Archive for April, 2007

Some of you know that I am partial to something called Standpoint Theory. (In fact, that’s what I’m writing my thesis about.)¬† It is about the most sensible piece of philosophy I have encountered in my entire undergrad. I (heart) standpoint theory.

I’d like to throw out an excerpt for you to read, from a work by Alison Jaggar, that explains how standpoint relates to epistemology (theory of knowledge). She argues for a specifically socialist feminist standpoint theory.

Like both traditional Marxists and radical feminists, socialist feminists  view knowledge as a social and practical construct and they believe that conceptual framewrks are shaped and limited by their social origins. They believe that, in any historical period, the prevailing world-view will reflect the interests and values of the dominant class. Consequently, they recognize that the establishment of a less mystified and more reliable world-view will require not only scientific struggle and intellectual argument but also the overthrow of the prevailing system of social relations.

Where social feminism differs from traditional Marxist epistemology is in its assertion that the special social or class position of women gives them a special epistemological standpoint which makes possible a view of the world that is more reliable and less distorted than that available either to capitalist or to working-class men. […]

Both liberal and Marxist epistemologists consider that, in order to arrive at an adequate representation of reality, it is important to begin from the proper standpoint. Within liberal epistemology, the proper standpoint is the standpoint of the neutral, disinterested observer, a so-called Archimedean standpoint somewhere outside the reality that is being observed [this is the usual position attempted by scientists and sociologists, a god’s-eye view or view from nowhere – TG]. Marxist epistemology, by contrast, recognizes that there is no such standpoint: that all systems of conceptualization reflect certain social interests and values. In a society where the production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, the knowledge produced will reflect the interests and values of that class. In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class. Because the ruling class has an interest in concealing the way in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population, the interpretation of reality that it presents will be distorted in characteristic ways. In particular, the suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable.

Because their class position insulates them from the suffering of the oppressed, many members of the ruling class are likely to be convinced by their own ideology; either they fail to perceive the suffering of the oppressed or they believe that it is freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable. They experience the current organization of society as basically satisfactory and so they accept the interpretation of reality that justifies that system of organization. They encounter little in their daily lives that conflicts with that interpretation. Oppressed groups, by contrast, suffer directly from the system that oppresses them… the pervasiveness, intensity, and relentlessness of their suffering constantly push the oppressed groups toward a realization that something is wrong with the prevailing social order. Their pain provides them with a motivation for finding out what is wrong, for criticizing accepted interpretations of reality, and for developing new and less distorted ways of understanding the world. These new systems of conceptualization will reflect the interests and values of the oppressed groups and so constitute a representation of reality from an alternaitve to the dominant standpoint.

The standpoint of the oppressed is not just different from that of the ruling class; it is also epistemologically advantageous. It provides the basis for a view of reality that is more impartial than that of the ruling class and also more comprehensive. It is more impartial because it comes closer to representing the interests of society as a whole; whereas the standpoint of the ruling class reflects the interests only of one section of the population, the standpoint of the oppressed represents the interests of the totality in that historical period. Moreover, whereas the condition of the oppressed groups is visible only dimly to the ruling class, the oppressed are able to see more clearly the rules as well as the rulers and the relation between them. Thus, the standpoint of the oppressed includes and is able to explain the standpoint of the ruling class.

(Alison Jaggar, “Feminist Politics and Epistemology: The Standpoint of Women” in The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (ed. Sandra Harding), 2004, New York and London: Routledge, 55-57. All emphases added.)

Remember that big discussion about white folks being racist, and not being able to understand the ways in which they are racist because the system they have built and participate in conceals racism from them? how there are things that we as white people simply cannot understand, even about our own selves? And that discussion in the comment section on the PUA thread much to the same effect that there are some things men will never be able to know about how their own privilege as men works in society? THIS is what motivates me when I write about these things.

I’m sure as I continue to research and write my thesis, there will be more about standpoint theory. I have a ton of great quotes from Patricia Hill Collins to throw into a post that I have found most helpful. For now, tell me what you think about this idea!

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on the web, which isn’t where I should be doing reading, considering I’m supposed to be doing thesis research:

  • Sigel Phoenix’s Women and Violence series, which is an excellent deconstruction of the ways in which gendered violence is embedded in our society and normalized through social structures
  • Tekanji’s Privilege in Action and Privilege List series (for anyone who ever wondered what the heck privilege is all about, and can’t seem to grasp that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you get “stuff” as a result – there’s about 20 posts thus far, go read ’em all)
  • Nezua’s The White Lens series, which is just plain amazing for pointing out the ways in which white people are racist and it’s built into the whole damn way we have constructed society (for anyone who had difficulty with my recent post on the subject)

Ok, go on now, get going!

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Women: the weaker sex.

Ever since I was a child, this phrase rankled me. First of all, are not, I know you are but what am I, I’m rubber and you’re glue, etc. Second of all, why say “weaker” instead of something else, like “gentler” or “peacefuller” or something. Third of all, are not.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately, in relation to the whole power in language thing I’ve been talking about. What is “strong”? What is “weak”? Who gets to decide and define these words/concepts? To what advantage? To whose advantage?

Those who like to point out the biological differences between men and women (as if that’s justification for thewidespread social oppression women experience) usually like to point this one out, like it’s a given. Men are stronger than women. Period. Full Stop. Some are a bit more generous and at least point out that men have better upper body strength and women have better lower body strength. But of course, we know what’s valued more highly, even when it’s not said explicitly. Because everything to do with men is valued more highly.

But what is “strong” anyway? It obviously has nothing to do with childbirth (but that wouldn’t be fair to use as a point of comparison, of course, since men can’t do it and we’ll never really know, so they say). And of course there are women out there who are plenty strong, stronger than most men, women who bodybuild and are athletes and things like that. There are women who could kick the ass of just about anyone reading this, male or female. And there are men who are far “weaker” than the “average” woman. But of course, these cases are atypical, so shouldn’t be considered to be counter-examples. We’re talking about the general “truth”, so they say.

Now, regular readers will know that I am obsessed somewhat with social construction theory. So consider this: perhaps women are “weaker” than men because women are socialized to be weaker than men from a very young age. Girls are taught that things like dance and gymnastics are proper ways to express one’s girl-self. Girls are taught that they must keep their movements restricted to avoid opening their legs too far and exposing their private-but-covered-with-underwear va-jay-jays, because girls are dressed quite often in frilly and impractical clothing that they mustn’t ruin. Girls are taught to settle down, don’t be so loud, don’t be so raucous, just sit there quietly, knees together, ankles crossed, hands folded, be demure. Girls are taught that sports are a bit “butchy” and unfeminine. Girls have few female role models to look up to who are professional athletes because not every sport has professional leagues for women or even allow women to participate. Almost all the professional sports teams and leagues are male only, and when women do become wonderful athletes, they don’t get support, they are called derogatory names before a national audience to shame them. Girls are taught not to eat too much, and in families, usually see their fathers and brothers getting larger portions (particularly of meat) than their mothers and sisters. Girls are in a double bind, because they are taught to be concerned about their weight, but also to be restricted in their physical activities, which leaves girls to dieting and eating disorders to keep their weight down – which results in undernourished girls who are, indeed, physically weak.

Then, of course, there’s the whole legacy of ovarian determinism women have to deal with: our wacky hormones make us unpredictable and hysterical and prone to fainting, and our menstrual cycles are controlled by the moon, and what could be crazier than that? Don’t laugh, this was one of the dominant medical discourses that came about around the time of industrialization and caused women to be relegated to the private sphere and not be permitted to participate in public life, after a couple hundred years of agrarian living during which women were pretty heavy labourers and despite the fact that all domestic work fell to women (and we’re not talking about setting up the Roomba and doing some light Swiffer-dusting, we’re talking about carrying huge pots of water for the laundry and scrubbing it by hand, and dragging all the carpets outside to beat them and then dragging them back in again).

So again, what is “strong”? what is “weak”? and how much of it is really biologically driven?

Besides that, if women are really weaker and that is a matter of pure unadulterated biology (although, of course, nothing is unadulterated biology because we always have an interaction of biology and society that transforms the biological through social practice), why should that be a negative thing? Why should (male) strength be more highly valued? Why should it be that “men are strong and women are weak,” instead of “women are not quite as strong”? Why does everything to do with men get higher value, and why does everything have to be “men as a class” compared to “women as a class”?

This is the stuff that drives me: around the bend, as well as to keep on discussing and breaking these false binaries apart. (Sage, how about this as a lesson for your gender and women’s studies class?)

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so, apparently, the Pope has decided that limbo is just a bunch of crazy talk. He’s revising the catholic church’s position on limbo – and abortion is partly to blame. The thought of all those little souls not going to heaven to be with Jesus was just too much for old Benedict. Original sin be damned! Those innocent little fetuses are apparently now going straight to heaven – but of course we all know where their super-slutty moms are going, don’t we?

Anyway, I laughed out loud when I read about this. Seriously, I was basically in a fit of the kind of laughter where you can’t talk or breathe and don’t make any sounds but the occasional snortle and wheeze. I’m not at all even a little bit catholic, and never was. In fact, I’m what you’d call a non-believer – agnostic with atheistic leanings. But I have to admit, the idea of limbo always stuck in my craw. Just struck me as completely ridiculous, and an obvious (to me) piece of evidence for the made-up nature of organized religion. Now, I don’t believe in heaven or hell either, but limbo – now that just seemed really made up to me.

And it turns out, I was right! Now even the freakin’ POPE is saying that limbo isn’t really all that important!

So, next question: since every human is supposedly born in a state of original sin, and limbo was supposed to be a way for babies who hadn’t been baptized (and thus cleared from the stain of original sin) to not go to hell, and now there’s no limbo (if that’s indeed what we can take from the Pope’s decree), then doesn’t that mean that original sin is kind of a load of bull as well? I’m gonna go with YES.


“If there’s no limbo and we’re not going to revert to St. Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we’re left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace,” said the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

So, just wanted to say three cheers for recognizing the idiocy of limbo! What do y’all think?

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well, things are slowly wrapping up for me and my BA. Two weeks ago now I had my last actual classroom class of my undergrad. My last exam of my undergrad. I won’t see all those same faces anymore in all my courses. Friends are moving, getting into programs here and there, getting apartments and jobs in other cities.

I still have to finish my thesis, and a half-credit via distance ed. Then, I will be totally finished. Hooray!

Undergrad has been good for me, in many ways. Some of the classes I’ve taken have completely changed my outlook on the world. Some of the people I’ve met have become wonderful friends. Some of the profs I’ve had have been very inspiring. And since my memory is like a butterfly net, I’ve actually learned a lot about a lot of different subjects of interest. I’ve accomplished what I hoped to, and more.

When I started my undergrad this time ( I had my first year already completed from the year after high school), I was 28 years old. I was very nervous about the whole thing – would I be able to write papers? Where would I begin researching? Would I find all my classes? Would I make any friends? Would it be weird to be almost 10 years older than most of my classmates?

My first day, the instructor I had for my first class (health care ethics) was no older than me, and likely was younger. It was quite a large class, about 100 students. I was early (for once in my life) and sat at the front. I was the oldest person there, definitely. I took copious notes. My next class (logic) was much smaller, about 40, and there was a woman in the class who looked to be about 50. The professor was an asshole. Same prof for my third class, which was fantastic – existentialism. That class was huge, but I recognized some of the faces. Those people ended up in most of my classes over the next two years. Some became good friends.

I was shocked by how many students were very conservative and non-analytic in their ideas, and conversely inspired by how many students were so very lefty. As many times as I rolled my eyes internally at arguments that failed to take into account the actual way society is set up, I cheered internally for students who obviously cared about social justice. And so it began for me. Philosophy is, ultimately, all about people.

As I went along, I realized that in order to understand people better, I needed to study more, to find out more about politics and religion and sociology and history and psychology. So, I chose my classes carefully, wrote my papers on topics I cared about (as much as possible – it was hard to care too much about Descartes after a while), and did a lot of outside reading to supplement my studies. However, I realized that the outside reading I was doing simply wasn’t represented by courses available to my through either of my departments (philosophy and gender & women’s studies). Where were the political philosophy courses? Where were the critical race theory courses? Where were the courses on continental philosophy and post-structuralism? Where were the courses on poverty and social welfare? Where were the courses in queer theory? on post-colonial thought? on indigenous studies? Here were topics that were covered briefly in some classes, but not in others where they would be most useful, and some not at all. It became a point of frustration.

But, of course, academia works in a particular way. We have profs in our departments who are experts in particular areas, and that’s what they teach. They don’t often go beyond their scopes of research. And so, courses are decided at a departmental level, based on what profs are there each year and what they know and are comfortable with teaching. So that’s what we learn. What the profs know, and what the department wants us to know, what they deem is important for us to know, what is important enough that they hire profs based on what they know about what the department wants us to know. (Standpoint theory, anyone?) Anything else we need to learn somewhere else.

I feel like every course was a survey course, not at all enough to delve into topics thoroughly, and some topics of importance were not represented at all. Eventually I learned that I had to write papers on topics that interested me or I wouldn’t have any opportunity to learn about those subjects that were not included in the curriculum.But still, it’s not enough. And, I don’t really think the work that could be done in a Master’s degree would be enough for me, either, to learn about all the things that I would like to learn about. It certainly won’t happen in law school.

So, nearing the end of my undergrad, I am happy, but also a bit frustrated. Some areas of interest have been identified for me, and now it is up to me to learn about them, not for credit at university, but for life.

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CCRF turns 25

I thought I should mention that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms turned 25 this week. While there is still controversy around the Charter, I think for the most part it’s pretty great to have a piece of legislation that ensures the rights of Canadian citizens – especially the right to equality.

There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of achieving equality, real, substantive equality, in this country. I think our social welfare programs and economic safety nets need to be strengthened instead of threatened, as always seems to be the case. And I think we should recognize that the Charter is not working to full capacity in terms of alleviating the burden of structural, systemic oppression that affects the lives of so many Canadians. But overall, it’s a pretty great document, and I’m glad we have it.

So, Happy Birthday CCRF!

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Did you read this week that so-called “partial birth abortions” have been banned by the US Supreme Court?

Let’s talk about this a bit. “Partial birth abortion” – sounds grotesque, right? Sounds like pulling a baby half out of the birth canal and slitting its throat or something, right? Or perhaps one might picture a baby in the womb being punctured with a sharp object until it is mutilated into a pulpy mass of half-formed flesh?

Notice the difference in how pro-life/anti-choice folks talk about pregnancy vs. how pro-choicers do. For pro-lifers, pregnant woman are carrying babies, little innocent children, people, persons. For pro-choicers, pregnant women carry fetuses – babies only exist outside the womb. This is, of course, the “medically correct” way to talk about pregnancy. Not that that matters one lick to the pro-lifers. Same goes for the actual terminology used to talk about abortion.

See, the truth is, “partial birth abortions” don’t technically exist. It’s a politically, emotionally charged term for a medically necessary procedure that quite often saves women’s lives. Who do you think came up with the term? Not the doctors who perform it, and not the women who have it done.

So, as per usual, power comes into play in the naming of things, in this case, a medical procedure typically performed on women whose lives are at risk. The religious right strikes again in its ongoing efforts to control women’s bodies and women’s rights, force women to carry fetuses that for one reason or another they do not wish to carry, to punish women for getting pregnant and being such sluts to begin with. Let me tell you, late-term abortions are typically only performed when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, and quite often these women are not aborting fetuses that they don’t want, but fetuses that they very much wish they could continue to carry and give birth to and nurture and raise. Other times, late-term abortions are performed for women who did not discover they were pregnant until very late in their pregnancies, and would have terminated earlier if they had only known.

But this is ultimately irrelevant. Women must be able to decide what to do with and what happens to their own bodies. It doesn’t really matter whether they would have aborted sooner if they could have. It doesn’t really matter if they would really rather give birth to their fetus. What matters is, women have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, and now the options are more limited. Oh but right, “their bodies aren’t just theirs anymore, once they’re pregnant.” Um, yeah, they are. Women’s bodies are still and are always their own bodies, no matter if they are pregnant or not. Do recall, fetuses are parasites who derive all their nutrients from the bodies of their hosts, and quite often pose to their hosts serious health complications and risks. Any woman carrying a fetus is being generous.

so what we’re talking about with this ban is valuing fetal life over women’s lives. Why? Because “fetuses are innocent” and “women have to live with their decisions and be responsible.” Which translates, contra-positively, to “women are guilty and irresponsible.” Which sounds about right, from the righties. So it’s better to ignore the wishes of the women who don’t want to carry fetuses to term for whatever reason (and whatever reason is a good enough reason for me), and the professional opinions of their treating physicians. Because fetuses are innocent. Never mind the complication of original sin, that’s not important in the context of abortion. Because what we’re talking about is how guilty and sinful women are. Right, righties?

So is this all what abortion law will come down to? Who has the power to name, to define, the terms? It seems that way to me. And it comes as no surprise.

For other perspectives on this decision:


and again

and again

Reclusive Leftist

The American Prospect Online

If you read any other posts or articles on this, please leave a comment and I will add the link to this list.

UPDATE:  Just found this post this morning over at Huffington. By Jill of Feministe.

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