens of Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of ‘narcissism’. For Beauvoir, narcissism refers to “a well-defined process of alienation”. The narcissist is someone who makes herself both the subject of her life but also the absolute project of her life — she is pathologically self-involved. By thinking of herself as the only object of value, the only thing worth admiring and glorifying, the narcissist foregoes the angst and perils of having real life projects, of making choices, and of being judged by others. Beauvoir claims that “circumstances invite” women more than men to adopt this attitude (Beauvoir 2011: 667). A woman is often a frustrated actor in the world. In her socially prescribed roles as wife or mother, she finds herself only doing work for which she is not recognized as a singular person, with opinions and accomplishments of her own. At the same time, women’s socialization persistently encourages them to see themselves as primarily objects. When looking in the mirror, many women think of themselves as really the thing watched. Narcissism can then be an attempt to overcome this frustration and this separation from oneself, by trying to become the object of one’s own loving gaze. But this has tragic results. Busy worshipping herself, the narcissist turns inwards and loses her connection with the world (Beauvoir 2011: 680-681). Through a series of examples, Beauvoir shows how narcissism undermines the artistic and intellectual achievement of women, explains their volatile need for the good opinion of others, and leads them to being economically dependent on men. Narcissism is then deeply appealing, but ultimately self-destructive.

Margot embodies a contemporary version of Beauvoirian narcissism. She likes Robert, but what she really loves is seeing herself as desirable in his eyes. She is both subject and object of desire at these moments, both “priestess and idol” (Beauvoir 2011: 670), reveling in a relationship with herself first and foremost. Only this narcissistic self-love can make sense of her reaction to otherwise bizarre interactions. Robert kisses her on the forehead, calls her “honey”, “sweetheart” in ways that seem more parental than romantic. But Margot enjoys this because she is made to feel as if she were “a delicate, precious thing he was afraid he might break”. She notices “the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked”. He is the mirror in which she appears as “an irresistible temptation”, a magical creature that can appease and control this burly man. Margot tellingly wonders at some point: maybe what she likes most about sex is the way young men look at her, stunned, drunk-looking, needy. Roupenian writes

As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless. (Roupenian 2017)

This is no mere fantasy. This is the narcissistic mode of engagement with the world that Beauvoir described: “when she abandons herself on the arms of a lover, the [narcissist] accomplishes her mission: she is Venus dispensing the treasure of her beauty to the world” (Beauvoir 2011: 675).

Margot is not a perfect narcissist. She catches herself being self-centered and worries that her behavior may be “bizarre” and “capricious”. Most importantly, she finds the price of her narcissistic enjoyment hard to bear and calls it a “humiliation that was a kind of perverse cousin to arousal” (Roupenian 2017). What excites her is getting Robert’s attention, but to achieve that she must make herself vulnerable and compromised. Margot is not wounding some clumsy, well-intentioned young man. Robert is himself alienated and predatory, seeking someone to stroke his ego, rather than a genuine peer. What he proposes to Margot is then a perverse trade of adoration for sexual submission.

If Cat Person is “more like a documentary than fiction” (Nicolaou 2019), then the fact that Beauvoir’s concept illuminates the story speaks to its relevance in our social reality. Narcissism highlights how patriarchal ways of life do not just operate on women ‘from the outside’ — they also depend on women actively sustaining them. Margot as a narcissist is an insightful character because she illustrates Beauvoir’s famous epigraph: “half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else” (Beauvoir 2011: 277). While it is true that eliminating the pervasive threat of sexual violence is crucial to changing the way men and women relate to each other, it is also important that women themselves reject the trap of narcissism. What women stand to gain from this psychological effort of self-transformation is not just some abstract victory against the patriarchy. Unlearning narcissism means unlearning habits that put us in harm’s way, that preclude intellectual excellence, and that make genuine loving relationships with others impossible.

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About the author

Filipa Melo Lopes is a Lecturer in Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2019 and specializes in social theory and ontology, feminist politics, sexual ethics, and the work of Simone de Beauvoir.