Archive for April, 2011

[Trigger Warning for non-consensual touching]

Normally I enjoy reading the Oatmeal, but this recent comic is full of problems.

The Oatmeal: Minor Differences: Part 2

"Minor Differences: Part 2" In the first panel we se a man hugging his "ladyfriend." She responds warmly. In the second panel, we see a man hugging his "manfriend." The man responds in shock and horror.

So, first of all the joke of the comic obviously relies on homophobia and assumed heterosexuality for it to be funny. We are supposed to realize that no heterosexual man would approach another man in this way.

It assumes heterosexuality because I would wager that homosexual male couples do approach each other in this way, and get the reaction the “ladyfriend” is giving in this comic (the only person whom I would allow to hug me from behind is my partner).

But the comic is also an assertion of male power over women. One of the manifestations of power is being able to access others in a variety of ways. Marilyn Frye writes in the chapter “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power” from The Politics of Reality:

Differences of power are always manifested in asymmetrical access… Total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible. The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access.

Frye provides a number of examples of how power allows differential access, and we can think about how different kinds of power grant different kinds of access. For example, in business environments bosses have access to employee emails and can track employee activity online whereas employees do not have similar access to their bosses’ use of the internet.

In this comic, we see that the man has access to a woman physically and he expects her to react in a welcoming manner. When he tries the same method of gaining access to a man, however, he does not expect a warm welcoming reaction. So the man expects to have access to his “ladyfriends” in a way he does not expect to have access to his “manfriends.”

This is actually really troubling. There are many reasons that a person might not want to be “surprised” with “a hug from behind.” For many rape or assault survivors this could be really triggering. Even for those who have not experienced an assault, but nevertheless fear one, it could also be traumatic. Furthermore, reaching around to hug someone from behind puts the onus on them to reject your advances rather than taking on the responsibility of seeking consent to the activity.

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Happy Pills

Give me some happy pills so that I can be a better person.

On Monday the Guardian ran an article about using drugs to improve moral behaviour. Some drugs affect our emotions, increasing our feelings of trust, social bonding, empathy and lowering our anxiety. Scientists are now discussing the possibility that these drugs might be used to improve our moral behaviour.

The assumption seems to be  that we would be morally better people, if only we could better control our emotional responses.

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he [Guy Kahane] said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

I think this assumption is interesting, because it reflects one strain of Western Philosophy that has a long tradition of being apprehensive about our emotions. Philosophers, dating back to the ancient Greeks, were often suspicious of emotions and sometimes considered them to be an irrational influence that distorted our otherwise praiseworthy rationality. For some philosophers, part of the task of philosophy was to control our emotions so that they cannot distort our moral reasoning. The Stoics, for example, recognized that some emotions (love, a sense of justice) might be thought to have positive value within our moral life, but they noted that each of these emotions also has a negative side: love can turn to murderous jealousy and a sense of justice can lead to destructive outrage. The Stoics argued that one cannot keep the good part of our emotional responses without bringing along the bad parts, and so they suggested that we endeavour to purge all emotions from our souls.

The assumptions about emotions made by Kahane are a little different than the discussion of emotions by the Stoic philosophers, because Kahane seems to believe there is a positive role for emotions in our moral lives and through pharmaceutical manipulation we might be able to harness the positive aspects of moral emotions while leaving behind their bad aspects. Nevertheless, Kahane’s discussion reflects the ancient Greek discussion because there is a suspicion of emotions in their natural state. The view seems to be that emotions can positively contribute to our moral behaviour, but in order to do so they must be “tamed” and manipulated by pharmaceuticals.


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Today the blog, Feminist Philosophers, reported on an article from the Guardian, that describes how one police officer who specializes in sexual crimes became a victim of sexual assault and the ways in which his perspectives changed as a result of the experience. First I will quote some of his experience, with a few brief comments; then I want to say a few words about why I think this article is philosophically interesting.

This police officer’s experience began as a casual brunch with friends where he was having a good time, and decided to stay to talk with some people at the pub after his original group of friends decided they had enough fun for the day. There was nothing particularly intimidating about his assailant when they first met:

I can’t remember when I first noticed the guy who ended up assaulting me, but he stood out from the rest of the group – he was more extrovert, a bit larger than life. But he didn’t do or say anything that made me feel uncomfortable – or that gave the slightest suggestion of what he would be capable of doing a few hours later.

Often, when a woman is raped, people question her perceptions of the situation. These critics suggest that she somehow should have known that the situation was dangerous and should have avoided the situation. But, as this article describes, rapists are often difficult to identify. Even a police officer, who has extensive training in sexual assault and its prevention, was unable to identify any suspicious behaviour on the part of the to-be-assailant. The problem with suggesting that women should have been able to identify that the situation they were in was dangerous is that in many cases the dangerous situation looks and feels exactly like any other non-dangerous situation. It is impossible to identify the danger.

My next memory is at about six or seven the following morning. I woke up in a bed and that guy was raping me. My first thought was: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The second thought was fear, channelled into self-preservation: I jumped out of bed and grabbed my clothes from the floor. It didn’t occur to me to arrest him. It did not even cross my mind that I was a detective. My only thought was my personal safety. He didn’t try to stop me. We didn’t say a word to each other.

Again, this description highlights some of the problems with many typical responses to rape victims. Critics often questions the behaviour of rape victims after the assault. They have some idea in their minds about what a “real” rape victim would do after the assault, and doubt the credibility of the victim when her behaviour does not conform to the idealization they imagine (for example, in the Assange case, some people have doubted the allegations because one of the victims continued with a party she had planned in his honour). I find the police officer’s description interesting because it shows how in actual situations our reactions often do not conform to idealized expectations. It is difficult to think of our self as a victim and many of us might resist doing so.


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A picture of a nice, shady tree on a warm summer's day

A picture of a nice, shady tree on a warm summer's day

Today at the writing centre we had several students come in who were taking their first ethics class. I was trying to explain that the task of the assignment was to identify some property (or set of properties) or principle that make the described case morally troublesome.

I did not want to give away what those features might be because the identification was precisely the work involved with completing the assignment, so I tried to be general in my discussion of properties.

Because I remembered and was trying to avoid a similar situation in which a prof had discussed how we perceive some property, P, and ended up discussing P-ness for the entire lecture, I decided to use a different variable. To avoid awkward discussions of P-ness with the student, I decided to pick the first letter other than P that came to mind. That was “A.” Bad choice.

A picture of a ripe peach

A picture of a ripe peach

To avoid talking about P-ness I instead talked about A-ness.

Sometimes philosophy is funny. It is Q-ness from now on.

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Today marks one year since I started this blog.

In that time I have written 39 posts and received 141 comments.

That’s not too bad, though I think I should aim for one post per week for the next year.

I have also had just over 12,000 page views in the year.

Thanks to everyone who visited my blog and especially to those who left a comment!

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