What kind of thing is ‘hate’?

‘Homophobia’ looks like it’s a word for a kind of fear (likewise for ‘transphobia’, ‘fatphobia’, etc.); ‘misogyny’ looks like it’s a word for a kind of hatred (likewise for ‘misandry’). And ‘racism’ looks like it’s a word for some sort of system or theory (likewise for ‘sexism’, ‘ableism’, etc.). (‘Anti-semitism’ displays yet another pattern.) But it’s pretty clear that everyday usage doesn’t reflect any such distinction – whatever homophobia is, it seems like the same kind of thing as misogyny and racism and anti-semitism. When people want to talk about that kind of thing in general, they sometimes use words like ‘prejudice’ and ‘bigotry’, and when they want a short punchy word they use ‘hate’.

But it’s tricky to say what kind of thing this ‘hate’ is: it’s not simply ‘hatred’, the emotion, since it seems to gesture at something larger, more flexible, and more systematic than a single specific emotion. Debates about the definition of ‘hate’ generally, or particular types like ‘homophobia’, recur periodically, and recently I saw a couple of instances that prompted me to write something about them.

(This post is a long one: the tl;dr is that these are terms introduced to name real-world phenomena which are easier to recognise than to explain or define, and so they don’t admit of a clear definition. The best slogan is that they are ‘failures to see certain people as fully human’, but it takes me 3,000 words to explain that phrase.)

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Links and random thoughts

A few posts I’ve read recently, liked a lot, and am sharing here:

Libertarian Social Justice Warrior: A Surprisingly Coherent Position. Nicely lays out the case for people interested in social justice to appropriate, if not the label ‘libertarian’, at least a lot of the themes, tone, and ideas of libertarianism (a word only fairly recently claimed by the right). I tend to think of myself as ‘libertarian-with-a-lower-case-l’, meaning roughly that:

  • For a surprising number of social problems, the quickest and easiest way to improve matters is to interfere less and give people more choice about things;
  • People are, as a rule, less willing to accept that than they ought to be;
  • When we’re not sure what policy would have the best results, there should be a strong presumption in favour of letting people do what they want (stronger in proportion as the choice in question is a personal one about their own lives, weaker in proportion as it’s an institutional one about how to administer some big organisation).

Two Kinds of Caution. An interesting primer on reasons to worry about the risks posed by superintelligent robots before, rather than after, they’re invented. I don’t have a settled view on AI-risk stuff, but I found the post stimulating.

On the Lack of Public Intellectuals Among Academics. Some reasons why writing as a ‘public intellectual’ is hard, and subject to very different incentives from writing interesting and stimulating stuff. It resonated with me – obviously I’m not a public intellectual, or really trying to be (I don’t even blog that often!) but I recognised the feeling described in the post, of trying to work out how to fit a long, uncertain, and relatively involved thought into the format of something short, topical, and ‘urgent’.

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Why I’m anti-marriage, and why I got married.

A few weeks ago I got married, slightly to my surprise. My partner and I both dislike marriage as an institution, but our living situation changed in a way that made it financially and legally advantageous to have a marriage certificate, and we figured ‘well, marriage isn’t important enough for us to incur personal costs just to avoid it’. My partner talks about it a little in this article on the Huffington Post.

I thought it would be worthwhile to articulate here some of my thoughts about marriage, and why I would say I’m ‘against it’ (as far as is compatible with, um, getting married). We don’t deny that we’re married, but we don’t identify with it, and strongly prefer terms like ‘partner’ to ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. In some sense we feel like the marriage isn’t a ‘real’ one – it exists only on administrative forms. That doesn’t mean we don’t love each, or don’t feel deeply committed to each other. But our relationship isn’t any different from what it was six months ago.

I’m going to organise this post in four sections: why I oppose marriage as it currently exists, why the answer isn’t just to reform it, how I think about the identity of social institutions, and why that doesn’t mean I think everyone else’s marriage is wrong.  This is all thoughts-in-progress – I’m not claiming to have reached a final or settled or unproblematic view. But this is where I’m at currently.

1. Why be against marriage?

The first and most straightforward thought is that the legal system shouldn’t privilege and regulate some relationship forms over others. This is a fairly easy liberal-political-theory idea: who has what kind of intimate relationships with who isn’t the state’s business, and I think that easy thought is largely right.

As a follow-on, the institution of marriage elevates monogamous, hetero, sexually-consummated, lifelong, relationships over romantic relationships that are polyamorous, homosexual, asexual, or more limited-term. I think those relationships can be as important, as rewarding, as healthy as any others – and even apart from what I think, the state ought to be neutral among them.

And then there are all the overtly sexist trappings: ‘giving away’, virginity expectations, asymmetrical name-changes, the non-criminality of spousal rape in many jurisdictions, titles that advertise marital status for one gender and not for another, and so on.

I recognise that in practice, marriage is often the best way for people to secure valuable things for themselves (financial security, freedom to migrate, etc.), but in an ideal world those things wouldn’t be dependent on showing that you’re involved in a particular sort of relationship.

2. Why not just reform marriage?

But all of the above points seem open to a simple reply: just change marriage! Many countries have gay marriage, and many people have marriages which dispense with some or all of the sexist trappings. The prospect of legal plural marriage is at least being talked about, and in a sense it’s already possible to have a ‘marriage’ without any of the legal trappings (‘we’re married, we just have to say otherwise on forms’). As for the fact that getting married historically has, and in some countries still does, deprive women of various core rights like owning property or going out alone… couldn’t we just work to remove those legal penalties, but keep marriage itself?

At this point it becomes harder to say what ‘marriage’ even means. Suppose we reformed society so as to void every single thing I said above. ‘Marriage’ might then be something like ‘a non-legal loving relationship entered into by some number of people for some length of time for some purpose’. But now imagine you magically established something like that as a custom in some present or historical society. Wouldn’t it stand out as contrasting with marriage, as an alternative sort of relationship?

(Note – I don’t mean to say that any particular reform of marriage would drain it of all meaning, as opponents of gay or plural marriage sometimes suggest. My point is that there are sets of individually-plausible reforms whose cumulative effect would be to make marriage unrecognisable to contemporary eyes – just like if you transplanted contemporary egalitarian marriage laws into lots of historical societies, it would be clear that they described an alternative kind of relationship to that society’s ‘marriages’.)

I’m not trying to say that therefore it makes no sense to reform marriage; I’m just drawing attention to the fluidity of definitions. The fact that two radically different institutions, which would form a sharp contrast if they co-existed, could also be the starting-point and end-point of a series of gradual reforms – I think that’s an important fact about how societies work. For many aspects of a society, there’s no unchanging essence, nothing that stays unchanged from the beginning to the end. There’s just the gradualness, the continuity, at every stage.

3. So then what is marriage?

If marriage has no unchanging essence, what is there to support or oppose? For a lot of institutions, I think the right approach is ‘just take it as it is, and don’t worry too much about what it used to be.’ That’s why it makes sense to reclaim slurs, for instance, or to argue for constitutional protection of some right even if the drafters of the constitution clearly didn’t intend to establish it. That’s why the right way to judge the 1980s USSR, or the contemporary British parliament, isn’t to examine what really happened in 1917 or 1688, but to see how they work now.

That’s why I felt ok with getting a marriage certificate. If marriage doesn’t have an inherent fixed meaning, I can give it meaning, and the meaning I give it is: a tool for streamlining my dealings with the world’s bureaucracies.

But then sometimes, a social institution expects you to make this heartfelt personal declaration – not just to fill out the forms, but to feel deeply about doing so. And then I feel like it becomes important to look past its present incarnation. If you’re asked to pledge heartfelt allegiance to the flag or crown or laws of a country, for instance, and if the only essence to that country is a chain of historical continuity, then what you’re being asked to pledge allegiance to is that history.

So for me, what’s really at stake when I take a stand towards this thing called ‘marriage’ is: do I want to symbolically tie my deepest emotional connection to the history of marriage? Looking back at what it’s meant for the last couple of millenia, do I see something I want to join, or something I want to distance myself from?

I want to distance myself from it. Overall and on the whole, marriage seems to me a pillar of patriarchy, a coercive and hierarchical structure whose basic power asymmetry is enough to taint the tenderness and joy and love that often occurred within it. In most historical settings, marriage officially meant the submission of one person to another, and against that background whatever care and closeness bloomed within it can’t help but look like either ‘a naturally occurring thing forced unnaturally into the marital cage’, ‘an oppressed person making the best of a bad situation’, or ‘a dominant person choosing to extend kindness to someone dependent on them.’

Of course that sounds pretty melodramatic when said about contemporary marriages in Canada, the UK, Australia, or Germany. The actual practice of most marriages today in these countries looks a lot more like what I want my romantic life to be: two (or more) equal partners without power over one another choosing to live together and publicly signal their commitment. That’s why I saved the ‘marriage is a prison for women’ bit for all the way down here, where I’ve already explained why I feel like I need to look at the history. The history matters because the only thing that defines a marriage is a declaration of continuity with that history.

4. What about other people’s marriages? 

Does this mean I think everybody who is emotionally invested in marriage, and thinks it’s all about love and equality, is wrong? No.

I don’t think there’s a determinate right answer to ‘what is the true meaning of the history of marriage?’, any more than there’s a determinate right answer to ‘what is the true lesson this piece of media is teaching?’ There can be better interpretations and worse interpretations, but choosing a single right reading comes down to emphasis.

I think a lot of people feel that ‘the true meaning’ of the history of marriage is simply a celebration of love, which various patriarchal cultures have corrupted or distorted to varying degrees, with contemporary legally-egalitarian forms representing the purest and truest expression of what was there all along. I can’t show that this interpretation is definitely wrong: I can only say that it’s not the interpretation that speaks to me.

Indeed, part of why that interpretation doesn’t persuade me is the very fact that both interpretations (marriage as a pillar of patriarchal oppression, now softened, vs. marriage as just two people making a life together, historically corrupted) make sense. That running-together of hierarchy and love is, in a way, what discomforts me most. The history of marriage is a history of mingling hierarchy and love, of blending them to reinforce the idea human love naturally takes on a hierarchical form. I find that blending deeply uncomfortable, and that motivates me to distance myself from marriage.

Let me summarise, since this was a bit of long-winded ramble. Legal privileges for a certain kind of romantic relationship are illiberal, and they create a social battleground over what sorts of relationships deserve those privileges. I fully support queer and poly people fighting in that battleground, but it would be better for it not to exist. And given that marriage is this evolving thing, whose definition people fight over and change, the only thing that really defines it is the historical continuity between its different versions. The reason I want to distance myself from ‘marriage’ is that I can’t see that history as something I want to associate myself with.

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Rally to Close the Camps

Just a quick note to encourage any Australian readers to consider attending this coming Sunday’s rally against offshore detention of asylum seekers. There are events being held all over Australia but the Canberra one is at 1pm in Civic Square (shown in image).

A brief summary: the Australian government currently imprisons people seeking asylum if they come into the country the wrong way, keeping many of them in offshore camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. It keeps them here for indefinite and unforeseeable periods often stretching to several years. The conditions in these facilities are about what you would expect when people a government wishes didn’t exist are herded into camps.

This a very expensive way to handle what’s actually a very small number of individuals (billions of dollars on detaining just over 2000 people): even if every single one were an exception to the general rule that migrants are usually more productive and more law-abiding than natives, it couldn’t possibly cost more to assimilate them than it does to imprison them. This reflects (as I understand it) a general feature of anti-migrant politics in Australia: the focus is not on mass immigration but on ostentatiously brutal treatment of refugees coming by boat in particular (basically because Australia’s economy is thirsty for labour).

The stated rationale for the policy is the importance of not encouraging people to seek asylum by travelling to Australia by boat, because when they do so they are vulnerable to exploitation by people traffickers. There’s a very weird sort of logic at work here: effectively, let’s make 2000 innocent people into examples of misery out of humanitarian concern for others like them, who will hopefully be so discouraged by this prospect that they will stop trying to escape whatever combination of persecution, destitution, and desperation would motivate them to embark on a life-risking boat journey to an unknown country. The perfect synergy of compassion and brutality! And of course in the background is the artificial false constraint that of assuming there will always be people traffickers, because there will always be border controls that stop people who desperately want to enter, work, and re-build their lives from doing so legally. People traffickers are a creation of border control; yet here they are used as a justification for harsher such controls.

This policy has been around for about 20 years now, supported by both major parties, but the public mood in Australia may be slowly turning against it – especially among supporters of the Labour party, who look to have a reasonable chance at forming the next government. Hopefully a show of public opposition can start to turn some Labour politicians, and this particularly appalling and particularly unnecessary instance of bureacratic-dehumanisation-driven-by-racism might end.

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Heap of Links: Dutch Elections, Yet More ‘Racism-or-Economics’, and Healthy Fat People

Sadly I haven’t been posting as frequently as I had hoped to, and I’m not really posting today either, but I wanted to throw out some good links.

First: The Dutch election seems to have helped the ‘Green Left’ more than Geert Wilders’ scummy Trump-knockoffery, but to have also hurt the centre-left party much more than the centre-right party. But it’s hard to interpret because there are SO MANY PARTIES. Good discussions from Eric and Crooked Timber.

Second: My posts on economic-vs.-racial ‘explanations’ of Trumpism prompted an exchange with my friend Greg, in the course of which we shared two duelling articles marshalling relevant data, one skeptical of the prospects for progressive victory through left-wing economics, one more optimistic. I’ll note that I still don’t have a firm view on this – I am trying to get comfortable living in my own ignorance.

Third: Results from a new study on healthy fat people – the gist is ‘some fat people are healthy, and those who are unhealthy enough to have chronic illnesses don’t seem to benefit from losing weight.’ Came to my attention through the science/fat-acceptance side of Tumblr. Worth noting, of course, that this is still all basically correlative info, not positive identification of causal mechanisms, as best I can see – like pretty much all the results  which ‘link’ obesity to heart disease etc. (i.e. those data don’t tell us which causes which, if either). I’m linking it to re-emphasise the point that body weight and health are two different things.

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Peter Singer, Ableism, and the Argument from Marginal Cases

Later this month, Peter Singer is giving an invited lecture at my philosophy department; ironically, I learnt this on the same day that I read a comment thread on facebook that got more than a hundred comments, about whether Singer’s treatment of disability is ableist. The discussion partly involved his support for giving parents the right to kill ‘severely disabled’ newborn children, and partly his use of the ‘argument from marginal cases‘.

(The argument from marginal cases, in essence, aims to de-stabilise an absolute divide between the moral value of humans and animal, by pointing out that any cognitive capacity lacked by all animals is also lacked by at least some humans.)

This argument is actually somewhat important to me, in that it’s part of what convinced me to become vegan. Or rather, it became part of what stabilised that decision, a key supporting plank of my reflective equilibrium. So it matters to me that the simplest and most popular versions of the argument are, I think, ableist. This post is going to be mainly me explaining why I think that about this argument and its treatment of cognitive disability, and why I’m largely in agreement with much of the criticism of Singer’s views on selective infanticide and his treatment of disability more generally.

One core claim of disability-rights critics of Singer is often some version of ‘our lives are not up for debate’, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable attitude.

“But Luke, shouldn’t everything be open to rational debate?”

Maybe in the privacy of your own head, but if you’re going to debate with other people you’re engaged in a social activity, and that activity has social presuppositions. One key presupposition is mutual respect between participants: if you question someone’s right to exist, you’re not in the kind of interaction with them where you can reasonably expect them to listen respectfully and respond thoughtfully. And many (most?) of our debates are ‘public’, in that in theory anyone could follow, learn from, and to that extent participate in them – which means that expectation of respect for participants has to extend to everyone. A public debate about whether it would be better to kill people in group X is one that implicitly excludes people in group X from the relevant ‘public’.

“But what exactly does this ‘mutual respect’ actually require? (Similarly: what exactly is a ‘right to exist’?)”

I don’t have a very good answer right now, and I don’t think I’m the best-placed person to give one: it’s neither my special area of research, nor something that I’ve ever been denied, in the relevant way. But I can indicate some specific aspects of it in relation to the particular topics at hand.

One involves the quantitative and comparative sort of thinking that debate thrives on – comparing different cases, looking for relevant similarities and differences, judging relative weights or quantities or degrees. When the topic of the debate is people’s moral status, this naturally leads into a frame of mind where questions arise like ‘how much is this sort of person’s life worth?’, or ‘how much more is this life worth than that other one?’ But asking questions like that is putting oneself in the position of weighing other’s lives – they have no application unless we have to decide who lives and who dies. And it would be terrible if we made that kind of decision about each other! Weighing up people’s lives in a numerical scale is already dehumanising.

“But Luke, sometimes decisions about who lives and who dies do have to be made – in rescue missions, warfare, healthcare policy, and so on.”

Yes, but those sorts of cases stand out as unusual and different from the normal fabric of moral life, both inter-personal and societal, where what matters is acting in accordance with an ethos of always saving lives and never destroying them.  Indeed, those cases stand out because so many of them represent tragic failures – warfare, or rescuing people from a burning building or out-of-control tram, is a situation of moral breakdown precisely because it forces us to choose among lives.

“But on some theories of ethics, the ultimate moral principles are quantitative in nature, e.g. the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

But just like we can’t use the atomic theory of matter to build bridges, I don’t think we can use a calculation of net effects on everyone affected to guide most moral decisions. And in practice, society’s willingness to think in those terms for some people and not for others is part of their oppression and a net harm.

“But even if that’s all true in practice, surely we can bracket everyday moral life and just debate the quantitative questions in harmless abstraction?”

Maybe if the questions are abstruse and unfamiliar ones, asked only by academics in seminar rooms. But disabled people don’t face this willingness to judge the value of their lives only in academic seminar rooms: it’s everywhere, on a spectrum from condescending sympathetic looks to deadly violence. And because it’s everywhere, when it does appear in a seminar room it’s often in the form of unstudied assumptions about some lives being ‘obviously’ less worth living, or less worth prolonging – the articulated tip of a society-wide iceberg. So I think it’s appropriate to challenge that sort of ‘abstraction’, to say that in its full social context it’s something bigger and weightier than just one more theoretical move.

I think there’s also an important epistemic point here. There’s a form of cultural oppression in some people’s experiences being simultaneously mostly unknown and unheard in our society, and yet also being something that others feel confident making claims about. Saying things like “[a child with haemophilia] can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby… When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second”, seems to me to implicitly treat as knowable things that are not realistically knowable. How much of my life has been “filled with pain and discomfort”? Would it contain more or less, if I had a differently-configured body? Whatever the difference is, how much of that would be changed by a shift in social customs or assumptions? I honestly don’t have much confidence in my ability to answer these questions sensibly, and there’s some evidence that people without disabilities are prone to significantly under-estimate the (self-reported) quality of life of those with disabilities.

This is related to a special sort of ignorance everyone is prone to, of reifying social constructs as inherent to individuals. For instance, in the above-linked piece part of the ‘suffering’ described for people with spina bifida is ‘incontinence’, and I think part of what non-disabled people might find frightening or ‘undignified’ about the thought of being disabled is needing help or special accommodations to deal with bodily functions. But all human bodies produce weird gross fluids and we nearly all rely on societal help to deal with them (I can’t build my own toilet or sewage system). To an alien being with different biology, it might seem horrifying and humiliating to think of not being to schedule these things weeks in advance. Our society takes certain kinds of ‘grossness’ and judges them normal and natural, and makes sure that wherever we go there is high-tech equipment to help us manage them. The fact that we don’t do that for other sorts of ‘grossness’ is a social fact, not a medical one. And treating the quality of life enjoyed by disabled people as something it’s safe for non-disabled people to assume can only reinforce this reification.

So what about the argument from marginal cases? A way of presenting it that I’ve seen, and which I think is ableist, starts by talking about a category of “severely cognitively disabled humans”, and makes the claim that they are, in all important cognitive respects, just like non-human animals. Since (the argument assumes, with a certain blithe optimism) we recognise moral worth in such humans, we should do so also in animals.

But the very category of ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ here is a perfect example of the kind of epistemic casualness that I think is harmful to people with disabilities. Who are these people? Do they actually exist, or just hypothetically? What is ‘severe’ enough? The listener is encouraged not to worry too much about the details, which amounts to trusting their vague impressions about what they associate with the term ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ as adequate to capture what’s important about such people. Some listeners might think of autistic people, others of people with Down syndrome, others of people in a persistent vegetative state, others of people with dementia. Those are very different cases, and each contains a lot of variation. And others making casual assumptions about what they are cognitively capable of is itself part of the problems they face.

There’s also the comparison with animals, which in fairness it has to be remembered is usually intended primarily to ‘drag up’ the moral status of animals, not ‘drag down’ the moral status of cognitively disabled humans. But that intention doesn’t by itself determine the social significance and effect of such a statement, either on other listeners or on oneself and one’s future reactions to people. It doesn’t guarantee that this particular instance of ‘they’re just like animals’ won’t be unconsciously connected to other, very different instances of ‘they’re just like animals’. I think it’s callous and irresponsible to add, into the melting pot of assumptions and ideas that flows through our culture, another instance of that thought, and I can totally understand why someone who has, for instance, seen their child reacted to as a curiosity rather than a person, would find it enraging.

I think (I hope?) the argument may have a more responsible and sensitive version, which doesn’t involve making casual sweeping assumptions about actual people. The way I employ it for myself, it’s more like a schema for a response to any particular proposed criterion of moral consideration. For instance, if someone says (or if I consider for myself) that humans deserve moral consideration because they can understand and use language, and animals don’t because they can’t, I ask myself how I would feel about myself or someone I know losing their linguistic abilities, and whether I would want that to change my moral status. It has the same effect, but it avoids positioning me as the omniscient arbiter of everyone’s degree of moral importance.

Because what I want, really, is not a world where animals are given any particular numerical degree of relative ‘moral weight’, but a world where people less often claim for themselves the right of life or death over animals, and over humans who are different from them.

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Still making progress

Just a quick link to a discussion of the marked decline of large-scale open armed conflict in the world.

“Death tolls from wars in the 1970s and 1980s were 4–5 times higher than they are today. We are, despite reports of religious and political insurgencies, despite high-profile terrorist killings and unrest in various corners of the globe, living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. The world is getting less violent; we’re just more aware of the violence that happens, thanks to the mass availability of information.”

It’s useful to maintain perspective. In my view, politics across the developed world is moving in a distinctly bad direction – but politics is not all of human life, and sometimes bad politics co-exist with (are a reaction to?) good social trends.

I suppose if nuclear war breaks out between China and the USA this year, I’ll look rather silly for having posted this. But I guess if that happens, I’ll have bigger things to worry about.

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