Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: General (Page 1 of 9)

Mental Illness and Microaggression

Not only do people with mental illness frequently encounter negative stereotypes in news, films, books and in everyday speech, others often give misguided advice or are dismissive towards their mental distress. Yet claims by people with mental illness to have experienced discrimination in the form of microaggression might also be too easily dismissed: could not mental distress lead to increased emotional sensitivity, leading them to overreact?

Microaggressions, the small slights regularly experienced by marginalised people, are near daily reminders that someone is an outsider or a second-class citizen. On their own they may be slight, but their cumulative impact is anything but.  As part of a wider social pattern of oppression, they are deeply harmful. Microaggression can be behavioural such as when a store security guard is more likely to accuse a black customer of shoplifting; verbal, such as when a racialised person is regularly asked where they are “really” from; or environmental, such as when all buildings are named after white people and whiteness is assumed as the norm. (Examples of microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality can be found here.)

People with mental illness regularly encounter negative stereotypes about themselves. Consistently depicting a group negatively, with limited access to positive role models, is an example of environmental microaggression. In both news and fiction, people living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often depicted as violent or as bad parents. In crime novels, the culprit is often mentally disturbed. In her autoethnographic essay documenting how repeated exposure to this material affects her, Jennifer Eisenhauer writes: “The ways in which mothers who have bipolar disorder are portrayed in popular media becomes part of my daily lived experience. This is not because I see these portrayals everyday, but because these images and narratives become part of how I see myself and how others view me.”

Beyond these common negative stereotypes, people experiencing mental illness often encounter comments and behaviour which are insensitive or unhelpful. The many lists and articles about “what not to say to someone with mental illness” can be seen as guides to avoiding microagression. The Australian mental health charity SANE recommends avoiding the following:

– “Get over it / snap out of it”
– “It’s all in your head”
– “Stop whinging”
– “You have the same illness as my…”
– “You don’t seem unwell”
– “They’re so OCD!”
– “Have you thought of trying this, that or the other?”
– “You don’t need medication”
– “You need to be honest”
– “Get a good night’s sleep, exercise and look for the positives”
– “Oh yeah, that’s quite common isn’t it?”
– “Time heals. It will get better”

While stating that a mental illness is quite common seems to indicate acceptance, it can be experienced as minimising one’s distress. “You have the same illness as my…” is not that different from telling a black person that you are ok with black people and are not a racist because you have black friends. Other apparently well-meaning comments are problematic because they place the responsibility for recovery on the sufferer. Telling people to “think positive”, “what do you have to be upset about when your life is so good” or assuming that taking up yoga and eating large quantities of blueberries will solve someone’s problems, make it sound as if people could simply “snap out of it” if only they could be bothered to try. Such examples of insensitivity and rudeness accumulate into a pattern of social assumptions that mental illness can be overcome with application and self-management. This, in turn, moralises mental illness – you would not be depressed if only you tried harder, you are not trying that hard, therefore you are doing something wrong. Such moralisation further undermines the confidence of those with mental illness.

Appeals to microaggression are often dismissed with the claim that people are simply oversensitive. The complainers are snowflakes, self-deluded by victim culture. This criticism appears even more forceful here, as people with mental illness are often prone to interpreting events in a negative light or ruminating on the comments of others. We need not go as far as assuming completely delusional thinking. Depressed people often feel disproportionate guilt, feel as if they have failed or feel unloved. Anxiety can lead us to blow the importance of things out of proportion, or to worry about events that are unlikely to occur. Even psychologists sometimes assume that those with mental illness primarily experience self-stigma and expect discrimination that outweighs the actual stigma and discrimination from others. They claim that the negative attitudes are mostly in people’s imagination. Given this background how can we be sure that experiences of microaggression are not simple misinterpretations of well-meaning acts?

This is where the work of philosopher Regina Rini comes in extremely useful (even though mental illness is not a case she discusses). In her book-length analysis of the concept of microaggression, she gives an “ambiguous experience account of microaggression: what makes an act or event count as microaggression is that it is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly but not certainly instantiating oppression.” Her definition takes into account that microaggressions are both subtle and ambiguous. Part of the damage they do is to make already marginalised people suspicious of their own interpretation of events. While their own interpretations are not always correct, Rini argues that as long as on balance members of a marginalised social group are likely to correctly notice subtle discrimination, we should accept that microaggression does happen, even if we sometimes disagree about whether any individual case is an instance of it.

Are people with mental illness reliable in this way? They are usually knowledgeable about their symptoms, medications and medication side effects. Moreover, most people, even with chronic mental illnesses, are not always unwell and out of touch with reality. Even when unwell, mental illness does not affect all domains of thinking. Experiencing irrational guilt does not imply an inability to recognise condescending remarks. The extensive overlap among “what not to say” lists (not all of which are blatant copies of each other) also indicates a consensus over what constitutes microaggression for people with mental illness.

So, rather than worrying whether an individual instance counts as a microaggression, we should be concerned with identifying the most common forms of microaggression that affect people with mental illness. If people with mental illness identify a set of unhelpful and discriminatory remarks, behaviours or environmental factors, we can safely say that microaggression does affect people with mental illness, regardless of any tendency of some people with mental illness to find social slights particularly painful. Even in these cases, the painfulness of these experiences must not be discounted. Another strength of Rini’s account is that it puts the focus on the experiences of marginalised people. Even though they may at times be mistaken about their interpretation of events, we should still accept the word of those experiencing mental illness about how those events made them feel.

Research shows that microaggression does affect people with mental illness in systematic ways. For example, Yanos et al found that there were “three main categories of experiences in this regard: assumptions of inferiority (for example, statements indicating that it was assumed that the person is not capable of doing what most people can do), patronizing microaggressions (for example, dismissive statements suggesting assumptions that people with mental illness are child-like), and subtle behaviors indicating fear of mental illness (for example, moving away from a person who is known to have a mental illness).”

Thus, we have every reason to accept general claims of microaggression in the case of mental illness. What can we do about this? Rini recommends avoiding, or at least questioning, material with harmful stereotypes in order to avoid internalising these ourselves. For their own part, writers, whether of fiction, non-fiction or journalism, can reduce lazy stereotyping in their work. (There is plenty of advice available. As an example, philosopher Sofia Jeppsson has written a blog post on the common problems with the way mental illness is depicted in science-fiction.) We can follow the advice of “what not to say to people with mental illness” lists. We can assume that someone who lives with an illness has already tried all the obvious remedies. Most importantly, we should listen and if someone says something is unhelpful, accept this instead of trying to convince them that they are mistaken about their own experiences.

Is disruptive climate activism morally controversial?

We are in the midst of an emergency. Drastic action by states, businesses, and individuals is required if we are to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. Activism is a necessary part of and precursor to this action. And increasingly it is disruptive climate activism that is being advocated and engaged in. To many people, this kind of activism will seem morally controversial and perhaps even unjustified. But is it? And, if so, why exactly? Let’s examine three worries one might have.

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Teaching Philosophy “Outside the Walls”

A photograph depicting an audience listening to a lecture in a traditional lecture hall

An audience in a lecture hall

How do you get undergraduate students excited about philosophy? How do you show students that studying philosophy isn’t just about reading complex discussions about the nature of reality? Philosophy teachers the world over are increasingly facing external pressures – from Rate my Professor to government funding bodies and everything in between – to make their courses popular, engaging, or “useful”. Many are also aware of other factors that may encourage re-thinking the way in which we teach philosophy and to move away from traditional  styles of teaching, for instance concerns about accessibility or Western-centrism. One of the things this series, Teaching Philosophy, sets out to do is to canvas different ways of teaching philosophy. We hope that these discussions serve to inspire and provide ideas for those considering adopting different ways of teaching and assessing students.

For this post, we spoke to Dr Sjoerd Griffioen and Dr Merel Semeijn from the University of Groningen (Netherlands). They run a module called Buiten de Muren (Outside the Walls), which is a required module for second year BA Philosophy students. In the module, students identify a societal issue they want to tackle, a relevant ethical theory or concept (broadly construed), and create a creative final product. ‘We really ask them not to write a standard academic paper about it, or do a standard presentation, but to really come up with something else – because it will probably be the only time in their academic career that they can do that’, Griffioen says. ‘Of course we supervise them very intensively. Because it does happen that students start with a brilliant idea but then they run into problems and we have to turn them towards something that might be a bit more pragmatic. But the principle is that we give them a lot of freedom to come up with something other than a standard academic paper. “Outside the Walls” means to think outside the walls of academia – outside the box, if you will.’

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A justice-inspired reading of the COP26 discursive arena

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which has been taking place in Glasgow since October 31st and will end on November 12, has already offered many possibilities for reflecting about the ongoing transnational, multidisciplinary debate on climate change which unfolds through mass media and social platforms. The COP26 is the occasion for delegates of the 197 countries which signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to negotiate ways to contrast climate change in line with the objectives set in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in the subsequent COPs.

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Is the OECD/G20 international corporate tax reform fair?

On October 8th, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced that 136 countries have adopted its two-pillar proposal to reform the taxation of multinational enterprises (MNEs).

Pillar One applies to MNEs with sales in excess of $20bn and profits over 10%. It shifts the taxing rights of the next 25% of profits above the 10% threshold to market jurisdictions, that is, to the country where the goods and services of the MNE in question are sold. The measure is thought to apply only to about 100 MNEs, many of them in the highly profitable digital services sector. Pillar Two introduces a minimum tax of 15% for all MNEs with revenues of more than $750m.

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Accounting for global and local justice in behavioural climate policy

Anthropogenic climate change is a global concern. However, that climate change concerns all of us does not mean that it would concern all of us equally. Income is the primary correlate of carbon footprint whether analysed on a national or individual level. The richest half of the world’s countries (in GDP) emit 86% of global CO2 emissions. The difference is even starker when analysed on an individual level: income level is also the strongest correlate with citizen CO2 footprint (2016 data from the Global Carbon Project). The effect of attempts to decrease carbon footprint in wealthy countries by producing climate-friendly consumer goods, energy, and transport options have had limited effect – in part because these only transform a small part of citizens’ total consumption behaviour, and in part because reductions are needed, primarily, in the amount of consumption by high-income citizens rather than in the specific goods being consumed.

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“What I would like is for people to come at the world with lots of different ways of seeing things”; Dr Liam Kofi Bright on the philosophical canon

Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens

Detail of Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, depicting among others Plato and Aristotle

In 2020, Dr Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw [in Dutch]. In that interview, he outlined his case for getting rid of philosophical canons. “The Dutch far right got very angry with me on Twitter,” Bright says. “A quite prominent far-right politician said what a terrible person I am, and a bunch of her followers agreed.” But much of this anger was based on a misunderstanding of Bright’s argument. “They assumed without really reading what I was saying that my objection was to the particular people on the canon, so say Descartes, because he was a white guy from Europe. And they, being the far right, didn’t like that. But actually my objection isn’t really to any particular items on the canon at all.”

To start off our new series of posts about teaching philosophy – titled, unimaginatively but succinctly, “Teaching Philosophy” – we caught up with Dr Bright in August 2021 to discuss his argument, and to learn more about what teaching philosophy without teaching to the philosophy canon might look like.

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How to Ask Questions and Alienate People: Is Playing Devil’s Advocate Morally Defensible?

This is a guest post by Avril Tynan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland.

It often seems that asking questions is an infallible activity. When we ask questions we demonstrate curiosity; it’s how we learn and understand; in universities we encourage students to ask questions, to interrogate data and theories and to challenge conventional approaches. When we ask how, why, when, where and who, we illuminate the grey areas of our knowledge and understanding, and we may even stumble upon new information and fresh perspectives. But asking questions can be damaging, disrespectful and even dangerous, particularly when the objective is not to understand, but rather to undermine.

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What the pandemic can teach us about political philosophy

This post originally appeared on LSE School of Public Policy’s COVID-19 blog on 3rd September. You can access this version here. Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future, the collection of essays discussed in this post, is out this coming Thursday (23rd September)!


Aveek Bhattacharya (Social Market Foundation) and Fay Niker (University of Stirling), co-editors of a new book on the ethics and politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it, introduce some of its ideas.

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Back in April 2020, in the period we now look back on as “the first lockdown”, we gathered together some early reflections from philosophers and political theorists on the ethical dimensions of the developing COVID-19 pandemic. We published these on Justice Everywhere, the blog we help to run. Experts from almost every academic field – epidemiology, statistical modelling, social psychology, economics – were turning the tools of their trades to the growing crisis. What, if anything, did we and our peers have to offer?

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Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Chapter Preview (Adam Swift)

Several Justice Everywhere authors have been involved in a book project about the ethics and politics of COVID-19. The volume, Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future (Bloomsbury 2021), is a collection of 20 essays covering five main themes: (1) social welfare and vulnerability; (2) economic justice; (3) democratic relations; (4) speech and (mis)information; and (5) the relationship between crisis and justice.

The second of three chapter previews that we’re releasing in the run up to the book’s publication next week comes from Adam Swift, who contributed a chapter to the final theme on the relationship between crisis and justice. His chapter, Pandemic as Political Theory, takes a step back to consider what the COVID-19 crisis reveals about the nature of politics and political theory in general.

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