In this post, Suzy Killmister (Monash) discusses her recently published article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy giving an answer to the question, what, if anything, can members of oppressed groups do to counter that oppression?

© Adam Fagen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

During the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, protestors marched through the streets carrying signs bearing the slogan ‘I Am a Man’. Today, protesters march through the streets carrying signs declaring ‘Trans Rights are Human Rights’, while others proclaim ‘No Human is Illegal’. What’s going on here? And more importantly, what explains the rhetorical power of such statements?

In my article ‘I Am a Man: Countering Oppression Through Appeal to Kind Membership’ I seek to explain the effectiveness of slogans such as these in terms of membership in social kinds. While social metaphysics might not seem an obvious starting point for such self-evidently political phenomena, I argue that it has untapped resources.

It’s widely acknowledged that social groups can function as sites of oppression: to be a woman, or to be Black, or to be trans, is to be situated at the lower end of a social hierarchy. What hasn’t yet been acknowledged is that membership in social groups can also offer resources to counter that oppression. Put simply: we can leverage our membership in an anti-oppressive kind in order to counter the oppression we face as members of an oppressive kind. This post will explain how I think that works.

Oppressive Kinds; Non-Oppressive Kinds; and Anti-Oppressive Kinds

We’ve already encountered some examples of oppressive kinds, in the form of oppressed minorities. To flesh this idea out a little: I take kinds to be oppressive when the social norms concerning how members are to be treated license oppressive treatment. So the social kind woman is oppressive because social norms license (among other things) our harassment. Likewise, the social kind Black is oppressive because social norms license (among other things) state-sanctioned violence from police officers.

While oppressive social kinds have, for good reason, been the focus of social metaphysical work, most social kinds are far more mundane. Take the social kind carpenter, or the social kind parent. Whatever stresses and challenges accompany membership in such kinds, there are not – at least in any society I’m familiar with! – social norms licensing oppressive treatment of those groups. Such kinds are non-oppressive.

There is one further kind of kind, though, that is not just non-oppressive, but also anti-oppressive. These are kinds for which the relevant social norms block oppressive treatment, because membership includes a presumption of equal status. A prime example is the kind citizen: to be a citizen is to be entitled to the very same civil rights as every other citizen.

The final piece of the metaphysical puzzle is the idea that the human itself can be understood as an anti-oppressive social kind, analogous to a kind like citizen. That idea might raise a few eyebrows, so here’s the elevator pitch: just as some feminists have argued that gender is the social meaning of sex, I argue that human is the social meaning of Homo sapiens. I won’t try to unpack the full social meaning contained within the human here, but three social norms are important. The first is the norm that humans are moral equals, who all share a high moral worth. The second is the norm that humans have human rights. And the third is the norm that fellow humans are ‘one of us’, in the sense that whatever we take ourselves to be owed qua human, that is owed to other humans as well.

So how can we leverage our membership in the social kind human, in order to counter social oppression?

©Alisdare Hickson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Flipping the Script (aka What We Can Learn from Hate Speech)

Two of the examples I opened with involve a public declaration that the oppressed people in question – trans people, refugees – are human.  What these sorts of declarations do is make salient the norms attached to the human, and in doing so draw attention to their clash with oppressive norms operative in the situation being protested. To put it another way: the slogan ‘No Human is Illegal’ triggers the norms associated with being human, namely that we all have high moral worth; all have human rights; and are all entitled to the same kind of treatment. These norms are self-evidently incompatible with the ways refugees are currently treated, so it creates a tension in the hearer: either humanity doesn’t have the social meaning we ascribe to it, or refugees aren’t human. 

That’s the short explanation. To dig in a little deeper, we can turn to philosophical work on hate speech. As Lynne Tirrell has argued, using the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide as a case study, hate speech has material effects because it entails expressive commitments, which in turn license action. Calling Tutsis cockroaches, in the context of Rwanda in the early months of 1994, involves taking on the expressive commitment that Tutsis are the kind of being who ought to be killed. The speaker also invites those around them to share that commitment.

What the protests movements illustrated above show is that this very same mechanism can be inverted. When a protestor holds up a sign declaring ‘No Human is Illegal’, they are taking on an expressive commitment to refugees being our moral equals, with human rights, who ought to be treated the same way the rest of want to be treated. In doing so, they invite those around them to share that commitment – and to act on it.

©Alisdare Hickson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Note of Caution

What I’ve said so far might suggest that we should all be invoking our humanity all the time – what’s there to lose? To wrap up, I want to sound a brief note of caution: invoking our membership in an anti-oppressive kind can, if done without due care, be harmful. The full paper looks at three potential harms: that invoking the human excludes those whose humanity is not readily accepted; that invoking the human suppresses difference; and that invoking the human harms non-human animals.  Here I’ll flag just the third, namely the potential to reinforce the hierarchy between human and non-human animals.

Let’s return to where we started, with the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. Those words – “I Am a Man” – can strike an awkward note to contemporary ears. That’s because the claim to be a man is very naturally heard as a protestation that one is not a woman. That in turn carries the implication that while I, as a man, ought not to be treated that way, it would be perfectly fine to treat a woman that way.

Consider, now, how commonly the declaration ‘he/she is human!’ is either explicitly or implicitly paired with the demand ‘don’t treat them like an animal’. When someone invokes their own humanity, they are potentially doing two things at once: on the one hand, they are triggering the anti-oppressive norms attached to that kind; but on the other, they are drawing attention to their privileged position within a broader species hierarchy, which functions to re-entrench that hierarchy.

Being a member of the social kind human gives us significant power, one that we can strategically wield to counter the oppression of marginalized groups. However, it also comes with a responsibility: we must learn to wield our humanity in ways that don’t further harm vulnerable others.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.