What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

As a couple of recent articles have perfectly illustrated, whenever feminists try to talk about the issue of sexual harassment – be it the catcalls and leers that women commonly experience while minding their own business walking down the street, or just good old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment – they are inevitably met with the supposedly killer objection: “but isn’t a lot of this just harmless flirtation? What’s your problem with people trying to flirt with you?”

The power of this response comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the frigid old prude who objects to friendly, good-natured, charming men paying you a well-intentioned compliment. We all enjoy being flirted with, at least sometimes. But if you say that men shouldn’t make advances towards women they find attractive, aren’t you in effect saying that we should prohibit flirting?

I think this response is usually rather disingenuous, because it’s pretty clear that objections to workplace and street harassment have got nothing to do with objecting to flirting. This is because harassment is categorically not a form of flirtation, or an instance of well-intentioned flirtation gone wrong – and we all know this. There’s an important difference being flirted with, even where that flirtation is unwelcome and inexpertly executed, and being harassed. And both subject and object know what this difference is. We all know flirting when we’re on the receiving end of it, and we all know harassment when we’re subjected to it, and we can all tell the difference between the two.

The key feature of flirting, that makes it flirting, is that the person doing the flirting – The Flirt – is acutely sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person with whom they are flirting. Flirting is a process of sending out careful, subtle, micro-behaviours signalling one’s attraction: slightly prolonged eye-contact, a quick touch of the arm, an exaggerated laugh at a joke that was really not that funny. And, crucially, flirting also involves having a heightened awareness to the micro-behaviours being displayed by the other, to try to interpret their signals about whether this attraction is welcome. Does he maintain the prolonged eye-contact, or he does he quickly look away? Does she return the playful arm touch, or does she subtly inch further away to discourage further touching? Of course, this can all be done badly, with comic, embarrassing, or even distressing consequences. Some Flirts are terrible at reading other people’s body language, and blunder on, oblivious to the discomfort and awkwardness of their target. This is unfortunate, and it would be better for everyone if the useless Flirt would desist. But nonetheless, we can all recognise that this behaviour is largely harmless, causing not much more than some mild irritation or social embarrassment. When someone proceeds in flirting with us, despite our trying to make it clear that this is not welcome, we feel awkward and embarrassed, but not usually threatened or intimidated.

Harassment is different, predominantly due to the intentions of the Harasser. The Harasser, unlike the Flirt, is not sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person he is harassing. Usually, he is not sensitive to these, because he does not care about them. He is going to proceed with his sexual advances, regardless of whether these are welcome or desired by the object of his attentions. I have written on this blog about my experience of being harassed at a conference I attended. Someone reading that account could easily respond: but isn’t that just harmless flirting? But as the object of the behaviour, I can say with utmost certainty that it was not flirting. It was harassing, for this reason: the Harasser was oblivious to, and uninterested in, my very obvious distress. Had he been flirting, he would have been making some attempt to read my body language, which was sending out very clear and loud “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME” signals. So loud and evident were these signals, that I was rescued from the situation by two friends who, witnessing my distress, intervened and whisked me away. Yes, they are my friends, and they know me. But if they could observe and correctly interpret the panic and distress in my eyes and demeanour from a distance, I think it’s reasonable to say that the Harasser could have done so – and indeed, would have done so, had he been a Flirt. But the thing that made this experience so distressing at the time, and so rage-inducing later, is that it was clear to me that he had no interest in my attitude or response to his advances. He did not care whether he was upsetting me or making me uncomfortable. Indeed, in his eyes, I was not really a person at all. He had no interest in my feelings and desires whatsoever. And it was this realisation – the realisation that he did not care that I did not want him to touch my neck – rather than simply the fact that I did not want him to touch my neck, that made the experience so profoundly dehumanising and objectifying.

Harassment is distressing and degrading precisely because the Harasser demonstrates so little concern for the wants and interests of the person he is harassing, and in so doing, treats them as not fully human – in Kantian language, as a means for the fulfilment of his own desires, rather than as an end in herself, a person with her own desires and goals and purposes. And that’s different from flirting, because even in cases where the Flirt is just not very good at this, he is at least still trying to interpret the motives and intentions of the object of his advances correctly. Presumably, if the useless Flirt had any idea about how unwelcome his advances were, he would be mortified, and withdraw them. But the Harasser would not, because he does not care. Harassment is a denial of one’s personhood and one’s agency, and as such, is a distressing and dehumanising experience. But more than that, it can also be frightening. For if someone has shown themselves to be so utterly uninterested and unmoved by your wants and desires, and proceeds to behave in a way that treats you as a mere means for the fulfilment of their own, then who knows what else they might do?


Woman Shaming: the scourge of the public eater

In the days following my first ever lecture to an audience of several hundred students, I was struck by an unsettling realisation. Suddenly, there were people living and walking in my city that knew who I was and would recognise me, while I would not be able to do the same. This was entirely new to me. Up until that point, I had always taught small seminar groups, so if I bumped into one of my students at the pub, I would know who they were, and could modify my behaviour accordingly (or, more likely, go to another pub). But then after one of my lectures, a student I didn’t recognise said hello to me in the street, and it occurred to me that now that I was lecturing to such a large group, things had changed. I felt a bit exposed, and unpleasantly visible. I couldn’t possibly know who they all were; but they would all know me. It felt like a tiny, microcosmic glimpse into what it must be like to be famous. For a few days, I walked around town slightly warily, wondering if the people who made eye contact when I passed by them had been in my lecture.

Almost the first thing I felt self-conscious about, and decided I would now need to be more vigilant about, was public eating. My main concern about being recognised by my students was not that they might witness me being drunk and rowdy, or that I might inadvertently push them out of the way to get served at the bar. The thing that made me really uncomfortable was the idea that they might spot me walking down the High Street stuffing a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch into my mouth. I got over it, of course. Despite this initial flurry of unwarranted vanity and self-importance, I quickly realised that the likelihood of any of them caring enough about my snack choices to take to Facebook to discuss them was very slim indeed. But that my first concern was with being observed – no, caught – eating in public reflects something I have long suspected and have now had confirmed: women are not supposed to be seen eating. Because really, they are not supposed to eat.

I’ve just read this interesting piece by Sophie Wilkinson about the relatively new trend of ‘stranger shaming’ – taking photos of people in public spaces, in order to mock, embarrass or humiliate them. Sophie herself has been the victim of this, having undertaken the provocative and threatening gesture of eating a pasta salad on the tube, and subsequently finding a photo of her taken without her consent on Facebook. Naturally, the picture was accompanied by a range of derisory and vicious comments, many of them suggesting that Sophie’s public eating displayed a lack of etiquette or decorum: “I would like the name of her finishing school”, said one particularly droll commenter.

Of course women aren’t the only victims of stranger shaming, and I find the practice extremely disturbing whoever is the target. It’s nasty, bullying behaviour to mock strangers who are innocently and obliviously going about their lives, and a huge violation of someone’s privacy to take a photo of someone without their consent and publish it online. I think this is a pernicious trend that needs to stop, whoever the target, and whatever their alleged misdemeanour. But we can learn a lot about the kinds of behaviour our society considers unacceptable, and therefore deserving of public ridicule and humiliation, by observing the types of behaviour that will leave you vulnerable to stranger shaming. One of the most noteworthy stranger shaming sites is Men Taking Up Too Much Space on Trains, the content of which is self-explanatory. In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I was once sat next to one of these men, whose legs were so far apart that I was basically pressed up against the window to avoid our thighs touching; and in my annoyance, I did take a photo of him with my phone, which yes, I then tweeted. In my defence, the photo was only of the man’s legs, so that he was not in any way identifiable from the picture. And I hadn’t given this issue as much thought back then. I probably wouldn’t do the same now. But the reason I felt this behaviour was so outrageous as to be worth sharing with my friends was because he was, objectively, taking up more than his fair share of the space. I was squashed into the wall, while his legs were splayed at a ninety degree angle, as are those of many of the men who feature on the website. While I don’t condone these men’s pictures being published without their consent, especially those whose faces are clearly visible and who are therefore identifiable, it’s interesting to note that the kind of bad behaviour that gets men publicly shamed is, arguably, objectively objectionable behaviour. The men in question are taking up more space than they are entitled to, and in so doing, causing inconvenience and discomfort to others.

But as the Facebook group that Sophie’s picture appeared on tells us, for women, one of the biggest crimes is to be observed eating in public.  Perhaps you didn’t already know this. But I had clearly absorbed this message somewhere along the way, because I knew I didn’t want my students to witness me eating. I think I have absorbed the message particularly effectively because I went to an all girls’ school that had a rule to the effect that sixth formers in the town at lunch time must not eat as they walked, because that would present a bad impression of the school. But this is clearly a rule that many people endorse on some level, or the Facebook group would not have thirteen thousand members, and many hundreds of photographs submitted.

As a currently slightly overweight woman, I am especially aware of the social unacceptability of being seen to eat in public. Women should not be seen eating, because women are not supposed to eat. Whatever else they are, and whatever else they do, women must first and foremost be beautiful. What it means to be beautiful is to be thin; and to be thin, one must not eat. Therefore, the woman who eats in public is flouting not only a convention of etiquette. She is also brazenly, shamelessly showing her disregard and contempt for the rules governing women’s proper social conduct and appearance.

Of course, the woman who should be shamed for her public eating must still be objectified and treated as a target of sexual aggression. Because food isn’t the only thing women can put in their mouths, amirite guys? By daring to satisfy her hunger, the woman who eats in public has shown herself to possess lascivious and insatiable bodily appetites of other kinds too, and has thereby invited all the inevitable “open wide, gobble down on this, she looks like she enjoys swallowing, the greedy bitch” comments. Moreover, many of the comments on the Facebook group show their thinly-veiled disgust and contempt for women’s bodies: witness their being likened to animals, engaged in “feeding frenzies”, or, as happened to Sophie, her mouth described as a “gaping orifice”. Just by existing in a public space and daring to nourish herself, a woman apparently makes her animal nature and the material reality of her body too visible, too real to be ignored. And this, as we know only too well from our societal fear and disgust of menstruation and lactation, is immensely disturbing for many people, and must therefore be discouraged through the use of social sanction – such as the stranger shaming Facebook group or Tumblr.

This is a profoundly depressing and dispiriting conclusion to arrive at. But the upside is that by simply daring to walk down the street while feeding ourselves, it turns out we are doing something surprisingly rebellious and transgressive. I hadn’t realised radical political action could be achieved so easily. So on that note, I’m off to buy a packet of Monster Munch and walk down the High Street.

A plea for politeness; or, a call for kindness

Politeness has been getting a bad rap lately. While there is widespread consensus that sending people threats of violence is unacceptable, the idea that we should also be polite to one another is a lot more controversial. In a piece on Comment is Free today, we are told that recent responses by high-profile writers to online abuse and trolling are “less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper”, and that “campaigns against trolling…are less to do with concerns about civility than they are about exercising control over public debate”. Anyone familiar with online social justice activism will be familiar with the objections to “tone policing” that arise whenever one party to an argument asks for a little more politeness or civility. The thought here is that by requesting civility, or refusing to engage until others are polite, those with power and privilege stifle dissent and silence their detractors. In turn, less privileged or marginalised people are dismissed as trolls, their justified anger falsely portrayed as harassment or abuse.

There is a genuine and legitimate worry about the potential for norms of politeness and civility to be exploited by the powerful in this way. For much of history the idea of politeness has performed exactly this function, preserving existing hierarchies and shielding the powerful and privileged from critique. This is because on one possible interpretation of the idea, politeness means something like “deference to authority” or “respect for one’s superiors”. Politeness here is something that is owed to people by virtue of their place in the social hierarchy. It is the fact that I am above you in the pecking order, that I have power or authority over you or am in some sense your superior, that makes politeness required when talking to me. This view of politeness is closely linked to conservative notions of decorum or etiquette – you ought to be polite to me because that is the done thing, given who I am and our relative positions in the social order.

Now if this is all there is to politeness, I think we would have good reasons to jettison the idea altogether. This “deference to authority” view is, as the recent critics of politeness point out, inherently conservative, operating to preserve power and privilege and to prevent those who have traditionally been marginalized or oppressed from getting too uppity and attempting to disrupt the current social structure. But what I would suggest is that this is just one possible interpretation of what politeness is, and that there is another much more progressive and egalitarian way to interpret politeness. And it is this alternative meaning that many of the people currently calling for more civility are actually appealing to.

On this other version of the ideal, politeness is something you owe to me not in virtue of my natural superiority over you, but in virtue of our equality. You should be polite to me, not in deference to my authority, but in recognition of our shared humanity, according to which I, like you, am a human being with feelings, weaknesses and frustrations; I am vulnerable and capable of being hurt, just as you are. On this notion of politeness, we should be civil to one another in our interactions not in order to preserve privilege and stifle dissent, but to protect one another’s fragile natures from unnecessary hurt and cruelty. It is an ideal of civility grounded in equality and shared humanity, rather than hierarchy and deference. Perhaps the terms “mutual respect” or even “kindness”, might be more accurate than politeness then, with all its stuffy and outdated conservative baggage. Requesting this kind of politeness and respect is not an attempt to maintain my superior position in the status quo by silencing your dissent. Instead, it is asking that you recognise my weakness and vulnerability, and behave with kindness, compassion and charity towards me; and promising to treat you in the same way, because I recognise that you share these human frailties with me.

This egalitarian notion of civility as mutual respect does not entail that those with less power and fewer resources cannot express their justified anger about the injustices they have suffered. Nor does it mean that there is no room in political discourse for passionate expressions of outrage and indignation. Many of those who rail against civility and “tone policing” do a disservice to the valuable tools of anger and outrage, by falsely equating these with insult and abuse. Anger has always been a powerful weapon in the armory of movements for greater social justice, and we should not seek to stifle or neutralise this. But even if you’re angry – even if you’re rightly, justifiably, boiling with rage and fury – this doesn’t mean you should blind yourself to the humanity of your opponents. They may be misguided, and they may be ignorant. But insofar as they are not actively hostile or disrespectful towards you – insofar as they refrain from denying your rights, attacking your identity or insulting and abusing you – they remain deserving of your kindness and compassion.

So I want to issue a plea for politeness, or more accurately, a call for kindness. I believe that all of us ought, in our interactions with each other, adopt a norm that says we will treat people with mutual respect, kindness, charity and compassion, provided they do the same for us. We should assume they will do the same for us until they give us good reason to believe otherwise. And this norm applies regardless of who we are talking to; even those more powerful and privileged than we are, are entitled to this mutual respect and kindness. The only alternative is that in every interaction, we withhold our compassion until the other person has proven to us that they are vulnerable enough to be deserving of it; that they present us with a detailed account of their weaknesses and frailties, for us to assess whether they are sufficiently fragile to be worthy of respect, kindness and concern. And really, who of us is in a position to make that kind of judgment?

Oxford Political Theory Research Seminar

This term, along with my colleague Jesse Tomalty, I am organizing the political theory research seminar in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University  of Oxford. From 2 May onwards, we will be meeting every Thursday at 5pm in Seminar Room B of the Manor Road Building to hear a speaker present a paper. The speaker will talk for about forty minutes, after which there will be about forty minutes of discussion. The seminar is usually followed by a drink in the King’s Arms pub, and then a visit to an affordable local restaurant for anyone who wants to come along.

As you will see below, we have a great schedule of speakers lined up, talking on a diverse and interesting range of topics. All are welcome to attend, so if you are in Oxford on any of these dates please feel very welcome to come and join us!


Political Theory Research Seminar
Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford
Thursdays, 5pm, Seminar Room B, Manor Road Building


SECOND WEEK: Thursday 2 May – Fabienne Peter (University of Warwick)
‘The Epistemic Circumstances of Democracy’

THIRD WEEK: Thursday 9 May – Kit Wellman (Washington University in St. Louis)
‘Procedural Rights’

FOURTH WEEK: Thursday 16 May – Suzanne Uniacke (University of Hull)
‘Opportunistic Terrorism’

FIFTH WEEK: Thursday 23 May – Veronique Munoz-Darde (University College London)

SIXTH WEEK: Thursday 30 May – Chris Brooke (University of Bristol)
‘Towards a New History of Distributive Justice’

SEVENTH WEEK: Thursday 6 June – Cecile Laborde (University College London)
‘Some Thoughts on Ronald Dworkin’s “Religion Without God”‘

EIGHT WEEK: Thursday 13 June – David Miller (Nuffield College, Oxford)
‘Majorities and Minarets: Religious Freedom and Public Space’

The objectivity of oppression

In my post yesterday on intersectionality and identity politics, I tried to argue that the internal logic of identity politics is flawed, and though motivated by good intentions, can’t actually yield a practical vision of politics that makes people’s lives better. I now realize that there is an assumption in this argument that I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and yet is crucial to the point, namely: the fact that oppression is objective. This is a fact that many intersectionalists seem to want to deny. Yet they can’t, because the very fact that we can talk about oppression at all relies upon its being in some sense objective.

Suppose Joey claims that Chandler has broken his arm. Joey might be in the best position to know how his arm feels, and so the first thing we need to do is listen to Joey and find out how his arm feels. However, there’s no reason to assume that Joey is best placed to know whether his arm is broken. Just because he feels like it is broken, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is – Joey’s interpretation can be mistaken. A doctor will listen carefully to Joey’s testimony, but will ultimately appeal to independent criteria to determine whether Joey’s arm is broken, and it is to these independent criteria that we should appeal when determining whether or not Chandler is guilty of arm-breaking. We can all agree that Joey is not the final authority with respect to whether his arm is broken. Yet some proponents of intersectionality seem to want to suggest that he could be the final authority with respect to whether he has been the victim of oppression or not. But just because in practice, diagnosis of oppression is inevitably more controversial and appeals to less well established facts, does not mean that is in principle any less objective.

The idea that we should listen closely to people’s testimonies and try to learn as much as we can from their experiences often seems to lead people to the conclusion that this subjective form of knowledge – people’s particular narratives and experiences – is the only kind of knowledge we can have, and the only kind of knowledge that can inform political action. And if that’s true, then we shouldn’t try to generalize from those personal experiences to more abstract, seemingly objective principles, because these principles will never be objective – they will only be the particular, subjective beliefs of dominant people, and will serve the interests of the powerful. This conclusion is, I think, mistaken. Of course, we always need to engage in careful examination of our norms and principles, to try to ensure that they are objectively valid, and not just a reflection of the interests of powerful individuals or groups. But unless we acknowledge some objectivity in our definitions of what constitute oppression or injustice, there can be no foundations for eradicating these, or for making people’s lives go better.

The reason for this is that there is no way to make sense of concepts like oppression or injustice, unless we understand them as having some objective criteria – that is, criteria that determine whether an action oppressive, independently of how it is experienced by those subject to it. If it did not – if oppression was entirely a matter of whether or not a person feels they have been oppressed – then there would be no way to distinguish between action that is oppressive, and action that I just don’t like very much. And clearly, when people claim to have been oppressed, they think they are saying something different, and more compelling, than merely “I don’t like this”. There are lots of things people could do (or refuse to do) to me that I wouldn’t like very much. I might like to win the lottery, or to borrow your car. We can all agree that the fact I would like to get these things but don’t get them is not oppression, no matter how strongly I might feel about it. And when I say I am being oppressed by something you do, I believe I am saying more than just “I would have liked you to do this”; I believe I am saying, “I have a right to this, and you ought to do it”. And the fact that you ought to do it does not depend on how I feel about it, or on the fact that I would like you to do it; because if it did, there would be no difference between you oppressing me, and you not lending me your car. As soon as I claim to be oppressed, I am appealing to some objective criteria of oppression, criteria that are independent of my subjective feelings and interpretations.

Of course, we still need to determine what those criteria are. And listening to people’s narratives and experiences will be very useful here, for any plausible account of what oppression is presumably needs to fit reasonably well with our intuitions and considered judgements about what oppression is like. These criteria need not be set in stone – they can be open to constant revision. And (hopefully) obviously, the dialogue where we determine what these objective criteria should be needs to be open to as many different voices as possible, especially those who have typically been marginalized and oppressed.  But ultimately, we need to try to come to a set of objective criteria about what constitutes oppression. And once we do, then we can use these criteria in specific cases to judge whether a particular claim to be oppressed is correct or not. This leaves open the possibility that the person who feels oppressed may in fact be mistaken. While she may feel strongly and in good faith that she has been the victim of oppression, this is not sufficient for it to be true that she has. She may well have been; but this is determined objectively, independent of her experience, interpretations and feelings. So therefore, it is at least possible for people to be mistaken about their own oppression. Trying to ensure that our beliefs about oppression and injustice are as objective as possible is essential, and I do not mean to deny that less oppressed people frequently fail to recognize the ways in which their beliefs about oppression are clouded by their own unchecked and unacknowledged privilege. In real life politics, this is by far the bigger problem facing social justice activists – people in positions of power and privilege frequently fail to examine the ways in which their privilege has shaped their views abut what justice and oppression are. Without a doubt, people with privilege have much to learn from the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My point is simply that the knowledge they gain is only of use if it informs general and objective principles that guide future political action.

The problem with some versions of intersectional identity politics is that, in elevating subjective experience above objective knowledge, they dissolve the possibility of making coherent, meaningful claims of injustice or oppression at all. On this logic all complaints are reduced to an expression of one’s personal preference or feelings, with no way to distinguish genuine injustice from mere dislike. If we want to hold on to the concepts of injustice and oppression, and if we want them to have real political weight and to signify actions and practices that need to be altered, then we have to understand them as having objective criteria that are defined independently of how any individual experiences them. The intersectionalist demand to attend to people’s narratives and to learn from people’s experiences can, at its best, shed a great deal of light on difficult concepts like oppression and injustice, and help us to understand the forms they take and the remedies they require. But at its worst, it descends into solipsism and narcissism, where we mollify oppressed people with the consolation that they are being listened to, but where we and they ultimately lack any resources with which to end their oppression.


For a more theoretical discussion of this line of argument, you might want to read this great post by Matt Bruenig: What does identitarian deference require?

Intersectionality and identity politics

I’ve been avoiding wading into the more-heat-than-light discussion about feminism and intersectionality, partly because more than enough bytes have been expended on the topic, but mainly because I don’t really fancy the backlash. But the pedantic, smart-arse side of me can’t keep quiet any longer, and I’m arrogant enough to think that what I have to say might fall into the light-generating rather than heat-generating category, so I’m giving it a go.

There’s clearly some deep misunderstandings going on amongst feminists and other lefty progressive types about what intersectionality is and what it demands. After all, the people who are troubled by the discourse of intersectionality are not white supremacists or Westboro Baptist style homophobes, but tend to be people with egalitarian political principles and a strong commitment to social justice. The more vocal proponents of intersectionality often explain this unease the rest of us have with it by reference to our implicit biases, and by the fact that those with power and privilege are usually reluctant to give it up, or feel uncomfortable having our prejudices pointed to out to us. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, I think the intersectionality sceptics do have valid reasons to resist the doctrine, or at least, to resist it in the form in which its proponents usually present it. Privileged though white, middle class feminists may be, it’s rather uncharitable to assume that any discomfort with intersectionality is merely a symptom of our desperate (albeit implicit) desire to hold on to that privilege.

As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial. It would be pretty difficult to deny that even though I experience some societal oppression as a woman, I am also advantaged by being white, middle-class and non-disabled, and that other women who don’t share these features of my identity will experience forms of domination and marginalization that I do not.  As far as I can tell, there aren’t many people, feminist or otherwise, who would argue against this specific part of the intersectionality story.

I don’t agree with those who say that the problem with intersectionality is that it’s a difficult, academic concept that ordinary people can’t possibly be expected to understand. It’s true that I don’t much like the word ‘intersectionality’. It’s a big, new, difficult sounding word to describe something that is actually a remarkably straight-forward and common sense idea, and that always gets my hackles up, as I suspect it’s often done in an attempt to make the obvious and mundane seem complex and profound. But I’m not going to fight with anyone about that. It’s useful to have a phrase to describe this simple idea, and if intersectionality works for you, then that’s fine – and, for better or worse, it looks like we’re stuck with it now. (It also seems worth mentioning that in my time as an academic I have never heard or read the word. Perhaps other academic disciplines use it, but it is never used in my field, and I had never encountered it until I started reading feminist stuff online.) So while there may be some initial resistance or confusion when meeting the term for the first time, I don’t think the reason to object to the discourse of intersectionality is that it’s just far too academic and complicated for normal people to understand. It’s actually incredibly obvious and easy to comprehend that if you’re a non-white woman, you’re going to be subject to both sexism and racism, which is a different experience from being subject to only one of these, and so on and so on, for other forms of prejudice.

So if this is what intersectionality is about, then I don’t believe many people on the left have any problem with it at all. I think the problem lies not with the idea of intersectionality itself, but with the identity politics that some of its proponents believe follows from it. We are told that if we accept intersectionality – which we ought to – then we also ought to accept a radical form of identity politics that says we can never generalize from people’s particular experiences, can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and where personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity. This is an unattractive – indeed, an incoherent – picture of what politics should be like, which followed through to its logical conclusions is entirely self-defeating. And as we are sold this vision of politics as part of the intersectionality package, if we can’t accept it we are told that we must reject the intersecting oppressions story too. But this is a mistake.

Starting from the uncontroversial idea that our identities are comprised of many different elements, resulting in complex, possibly unique experiences of oppression for each individual, comes the quite plausible sounding claim that each individual is the best judge of her own experiences. Given that we all have these multifaceted identities and experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, each person is likely to be best placed to recognize and understand the oppression she faces. I think this is likely to be true, or at least, most of the time, we should assume it to be true. And if we believe that, then we ought to pay close attention to people’s testimonies, listen carefully to oppressed people, and let them use their own voices to share their experiences and understandings of the injustices they have faced. This is all very sensible and attractive. Any attempt to eradicate injustice and improve the lives of oppressed people ought to begin by listening to those people and learning from their experiences.

But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better. Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles.

Suppose two women disagree about whether a certain action is sexist or not – one experiences it as discriminatory or oppressive, while the other does not feel this way about it. While it is useful to know how they feel about it, it doesn’t get us very far in deciding how to judge that action and whether to allow it or not. If we want to do more than satisfy people’s desire to be listened to – if we actually want to eradicate unjust practices – then we need to determine who is right and who is wrong. The two women presumably don’t think they are merely expressing their personal preferences about the action in question, in the way they might express a preference for tea over coffee. They both believe there is a right answer about whether the action is sexist, and that the other is mistaken. They can’t resolve this by reference to their personal testimonies and experiences alone. They will inevitably have to appeal to some beliefs they share, some general principles about what makes an action sexist. And as soon as they do this, they are having a discussion that anyone can contribute to, including men. They are appealing to abstract considerations and invoking a general argument that is in principle available to anyone, regardless of their personal experience. Once we’re doing that, men can contribute to a conversation about whether something is sexist, white people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is racist, cisgendered people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is transphobic – and they won’t necessarily be wrong, just because they lack personal experience of these forms of oppression.

Some intersectionality advocates seem to jump from the reasonable and probably true premise that people are best placed to recognize their own oppression to the unreasonable and clearly false premise that people can never be mistaken about their own oppression. It may well be true that women are best placed to define and recognize sexism, and that non-white people are best placed to identify racism. What is clearly not true is that women can never be mistaken about whether a particular phrase or action is sexist or not, or that whenever a non-white person thinks she has been the victim of racism, then she has. I may be accused here of erecting a strawman argument, that no intersectionalist actually thinks this. And yet in practice, I see this assumption at work all time, when men who question whether something is sexist are dismissed as ‘mansplainers’, or when accusations of racism are believed without evidence because it is a person of colour making the accusation. The danger with this line of thinking is that it really does lead to an Oppression Top Trumps, where we have to preface all our arguments with extensive details of our identities and past experiences to prove our oppression credentials before we are entitled to an opinion, and where personal feelings and experience trump abstract arguments and general principles.

While we ought to begin with listening to people’s stories, we cannot stop there, for on their own, people’s stories tell us nothing about what we ought to do, what policies we ought to prefer. And yet the logic of the intersectionalist’s identity politics tells us that we must stop at listening to people’s testimonies, because to do any more would be oppressive and unjust in itself. As soon as we start to abstract away from those stories, and form general principles, we risk oppressing the people who would disagree with those principles because they don’t quite fit with their own experience. But this is a totally fruitless and nihilistic approach to politics. On this logic, we couldn’t implement laws against sexual assault, for example, as all victims of assault will experience the harm of it differently, and indeed some victims might not experience it as harmful at all. On this logic, we couldn’t have a rule that punished breaking someone’s leg more severely than pinching someone’s arm, because there may be some people who find arm-pinching as distressing as a broken leg. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, in this vision of politics there could be no room for movements like feminism at all. For feminism assumes some degree of commonality among women, which the logic of this identity politics must deny. As soon as you call yourself a feminist, you are identifying yourself as part of a movement that speaks for and represents others. And yet these others are all radically and irreducibly different, from you and from each other.

It’s not obvious to me why speaking for others is inherently oppressive. Perhaps it would be better if all people could clearly and accurately express their views and experiences. But some people are always going to be more skilled at doing that than others. For some especially weak and vulnerable people, it may be physically impossible for them to speak for themselves. And crucially, it’s inevitable that some people are going to be better than others at highlighting the relevant connections between different stories, at drawing out the general features of people’s experiences that will enable us to construct our principles and guide our action. While one person may well have the best understanding of her own experiences, it’s possible that others will be in a better position to draw general conclusions from those experiences about what we ought to do.

Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. The implication of this is that sometimes, we may have to tell an oppressed person that they are mistaken in their judgement about particular cases of injustice. But the payoff is a vision of politics that allows us to do more than just listen to people’s stories, but actually implement policies and engage in action that makes people’s lives better.

Victim blaming and logical fallacies

I’m writing this with a bit of trepidation, as it’s likely to be unpopular. I am hugely sympathetic to the political standpoint of the people whose arguments I’m targeting here. But the philosopher in me can’t bear to witness sloppy reasoning and logical fallacies, even when called into the service of a good and rightful cause. Philosophy is prior to politics, and the pursuit of truth should be prior to any convictions or ideology to which we are committed. It’s for this reason that I want to explain why one very frequently advanced claim is simply false, the product of a basic error in reasoning. This is the claim we most often see in discussions of rape and other sexual offences: that engaging in certain forms of activity or behaviour does not increase one’s likelihood of being a victim of these types of crime.

I have seen many comments along the lines of: “most people who are victims of rape are not drunk when it happens, so it’s not true that being drunk increases your chances of being raped”. Or similarly: “most people are raped by somebody they know, often in their own home, so walking late at night in a deserted area doesn’t make it more likely that you will be raped”. Now, I fully understand and feel the force of the sentiments that motivate this kind of argument. The worry about victim blaming is a legitimate one, and the problem of victim blaming is real and persistent. There are still many people who think that if a woman behaves in certain ways – gets drunk, wears certain clothes, walks home late at night – that she is somehow responsible or blameworthy if she is attacked. That she somehow had it coming, or ought to have expected it. This has serious implications for all manner of questions – how we punish convicted rapists, how we go about tackling rape as a societal problem, etc. And of course, it also has a serious impact on those who are assaulted. Not only are they victims of the first injustice, that of the assault; they are victims of a second injustice, when they are blamed for what happened to them, with all the suffering and pain this causes. So I fully agree that we need to avoid blaming victims for the crimes they have experienced. Unfortunately, the aforementioned argument is not the right way to go about this. It is an invalid argument, built upon a basic error of reasoning, so that its conclusion does not follow, and is probably false.

To be specific: in logical terminology, the error of reasoning that occurs in this argument is the fallacy of denying the antecedent. The fallacy occurs in this form:

If P, then Q.

Not P.

Therefore, not Q.

This conclusion – not Q – does not follow from the premises; therefore, this argument is not valid. The premises cannot be held to support the conclusion. (That doesn’t mean that the conclusion is definitely not true, either; it just means that we can’t deduce that it is true, from the premises given).

The argument given above, invoked to avoid the danger of victim blaming, can be laid out in this form:

If you are drunk, then you are more likely to be the victim of rape.

Most victims of rape are not drunk.

Therefore, it is not the case that drunk people are more likely to be victims of rape.

Now, it might not be immediately apparent why this is a fallacious argument. This is pretty much the argument that one often hears, and so it may on the face of it seem valid. However, we only have to tweak it slightly and the error becomes obvious:

If you are drunk, then you are more likely to crash your car.

Most people who crash their car are not drunk.

Therefore, it is not the case that drunk people are more likely to crash their cars.

Hopefully now it’s clear why this argument doesn’t work. The fact that the majority of people who are in car accidents were not drunk does not mean that driving while drunk does not increase one’s likelihood of a crash. This argument has the exact same structure as the previous one, and yet we can see that it is invalid; the premises do not support the conclusion.

In the case of drink driving, we know that as a matter of fact, the conclusion is false, because the empirical evidence tells us that the first premise is true – it is a fact that being drunk increases your chances of crashing your car. Now, I should make it clear that I am not stating that the first premise in the argument about rape is known to be true. That too is a question that empirical evidence will support one way or the other. The facts will tell us if it is indeed the case that being drunk or walking home alone late at night or wearing high-heeled shoes or whatever increase one’s likelihood of being victim of an attack (intuitively, some of those seem more likely factors than others).

But the point is this: the fact that most people who are raped were not drunk does not in itself tell us anything about whether getting drunk increases your chances of being raped. We know it is the case that the vast majority of rapes that take place occur within the home, or between people who know each other; and so in those cases, drunkenness is not a determining factor. But from that it just doesn’t follow that if you are wanting to minimize your chances of being the victim of rape, not getting drunk won’t help you. It is an empirical question – but it seems a plausible hypothesis to think that in any given situation, holding everything else equal, being drunk will make you more vulnerable that you would otherwise have been. And if that’s so, then to reject the claim that being drunk increases your chances of being victim of crime is just a mistake, and is an example of putting our politics ahead of the facts of the matter.

It’s crucial to note what is being said here, and what is not. Saying that being drunk makes it more likely that you will be a victim of a crime does not entail anything about whether you are therefore blameworthy for that crime or responsible for it. But to avoid that conclusion, we need to develop a coherent and intuitively compelling theory of blame and responsibility (and this would hopefully be able to make some important distinctions between causal responsibility and moral responsibility).

Equally, saying that being drunk makes it more likely that you will be a victim of a crime does not entail anything about what is the best way to go about eliminating that crime – whether you understand best to mean morally appropriate, most effective, or something else. I completely agree with those people who say that rape prevention far too often places the onus on women to avoid being victims of rape, rather than on targeting men’s behaviour. And I also agree that this is a dangerous move to make because it increases the tendency towards victim blaming. I happen to think that women have a right to get as drunk as they please, wear as short a skirt as they like, and walk home through dark and deserted areas without being assaulted; none of those factors could ever justify somebody assaulting them. But what I do have a problem with is people moving from that essentially moral position to the factual claim that being drunk or walking home alone doesn’t increase your chances of being attacked, because that just doesn’t follow.

I worry about all of this because the perfectly legitimate desire to avoid victim blaming then often becomes an outright attack on people who are trying to give factual advice about how to avoid being the victim of a crime. I can see why analogies with leaving one’s windows open and burglary seem crass and offensive to many people. But as the proponents of those kinds of analogies often stress, it is not a moralized claim; it’s a purely factual one. The empirical question of what makes a certain event more likely to occur is entirely distinct from the moral question of what makes a person blameworthy or not. Telling women not to get drunk probably will, everything else being equal, reduce their chances of being raped. Whether or not this is the morally right way to go about reducing those chances is an entirely different question.

Civility and charity in public discourse: interpret others as you would have them interpret you

There has been a lot of discussion in the past couple of months about issues relating to civility and politeness in online debate. Much of that discussion has focused on the the expression of anger and the recourse to insults and abuse in debate – understandably, because this is perhaps the most visible aspect of civility, and the aspect that has the most effect on people engaged in debate. I think that’s a discussion worth having – we need to find some compromise between using norms of politeness as a tool for silencing dissenting voices, and endorsing an anything goes approach where people can be as abusive, hurtful or threatening as they like. But I also think this misses out on a more important, because more fundamental, aspect of civility, namely: the principle of charity. Acceptance of and compliance with the principle of charity is a basic requirement of civility and should be regarded as a necessary condition for engaging in public debate – if someone is not prepared to be charitable, then we shouldn’t be prepared to debate with them.

As critics of notions of civility and politeness rightly point out, these norms have always been used as a tool to exclude some people from the discussion. Indeed, that is their function – they serve to exclude the uncivil, and therefore to allow debate to proceed without being derailed or disrupted. And it is true that these norms have often been interpreted in such a way as to justify the exclusion of people raising difficult questions, or to stifle dissent. One very quick and easy way of discrediting one’s opponents, or excluding them from discussion before it has even begun, is to label them as somehow unreasonable, and therefore not worth our time arguing with. And of course, historically it has often been members of oppressed or disadvantaged groups who have been labelled unreasonable. Particular groups, such as women or ethnic minorities, are socially coded as ‘emotional’, and therefore irrational or unreasonable; this is then used to justify excluding them from discourse. They are told: “we are prepared to talk to you, if you would only calm down and be reasonable!” This occurs even though such groups are no more prone to anger or emotional outburst than others. They have just been culturally defined as emotional; and even though such groups may have legitimate cause for anger or outrage, and may be entirely justified in feeling anger, and expressing it. So it is easy to understand why some people are unhappy being told they need to be more polite before we will talk to them about their concerns, and why many activists reject all calls for civility in discourse as an attempt by the dominant and powerful to silence dissent and exclude troublesome voices.

But this is too quick. We cannot possibly proceed to have a discussion without some ground rules, if only to allow us to discuss anything without the conversation being derailed by irrelevant concerns. Whenever we engage in debate, we all implicitly accept a rule that says we will try to stay broadly on topic, and only make points that are relevant to the matter at hand – hence why feminists are so frequently frustrated with responses to their arguments that simply say – “well what about men, they have a tough time too!” Similarly, we all implicitly accept a general norm of truth-telling – those who break this rule and tell lies are only able to do so by virtue of the fact that we have all accepted the norm of truth-telling, which is what enables the liar to be believed. Even those who argue for allowing a broad range of expressions of anger and other emotions would presumably want to draw the line at threats and ad hominem attacks (and indeed, most of those who want to allow aggression and abuse as expressions of anger tend to apply this only to the side of the argument they believe is right, and therefore justified in being angry. Few people are happy to let the powerful and the privileged be aggressive and abusive to their opponents; it is regarded as a tool to be used by those lacking in privilege.) So, once we’ve accepted all this, we are already well on the way to acknowledging that there need to be rules governing civility and politeness in debate – we just have to agree on what those are.

I think there are good reasons for us to restrict certain forms of expression on the grounds that they are excessively aggressive, hostile or abusive, for reasons that have surely been elaborated on elsewhere – it’s disrespectful, hurtful, and it’s counterproductive. But before we even get to the stage where we are levelling insults or being aggressive, we have a more fundamental duty of civility to apply the principle of charity.

The principle of charity is fundamentally a methodological presumption of rational argument that has various formulations, but says something like: we ought to try to understand any position in its strongest, most persuasive form before we attack it. But I think we should also consider it a moral obligation that we owe to anybody we engage in debate with, in whatever forum that debate may take place: we owe it to them to try to interpret them and their views in their strongest, most persuasive, and most reasonable light. Rather than imputing to them the view we believe that people like them usually hold, or the view we want them to hold because it’s easiest to attack, we should make a good-faith, sincere attempt to understand what it is they might actually mean, assuming that they, like us, are reasonable people.

A lot of work is done in this principle by the notion of reasonableness. In the context of public debate, I think reasonableness has two elements: first, respecting others as equal parties in the discourse; and second, arguing in good faith and making a sincere and genuine attempt to persuade others of the rightness of your views, or to get to the truth. If you don’t meet either of these conditions, then you are not a reasonable participant to the discussion, and other reasonable people are perfectly entitled to exclude you.

As a reasonable person, you ought to accept and uphold the principle of charity when debating with others. This principle requires you to do the following things:

1. Assume that the person you are talking to is reasonable, just as you are reasonable. Of course, this assumption may be overriden by good evidence that the person you are talking to is not reasonable – if they’ve just called you a stupid bitch, for example, they’ve clearly indicated they don’t respect you as an equal participant to the discussion. If they’ve obviously lied to you, then you are justified in assuming they are not making a good faith attempt to engage in debate. But until there is strong evidence to the contrary, charity requires you to assume the person you are debating with is reasonable, until they prove themselves to be otherwise.

2. Given that you are assuming them to be reasonable, try to interpret what they are saying in the most reasonable light. What is the most reasonable possible explanation for what this person has said? So for example, we should assume someone to be well-intentioned and yet misguided and ill-informed, rather than leaping to assume they are bigoted or malicious. This requirement is something like Hanlon’s Razor – don’t attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity. If someone asks questions, we should assume that they are genuinely meant in the spirit of inquiry, rather than motivated by more malicious or sinister intentions. Furthermore, we should assume that the person is arguing in good faith and is sincere – that they genuinely believe the view that they profess to hold. (Unless, of course, we are trying to work out whether a particularly obnoxious viewpoint is being sincerely professed or is an attempt at satire – in these cases, charity would have us interpret it ironically, until we have good evidence otherwise). We should also recognise the scope for reasonable disagreement – that is, that there are issues on which people can hold opposing views, and yet neither one be unreasonable.

3. Assume that the person you are talking to is rational, just as you are rational. That is, assume that they have the same capacities for rational thought, reasoning and logic that you have, and that these are operating properly. Again, this assumption can be overridden in the light of good evidence, but until we know either way, we should assume our interlocutors to be rational and well-informed, and assume that like we do, they seek to hold a set of beliefs that is logical, consistent and rationally grounded.

4. Given that you are assuming them to be rational, try to interpret what they are saying in the most rational light. Try to reconstruct their argument in its most logical, coherent, consistent form, and then attack that where appropriate. This means we avoid erecting straw men versions of people’s positions to be gleefully knocked down.

This might all seem rather obvious; and indeed, if you are a decent critical thinker then it should be obvious, as it is an important presumption in our reasoning processes. But I was motivated to write about it because in online debate, I see the principle of charity being violated daily; people interpreting others’ well-intentioned but misguided statements as evidence of bigotry; people twisting and interpreting others’ words to make them seem malicious or sinister. (On a charitable interpretation of this failure of charity, this happens unintentionally; being less charitable, I suspect some people deliberately misread and distort others’ views.) And it is this, as much as anything, that leads to feuds and fallouts and the outpourings of fury and vitriol we have seen recently. Being interpreted uncharitably is a form of injustice, and makes people angry. Particularly when this uncharitable interpretation is accompanied by abuse or insult, they are likely to respond in a similar fashion, and before we know it, a vicious and unpleasant war of words has broken out that is upsetting on all sides. A lot of this could be avoided before it’s even begun if we kept the principle of charity in mind when engaging in debate, and thought of it as a moral constraint on our interactions with others that it is up to us to police.

So as a rule of thumb, I propose a Golden Rule for public debate: Interpret others as you would have them interpret you.