Monday, May 8, 2017

Haslanger on gender

I've presented versions of my paper "Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity" to three different audiences now. With two it went down well, the main criticism being simply that it really had little to do with Wittgenstein. There's something to that, I think, but I still think it has something (interesting) to do with Wittgenstein. With the third it went down less well, and I want to try to think through why that might have been and whether there is anything in the paper that I should change. So the following will be mostly me thinking out loud.

One problem, I think, is that an early example that I use in the paper is 'orca' versus 'killer whale.' I suggest that 'orca' is the better term because it leaves more possibilities open, doing less to prejudge what such a creature might be like. I don't mean to suggest, though, that (what might turn out to be a fantasy of) complete neutrality is either possible or always desirable. It isn't necessarily better to call neo-Nazis "members of the 'Alt-Right'" if what they actually are is neo-Nazis. The term 'Alt-Right' might be less likely to prejudice someone, but the point of my paper is to talk about the value of clarity in communication, and terms designed to hide badness (or, really, anything else, other things being equal) do not aid clear understanding. So two things I should probably emphasize are that I am not claiming that pure neutrality or concepts that simply reflect the world as it is are possible, and that I am also not claiming that more evaluative concepts are always less desirable than less evaluative concepts.

Another thing I should probably repeat or underline is that I am not against all linguistic or conceptual innovation. As I say in the paper, although perhaps only in a footnote, sometimes a new word, expression, or idea will be clearer than the alternatives (see footnote 14, for instance). In which case, if we value clarity, we should prefer the new option.

A paper by Sally Haslanger was brought up as a possible illustration of error on my part. I think the paper is this one. As far as I can see it doesn't go against what I mean to say, although of course it might go against what I actually say if I haven't been sufficiently careful. Haslanger does make some points that I think could be useful to me in making my point(s) though, so I'm glad to know about her paper. She writes about our everyday vocabularies serving both cognitive and practical purposes, and about the possibility of developing a theory that offers "an improved understanding of our (legitimate) purposes and/or improved conceptual resources for the tasks at hand" (p. 33). One thing I aim to do in my paper is to show that some people seem to care more about practical purposes and others more about cognitive ones. I also say that I think most of us care about both such purposes, although perhaps not equally. Haslanger is a good example of someone who cares about both. (See also p. 47, where she talks about the twin goals of understanding oppression and achieving equality.) And so long as she does not want to sacrifice understanding for the sake of practical purposes (on the contrary, it seems to me that she wants to improve understanding) then she is not opposed to the side that I really try only to identify and describe but which I might seem to take against the likes of Galtung. She also talks about semantic and political conditions on "appropriating the terms of ordinary discourse," (p. 35) and the concern with the semantic condition seems to match, or at least roughly track, my concern with clarity or accuracy, while the concern with politics matches Galtung's concern (which I think is legitimate, at least as long as this kind of concern does not completely override all other concerns. And even that might be OK in extreme cases).

Haslanger does sound a little like Galtung when she says (p. 36) that "the task is to develop accounts of gender and race that will be effective tools in the fight against injustice," but she also regards it as being important (p. 36) "to provide clear conceptual categories to identify the phenomenon needing explanation, e.g., categories that identify the kind of injustice at issue and the groups subject to it." On the next page she says that "her strategy is to offer a focal analysis," and then comments that a "focal analysis undertakes to explain a variety of connected phenomena" (p. 37). So far as one's aim is to explain, rather than to obscure for political (or other) purposes, then one is on the side of people like Wittgenstein, Orwell, and Williams rather than Galtung. Haslanger's aims are not purely consequentialist. One of her implicit aims is to help us to see what is there, to enable "us to recognize significant patterns in the ways that gender is instituted and embodied" (p. 38).

She also wants to change the way we conceptualize gender differences in order to provide "resources for thinking about other (actual) genders [than man and woman], and the political possibility of constructing non-hierarchical genders" (p. 43). This rejection of limiting concepts in favor of one's that reveal extra possibilities is exactly the kind of thing whose value I am trying to show. Whether there is one best way, or right way, to do this, as Haslanger, reasonably, doubts, is not the point. The point is that it is possible to value the revelation of previously unseen possibilities through the use of one concept or set of concepts rather than another, and that such valuing might be at odds with certain practical goals. For instance, Haslanger offers a (long) definition of what it is to be a woman that makes subordination essential to the concept. (See p. 42.) Hence, "it is part of the project of feminism to bring about a day when there are no more women," as she has (re)-defined women (p. 46). This obscures the possibility of its being good to be a woman, but it does so in order to reveal sexist oppression (as well as to help end such oppression). The goal is neither obscuring reality (or possibility) as such nor the achievement of some practical goal by means of such obscuring. Haslanger's goal is far more elucidatory and emancipatory than it is obfuscatory, even if some obfuscation is an (apparently) unavoidable part of her project. (Compare my example of A, B, and C on pp. 10-11.)
Near the end of her paper, Haslanger quotes Trey Ellis who wants to be, and feel, free to call himself black, at least some of the time, rather than African-American. This kind of freedom is another aspect of what I am trying to defend, or at least acknowledge the possible value of (another thing I need to do is get clearer on exactly what I am and am not arguing for). Haslanger sympathizes with Ellis, noting that what matters is not only what words we use but "what norms and expectations are taken to be appropriate" (p. 47). Roughly speaking, context matters. I agree. What will be the clearest way to say something in one context will not be in another. I don't (think I) mean to make any claim about what is or is not clear. My point is far more about the fact that clarity/understanding is a different goal than bringing about a practical effect such as political change. Haslanger seems to agree.



    1. Thanks. I just started watching The Handmaid's Tale though, so I want to avoid any spoilers. I'll have to come back and read this later.