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Iris Young, Bad Dates and #MeToo

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.



Beth Kahn

Beth Kahn is a moral and political philosopher working at the University of Durham. Her research centres around questions of social injustice and political action. Previously she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Goethe University as part of the ‘Justitia Amplificata’ research group.



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  1. Beth Kahn

    I realise this is a difficult subject. Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes regarding the story or the letter. I would not want to mislead regarding what was said and I will make any changes that are needed. Some changes to the original post have been made.

  2. I think it is worth distinguishing between cases involving male privilege and cases that do not involve male privilege. The case of Weinstein was a case of male privilege, in that most individuals with power in Hollywood are men, and he was abusing this power. I do not think cases of assault in general are cases of male privilege, given that women are almost as likely as men to commit sexual assault, if we define assault as any case involving the lack of consent (see https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=245). This is, of course, consistent with everything you have written. We need ‘…to analyse and reform our own individual behaviour alongside seeking to alter social norms.’

  3. Beth Kahn

    One thing that was not emphasised in the original post is that those who are guilty of these crimes will twist reality and attempt to excuse or misrepresent their actions so as to deny their guilt and seek to push blame onto others and away from themselves. Any theory that allows them room to do so and gives them the space to twist reality in such a way to make the question of guilt ambiguous should be avoided. There is a significant worry that the approach endorsed in this post does so.

  4. Miriam Ronzoni

    Hi Beth,
    If I understand you correctly, then you would judge that Ansari incident a case to be dealt with through forward-looking responsibility, hence I take it that “naming and shaming” was not appropriate in that case?

  5. Beth

    Hi Miriam

    Thanks for the comment.

    I think people voicing their complaints against particular individuals publicly, make valuable contributions to trying to improve social relations – often at significant cost to themselves. It is up to individuals to decide if they are going to go public and if they wish to name names or not. I think we all have a right to publicly complain when we are mistreated or disrespected and I would not by any means criticise anyone for doing so.

    If the question is whether or not it is all things best to have a general approach of naming and shaming those behaving badly and perpetuating problematic norms and/or taking advantage of their power or whether it is better when it comes to some problems to have a general and anonymised discussion where we discuss patterns of behaviour and bring up incidents of mistreatment in order to illustrate a systematic problem. I deliberately avoided assigning any actual cases to the categories of better suiting an emphasis on individual guilt, forward looking responsibility or both. I do think that there are cases that fall in to each of these three categories. However, which is best dealt with in which way depends on the details of the case and the social context (how far along we are in establishing the much better norms and relations we so desperately need).

    – on the one hand naming and shaming is a form of social punishment that can be helpful in establishing and enforcing norms. It can make clear what is an is not acceptable behaviour and pressure people to behave better. Once a norm is decently established identifying and criticising those who fall short of it will be a part of enforcing it.
    – on the other there are some reasons that suggest that it might be better to adopt a different approach where the norm has not been publicly acknowledged and widely adopted. Young’s points out in the politics of difference that adopting a blaming approach to prejudiced behaviour can sometimes be counter-productive if your aim is to transform social norms and encourage people to change. This is because it can lead to defensiveness on the part of those accused (and others who act in similar ways or share a similar social position) rather than leading them to reflect on how they behave and to actually change. This gives a pragmatic and a consequentialist reason in favour of a different tactic if your primary aim is systematic social change or trying to get the individual to change their own behaviour. This does not make ‘naming and shaming’ wrong, but it does offer some reason to adopt a different tactic.

    A second general issue with the naming and shaming approach I wanted to draw attention to is that it sometimes seems to lead people to adopt the ‘a few bad apples’ understanding of the problem rather than identifying systematic trends that require reform to our norms, understandings and structures. However, I do not think this means people should not publicly discuss their mistreatment and identify those responsible. My hope is that the public and the debate on these issues can adopt an approach that allows them to simultaneously identify wrong actions and guilty individuals at the same time as recognising systematic problems rather than seeing it as zero sum. Just because one individual has behaved badly and should be criticised does not mean that we shouldn’t think about our wider norms and practices and reflect on how we can be better and adopt better structures and standards and not give people the opportunity, incentive and/or permission to act in this way. I think getting people to grasp this point is absolutely vital if we are to tackle the significant and persistent problems of sexual harassment, abuse of power and sexist and misogynistic bullying that exist .

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