Our Own Little Worlds

Sometimes I read something shockingly close to something I’ve thought about writing for months, turning it over in my mind, thinking up new arguments, gathering data points, but never writing it, because it seems like so much work.

This is such a piece. It’s written by a conservative, for a conservative audience, which is how I’d do it, were I capable of writing anything about conservatism without letting some rage and bile slip in. So there are some laugh lines, such as “Conservatives have a natural antipathy towards propping up things that don’t work.” I can’t breathe.

One big problem that the piece addresses is that men, specifically low-education, low-skill men, are adrift. Under and unemployed, but also less happy than better-educated men as primary caregivers. If they can get that job, they also have a much harder time getting married.

I’m fascinated by these men, and how outdated gender role determinism fucks them.

But I realized, thanks to a Twitter retort to the piece, that I don’t know shit about them. @markyzaguirre remarked to the contention that “many men find it difficult to adapt to modern office culture” “Yeah, air conditioning and comfy chairs are rough.” And, I mean, right?

I think the author means young men don’t realize they’ll need education and internships to get those office jobs, or feel that these things are out of reach for them. So it’s less that they don’t want the jobs and more that they can’t get them.

But I don’t know. Literally the last time I spent any real time around anyone, male or female, without a degree, white collar work, or both, was high school. At least in Alabama I had friends with professional jobs but not degrees. In dc, I run into about as many grad degreed motherfuckers as Dunkin Donuts stores.

It was hard super strange to go from plain but smart to cute but dumb.

The problems with this kind of class stratification are obvious. But it’s something we don’t really ever think about. And I think it helps explain why truly stupid ideas proliferate among the less educated. I mean, besides having less and lesser-quality information to compare new information to, I think one reason more-educated people fail when speaking to and about lesser-educated people is their clear and utter ignorance of their audience.

I mean even I, snotty and ungrateful as I am, bristle when my well-meaning but ignorant friends mock Southerners. There’s this sense of, why? Why would you beat your kids, not pay for them to go to college, get fat, etc.

It’s never a question of understanding and empathizing with an essentially alien culture. It’s more a distant and disdainful examination of some pathetic cautionary tale.

And I get it. Of course peaceful parenting, less superstition, more education and rationality and empiricism and egalitarianism are better. I left the south, after all.

But I have to remember that I left because I couldn’t make it work for me. If I could have, how much easier would it have been to concede to my culture, with its “traditional marriage,” homemaking, church, gender roles. These were all an ill-fitting garment for me. As all cultures have turned out to be for me. I’m a weirdo, and I need to be where those are well-tolerated.

But for some, those things worked. Some people were super happy in their mindless jobs, ferrying their kids to church and soccer practice, fat as fuck and fucking happy as clams. I didn’t understand them then, and I don’t get it now. But I’ve seen it. I know it’s a thing.

That’s all part of the challenge for a first-class thinker, to keep in mind that people who are different from you aren’t people you’re bumping up against on the regular. They’re living lives you can scarcely imagine. Making choices which are incomprehensible to you. And it’s your job, first, to try to understand them before making any prescriptions. It’s hard work. We all want to skip it. But it’s something humility requires.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t write the piece. Who am I to tell low-education men what’s best for them? I don’t even know any.


Unintended Consequences: Couple Ditches Down Syndrome Baby with Thai Surrogate

Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot of slogan-ready axioms, but one one them is “incentives matter.” One corollary might be “contracts matter.” Learning that an Australian couple has abandoned their baby with Down’s Syndrome with their impoverished Thai surrogate will lead many, including Jezebel, to conclude, definitively, that these people are assholes.

But there’s more at work here than simple human horribleness. What we have here, in addition, is a lack of clear contracting, and the unintended consequence of first-world countries disallowing market-rate payments for surrogates.

First, let’s look at what happened. The couple looked to Thailand in part because there’s a massive dearth of Australian surrogates. It’s obviously preferable in every way to have a local surrogate, so there are two likely explanations here.

First, perhaps Thai women will carry children for so much less money than Australian women that this couple chose the cheaper, though less preferable option. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know what the market price of an Australian surrogate is, because the country, like many first-world countries, caps the amount which women can earn for carrying another couple’s child. The first consequence of this legislation is that we don’t know what the market price of Australian surrogacy is.

The other possibility is that capping the amount a woman can legally earn for renting out her womb has created a shortage of women in Australia willing to do so. Perhaps the law of supply and demand and the economic consequences of price caps, namely shortages, applies to wombs as much as it does to gasoline. It may be that relying on women to open their uteruses to other couples’ kids out of the goodness of their hearts isn’t good policy, if you actually want any of them to do it.

It seems like the West has essentially decided that they don’t care whether Western women offer surrogacy. The countries’ governments are happy to see couples outsource the task to developing nations like India, where an advanced medical industry and rampant, crushing poverty has created the perfect conditions for a thriving, and poorly contracted surrogacy market.

Because the saddest thing about what happened with the Australian couple and the Thai surrogate is that it could have very easily been avoided with a well-written contract.

When the surrogate found out she was carrying twins, and that one of them had Down’s Syndrome, the couple requested that she abort. The desire to abort is hardly unusual. According to ABC News, an estimated 92% of couples choose to abort when they receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome. But the surrogate refused. So the couple took the healthy kid, and left the other one with her.

An Australian group called Hands Across the Water created a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $200,000 to provide the child, Gammy, surgery and other care. It raised over $271,000.

What should be done in the case of congenital defect should have been spelled out very clearly in the surrogacy contract. It’s a common-enough problem, that to not address it seems incredibly negligent. That way, the couple could be assured that were using a surrogate who would agree to an abortion if that’s how they chose to deal with such a diagnosis. Additionally, the surrogate could screen for couples who agreed to care for their child, regardless of how healthy the baby or babies turned out to be. Of course we should all be able to expect that a couple will take care of the kids they create, regardless of where or how. But out here in the real world, we need contracts.

Another problem with outlawing market-price surrogacies in the West is that the contracts in developing nations are often drawn up by unscrupulous agents. According to a survey by the Indian government, sometimes poor, uneducated women are signing surrogacy contracts that they do not fully understand.

Well-crafted and well-enforced contracts are essential to free exchange, regardless of the market. When you look at countries whose economies are strong, like Australia, and compare them with weaker economies, such as India and Thailand, one thing you’ll see is a positive correlation between a robust and fair system of contract enforcement and economic development.

Relying on people to be angels, whether it’s to give up use of their uteruses without sufficient payment or react appropriately when their surrogate refuses abortion, isn’t a recipe for success. It’s magical thinking, and it makes everyone poorer.

Repealing laws which cap surrogacy payments would at the very least reveal what the actual market price is for an in-country surrogacy. And it might just move surrogacy to the countries of demand, where contracts are better written, better enforced, and more clearly understood.

This post originally appeared at

favor 2

How to Ask for a Favor So That the Person Likes You More Afterward

Some true things are counterintuitive. We’re often cautioned to not wear people out by asking for favors. No one wants to inconvenience anyone else. However, asking for something from someone can actually make them like you more. Doing so helps create in people sone of the most pleasurable feelings possible: including competence, status, and goodness.

The phenomenon is called the Ben Franklin effect.

Recently, my BFF Cynthia needed a quote for a story from a well-known blogger and serial entrepreneur. She asked me to take a look at her ask letter to offer suggestions. Using her letter as an example, I want to go through some easy tweaks from taking a request for a favor from something you hate doing to something you love doing because it’s helping you build or strengthen your relationship.

1. Make your request as specific as possible.

People hate making decisions. It’s one of the most draining mental tasks, and no one wants to do it for you.

When Cynthia wrote the letter, she literally told the author the topic and asked for a quote. This seems appropriate. Cynthia doesn’t know what she wants the author to say. And she needs a quote. But this puts the author in the position of having to think about everything she thinks about the topic, and the try to decide what Cynthia wants her to say.

I suggested that instead, Cynthia ask her a very specific question. She should still make it clear it’s for a quote for a story, but giving the quote is then as easy as responding naturally to the question, and not as hard as having to decide which aspect of the topic to address.

The biggest impediment to a specific request is not knowing yourself what you want from the other person. Do the hard work yourself, up front, in deciding what you want, so they don’t have to decide for you.

2. Stroke their ego, but don’t waste their time.

In the letter, Cynthia stated why she was asking the author for the quote. Cynthia wrote that it was because the author was a well-known figure in the space Cynthia was writing about. But the author knows that. And she knows that Cynthia knows that.  Or she should assume, because neither of them are idiots.

Instead, I suggested that Cynthia read over what the author had already written on the subject to formulate a more specific question. Not only does this not waste the author’s time with generalities, but it strokes their ego to know you’re familiar with their work, and it makes it clear what exactly you want. So Cynthia linked to the author’s previous work in the area Cynthia was covering with her piece.

When you want something from someone, let them know you’ve been paying attention to what they’re doing. But don’t waste their time with vague flattery. Nothing is more flattering than respecting someone’s time.

3. Be grateful.

If you can swing it, take them out to coffee, lunch, or dinner. The point is to build a relationship, after all. What might have been weird before a favor becomes natural afterwards. If you can’t, a nice gift or gift card is a great idea. When my friend advocated hard for me at her company, and I got the job, I got her a gift certificate to Lululemon, because she’d been posting on Facebook about getting back into working out. It can be a $10 Starbucks card.

The other part of being grateful, and building the relationship, is letting the person know how it all worked out. Cynthia will of course email the author the story when it comes out, along with her gratitude. If you got advice, or asked for a letter or recommendation, or borrowed a tent for a trip, let the person know how the advice worked out, whether you got the job, how much fun you had on the camping trip. Let the person fully enjoy the good they did for you and they’ll be excited about doing something nice again for you soon.

People love to feel powerful, important, and like they’re good people. Make it as easy and rewarding for them as possible, and it can be a great way to grow closer.


Top 5 Reasons Hillary Clinton is the Perfect GOP Candidate

5. She’s not sure about this whole gay rights thing.

She definitely opposes federal marriage equality, saying, “For me, marriage has always been a matter left to the states… I fully endorse the efforts by activists to work state-by-state. In fact, that is what is working.”

4. She’s not a huge fan of ferners either.

She wants the kids crossing the border deported ASAP. “We have to send a clear message. Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay,” she said. “So we don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”

3. She’s a committed drug warrior.

While campaigning in 2008, Clinton said, “I don’t think we should decriminalize.” And even after the massive fiscal and social success of Colorado and Washington’s decision to legalize marijuana sales, she’s not convinced, and wants to “wait and see” how recreational pot works in Colorado and Washington state.

This is a bit of an evolution from 2012, when Clinton expressed skepticism that U.S. drug legalization would impact Central America’s cartel violence. But of course, as predicted by the UN, two states in, and legal weed is already is weakening cartels.

2. She loves war.

It’s hard to find a war Clinton doesn’t like. She unabashedly supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And even supported sending more troops to the latter. Shit is currently getting worse in Iraq post occupation. She supported providing arms to Syrian rebels. They’re still using them to kill each other. She wants the US to continue providing material support to Israel.

1. She loves a corporation.

And a corporation loves her. The GOP passes off wealth-destroying and growth-inhibiting crony capitalism as “pro-business” and Democrats push regulations which limit competition from new entrants as being “tough on corporations.” Clinton just hands out favors to corporations and calls it Tuesday.

This post originally appeared at LibertyChat.


Postmodernism and Libertarianism’s Juvenile Understanding of Privilege, Identity, and Liberty

We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.

In libertarian and even conservative circles, the phrase “check your privilege” seems to have become the ultimate symbol of all things politically correct. Utter it, or even just the elided two syllables of “privilege,” without the requisite eye-rolling and cynical-realist scorn, and you may find yourself cast out of this vanguard of ever-vigilant secessionists and Cliven Bundy drag impersonators. Even left-sympathetic libertarian intellectuals have found privilege-talk otiose at best, and, at worst, indicative of a decay hiding just below the surface of the otherwise sunny smile of contemporary activist discourse. That decay is “identity politics” – just one more bugbear in the right-wing imaginary.

The fact of the matter is that libertarians writing about privilege and identity are often completely unaware of most of the literature on these topics. As such, they tend to be speaking within a vacuum. And maybe this is because libertarians fear arguments which may contradict their closely held beliefs. After all, postmodern philosophy appears to be all about demolishing liberal humanist notions of a rational individual capable of making choices within a free market. But an unfortunate result of this resistance to engaging with theorists “across the aisle” is that libertarians have entirely missed the boat on contemporary discourse about identity, the self, and freedom.

What libertarian and conservative activists, academics, intellectuals, and Kokesh/Borowski/Molyneux fanboys and girls all fail to comprehend is that identity politics on the left is passé if not outright archaic. When libertarians do write well about privilege, they appear to miss the fact that feminist and left-wing writing on the subject has already done much of the groundwork. This is how thinkers as different as, say, Sarah Skwire and Fox News anchors can arrive at much the same conclusions. Skwire, for instance, insightfully notes that the “privilege I have…as a well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white woman is quite an asset when I want to window shop in a pricey store or talk an airport gate agent into giving me an upgrade. But it is decidedly less useful—and is perhaps even a serious disadvantage—if I’m thinking about walking alone at night to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. The set of characteristics that is privileged in each of these cases is different.” And Tucker Carlson said in his interview with Kurt Schlichter, “Some white people are privileged, some aren’t. Some black people are, some aren’t. It’s [sic] strikes me as, by definition, a racist attack in that it’s making a generalization — a negative one — based on skin color.”

But discourse on “privilege” is more nuanced than both Fox and Skwire seem to believe. (We’ll get back to Skwire’s FEE article on privilege and context, which I found eloquent but misguided. We will hopefully not be getting back to Fox’s breathless, hand-wringing coverage of “white privilege activism.”) To understand what left-wing rhetoric around “identity” actually says, it might be useful to read that rhetoric itself.

But, then again, libertarians have never been known for being able to read anything outside of their own intellectual circles – cue clip of Stefan Molyneux trashing Simone de Beauvoir without mentioning anything she ever actually wrote. But if libertarian theory is going to progress beyond the sacred tomes of Friedman, Hayek, Mises, et al, libertarian theoreticians are going to have to confront their prized nemesis, that monolith we call “the left,” and the ruins of its supposedly most enduring edifice, “identity politics” – to see if there is anything of use to plunder.

It’s unnecessary to refute right-wing and libertarian misunderstandings. It has been done already – in fact, long before Sarah Skwire pointed out that “context matters” in matters of privilege, or a Fox anchor deftly observed that white people can be underprivileged, too. Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” spoke more cogently on the nature of white privilege in 1988 than right-wingers seem capable of doing today. One of the central tenets of Third Wave feminism, “intersectionality,” holds that oppressions along different axes of human categorization – economic class, gender, race, etc. – intersect, and so a poor white person is not privileged in the same way as a rich white person. A laundry list of studies show that otherwise kind and tolerant people discriminate each and every day, largely because of prejudices they don’t even know they hold.

It’s exhausting, really, to argue with libertarians and conservatives who can’t do their own reading. To squabble over questions such as “Do leftists think white people should be punished for being white?” or “Do feminists believe that all men are rapists?” – whose answers – “No” and “No” – can be found by consulting Great Mother Google, the gentle nursemaid of all questions which can be resolved monosyllabically. None of these endeavors will productively pierce the heart of the issue: the neoliberal misapprehension of just what it is about politics that does – or doesn’t – have to do with that nebulous notion, “identity.”

Privilege and context

What is “privilege,” and what does it have to do with identity and identity politics? A common misunderstanding of the term “privilege” seems to be that it is primarily economic and material – an inheritance of wealth from previous generations. But in many instances, this may be a conflation of cause and effect. Studies have shown that oftentimes merely having a white- or masculine-sounding name can be enough to tip the scales when waiting for callbacks for resumes. Sexism and racism, in these cases, do not directly confer and are not directly based upon any sort of material wealth. But they do influence the ways in which we move through the world – often without our knowledge. As a result, we can conclude that privilege itself is intangible. It is difficult for an individual to be aware of the possibilities they have missed out on because of, say, their birth name, gender, education, or sexuality. If your name has always been Ted Walters, you will never have an immediate understanding of what it would have been like to be named Jamal.

If privilege is not entirely tangible or material, then what is it? It is a matrix of social relations which determines how we are free (or not) to move about in the world, hindered (or not) by unnecessary obstacles, like prejudice.

How do you quantify privilege? It is the air one breathes, the position from which she perceives the world around her. As such, it is not so much something one can have and wield, as it is something which forms and molds the “one” which is presumed to “wield” the material wealth or social capital we think of when we hear “privilege.” In other words, a “privilege” is a characteristic which helps a person move freely through the world. And these characteristics are not necessarily material, tangible, or even unitary. We might benefit from thinking about how systems of power impact the movements of individuals in a society, rather than thinking of privileges as things one “has” or “doesn’t have.”

But how does the notion of “identity politics” creep into the conversation? Identity, in this context, is not what libertarians seem to think it is. Your identity, in feminist parlance, usually has to do with your relation to power: how much you wield, over what bodies (your own? others’?), and in what contexts. Ultimately, it comes down to regulation of bodies: how regulated is your body by social and political norms and laws?

We have no widespread social identity category for people who drink light beer over dark beer – but we do for people who have lighter skin and people who have darker skin. Why? Because historically certain privileges have been granted to people with lighter skin, at least in this country. No such privilege has been extended to Bud Light drinkers, or to gardeners, or to avid stamp collectors. Those things may be integral parts of your self-perceived identity, but – and here’s the key – they aren’t important to the rest of society. (Or at least beyond your beer Pinterest.) You are not regularly interpellated as a beer-drinker, but as (if you’re gay or gender non-conforming) a “fag,” or as (if you’re a woman or a feminine man) a “bitch,” or etc. (Interpellation is a rather libertarian concept in 20th century Marxist philosophy, which holds that individuals are turned into proper subjects of the state, or other institutions, through the constant “hailing” – or interpellating – performed by the agents of those institutions.)

If you don’t “belong” in certain ways, and if your body or behavior signals that you are not a member of a class of people historically afforded close relationships with societal power, then you are constantly reminded of that fact in the most degrading ways possible. Systems of privilege give rise to social identity categories, which further help to mark certain populations as deserving fewer privileges.

Yes, as Skwire notes, context matters. Not all gay people are threatened with the term “fag” – that depends on your gender presentation, your region, your race, even your job and whom you associate with. But all those factors just further reinforce the existence of privilege – and its pervasive, complex forms. (I will note, however, that even if a gay man is never himself called “a fag,” he is well aware of the term and that it applies to “people like him.” You yourself do not need to be directly interpellated in order to recognize yourself within the abject social position to which you “belong.”)

The hyper-contextuality of privilege

If privilege is so pervasive and complex, then how do we chart its paths? How do we determine who is the “most privileged” in any given circumstance? This appears to be the common libertarian question, and one of the issues faced by theorists of identity in the 1990s. Yet one of the primary insights of these 90s theorists, which even someone as erudite as Skwire has missed, is that playing the “Oppression Olympics” helps nobody. Privilege is not quantifiable, at least not in all its forms. Most current feminist writers on the left have grasped this and incorporated it into their work.

Yet Skwire’s piece on privilege and context seems to be rather representative of the (decent) libertarian writing about the subject. As such, it remains limited in its engagement with postmodern, leftist thought on the nature of identity and its corollary, privilege, because it does not confront this intellectual legacy on its own terms. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that Skwire uses literary examples from within a white, Anglo-American canon to complicate (rather than merely refute) certain simplistic notions of privilege. And she’s right to do so. This is the great thing about her article, actually. Most libertarians seek to merely dismiss leftist insights about privilege. Skwire wants to complicate them and engage with them.

But it is difficult to consider and contest leftist theorizing on privilege when you are using texts from within a liberal humanist tradition to understand ideas which come from another tradition altogether. And she is perhaps guilty of collapsing and oversimplifying the very concept she attempts to critique, problematize, and expand. What does it mean for some people to be “privileged” in one context, but “not privileged” in another? One example Skwire gives is of a class-privileged woman who finds herself disadvantaged in her interactions with lower-class women who have more knowledge of their own conditions than she does. In this instance, the wealthier woman is contextually underprivileged compared to the other women, due to what we might call a knowledge differential.

Through some careful maneuvering, Skwire performs a peculiar elision here between two levels of privilege, and/or between two senses of the word itself. Privileged knowledge of a subculture is quickly conflated with political or economic privilege – i.e. the privilege of wealthier women who choose to interfere in working class women’s personal lives. Are these levels of privilege truly identical – or even comparable? The gay Latino writer Gil Cuadros writes in “My Aztlan: White Place” about the experience of dating a white man: “My lover never understood why I hated to be tickled, why I liked to be tied up. AIDS killed him before I could say a word…. When he was alive, he made it easy to leave my folks behind. I became white, too, uncolored by age in his over-forty crowd. For our sake, I kept Sleepy Lagoon, Indian massacres, and insecticides taboo subjects to avoid arguments and misunderstandings. My lover played no part in these atrocities. I believed that the color of our skin didn’t matter, there was only he and I in this affair.”

Who is the privileged interlocutor, here? We might speak of Cuadros’ privileged knowledge position: as a Latino man, he is likelier to be attuned to certain tragedies and atrocities in American history, like the Sleepy Lagoon murder. We could also talk of his lover’s privileged political position as a white man in a crowd of white men, none of whom want to hear anything from a lone Latino boy about his life or hardships. (This kind of social pressure actually serves to reinforce that knowledge differential. If the lover had expressed any kind of interest in Cuadros’s experiences, they might have leveled the knowledge differential.) In terms of his sex life, Cuadros holds a privileged knowledge position about his own sexual desires and dark secrets – which he chooses not to reveal to his lover. Or, considering the fact that Cuadros was, at the time of writing, alive, while his former lover was not, we could say that Cuadros is a “privileged speaker,” in that he wields the power to recall memories of conversations without being called into question. Might we even call AIDS a “privileged” figure in this story – considering it is the agent which prevents any revelation or reconciliation between the two from occurring?

But it is typically political privilege feminists and leftists care about. These other examples, though they may correctly involve some kind of “privilege,” are not what we mean when we are talking about systemic privilege – or that matrix of social relations I mentioned earlier. Skwire’s point (that some people may, contextually, be more knowledgeable about something and therefore more “privileged”) is well taken, but not entirely relevant. Cuadros may have some “privileged” access to information about Latino culture – but his political position as a Latino man in the United States remains more or less abject.

In a different example, a straight man may feel uncomfortable and even harassed in a gay bar, if he is objectified by other men – but as soon as he leaves the confines of that particular space, he will be safe and protected, back in the “straight world.” No gay person has that same privilege. In fact, the notion of a privileged space for politically underprivileged people is a bit misleading. Gay bars, for instance, are themselves still subject to all of the laws and norms of a dominant, heteronormative culture. They are not somehow separate from the “straight world.”

So, yes, privileges are contextual. But not necessarily in the way Skwire believes. Ditto identity, which whites and non-queers alike seem to willfully misunderstand as having entirely to do with self-identification, and not at all to do with a social matrix of privileged relations. When Skwire cites herself as an example (a white lady who is privileged in some circumstances and not others), she is, in fact, “discovering” a feminist concept at least 30 years old: intersectionality. White women may be privileged as white and underprivileged as women – and so the peculiar intersection of those axes of oppression creates this strange creature, “the white woman,” who may be treated as a delicate flower in some situations, and threatened with violence in others. This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s practically old hat in the intellectual circles from which the idea emerged.

The decentered self – a libertarian nightmare

Skwire further highlights the problems latent in libertarian conceptions of identity when she writes, “The set of characteristics that add up to ‘Sarah’ is always the same.” What are we to make of this? If context “matters” to Skwire, then why such an insistence on an unchanging, unitary self, with interlocking but nevertheless holistically assembled parts? Why is the self not also a contextual thing, depending as much on sociocultural situation as on, say, biology? And even if we grant “biology” more weight than “society” in the construction of the self, would we not have to recognize that the body is also not an enduring object, but instead a process of constant metamorphosis? Is Skwire the same woman as she was 10 years ago – 20 years ago – as a little girl – or in the womb?

Leftist theorists have long discounted any essential truth to that thing we call “identity.” Ever since (to select an arbitrary but nevertheless watershed moment in Western philosophy) the translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology into English in 1976, Anglophone thinkers have gleefully interrogated the delusion of the sovereign subject.

Derrida’s work was in direct response to the dominant French school of thought known as “structuralism.” Structuralism rests upon the claim that all human existence is mediated by interrelated and interdetermining signs. In other words, to think is to think in signs, whether visual, linguistic, or otherwise – and to think in signs is to think within the signs already provided for you by your social universe. Structuralists, to oversimplify, divided signs into signifiers and signifieds – or words and concepts, to speak in terms of linguistics. And most structuralists believed that we are in many ways formed unconsciously by these systems of signs. We associate the word “tree” with its respective concept, not because of some objective linkage between the two, or because at some point in our childhoods we all just decided “tree” was a good-sounding word for that thing-that-grows-in-the-yard, but because Anglophone cultures have arbitrarily made that link. And that link is up to no one’s individual choice – it is merely there.

Likewise, certain cultural value systems are arbitrarily developed and not consciously or rationally chosen. The fact that our culture associates certain substances in certain contexts with the adjective “unhygienic” is not necessarily due to an objective understanding of chemicals and their “cleanness” or “uncleanness.” What, after all, is the objective difference between drinking your partner’s spit out of a cup, and French kissing them? One action is coded as unhygienic (and, to be blunt, gross), while the other is coded as acceptable, even romantic and erotic. Impurity and purity are two lenses of perceiving substances and persons – but these lenses are themselves constituted by other lenses, other signs, other arbitrary linkages. There are certainly good reasons for not liking certain things, for having certain standards of purity and impurity. But many of those “good” reasons are not necessarily also “empirically verifiable” reasons. They are, in many instances, arbitrary, and entirely predicated on cultural norms, which are themselves always in flux, because abstract concepts like “purity” do not have distinct referents in reality, and so can be stretched to encompass referents they had not previously denoted.

Martha Nussbaum’s work on the affective force of disgust in ethical debates about cloning, abortion, and homosexuality indicates as much. The attribution of dirtiness to certain sexual practices (like “sodomy”) or medical procedures (abortion, cloning) is rarely predicated on any verifiable, empirical, distinctive filth inhering in the practices or procedures themselves. In fifty years, the notion of anal sex being intrinsically “dirtier” than penile-vaginal sex may be entirely voided – and another practice may take its place.

This last phenomenon – the flux of signs – is the central problem posed by so-called “identity politics.” Where some structuralists believed that it was possible to chart the sign system of a culture, finding the determinant and determinable “meanings” of each sign (e.g. a cross is a symbol of Christian faith), post-structuralist theorists pursued a different line of thinking. If a signifier refers to a signified – if a word refers to a concept – then to what does the concept refer? Is the concept itself the end-all-be-all of the word, or does the concept itself refer to other concepts as well? The concept “tree” does not make any sense on its own. It must be contextualized with reference to other concepts. So, of course, even the concept to which the word “tree” refers must itself refer to other concepts. There is no sign – no signifier/signified coupling – which is self-sufficient, which does not require other signs in order to be cogent. You must reach outside of the concept itself in order to explain it, making it, in fact, not entirely its (own) self. In Yeats’ words, “The center cannot hold” – or, perhaps, was never there to begin with.

Now apply this to “the self” – the McGuffin of all natural rights defenses of liberty. Since (once again, to select a useful but arbitrary historical moment) Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am,” Western philosophy has assumed the sovereignty of the cogito, the ego, the self, the “I.” The free agent who can make fully independent decisions, and be held responsible for those decisions. The rational, free-willed person fully equipped with pull-up-able bootstraps. Sure, you might come from a disadvantaged background, but “the system” is fair and will reward your hard work – if only you have the will to work hard. And, hey, didn’t we just go over “free will” – and how we all have it – and how we all have the same free willy capacity for bootstrap up-pulling?

But where do we find the center of that self? Is the self, its-self, self-evident? Or is the free-willed self always a problematic, contested site? Are all acts equally voluntary – or might there be degrees of voluntarity, and, therefore, degrees of sovereignty? Are there, as authoritarians have argued throughout the 20th century, certain types of people who just can’t help themselves? (Read: women, people of color, LGBT folks.)

On the rather modern conception of “addiction,” Eve Sedgwick writes, “Some of the current self-help literature is explicit by now in saying that every extant form of behavior, desire, relationship, and consumption in our culture can accurately be described as addictive. Such a formulation does not, however, seem to lead these analysts to the perception that ‘addiction’ names a counter-structure always internal to the ethicizing hypostatization of ‘voluntarity’; instead, it drives ever more blindly their compulsion to isolate some new space of the purely voluntary” (173).

In other words, discourse on addiction perpetuates certain notions of a Will which is “real” and without any history or dependence on factors external to the self. What is the space of the voluntary within human consciousness? Is it untouchable? Is it, as Sedgwick contends, more of a useful fiction than anything else – or is it like a muscle, one which could hypothetically be located within the body? (And if so, does it need exercise? What antagonistic muscle do you need in order to exercise the Will Muscle – and wouldn’t that prior muscle itself then be superior to the Will?)

Is “Will” capable of being infected, corrupted, decayed? And is that “infection” always something external to the core self, like a substance (opium, in the 19th century), or a practice (homosexuality, in the 20th century)? Do those external, addictive influences affect/infect all selves equally? Or are there some superior selves which are immune to those influences, or which can even use addictive substances and practices to their benefit – using narcotics to dull pain in military combat, for instance, or engaging in vaguely homoerotic bonding(/hazing) activities with your frat-mates? Again, per Sedgwick, “The ability to use a potentially addictive stimulus without surrendering to it is attributed to a laudable strength” (176). And to prove it, she provides us with a quotation from that great theorizer of the Will-with-a-capital-W, Nietzsche: “I think I know better than anyone what tremendous things Wagner was capable of…and as I am strong enough to turn even the most questionable and perilous things to my own advantage and thus to become stronger, I call Wagner the great benefactor of my life” (61). A liking for Wagner being representative, in late 19th century Germany, of a pathologically homosexual predisposition, Nietzsche’s statement here suggests that some bootstraps are perhaps bigger than others.

All of this, of course, poses some questions for libertarians, like: If free will is itself an historically contingent capacity – one which doesn’t inhere in all individuals equally, or at least one which governments have not historically recognized as inhering in all individuals equally (see: eugenics, drug laws, sodomy laws, coverture laws) – then what do we mean when we advocate “liberty”? This isn’t to say that all choices are determined in advance, but rather that the conscious self that chooses does not have an unmediated lens into the external world, and is not itself free of non-rational influences. As a result, libertarians have quite a long road ahead of them if they want to provide a conception of freedom for philosophers of the 21st century.

Identity, politics, and metaphor-phobia

Yet, as I’ve shown, libertarians haven’t done a very good job of responding to these critiques of liberal humanism. While they’ve been absent from the conversation, leftist theorists have largely moved on from questions of identity. As you might have guessed, identity politics carries a certain terminal impossibility: what does it “truly mean” to be a woman, black, gay, or any combination of all identity categories? As Judith Butler asked in her 1990 work Gender Trouble, who “counts” as a woman within a larger feminist discourse about women-as-victims? Feminism claims to speak for the interests of all women – but any claim to the universal applicability of an identity term is necessarily also grounded in the positions of the claimants. In other words, whoever acts as the representative of other people’s interests is likely to be only representing themselves, not necessarily out of malice, but instead due to the fact that we often generalize about the human condition from our own (limited) experiences.

In the 1950s, for example, the mainstream feminist movement saw white middle-class women as the true victims of a patriarchal power structure. Black women and working-class women had “jobs,” however menial – and therefore were not subjects of any feminist liberatory discourse. Then in the 1970s, black women and other women of color began to claim their places publicly, in the mainstream, as women-who-deserved-breathing-room. Audre Lorde could protest that she as a black lesbian had historically been denied any presence within humanist and feminist discourses. And in the 1990s, trans women could lay more claim to their place, not just within the queer rights movement, but as women worthy of recognition in women’s spaces; and trans men could speak more publicly about their experiences of marginalization by lesbians (for “betraying” lesbian sisterhood) and gay men (for trying to “deceive” other men).

And where was “identity politics” in all of this? The very women who claimed they were “taking back” the category of women, the quality of femininity, from the dominant patriarchy, were themselves becoming the gender and sexuality police, determining who counted as a “proper” feminist, a “proper” woman.

As Butler noted the use of “identity” to push for political change is fundamentally flawed as both a strategy and a principle. In fact, and quite ironically, the assumption that one can only proceed toward political change from some kind of solid, unchanging identity position resembles the libertarian reliance on natural law discourse: it’s the return of the Cartesian cogito, the self-present self that is fully aware of its identity and need only doubt the external world. I say “ironic,” both because libertarianism and feminism start to sound like they’ve got awfully similar theoretical problems – and because early notions of “identity politics” had always been about questioning one’s identity position, recognizing the limitations of individual experience, and trying to better understand others’ experiences through their own perspectives. (Indeed, Lorde famously criticized the cowardice of white feminists who expressed fear of teaching black women’s literature because they themselves were not black and could not understand “the black experience.” After all, to paraphrase Lorde’s point, teachers of literature still teach Shakespeare – and as far as we know, none of our teachers are themselves Shakespeare or his contemporaries.)

But regardless of its roots in seeking out and celebrating difference, an emphasis upon unbreachable differences can of course lead to sequestration and “ghettoization” of movements along identity lines. Why bother seeking out knowledge of the Other if that knowledge will never be definitive – and if our civilization is based upon the notion that values and knowledges should be enduring and not tentative or provisional?

Eventually, it must come out that identity is a pretty useless category in many circumstances. Even the feminist insight that oppressions (and, consequently, identities) are formed intersectionally fails to capture every potential human experience. For to be able to foreground the multifacetedness of your identity – e.g. “I’m black and a lesbian!” – society must give a good goddamn about your voice. But as the anthropologist Smadar Lavie noted in her recent study on Mizrahi (i.e. dark-skinned and Arab-descended) Jewish single mothers in Israel, the most abject members of society do not have the luxury of having any but the most superficial aspects of their identity recognized. When Lavie was trapped in Israel from 1999 to 2007 (due to a revoked passport), it did not matter that her father was Ashkenazi (i.e. light-skinned and European-descended) – no matter how much she protested, she was treated as she looked, i.e. Mizrahi, thanks to her mother’s genes. “Even though [the Mizrahi single mother] moves through time and space,” Lavie writes, “she can only move through the time and space allotted by the regime” (81). And so, for Lavie, the notion of “agency” proffered by identity politics is impotent unless one’s identity is already rooted in economic and political privilege – and is not already defined in advance and in its totality by the dominant regime.

As a result, context, per Skwire, does come to mean a great deal – though perhaps more so than she anticipates in her article on the subject. Just as the decontextualized and decontextualizing universalism of libertarian natural law discourse falls flat when confronted with the de-centered self, the (eerily similar) decontextualized and decontextualizing anti-universalism of an abused and theoretically deracinated identity politics dissolves in the face of (you guessed it) the self-un-same de-centered self.

Pursuing the other end of a faulty binary usually produces as many problems as ever before: reject universalizing propositions in favor of particularity, and, ironically, you end up assuming quite a bit on what constitutes the “particular.” Whose issues are “truly” gay issues, when literally anyone of any identity category could potentially be gay? Why isn’t immigration a gay issue? Why not drug laws? Prostitution? Estate taxes? None of these issues is particular to gay people – and yet all of them are, and in highly particular ways. An identitarian understanding of “gay issues” as opposed to “black issues” would fail to understand what Cathy Cohen pointed out in the early 90s: that people may have many of the same issues, and may need to work together on solving their problems…but none of their problems, however similar, are exactly identical.

We would do well to recall Eve Sedgwick’s first axiom of queer inquiry: “People are different from each other.” For, as Sedgwick notes:

It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact. A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions. They, with the associated demonstrations of the mechanisms by which they are constructed and reproduced, are indispensable, and they may indeed override all or some other forms of difference and similarity. But…even people who share all or most of our own positionings along these crude axes may still be different enough from us, and from each other, to seem like all but different species (22).

Or as Emily Dickinson wrote of her own sister, “If we had come up for the first time from two wells where we had hitherto been bred[,] her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say” (qtd. in Sewall 70). I am sure we have all felt this about people with whom we are supposed to share much in common. Even belonging to the same privileged intersection of an identitarian political map is not enough to ensure “sameness.” All individuals, however formed by the social worlds through which they walk, are never formed in the same way – and do not cease to form themselves in and through that very matrix which supposedly “determines” them. Once again, what irony in finding that radical left-wing queer theory – the love-child of poststructuralist and feminist theories – appears to be arriving at much the same problems and questions as libertarianism.

The rift between libertarians and left-wing intellectuals appears to arise out of libertarians’ almost visceral rejection of any kind structural analysis, which takes into consideration the accumulating and constraining conditions of a history which has always been a history of power relations. Many libertarians find it anathema to think of human beings as occupying positions within systems of power – power which extends beyond simple violations of the Non-Aggression Principle.

Yet the irony is that many postmodern or poststructuralist intellectuals have much in common with libertarian theorists. Isabel Paterson conceived of society as a machine which converts energy across certain power lines – i.e. chains of commerce. Likewise, the metaphor of society-as-machine figures into much of Herbert Marcuse’s work on the socialist machine of postwar Western Europe. But, as Stephen Cox points out in his “Merely Metaphorical?”, Paterson and many other libertarians have actively resisted the employment of metaphors in writing about liberty, even as they shame-facedly engage in it. Paterson herself insisted that the machine image she used throughout her God of the Machine was, in fact, a literal description of the functioning of society – and not a metaphor or figure of speech.

Why this resistance to figuration and metaphor? Perhaps because libertarians, in reaction against the “subjectivism” of a New Left which embraces the poetry (and hyperbole) of Marx and Freud, seek to return to (what they think is) a more classical, traditional model of mimesis, where concepts directly and perfectly represent referents in reality. After all, the danger (and fun) of metaphors is that they can be expanded upon, perverted, and shown to mean things which the original author of the metaphor did not at first intend. On the other hand, direct perceptions and technical precision (so the story goes) cannot lead to any confusion or leftist philosophizing.

Perhaps this is why there have been few great libertarian artists in the 20th century – or why the few who achieved any canonical success (e.g. Willa Cather) have yet to be claimed by young libertarians today. If we could get over this anxious resistance to metaphorizing, libertarians might find something useful in engaging with the free play of language, meaning, and signification. Leftists do it all the time, when they reappropriate liberal humanist thinkers in the service of anti-humanist critical projects. We might find some commonalities between Foucault’s conception of the unintentionally “productive” consequences of legal repression in History of Sexuality, vol. 1, and Frederic Bastiat’s injunction to pay attention to the invisible, unseen effects of laws. We could compare Voltairine de Cleyre’s argument that if you “[t]rain any animal, or any plant, as you train your girls…it won’t be able to rough it either,” and Simone de Beauvoir’s truism that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

We could bring libertarian theory in productive conversation with current theorists of identity, the self, and agency – rather than maintaining that not only should the liberal humanist canons of literature and philosophy continue to be taught, but that they should always be taught in the same ways and with the same interpretations. Doing so would not mean that libertarians would magically become Marxists, or that they would have to give up non-aggression as a political principle. But they would need to be willing to engage with issues of privilege without resorting to juvenile and sophomoric rhetoric. They would have to be capable of approaching intellectual traditions whose terms exist apart from the language of Newtonian-inflected “individual rights.” But these continue to be my hopes for a postmodern libertarianism of the 21st century. We’ll see if it can be managed.

Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.


Texts Cited

Cox, Stephen. “Merely Metaphorical? Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and the Language of Theory.” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8.2 (2007): 237-260.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cuadros, Gil. “My Aztlan: White Place.” In City of God. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1994.

de Cleyre, Voltairine. “Sex Slavery.” 1890. <>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978-1986.

Lavie, Smadar. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture. New York: Bergahn Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” 1977. In Sister Outsider, 1983.

—. “Uses of the Erotic.” 1978. In Sister Outsider, 1983.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Sphere Books, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Nussbaum, Martha. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Paterson, Isabel. The God of the Machine. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Sewall, Richard B. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965.


How Slut-Shaming Empowers Rapists Like Terry L. Smith Jr.

Some will argue that in the face of atrocities against women such as female genital mutilation, or the second shift, slut-shaming is a silly thing to worry about. But those people miss how policing cooperative behavior, whether through legislation or stigma, has unintended consequences. For example, Terry L. Smith Jr. has admitted to raping at least six women. He started raping and didn’t think he’d be caught for a while because he said he knew that his victims’ shame would keep them from going to the police to report the rapes.

Indeed, he’s not wrong. Rape is the most underreported violent crime. Some estimate that only 60% of rapes are reported to police. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2012, there were 346,830 rapes and sexual assaults, and 72% of these attacks were not reported to authorities.

Elizabeth Smart, who was held in captivity and raped daily for nine months after being abducted from her home, has spoken out about how slut-shaming made her not want to bother seeking to escape.

Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” She said, “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’

Terry L. Smith Jr.’s first victim is a virgin too. She told The Columbus Dispatch that she’d gone over to his house to watch movies. She felt so bad about that decision that she almost didn’t report her rape. She only did so because her 11-year-old sister asked her to, apparently afraid he’d come after her, another of their sisters, or someone else. The dispatch describes the victim’s reticence to report as resulting from “fear, shame and self-blame.”

In a slut-shaming culture, women expect to be blamed for their own rapes. They begin to think they should have expected to be raped as punishment for the crime of having sex, or putting themselves in a situation in which sex might happen. Women aren’t making this up. Police routinely blame victims for rape. While working through the incredible backlog of untested rape kits in Detroit, Prosecutor Kym Worthy began examining the related police reports. In report after report were testimonies of officers saying things like, “This victim is a ho. I don’t believe anything she says.”

Of course a woman doesn’t have to be slutty to be abused by police when trying to report a rape. When a woman with Multiple Sclerosis reported her rape to police, an officer asked her if she voluntarily pulled the man’s pants down before he raped her. They asked her mother if her injuries were from falling, and not being violently gang raped. And they asked her mother if she really had MS.

Another Smith victim told The Dispatch “I felt like I put myself in that situation, where it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.” She didn’t want to call the police until Smith began to text her with demands to see her, and ultimately threatened to kill himself unless she did.

Rape victims need to know that there is nothing wrong with going over to a someone’s house. There is nothing wrong with having sex with someone, or deciding not to. There’s also nothing wrong with deciding whether or not to have sex with someone until you get to their place.

Sex isn’t shameful. Rape is.

An Anti-Rape Measure Too Far–in California no Less?

We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.

A man and a woman are bantering with increasing verve in an art studio. While perhaps twelve feet apart, the man suddenly announces his intent to walk over to his interlocutor and kiss her–unless she unmistakably says “No.” She is silent and motionless as he follows through on his “threat.” Is there anything wrong with this picture? Should the long arm of the university intervene?

The movie “Words and Pictures,” from which the hypothetical derives, suggests no: This is contemporary romance, and the parties indeed proceed to a torrid affair. And yet, influenced by a pronouncement by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S Department of Education and by disturbing reports that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college– and that such behavior often arises out of insufficient attention by men to their partners’ words and signals– the California State Senate recently passed a bill (#967) which, as now amended, would require that “sexual activity” in colleges be preceded by “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” agreement. The consent, not necessarily verbal, must be “ongoing throughout,” and any “lack of resistance” or “silence” will not constitute such consent. The burden of proof is on both parties. Violators would be subject to sanctions, including presumably, expulsion.

Supporters of legislating “affirmative consent” believe that the change will enhance female safety and perhaps autonomy; and, indeed, there is every reason to think that it will produce less unwanted sex.

Opponents argue that: 1) affirmative consent is not how sexual partners have historically joined together; 2) proving what conversations and actions are taking place behind closed doors is already a serious administrative headache, and universities have neither the financial resources, the expertise, nor the inclination to police “ordinary” sexual intercourse between students; and; 3) contract sex cannot be as satisfying because, the affective aspects of sex notwithstanding, copulation is at the core an animal act, and animals do not enter into contracts. The bill, in this light, can best be seen as overreach.

Precedent and theories of creatureliness will not dispose fairly of the problem that legal affirmative consent is designed to address. Big problems may require big changes. Fortunately, data are available to help us. In a classic study, Professor Charlene Muelenhard asked men and women how they showed that they were consenting to sex. The options were “direct verbal,” “indirect verbal,” “direct nonverbal,” “indirect nonverbal,” and “no response.” “No response” was modal for both men and women; that is, no direct or indirect method garnered a majority of the vote. When it comes down to it, we talk about all aspects of our lives except for doing the nasty. Unless we are inclined against sex, moreover, many of us just give in. Not the most exalted picture of self-consciousness and sexuality, perhaps, but there you have it.

The finding with respect to women may be understandable. When asked by the same researcher about their hesitation to say saying “yes” when that is what they meant, women cited fear of “appearing promiscuous,” “religious or moral reasons,” “uncertainty about a partner’s feelings,” and “self-consciousness/embarrassment about their bodies.” Consenting obliquely—i.e., not explicitly—might be a way of getting pleasure while simultaneously dissociating from the psychological implications. It is perhaps for this same reason that the men in the study also preferred not to refer directly to anticipated sex. If a man wants to guarantee failure in the mating game, advises a well-known law professor, he should go up to a woman and ask, “Do you want to [have sex]?”

In yet another study, Professor Muelenhard distinguished between consent to sex and desire for it. The concerns of women discussed above may block real desire. She reports, moreover, that desire for sex is not either-or, as we may think; women may want sex, but again not its ramifications. Because, especially for women, consent and desire may point in opposite directions, she wants us to understand rape as including undesired sex. Communicative sex under Bill 967 would presumably help identify unqualified desire.

The problem for the law is not so much to determine the level of women’s desire, although that is no easy task. It is, more, to determine the extent to which that desire should be given legal effect when it cuts against consent, as currently understood. Like all decisions we make, sexual decisions are the product of a cost/benefit analysis. The costs will take the form of lingering private reservations even after an affirmative decision is made. If the law says that only whole-hearted agreement qualifies as consent, if a woman is presumed not to know or to be able to speak her own mind in a sexual setting—if she cannot say no sexually and be held to it— is she able to make big decisions in a managerial or a political environment? An atmosphere free of threats and fear is, of course, assumed throughout this discussion.

Far from increasing women’s autonomy most of the time, then, “communicative sex” would likely decrease it. Most relevant for our purpose here, it would operate to drive out sex that is more desired than not. This suggests that men’s desires may not be important in evaluating Bill 967. If Muelenhard is on the mark, women will not accept being forced to say yes. A code that does not honor college women’s views is no honor code.


Dan Subotnik, a professor at Touro Law School, has written several law review articles on affirmative consent. These are cited on the school’s website ( 


Stop Blaming Sofia Vergara for Your Objectification of Her

The internet got upset during Monday night’s Emmy Awards, when Sofia Vergara climbed atop a literal pedestal for a joke about diversity in television. Among some of the bizarre reactions was Huffington Post: “A very troubling turn.” Jezebel: “She was treated like a literal object.” Salon: “A bizarre, objectifying Emmy moment.” The Today Show quoted one person saying, “Sofia Vergara is the highest paid actress on TV and they just made a joke of her.”

But what really objectifies Vergara more: Her choosing to climb atop a rotating platform to mock television’s tokenism and shallowness? Or someone describing what happened as the Emmys making a joke of her?

If rotation, elevation, and a tight-fitting dress means viewers and commentators can no longer see Vergara as a subject, capable of making choices and satirizing her chosen field, that hardly seems like her fault. In fact, generally speaking, it’s not a good cultural norm to move responsibility for what goes on in one person’s head to another person.

The difference between an object and a subject is agency. A subject acts, chooses; an object is acted upon. A subject owns and is responsible for, if nothing else, herself. An object is owned and bears no responsibility. There’s a neat little agency trick in blaming Vergara for her own objectification. It removes the agency from where it belongs to where it doesn’t. The only thoughts Vergara should be held responsible for are her own.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the way many feminists gripe about objectification is that it has the exact same problems as modesty exhortations. Both transfer responsibility for what goes on in men’s heads to women. Feminists have rightly pointed out that the problem of modesty culture is that it makes women responsible for men’s sexual thoughts about them. Women are then in the no-win situation of being required by the culture to look attractive to men, to dress femininely, but to not look too attractive, or wear anything too revealing, lest the put thoughts in men’s heads that shouldn’t be there. Of course what’s too revealing is never described well enough for women to know where to draw the line.

The exact same thing is true when we blame women for other people’s objectification of them. It, again, transfers blame from the person doing the objectifying onto the woman being objectified. It’s, again, a no-win situation for women. And how exactly are women supposed to know when they’re objectifying themselves? Sexy dress is okay. Joking is okay. But get a spinning pedestal involved, and suddenly, self-objectification!

Because what we mean by objectification someone ignoring someone else’s agency, self-objectification doesn’t really even make sense.

The same thing happened to Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. The conservative Independent Women’s Forum decided to slut-shame Miley Cyrus, blaming her for any objectification which might have happened because she twerked in a nude bikini. “She shouldn’t over-sexualize herself because it undermines her talent, her accomplishments, and her natural beauty –- and it reverses the conversation about women back to their bodies,” the op-ed proclaimed.

Here’s the fundamental issue: As soon as you’ve decided that you can dismiss what a woman is saying based on poorly-defined-but-rigidly-enforced rules about what she should be putting in or on her body, or putting her body on, you’re the one objectifying.

Vergara stepped up on that pedestal because she had something to say about her industry. If you can’t hear it over the sound of her beautiful body, that is your malfunction.

So what’s to be done about this malfunction? It’s simply true that some people have a difficult time seeing someone as a sexual being and a full person at the same time. One solution is to hide away women’s sexuality. We can tell Vergara to wear a looser dress, or step off the pedestal. Burqas are further along the exact same train of thought.

Another solution is to encourage women to wear what they want, joke about what they want, climb on top of what they want, and educate men and women that regardless of what a woman is wearing or where she’s standing, she’s a real person with real thoughts and feelings. More importantly, the solution to objectification requires we first recognize that no matter what, each person is solely responsible for what happens in their own heads.

For those who reduced Vergara to an object because she climbed onto a pedestal for a joke, that is entirely their failing, not hers.

This post originally appeared at Mediaite.


Paul Ryan and the GOP’s Changing Tune on Poverty

Recently in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan had a touching, personal story about his changed attitudes on American poverty. Ryan discusses how he came to realize that rhetoric around welfare that reduces people to “makers and takers” is narrow-minded, inaccurate and offensive. It’s an important thing for Ryan, and the GOP, to realize. But Ryan and his party also need to go deeper into another insight the piece hints at, but doesn’t fully explore. Federal poverty programs may be woefully mismanaged and inefficient. But in America it’s not the poor who are going to bankrupt us, but the rich.

Whether it’s a GOP Senate candidate comparing food stamp recipients to “wild animals” or a GOP candidate for Arizona state representative saying slavery “wasn’t so bad” and “kept business rolling,” one would need to be pretty far underground to not see why the Republican party needs to work on its rhetoric around poverty. Over and over again, Republicans are having to apologize for stunts like suggesting that students from poor homes clean their schools in exchange for reduced price lunches. Even mainstream Republican ideas, such as drug testing welfare recipients, have been shown to be more class warfare than smart lawmaking. The programs cost more money than they save. They’re also unconstitutional, which you’d think would bother conservatives more than drugs.

Mitt Romney himself admitted that tapes which revealed him talking smack about “the 47%” who receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes severely hurt his campaign.

And this divisive, insulting rhetoric has impacted Republicans’ ability to effectively reach Black and Latino voters. The Economist looked into what the GOP has done to court these voting blocs and how it’s turned out. The answers are, a ton, and, pretty poorly. The article points to McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed reporting that the RNC announced early in 2013 intentions to spend “$10 million on an ambitious minority engagement initiative,” and to hire hired “at least 42 black and Latino field representatives, spreading them across the country in key states with the mandate to lay a permanent groundwork for future Republican candidates.” Furthermore, “They have recruited local surrogates, identified sympathetic business organizations and churches, and organized grassroots voter contacting. At the national level, Priebus has spoken at black colleges and given interviews to minority media outlets, preaching a gospel of inclusion and diversity.”

And for what? The Economist points out, rather depressingly, that the odds of winning a Mega Millions prize are better than getting a black person to vote for Mitt Romney.

And why? Well part of it is that Black and Latino voters first have always been much more likely to be in poverty, and second the recession has hit them particularly hard. The unemployment rate for Black college graduates aged 22-27 in 2013 was more than double college grads of all races. And that rate nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013.

It’s interesting to note, as the Economist does, that “the numbers, as reported by researchers Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, are at least partly attributable to racial discrimination in labour markets.” For example, “In Boston and Chicago, a white-sounding name gets your resume ‘50 percent more call backs from potential employers than [do] resumes with black sounding names.’ In law firms, partners are ‘more likely to point out spelling, grammar, and technical errors when under the impression the author was black.’”

Rhetoric, and policy, which blames poor people for being poor instead of addressing systemic barriers to class mobility will always fail with people who are paying attention.

Which is what Paul Ryan came to understand. He describes being at a county fair and having his own “makers and takers” rhetoric thrown in his face. “That day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded,” he writes. “The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not ‘takers’; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.”

Exactly. And then he gets to the really good stuff. “Over the years, we’ve slowly been adding to the number of benefits that government provides to an increasing number of our citizens. Some of those benefits are worthy, laudable commitments, but others aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford.”

Ryan doesn’t specify what government benefits “aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford.” Certainly he outlined many ineffective and wasteful anti-poverty programs in his anti-poverty plan. But what he hasn’t touched in a while are the least effective and most wasteful government benefits programs in the history of the United States: Social Security and Medicare.

Not that he hasn’t touched on these fiscal and moral disasters before. He’s done everything from submitting budgets which slash them to outlining plans to privatize them. First, because they are financially insolvent and therefore will stop paying out benefits sooner or later, and getting ahead of the curve is obviously better policy. But also because together, they are the single biggest contributor to our unsustainable national debt. Nothing touches entitlement spending, and the vast majority of that is Social Security and Medicare.

Then there’s the moral issue. While most federal anti-poverty programs are inefficient and ineffective, at least they move money from rich to poor. Social Security and Medicare do the opposite. They are generational warfare and incredibly regressive, taking money from the young and relatively poor and giving it to the old and relatively wealthy. In reality, the “makers and takers” who matter aren’t poor people taking from the rich. The takers who are going to bankrupt us have never touched a welfare check.

When Ryan talks of worthy, laudable commitments, this is of course America’s responsibility to its poor. And when he discusses spending on programs which “aren’t really the responsibility of government or the kind of thing we can afford” he, and others in the GOP, really need to start talking explicitly about entitlement spending. For too long, the GOP has been seen, especially by Blacks and Latinos, as the party of the rich and against the poor. By tackling entitlement spending alongside aside welfare reform, the GOP will first be focusing on the more pressing issue, economically.

But it’s also a great way to challenge perceptions about Republicans and class warfare. And the GOP desperately needs better rhetoric, because they’re the only party with any possibility of reforming the government spending that’s really hurting us.

This post originally appeared at