This edition of the Early Career Research Spotlight focuses on the work of Katie Stockdale. Katie is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Sam Houston State University. She defended her dissertation, Oppression and the Struggle for Hope, at Dalhousie University in June 2017. Her dissertation was part of the Hope & Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations project at Cornell University and the University of Notre Dame. Katie is in the process of revising her dissertation for submission as a book, and is authoring and co-authoring work on emotions with an eye to their importance in social justice contexts.
In your recent article in Hypatia, you defend an account of bitterness as a refusal to let go of moral wrongs, and go on to say that it can play an important role in movements for social justice. This is contrasted with an account of bitterness as loss of hope. Can you explain in more detail the various aspects of bitterness contained in your account? I’m particularly curious as to how you identify bitterness (as a mood, an emotion, a state, or something else), and how it orients us in the world?
I take bitterness to be a complex emotion that manifests in many different contexts. We can become embittered about all kinds of things: being diagnosed with a terminal illness, the loss of a loved one due to an accident… Just like there are non-moral instances of anger, like the all-too common experience of road rage, so too there are instances of non-moral bitterness. But I am specifically interested in cases of bitterness that manifest in response to moral wrongs, especially social and political injustices targeting members of whole social groups. So I focus on cases of moral bitterness, and I argue that moral bitterness is paradigmatically a form of unresolved anger involving a loss of hope that an injustice or other moral wrong will be sufficiently acknowledged and addressed.
I think the best way to understand moral bitterness is by thinking about how it evolves from other forms of anger like resentment – a paradigm moral motion. There is consensus in the philosophical literature that resentment tends to follow the violation of normative expectations – for respectful and fair treatment, for example. If you treat me with disrespect, then you will have violated my normative expectation for respectful treatment, and I may become resentful. My resentful expression might be something like, “I can’t believe he did that! I thought he had more respect for me than that…”
Philosophers have long been interested in the question of how individuals can move from resentment to the state or process of forgiveness, such as when resentment is met with a reparative response and individuals acquire moral reasons to forgive. I am interested more so in what happens to people’s emotional states when anger does not receive uptake and when efforts toward repair have not been taken. For example, suppose you treat me with disrespect, fail to apologize, and continue to treat me with disrespect. At some point, I will likely give up on you, judging that there is no hope you will change your ways and treat me with respect from now on. When you disrespect me yet again, my angry expression might be something more like: “Of course he was disrespectful. He has shown his true colors…” This is an embittered response, and it reveals a loss of hope that the wrongdoing will be acknowledged and addressed. Of course, it is not the only response I might have. I might respond (or try to respond) with indifference, acceptance, or even forgiveness. But embittered experiences and expressions are common, and especially interesting to me in that they reveal losses of hope.
So far, I have limited my focus to cases in which there really is something that can be done to remedy the wrong in question and instill hope for the future. But I plan to expand the analysis to cases where moral wrongs have caused irreparable damage, and it is not clear what (if anything) could provide reasons for renewed hope.
In your article, you reference reactionary movements like #WhiteLivesMatter and men’s rights, and conclude with the importance of listening to oppressed groups to build common ground. How do you apply your analysis of bitterness to these various movements?
I think there are unfortunate power dynamics at play in expressions and uptake of bitterness. As Sue Campbell (1994) made clear, calling people “bitter” has been used politically as a form of silencing and emotional dismissal. The claim “you’re so bitter” is not merely descriptive; it is commonly meant as condemnation of the person’s supposed emotional state. Bitterness is, in other words, thought to be an inherently inappropriate and destructive emotion. Campbell pointed out that members of oppressed groups are most likely to be accused of bitterness, leading her to defend the view that the accusation of bitterness should be blocked for political reasons. In contrast to Campbell, I attempt to vindicate the emotion by arguing that it can actually be a justified emotional response. It is often quite reasonable for members of oppressed groups to be angry about being subjected to various kinds of injustice, and to lose hope that their situations will improve.
Doing this evaluative work is particularly important in the contemporary political climate. We are witnessing reactionary social movements like #WhiteLivesMatter, as well as Men’s Rights Activist groups who are claiming that they are the true victims of injustice. Anger and bitterness often accompany these claims; and to understand the beliefs, intentions, and actions of people responding with anger and bitterness to the world around them, it is important to understand the causes and reasons underlying their emotional responses. What do anger and bitterness tell us about the experiences of these people? Why are they targeting their emotions at people of color, immigrants, women, and other oppressed social groups? How should we respond? Reactionary social movements are examples of the nature and power of unjustified emotions in public life, and the value of philosophical work on these timely and politically important topics.
You mention the importance of attending to bitterness, whether or not we think it is justified. As you say, listening is an important way of doing this. Can you elaborate on what else you think helps us attend to bitterness (e.g. Buddhist practices of non-judgement, psychoanalytic investigations into the unconscious)?
I know very little about Buddhist practices of non-judgment and psychoanalytic investigations into the unconscious, but this question raises the important point that there is a lot more work that needs to be done to sort through appropriate and effective ways of attending to bitterness – and other emotions for that matter. Before commenting on Buddhist practices of non-judgment, I would want to know more about what “non-judgment” refers to. I don’t want to give up the idea that we can evaluate bitterness and other emotions – I am committed to the possibility and importance of making evaluative judgments about them. (Of course, some people might have standing to make such judgments while others might not, which is a separate issue.) But I also think that many of us are much too hard on ourselves and others. We are often quick to blame forcefully when we see people responding with emotions and actions we perceive as wrong. If practices of non-judgment help us to step back and become aware of what we are feeling and why we might be feeling the way that we do, then I think that method might definitely be helpful.
I would also need to know more about what psychoanalytic investigations into the unconscious look like to say intelligent things about how they might apply. One thing to note, though, is that we are often not aware of where our emotions came from, why we are experiencing them so intensely, and how they are affecting our lives. Bitterness, like other emotions, is very complex – and digging deeper into how one’s experiences in the past affect oneself in the present might lead to improved self-understanding. And here is where I would hand things off to a psychologist. (Luckily, for me, I am in a Department of Psychology and Philosophy!)
Your larger research project seems focused on questions of emotions and social justice, as you’ve written pieces about feminist solidarity in bioethics as well as the importance of collective resentment. How important is it for social justice movements to study emotions? What benefits come from doing so?
Emotions are everywhere in social justice contexts: hope, anger, bitterness, courage, compassion, empathy, love… The emotions are a crucial part of the story of what brings people together in the pursuit of a better world. So inspired by recent work in moral, social, and political philosophy as well as in bioethics (including my own research with Susan Sherwin in feminist bioethics), I have begun to explore the role of the emotions in solidarity.
There has been recent discussion of the nature and value of solidarity in the philosophical literature. Susan Sherwin, for example, has persuasively argued that, in an increasingly complex and global world, the ethical concepts most familiar to us—like individual rights and autonomy—are inadequate to generate effective moral guidelines for how we should live. In my research, I emphasize that solidarity is not only a collective venture motivated and sustained by the moral psychologies of individuals; the phenomenon of solidarity itself gives rise to new emotions. For example, through solidarity, we often see a new form of hope emerge—a hope that is produced by the existence of the collective. (Readers who are familiar with Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark might call that book to mind.) Social scientists are doing important work on emotions and social movements, and philosophers can contribute too. What is the nature of collective hope and other emotions in social justice contexts? Is what I call “the collective hope of solidarity” rational or justified? Should we encourage hope when the evidence suggests that our hopes will not be realized? These are philosophical questions, and they are ones that can help us to better understand how individuals form and pursue their hopes, as well as the politics of hope more broadly.
Solidarity is an important motivator, but more often than not I hear it used to justify movements for social justice, or to rally people behind certain identity categories (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.). How can we develop a sense of solidarity that isn’t ‘us vs. them’ but is inclusive of everyone?
This is a huge question, and one that feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist scholars (among others) have been working on for many years. There is, I think, a form of inclusive solidarity already at work: what I call moral-political solidarity, namely, solidarity based in a shared moral vision carried out through political action. We see moral-political solidarity at work when non-Muslim people protest the Muslim ban, when men attend women’s marches, when settlers speak out against harms to indigenous peoples, and so on. But within moral-political solidarity, there is what Sally Scholz (2008) refers to as social solidarity: solidarity based on common experiences and identities, such as black solidarity and women’s solidarity. I don’t want to eliminate possibilities for, or the value of, solidarity that sometimes excludes certain others. For example, I very much value meeting with groups of women about women’s experiences in philosophy, and I would feel uncomfortable sharing certain experiences, or voicing certain concerns, if men were present in all settings. This does not mean that men can’t be in solidarity with women in philosophy, but that their role in the solidarity movement is as men. Setting boundaries is consistent with being inclusive.
Critics of contemporary social movements tend to take one of two sides. While both sides agree that social movements today are nihilistic and embrace hedonism, one side argues that we need more unified social movements while the other argues that any repudiation of lawfulness is a problem. How do you respond to this debate?
This is a really difficult question, and it seems connected to the much broader question: what is the best way to achieve social justice, and are social movements going to get us there? I’m not sure, and one of the reasons I found myself writing about hope and social justice is that confronting various, multi-faceted, and intersecting forms of oppression in moral theorizing led me to a personal struggle with hope about whether social movements or, really, any kind of strategy will be effective.
In terms of this specific debate, I think these criticisms are most forceful if they target parts of a social movement rather than the whole. It’s true that members of social movements might disagree about the cause, about what they are striving for, and about how they ought to go about pursuing shared goals. Perhaps both critics are, in some sense, right: more unification can be helpful, and law-breaking (especially violent law-breaking) is sometimes unjustified or counter-productive. What both critics get wrong is thinking that it is possible to make abstract claims about the morality and effectiveness of any and all social movements without attending to concrete, real-world cases. I always want to dig into the particulars before making broad normative judgments.
You can ask Katie questions about her work in the comments section below.
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