The trouble with allies

Allies against the Nazis

Apparently there’s this thing whereby people with privileged social positions—say, white people in a racist society, men in a sexist society, or straight people in a heterosexist society—choose to identify themselves as “allies” (i.e., of those who are disadvantaged or harmed by the social institution in question). Indeed, there are how-to guides for this sort of thing. And, hey, who could object to someone who wants to ally themselves with people who are subject to oppression? Well, there are a few reasons to at least be wary here. But first, I think it is important to make the following point:

If you have to tell someone that you are their ally, it is utterly unlikely that you are actually acting like their ally.

If (potential) allies read no further but take this to heart, I’ll be reasonably pleased.

A rhetorical question

Let’s begin with the “rhetoric” of allyhood. Alliances are, by and large, made intentionally, voluntarily,and pragmatically. Alliances usually have beginnings, and they frequently have endings. The obligations that arise within them arise because of the act of aligning. While we might think of the end of alliances as sometimes involving a kind of betrayal, it seems to me that there is also something about the nature of alliances that they are ephemeral. Consider the model of political alliances. During World War II, the Soviet Union allied with the US and UK to defeat Nazi Germany,1 and then that alliance ended, bringing about Cold War. The alliance was undertaken with a particular purpose in mind, and when that purpose came to fruition, the alliance gave way.

Suppose that is broadly how alliances work. Is this an apt analogy for how we—committed anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-classist, etc. people—want people with privilege to understand their obligations? The rhetoric of allyhood seems to have built into it a model of obligation that comes about only in light of having aligned oneself with a political cause. But this seems just wrong. What we want is for people to understand that there is something fundamentally immoral about a certain kind of social order, and that, as a result, people with privilege have an obligation to bring about changes to that order. That is, men do not have obligations to undermine sexist institutions solely in virtue of having a commitment to feminism; if the feminist critique is correct, men have this obligation full stop. But, at best, the rhetoric of allyhood obscures this obligation—and, at worst, erases it. The categorization of oneself as an ally brings with it the idea that what one is doing can be undone at will.

Beyond rhetoric

Beyond the rhetorical dangers—and, really, miscategorization—of allyhood, we ought to worry about how understanding people’s role as allies can serve to reflect and reinforce their privileged position vis-a-vis those they ally with. A genuine risk that arises from the rhetorical concern is that allyhood can give rise to a kind of dilettantism: being an ally is something to do for now, but one can always leave when the project gets less interesting or when one feels slighted or criticized by the engagement style of the members of a movement. Identifying oneself as an ally brings with it identifying the struggle as belonging to someone else, and so something that one can leave. An ally who walks away from a political struggle is walking back into the full embrace of privilege, and so has little to lose and much to gain from doing so.

There is an important sense in which the struggle is not the ally’s, and I don’t want to downplay that point. In particular, it is important to mark the differences in what is at stake for whom in any struggle and to avoid appropriating the struggles of others as one’s own. Allies that try to take ownership of a struggle in this fashion end up reinforcing the structures that they seek to undermine by centering conversations on their needs and perspectives, attempting to take leadership, and generally not recognizing that what is mostly—or all—theory for allies is the lived experience of the people they wish to ally with. Nonetheless, the larger point I want to make is that there seems to me to be something in the self-identification as an ally that reinforces the deleterious sense in which the struggle is the ally’s only for as long as the ally wants—rather than the obligation that arises from being a moral agent. The challenge, then, is for allies to understand the moral obligation to fight against these institutions as their own while simultaneously understanding (pace everything their privilege indicates) that other people’s knowledge, skills, and experience come first.

Excuses, excuses

Another concern is that “allies” use their identity as “allies” to rationalize and excuse bad behavior. This takes a few forms, one of the most pernicious is the “I’m an ally, so I mean well” line of thought. That is, person X does something that reinforces the institutionalized oppression of the group that X is an “ally” for, and then replies with references to being an ally when called to the mat. While, in general, intentions don’t make actions right or wrong (though they make a difference to our evaluation of moral agents), what is particularly troubling about this response is that presumably people become “allies” because they recognize the institutional nature of the problem. In these cases, “allies” talk “institutions, not intentions, make oppression” out of one side of their mouth and “my intentions are good, so I’m good” out of the other. Alas, identifying as an “ally” isn’t a magical incantation that absolves one of the blameworthiness for complicity or participation in immoral institutions, and it does not undo harm.

The existential threat of allies

This brings me to my final, one point that allies frequently miss about themselves: they represent—and perhaps are—an existential threat to the people they seek to ally with. To see what I mean here, consider what I’ve said so far. No matter how well-meaning they might be, allies are people who:

  1. benefit from institutionalized system of oppression;
  2. are likely unaware of the extent of that privilege, the nature of harms that privilege creates, and the frequency and manner that the harms occur;
  3. have incentives for perpetuating this system;
  4. are used to being seen as authoritative and powerful;
  5. and may think of their “ally” status as putting them beyond reproach to some degree or other.

Given these characteristics, an ally is someone who is liable, at any time, to become . . . well, an enemy. That is, whether we characterize what happens as “a slip up” or “unmasking a fraud,” the conditions I describe above make it likely that allies are going to do things that harm the people they want to help.2

What now?

Where does this leave people who want to be “allies”? Well, it seems to me that we—and I’m pretty privileged—need to begin with the recognition that:

  • the very institutions that provide meaning and structure for our lives are shot through with immoral distributions of burdens and benefits;
  • the intentions of the individuals aren’t the source of harms in oppression; rather it is their institutional nature that is fundamental;
  • privilege blinds individuals to the full extent of their benefits from the injustices of this system;
  • these are problems not merely of what one believes or says, but of deeply-ingrained habits, subconscious responses, and modes of behavior.

What should the reaction to this be, if not to be an “ally”? I’d suggest that one ought to be a decent human being: recognize that the game is rigged for your benefit, and do what you can to take down that system. None of us can opt out of these systems, but we can (strive to) be conscious of how they work, call out their operations, refuse and resist when possible, and the like. To think otherwise—to think in terms of being an “ally”—smacks of thinking in terms of being charitable, of doing a favor, rather than doing what is morally obligated. If you are a person of conscience who recognizes the existence of the sorts of facts I highlighted, we aren’t talking about supererogation here; we’re talking about the basic obligations of being a moral agent.

  1. The same Nazi Germany that the Soviet Union previously had a non-aggression pact with. 
  2. For recent cases of public ally meltdowns, consider the cases of Hugo Schwyzer, Charles Clymer, and Tim Wise

You can’t fight in here. This is the Seminar Room.

Hunter S. Thompson takes aim at a typewriter.

Clearly, this man should never be allowed to get near a university.

It is now possible to have a really bad, no good, terrible day that the whole world can witness and that you can never take back. I tell my students that I’m eternally grateful that I was able to be young prior to the proliferation of digital cameras and the development of the world wide web because my youthful indiscretions aren’t preserved for posterity. Even beyond the hormone-fuelled irrationality of youth, I’ve surely been a jerk and fired off inappropriate emails (or ruined more than my share of dinner conversations) even after receiving my PhD.1 Digital communication platforms not only enable us to give in to snap judgements and jerkish responses, some reward and encourage it. It is really easy to be flip in 140 characters, and it is extraordinarily difficult to be deep or insightful within the constraints of Twitter. Whatever we make of the Steven Salaita case case itself, it seems to me that this issue is something we, the scholarly community, need to think through and come to some sort of consensus on because it is only going to loom larger as younger scholars who grew up with social media enter academia.

I want to suggest that there are two problems facing academia: first, the regulative ideal of scholarly behavior arose at a time when it was substantially more difficult to engage in the sort of bad behavior that various information technology platforms enable and enourage. Second, there is a culture clash between scholarly endeavours and information technology practices; whereas the former is (or aspires to be) permanent, considered, careful, and thoughtful, the latter includes uses that are way more ephemeral, instantaneous, off-the-cuff, and “uncareful” (precisely because it can be corrected or updated for little to no cost).
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Every discipline gets the public discourse it deserves

Senor Love Daddy in the booth.

Attention, colleague. Perchance might I suggest that you are obligated to reduce the temperature.

I wasn’t going to write this piece. Indeed, I was hoping to finish a really nice piece about the impact of the Steven Salaita case on the norms of public behavior for academics in the age of instantaneous, mass publishing. But I woke up this morning to a ton of commentary, polls, snark, and accusations—all in the philosophical part of the interwebs.1 I actually am not inclined to link to any of it because (i) boy howdy does so much of it make academic philosophy look bad, (ii) much of the discussion takes place in walled gardens anyhow, and (iii) other people are better situated to address issues of responsibility and blame. Naturally I have views about many of these issues, but I am more strongly committed to the idea that much of those discussions haven’t been—and likely aren’t going to be—constructive; they don’t do much to fix the discipline. I mean, yeah, not everyone is equally to blame, but there is a lot of blame to go around.2

While the current unpleasantnesses online and in meatspace might just be growing pains of a field with a long history of problems with structural violence coming to grips with changes in demographics, methods, institutions, conceptions of professionalism, communication technologies, and the like, I worry that treating these unpleasantnesses as something that will just work itself out is a mistake.

The public faces of philosophy

Given the siloed and specialized nature of academic disciplines, few outside of philosophy read philosophy. As a result, they aren’t likely to have a rich understanding of what it is we do, the value of our labor, and our place in a university. Folks outside of philosophy periodically deride the importance of philosophy, and a standard—though inadequate or incomplete—response to such attacks is the suggestion that we are experts in argumentation. After all, we’re the ones who teach logic and critical thinking courses, and we frequently provide the critical analysis for other fields.

But when kerfuffles . . . erm, kerfuff, attention is drawn to our public face. Sure, there are folks who say all the right things about the dignified traditions that philosophers steward. Being what it is, hyperlinked media might lead folks who are noodling around on the internet in the aftermath of kerfuffles to places that suggest that maybe philosophers aren’t really that good with arguments, are subject to the same sorts of bad behavior in online fora that everyone else is, tend to overestimate their epistemic position, and the like. A perfectly natural response for an outsider to have to this sort of bad behavior is: “Well, if they don’t actually argue well, what the hell is it that they do? Is philosophy just an inferior kind of literary scholarship—like what we study in a literature class, but with strict rules about what counts as a good response to a text and a preference for stultifying or opaque prose? What good is that?”

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So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal Zionist

Not all criticism casts Israel as pure evil.

Not all criticism casts Israel as pure evil.

I’ve tried to avoid commenting on the Gaza conflict—on facebook, via text message, on the bus, to my dog—for many reasons, but this piece by Rabbi Menachem Creditor broke my will. Creditor’s writing unintentionally lays bare a tension at the heart of large swaths of the American Jewry: a commitment to cosmopolitan liberal values that is incompatible with Zionism’s call for nationalistic identification with of the state of Israel. Everyone has a limit, and mine is here.

There are a few things that strike me as deep epistemic and moral failures in this piece.1 It isn’t overstating the point to say that these mistakes should be embarrassing for a “progressive US faith leader” to have made in print, and they strike me as the sorts of mistakes that undercut anyone’s claims to being a moral leader.2 These points are, in increasing order of seriousness: the challenge is made in a truly uncompelling manner; the challenge implicitly questions the motives or integrity of Israel’s critics; and, most appallingly, the piece relies a morally suspect mode of identification.
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How can I be a racist if I volunteer on Martin Luther King, Jr. day?


Ned is just a helpful heuristic here, not an example of racist oppression.

In my previous post, I offered an annotated bibliography to help people interested in institutionalized forms of oppression and domination get started in understanding how those things work. In this post, I offer some framing and introductory material: what does it mean to accuse someone of being, say, racist or sexist? What is the force of that kind of accusation?

It is not about your intentions

The categories of “sexism,” “racism,” “heterosexism,” “classism,” “cissexism,” and the like are not best thought of as categories that pick out the intentions of the agents in question. That is: they are not best thought of as identifying attitudes or feelings of individuals. Rather, they identify patterns of behavior, frameworks that determine meaning, and systematic consequences of an individual’s actions. The accusation of (to just choose a single, over-simplified example) racism isn’t an accusation that you intend harm or harbor ill will toward people of another race.1 Instead, it is the accusation that what you’ve done or said perpetuates, reinforces, or endorses a system that unjustly distributes burdens and benefits (here, by race).

To understand what is at stake in distinction between institutional structures and individual attitudes, it will be helpful to consider a few examples.

  • Case 1 In the stereotypical account of racism, we have someone like Tom Metzger, who has long advocated for a particularly violent form of white racism. This is a case where the individual attitudes match the institutional structures.
  • Case 2 In addition, there are cases in which there are hostile attitudes toward groups of individuals based on false and morally irrelevant features that are nonetheless not forms of structural violence. Suppose, say, that I believed that people with webbed toes are likely to be untrustworthy. As a result, I don’t befriend people I know have webbed toes, I don’t hire them, and I don’t vote for them when they run for public office. Clearly, I’m a bad person for holding these views and behaving in this way—I should not behave in this way. This is not, however, an instance of structural violence because there is no social institution that creates asymmetrical rewards and burdens based on morally arbitrary categories. To put it a bit bluntly: in this case, I’m a jerk, but I’m a jerk on my own. In contrast, someone like Tom Metzger is a jerk, but he is empowered by institutions that extend far beyond him.
  • Case 3 As a final case: consider the plight of left handed people. A large portion of our artifacts are designed to be used by people who primarily use their right hand: the desks in a college lecture hall, the trackball sitting next to my computer, and more. There are patterns of behavior—institutionalized practices—that impose burdens on left handed people. I don’t think, though, that right handed people have ill-will toward or actively dislike lefties (at least, in virtue of their left-handedness). Nonetheless, the history and practices do have an effect.

Given these cases, we can begin to see how the differences between structural violence and individual attitudes come apart—and how, if we only understand, e.g., racism in terms of the kind of explicitly endorsed ill-will of Metzger or Stormfront, we will fail to grasp how truly insidious and pervasive the phenomena are.2

Before moving on, I do want add the following: none of this is to deny the reality that there are oppressors and that oppression is a fundamental problem. To take our basic case: racism is a deep problem, and it is not one that can be overcome by occasionally recognizing that non-White people exist, are deserving of respect, are persons, and the like. However, the phenomena I’m interested in lie in the vast domain that is bounded by Cases 1 & 2. That is, I gather we all agree that people of the sort who appear in Case 1 are really problematic, and I think we’d agree that the sort of people who appear in Case 2 are likely quirky and harmless. (If not, I’ve chosen a bad example.)

There is clearly more to racism than just Case 1 types who actively endorse and seek out enforcement of racist institutions. Sometimes the accusation of racism is one that targets endorsers, and sometimes it targets people who merely benefit from or reinforce these institutions. Sometimes this takes the form of the casual racism (e.g., alluding to people of other races by slurs when among friends of the same race); sometimes it takes more sophisticated forms (e.g., the endless attempts by white guys to provide “scientific evidence” of their superiority); and sometimes it takes the form of high minded ideals like “urban renewal” and “reducing crime.” These are all instances of racism.

Wait, is there no difference between well-meaning white folks and Stormfront?

Of course, there is some difference between the person who intends harm to others and the person who incidentally causes it. However, this isn’t a difference in the moral quality of the act, as the act still has the consequences that it has regardless of the intention of the agent. Whether you meant well or ill is probably of little consequence to someone who is left to deal with the real consequences of your action.

The difference that intentions might make here is in how we ought to regard the agent who brought about the act: are they deserving of moral reproach and sanction or a more sympathetic correction? The person who meant the harm he brought about is deserving of moral reproach and sanction, but someone who unintentionally did so might be deserving of more education than condemnation.

As a result, accusations of racism (et. al.) need not be construed as “characterological,” as indicating a defective “soul” or a cruel attitude. These accusations instead highlight the role a person is playing in a system of domination and oppression. The criticism is about the harms one perpetrates and the unjust benefits one receives from participating in such a system.

Again, none of the foregoing should be construed as lessening the sting of accusations of racism or absolving those who have behaved in ways that are racist from blame. Indeed, at best it suggests that “inadvertent racists” might be due something other than condemnation; it does not require that they are. The point of this analysis is that it reconfigures the obligations of people who are anti-racist. People who want to fight racism don’t only (or even primarily, perhaps) need to change themselves—they need to change the institutions all around them. It likely is impossible for us to escape racism at the moment, but it isn’t impossible for us to critique those institutions, be aware of our complicity in them, and change them so that they match our aspirations toward justice.

Why there is no such thing as “reverse” racism

People who make claims suggesting that there is a phenomenon of “reverse” racism are making a basic mistake: they are conflating intentions with institutions. To take our overly-simplistic racism example: it isn’t possible for African Americans to be racist against whites in the US, as the institutions that give order and meaning to our lives don’t disadvantage whites.3 However, it is possible for African Americans to be racist against other African Americans as well as other NBPoC, and it surely is possible for African Americans to harbor hostility and intolerance toward white people.

Clearly we need get clear on some distinctions in order to better account for the phenomena. If racism is possible only within an institution and is not as such marker of intentional hostility, we do need to be able to mark off people who are hostile. To that end, we might use terms like “bigotry” (i.e., obstinately holding intolerant beliefs) and “prejudice” (i.e., an unreasoned hostility or antagonism). Oppressed people surely can have intolerant and unreasoned antagonism about people who benefit from systems of oppression, even if they cannot oppress those people. As a result, “reverse racism” isn’t a thing so much as it is a category mistake.

  1. The example is over-simplified because it implicitly understands “race” in terms of the “Black/White” continuum. There are many other races, and framing debates about racism solely in terms of the Black/White continuum distorts our analysis of racism and further erases these other races from our discourse (and thus reinforces a kind of racism against NBPoC). In addition, I should add that I’m considering racism an example of the broader phenomenon of structural violence, and so we could write a quite similar article about “sexism,” “heterosexism,” “classism,” “cissexism,” and the like. 
  2. Figuring out just how deep the problems go is the project of my “Moral Dimensions” course. There, we explore how these institutions become deeply ingrained habits that have profound effects on our psychology and embodiment. 
  3. At least, insofar as they are white. As I noted in the earlier post on institutional critiques, our political identities are “intersectional,” and so one’s being a woman, gay, trans, or poor might put them in a disadvantaged position. 

Getting started in critiques of institutional power structures

But I went to your institutional learning facilities!

But I went to your institutional learning facilities.

There’s a fairly common chain of events that repeats itself in discussions involving social justice issues: a person from a privileged group is called out for something he said or did by someone who is subject to the structural violence created by (and that creates) that privilege. The conversation ends up highlighting the morally problematic nature of what was said or done, and the privileged person realizes—at least, a bit—that a faux pas was made. In order to right the wrong, the person then asks about how to learn more about the institution in question.

While learning more about one’s privilege and how it impacts other people is a good thing, there is something worrisome about this sort of exchange.1 In essence, this kind of response puts the disadvantaged in a position of having to educate the advantaged (usually for free, no less). At best, this response reenacts the exploitation of the very institutional structures in question; at its worst, it is the dehumanizing impulse to treat someone as a “fact kiosk” rather than, say, a person whose time is valuable and their own to do with as they wish.2

Of course, without learning how this stuff works, there simply isn’t going to be any progress in terms of undermining these morally problematic structures. What is a person who knows that there’s something going on here (but don’t know what it is) to do? How do you even begin to find answers? I mean, if only someone would invent a method for discovering resources online or some sort of decent online encyclopedia. Until such time, it would seem that we’re in a dilly of a pickle.

To rectify this situation, I’m creating a resource to allow people to get started in understanding how an institutional analysis of power works. So, if you’re confronted by your privilege on a particular subject and want to know more, you can start by apologizing to whomever had to point out what you did, reading these texts, and then undermining morally problematic institutions.3

What follows in this post isn’t the definitive guide to getting an understanding of how institutional analyses of power work. It is, instead, a guide—one that is modeled on my own (quite idiosyncratic) intellectual history. There are other ways into the material here, but this one is mine. As a result, this list reflects my interests both in terms of method (i.e., tending toward philosophical analysis), content (i.e., tending toward gender and race), and focus (i.e., the American experience). In future posts, I will go through and explain more simply and thoroughly some of the concepts and arguments discussed in these works. In the interim, you might want to also look at my syllabus for my power course, which covers some of this ground as well as related topics (e.g., disabilities and fat studies).

Some optional background reading

Every text is situated in a broader discourse, so I can’t give you the definitive stepping off point for this material—there is no “In the Beginning” to be had here. Nonetheless, there are two major figures lurking in the background of the materials that follow, and so it might be useful, over time, to have an understanding of them. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work, especially in On the Genealogy of Morals, informs Foucault’s work in terms of both method and content. The second is Karl Marx, whose work informs the critiques made by Foucault, Du Bois, Fanon, Davis, and hooks.

Where I start

Given my scholarly interests in these issues, I tend to think that a great theoretical place to start is with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. D&P is a genealogy4 of the prison, which Foucault dates to the 19th Century and attributes to a confluence of factors: (i) the political riskiness to the sovereign of violent and public punishment; (ii) the origins of contractarian views of society; (iii) the rise of the human sciences; and (iv) the development of successful training methods that were shared across institutions (e.g., schools, militaries, factories, and prisons). What explains the success of the last two elements is that they are mutually reinforcing and they share a conception of humanity that treats persons as raw materials for any sort of position within an institution. This analysis is immensely powerful for thinking about other, less formal institutions.

Thinking about gender (a first go)

I find it helpful to begin understanding the institutional analysis of power by looking at gender. In particular, the picture of embodiment—that is, how the body is shaped by norms—that has been developed by gender theorists provides us with a nice bridge between the Foucauldian theoretical picture and concrete experience. If you’d prefer to start with race, that’s fine too.


In my classes, I tend to use two authors to highlight the specifically institutional nature of gender:

  • Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality, chapters 1 (“Oppression”) and 2 (“Sexism”)
  • Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination, chapter 5 (“Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization Power of Patriarchal Power”)

Naturally, men are gendered as well. I tend to use two texts to highlight the ways in which men are gendered:

  • William Pollack, Real Boys, Chapter 2 (“Stories of shame and the haunting trauma of separation: how we can connect with boys and change the ‘boy code’ “)
  • Califia, “Manliness”

Thinking about gender in a more complicated fashion

The way of thinking about gender embodied in these texts has significant limitations. The primary limitation is that these texts still treat people of privileged race, class, sexuality, etc. status as a “universal subject”—the “human.” To put the point another way: the accounts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accounts of the norms full stop, but rather an account of gender norms given a particular socio-cultural context. Of course, nobody merely has a gender—each of us has a gender presentation that is also raced, classed, sex-identified, and the like. In the next section, I’ll take up the issue of race and intersectionality; here, I’d like to highlight the trouble with heterosexism.

Queer critiques of feminism

There are many texts that problematize the development of feminism in 20th century America. As we’ll see in the next section, second wave feminism reproduced racist (and classist) institutions; here, we’ll examine how second wave feminism reproduced heterosexism. These critiques arise from the conception of “woman” that is the subject of feminism.

The critique of second wave feminism’s heterosexism arises from the question of whether lesbians are women (to put the point a bit too bluntly). If, after all, feminism is supposed to advance the interests of “women,” then the failure of feminism to account for lesbian experience seems to exclude lesbians from womanhood. Adrienne Rich critiques the suppression and erasure of lesbianism from second wave feminism’s account of womanhood, and Judith Butler expands on this insight to undercut the theoretical framework that understands (or presupposes) a natural relation between sex, gender, and desire: that one’s sex is biologically determined, which in turn determines one gender, and, thereby, one’s desires. Be forewarned that Rich’s work is, in my students’ words, “really, really passionate,” and Butler’s work is notoriously difficult to parse.

  • Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience”
  • Butler, Gender Trouble
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Epistemology of the Closet”

On Race

Another form of embodiment that is heavily normative and the site of structural violence is race. And, while gender and sexuality are complicated things, race is even more complex to sort out. I’ve separated out some issues, below, in order to highlight the different ways into the subject matter.

NB: I tend to be interested in African American experiences, but it is a mistake to treat the “Black/White continuum” conception of race that informs so much of American racial discourse as exhaustive or paradigmatic of all racial issues. Not only are there intersectionality issues (see more, below) within that continuum, but the experiences of Latin@\Chican@, indigenous people of the Americas, Asian Americans, and native Hawaiians and Alaskans are all due attention and understanding—and not merely in relation to whiteness.

Race and feminism

One way into the discussion on race is via a discussion that parallels the queer critique of second wave feminism. Here, there are people who note that various forms of feminism have construed the subject of feminism—women—as being primarily white (and perhaps middle class) women.

Race outside of African American experiences

Although this begins to take me beyond the domain of my scholarly expertise, there are three authors that I will mention by way of expanding the discussion beyond the “Black/White Continuum”; each of these authors is also interested in questions of gender.

  • Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self
  • Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
  • Cherríe Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010
Understanding race and racism

Another way to start thinking about racism is more free-standing from questions about feminism and representation. The texts, below, highlight important distinctions: Fanon offers an analysis of the impact of colonization on the colonized; Shelby shows that what is at stake in racism (and, by extension, institutional oppression more generally) is not the attitudes of individuals so much as institutions that give meaning to our actions; Sally Haslanger analyzes the differences between gender and race as categories for social organization; and Kelly and Roedder highlight how deeply institutionalized racism can infect our psychologies.

Racism and America

Given my interests in American philosophy and African American culture, I think that some of the most engaging work covers questions about what America represents and how it represents itself. Although the rhetoric around the founding of the United States was one of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the reality experienced by people from outside a relatively narrow group of wealthy white men is quite different indeed. This is not merely a historical artifact of chattel slavery (or the genocidal policies inflicted on Native Americans), but rather an ongoing phenomenon that implicitly codes “American” as “white.” Du Bois is helpful in framing this issue (and Allen and Schaefer are helpful in explaining and expanding on Du Bois’s account of “double consciousness”), and the Lorde/Baldwin conversation offers a re-assessment of the issue at mid-century. Angela Davis’s work on prison abolition examines the gap between America’s conception of its criminal justice system and its realities, with the former so idealized that it masks the continuities between forms of criminalizing African Americans.

  1. I have in mind here encounters between strangers or acquaintances (especially online) rather than those between friends. 
  2. I’ve lifted the vocabulary of “fact kiosk” from Trudy at Gradient Lair. If you visit her site, please be well-mannered and remember that just reading about racism and sexism doesn’t make you a good person. 
  3. Obviously, no one blog post is going to cover everything, so what is here is just the start—to get you up and running, as it were. 
  4. Foucault, like Nietzsche, offers a genealogy of various social institutions. In contrast to what we might call a “history,” which aims at offering a retrospective, coherent account of how things came to be, a genealogy aims at reminding us that (many of) the institutions that we have today arose in a rather different socio-historical context, and so when we look at how these institutions came about, we should attend to the accidents that gave rise to those institutions—rather than the current significance of the institutions—in understanding how the institutions came to be. 

What do philosophers do?

This is not a philosopher.  [These are philosophers](

This is not a philosopher.
These are philosophers.

Given the recent negative attention given to “philosophy” by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a perspective on what it is that professional philosophers do qua philosopher.1 To streamline the discussion, my focus will be on academics, though it is possible to be a professional philosopher outside of the academy.

What is philosophy?

Unlike many academic endeavors, specifying what it is that we’re doing when we do philosophy is a problematic task: there are contentious disagreements among philosophers about what they do, what methods are appropriate, who counts as a philosopher, and the like. My plan is to come at this a few different ways: examining the kind of inquiry that philosophers work on, the source materials they use for that inquiry, and the nuts-and-bolts of their labor. (The latter two will appear in subsequent posts.)

So, let’s begin with a formulation from Wilfrid Sellars, the protagonist of my dissertation:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. — “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

Perhaps that sentence, by itself, isn’t all that helpful—though right away we can see that philosophy involves a kind of abstract thinking. The claim Sellars makes is that the goal of this abstract thought is to understand . . . well, what exactly is it that we’re supposed to understand? It turns out, everything:

Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. (ibid)

That’s a mighty big—and vaguely specified—task. But we can put some flesh on these bones. The general picture is that we have a whole bunch of things we believe and do. Some of these beliefs we hold explicitly, while others we hold merely implicitly in our doings; some we hold for good reasons, while others we hold for bad reasons or for no reason at all. What philosophers do, then, is try to work out how all of these beliefs and doings work—spelling out how they might reinforce or contradict one another, specifying or clarifying the concepts that the beliefs are made of, making explicit presuppositions, working out consequences, analyzing our doings, and the like.

So, philosophy is, in part, a mode of inquiring about our world. It is an attempt to clarify, explain, or analyze concepts, institutions, practices, texts, arguments, etc. as well as their relationship to one another. We can get clearer about what philosophy is by looking at what philosophers inquire about.

Some questions that philosophers attempt to answer

Since philosophy is a mode of inquiry, it might help to understand what sorts of questions philosophers try to answer. The website philpapers, which is (among other things) a comprehensive index of the research literature in philosophy, maintains a bibliography with 4963 categories of material. I, uh, won’t go into all of those. Instead, I’ll select a few parts of philosophy and give some example questions that philosophers working in those parts might ask.

The highest-level categories of questions are, roughly:

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Epistemology
  3. Value Theory
  4. Logic
  5. History of Western Philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about the “fundamental” nature of reality. Some questions a metaphysician might ask would include: “what is a mind, and how is it related to a body?”; “is the apparent “flow” of time a feature of reality or an illusion?”; and “is there a conception of “free will” that is compatible with the causal worldview depicted in physics?”

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge. Some questions that an epistemologist might ask would include: “does knowledge have a foundation?”; “can we know anything, given that our experiences could be the result of a sophisticated simulation (as in The Matrix)?”; and “what, if anything, makes scientific inquiry epistemically special?”

Value Theory is a broad category that includes the subfields that inquire into aspects of reality involving values:2 aesthetics (understanding art), ethics (rules governing individual action), political philosophy (rules governing collective action), and social thought (understanding how social institutions like race and gender work). Questions that value theorists are interested in would include: “what is the relationship between beauty and truth?”; “what makes an action the morally right one?”; and “how do institutions structure our existence?”

Logic is the branch of philosophy that examines the formal structures we use in reasoning. This might include material that overlaps with mathematics or with science. Questions that logicians might ask include: “how can we (re)solve a paradox?”; “are there true contradictions?”; and “what explains objectivity in mathematics?”

History of Western Philosophy is the branch of Western philosophy that actively, deeply, and systematically engages in the philosophical work of previous periods so as to gain a deeper understanding of the arguments that earlier philosophers have made and to see if there are any insights relevant to contemporary debates.3 Typically, the history is divided into Ancient (usually Greek and Roman), Medieval (roughly Augustine (354-430 CE) through Suarez (1548-1617 CE), and Modern (1620-1850)—though there are historians who work on 19th and 20th century philosophers. Questions that historians of philosophy might ask are: “how did Aristotle understand perceptual judgment?”; “how best are we to understand the Thomistic “five ways” of proving the existence of god?”; and “does Riemannian geometry undermine Kant’s work in Critique of Pure Reason?”

Next time

In my next post about philosophy, I’ll talk about the sources that philosophers use for their work and the typical activities that philosophers undertake in their work lives.

  1. One thing we do is use the term ‘qua‘. Also, too, footnotes. 
  2. This way of talking suggests a problematic dualism of fact and value—a dualism that I reject for many reasons. However, this way of talking is standard within philosophical circles, and so I’ll begrudgingly use it here. 
  3. I have specified “History of Philosophy” as “History of Western Philosophy,” since virtually all of what is labeled as the former in the West really is the latter. In my next post, about the sources of philosophy, I’ll talk about the divide between “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy. For now, it will suffice to say that “Eastern Philosophy” is generally considered a separate specialization, even if the authors are addressing core metaphysical or epistemological questions. 

Funderstanding film for free

A different piece of cinematic history you were previously unaware of.

A different piece of cinematic history you were previously unaware of.

If you’re looking for an entertaining way to mess about on the ol’ interwebz while getting a bit of an education on films, I have three YouTube channels that I recommend. The sites are satirical to varying degrees, but I think satire is a powerful pedagogical tool. Besides, who wants to sit and watch some academic explain that the non-diegetic soundtrack of Top Gun is used to evoke a mindless endorsement of Cold War jingoistic militarism in the audience?


Which brings us to our first film commentary. The ScreenJunkies channel has a feature called “Honest Trailers,” which they describe as trailers “that tell you the TRUTH about your favorite movies and TV shows.” Rather than use $20 words to critique films, they let the media speak for itself. Here’s the “Honest Trailer” for Top Gun:

If only YouTube and these videos existed, I could have saved myself 106 of the minutes I wasted in my youth on Top Gun. I’m sure I would have wasted the time in some other way, but, you know.


A slightly different approach to film criticism is taken by CinemaSins. Their series, “Everything Wrong with in X Minutes or Less,” runs through a film noting more than just run of the mill gaffes; the series highlights problems with narration, story, and characterization as well. Here’s one for a film I enjoy, “Everything Wrong With The Dark Knight In 4 Minutes”:

And, yes, since we’re through the looking glass of self-referential irony, CinemaSins does an “Everything Wrong with CinemaSins in 3 Minutes or Less” episode.

Red Letter Media

The final recommendation comes with a caveat up front. This series is told from the perspective of a “Mr. Plinkett,” who we discover is a psychopath. He has brief (< 1 second) flashbacks of the bloody bathroom where he apparently killed his wife, and he has various women locked in his basement. That latter bit in, particular, is both disturbing and gratuitous—which is a shame, because the series highlights interesting and important elements of film making. The point that RLM tries to make is that even someone with an intermittent grasp on reality can understand the fundamentals of storytelling better than the makers of the Star Wars prequels, but removing these scenes wouldn’t undercut that message in the least.

That said, RedLetterMedia’s Mr. Plinkett series offers a thorough takedown of episodes 1–3 of the Star Wars series. I know that isn’t exactly a challenge; those films are utterly terrible in almost every single respect, and there’s been lots of commentary to that effect. Nonetheless, the analysis here is so detailed and insightful that it is worth the ride if you have the time.

There are also Mr. Plinkett reviews of Avatar, Titanic, and some of the pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, but I’m partial to the Star Wars material.

Bonus: Everthing is a Remix

Let me close by recommending one serious series of videos: “Everything is a Remix.” The series makes clear the way intertextuality works through adaptation, allusion, homage, and the like. Though it isn’t limited to film—it also covers music—it offers a powerful and deep understanding of the way that texts and their authors are related to one another.

Queer Theory: an annotated syllabus


Consider three familiar categories that structure so much of life: sex, gender, and desire. Standardly, we assume that sex is the biological fact that determines our gender, and our gender, in turn, determines our sexual desires. In this course, we critically examine this “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self, with a special focus on the elaborate efforts societies make in creating and reinforcing conditions that are supposed by those societies to be “natural.” Is the “sex/gender/desire” conception of the self correct, and, if not, what does it mean for sex, gender, and desire—and for practices, institutions, and societies built upon the logic of that conception?

Overview of the course

This course began as an outgrowth of my scholarly interest in gender (especially masculinity) and as a response to the heterosexism I was noticing both on and off campus. Since that first class, I’ve taught various versions of the course, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, at several universities. This syllabus reflects a refinement of the material I have used over the years.

The arc of the course can be understood as a (mis)reading of the history of feminism; in particular, we look at how queer theory is a part of the reaction to the perceived centering of second-wave feminism on the experiences of white, middle-class, straight women.1 To that end, we posit a basic distinction between sex and gender, and we examine “gender norms.” We then examine how these gender norms assume either (implicitly or explicitly) that their objects are heterosexual. From there, we highlight how raising that particular criticism threatens to undermine undermine both feminism (for a lack of a single subject that is “woman”) and the sex/gender distinction itself. We then look to the consequences of this “queer theory” critique for various social institutions.

In all, the course proceeds through five major sections:

  1. Framing: examining Foucault’s account of institutions, the internalization of norms, and the production of a self.
  2. A first go at the sex/gender distinction: developing the basic move in our theoretical repertoire, the distinction between sex (a function of biology) and gender (a function of social norms).
  3. Feminism’s gender trouble: critiquing the picture of gender as envisioning a “universal” woman when there is not—with a focus on sexuality and feminism.
  4. Biopolitics and sex/gender/desire: rethinking various institutions that are built up around a logic of “sex/gender/desire,” including scientific inquiry into human biology and the medicalization of trans persons.
  5. Heterosexism and cissexism: understanding how the foregoing leads to systems of oppression and privilege.

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Moral Dimensions of Power: An annotated syllabus


We are quite familiar with many of the obvious ways in which power operates: a campus police officer confiscates a case of beer, a professor assigns grades, one boxer defeats another, someone lifts a heavy object, a commuter avails herself of a secret shortcut, and the like. Are these forms of power “the same”? Who has power? Are there constraints on what one may do with one’s power, however it is constituted? This is the subject matter of my course, “Moral Dimensions of Power.”

Overview of the course

I’ve taught several versions of this course since 2002 or so. Its first incarnation was as “The Moral Dimensions of Wealth and Power,” which was a surprisingly popular course.1 Much of the same material appeared as “Social Philosophy” at Pitt-Johnstown and as “Moral Dimensions of Power” at Washington and Lee. This syllabus reflects the totality of material that I’ve taught plus some material that I’ve been interested in and had queued up but lacked the time to use.

The course covers themes I’ve been exploring in my (unpublished) scholarly work during the last few years: determining the extent and manner in which power, institutions, and norms create persons. The class has three sections:

  1. Philosophical analyses of power: accounts of power provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.
  2. Applications of these analyses: examining the how the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault play out in various contexts. Topics that we look at include wealth, gender, race, ability, size, discourse, classrooms, and software distribution.
  3. Understanding transgression: in the shortest of the three sections, we start to think about how one might go about resisting morally problematic institutions and forms of power.

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