Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.
I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.
Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.
Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.
In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.
Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?
Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?
There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.
Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?
Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.
To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.
The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female friend over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:
Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?
She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.
I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.
The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.
So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.
Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.
When someone — whether laypeople, like Jill Soloway or the writers at Buzzfeed, or academics, like bell hooks — describes the United States as a “patriarchy,” it is unclear to me what they intend to mean. Maybe this sounds irreverent, but women serve in every level of government — executive, judicial and legislative, at this point only never occupying (and losing only by a close margin) the upper echelons of the presidency. Just this week in Georgia, a woman won a House seat in an election where her opponent was a well-financed white male. If we look at influential powers beyond government, women own some of the largest hundred-billion dollar corporations in the west. Women are the majority of teachers, arguably one of the most influential concentrations of quasi-political power in a democratic republic. As a voting bloc they’ve had much sway in all elections since suffrage.
So, to understand what someone means when they insist that the States is still a patriarchy, it might be appropriate to ask: Would the United States still be a patriarchy if Hillary Clinton had won the election?
It’s a yes or no question. There are two possible responses.
If the answer is “No, the United States would have no longer been a patriarchy,” then we’ve clarified something — we’ve singled out a condition under which the States would cease to be a patriarchy (namely, φ: electing a woman to the highest position of executive power). Someone answering “No” stipulates that there is a certain achievable goal under which patriarchy would cease. Now, why did Clinton lose the election? Not, as some people would like to believe, because of pervasive American sexism — rather, because of a variety of complicated reasons that can in no way be reduced to misogyny. Donald Trump did not win simply because Clinton was a woman. That was not a decisive factor. However, now that the individual has clarified under what condition (φ) the state of patriarchy could be dissolved, and we know that this (sufficient) condition could be achieved at any given election cycle — that men only occupying the presidency for the last few terms has been a purely contingent state of affairs — then we know that the term “patriarchy” only trivially applies to the United States. We know that, essentially, use of the term “patriarchy” is only appropriate because a male currently sits in the Oval Office. It might follow from this answer that were Clinton in office, America would even be a matriarchy. Now, by designating φ as nullifying the term “patriarchy,” the person has demonstrated that the term, applied now, can hardly condemn at all (as it only specifies one stage in a democratic process), and all the baggage it carries loses much of its weight. A woman could occupy the presidency at any time. If she does, then the patriarchy will be dissolved. Thus, the patriarchy could be dissolved at any time, the U.S. is not innately a patriarchy, and the term carries only taxonomic weight. (Not to say it may not carry particular emotional weight, but it does not carry damning weight.)
However, the person is unlikely to answer this way. Few agreed that racism ended when President Obama took office, and of course it didn’t. The two are not the same, but let’s examine what happens when they choose the other response.
The other possible answer is “Yes, the United States would still be a patriarchy if Clinton had won.” If this is the case, then we know, first of all, that a woman occupying the most powerful position in the world would still not be enough to end patriarchy. Certain consequences follow from this. There would seem to be less incentive for believers in a patriarchy to work to elect female politicians, or female board members, or encourage female participation in science or engineering — women in power, just in and of itself, is not enough. Presumably, it has to be the right kind of woman power; the people that answer this way don’t think of Clinton as feminist or progressive enough; her engagement with politics is no better than another conservative man’s political engagement. What these people want is large-scale cultural and political change. Patriarchy is not about women holding power, it is about the “mental, social, spiritual, economic and political organization/structuring of society produced by… sex-based political relations… reinforced by different institutions… to achieve consensus on the lesser value of women” (A. Facio, “What is Patriarchy?”). Or more simply, it is a “social system that values masculinity over femininity” (M. Watanabe, Feminist Fridays).
I rarely encounter succinct definitions of patriarchy (much less in terms through which progress can be made), yet it is still nonchalantly applied in certain political circles. Often, when parts of the definition do make sense, they’re false. Modern-day societies — at least capitalist ones — are not “organized” in any way intelligible by Facio’s definition; political relations are rarely, in the Western world, defined by sex or gender. One element that seems central to a definition is the over-valuing of “masculine” qualities over “feminine.” Glossing over the problem of defining these (even discussing them seems to be submitting to gender stereotypes), the value a society places on certain qualities is only the aggregate values of its individual members. Different people have different preferences. The idea that a society might completely equalize its values — why would we ever expect that to be possible or desirable? — seems to suggest superimposing someone’s idea of a perfect value set onto all others. Regardless, it’s unclear why, from some estimation of sexism in a culture, we need the introduction of a political term, using “-archy.” There must be more to it to make that term appropriate. It’s still unclear.
The problem of answering the question with “Yes” is that we still lack a condition, e.g. φ, by which we can dissolve the patriarchy. Under what circumstances will that word no longer apply? Otherwise, it is meaningless. Many of the proposed explanations evoke “institutions” — things never explicitly defined, and when critically examined, are revealed to be either nonexistent or too heterogeneous to dub patriarchal. If these institutions in America are supposed to be, say, the legal system or the education system, and these institutions are supposed to give America its organizational status, then in fact America is a matriarchy, due to the distribution of power present in these systems. If income-bracket is supposed to be an institution, then there might be a case to be made; men, on average, earn more (because they are in higher-paying positions), but this is probably not because they are men, or because our civilization favors them so, but rather certain contingent factors (such as career choice). This, again, would show America to not be innately patriarchal, “institutionally,” but temporarily, accidentally.
Sexism exists, to a much higher degree toward women than toward men. Does this mean we have to call America a patriarchy? No. The term “patriarchy” could do with some clarification, and not just from the ivory tower — with the same methods of analysis that we use to identify a system as a republic, dictatorship, or whatever — or be put to rest. The term is so abstract as to defy any analytic understanding, and its only coherent definition — a society or government run by males — either does not fit the United States or fits it only trivially.
A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”
Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).
The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatia released a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”
Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?
Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.
These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.
Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)
The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.
The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.
Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.
It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.
“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.
Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.
Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.
In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.
Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”
By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.
Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.
The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.
There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.
I was in a discussion recently on the effects of “porn culture” on young boys and girls. I went back and forth a bit with a debater, until she mentioned the rising rates of labiaplasty, prima facie caused by women’s lack of confidence in their own external genitals after watching pornography (which, according to everyone, is a massive, growing, all-pervasive industry).
Labiaplasty, surgery on the vulva to trim or cut away the labia minora (such that they protrude less than the labia majora) or the clitoral hood, is, indeed, on the rise in the West; it can also lead to complications including pain and infection. The number of girls under eighteen that paid for labiaplasty almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, and the number continues to grow.
Insecurity is a leading factor in many women’s decision to pursue the surgery. Patient satisfaction post-op is about 95%. Labiaplasty improves confidence and happiness and can lead to a healthier sex life. Costs are about $4000 – 5000, which is not terribly expensive for a life-altering operation.
However, the logistics alone are deceiving. Plastic surgery is a relatively young field with ever-improving techniques. To attribute the rise in labiaplasty immediately to the effects of an increasingly pornographic culture is disingenuous. There are other factors, and an analysis of labiaplasty patients shows that 32% of women undergoing the surgery did so for functional impairment, 31% for combined functional impairment and aesthetic improvement, and 37% for aesthetic improvement alone. That is a majority of surgeries for achieving or improving upon physical function. Of course, if you’re thinking of getting a surgery to improve a malfunctioning organ and it comes with visually pleasing benefit as well, you might incorporate this a little into your selection process – thus, it is reasonable to assume that many of the patients in the dual percentage were focused primarily on physical function, with visuals as an afterthought. The authors of the study found that “the majority of patients undergoing reduction of the labia minora do so for functional reasons with minimal outside influences affecting their decision for treatment.” This is an inconvenient conclusion if you want to argue that porn culture is causing these surgeries.
There’s also, as always, much more to the story. Female porn stars have what might be called “tidy” mons pubes, in terms of pubic hair and the conspicuousness of labia. These “designer vaginas” don’t accurately represent the general, mammalian populace of people with vaginas. Yet, as noted by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, the reason porn actresses in Australia maintain such kept labia is not male, female or porn-producer preference, but rating boards (which are government bodies). Soft-core porn, in Australia, can only show “discreet genital detail,” which rules out fleshy, extrusive labia. The labia minora is considered “too offensive” for soft-core. Similar distinctions apply elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, one must be at least 16 years old to purchase soft-core material and 18 to buy hardcore; the distinction falls along multiple lines some of which dictate how extrusive the labia are. In Australia, often airbrushers at porn mags apply digital labiaplasty to “heal” vulvas to an acceptable “single crease.”
One of the feminist authors I’ve linked makes the point clear by comparison: what if porn classificatory boards determined the testicles were too explicit? What if the scrotum had to be airbrushed out in order for men’s genitals to appear in soft-core?
Daisy Buchanan at the Guardian observes another reason women are seeking aesthetic “improvement” to their natural organs: the seductive exhibitionism of pornography is not confined to hardcore adult films anymore, it’s everywhere – at music awards, during celebrity photoshoots, in casual advertisements, whatever.
This point could be worded in one of two ways: society is hyper-sexualized, or, our culture is sexually liberated. The second, more optimistic one, symbolizes a social maturity into sexual autonomy. Buchanan exaggerates by claiming we’re “as likely” to see a vulva on a music channel as on a pornographic website, but nonetheless, sex has become a more tolerable phenomenon for more and more people. The labiaplasty rate can be disparaged as a coercive instrument for young women to meet societal standards, or, it can be lauded as the growth of opportunity for women with functional problems and their willingness (and increased ability to afford) to shape their body how they want it.
As detailed previously on Notes on Liberty (here and here), the stifling force of 20th and 21st century censorship has been obsessed with pornography and female pleasure. For those who view labiaplasty as a disturbing, sexist phenomenon, one place to start would be rating boards, often managed by the government.
“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.
Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”
Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.
What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?
Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.
The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:
It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.
Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.
More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”
Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.
Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.
It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.
A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:
Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.
There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.
Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.
Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.
Some of the central tenets of women’s studies — and gender or multicultural studies — of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, don’t work with the dominant model of scientific hypotheses, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories like patriarchy as quasi-theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political ones.
To demonstrate the point: firstly, schools like these posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish (whether through problems with central planning or otherwise), or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like third-wave feminism, so far from Steinem; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.
Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to belief and orthodoxical obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculinist oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are part of mandatory classroom cirricula, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.