All posts by Connor K. Kianpour

An Irony of Identity Politics

There is a rich irony brewing in our culture. On the one hand, people often feel uncomfortable weighing in on issues involving groups to which they do not belong. For example, a man might feel uncomfortable expressing his opinions about abortion, particularly while in groups populated by many women. On the other hand, people are often content to point out when members of groups to which they do not belong express treacherous opinions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a man to reprimand a pro-life woman for setting back the interests of women by defending her pro-life views. The cultural uptake of these two impulses is, I think, both contradictory and immoral.

Legal scholar Mari Matsuda wrote that “[t]hose who are oppressed in the present world can speak most eloquently of a better one” (346). I think it is because our culture has bought into this line of thought that we have succumbed to the first impulse. A man might think to himself that he should not voice his opinions about abortion, especially among women, because women possess authority to discuss the issue that men lack. The oppression women have faced as women places them in a better position than men to speak of a better world when it comes to abortion politics.

The second impulse, that of rebuking ideological dissidents in oppressed groups, is rationalized in different ways. Some think that a pro-life woman deserves censure when she expresses her views because she has a duty to be a good role model for other women; others think it is because she has a duty to show gratitude to feminists who have made her current way of life possible by continuing their activism; still others think it is because she must be in solidarity with other women by expressing views most other women subscribe to rather than the ones she does express.

Whatever the merits of the rationales for these impulses, they contradict one another. The first impulse cautions against participating in debates one is not qualified to participate in. The second impulse recommends that we participate in those debates. The man who tells a woman she harms other women by expressing her pro-life views has taken a stand on the issue of abortion, since he thinks the pro-life position is harmful to women. When asked moments later about his own views on abortion, he may insist that “it’s not his place to discuss issues that primarily concern women.” But he’s already taken a stand.

These impulses not only contradict one another, but are also each immoral. The strongest case for the immorality of the second impulse finds itself in the vulnerability of oppressed people. Women are already oppressed, so why should we go out of our way to make the lives of pro-life women harder than they already are by treating them as defectors? There is a line between criticizing the arguments advanced by a pro-life woman and criticizing the pro-life woman herself on the grounds that she does not live up to some ideal that women should live up to. While the former is always permissible, I think the latter rarely is. Isn’t feminism, at its core, about liberating women from the oppressive expectations of others after all?

The first impulse, by contrast, is immoral because by censoring your own views about certain matters, you make it harder for others to get to the truth of the matters in question. Making the world a better place is a collective effort, and we need to pool together the best intellectual resources at our disposal to enable us to make it better. Sometimes, the best intellectual resources when it comes to reasoning about the abortion issue will include the ideas of men.

But what of the thought that men are unqualified to reason about the abortion issue because they have not been subject to the oppressions women face? Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy once observed that the views of outsiders have historically been crucial to helping insiders make sense of their circumstances. Take, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As a Frenchman, Tocqueville produced valuable insights about American society and the relationship between industrialization and democracy––insights that are studied to this day in the academy. Why couldn’t it, therefore, be the case that men could produce valuable insights about the abortion controversy as outsiders of womanhood?

When our contributions to public discourse could move us closer to a better world, we should contribute. This requires that we overcome our impulse to bite our tongues when we have that nagging feeling that it is not our place to share our views about certain matters. Men who have thought carefully about abortion should feel free to express their views; whites who have thought carefully about affirmative action should feel free to express theirs; and so on. As I said before, making our world a better place is a collective effort. And the efforts of all those who have thought carefully about these issues are needed to make our world better––not just the efforts of those whom you would expect to have vested interests in these issues.

We need also to ignore the impulse to reprimand those in oppressed groups who deign to flout the ideological lines their groups seem committed to. This is in part because we need people to feel comfortable volunteering their perspectives so we may make our world better, and in part because it is wrong to place expectations on vulnerable people to behave a certain way when it is expectations of this very kind that lead to their vulnerability in the first place.

It is tempting to succumb to these impulses, especially when we live in a culture that ceaselessly seeks to rationalize them. But acting on both impulses pulls us in opposite directions. We pride ourselves on staying in our lanes when we remain silent as debates concerning people unlike us rage on yet take it upon ourselves to identify and reprimand treasonous behavior by those unlike us. And acting on both impulses impoverishes us with respect to our goal of collaborating with one another to make our world better than it is. It seems we have some unlearning to do. But until we have done it, we will remain suspended in the irony that is modern identity politics.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Solidarity and the Speech Rights of the Marginalized

Those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism tend to take free speech seriously. Beyond opposing the state regulation of speech, those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism also tend to favor social norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of different kinds of speech. Recently, however, members of the popular culture have expressed support for social norms that are less permissive of different kinds of speech, specifically for members of marginalized groups. This is evidenced by the growing number of people who are content to deride Black opponents of race-based affirmative action policies as “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Jemimahs,” as well as by those who are content to lambast pro-life women for being traitors who’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy to hold the views they hold. For the remainder of this post, I will show the problems with a line of argument someone could take to defend these liberty-constraining norms. By doing so, I hope to provide those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism something in the way of a response to those who favor social norms that are punishing toward those members of marginalized groups who express certain controversial views. 

Someone might argue that people, and especially members of the Black community, are permitted to meet the criticisms of race-based affirmative action policies made by a Black conservative with racially charged epithets, threats of ostracism, and ostracism by appealing to the value of solidarity. They might say that in order to overcome the threats of anti-Black racism in liberal society, Black people ought to show a united front. A single Black person alone cannot significantly change how racist their society is, but perhaps all or most Black people can. So all or most Black people should express support for policies and norms that are likely to significantly change how racist their society is. A Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to set back the interests of other Black people, since all or most Black people must show a united front to confront anti-Black racism in society. Alternatively, a Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to be unfair, since other Black people have burdened themselves to the benefit of the Black person in question by engaging in certain kinds of activism but the Black person in question does not likewise burden herself to the benefit of other Black people who have arguably benefited her. 

I draw issue, however, with the claim that members of a marginalized group such as the Black community must show a united front to overcome the oppression they face as group members. It seems that dissident members of marginalized groups have been positively instrumental to the end of overcoming the oppressions that members of these groups face. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were engaged in debates about what was necessary for Black liberation to be brought about in America. Dubois strongly disagreed with Washington’s views about how Black people bear the brunt of the responsibility for making something of themselves in American society, and wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,––criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,––this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (36). As Dubois says, it appears that dissent within marginalized groups about matters that affect group members is crucial to these group members identifying viable means through which to resist the oppression they face. 

We can see this insight at work especially when we consider the cases of Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia as dissenting members of the LGBT+ community. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan (a gay, conservative political commentator) published the first national cover story in defense of same-sex marriage legalization in The New Republic. The principles he appealed to in this piece, however, were not those that were embraced by all, or even most, gay people. And in 1990, Camille Paglia (a lesbian academic) published Sexual Personae, a work in which she offers a compelling defense of androgynous gender presentation, albeit by predicating her view on traditionalistic understandings of gender of which members of the LGBT+ community are skeptical. The contributions that both of these thinkers made to public discourse on the matters they wrote about were profound. And if we were content to enact social sanctions against them for being heterodox members of the LGBT+ community, we might find ourselves deprived of the social progress they may have in part been responsible for since they would be deterred from speaking their minds. This, I think, speaks in favor of norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of members of marginalized groups speaking their minds when their views stand in tension with the “consensus” views of their communities. 

Even if it were true that liberation for marginalized people is possible only by getting all or most members of each respective group on the same ideological page, it would not follow that dissenters in these groups do anything wrong by dissenting. Consider a parallel context in which a problem of collective action does not generate obligations for individuals to resolve the problem. It might be true that one of the only ways to put a stop to the atrocities that take place on factory farms, for example, is by getting everyone to adhere to a vegan lifestyle. Still, it would be inappropriate to claim that individuals are obligated to adhere to a vegan lifestyle on these grounds, because any individual’s adherence to a vegan lifestyle will not make a difference to the number of animals being brutally slaughtered on factory farms. Likewise, it would be inappropriate to claim that dissident members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their views, because any individual’s choice to suppress their views, at least in the vast majority of cases, will not make a difference for how oppressed other members of their groups are. And if dissident members of marginalized groups have no obligation to suppress their views, the strongest basis for justifying social sanctions against them is unavailable to those who wish to belittle or ostracize these members for expressing their views.
There is obviously much more to be said about these issues. There might, for example, be other lines of argument one could take to justify the claim that members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their dissident views. Or, one might be concerned with justifying the claim that dissident members of marginalized groups have moral reasons, rather than a moral obligation, to abstain from expressing their views. I do not have enough space to address these arguments in this post, though I hope to take them up in future posts. Still, I think it is useful and important to know that at least one of the arguments that could be offered to justify less permissive speech norms for members of marginalized groups is unsuccessful.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Rainbow Capitalism

Suppose you have a beach house and a “friend,” Jane, who invites herself to use it all the time. I put “friend” in quotes because Jane does not actually value you as a friend; she values you only for your beach house. From July to May, Jane is hard to get in touch with. Every time you reach out to her, she comes up with transparent excuses about how busy she is. But during the month of June, Jane eagerly reaches out to you and ingratiates herself to you so that she can enjoy your beach house during her vacation month. When you eventually sell your beach house because of financial troubles, Jane predictably stops associating with you.

If you are anything like me, you will have a low opinion of someone like Jane. By someone like Jane, I mean someone who feigns intimacy with someone or some group of people to advance her own interests, without affording due consideration to the interests of the person or persons with whom she is feigning intimacy. Unfortunately, there are many Janes in the world. But not all Janes are individual people. Sometimes, they are corporations. 

LGBT+ Pride month is coming to a close, and so too are the annual discussions about “rainbow capitalism.” For those who are unfamiliar with the term, rainbow capitalism refers to how corporations pander to the LGBT+ community and its allies, especially during Pride month, by branding their products with Pride symbols such as rainbows. Some believe, for example, Target essentially does to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you in the scenario above: Target ingratiates itself to the LGBT+ community to profit from the sale of limited-edition merchandise, without ever substantively showing concern for LGBT+ people. Others, however, argue that rainbow capitalism, if not wholly good, is “a step in the right direction” because it normalizes LGBT+ representation in public. After all, just 15 years ago we would not have dreamed of the public embracing Pride the way it does today. 

In my view, both and neither of these positions is correct. If Target were doing to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you, then Target would be engaging in problematic rainbow capitalism. But this is not what Target is doing. To see this, let’s return to our example with Jane. Suppose that instead of valuing you for your beach house alone, Jane valued you for many reasons. She values your happiness and flourishing for your own sake among other things. Still, in addition to all of that, she also values being able to go to your beach house. When you sell your beach house, Jane is upset, but supports you and respects your decision. This is closer to what Target does when it engages in rainbow capitalism: Target employs LGBT+ people, has an LGBTQ+ diversity business council, published a Pride manifesto, and took a stand for transgender people when the transgender bathroom controversy was ablaze, in addition to branding merchandise with rainbows for profit during the month of June. To be a rainbow capitalist under these conditions seems to me genuinely benign. 

Now consider a different case. Some corporations have allegedly donated substantial sums of money to anti-LGBT+ organizations. It is not always clear what one means when they say that an organization is anti-LGBT+, though, so let’s stipulate that a hypothetical organization lobbies to abolish the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and some multinational corporation funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to this organization. Then, during Pride month, the corporation slaps rainbows and “#LoveIsLove” on tees they sell to profit off of the LGBT+ community and its allies. This is clearly problematic, and worthy of criticism. Still, some will insist that the corporation participating in Pride by selling limited-edition merchandise is good on balance because it represents the strides we’ve taken toward including LGBT+ people in our society.

Social inclusion, of course, has value. Still, social inclusion for the right reasons has even greater value. It may be valuable for the awkward friend to be invited to an important party, even if the only reason he is invited is because he is friends with people cooler than he, who are also invited. But it would be of undoubtedly greater value to the awkward friend to be invited to that party because the party host likes him and wants him there. In my view, criticisms of rainbow capitalism are legitimate when they are aimed at getting corporations to treat LGBT+ people with dignity year-round, rather than showing indifference or hostility to the community until it benefits them enough to hypocritically proclaim their commitment to equality. This does not necessarily mean that we should boycott businesses that are transparently performative in allying themselves with the LGBT+ community, or that we should demand they stop selling flamboyant paraphernalia during Pride month. But it does mean that we can (and should!), in some way, hold corporations to account for failing to live up to an ideal of inclusion for the right reasons.

Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

By the way, Radical Classical Liberals turns 1 tomorrow! Honored to be a part of it.