Central APA Coverage: Carus and Dewey Lectures

In beginning my coverage of the 2016 APA Central Division Meeting, I am focusing on the themes I saw represented in the major lectures given at the conference. In particular, I will concentrate on Claudia Card’s Carus Lectures and Charles Mills’ Dewey Lecture. As those who know the work of Card and Mills are aware, both share an interest in social philosophy. Mills has written extensively about race, and Card about feminism and LGBT studies.

More than the topical similarity of their lectures, I was struck by the thematic concern they each shared on the question of returning agency to oppressed peoples. All three talks emphasized that one of the goals of their theory is to show how resistance to the evil forces of racism, homophobia, and abuse, is possible.

Card’s introductory lecture, “Surviving Homophobia,” illustrates this point by first clarifying what happens when one encounters hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. According to Card, the term “homophobia” is unable to fully explain what is going on with the anti-gay rhetoric and actions found throughout society. A phobia is typically described as an irrational fear—such as a fear of heights or open spaces—but is this really what occurs when one sees hate speech directed toward gays? While elements of fear may be involved in the production of hate speech, one does not see such speech aimed at spiders or clowns. Card claims such descriptions of anti-gay rhetoric and actions medicalizes these behaviors, presenting them as unavoidable and the people who engage in them as not responsible for their effects. It ignores that what is really being internalized is not fear, per se, but hostility.

Card’s alternative formulation is to think about anti-gay rhetoric and actions as creating an evil environment. When people write something vicious about lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or gay individuals, they produce an atmosphere which encourages us to internalize hatred of LGBT individuals. This hostility proliferates through an emotional echoing, whereby we begin to take up and enact the same behaviors and actions that produce the evil environment in the first place. This is why so few people are willing to speak out against anti-gay individuals—there is a feeling that such individuals are accepted within their own society, and that speaking out against them would be like speaking out against nature itself.

The way forward is to treat homophobia as something that is still present. As Card puts it, people do not survive homophobia in the sense of living past it. Instead, one can be said to survive it in the sense of remaining viable in its presence. Card concludes that an important way of resisting homophobia is to engage in political activism, since it turns the evil environment into something that can benefit you and your society.

Charles Mills talked in the Dewey Lecture about how he uses the Western Liberal tradition, responsible for the oppression of black individuals, against itself. The purpose of this is not to overturn liberalism, but to show how those within the liberal tradition should support the work of Black Radicalism. The ontology of liberalism has proven itself to be problematic, inasmuch as its assumption of equality has in the past prevented society from seeing the oppression of other racial groups. Yet as Mills shows, it can be recast so as to reveal the hierarchy entrenched in liberal societies like America, while at the same time providing the tools to overcome this hierarchy.

In explaining the trajectory that brought him to this project, Mills explores his Jamaican upbringing, and his education at the University of Toronto. His experiences led him to several revelations, the first of which was how philosophy as a discipline was lacking in satisfactory theories of emancipation. Seeing the birth of many radical emancipatory philosophies in Jamaica—in contrast with the considerable whiteness of the philosophical field—Mills came to the conclusion that any theory of social justice must include race at its very center. Theories of justice that exclude race only perpetuate the problems under the guise of removing them. The next revelation that Mills describes was his experience of race as he transitioned from Jamaican society to society in Canada and the United States. In Jamaica, Mills’s family was relatively privileged, and he was considered not black, but brown. It was not until he left Jamaica that he discovered that racial categories are not fixed, and that in other countries he is considered black. This led to the realization that a key aspect of racial thought must be to show how the question of who counts as a person is not something immediately obvious, but is produced through epistemological structures. With this in mind, it becomes possible to see how philosophies of the past have produced society—and their conception of the individuals who compose it—as white.

Mills, like Card, concludes with some thoughts on emancipation. First, he argues that ideal theory often hides oppression, and so philosophy should move to a model of non-ideal theory that is defined by corrective, rather than distributive, justice. Second, he says that Marxism, in its analytical formulation, can provide some tools to help us think through this problem, inasmuch as it is not focused on what the best society will look like, but on how to address the problems of the past. The best way of overcoming racism is not to think about how, in a perfect society, racism will not exist, but to confront the problem head-on with philosophies that treat race as a central, not a marginal, problem.

We can now see how Card and Mills are both working toward emancipation, albeit from different perspectives, and on different issues. What they both emphasize is that change is possible, but only through confronting the problems and dealing with them. Philosophy has a duty to discuss these problems, for it carries a share of the blame in creating them. What specific actions philosophers should take, both thinkers leave open, though perhaps the best way of describing it comes from Card herself. In the second Carus lecture, entitled “Gratitude to the Decent Rescuer,” Card described how fairness requires that someone who has experienced good luck rescue those who need it, but that fairness does not require that you rescue any particular individuals. Rather, the duty is imperfect and open, meaning that each and every person must wrestle with how best to instantiate it.

Given how much work still needs to be done to eliminate racism and homophobia from our society, there seems to be an imperfect duty, which falls to all of us, to address these problems. Card and Mills are working to inspire philosophers to accept this duty and develop a plan to apply it in their own lives.

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