Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Category: ethics

Victim blaming and ‘asking for it’

A short section of a thing I’m working on at the moment. The overall thing will be about the general notion of victim blaming and the instances it is used to cover. There will be lots of J.L. Austin in it.

The phrase ‘asking for it’, used in so many cases of rape and sexual assault, masks a distinction between two very different notions, and often slides between its two different senses. The distinction is that between a provocation and a request. On the provocation model, a woman’s clothes, behaviour or location are seen as a red rag to a bull – the perpetrator is presented as having been ‘provoked’ to commit the assault. This is similar to the ‘Right, now you’re asking for it!’ of a barroom brawl. On the request model, the perpetrator is claimed to have responded in a reasonable or understandable way to a masked or non-verbal request for sexual contact.

‘Provocation’ itself is typically used in a range of ways: I might be wearing a provocative top, or say provocative things about a renowned philosopher (perhaps both at the same time). These cases are very different: the latter might be a cause for condemnation, while the former is in most cases fairly benign. Perhaps sometimes I might even provoke thought. ‘Provocation’ also has legal and medical uses. The legal use is parasitic on the ordinary understanding of provoking anger: under many jurisdictions, someone charged with committing a violent crime may be excused or exculpated if they have been ‘provoked’ in a way that has led them to lose control. In the medical sense, ‘provocation’ is any technique used in a clinical trial to elicit a particular reflex or bodily response. The legal, medical and anger cases suggest a loss of control or responsibility for one’s own actions, an absence of the capacity for rational thought, and the eliciting of a response that is not fully voluntary. This seems to be an element of the sexual sense too, although one that we are probably better off without.

The sense in which ‘asking for it’ is construed as a request is in strong contrast to this. It is used when a victim is understood to be consenting by behaving in particular ways, for example by going to the perpetrator’s room, or by dancing with him. If we understand it in this way, then the perpetrator is understood as someone who is capable of attending to another person’s intentions, and acting on the basis of what he takes those intentions to be. The behaviour is taken either to express the victim’s desire for sexual contact, or to be reasonably interpretable as doing so.

It seems unlikely that someone could be capable of behaving in this manner, while at the same time being so ‘provoked’ in the former sense that they are unresponsive to the normal reasons for action. On the first understanding of ‘asking for it’, the perpetrator is (partially) excused on the basis that he is not in control of his actions, while in the latter, he is (partially) excused because he has made a reasonable interpretation of the situation before him and acted accordingly. The cases also differ with respect to the perpetrator’s supposed attitude to the victim. In the first case he is portrayed as (excusably) unresponsive to her preferences and wellbeing, while in the second he is portrayed as responsive to them.

In both senses, this phrase is a case of blaming the victim, but for different reasons. In the first sense, the perpetrator is presented as the proximate cause of the attack, but his moral responsibility is taken to be overridden. In such cases, his actions are taken to be caused rather than chosen, and the victim is then taken to be the most immediately responsible party with free agency. This is usually only taken to be ‘partial’ blame, where the perpetrator’s actions are not so beyond his control that he is entirely exculpated, and the blame is ‘distributed’ between perpetrator and victim. The second case is also an instance of victim blaming, but the victim is blamed either (a) for claiming that a rape or sexual assault has occurred when she was ‘actually’ consenting; or (b) for misleading by ‘sending out the wrong signals’. In both (a) and (b) the victim is presented as dishonest or misleading. Again, this kind of victim blaming may be an element of a (purported) partial excuse, but notice that those who blame the victim in this way can present the behaviour of the perpetrator as entirely reasonable.

In reality though, these very different meanings tend to be equivocated, despite their near-incompatibility.

Outward-looking feminism

I should note at the very start that anyone who feels the need to say something like ‘Exactly! This is the problem with feminism’, or to agree with me about the ‘pc nonsense’ is not welcome. You are, in a trivial sense, entitled to your opinion (trivial because all it means is that I should not be allowed to stop you thinking or saying it) but you are not my ally, and if you think that you are in sympathy with this piece you have misunderstood it.

What I want is an outward looking feminism. Not outward looking in the sense of feminine self-sacrifice or self-abnegation, but instead directed to a clearer, less fearful, vision of each other and the world that we cohabit.

As women, we are trained from a very early age to see ourselves as things to be looked at. Many of us find it hard to get away from obsessing about our appearance, our weight, and whether our behaviour is regarded as properly feminine or sexy. This is the triumph of whatever you want to call our target – be it men, patriarchy, systematic oppression – that’s up to you. We are not just policed by legal and pay inequalities, by threats of violence and explicit exclusion from roles and positions, we are, perhaps more than anything, policed by ourselves as a result of how we are raised, trained and shamed. This means that we have ourselves constantly in view – am I up to the mark? Am I projecting the right image?

Under such conditions, it is hard to look outwards. It is hard to enjoy a sunset without thinking about a certain image of oneself enjoying a sunset. It is hard to think about intellectual or political ideas without thinking about the ways in which we are seen to be doing so. Getting away from the panopticon – the all-seeing male gaze that we impose on ourselves – and just looking at what is in front of us, is extremely difficult. Solitude is a project to be achieved, not the simple state of being away from a particular other, because we tend to bring the eyes of others along with us.

Social media doesn’t help with this of course. There is unprecedented scope for us to compare ourselves with others day or night, and to have unprecedented opportunities to project an image of ourselves to others even when we are alone. This may be equalising in a sense, imposing on men (especially young men) many things that had previously been more feminine burdens. But do we want equal self-surveillance and policing for all?

This is a common theme in feminism. Sandra Bartky writes about it very effectively in her book Femininity and Domination (I nicked the image of the panopticon from Bentham via Foucault via her). But what I think we need to see is how this self-obsession has come to infect many areas of feminist discourse themselves.

The most obvious point here is about image. Now of course things like weight, body hair and so on are feminist issues, and they should be discussed in feminist spaces. But a feminism that makes us obsess about our own hairy pits or our own body fat is not a feminism that I can totally get behind. We need to lose that self-consciousness from time to time, and move beyond the particular images that we are projecting to the thoughts and feelings that lie behind them.

But that isn’t enough, because (perhaps another thing ramped up by social media) those thoughts and feelings can become a kind of image branding as well. It is easy to move away from thinking about something important or interesting and start thinking about how we must be seen to be thinking about something important or interesting.

‘The personal is political’ is a great feminist slogan. It reminds us that issues often trivialised or marginalised because they affect us in the private or domestic spheres, in our everyday lives rather than on the global stage, can be matters of serious political concern. But this should not lead us to retreat into an obsessive kind of self-examination, more concerned with how we see ourselves and the way that we are affected by things than we are with the world around us. And I fear that this happens a great deal – we are constantly monitoring ourselves and our feelings for the pernicious effects of patriarchy on our wellbeing.

One thing that I have in mind here is the current feminist concern with safety, which often manifests itself in a heightened sense of danger. There is a need, undoubtedly, for certain safer spaces, for trigger warnings, for all kinds of assurances and provisions to make us more secure. But the proliferation of these and similar things has often had the opposite effect by leading to an exaggerated sense of the danger in situations. Discussions in online forums will rapidly descend into people feeling threatened or hurt by other people’s comments, in a way that moves the discussion away from the topic at hand – we stop looking outward and start looking inward. Meanwhile, the focus on safety vs. danger can make us hesitant in other areas of our lives – afraid to walk the streets alone or speak out in public – we lose sight of our destination, and worry instead about what might happen to us. We need to find a way of acknowledging the real dangers and fears associated with an oppressive system, while finding the strength resilience and good humour to look the world in the face.

Of course, this has always been a peril of developing any kind of political consciousness concerned with domination and oppression – we become aware of threats and slights that might previously have passed us by. But a pernicious inward-looking tendency, itself the product of an oppressive system, can turn an outward-looking positive political movement into an incubator of neurosis. It is an irony that it is the internalised eye of the other that can make us disappear inside ourselves. To overcome this solipsism we need to learn to be properly alone.

I don’t have any easy solutions to this. It is something that we need to arrive at in discussion with each other and through living, campaigning and reflecting. But in order to do so, we need to practice looking – properly looking – rather than looking at ourselves as looked-at. This seems to me the only way that we can be less fearful, less solipsistic and more empathetic.

That bloody dress again – vision and choice in perception and values

I haven’t updated this blog in a while, mainly because of being very busy. I am still very busy, but since I have been gripped by the same thing that everyone is getting by turns obsessed and infuriated about over the past day or so, it seemed worth getting it off my chest.

For some reason, everyone went totally mad over a fairly ordinary quality photograph of a not very nice dress. The reason for this insanity was that people disagreed dramatically over its colour. Some people saw it as blue and black, while others saw it as white and gold. I was closest to the blue and black team, although it was more like a vibrant blue and a dark warm brown colour.

Very quickly, people started offering scientific explanations of the phenomenon. Most explanations put it in terms of a basic contrast effect. When displayed in a particular visual context, different colours appear in different ways. This XKCD cartoon demonstrates the effect.

Now this is part of the explanation, but it doesn’t give us everything that we need to know. Take the famous checkerboard illusion. In this illusion, two squares that are coloured in the image with the same pigment appear as different colours because of the visual context. But with this illusion, pretty much everyone looking at it will perceive it the same way. With the dress, people were pretty close to coming to blows over being contradicted on what just seemed so obviously the colour. Even people looking at the picture in the same conditions disagreed about the colour, so we can’t just put it down to surrounding lighting conditions, the colours of other things on the screen or in the surrounding environment and so on.

We then got other explanations of the difference that referred to stuff going on in people’s visual systems that led them to differ in their colour perception. Different arrangements of rod and cone cells, or different neuronal activity might privilege a certain way of seeing the dress.

It seems that the best explanation is likely to be a mixture of the two, combined with other factors. Certain particularities about the specific configuration of our eyes, our nervous systems and the surrounding environment will all have a role to play. Other things might come into it too: I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that certain moods might incline us to imagine the context as a lighter one or a darker one for example, or that memories of clothes that we have seen or owned might come into it. There are also features about other perceived qualities of the dress. I was eventually able to make the switch to seeing it as a white/gold dress, but only once I started to think of it as much more shiny and satiny in texture than I had previously done.

This is the sort of thing that the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about. In his view, the perception of a quality is not something that happens in isolation. I don’t just see a red, for example, but rather a warm woolly red. Colours are not just colours in the abstract, but they come with textures, smells, occasions, memories and meanings. Perception is a feature of the way that we operate in the world, and the meanings that things have for us. I saw the dress as blue/black when I was imagining it as a matte textured garment that I might squeeze myself into in the morning, with sunlight streaming through the curtains. When I managed (after a bit of work) to see it as white/gold, I was seeing it as a glitzy evening affair that I would put on in preparation for a night out, while my hair was in curlers and I was listening to ABBA. This is a bit of a dramatization because I probably wouldn’t ever wear that dress, but you get the point. Things appear in the way that they do because they have certain kinds of practical significance.

But actually it wasn’t so much the peculiar visual differences around the dress that interested me so much. What intrigued me was quite how mental everyone went about it. Not only was there radical disagreement between people’s visual perceptions, but this was extremely vehement, and people were quite bothered by the fact that other people saw things so differently. People seemed anxious that this was leading them to question objective reality, or the reliability of their senses. Other people flooded to online tests for colour blindness with the conviction that if other people saw things so differently, perhaps there was something wrong with their visual system. The response to the effect seemed very often either to be that either you or I must have some pathology, or the basis of the world that we inhabit is somehow threatened.

This is interesting because people disagree about things on the internet all the time. This is often vehement and entrenched, but it doesn’t usually lead to the same kind of anxiety or questioning. Why not? Probably because most of these disagreements are about politics, aesthetics or ethics. If I say that you need to get your ears tested if you claim not to have enjoyed the latest Björk album (I haven’t listened to it yet actually, but you know) you would not actually think that it was something that you needed to rush to the GP about. If I said that you are wrong in the head for voting UKIP, you probably wouldn’t take that remark seriously (actually, you should). These are value judgments of various kinds, and most people today tend to think about value as subjective: even if our moral, aesthetic or political reaction seems to us to be immediate, obvious or visceral, we won’t usually be surprised that other people don’t see the world in the same way.

Iris Murdoch has an interesting line on facts and values. For her, an ethical outlook is a way of seeing things. People or objects appear to us in certain ways because they matter to us in relevant respects. This is close, in some ways, to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about visual perception: a face, for example, might appear to us completely differently according to the attitude that we have towards the person concerned. There hasn’t been much work, so far as I can tell, on the connections between Merleau-Ponty and Murdoch, but I think there should be. Perhaps that will be my next project.

Another thing that Murdoch talks about is the way in which the classic distinction between facts and values is not as clear-cut as it might first appear. It is certainly useful to make fact/value distinctions in some contexts: for example, it is helpful to challenge people who think that something is automatically good because it is ‘natural’, and bad because it is not. But this approach has its limits. The stark distinction, Murdoch thinks, is itself based on a certain moral take on the world: one that is rooted (she thinks) in Protestantism and Liberalism. Why would we say that? I find the Protestantism aspect a bit harder to grasp (although, informed by my recent viewing of Wolf Hall, I am starting to get some inkling of it) but the liberal bit has two components:

  1. Meaningful discourse must be possible, so we must basically agree on the nature of a public external world that we all inhabit, which furnishes us with ‘objective facts’ that are established through our phenomenal experience.
  2. Disagreement must not be irrational, so ways that things matter or have meaning for us (‘values’) must be private, subjective, and available as choices.

Now, if we live by this kind of framework, of course disagreements about something like the dress will disturb us in ways that disagreements about ethics, politics or aesthetics will not. The ‘objective world’ which we thought that we shared with other people has come under threat.

The dress is an interesting case because (a) it is not set up as an illusion – it isn’t something that has been deliberately set up to trick us, but rather takes the form of the photos that we usually regard as reliable, which makes it more threatening; and (b) many people did not feel that they had any choice in the matter of how they saw it – disagreement seems to make it fit in the ‘subjective’ box, but the absence of choice over how to see it (in contrast with, say, the Necker Cube) seems to make it belong in the ‘objective’ box. The idea that we see things differently, and this is not something that we have any obvious power to change, is understandably threatening to many people.

Interestingly, there seemed in this case to be much more agreement about an aesthetic issue. Most people seemed to be clearly of the opinion that it was a horrible dress. In this case it was the ‘subjective’ issue where there appeared to be the most agreement.

Of course, despite a failure to see the colours differently, we can still come to scientific and philosophical understandings of how the differences come about. Even if we can’t see it how others do, understanding why their perceptual experience might differ from ours might make us refrain from shouting at them that they must be mad, blind or deceitful. And eventually, by trying out different conditions, squinting a bit, and returning to the image, not to mention a bit of imagination, we might actually start to see it differently, even if just for a moment. Here I think the issue of value is no different.

What sort of feminist are you?

A while ago, I wrote a piece for the New Left Project about transphobia in some strands of feminism. I faced a number of (very politely) critical responses from people in feminist circles with whom I discussed the article over a few pints. It turned out that much of their concern was not so much with the substance of the article, but with the fact that the link to the article (presumably written by a sub-editor) took my remarks to be critical of ‘radical feminism’, which, in contemporary discourse, pretty much lands me in the ‘liberal feminist’ camp. This was the one concern I had with my dealings with the New Left Project, who, apart from this, had been amazingly helpful and good fun to work with. This led me, over the intervening months, to reflect a bit on the ways that we categorise feminism, and in particular, the use of the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’.

What might we take ‘radicalism’ to mean, in the context of feminism? First of all, I want to dismiss the poorly thought through uses of it as a catch-all pejorative term. It is a great shame to see the way that the word ‘radical’ has been hijacked by certain interests in the political and media landscape. Very often, what is meant by ‘radical’ here is ‘extreme’, or even ‘extremist’. In a culture that is purportedly ultra-liberal and in favour of freedom of expression, it is a way of cutting out voices that are not regarded as part of the reasonable spectrum of opinions. You can be a feminist, but you can’t be too feminist. This often goes along with the cartoon image of the hairy-pitted dungaree wearing ‘feminazi’. You are allowed to discuss these issues in the public sphere with us, provided you get a nice haircut and do your make-up first. If you are not prepared to conform to visual expectations of femininity, then you are ‘radical’, and therefore not part of the conversation. ‘Radical’ as a pejorative term is, in this context, utterly obnoxious, and aims to shut people out of public discourse. More on that shortly.

Now, that paragraph looks very much like a liberal feminist point, and to a degree it is. I place a great deal of importance on there being a diversity of voices, opinions and ways of living. Following in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill (and not in the liberal tradition of John Rawls) I believe that this vibrancy and noise is part of how we can learn to develop and flourish as individuals and as a society. Notice that what is implied by this is that some ways of living and associating are better for us than others – there is such a thing as development, progress and a good life for human beings. This form of liberalism is sometimes called ‘perfectionist’ liberalism.

For a Rawlsian liberal, the political theorist is supposedly neutral between different ideas of what good lives, and good ways of associating, must be. Sure, they might have their own ethical views, their own ideas about what it would be to flourish as a person and as a society, but in terms of deciding how the basic structures of society should be set up, they have to keep those under their hats when they are thinking about political theory. This embodies a presumption that we should not take one person’s view to be ultimately authoritative, and to trump the views of others. Political theory must be neutral between different conceptions of the good life for human beings. This is known as ‘anti-perfectionist’ liberalism.

Now the problem is that this is, contrary to what Rawls says that he intends, an embodiment of a particular view of the good – namely, liberalism. This means that while non-liberal ethical and political views can be aired within a society, it is only the liberal voice that gets to determine its basic structures. This takes the force out of all non-liberal positions – all voices that are simply permitted within the structure are a clamour of different cries for attention, or perhaps nothing more than a range of lifestyles that one might choose, just as we might prefer different flavours of ice cream. Marxism, for example, is a viewpoint that might be expressed within such a context, but the context strips it of all meaning. This relates to something that concerned Mill – it wasn’t enough that we should simply be able to utter particular forms of words as though they were some sort of incantation – they had to be living breathing ideas with whose meaning we engaged.

When applied to feminism, the problem with the anti-perfectionist approach is that it leads to the conclusion that, provided people are given certain legal negative freedoms, the battle has been won. It is not simply that pornography, strip-clubs, pay differentials and so on are not banned, it is that it is not valid to argue about them, to suggest that they are bad. They are someone’s free choice, and therefore not something that can be reasonably disputed or criticised (or at least, dispute or criticism can be registered, but not really debated, because it is simply a style of living, or a matter of taste). In addition to this, arguments about reorganising the basic structures of society – the mechanisms of government, the institution of the family, and so on, are simply invalid or meaningless.

Now while liberalism of the anti-perfectionist kind is often hallowed as being properly liberal, where perfectionist liberalism is regarded as in some sense illiberal because it dares to base the structure of society on a particular ethical outlook, it appears to me that the converse is the case. Liberalism of the Rawlsian kind renders certain kinds of discourse meaningless, reducing certain viewpoints and opinions to mere clamour. It is a constant source of frustration to me that merely questioning the ethical and social implications of a certain act or institution is taken as equivalent to saying that the thing in question should be banned, and when it is made clear that this is not what is meant, the response is often ‘well, that’s just your opinion, why are you bothering to even discuss it?’ It is as if I have just walked into the room an announced that I like cheese and onion crisps – well, so what?

Now it might be argued that this is no imposition on freedom, because, after all, you can still express your views. Nobody is telling you to shut up. But anyone familiar with the workings of patriarchy will be aware that freedom is not as simple as that. Nobody forces us to wear clothes that restrict our movement, to put on make-up every day, to spend huge proportions of our incomes on our physical appearance, but we live in social conditions that make it very hard not to do these things, and this is all the more pernicious because the coercion is all around us, and not easily pinned on an identifiable patriarch. As Sandra Bartky puts it:

‘…the disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous; there are no individuals formally empowered to weild it; it is, as we have seen, invested in everyone and in no one in particular. This disciplinary power is peculiarly modern. It does not rely upon violent or public sanctions, nor does it seek to restrain the freedom of the female body to move from place to place. For all that, its invasion of the body is well-nigh total’ (‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in      Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (London: Routledge, 1990)

So in short, I do not reject liberal feminism, but I reject forms of it that do not take liberty seriously. There are more ways to dominate, control and silence than simply passing laws or imposing physical constraint.

So what about radical feminism? Well, as I have already said, we must reject the pejorative sense of the word (sorry New Left Project) for reasons that might be described as good liberal ones (albeit Mill’s liberalism, and not Rawls’ version). But many feminists describe themselves as radical feminists. As with liberal feminism, this might have a number of different meanings, which may or may not overlap. In a discussion with my friend Jamie, we picked out four different broad groups of ideas that might be taken as hallmarks of radical feminism. There are probably more, and we might quibble about the way that they are grouped. This is not supposed to be exhaustive or authoritative.

1. Omnipresence of patriarchy

I have already talked about this one. The idea here is that we can’t separate off individual pockets of life that are or are not ‘feminist issues’. Gender oppression, in a patriarchal society, is something that is constantly present to those affected by it, and it imposes itself on a whole way of being in the world. This is something that I agree with. Although there may be some situations where gender oppression might not be the first thing that we mention, it is constantly a factor in female experience. One way in which I ascribe to this that may be controversial, even by the standards of those who broadly agree with the ‘omnipresence of patriarchy’ thesis, is that I take the role of the body to be a foundational aspect of this oppression. The ways in which women are socialised to experience their bodies at all times as objects, rather than as the loci of consciousness, experience and activity, is to me a vital aspect of my feminism. This is somewhat in tension with some aspects of liberal feminist thought, where freedom is often conceptualised as transcending the body, or as ‘mind over matter’.

2. Transformation of consciousness.

Related to this is the idea of what liberation would consist in. For many who describe themselves as radical feminists, freedom from explicit legal or physical constraints is not sufficient. Radical change requires a personal transformation of consciousness that cannot be achieved only through legislation or superficial equality of opportunity. As I made clear earlier, I also agree with this.

3. Gender as the primary or foundational mode of oppression.

Here I disagree. This is something that came up years ago when I was discussing feminism with a late and much-missed colleague called Soran Reader, whose conversation was as exciting and stimulating as it was frequently infuriating. Soran has been a great influence on my feminism, and on my philosophy generally, and, true to what she would have wanted, I don’t always agree with her. She said that when she described herself as a radical feminist, she meant that she held the foundational form of oppression in the world to be the oppression of women by men. Other modes of oppression were secondary to that, and any solution to oppression had to begin with the emancipation of women.

At first glance, this may look very similar to the point about the omnipresence of patriarchy in patriarchal societies, but it is distinct from it. For example, a Marxist might accept the omnipresence of patriarchy thesis, and still maintain that the path to human emancipation had to begin with class-consciousness and the overthrowing of capitalism. I would agree with neither point of view. Volumes have been written on this subject, and volumes more probably need to be written, but in short, I believe that modes of oppression are intertwined and multifaceted. Some critiques of the notion of the foundationality of gender oppression have argued that this is related to the fact that feminism is dominated by white middle-class women like myself. I think that they probably have a point.

4. Gender Essentialism

Many who describe themselves as radical feminists hold some thesis about the correlation between a certain kind of body and a female gender identity. There are variations on this theme, but often the idea is that the way that women are oppressed, although historically conditioned, relate to aspects of the female body which are not historically conditioned (the reproductive body, for example). Variations on this thought often reach a range of conclusions that I would want to reject. For example (a) gender is binary (b) there is no such thing as a trans woman (c) men can’t ever be feminists, only allies, (d) we can understand gender in a way that is totally abstracted from history, and so on.

The opposite of this view is often taken to be a kind of gender constructivism – the idea that gender identity doesn’t really map onto anything – that it is all down to social conditioning and arbitrary social categories.

I want to reject that idea too. In general terms, I think that ‘nature or nurture’ talk is often horribly misguided. The idea that we can look at biological bodies in isolation from culture, or some kind of free-floating disembodied mind which is free from biology, strikes me as a way of thinking that we are best off without. I haven’t fully explored my ideas about gender essentialism in particular, but my suspicion is that both horns of this dilemma rest on a fundamental misconception of the relationship between human beings and the world in which they exist and associate with each other. Further to this, there is interesting work by ecofeminists about the association between nature and the feminine, which aims to challenge a lot of dichotomies that underpin both the oppression of women by men, and the oppression of nature by humanity. We’re talking stuff like nature/nurture, nature/culture, active agent/ passive matter and so on. Look up Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, you won’t regret it.

So, what sort of feminist am I? Am I in the liberal camp or the radical one? Am I a gender essentialist, or a gender constructivist? Am I sex-positive or sex-negative?

Well, this week, I suppose I am a radical liberal socialist ecofeminist. Ask me next week, and there will probably be different words in there, or the same ones in a different order. The point is that any labels and terms like this can be useful, they can sometimes act as shorthand for a complex of ideas. But just like many other notions within feminism, such as ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ (yes- I know I haven’t explained what I think about this one much) they can sometimes mask a vast array of finer distinctions, create false enmities, discourage us from thinking for ourselves and lead us into serious error. What sort of feminist am I? I’m the sort of feminist who likes to think about ideas, preferably over a pint in a nice pub with a bunch of friendly people with different perspectives. Or, you know, we could talk about other stuff too.

Body Positivity, Street Harassment, and the Erotic

Below is a talk I delivered for an International Women’s Day event organised by the University of East Anglia’s Feminist Society

What I am going to do today is not so much a detailed philosophical enquiry (I only have 20 minutes) but instead I want to talk seriously about street harassment, and suggest a few ways that philosophy might help us to think about it. Cat-calling, wolf-whistling, groping and other forms of harassment that occur in public spaces are alarmingly widespread, and are generally not taken all that seriously.  We are encouraged to simply ignore it, to ‘take it as a compliment’, or even worse, we are blamed for where we choose to walk or what we choose to wear, as though we have brought it upon ourselves.  At best, we are told to treat street harassment as a minor and inevitable irritation, and at worst, to view it as an expression of a natural human sexuality which we encourage through behaving or dressing in a provocative manner.  The victim of street harassment who complains is simultaneously a slut and a prude.

So first of all, I want to try to express at least one of the reasons why this is not a trivial irritation, but something far more fundamental, and secondly I want to explain why I think that tackling street harassment is not opposed to sexuality or the erotic, but instead that dealing with this problem is something that goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude to sex and eroticism.

I’m going to begin with a quote from the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky, describing a fairly typical case of street harassment.  This was written more than twenty years ago, but I suspect the description will sound very familiar:

It is a fine spring day, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, I am bouncing down the street. Suddenly I hear men’s voices. Catcalls and whistles fill the air. These noises are clearly sexual in intent and they are meant for me; they come from across the street. I freeze. As Sartre would say, I have been petrified by the gaze of the Other. My face flushes and my motions become stiff and self-conscious. The body which only a moment before I had inhabited with such ease now floods my consciousness. I have been made into an object. While it is true that for these men I am nothing but, let us say. a “nice piece of ass,” there is more involved in this encounter than their mere fragmented perception of me. They could, after all, have enjoyed me in silence. Blissfully unaware, breasts bouncing, eyes on the birds in the trees, I could have passed by without having been turned to stone. But I must be made to know that I am a “nice piece of ass”: I must be made to see myself as they see me. There is an element of compulsion in this encounter, in this being-made-to-be-aware of one’s own flesh; like being made to apologize, it is humiliating. It is unclear what role is played by sexual arousal or even sexual connoisseurship in encounters like these. What I describe seems less the spontaneous expression of a healthy eroticism than a ritual of subjugation.

 ‘On Psychological Oppression’, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression

While street harassment is not traumatic on the level of rape or physical assault, it is a great deal more than a mere irritation.  We often talk about objectification as what is wrong here, but very often we don’t think so much about what it means.  Here it is very clear.  The victim is transformed into an object, both by being viewed as nothing more than an object in the eyes of the other, but also in being made to feel that she is an object.  We can think of an object in contrast to a subject. A subject is one who sees things and acts upon the world, while an object is something that is seen and has things done to it.  An object is something that can be stripped down into its component parts – breasts, thighs, arse, vagina – with no essential loss.  Each of these is an object no less than the object that they compose.  A subject, stripped down in this way, is no longer a subject.  This is because what we view as important about the subject is what is sometimes described as her ‘inner life’, her thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions.  With the object, all that we regard is the physical material, which can be taken apart with impunity with nothing significant being lost in the process.

So when we are whistled or shouted at in the street, whether this is in a supposedly complimentary way, or whether the cat-call is an insulting one, we become profoundly aware of this physicality and fragmentation. While before we could easily and transparently interact with the world around us, listening to the birdsong in the trees or enjoying a private daydream, the objectifying act means that we are frozen, we can no longer have a free and easy interaction with our environment, because our physicality gets in the way. We have to manoeuvre this awkward collection of physical parts which stand between us and a world that was previously so accessible, more aware that we are seen than aware of what we can see. And this sudden self-perception is forced upon us, and sprung on us without warning: a loss of personal autonomy and a reduction to flesh that is coerced and unexpected.

This is one instance of a broader culture that frequently forces women into an uncomfortable awareness of themselves as objects. We are told that we occupy too much space, that our breasts are too small, our bums are too big, that unless we buy a particular brand of cereal we will never have that all-important ‘swimsuit body’.  This is not just something imposed by men, women are encouraged to gaze at magazines which point out the cellulite on a celebrity body or speculate about whether someone has had a facelift.  We objectify people, and reflect this back upon ourselves as objects, our worth determined by whether we are larger or smaller objects, older or younger looking objects, than they are.  The cat-call or wolf-whistle is a sharp reminder, in case we are starting to enjoy the world around us or get lost in our own thoughts, that we are nothing more than lumps of flesh.

But might this not lead us to support the voices that tell us we should not be dressing that way if we don’t want to attract unwanted attention?  Some would say that it is the sexualisation of society that leads to the street harassment, and it also leads to the provocative clothing that is seen to provoke it.  Perhaps we need to regard ourselves as less as objects, as well as complaining about others seeing us as such, and that the way that we present ourselves physically is part of this, along with our own attitude to flirtation and sex.  But this seems pretty problematic.  First of all, it veers heavily in the direction of victim-blaming.  Secondly, it seems just as controlling of women – we don’t want a situation where women are caught in an impossible situation where their freedom is restricted from all different directions in a range of contradictory ways.  Thirdly, it doesn’t seem much fun – most of us like to feel sexually attractive, at least some of the time.  Rejecting this plays into the hands of those who wish to silence the opponents of street harassment by accusing us of being prudish or opposed to sex.

Here we need to make a separation between what is objectifying on one hand, and what is sexual – and in particular what is sexy or erotic – on the other. Through doing this, we need to think of sexuality less in terms of the insular ‘inner-lives’ of the sexual individuals in contrast with the flimsy outer husks of the bodies that they are directed towards.  The problem is not so much that we live in a highly sexualised culture – although we undoubtedly do – but that we live in one that is sexualised in a particular way.

Think about one of those really spine-tingling erotic encounters – it could be in the bedroom, but it could equally be something like meeting someone’s glance in mutual attraction, or a first moment of physical contact.  In such scenarios one is immediately made aware of oneself as flesh.  There is a sudden and overwhelming awareness of one’s physicality.  So far, it might be difficult to distinguish this from the instance of street harassment.  But in this awareness, one also becomes aware of the other person registering that you are aware.  At the same time, they become profoundly aware of their own physicality, which one also registers in one’s own physical response. One’s physicality, and one’s awareness of the other’s physicality are reflected back through the other like the infinite reflections we might see when looking at a pair of facing mirrors.  Sartre described this as ‘double reciprocal incarnation’:

I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.’ Being and Nothingness

The problem for Sartre is that it is impossible truly to apprehend the other person as being at once an object and a subject.  Either I regard him as an object, or by regarding him as a subject I apprehend myself as an object for him, and I am thus incapable of being at the same time a subject.  During sex, Sartre suggests that there is a struggle experienced between subjectivity and self-objectification, a sort of competition to attempt to objectify the other.  The whole activity is ultimately futile.  But in a way it is courageously futile, an attempt to reconcile the view of ourselves as bodies with our view of ourselves as conscious beings.  For Sartre, this duality haunts human life, but the two aspects can never truly be brought together.

Notice that we arrive at this through thinking of the body as a passive object and the self as an active subject.  If we do this, one can only be one or the other at any time.  But why suppose that this is the case? Any time we touch something, we are also being touched.  Any case of acting upon something is also a case of being acted upon.  The fingertips that caress another’s body are sensitive and responsive to the body that they touch, making an erotic encounter like a dance – an active mutual responsiveness.  There is a heightened awareness of the body, but not the body as a mere object that is acted upon and which can be decomposed or fragmented into its parts – the sexual body is at the same time, and just as much, an active, lived, subjective body.  This allows mutuality, in a sexual flirtation, as well as in sex (or at least in a good sex).

Street harassment not only fails to acknowledge such mutuality, but actively aims to cut off the possibility of it occurring.  The harasser will usually speed off in his car or blank the victim. It is not a bungled attempt at a genuinely erotic encounter, but actually closer to the converse of the erotic.  People often say that harassment of this kind is not about sex at all, but only about power.  This highlights an important aspect of it, and is a pretty good campaign slogan, but I’m not sure that it is quite true.  It is about sex, or sexuality at least, but it is about a kind of sexuality that is deeply unerotic.  Similar things might be said about the more general mode of sexualisation of our culture. The problem is not that we are subject to someone’s gaze, and that we ought to cover ourselves up and avoid sexual attention.  The problem is that our particular sexualised culture is built on a model of sexuality where one can only be presented at one time as either a subject or an object, where in reality it is starkly obvious that we are inescapably both – after all, the cat-calling would have no effect (and presumably no appeal for the perpetrators) if we really were mere objects.  You don’t usually see people hollering at lamp-posts. It is a practice built on treating people as something that they are not.

There is nothing wrong with wishing to be physically attractive to others: there can be a pleasure in it which, provided it doesn’t escalate into narcissism or anxiety, is a perfectly healthy one.  But the sexual body is active as well as passive, the lived body of a subject as well as an object.  Street harassment operates as though it is not.  For this reason, opposing street harassment is not prudish or opposed to sexuality: quite the opposite.  A realistic view of ourselves as sexual beings who seek positive erotic encounters leads to the conclusion that objectification of this kind must be resisted.

Remembrance Sunday 2012 (Written Sunday 11th November)

(in this note I make reference to a particular teacher. Some of the people reading this will know who it is, either through having been there, or through the general description making it fairly obvious. Please can I request that you do not mention his name in any comments: my home town is a small place, and I would not wish to upset anyone who knows this person. At the same time, I think I have the right to say what follows, because it is both personally and more broadly important, especially to those of us who work in education today.)

When I was a teenager, I went into school wearing a white poppy. Much to my surprise, my history teacher demanded that I take it off. I was called to the front of the class and interrogated, being told that I did not understand the significance of the sacrifice that people had made, that my sentiments were naïve, and that I was disrespecting all the people who had given their lives for our country, and those in the armed forces who continue to be prepared to do so. I felt a painful lump in my throat and my face burning as I tried to fight back tears, I felt an intense sense of unfairness at the inequality of the situation, but also a deep self-doubt and self-interrogation. Perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough, and maybe I really was treating ruined lives and unthinkable deaths as a way of making an adolescent statement. At the same time, it seemed obvious that no matter how many clever arguments were thrown my way, war did ruin and destroy lives and communities, and that it should be avoided in anything except the most extreme circumstances. This was what I took the white poppy to stand for, and it seemed to me to be a modest point.

I stood with my feet rooted to the spot, completely at a loss. The simple question of what to do next had taken on the most pressing significance. I had pinned the thing to my blazer in the morning thinking that it would pass with no more than a few questions or comments, but now I had all these arguments thrown at me, twenty-nine pairs of eyes staring at me in what seemed like an unbearable period of silence. To remove the poppy would be treating my teacher’s words as the last ones, but to keep it on might be nothing more than petty teenage stroppiness or posturing in the face of people who had risked far more than losing at some silly classroom standoff – that would make me a monster. I didn’t take the poppy off. I’d like to say that it was down to a principled stance, but it was really more to do with paralysis and confusion, and the sense that if I did anything or made a single movement the tears would become unavoidable and I would be humiliated in front of the whole class. I was sent out of the lesson, which was a relief because it allowed me to rush to the girls loos to splash cold water on my face so that I could pretend that I had been braver than I was.

The teacher’s behaviour was an abuse of authority, and I try to bear it in mind when I teach students, particularly when I teach them applied ethics and political philosophy. There had been another similar moment with the same teacher when we were studying the cold war, although it didn’t reach quite the same heights of drama. I had asked whether we really had a right to tell other countries they could not have nuclear weapons when we continued to have them ourselves. This was apparently a ‘stupid’ remark, and one that I would never have made if I had had any understanding of history or politics. The teacher’s age, position of authority and knowledge of facts was used to silence my opinions, and in fact, for years I believed that he must be right, despite not being able to shake off the contrary conviction.

On a later occasion I got quite a different view of the same teacher. We were on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme. We had been given the usual safety talk about how we should leave anything we find there on the ground – unexploded material from the First World War still occasionally surfaces there, and obviously needs to be treated with extreme caution. One of our school party found a hand grenade, and despite what we had been told, came running along towards the rest of the group waving it in the air and shouting about what he had found. The teacher ran ahead to meet him before he got close to the rest of the group, wrestled the grenade from his hands and threw it as far as he could to an unpeopled area. Of course, it didn’t explode, but I was struck by how the teacher’s sense of his duty of care went beyond legal obligation and extended to putting himself at direct personal risk. He had struck me as cold and authoritarian – this act did not contradict that, but it illustrated the complexity of human beings. A person who behaves in ways that we regard as hurtful and unethical can surprise us with great actions – in this case an act of great moral courage.

He was a man who took fear and violent death extremely seriously. It is understandable, although not excusable, that a pupil who did not grasp these things, and who wore symbols that he saw as undervaluing human sacrifice, would annoy him in the way that I did. Where I think that he made a mistake was in thinking that the white poppy is supposed to stand in opposition to the red one. When I think about the First World War, I think about the communities that lost vast numbers of young men. I think of my brothers, my partner, my best friends, and even my nephews, who are coming up to the ages of many boys who lied about their age in order to fight in the war. I think about all of those close, unique, complicated personal attachments, made special by how particular they are to that irreplaceable person, and imagine (or fail to imagine) not losing just one, but many of them. It is not just the loss of those who are close to you, but the loss of them to something that is so anonymising – an entire complicated special significant individual is reduced to a machine that kills and a piece of flesh that is killed. Respect for the troops and all who love them, rather than respect for a sentimental myth, requires that this sacrifice should never be made for trivial purposes such as economic gain or political manouvering. Wilfred Owen expressed far more deeply than I ever could that ‘dulce et decorum est…’ undermines the significance of a human life lost or destroyed through a needless war. It also undermines the fight of those all over the world who have no choice but to take up arms against the murder and torture of members of their communities and families. To make this point is not to disrespect the troops, but to respect them as people with lives of their own.

The teacher was right that I was naïve, and I still am. Nobody in my immediate family saw active combat in the Second World War, and although I have friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality of it is very distant to me. My grandfather, who was of an age to go out and fight Nazi Germany, stayed at home because he was an architect; a reserved occupation. His work during the war involved rebuilding areas of Bristol that had been destroyed by bombing. He was also a committed socialist and a local Labour politician. While others were out risking their lives to fight a totalitarian regime, my grandfather was involved in trying to build a country that would be worth living in – housing that would allow people to live happy flourishing lives, regardless of their earnings or social status. These are, or should be, two aspects of the same thing.

Today I wear a white poppy alongside a red one. It is easy for us on the left to trivialise military service and denigrate soldiers without really intending to, in order to make abstract theoretical points about politics. But real respect for them involves making ours a country that is worth living in, and only employing force when it is a genuine defence against the horrors of oppression and violence. If this is to be possible, people must not be forced into blind obedience to authority – they must be allowed to express opinions, challenge oppression and fight violence. This is not just about a lack of constraints at the level of what our government can do, but has to begin with how people are raised and educated. If we are made to learn a particular conception of the world, and made to think that any challenge to it is a feature of our ignorance or pig-headedness, we may become citizens of a country that can sleepwalk into self-destruction, and even when this is not the case our theoretical freedoms become far less valuable. Peace is not an end-state that we can eventually achieve and then relax – achieving it is a constant struggle requiring that we are awake, engaged, critical, caring, imaginative and mutually respectful.

Why it is (philosophically) OK to like the Olympics

I realise that it has been a while since my last post.  A number of things, including a forthcoming job interview, have conspired against me doing an update.  Another reason is that the blogging world appears, like most other media, to be enthralled with what a certain dandelion-headed classicist describes as the ‘Geiger-counter of olympo-mania’. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and didn’t want to update until I had a few things to say about it.

In a previous post on the current state of politics, I had a bit of a rant about Cameron’s concept of ‘Englishness’ and how the conservative party is claiming political currency from connecting a range of things (the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding, etc.) in a particular way that makes any person who rejects any element of this picture appear to be an unpatriotic curmudgeon.  One of the things that I mentioned there was the rather vague notion of the ‘Olympic spirit’ as representing certain values.  One of the things that concerned me about this was how it was presented as something very English, but also something that the whole globe should aspire to.  The obvious notes of imperialism in this are rather alarming.  There are also other Olympic concerns: for example, the Olympics will have a considerable carbon footprint associated with large construction projects and with flying athletes, trainers and spectators in from all over the world.  There is also a worry that there is an element of bread and circuses in all of this – we are distracted from complaining about the obvious injustices in our current society by big flag-waving events that get people all excited.

However, when I was expressing all of this to my partner the other day, he rightly pointed out that while anger has an important role in motivating political action, an angry leftie can sometimes be as irritating a beast as many of his or her opponents who froth at the mouth in the pages of the Daily Mail.  There could, in some circumstances, be a certain degree of hypocrisy in complaining about the exploitation of the Olympics for tory political capital.  After all, we should not pretend that a government of different colours would not do exactly the same thing. We are all watching events from a certain perspective.  Attempting to say anything about large-scale national occasions without one’s own political views structuring one’s observations would be pretty much impossible.  I still think there are major concerns with the way the Olympic stuff has come into conservative rhetoric, but that is a worry about the rhetoric itself than about the fact that they are talking about the Olympics.  So I have become more positive. On the other hand, this positivity should not turn into something uncritical, as I will try to explain.

First of all, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was an absolute masterpiece.  It did a very impressive job of reclaiming the Olympics for the people of Britain.  Rather than the usual bland displays of national magnificence, it was virtually an essay on national identity.  It helped suggest ways in which we can be patriotic while being outward and forward looking, and acknowledging the troubled, divided and divisive aspects of our culture and our history.  The unexpurgated rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ was interesting here, as well as the much discussed celebration of the NHS, the inclusion of the wind-rush and the suffragists,  and the portrayal of workers and capitalists in a powerful evocation of our ‘dark satanic mills’.  I could mention a lot of other things here, but the point is that this was deeply embedded in history and tradition, while at the same time looking at where our problems lie and how the country might be truly progressive.  The ceremony was magnificently subversive while not for a moment appearing to undermine the joy of the occasion.  This is deeply significant: it allows us to own an occasion which for so much of its build up suggested a celebration of values that are alien or at least problematic for many people.  It will also give cultural and political theorists plenty of material to think about for quite some time.

Returning to the ecological concerns, I think that those are indeed a worry.  Any event on this global scale is going to have a significant environmental impact, and no matter how much we attempt to keep things as green as possible, such measures will be little more than token gestures.  I have some friends in the green movement who believe that this is enough to warrant a complete dismissal of the Olympics.  This is, I admit, a complicated one for me.  However, the scale of ecological damage caused by the Olympics is dwarfed by the havoc wreaked by war, irresponsible deforestation and agriculture techniques and the activities of many global corporations whose activities are both unecological and inhumane.  This is not supposed to count as an excuse – obviously the fact that hitting you in the face is nothing compared to the mafia murdering you does not suggest that hitting you in the face is a reasonable thing to do.  Nor am I attempting to argue that the Olympics will have a dramatic causal effect in preventing war, altering our current economic practices and so on (the empirical evidence would be hard to find, and the involvement of MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola and the like count directly against this).

Rather, I am interested in the symbolic value of the Olympics in representing the fact that we are all part of one world, that we have physical bodies that are vulnerable to our environments, and that the people in other parts of the globe who will suffer most as a result of climate change are real people, with their own narratives that we can engage with.  Lenin was not a ground breaking philosopher, but he did make a very prescient observation.  He argued that one obstacle to the overthrowing of capitalism would be globalisation.  As this occurred, he thought that the alienated workforce would be shifted to poorer countries in the world, while those in wealthy nations would become increasingly part of the bourgeoisie.  Ordinary people in wealthy nations would not observe the suffering and exploitation that went into what they use and consume, and this would encourage a comfortable complacency on their part.  Unlike in Marx’s day, the oppressed masses would not be so much on the doorstep that it would take an extreme effort of will to ignore them.

This is not simply the case with workers exploited in production, as Lenin argues.  It is also true of environmental crises.  The Olympics does help to highlight people from these countries, and their experiences, although this could be done a lot more.  For example, Tuvalu is a Pacific island nation between Australia and Hawaii.  It is a former British protectorate with a population of around 11,000 people.  They entered an Olympic team for the first time in the Beijing Olympics.  Their team consists of two competitors in athletic events and one weightlifter.  At its highest point, Tuvalu is 4.6 meters above sea level.  As a result of climate change, it is likely that much of the country will be submerged.  The dramatic effects on the country’s economy is liable to have severe effects on funding available for sport and leisure activities, and the fact that land will be at a premium (with low-lying flat land particularly at risk) is likely to have a detrimental effects on the availability of sport and training facilities.  This is only one small isolated example – more media attention on the stories of those athletes competing in the games could really help to highlight the fact that our activities in one part of the world cannot be separated from the fates of people elsewhere.  To consistently proceed by weighing up costs and benefits, be they economic or ecological, in a utilitarian fashion carries with it the danger of making us small minded and parochial.

All this ‘one world’ stuff brings me back to the idea of the ‘Olympic spirit’ or ‘Olympic values’.  I have mentioned my worries about imperialism here.  It strikes me that any of the vague notions that we have about such values are not specifically British: although concepts of ‘sportsmanship’, ‘fair play’ and so on are often part of the national story that we tell ourselves, I don’t see much evidence that they are things that we exemplify more than anyone else.  Other aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ business have a lot to do with cosmopolitanism and open and equal dialogue across the world.  We are good at some aspects of this (the BBC World Service is, I think, a good example) but in other respects our horizons can be painfully narrow.  So let’s put to bed the idea that there is, in reality, some fundamental link between Britishness and Olympianism in a way that privileges us over the rest of the world.

Let’s focus in on an aspect that is frequently considered to be a very British thing – the idea of sportsmanship.  This idea is in itself a very complicated one. People often talk about a ‘golden age’ of sportsmanship, but we should be suspicious of golden ages: what often appears to be golden is the artificial sepia tint of a sentimental instagram homage.  Some of the historical associations of sportsmanship are masculine, imperialistic and militaristic. It also has a lot to do with class.  Sportsmanship is traditionally thought to be a feature of the ‘gentleman amateur’.  He is a certain sort of chap: a chap who can afford to participate in sporting activities without having to earn a living through them, a chap who exemplifies the military virtue of chivalry (or something very like it): in short, he is the sort of chap who is fit to run an empire.  It is also worth noting that in football, there was an offence of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’ that was only recently altered to ‘unsporting behaviour’ in recognition of the fact that some women are actually pretty good at football too.

But I do not want to do away with sportsmanship (on reflection, let’s call it ‘sportingness’) all that quickly.  It has been a fantastic experience to watch so many of our athletes winning medals over the past couple of days.  One of the particular delights of this has been the sheer disbelief and humility that many of them have demonstrated.  They have been delighted just to be involved in an event of this kind, and generous in sharing the credit for their success with many other people.

The point here is both the old cliché that there is more to sport than winning, and also more than merely following the rules.  In fact, one of the reasons why ‘Olympic values’ are so difficult to formulate in a clear way is their resistance to being constrained within a system of rules.  We usually think of games as essentially rule-governed activities, but anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with Wittgenstein will know that ‘rule-governed activities’ are rather complicated things.  I mentioned the footballing offence of ‘unsporting behaviour’.  This is an interesting example because it is a non-rule masquerading as a rule.  I recall an anecdote, I’m not sure if it has any truth in it, about a guy being booked for unsporting behaviour after catching the ball in his turban, running toward the goal with it and heading it over the line.  There was no specific rule against this: it would be impossible to devise rules to cover all eventualities.  The ‘unsporting behaviour’ ‘rule’ exists so that a responsible well-placed judge, who is immersed in the game and understands (not simply in a rule-based way) what the game is really about, can use their practical wisdom to determine when players fail to honour that.  It is appropriate, given the home of the original Olympics, that this notion is more at home in Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics than in systems based on rules.  It is also interesting that while most rules of a game are in a sense morally neutral, in the sense that they are only rules because one decides that they are for the sake of that game, sportingness while being specific to a sporting arena appears to be more strongly binding, and to transcend different sporting activities.  We might say that it is a moral virtue specific to the sporting arena, or that it is a reflection of a broader more unified virtue through sport.  It cannot however be easily articulated, since knowledge of it is a kind of practical knowledge based on experience of sport, and not a principle that someone with no understanding of sport could simply learn and judge.

In some cases, the player might be faced with a dilemma: many famous anecdotes about ‘sportsmanship’ involve someone sacrificing an advantage to their team or nation for the sake of the broader value or integrity of the sport.  Loyalty is of course another kind of virtue.  It might not always be easy to say that the sporting thing to do is always straightforwardly the right one.  In a sense the player is left standing alone, isolated from the thousands or millions of eyes that are watching her, with her own freedom.  To privilege one virtue over another is already to presuppose that a side has been taken.  It is perhaps no surprise that football seems to have been so popular amongst existentialist philosophers.

But what I broadly want to say is that once we start to think in these terms, notions such as the ‘Olympic values’ may not be so mysterious, in that their inarticulability is a function of their involvement with practical activity.  Perhaps I might also have started illuminate some sense in which what appears to be a trivial sporting contest can have deeper kinds of significance.  Like the broader history of our culture so vividly portrayed in the opening ceremony, aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ may be complex and troubled in their history.  But in both cases, this does not mean that those things cannot be enjoyed.  What is often irritating about them is the uncritical and dangerous way that these ideas are used.  So I do not need to be a left-wing Olympic grump – I can enjoy the influx of medals with a clear conscience – just as long as I don’t need to run anywhere or lift anything.


Today is beautifully sunny.  I just completed a draft of an article on Mill and Wordsworth on the appreciation of nature, which has makes the sunshine even more golden than it otherwise would be.  The next piece of work I have set myself to do is on Kantian accounts on similar themes.  As always with Kant, I am rather daunted.  I decided to take my copy of the Critique of Judgment down to the lake and settle on a fishing platform by the side of the water where the sun’s light danced through the trees, knowing but not caring that I would be easily distracted.





§ 61. Of the objective purposiveness of Nature

We have on transcendental principles good ground to assume a subjective purposiveness in nature, in its particular laws, in reference to its comprehensibility by human Judgement and to the possibility of the connexion of particular experiences in a system. This may be expected as possible in many products of nature, which, as if they were devised quite specially for our Judgement, contain a specific form conformable thereto; which through their manifoldness and unity serve at once to strengthen and to sustain the mental powers (that come into play in the employment of this faculty); and to which therefore we give the name of beautiful forms…

I tried to think as streaks of sunlight flashed along the rushes in time to their motion in the water.  A silver-blue damselfly resembled an Art Nouveau brooch.  Gradually I became aware that every the space between the rushes was punctuated with them. I noticed that there were two different types, the first striped with blue and black along the length of its body, the other looking like two azure dots connected with the thinnest filament of black that seemed to serve as its abdomen.  It was difficult to believe that those of the latter kind were actually living things.  After a while, the females, more subdued in their colours and markings, started to come into focus, settling on rushes and forming mating pairs with the males, the two bodies often flying attached through the air, forming a single eight-winged form among the translucent thistle seeds that drifted over the lake.

…But that the things of nature serve one another as means to purposes, and that their possibility is only completely intelligible through this kind of causality—for this we have absolutely no ground in the universal Idea of nature, as the complex of the objects of sense. In the above-mentioned case, the representation of things, because it is something in ourselves, can be quite well thought a priori as suitable and useful for the internally purposive determination of our cognitive faculties; but that purposes, which neither are our own nor belong to nature (for we do not regard nature as an intelligent being), could or should constitute a particular kind of causality, at least a quite special conformity to law,—this we have absolutely no a priori reason for presuming. Yet more, experience itself cannot prove to us the actuality of this; there must then have preceded a rationalising subtlety which only sportively introduces the concept of purpose into the nature of things, but which does not derive it from Objects or from their empirical cognition. To this latter it is of more service to make nature comprehensible according to analogy with the subjective ground of the connexion of our representations, than to cognise it from objective grounds…

A trick of the light drew my eye to what I thought was one of the damselfly, but which on inspection was motion below the surface of the lake just at the foot of the platform, which was suddenly alive with hundreds and thousands of tiny translucent fish all following the same motion in swarming clouds.  Casting my eye further out, the lake was a heaving unified mass of little fish, stretching out as far as I could see before the underwater horizon where light below the surface was subsumed in the rippling reflection of the cloudless sky.  Larger brown fish, still only an inch or two long, cut swathes through these crowds.  I knew that further out there would be much larger fish, glassy eyed, hovering in the inaccessible waters at the centre.

…Further, objective purposiveness, as a principle of the possibility of things of nature, is so far removed from necessary connexion with the concept of nature, that it is much oftener precisely that upon which one relies to prove the contingency of nature and of its form. When, e.g. we adduce the structure of a bird, the hollowness of its bones, the disposition of its wings for motion and of its tail for steering, etc., we say that all this is contingent in the highest degree according to the mere nexus effectivus of nature, without calling in the aid of a particular kind of causality, namely that of purpose (nexus finalis). In other words, nature, considered as mere mechanism, could have produced its forms in a thousand other ways without stumbling upon the unity which is in accordance with such a principle. It is not in the concept of nature but quite apart from it that we can hope to find the least ground a priori for this…

The reflections of gulls swooped over the surface of the water, part solid animal, and partly constituted by the currents of air upon which they glided.  A water boatman dragged himself, upside down, under the surface.  He lives in an inverted world, on a viscous blue-painted floor, below a dark stony sky.  Birds swim far beneath in another medium, while fish glide and float above.

…Nevertheless the teleological act of judgement is rightly brought to bear, at least problematically, upon the investigation of nature; but only in order to bring it under principles of observation and inquiry according to the analogy with the causality of purpose, without any pretence to explain it thereby. It belongs therefore to the reflective and not to the determinant judgement. The concept of combinations and forms of nature in accordance with purposes is then at least one principle more for bringing its phenomena under rules where the laws of simply mechanical causality do not suffice. For we bring in a teleological ground, where we attribute causality in respect of an Object to the concept of an Object, as if it were to be found in nature (not in ourselves); or rather when we represent to ourselves the possibility of the Object after the analogy of that causality which we experience in ourselves, and consequently think nature technically as through a special faculty. If we did not ascribe to it such a method of action, its causality would have to be represented as blind mechanism. If, on the contrary, we supply to nature causes acting designedly, and consequently place at its basis teleology, not merely as a regulative principle for the mere judging of phenomena, to which nature can be thought as subject in its particular laws, but as a constitutive principle of the derivation of its products from their causes; then would the concept of a natural purpose no longer belong to the reflective but to the determinant Judgement. Then, in fact, it would not belong specially to the Judgement (like the concept of beauty regarded as formal subjective purposiveness), but as a rational concept it would introduce into natural science a new causality, which we only borrow from ourselves and ascribe to other beings, without meaning to assume them to be of the same kind with ourselves…

There is a tremendous splash among the rushes on my right, and a lovely Old English sheepdog flops into the lake, fracturing the surface into miniature tidal waves.  Birds and fish scatter, wheeling in the sky and forming new eddies in the water.  He paddles round towards me, poking his nose inquisitively out of the water like a baby seal.  He bounds amicably onto the platform and greets me, energised by the cold water saturating his fur.  He shakes himself. Water droplets land on my warm skin, and punctuate Kant’s long sentences.

Wordsworth and Nature (June 11th 2012)

‘Unlike the variegated, intense whirl of cities, the Lake District impressed on the mind just a few permanent objects, but ones that changed subtly with the weather, the seasons and the characteristic activities pursued at different times of year. Instead of meaningless differences, random variety and blank confusion, the setting of life in rural England conveyed a sense of order and permanence, …of change within stable and predictable limits. In this sense Renaissance Platonism lived on in Wordsworth’s poetry, with the Forms now drawn down from the transcendent realm and objectified in rocks, mountains, lakes and forests.’ ~ Lewis and Sandra Hinchman, ‘What We Owe the Romantics’ Environmental Values 16 (2007)I think that there is something in this, although the Platonism connection is a little peculiar. I think that the abandonment of the ‘transcendent realm’ identified here is precisely what distinguishes Wordsworth from the Platonists, and it isn’t at all clear what talk of ‘the Forms’ could mean, beyond talk of form.

I think on the whole what is said about Wordsworth here is dead right though. Personally, I experience this a lot less in dramatic landscapes like the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and a lot more in Norfolk, where the flat mercurial watery landscape quietly reflects every subtle change in the big open skies.

The lack of drama in these landscapes took me a while to get used to (I have a tendency to be more Shelley than Byron, more expressionist than impressionist in my rather overblown tastes) but the change in my surrounding landscape is concurrent with the development of my thinking over the past year. The East Anglian landscape, like Wordsworth’s poetry, forces you to be passively attentive to the land, rather than simply to venture into it as some kind of thrill seeker.