This paper rejects sweeping verdicts about passing as privileged, or attempts by members of oppressed, stigmatized, or discriminated-against groups to improve their lives by being misidentified as members of an advantaged group. Not only do many familiar arguments rely on problematic assumptions about authenticity and resistance, but they strain to accommodate the diverse identities, circumstances, and individual differences that ought to be affecting our verdicts. In this paper I examine the other-regarding and self-regarding considerations that might bear on the decision to pass. The potential other-regarding considerations are that passing involves deception, that passing reinforces stereotypes, and that passing agents opt out of the struggle to end oppression. The potential self-regarding considerations are that passing is a form of resistance, that passing is too costly for victims, and then my own position: that passing is a permissible form of self-regarding complicity. I close by hinting at the ethics of looking out for yourself, or the sort of action-guiding framework I think we need to develop in order to fully appreciate and assess strategies like passing.
In Progress. “Mental Illness, and the Diverging ‘Invisible Disability’ and ‘Passing’ Frameworks”
While mental illnesses resemble invisible disabilities – or those disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent to others – this paper argues against the increasing trend of understanding mental illness as an invisible disability for the purposes of ethical action-guidance. The framework of invisible disabilities emerged to capture a characteristic struggle for recognition on the part of those whose claims on disability accommodation were greeted with suspicion and disbelief, but many people with mental illness struggle to avoid being recognized as such, and strive instead to be seen as ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’. That makes the framework of passing and covering a better explanatory fit. This second framework focuses on the possession of stigmatized identities, and on the struggle of marginalized individuals to either conceal their identity or to mitigate its impact after a disclosure has taken place. These are distinct ethical dilemmas, and action-guidance needs to track the diverging experiences and circumstances underlying them.
In Progress. “Identity Passing.” For Philosophy Compass
I contend that victims have a moral obligation to resist their own oppression. I start by criticizing the three grounds most commonly given for why resistance is required and why failing to resist is blameworthy: that non-resistance is a counterfactual cause of continued oppression; that non-resistance contributes directly to the oppression of other victims; and that non-resistance constitutes a failure to respect the moral law. I then advance a self-regarding obligation to protect and promote objective well-being, grounded in the idea that resistance is a self-respecting, autonomous response to oppression and so is good for victims. While considerations of well-being sometimes justify non-resistance, I argue that neglecting one’s own well-being through compliance or complicity is the sort of wrong for which agents should blame themselves.
Does a victim have to intend to resist oppression in order to discharge her obligation to do so, or is it sufficient to resist oppression intentionally in the course of pursuing other plans and projects of importance to her? I argue that resisting intentionally can be sufficient: given the ways that oppression interferes with the lives of victims, trying to counteract that interference by living the life you want is genuine resistance. Requiring that victims have justice-oriented or agency-preserving reasons before their actions count as resistance will distort or miss a wide range of everyday responses to oppressive burdens.
Tessman argues that effectively resisting oppression may require the cultivation of morally problematic dispositions – for instance, feeling unrelenting rage and withholding sympathy from one’s oppressors. I worry that agents with hardened dispositions may be disposed to perpetuate rather than eliminate oppressive burdens, both during and after their resistance. The test for practically wise actors should be whether dispositions are conducive to both resisting well and ruling well. I develop Aristotle’s account of virtuous political agency, arguing that the virtue of ‘ruling and being ruled’ is such a disposition. Politically virtuous resistance involves opposing oppressive burdens in ways that nonetheless acknowledge the equal moral status of others, a disposition that agents will need if they are to later realize the kinds of post-oppressive relationships and institutions that facilitate flourishing for all. And participation in nonviolent civil disobedience movements can provide victims an opportunity to cultivate as well as display this disposition.
Gender and Oppression
In Progress. “Costly Bodies in an Ill-fitting World.”
Some bodies don’t fit the world. That claim can be meant literally, like when a body is too large to fit in an airplane seat without pain. It can be a claim about everyday expectations, referring to the inability to keep pace with others when one’s body is slow, weak, or tired, or to be ‘fully’ productive when one’s body is pregnant, aging, or ill. It can be a claim about the ways that individual preferences aggregate into unintended social barriers, like the struggle to find love when one’s body isn’t conventionally attractive, or to go unnoticed when one’s natural hair is a marker of difference. There’s no systematic framework for talking about cases like these, in part because there’s little recognition that there is something systematic about them. Ill-fitting embodiment is usually addressed through a patchwork of ad hoc judgments, either dismissed as shameful personal failings or medicalized as health issues. But whether we see the bodies or the world as ill-fitting is actually a choice, and that choice influences how we think the costs of ill-fit should be distributed. Using fatness as a paradigm example, I argue that there’s a layer missing from our social categories: non-disability embodiment cases that don’t always rise to the level of oppression, but do raise distributive justice questions about the costs of ill-fit.
In Progress. “‘Fag’ and the Ethics of Repurposed Slurs.” (with Ralph DiFranco)
For many contemporary speakers, the slur ‘fag’ is no longer used to derogate gay men. In fact, such speakers routinely insist that their usage has nothing to do with sexuality, and that they would never refer to someone who was gay in this way. Instead, primarily young, straight men are using the word to police each other’s performance of masculinity. This change in meaning is important for two reasons. First, while the literature recognizes many types of slur change (e.g. reclamation, appropriation, expansion), what’s happening to the meaning of the f-slur marks a new and previously untheorized type of slur change, which we call repurposing. A slur is repurporsed when its original meaning entangles ideas A and B, but the distinct A-meaning declines in usage over time, leaving the distinct B-meaning as the meaning of the slur. In the case of the f-slur, the original meaning of the slur referred to all behaviors perceived to be effeminate, but as speakers increasingly rejected the idea that “being a man” required being attracted to women, straight men were left as the primary target of the word’s gender-policing focus. If we’re right, then recognizing that the f-slur has been repurporsed will be essential for accurate ethical assessment and action-guidance. For example, evaluating the sincerity and responsibility of speakers who wrongly – but in good faith – insist that the word is no longer offensive, as well as directing our interventions not at the continued offense the f-slur causes gay men, but at toxic masculinity itself, and how slurs and related practices keep straight men in a state of constant vulnerability.
One reason feminist accounts of sexism and oppression diverge so widely is because it’s impossible for a single model to capture and explain every kind of wrong that women experience in virtue of being women, while at the same time avoiding the overgeneralizations and mischaracterizations that intersectionality cautions us to expect. Women aren’t all the same, and even when they do face the same wrongs, a diverse range of identities, personal circumstances, and individual differences mean those shared wrongs will often impact their lives in completely unique ways. The best a model can do is emphasize particular harms or social groupings, and be clear about the trade-offs involved in doing so. This overview chapter explores what’s at stake in our various understandings of sexism and oppression: what leading models of sexism and oppression do well, where each model struggles, and what, ultimately, we need a model to do for us.
In Progress. “When Men Oppress Themselves.” For Philosophical Topics
In Progress. Symposium discussion piece on Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. For Philosophy & Phenomenological Research
Monograph in Progress
Looking Out for Yourself
The phrase “looking out for yourself” often has a negative connotation, like when we accuse a person of “merely” looking out for themselves. It evokes a certain small-minded selfishness or disregard for others, a failing that is only compounded in circumstances that call on us to act or sacrifice. Imagine someone who opts out of the fight against oppression, considering it more important to minimize costs to themselves than to take part in a shared struggle. When we say they’re looking out for themselves, we mean that they’ve made the wrong choice. If that person happens to be a victim of oppression rather than a privileged bystander, then we might relent and withhold blame, but understanding or forgiving their choice isn’t the same as approving of it.
And yet, “looking out for yourself” does have a positive, self-respecting connotation, especially if one is a victim of oppression. It tracks the importance of taking care of yourself when confronted with corrosive burdens, and pressing onwards with the life you want in circumstances where your opportunities are unfairly limited, or when you face socialized pressure to instead divert your emotional and physical labor toward the benefit of others. Victims who struggle against these burdens, limitations, and pressures aren’t motivated by a small-minded selfishness, nor are they ignoring oppression when they strive to minimize costs. Looking out for yourself doesn’t always mean you avoid the important fights – sometimes, it means you recognize that improving your own life is a fight worth having.
Both senses of “looking out for yourself” matter for the action-guiding question of what victims ought to do, and neither sense is obviously mistaken. Both apply to acts of self-regarding resistance, or cases where victims are motivated by something other than solidarity or a desire for social change. Someone who protests a sexist double standard in the workplace because they, personally, were denied a promotion is looking out for themselves. And strikingly, both senses apply to everyday cases of compliance with oppressive norms or complicity in oppressive relationships and institutions. Complicit victims are opting out of a larger fight against oppression, and at least in some respects, such victims are making their lives significantly better by not resisting. So when is it okay to look out for yourself? When might you even have an obligation to do so? Can that obligation ever be compatible with acts of complicity? Can we reconcile prioritizing the life you owe yourself with the decision to shut out the legitimate claims of your fellow victims? And for that matter, what does “looking out for yourself” even mean? For example, if a victim gains security and opportunity by passing, but at the price of severed family connections, have they succeeded in looking out for themselves? Or have they failed themselves?