Archive for the ‘Philosophical Meandering’ Category

Marc Andre passed along this article today, about a male lawyer in New Zealand who showed up to court today dressed in women’s clothing as a means of protest against the male-dominated judiciary. The lawyer, Rob Moodie, says:

“I will now, as a lawyer, be wearing women’s clothing… The deeper the cover-up, the prettier the frocks.”

I love these sorts of stunts! I applaud Mr. Moodie for his blatant message of anti-discrimination against women in the legal system. Mind you, his appearance in court was fighting a contempt charge brought against himself by a judge, so he’s not exactly fighting a feminist cause. But, this story came at a time as I was contemplating male feminists, or male pro-feminists. Can a man be a feminist?

In short, yes. Of course men can be feminists. All sorts of men support equality for women, and are active in promoting feminist causes, such as domestic violence, rape, media exploitation of women through pornography, equal pay, sexual harrassment, safe sex-trade, and reproductive freedom. Geo, another regular commentor here, was involved in a breakthrough men’s anti-rape group for many years, and he has been kind enough to share with me some great information on the subject.

Some feminists are exclusivist about their feminism, saying that men can never understand fully the problems and experiences particular to living inside a female body, and so cannot ever really be feminists. Others say that since men benefit from the patriarchy society is built upon, they can never be sincere and genuine in supporting change to the system. I disagree; this is to me a ridiculous argument. It is like saying that white people cannot really truly support racial equality or straight people cannot really support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual rights. Just because a person is embodied in a particular way doesn’t mean they can’t recognize injustice and work to end that injustice.

However, there is something important in what these feminists say. Men will never know what it is like to be a woman. Even if they dress up like a woman for the day, or for a week, or for a month, or for a year. It can be a life-altering and frame-breaking experience to do so, but underneath it all, there is always the knowledge that “I can whip it out at any time and prove that I’m a man.” (to be crass about it.) But seriously, there is always in the back of the mind of someone who is outwardly displaying oneself as something other than they are that the charade can be ended, and the power can shift back into place.  Now, I’m not talking about transsexual or transgendered people, for whom such an admission would be dangerous, and I’m not saying that people would easily understand why a man would want to dress up as a woman just for the experience. But, if a man doing so wanted to, it would be quite easy to regain his power – just go home and change, wash off the makeup, let the leg hair grow again, etc. Women don’t have that luxury. Power isn’t in what you wear. It’s in what’s between your legs – combined, of course, with skin colour, sexuality, economic status, level of ability, religious affiliation, etc.

Another problem for those wanting to support a movement to which they cannot hold personal lived experience, especially if they are members of the oppressing class, is that oppression is built into our social structures, and as such, it affects not just the oppressed, but also the oppressors. One of the best frame-breaking experiences I had about this was reading the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. It showed clearly to my eyes evidence that I had been taught to ignore my privilege, and that by ignoring it, I was perpetuating the oppression of others. It’s a very powerful essay – if you have time, read it through.

This is why I fully support efforts to establish and maintain solidarity among oppressed groups. Solidarity movements usually involve the exclusion of people not belonging to the group. For feminists, it means excluding men. For black people, it means excluding white people, Asian people, Indian people, Latin people, etc. For homosexuals, it means excluding heterosexuals, and sometimes bisexuals. ETC. You get the idea. Many people it seems don’t understand the idea of solidarity efforts. They see “women’s only space” and they think that it is sexist because it’s excluding men, or they see Afro-centric schools and youth centres and say it’s racist for excluding whites… and worse, they see these efforts at solidarity as being “a step backwards” from equality.

Well, I disagree 100%. First of all, equality doesn’t exist. There is nothing to step back from. And if assimmilation hasn’t worked up until now, perhaps it’s time to abandon it. In my mind, equality doesn’t mean that all people are treated the same. The same as what, exactly? The same as white people, as men, as the oppressors? Doesn’t that mean there should be someone else under them to oppress? who will that be? Equality to me means celebrating what is unique and special about each person and respecting the differences that make each person so, no matter their social category. It means adopting an approach toward equality that doesn’t strip people of their identities. An assimilationist view of equality is a bit too much like Big Brother to me. And, how else can those identities be strengthened but through solidarity – building group strength and celebrating group culture without interference from dominating groups, whose privilege is often unconscious, but is still harmful? It’s wonderful to allow interested parties from other groups to learn and support from any camp is absolutely beneficial in the fight for an equality that celebrates diversity. But I think it very important to have spaces where people of a shared group can get together and talk, dance, laugh, learn, grow, and struggle – free from the invasive, curious eyes of those who belong to the oppressing class.

So, yes, men can be feminists. But they should be feminists who are always willing to defer to women in matters of lived experience. I also think that women should be actively seeking support from men for feminism and feminist causes. Since men are the ones in control of society on the whole, society can never change without the help of men. Now that I’ve said all of this, I’d love to know your thoughts, but I also want to ask a question: how can feminists best solicit men to join together with us?

Read Full Post »

I happen to love the show Inside the Actor’s Studio. At the end of every episode, host James Lipton asks these 10 questions, the Bernard Pivot questionnaire. I have alwyas found the actors’ answers fascinating. I thought I’d take a turn at it.

  1. What is your favorite word? Passion.
  2. What is your least favorite word? Can’t. I hate to hear that one.
  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Zest for life.
  4. What turns you off? Arrogance. I know, it’s a fine line.
  5. What is your favorite curse word? Fuck.
  6. What sound or noise do you love? Laughter, the kind where you can hardly breathe. And rain. The sound of waves crashing.
  7. What sound or noise do you hate? Lawnmowers on Saturday morning. And bagpipes! God I hate bagpipes!
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Interior Decorator. Writer. Musician.
  9. What profession would you not like to do? Anything math related. My brain doesn’t work that way. And under no circumstance would I want to be an undertaker.
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? I understand.

what are your answers?

Read Full Post »

I found these questions over at The Girl With Moxie‘s blog. I have seen these questions over the years several times, so I thought, what the hey?What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To love and be loved in return.
What is your greatest fear?
That my life will pass without meaning.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Ghandi, who believed he could.
Which living person do you most admire?
Nelson Mandela. Stephen Lewis. My best friend Angel.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Self-doubt, and arrogance in always wanting to be right.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Probably my car. And shoes. And as much chocolate as I can possibly get.
What is your favorite journey?
The one I haven’t yet taken, to France and Italy, to Hawaii, to Egypt, to Greece, to Kenya.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Monetary success. It isn’t really a virtue, but those who have it certainly think it is.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I think the truth will hurt.
Which living person do you most despise?
I try my best not to do so, but I would have to say George Bush.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My extra layer of padding around the middle.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I can’t” – once is too many times.
What is your greatest regret?
I usually regret allowing people to take advantage of me, but kindness and generosity is in my nature, and I can’t really consider it a fault – maybe a tragic flaw. I regret any time I have hurt someone.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Music. My friends. Knowledge. My dreams.
When and where were you happiest?
In New York, 1994 and 2004. In Toronto 2000. Right here, right now.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would that I were a great artist, musician, painter.
What is your current state of mind?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My penchant for self-criticism and self-doubt.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I would have brothers and sisters.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Going back to university after a 10 year absence and becoming an A student. Learning to be a better person. Learning to be comfortable with myself. Moving on.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
A cat. They have the high life! Or maybe a great work of art, so I could bring joy to millions of people.
What is your most treasured possession?
It was my grandmother’s ring, but it was stolen about 4 years ago and never recovered. I was devastated.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The loss of a loved one, and all the things you never said, never did.
Where would you like to live?
New York. Montreal. Paris. Hawaii. Rome. Tuscany.
What is your most marked characteristic?
A boyfriend once said it was my charisma. I think it is my intellect and my integrity.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Integrity, honesty, fairness, passion, and kindness.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The same. Why should it be different?
What do you value most in your friends?
In addition to the above, loyalty, willingness to forgive, and an open heart.
Who are your favorite writers?
Shakespeare, Jane Austin, John Irving, Zora Neale Hurston.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Atreyu from the Neverending Story. Peter Pan. Frodo. Hamlet. Elizabeth Barrett. Jane Eyre. Janie Crawford
Who are your heroes in real life?
Ghandi. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Terry Fox. Eleanor Roosevelt. Anyone who has a dream and pursues it unfailingly.
What is it that you most dislike?
Hatred. War. Intolerance. Ignorance.
How would you like to die?
When I am very old, and I have done all I wish to do, in my sleep during a beautiful dream.
What is your motto?
I think I can, I think I can…

Read Full Post »

In a timely fashion, one of my courses this term focussed for the first section on transsexuals. (I say timely because of the movie Transamerica, in which Felicity Huffman gives a great performance as a transsexual woman.) The text we read was called "Sex Change, Social Change" by Vivane Namaste, and her perspective is contrasting with much of the past literature on transsexuals written by feminists – even transsexual feminists. I'll explain more later.Transsexuals are people who do not identify with the gender role assigned to the biological sex with which they were born, and instead wish to be the other gender and sex. Most transsexuals undergo medical interventions, including hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, in order to become the other sex and gender. Transsexuals differ from transgendered people, who are not necessarily unhappy with their physical bodies, but who do not wish to express gender roles as they are assigned to their biological sex. Transgendered people often identify on a continuum of gender, from androgeny to cross-dressing, but do not necessarily undergo full sex reassignment surgical intervention. Note that transsexualism does not necessarily attach to sexuality: some transsexuals undergo sex reassignment and then have relationships that are homosexual (i.e., some men become women and are lesbian). Transsexualism has to do with not feeling at home in one's body and identify with being the other gender.

In feminist literature on transsexualism, transsexuals have been used as an example to show that gender is not a biological construct, but a social one. Because people exist who do not want to inhabit the gender role that has been assigned them because of their bodies at birth, feminists have pointed out that gender is not based on genitalia and is not natural and biological, but that gender is merely a role of a social design and implementation. Most feminists who write on the subject then go on to say gender is bad and should be abolished, and we should move to a more transgendered approach and be exactly how much of male or female or androgynous we want to be. Namaste claims this is a subversion of transsexualism, and that transsexual people are not interested in abolishing gender roles – they simply want to be the OTHER gender, and often in the most traditional way possible (transsexual women want to be WOMEN in the most feminine sense, and vice versa).

I won't go into all the arguments she presents in her book, because I found the book to be challenged in a few areas and I don't feel like explaining all the ins and outs of why I feel the way I do about it. Suffice to say, the book was extremely interesting and very thought-provoking and educational. I don't agree with much of what Namaste has to say theoretically, but she approaches the subject from a very practical viewpoint, and shows how transsexuals have been excluded and marginalized, and the day to day difficulties involved with transsexual life, from health care to prostitution to media representations (which are largely horrible and sensational – think Jerry Springer/Maury Povich) to getting a job or being allowed to volunteer (she gives an in-depth look at a legal human rights case brought against a rape crisis centre in BC because they refused to allow a transsexual woman to become a volunteer) to crime and legal issues (including things like not being permitted to legally change your sex on official records such as a drivers license or birth certificate until after sex reassignment surgery, which presents a problem for such things as having to show ID to pick up a registered mail package) to the problems of life in prison for transsexuals (how to get access to special health care services and where to place people at various points in their process of becoming the other sex – does a man with breasts, no facial hair, no adam's apple and a penis, or a woman with a beard and no breasts but a vagina, get placed get placed in a male or female institution).

It was very eye opening, because when you do identify with your gender that has been assigned on the basis of your sex at birth, you do not think about any of these things. It is never a problem to show picture ID. It is never a problem to belong to a society or space of any sort that is exclusive based on sex. You never have to explain your entire biological history on command, or explain the exact process you underwent to become embodied the way you are, and such ridiculously intimate questions like whether or not you can orgasm and how your mother felt about it all. You never have to explain to an employer that you are not a cross-dresser, but you identify as the opposite gender and are undergoing surgery in a very public process. You don't have to explain yourself to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses you with a mental disorder (Gender Dysphoria) that can only be cured through plastic surgery (figure that out!). You are not called a freak simply for leaving your house, and threatened with violence for dressing in the clothes you want to wear. You don't have to deal with being thrown out of your parents' home at a young age because of your gender identity and having no skills and no prospects and no money for the surgery you need (so many transsexual people at various stages turn to prostitution in order to pay for their lives). All these things are a problem for transsexual people, and this book was such a lesson to me.

Read Full Post »

I had to submit a paper to my human rights class this week. The topic was whether or not we should tolerate hate speech. I'm posting the paper here – it's not too long – and I am interested to hear what you guys might think about the topic. A bit of context for any american readers: in Canada, we have legislation under the criminal code prohibiting hate speech against identifiable groups. I wrote in the Canadian context, but I know that the US does not have such laws – in fact, only a handful of countries do: Canada, UK, and Australia (most European countries have laws against the jewish holocaust denial). The paper was restricted to a certain length, so unfortunately I couldn't go into as much detail as I might have liked in outlining arguments and counter-arguments, but I'd love to hear opinions. Several classmates submitted papers supporting freedom of expression, so that contingent was also represented in our discussion. My paper is from a strong social justice position.

Why Hate Speech Should Not Be Tolerated In a Free and Democratic Society

Hate speech is defined as “speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against someone based on his/her race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.”[i] There has been much controversy regarding hate speech and laws that prohibit hate speech. This controversy arises first and foremost because of its conflict with the well-guarded right to freedom of expression, which secures each person the right to express ideas and opinions without governmental interference. In this paper, I will advance the view that the “right” to freedom of expression is not final and absolute. I will further argue that expressions of hate cause real harm to groups depicted in such negative ways, and that the rights of marginalized groups not to be spoken about or otherwise depicted in demeaning and derogatory ways outweigh any claim to freedom of expression. Finally, I will argue that marginalized groups are owed societal protection from hate speech.

Identifiable Groups and the Criminal Code of Canada

In the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC), anyone who promotes genocide, incites hatred of an identifiable group in a public place, or promotes hatred is guilty of a criminal offence and will be imprisoned for two to five years.[ii] The CCC states that “In th[ese] section[s], “identifiable group” means any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”[iii] Note that this definition excludes gender, disability, and economic status. Also, identifiable groups are recognized by Section 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CCRF): “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”[iv] (Note that this list excludes economic status and sexual orientation.) It appears from these documents that the Canadian government recognizes that individual identity is based on group membership, and the rights of individuals can be secured through the protection of groups.

Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is considered a fundamental political freedom, and is zealously guarded in Western society. Section 2b of the CCRF says that every Canadian has the fundamental right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”[v] This clause is meant to protect citizens of Canada from censorship, defined here as the suppressing of opinions expressed through written word, theatrical performance, or artistic media, usually by the government.

There is a real problem in identifying what kind of act speech is. Stanley Fish says: “If [freedom of speech] is to make any sense… speech must be declared not to be a species of action, or to be a special form of action lacking the aspects of action that cause it to be the object of regulation.”[vi] On this view, speech holds no power to harm anyone. This is a very narrow conception both of what can cause harm, and of what constitutes harm. By discounting emotional and psychological pain from the realm of harm, physical pain is constructed as the only legitimate form of harm. This view is not realistic: we all know that it hurts to be the subject of a cruel comment, and verbal abuse is recognized as harm. Speech certainly is an action that can cause harm. Fish agrees: “[S]peech always seems to be crossing the line into action, where it becomes, at least potentially, consequential.”[vii] Therefore, if speech can cause harm, then speech must be considered a type of action requiring regulation.

Speech and Context
No speech act occurs outside of a particular context. Stanley Fish says: “arguments [that support freedom of speech] only get their purchase by first imagining speech as occurring in no context whatsoever, and then stripping particular speech acts of the properties conferred on them by contexts.”[viii] Allow me to break this statement down. Those who defend freedom of expression first assume that speech happens in a vacuum, free from situational context. The idea is that when a person speaks, she speaks her own ideas, and that should not be controlled. She should be free to speak her mind without worrying what others will think about it. This is erroneous on two counts: first, she does not speak from a place that is context-free. Every life has its own context, and every speaker brings that context to her speech. Second, in order for speech to have meaning, someone has to hear it. The person who listens to speech is also affected by the context of his life. The second part of Fish’s statement refers to what happens when speech enters into context. I say a sentence, and because of the context in which I say it, or the context in which someone hears it, meaning attaches to the sentence. Proponents of freedom of expression would try to strip away that meaning. This argument is somewhat confused: it argues that context is unwittingly conferred onto an act of speech, rather than considering that context motivates that act.

Freedom from Harm
Freedom is a delicate balance. A society can only support an individual’s rights so long as that individual does not infringe on the rights of another. In regards to hate speech, it is hard to understand why one person’s (or group’s) right to freedom of expression should trump the right of a group not to have hateful things said about them. Why should the rights of the haters be held above those of the victims of hate speech? Societies that tolerate hate speech institutionalize that form of violence. When an individual is the subject of “hate” speech, he or she has the right to press criminal charges against the speaker(s) on the basis of slander/defamation of character. When a group is the subject of hate speech, it seems defenders of Section 2b of the CCRF would tell members of that group to just get over the slanderous comments, because the speaker(s) right to free expression is paramount.

Stephen L. Newman, arguing for freedom of expression, says that “[h]ate speech, by its very nature, is threatening, and all victims of hate speech have reason to fear the potential for violence that it represents.”[ix] He argues that special consideration for disadvantaged social groups is untenable, and that those who defend legislation prohibiting hate speech “serve only to explain the heightened sensitivity of historically oppressed groups to continuing expressions of prejudice.”[x] I find this statement to be highly contentious and dismissive of the real concerns of marginalized groups. It is true that hate speech can target both disadvantaged and privileged groups in society, and individuals deserve protection from these threats. However, words of hatred spoken against a person who is socially privileged does not serve to support systems of oppression that already exist against them. Socially privileged groups are not in the same socio-political/economic position as disadvantaged groups: the relation of power that constitutes oppression serves to advance socially privileged groups while simultaneously squashing socially disadvantaged groups. Those who are harmed by such oppression deserve protection and support as society works to undo and disentangle the interlocking systems that have created situations in which disadvantaged people are trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Western society has been built on the backs of disadvantaged people, and they are still paying the price today because of pervasive beliefs involved in racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. Hate speech, when aimed at the socially privileged, is as harmful as a dent in a suit of armour. For a disadvantaged group, it is a kick in the teeth while they’re already down.

Why does a person commit an act of hate speech? The bottom line is, that person has come into contact with information that has led them to believe something negative about a group or groups of people, and for whatever reason, they feel compelled to express that view. The underlying belief is supported by systems of oppression in society that serve to exploit and demoralize particular groups of people, and serve to privilege other groups. Oppression is about relations of power between groups, and hate speech has a twofold intent: to demoralize and degrade a person or people based on their membership in an identifiable social group, and to impart more power and privilege to the speaker and his/her group.

In a perfect world, if a person or group of people wished to express their prejudices regarding another group (or groups) of people to society at large, that expression would not matter. The only harms that would come about from such an expression would be the public humiliation, chastisement, and exclusion of the person or group expressing those views by the rest of society. However, ours is not a perfect world. Ours is a world rife with interlocking systems of oppression that serve to harm groups of people based on criteria such as gender, sexuality, disability status, economic status, race, ethnicity, and religion. These systems of oppression are only fuelled by such expressions of intolerance and non-acceptance characterized by hate speech. Society owes protection to these disadvantaged groups in the form of legislation prohibiting hate speech.


[i] Wikipedia, “Hate Speech”. Accessed February 2, 2006 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech>
[ii] Criminal Code of Canada, Sections 318 and 319. Accessed February 3, 2006 at http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/C-46/165505.html#rid-165543>
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Schedule B, Constitution Act 1982. Section 15(1). Department of Justice web site, accessed February 2, 2006 at http://lois.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/>
[v] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Schedule B, Constitution Act 1982. Section 2b. Department of Justice web site, accessed February 2, 2006 at http://lois.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/>
[vi] Fish, Stanley. “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too”, pp 241 in Political Philosophy: Classic & Contemporary Readings (Pojman, L., ed) © 2002: McGraw-Hill
[vii] Ibid, pp 241
[viii] Ibid, pp 243
[ix] Newman, Stephen L. “What Not to Do About Hate Speech: An Argument Against Censorship”, pp 209 in Canadian Political Philosophy
[x] Ibid, pp 209 (Beiner, R. and Norman, W., ed). © 2001: Oxford University Press
*please note: this paper may not be used in full or in part in any form without the express permission of the author*

Read Full Post »

So, some of you might have noticed a recent discussion in the comments on my last post. I visit another site from time to time to try and get inspired about philosophy of language (which I admit is much more stimulating there than in my actual class… sad but true). The site is: The Language Guy, and the author is a specialist in the subject. One recent discussion there involved the sexist use of language. It drew a lot of comments, including a couple from me, and admittedly contentious stance on oppression was challenged. I outlined my view briefly for a blogger who stopped over to ask me directly about it, but I thought it would be best to post an excerpt of a recent paper I wrote on the subject. The paper was a reaction to a specific article I had to read for the course, but it is fairly well-outlined in the paper. Here it is:


This paper is a critical analysis of the concept of racism described by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his work “Racisms”, using the framework of oppression as described by Marilyn Frye in her piece “Oppression”. I will first describe the positions of both authors, then move into a critique of one of Appiah’s claims that I find particularly contentious: the claim that racial solidarity is a form of racism.

In his work entitled “Racisms”, Kwame Anthony Appiah[1] claims that what lies at the heart of racism is a doctrine he calls racialism, and that racialism false, thereby making all forms of racism morally erroneous. Appiah describes racialism as the belief that “there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race” (pg 199). These traits constitute a racial essence (pg 199) that is seen by racists as the basis for making moral judgements regarding members of racial categories.

Appiah goes on to describe two forms of racism based on the doctrine of racialism. Extrinsic racism is the belief that racial essence entails certain morally relevant characteristics, and that these characteristics warrant differential treatment of members of racial groups. Opposing evidence in the form of positive moral characteristics belonging to members of racial groups could change the minds of extrinsic racists, but a continuation of extrinsic racism points to a “cognitive incapacity” (pg 200). Intrinsic racism is the belief that each race has a different moral status, regardless of positive moral characteristics exhibited by members of “inferior” racial groups. For an intrinsic racist, “the bare fact of being of the same race is reason for preferring one person to another” (pg 200). Intrinsic racists maintain their views in spite of evidence to the contrary, no matter how extensive. Appiah claims that racialism is itself false, and therefore anything built on its foundation is also false.

My conception of racism is informed by the work of Marilyn Frye in her piece entitled “Oppression”[2]. Frye describes oppression as a systematic social structure the purpose of which is the subjugation of various groups of people in relation to a dominant group. She says: “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction” (pg 4).

Frye uses the very instructive analogy of a birdcage to describe oppression. An examination of a birdcage one wire at a time might not show how that one wire is restrictive or harmful; it seems as though it would be easy for the bird to fly around that one barrier to freedom. However, when you step back and view the whole cage, “it is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon” (pg 5). On this view, oppression is not one specific barrier, but a series of interlocking barriers that restrict the movement of members of oppressed groups so they are constantly being trapped by “double-binds”, where options are limited and oppressed people are subject to penalties no matter which way they move.

In his article, Appiah claims that racial solidarity is a form of intrinsic racism based on racialism, and is therefore morally wrong. I find this claim to be contentious. Firstly, the examples Appiah uses to support this claim are Pan-Africanism and Zionism. Both of these examples are socio-political movements that are responses to a history of persecution and racism experienced by these specific groups (people of African descent in the case of Pan-Africanism, and Jewish people in the case of Zionism). Neither of these movements is necessarily based on the belief that the group in question is morally superior to any other group, as would be the case in intrinsic racism; these movements are based on specific contexts of struggle against systematic oppression.

Appiah’s definition of racism is very different from Frye’s. For Appiah, racism simply is prejudice on the basis of racial difference. For Frye, racism is a form of oppression, which is a systematic social structure of interlocking barriers that serve to restrict the social movement of groups. Looking at the broad claim Appiah is making – namely, that marginalized groups articulate racism through expressions of solidarity – through the lens of Frye’s account of oppression, Appiah’s view is flawed. Frye’s oppression does not allow room for those who are marginalized to oppress their oppressors. For Frye, those who are bound by oppression simply do not have the power to inflict oppression on those who are oppressing them. The barriers that hold oppressed people in place are the same barriers that systematically support the oppressors.

What then are we to make of Appiah’s claim? While his examples are unconvincing, we can imagine there exist groups of traditionally oppressed people who fit the description of intrinsic racists. Do we call this racism? I do not think we can call this racism, because it is not harmful to the traditional oppressor group as a group in the way racism is harmful to traditionally oppressed groups. It may be harmful to an individual member, or several members, of the oppressor group, but overall, there is no system of subjugation in place that would bring harm to all members of the oppressor group by the oppressed group. I would call this a case of racial prejudice, but not of racism. Perhaps some might say that I am splitting hairs, but I believe the distinction is an important one.

Other related questions are more complex in my view. What about situations in which the traditional oppressor group is the physical, numerical minority – could we then say that the majority, who is the traditionally oppressed group, can exhibit racist behaviour toward the traditional oppressor group? Also, is it possible for one oppressed group to oppress another, since all oppressed groups do not share the same restrictions and barriers?

To discover answers to questions such as these under Frye’s framework of oppression, Frye recommends looking “at the barrier or force and answer[ing] certain questions about it. Who constructs and maintains it? Whose interests are served by its existence? Is it part of a structure which tends to confine, reduce and immobilize some group? Is the individual a member of the confined group?” (pg 14) In the cases portrayed by the above questions, there are likely to be contextual issues at play that require examination; a simple answer is not appropriate considering historical factors such as colonialism, slavery, or the Holocaust.

In conclusion, I believe Appiah’s claim that racially oppressed groups commit intrinsic racism through expressions of solidarity to be false, because this claim fails to account for both contextual issues experienced by oppressed groups and the fact that oppression is a form of systematic social constructs that bind those oppressed by them and support those who are the oppressors. This cannot be the final word on questions of whether oppressed groups can ever become oppressors, however; context must always be considered, which is exactly why I disagree with Appiah on the subject of racial solidarity.


1. Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1990). “Racisms”, in C. Koggel (Ed.), Moral Issues in Global Perspective (pp. 199-208). Toronto: Broadview Press.

2. Frye, Marilyn (1983). “Oppression”. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (pp 1-16). Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1983.

* please note: this paper may not be used in any form without the express permission of the author *

Comments? let me know… sorry I couldn’t provide a link to Appiah’s article online, couldn’t find one. Frye’s article is linked above.

Read Full Post »


Well, here in Canada, it's Thanksgiving today. I'm happy to have the day off, and the chance to reflect a bit on what I'm grateful for. Here's a short list of some of those things:

  1. I'm grateful that I am healthy and able-bodied.

  2. I'm grateful that I have two parents who love me.

  3. I'm grateful that I have a home, and comfortable things.

  4. I'm grateful that I have food in my belly.

  5. I'm grateful that I have two best friends who love me like a sister.

  6. I'm grateful that I have three cute and sweet kitties.

  7. I'm grateful that I am able to go to university and study what I love.

  8. I'm grateful that I am breaking out of old patterns.

  9. I'm grateful that I have lots of great friends who care about me and love me, and who are examples to me in so many ways.

  10. I'm grateful that I have a strong sense of morality.

  11. I'm grateful that I'm sensitive, and that I feel things deeply.

  12. I'm grateful that I have loved someone more than myself, more than the stars in the sky, more than all the oceans.

  13. I'm grateful that I can make music.

  14. I'm grateful that I have a healthy mind and the intelligence to examine my life, see what isn't working, and change it.

  15. I'm grateful that I can be alone and not feel lonely.

  16. I'm grateful that I live here in Canada, where I get to live the life I want to live without fear of persecution, where my government allows me freedom of choice, and where I can mostly support the actions my government takes and say I am proud to be Canadian.

What are you greatful for?

Read Full Post »

One of the classes I'm taking this term is called Justice in Global Perspective. Basically, it's an ethics course dealing with global issues such as democracy, various forms of justice, globalization/Westernization, human rights, and international politics/development. This class is cross-listed with both the philosophy department and the international development department at Dalhousie. It's a very interesting course for me, because I am an idealist, and most of the theorists we are reading present and defend idealistic views on these subjects.

The class is structured so that once a week, we have an hour for more in-depth group discussion on the subjects we covered during the week. Students are asked to email the professor with questions to bring up in the discussion. Last week, our prof, Sue, said one question that kept coming up was "Why do these theorists keep discussing subjects in a way that is idealistic or utopian? Isn't that a bad way of going about trying to change things?" This same question was brought up again this week, but was reframed. The subject was epistemology (theory of knowledge), and the author's view was that in order to gain true knowledge, there has to be a commitment to understanding beyond one's own assumptions/life story: we all start out with assumptions that shape the way we learn and inform what we choose to learn about. The author's view is essentially that we only choose to learn about what we already care about, so to be truly knowledgeable, it is necessary to gain information from a framework of caring about the subject – the commitment is not to the subject necessarily, but to knowledge itself. The question became, "Isn't that just moving from one bias to another?"

Essentially, the question is one of objectivity. Is it possible to be objective? Philosophers, of course, disagree on this point. Some have a view of objectivity as a sort of "god's eye view". (You'll notice in this blog I often choose not to capitalize the names of gods, countries, religions, and even some people. This is a conscious decision, not a mistake. It is not necessarily meant to be disrespectful, but rather to level the ideological playing field, in a way.) This "god's eye view" is that we as people can be and are able to step outside ourselves – our skins, our global locations, our positions in society, our experiences, our religions, our beliefs, our cultures – and view the world in a neutral and inclusive way, as in the way the christian god would do, looking down on the earth from heaven above. Other philosophers believe objectivity is not possible at all, because it is impossible for us to leave the various lenses through which we look at the world at the door; we always see the world according to our own skins, global locations, societal positions, experiences, religions, beliefs, and cultures. This position is that of the "situated knower".

The particular theorist (Susan Babbitt) we were discussing shares this view, but is slightly more optimistic on the question of whether we can actually be objective. The idea is that while we may always be "situated knowers", that does not mean our story ends there, or that we are trapped by this. We can still gain knowledge, and become more objective knowers, by becoming committed to knowledge that is not based only on assumptions; that a process of critical analysis can be employed to help us move past our assumptions about a subject and that through this process we can become more objective.

As an idealist, I'm used to being ridiculed a little bit by those who prefer to be mired down in the pragmatic truths of the matters at hand. I believe that ideals must be defended in order to know where we are falling short in practice, and to have something to both inspire us to improve and measure our progress. Sometimes it's tough being an idealist. It gets discouraging sometimes to look around the world, because sometimes all I see is our failures in society. But, I am committed to the idea of gaining knowledge and understanding. I agree with Babbitt. I don't think we are able to ever step outside our own frameworks completely, and that the ways in which we see the world are directly related to our own experiences. However, that "god's eye view" looks very appealing to me. It would be so nice to be able to step outside of the things that negatively inform my views of the world, and see from a neutral vantage point. For me, I think recognizing myself as located in the world in a particular way is a stepping stone, a starting point. You cannot change what you don't accept.

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us and the world will live as one." – John Lennon, Imagine

Read Full Post »

I like being me. I have a good life. I am blessed with a lot of wonderful people in my life. I have been lucky in a lot of ways, endowed with natural talents and abilities that have given me great joy. I am fortunate to be situated in this world in a way that gives me opportunities that many people don't have.


I like lots of things about me. I like that I am silly, smart, creative, honest, warm, kind, generous, a good and loyal friend, independent, optimistic, sarcastic. I like that I am tall, that I have brown hair, green eyes, and curves. I like that I can laugh at myself – I'm usually the first to do it! I like that I can see multiple sides to any issue. I like that I can sing, play piano, swim. I like that I enjoy and thrive on change, and welcome new experiences and points of view. I like that I am open-minded, particularly in regards to other people, and that I try my best not to judge others. I like that I have a strong sense of justice. There's lots of good things about me.



Now, all of this is not to toot my own horn. There are also lots of things I don't like about myself, too: I procrastinate, I eat too much chocolate, I have little will power, I spend too much money, I can be whiny when I'm sick, I sleep too much, I read too slowly, I drive too fast, I am quick to anger, I have a bad knee, I get stressed out easily, I bottle up my feelings, I'm scared of bugs, I hate camping, I take showers that are too long, I get road rage, I can be cruel with words. So the picture is far from perfect. But all in all, I'd have to say I like who I am, and I wouldn't want to be anyone else – and if the faults are included, I'll take them and deal with them as I go.



I have always believed there is an essence to a person; we all have an specific identity that is essential, and cannot change. This is not to say that I don't believe people can change, because I wholly believe it. But I think there are certain things we definitely cannot change about ourselves, no matter how we try. This is what I try to see in people – the essence of who they are.



I want to discover more about myself, and what it means to be me. I know that no matter where I go, what I become, who I am with, that I want to be ME. To me, this is what integrity means: to integrate all the aspects of oneself into one consistent persona; to be all parts of oneself in all situations. I think being a person of integrity necessarily means that no matter the situation, I will never act out of character, that I will always retain my identity, and that I will not give up any part of my system of beliefs and ideals.



As I move through life, this sometimes isn't easy, but it is an idea I am committed to. I'm curious to see what life will throw at me to test this commitment. I hope I am up to the challenge, and that on the day I die, I will look back at my life and smile, knowing that I never gave up on myself, that I always stayed true to my essence.

Read Full Post »

Well, now that school has started, my time is divided into two main categories: reading for school, and procrastinating from reading for school. That said, I try to carve out a little time once a day for exercise, mindless TV, and reading before bed (yup, more reading). I have one rule about reading before bed: no reading schoolwork. That is not to say, however, that I can't read philosophy! (just not philosophy I am currently working with for school!) the past week or so, I have been reading existential philosophy before bed each night. It's not really the same as reading regular philosophy; existential philosophy is much more lyrical and interesting to read, and a lot less dry and theroy-laden as most philosophical texts. Existentialism is the philosophy of existence; many "existential philosophers" would not consider themselves philosophers at all (Dostoevsky, Ortega, Sartre), and many would certainly not appreciate being labelled as anything, much less existentialist.


Often when I tell someone that I am a philosophy major, they ask me the question, "Who is your favourite philosopher?" I usually respond that I haven't studied enough to answer that knowledgably, but that my main areas of interest are in ethics/bioethics, feminist theory, and existentialism. Well, I think I'm going to go out on a limb from now on and name someone, even though my studies are incomplete in regards to philosophy in general as well as being incomplete in regards to the work of this philosopher in particular. So here goes, the big announcement: my favourite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche.


Nietzsche defies description. He is many things: peri-existentialist (not quite existentialist, but if there had been no Nietzsche, there would be no existentialism), nihilist, athiest, cynic, psychologist, gifted writer, philosopher. Nietzsche is most certainly a major figure in literature and philosophy, and his work is cutting, brilliant, egotistical, and foreceful.


I'd like to share a famous passage from "The Gay Science" with you, The Madman. *excerpt from Existentialism from Dostoevksy to Sartre, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, Meridian Books, 1975


Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Whither is God?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murdereds. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its moving sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not laterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. "I come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves."

It has been related further that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, "What are these churches now if they are not tombs and sepulchers of God?"

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »