Can Iris Young’s analysis of structural injustice, problematic norms, individual guilt and forward-looking responsibility contribute to contemporary feminism as #MeToo broaches the subject of bad dates and male privilege?
This blog post comes with a trigger warning as it contains discussions of sexual harassment and sexual assault and controversial opinions regarding them.
Last week much of my facebook feed was again full of discussion regarding accounts of sexual abuse and comment regarding the #MeToo movement.
One of last week’s stories concerned the behaviour of a male celebrity who publicly endorses calls to end sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and beyond. A woman who dated the celebrity detailed to a reporter how he acted in a pushy, forceful manner. She explained how he ignored non-verbal cues to slow down their encounter and end more overtly sexual activity, and then re-initiated sexual activity after she stated that she was feeling pressured. The woman left their date feeling violated and miserable. The report has been broadly discussed with a spectrum of opinions emerging regarding the case: some sympathetic to the celebrity, others criticising his hypocrisy and abuse and some suggesting we are reluctant to acknowledge this as abuse because we want to protect ourselves from facing the reality of the problems we have encountered in our own sex lives.
Last week also saw criticism of the #Metoo movement gain momentum. A letter was published by concerned women in the French entertainment industry who believe that the movement has gone too far and begun to stigmatise men who make clumsy and persistent advances. The letter also suggested that the movement has begun to undermine women’s power and self esteem, prohibit people’s legitimate sexuality, censor artistic expression and prevent the enjoyment of art made by perpetrators of sexual violence. The letter too has provoked extensive discussion, clarification, criticism and response.
How should we think about these cases and positions? There are two sorts of understandings that opponents in the debate often identify each other as falling into.
One is to say: Let’s concentrate on those who transgress our norms and laws. Let’s criticise those who commit these crimes and are guilty and leave the casual sexists alone. After all it’s important not to lump in all cases together: it’s problematic to confuse rape with sexual harassment and it’s wrong to put cat-calling on the same level as abuses of power. We might well think that what we need is a clear separation between these issues and separate discussions for each of them.
Those sympathetic this view can in some cases go further and suggest that only some of these issues should be our focus whilst other should be left alone. The french letter appears to go so far as to advocate for permitting a little harassment in the name of preserving the ability to make a pass at a person one finds attractive. It also seems to advocate for the down-playing of some forms of sexual assault as a means to empowering women and avoiding their characterisation as victims. The letter then continues to suggest that we avoid requiring explicit verbal consent in order to be able to continue to practice some conception of romance, courtship and sexual roles that the signatories endorse. The letter has understandably faced significant criticism.
Both these approaches to a large extent call for leaving norms and culture to be as they are and focus on identifying, and prosecuting guilty transgressors of sexual assault, rape and clear abuses of power. One motivation for this is a worry that ‘where all are guilty none are’. This is a problem Hannah Arendt identified with solely focussing on shared responsibility for the holocaust: if we focus on culture and collective guilt we may end up letting perpetrators off the hook (as referenced in Iris Young’s Responsibility for Justice).
The opposite approach is to turn attention on a problematic culture and focus our efforts on shifting norms and attitudes. This approach gives up the project of identifying guilty perpetrators and instead aims for cultural-revolution. The worry about this approach is that it lets predators and violators off: it turns attention away from identifying perpetrators and moves towards looking at general problems with our norms and power structures. It suggests that what we need to do is turn our attention to altering these norms and power structures rather than being distracted by vilifying particular men.
Part of the motivation for this approach is a worry that it sometimes seems unfair or unwise to vilify particular men for their behaviour. In some cases it is important to recognise that these men are supported, encouraged and enabled by cultural norms and ideas of gender relations that are prevalent within contemproary societies. Furthermore, in some cases of sexual assault, harassment and problematic behaviour the perpetrators understanding of the world mask what is problematic about their behaviour. When challenged these men can instead of admitting their failings and seeking to reform become angry and defensive. This reaction can in some cases prevent the cultural change that we so urgently need. This approach suggests that if we attack the culture and norms underlying their behaviour we will make more progress than if we criticise and vilify individuals.
Can we avoid the choice between focussing on culture and ignoring perpetrators or focussing on perpetrators and ignoring culture? The work of Iris Young could be helpful in breaking the stalemate between these two approaches.
Young suggests that we can identify both individual guilt for those who break established norms and recognise a forward looking responsibility on every person that requires they seek to change norms and revise their own behaviour. This two-pronged approach can allow us to both identify the guilty and bring about the profound cultural shift we need. In this account guilt is needed in order to identify those morally responsible for committing acts that are known and acknowledged to be wrong. Alongside this we can also identify a forward-looking shared responsibility to improve norms and culture. This responsibility requires all people to reflect on their own norms and behaviour and seek to do better in the future. It also requires discussion with others in order to understand the oppression that we ourselves (sometimes un-knowing) help to create or maintain. It requires listening to peoples’ stories, understanding how conscious actions and unconscious biases lead to disadvantage, stigmatisation and abuse, and discussing how we can play a part in ending this abuse and lessening this disadvantage. It requires we work on ourselves to try to change our biases and/or compensate for them. It requires we introduce procedures in order to counteract biases and work on the cultural change we need to remove or lessen these biases. In this way we can identify the guilty perpetrators who transgress existing norms, seek to change norms, revise our own contributions to unjust structures and correct for our own biases, seeking to improve the way we see and treat others.
Thus it seems recognising both guilt and forward-looking responsibility could allow us to tackle the perpetrators and seek to reform the culture. Young’s work can help us solve the problem by separating the guilty who transgress existing laws and norms from those who merely share forward looking responsibility to reform those norms and bring their own behaviour in line with more stringent norms. Unfortunately, applying her approach is not always easy. It can sometimes be difficult to separate the less than good behaviour from the wrongful. Part of what makes it difficult is that norms are different in different social and cultural spheres and they are constantly evolving. What’s more, in many incidents we can identify both a significant cultural problem and individual culpability. Finally, if we take seriously the idea that there is a forward looking responsibility to analyse and reform our own individual behaviour alongside seeking to alter social norms, then this surely means we should judge those who fail to so reflect and reform as failing to fulfil their duty. An individual that refuses to listen to the stories of others or does not try to reform their own behaviour is not living up to their forward looking responsibility. If they then treat others in a problematic way do they not warrant blame for their negligence and its bad effects? (This is a point that Martha Nussbaum points out in her discussion of Young’s account of forward-looking responsibility.)
Young’s two conceptions of responsibility: backward looking individual guilt and forward looking shared responsibility to reform are useful tools for helping us think through problematic culture and wrongful acts. However, they will not stop some situations from being complex. However, if we adopt a position that recognises the existence of both of sorts of responsibilities perhaps this can help.
In this post I have taken extensive liberty regarding the interpretation and development of Young’s ideas. For Young’s own discussion of structural injustice, the effect of norms and stereotypes on opportunities and welfare, forward looking shared responsibility, guilt and the responsibility to reform see the Politics for Difference (Princeton, 1990) particularly chapters 5 and 6 and Responsibility For Justice (Oxford, 2011) particularly chapter 3.