Moral Badness vs. Punishment

Just Because You Didn't Demand Sex Doesn't Make It Better

The (now confessed) allegations against Louis CK are certainly awful behavior and shouldn’t be tolerated but they raise an interesting issue about the distinction between appropriate punishment and moral harm.

For instance, we set the penalty so high for some crimes (cheating on taxes or insider trading) not necessarily because those crimes are such atrocious moral infractions but because we need sufficiently high penalties to deter that behavior effectively. I’d argue that a similar thing is going on when someone uses their power over someone’s career to extort sexual favors.

Obviously, its morally unacceptable to ruin someone’s career for your own selfish reasons. However, we often tolerate people with power harming the careers of others out of pure pique, spite or other selfish reason. Now the individual moral harm of offering someone a choice (sleep with me or I hurt your career) is no more1 than the harm of simply hurting their career out of spite or pique.

However, this doesn’t mean we should reserve the same level of punishment (and here public condemnation is a form of punishment) for those two behaviors. The unfortunate fact of the situation is that without serious and strong punishment (legal or social) for, even implicitly, conditioning (non-sexual, porn-stars and prostitutes are hard cases) career success on sexual favors we risk creating an environment in which succeeding in an industry requires providing sexual favors. In contrast, when someone with power hurts a career out of spite, pique or on a lark we don’t face the same danger of creating an environment in which some people are systematically disadvantaged (we still face some risk of that). But, at least in an environment where demands for sexual favors aren’t the norm that doesn’t make the harm of the individual act greater.

Anyway, this is all a very long way of pointing out that while we appropriately punish people who condition career advancement on sex more it’s just as morally wrong to harm someone’s career for no reason or because you have some kind of personal or political disagreement with them. No, this is not an attempt to minimize the harm of behavior like that of Louis CK but, rather, to point out its no better when you screw over someone’s career because you dislike their politics, find their voice annoying or any other random (job unrelated) reason.


  1. I realize this claim is arguable but I think it’s true on reasonable psychological assumptions. 

Sexual Discrimination I’ve Seen

An Alternative To Me Too

So in response to my criticism of me too someone suggested I should post about an experience I’ve had. I won’t post about a situation where I’ve done something useful to combat sexual discrimination nor extreme violations of the law since that isn’t particularly helpful in my opinion. The goal isn’t to signal moral virtue or share scary stories but, instead, to illustrate the ways in which unfair treatment can hide even in surprising places so we can excise those last remnants of sexism and discrimination.

So the story I’ll convey is about how at an academic institution I attended a friend of mine was repeatedly asked to perform administrative tasks and food provisioning tasks by an elderly professor because of her gender. Certainly, she could have raised a fuss but doing so would have caused her more grief than going along with the situation. What I think is instructive about the situation is that this reflected only the messed up priorities of one member of the faculty but despite this the fact that it was easier for all the other faculty members not to get involved meant that this was all it took.

As far as solutions go I think this illustrates the importance of not simply relying on complains or formal channels to solve these problems. Its important for people to be aware when their colleagues are imposing an unfair policy (gender based or otherwise) and say something. I also think it reveals how some people find they virtually never experience this kind of treatment and other people experience it frequently. While I don’t think it would have mattered in this case (female victims were in short supply here), I can easily imagine that a less stubborn/crotchety instigator would specifically target those individuals who seemed least likely to report/complain.

Anyway I’ve kept details vague to avoid identifying anyone but this is the kind of description I felt would be helpful as opposed to merely ‘me too’.

The Absurd Idea That Privileged Individuals Should Step Aside From Discussions Of Harassment, Aggression and Discrimination

If Anything Cis-White-Men's Lived Experience Makes Their Views More Valuable Than Those Of The Usual Victims

So frequently when social media gets involved in solving/addressing/recognizing racial or gender aggression (like the ‘me too’ trend) I see (or get) the attitude that its somehow not appropriate or bad for cis-white men (or some subset thereof) to offer their opinion on whether the effort is effective, morally justified, etc.. Not only does this attitude seem to lack any semblance of justification but it pretty clearly places the holder’s concern over their moral righteousness or social standing above the welfare of the group they claims to care about helping. Furthermore, by abandoning the hard won cultural consensus that it is the value of an individuals ideas, character and contributions that matter not their gender or skin color it risks less obvious, but more extensive, harm to the philosophical foundation on which we’ve built our turn away from bigotry and intolerance.

I recognize that this last point is only convincing once you accept that there isn’t a systematic reason that cis-white-mens’ views on these issues are almost categorically1 certain not to be worth hearing so I’ll start there and focus on the ability of men to contribute to conversations about harassment.

I’ll first argue that not only is there no particularly unique experience that living as a woman (even almost) ensures that one has nor is there any reason to think that gender, rather than Myers-Briggs type or socioeconomic status, would be the way to identify conversational participants most likely to understand the experience of being a victim of harassment. Then I’ll point out that it’s not even important for participants in the conversation to have a good idea of how or why harassment is bad much less what it feels like to experience it. All that’s really important is that people in the conversation agree that it is bad and work to eliminate it. Finally, I’ll point out that its primarily men’s beliefs and behaviors that need to be changed to make progress against harassment and, as such, the life experiences that offer the most value to conversation or planning are those that offer insight into men’s psychology and can identify what will and won’t be persuasive to men. Then, having demolished any claims this attitude has to epistemic virtue I consider why so many people seem to find it intuitively attractive despite the fact that it represents an abandonment of core principles in the struggle against hatred, bigotry and intolerance. In particular, I’ll suggest that we need to be careful not to conflate group membership with moral guilt nor confuse what feels just with what will be most likely to produce a more just society.

Before I continue, however, I should address two important points. First, I’m not talking about interactions where victims are seeking out a compassionate, understanding ear and may feel more comfortable with one gender. I’m talking about public discussion of matters of societal concern. Secondly, I’m aware of those little verbal catchphrases used by the social justice community to respond to criticisms of this attitude but disparaging the speaker isn’t a compelling argument. Simply acting like this question has already been decided isn’t sufficient. If you don’t agree with my criticisms you need to offer an actual argumentative defense.

Of course, I could be missing something so if you think I am please let me know.

Does Gender Offer A Unique Experiential Understanding of Harassment?

Now, obviously there are certain feelings or gestalt impressions which are difficult to fully appreciate without first hand experience. Just as I will never fully appreciate what it feels like to be engrossed in an Olympic bobsled run I won’t ever fully experience the exact way in which sexual harassment (or the concern that one will be harassed) are hurtful. Of course, different women and minorities also experience these events in different ways. Indeed, variation here is sufficiently large that I’m quite confident that I have a much better grip on the emotional experience my wife has when she gets catcalled or is otherwise hurt/slighted based on her gender than a random women pulled off a US street would have based merely on their status as women in the states. This already pokes some serious holes in the usual argument that, lacking the experience of living as a woman, there is some epistemicly critical aspect information about how female victims feel which is somehow denied to men but available to other women. In short, being female neither ensures you agree about the frequency or emotional impact of harassment2 nor does being male mean you aren’t constantly perceiving this behavior to be going on around you or that the empathetic distance from you to any particular female victim is greater than it is for other women.

Of course, it will be true that other women will be more likely to both be aware of when, how and with what frequency harassment occurs then the average man but that is no more an argument for discouraging men’s contributions than the fact that blacks in the US are less likely to have a college degree is a good reason to throw out applications from blacks for a professorial position. In both cases its absurd to use the individuals racial or gender identity instead of simply checking if they know what they are talking about. Even if we had to adopt the (repugnant) policy of picking some feature with which to screen potential contributors to the discussion we could almost certainly do better by instead selecting for culturally liberal men and women who have been the victim of bullying or other sustained emotional cruelty. While being bullied isn’t the same as being sexually harassed this criteria at least ensures that the selected population understands how many small slights or disguised verbal assaults can amount to an unbearable psychological assault for the victim even while, viewed in isolation by colleagues and authority figures, each incident appears trivial and clearly not worth reacting to. In contrast, there are no shortage of female religious nutjobs who not only don’t believe sexual harassment happens but think it would be a woman’s place to quietly endure it if it did.

Is First Person Experiential Understanding Important?

For the sake of argument suppose that it was true that almost all women and almost no men have a first person experiential understanding of what it feels like to be a victim or likely potential victim. What conclusions should we draw from that? Well, perhaps in certain discussions that turn on details of the experience and aftermath its plausible that women would be systematically better able to contribute than men. For instance, I think its probably true that people with first person understanding are better equipped to contribute to a discussion about how best to manage/alleviate the emotional aftereffects of such experiences. However, even in cases where the specifics of the experience are relevant, its not always true they help reach better conclusions or productively contribute.

For example, while my experience of being bullied in junior high certainly left me with a profound sympathy for the victims and concern about the issue it also compromises my judgement. I know intellectually that many bullies aren’t bad people (I even befriended some eventually) and the worst ones are often victims of some kind themselves but when the topic comes up in discussion I can feel my vision go red and I find myself advocating extreme solutions and dismissing promising compassionate interventions with bullies. Worse, when it comes to offering advice to prospective victims or parents I find myself assuming that every situation resembles a suburban catholic school in the Midwest during the early 90s and baselessly assuming that just because authority figures could do nothing for me they have nothing to offer (except disciplining the victim under zero-tolerance policies).

Yes, the fact that I’ve thought about the issue a bunch and feel strongly about fixing it means I probably have more opinions on the problem than the average man on the street but those are more than balanced by my impaired judgement about the issue and the reluctance I feel to consider certain possibilities3. Indeed, I’m quite certain that if I’d found myself talking only to other victims of bullying while everyone else felt it was inappropriate to chime in I would be making the situation much worse and be blind to potential solutions.

Moreover, even setting aside the downsides of first-person emotional experience it’s not even clear that understanding the exact nature of the victim’s experience is helpful at all. Returning to the analogy with bullying, it’s certainly true that there are aspects of how it made me feel, ways its affected me and details of how it happened that are hard to convey to those who haven’t had similar experiences. However, appreciating the precisce way I or others were hurt offers no particular advantage in combating the problem. Anyone who believes the experience is very painful (so worth addressing) , is capable of evaluating the evidence and can usually recognize the harmful behavior when they observe it is just as capable of contributing to the discussion about what can be done to make things better. The same reasoning tells us that discussing the best way to combat harassment doesn’t require any kind of first person experience or understanding merely the genuine belief that it can cause substantial suffering.

Benefits of Male Lived Experience

The attitude that men shouldn’t participate in these conversations is obviously motivated by the idea that women are particularly vulnerable to being harassed and harassers are particularly likely to be men. While we shouldn’t pretend there aren’t also male victims (especially given the greater stigma for reporting) and female offenders I’m sure that the vast majority of cases are male offenders and female victims. While many people seem to have the intuition this is good reason for men to keep quite when women talk about harassment, exactly the opposite is true.

Given this breakdown of victims and perpetrators there isn’t any reason to suspect that the experience of being a woman could offer any particular insight into improving the situation. After all, we don’t want women to change their behavior and feel obligated to avoid `tempting’ men into harassment. Rather, we want to figure out how to change the way men behave so they don’t harass.

In contrast, the experience of being a man and interacting with other men (in the absence of women) offers a great deal of useful information to improve the situation. For instance, despite being about as far from a bro as its possible to be even my experience immediately suggests some useful facts. While I can’t be sure that the little just-so stories I offer in this footnote4 are completely accurate they are the sense I get of some of the ways men end up harassing women. Obviously, by inviting more men into the conversation, especially those who have engaged in various kinds of harassment in the past, one could gain a great deal of useful information about the factors that cause harassment to happen and potential mitigation strategies.

However, despite the fact that in this case men’s life experiences offer more value to the discussion than women’s, that’s certainly no reason to discourage women for participating. Rather, both sides should simply share the relevant experiences they’ve had so everyone can evaluate a single larger pool of evidence and come to a more accurate conclusion.

Dangers Of Gender Based Evaluation

Alright, so discouraging contributions based on the contributors gender risks keeping important information and perspectives out of these discussions not to mention reinforcing potentially counterproductive (if totally human and understandable) emotional responses to the state of affairs with respect to risks like harassment. Obviously, the mere fact that this attitude impedes us from reducing the problem of harassment that we supposedly care so much about fixing is enough to reject it but slightly slower progress is the least of the dangers.

Least importantly, in the eyes of anyone even slightly critical of the social justice community and millennial leftists, this kind of attitude confirms all their most absurd stereotypes. Presenting this attitude makes life substantially more difficult for all those women struggling to be believed or convince someone to take action about the fact they are being sexually harassed (or even assaulted). Each time some cop in the Midwest or mine owner in the West runs across someone saying guys should but out because only women have something useful to say they think, “Huh, I guess it is all absurd BS just like Fox news says,” and the next time someone tries to report a crime or workplace violation they will be just that much more skeptical.

Moreover, as women should know there is an especially strong reaction when one is rejected from something on the basis of an irrelevant, but psychologically salient, property like gender. For some reason making categorical judgements based on certain attributes is something people find especially infuriating even if other judgements (e.g. being treated worse because you aren’t as attractive or aren’t a morning person) are no less unfair. You may not think men should have this kind of reaction when it is the privileged gender that is getting the short end of the stick but they do and it will push men away from the causes you care about.

Now maybe you think this is all silly. Of course its not a big deal if men don’t get to contribute to this particular discussion or you deviate from the principle of supposed gender blindness in this understandable way. And if you could control everyone else who would might use a similar justification to exclude men from some contributing to some conversation or issue that might be a good argument. However, remember that not only are there always extremists out there but there are a thousand different opinions about exactly which conversations men should or shouldn’t be excluded from and once you open deviate from the principle that each person’s contribution should be evaluated solely on its merit not the gender (or race or etc..) of the contributor someone else will take it too far or try to apply a similar rule somewhere it isn’t appropriate and eventually you risk undermining the broad consensus for the idea that incidental features like gender, race, sexual orientation etc.. shouldn’t be relevant to most decisions.

It doesn’t matter that you may have defined discrimination in such a way that it can only apply to policies that hurt the underprivileged. There is a large segment of the population who won’t see the difference between rules which treat people differently based on gender in what you see as a good way and what you see as a discriminatory way.

Intuitions In Opposition

Ok, so what accounts for the widespread intuition that men should be excluded from such conversations?

Well part of this is simply a response to the fact that, given a norm in circles sympathetic to harassment claims against male participation of course the men who nevertheless participate are overwhelmingly likely to be saying something stupid and offensive. However, that’s hardly a justification for having the rule in the first place. Sure, even in the absence of such a rule its almost certainly true that men will be over-represented among the dismissive and mocking responses but since such respondents won’t be inclined to obey such a rule in the first its not really a good reason for having such a rule. Moreover, there are any number of subjects where either men or women are particularly likely to be mean and insensitive but we don’t favor general gender based contribution bans.

Another part of the explanation is the ambiguity, in some circumstances, as to whether the conversation is truly about discussing useful fixes or taking actions as opposed to simply venting/bitching. I suspect that often people like to adopt the pretense they are interested in finding solutions or fixing a problem but really just want to vent and bitch. As such, almost any contribution from a man will be unwelcome as, even if they are offering helpful insight into how one might make the situation better, it will force those participating in the conversation to switch gears from simple venting to seriously considering proposals and useful actions. I can understand why people find this annoying but I think there are serious social harms in allowing mere venting to masquerade as serious consideration of social problems. When we vent we are liable to say a great many things (e.g. how about we have a curfew on men on college campuses) we don’t really mean. If we don’t clearly delineate what is mere venting from serious suggestions in online conversations people will get the wrong idea (at the very least detractors will use such ambiguous discussions against us). So, while I appreciate the need for such venting we already have good reasons to clearly distinguish it from genuine discussions about how one should make the world better.

Finally, I think many people have the idea that since harassment is a harm that is predominantly (though not exceptionlessly) inflicted on women by men somehow it seems unjust or unfair for men to also take a significant role in discussing how to combat the problem. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it implicitly assigns blame to all members of an identity group for actions taken by some members. Just as it would be unreasonable to say that a black homeowner shouldn’t be able to speak at a town meeting because it was black teenagers vandalizing homes largely owned by whites so too its unreasonable to act as if men as a group are guilty for the bad behavior by some members. This sends the message to young men that they should be ashamed of being men and that male sexuality is inherently somehow bad and harmful. But, even if we put this aside, this attitude places symbolism over actual progress. As I’ve argued above excluding men from such discussions reduces our ability to actually make the situation better and thats what should matter not the symbolism along the way.


  1. While I will argue that men’s voices are, if anything, particularly valuable in these discussions all that is necessary to indict this policy is that men aren’t so obviously less able to contribute that it makes sense to screen them based on their gender rather than simply evaluating their individual contributions. We normally think that it is inappropriate, and often irrational, to use statistical differences in rates of criminal behavior, workplace productivity or even upper body strength based on race or gender to deny members of those groups the opportunity for an individual evaluation even when, as in the case of upper body strength, there are clear biological differences giving rise to a large performance gap. 
  2. There are always women, despite the social pressure, who are willing to admit (or even speak up and say) that they experience harassment so rarely and find it so unimportant when they do that its a less pressing concern than more mundane concerns, e.g., whether people at their work get to annoy them by eating at their desks. 
  3. For instance, emotionally I don’t want to believe it was primarily a midwestern catholic school thing and if I’d just switched schools things would have been orders of magnitude better. Though its obviously a good thing if most kids don’t have to endure quite that level of unpleasentness the idea that if I’d just be born a few years latter in California the same traits which I was mercilessly mocked for would have been accepted if not popular. My wife claims this was what things were like growing up in Berkeley but I’m still not sure I believe her. 
  4. For example, the temptation to catcall, make a show of continued (unwanted) sexual advances and other kinds of ‘strutting’ are most acute when men are in a pack together. Despite the fact that the comments and behavior are putatively directed at the woman they are really a show put on to advertise masculinity/dominance to the other men in the group. As such, we ought to be careful before suggesting women should give as good as they get and shout back or otherwise retaliate against the catcaller as, by increasing the perceived risk (up to a point) of showing off that way, may also increase its apparent value. The crude sexualization talk, e.g., Trump and Billy Bush, is also largely a performative behavior for other men but in a very different sense. Here it is about making friends and being seen as a good guy. Shared transgressions, e.g., unflattering remarks about the boss, shared gossip, sexual exploits, are normal and unproblematic for both genders but things can go poorly if someone starts pushing things in the direction of harassing remarks as everyone else is reluctant to be the one who pulls back and offers criticism. Of course, in other cases the guys really are assholes and think harassment is an acceptable form of transgressive male bonding. 

‘Me Too’ Is A Silly And Potentially Dangerous Trend

The Folly Of Mindless Identification

So at the moment there is a trend for women on social media to post ‘me too’ to indicate they have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault. The originator described the idea saying

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem

While I understand the attraction of wanting to fix things by posting on social media this craze is about as useful as trying to fix racism by posting facebook updates saying ‘racism is bad’ making it at best silly. At worst it further discourages women from entering male dominated areas (STEM, CS, congressional politics) by increasing the level of fear and anxiety felt about harassment with potentially other negative rebound effects.

Presumably, the idea is that, by illustrating the number of women affected people will realize just how big a problem this is and extra resources or attention will help rectify the situation. However, one would hardly expect this to either convince those who resist the idea that this is a serious problem or who accept it but don’t realize their actions are part of the problem.

Of course, one might respond that the true point is to convince those who have been victims of sexual harassment or assault that their experience isn’t an isolated case and its a problem shared by many other women. Unfortunately, the mere fact that a large number of other women post ‘me too’ just isn’t a good measure of the magnitude of the problem. Knowing that many people have once experienced something that they are willing to construe as sexual harassment/assault when doing so lets them feel they are making a difference and gaining social approval isn’t very informative. Heck, if I were female and I believed this would help I would lie and say ‘me too’ even if I hadn’t so experienced it just to help make a difference.

So even other victims of sexual harassment/assault shouldn’t have their estimate of the frequency of such behavior elevated by this information provided they at least realize that many other women out there believe sexual assault/harassment is a problem that deserves more attention. Something they surely must to even process and understand this new evidence. After all, provided many other women believe that sexual harassment/assault deserves more attention they would be inclined to post ‘me too’ even if they only had a single moment of harassment once in their life (the people posting believe they are helping and want to be part of that solution by helping). I don’t believe that is what is happening but the point is that seeing other people post ‘me too’ should leave your prior about how frequent and serious the problem is roughly where it is.

Ultimately, then this leaves this whole trend down in the messy world of emotional effects where I fear there are more potentially. harmful emotional effects (discouraging or scaring women) as there are potential beneficial ones.

To be clear I do think it could be helpful if women posted descriptions of their individual experiences with harassment or assault and described how those experiences affected them. Seeing people describe both the frequency, severity and emotional harm is at least plausibly the sort of thing that could convince skeptics but this is something that women are going to be, understandably, reluctant to do. What I’m objecting to here is the idea that just be saying ‘me too’ and nothing else one is likely to make things better.

Lawsuit Demanding Students Be Barred From Accessing Offensive Content

Do We Really Want To Stop Victims of Harrasment From Learning What's Being Said About THem?

I pretty much agree with everything Prof. Volokh says in this post but I would add that is is particularly disturbing and dangerous that these claims not only made it to the lawsuit stage but also that sufficiently many people in the Feminist Majority Foundation (not mainstream but not tinfoil hat nutters) thought this was worth pursuing.

Sure, demanding censorship of mean, hurtful and demeaning comments about your group or identity isn’t anything to write home about. However, what really sets this situation apart is that the demand wasn’t to punish the anonymous individuals responsible but to stop students from choosing to access an information source because it might allow them to read these awful things.

Demands for censorship in response to hurtful/mean/awful comments is nothing to write home about (from either side of the political aisle) but I think something is particularly distasteful about demanding policies that would allow all the assholes in a 5 mile radius to continue attacking, degrading, spreading hurtful gossip about and otherwise making life bad for some women on campus while barring those very women from keeping abreast about what is being said about them so they can refute malicious gossip, take threats to the police and otherwise protect themselves (reputationally and physcially).

Sure, I know those filing the suit no doubt intended to discourage people from posting such hateful and derogatory remarks in the future by eliminating the on campus audience for them. However, this line of argument could equally well be used to deny students access to a contrarian blog (say by a former student) making an extended argument that, because of innate ability differences, the schools affirmative action policy was driving reductions in academic rigor/performance. Even if the students visiting the blog were driven by simple curiosity and desire to evaluate the claims for themselves, if the continued posts were clearly motivated by the blogger’s desire to reach so many students with his message there would be an equally strong argument for barring students from accessing the site. With the predictable result that it would probably only increase the extent to which students agree with those unpopular views (the feeling that a view is being suppressed is far more alluring than poor arguments for it).

In a different context I would be far more charitable. If a private university were being asked to ban the platform I’d still oppose the suggestion but it wouldn’t really be fair to suggest the proponents would be responsible for denying victims a chance to (easily) make themselves aware of attacks against them so they can respond. After all, the advocates would be presumably be suggesting that in the particular case the benefits would outweigh the costs. However, the plaintiffs were asking the courts, an institution designed to apply predicatable precedent not case specific balancing, to rule that such an outcome was required. As such I do think its fair to point out the plaintiffs are asking for a rule which, in many of its applications, would deny the victims warning and an ability to respond without substantially reducing the torrent of hate and insults.

The fact that this resulted in a full court case with published opinion makes me worry that the argument was either plausible enough that reasonable lawyers thought it had a chance of prevailing or, perhaps more likely, those advancing the suit felt the risk of enduring such a lawsuit would discourage universities from being quite so protective of free speech in the future. Particularly so for private universities who aren’t bound by any need to comply with the first amendment.

Opinion | Court rejects Feminist Majority Foundation’s demand that public university block access to Yik Yak

University of Mary Washington had no obligation to “ban Yik Yak from the campus wireless network ,” because such a ban “may have exposed the university to liability under the First Amendment” (and in any case wasn’t required by Title IX or the equal protection clause.

No Way Doxing Racist Marchers Can Go Wrong!

So apparently in the wake of Charlottesville a campaign has formed to identify and dox the people who marched in support of white nationalism. No way this could end badly!

I’m sure white nationalists and their sympathizers we see spending all day posting on parts of 4chan and reddit have neither the time nor inclination to respond in kind. And if they do I’m sure they’ll restrict themselves to simply publishing the identities of those in antifa movements or anti-racist marches. No way they will expose gay people in the closet living in repressive regimes or name individuals anonymously sharing their experiences of sexual assault/violence. Surely they would never stoop so low as to reveal the identities of women who live in religiously conservative communities or work for conservative religious employers who seek advice about dealing with the emotional aftermath of an abortion.

Also, I’m sure that giving those who might be sympathetic enough to go to a march but not really committed a really good reason to hold a grudge and making sure they can’t hold a normal job will help them see the error of their ways. No way it will turn them into hardened extremists.

And certainly the groups who form to dox these white supremacists will understand that nazis are a special case and, after receiving a bunch of praise, will just pack up rather than going after another group they see as having unacceptable views or if they do it will surely be one you also see as unacceptable.

And, of course, all these vigilantes will exercise great care and verify that every last person they dox is really a white supremacist. No way they will accidentally mistake some passerby or blogger covering the event. I mean this is totally different than the situation will real life crimes like rape or murder where we think vigilantism poses far too great a risk of getting things wrong.

Yup, no reason to worry about this at all. Lets get those nazi bastards.

Microaggressions And The Feedback Problem

Or When Do Attempts To Make Things Better Backfire?

I was reading an interesting and insightful post by theunitofcaring offering a useful perspective on microaggressions and what is going on with them (she identifies them with the actions/statements that create the subtle sense one isn’t welcome in some group). I very much urge everyone to read the whole thing since her point about what microaggressions really are is probably more important than the quibbles/speculation I have to offer here but once you’ve done that I want to call your attention to the following passage in her post:

But I think the actual thing with microaggressions is that feeling of ‘people like me are not welcome’ or at least ‘people like me are only conditionally welcome, welcome if we’re friendly and careful and unthreatening and reassuring and match other peoples’ narratives about us and aren’t angry and don’t make anyone uncomfortable and toe the party line’. It’s really helpful for people to collect and corroborate and discuss and complain about all of the little cues which add up to that impression, but scrupulously memorizing the list of cues and avoiding the things on your list won’t actually make spaces where people feel welcome. The problem is the ‘this space is not for people like you’ thing.

Now I certainly agree that the feeling of being unwelcome is at least part of what is going on with micro-aggressions. I also understand why people want to hash out their experiences and complain about bad treatment. We all do this when we complain to our friends “Can you believe he did blah?” and it serves a useful emotional purpose. However, in face to face interactions our friends will also tend to encourage us not to dwell on it if we keep going on about it to and getting more angry and upset. However, when instead of sharing an experience with a friend we share it with a group that identifies itself with concern about the treatment of some (or many) underprivileged groups or that explicitly exists to share such experiences the dynamic is likely to change. For one, there will be considerable disincentive to tell anyone that they are overreacting or to encourage someone to just let it go and stop thinking about it. After all, the group norms explicitly favor such sharing and other group members are unlikely to be willing to take the flak for discouraging your participation just out of the concern that you are exacerbating your suffering.

While the risk of further exacerbating a hurtful event by focusing too much on it is something that people can decide how to deal with on their own this isn’t the only such risk posed by this kind of sharing. When we encourage this kind of sharing with a (social justice sympathetic) group there is the very real danger that by making these microaggressions so salient and creating lists of behaviors that in some circumstance qualified as unwelcoming makes people who would otherwise not have felt unwelcome conclude that they are.

I mean suppose I’m considering joining the ballroom dance club at my school. If I know nothing about it and go when someone says “Ohh, you’ll need some shoes with a such and such soul” I think ‘Ohh great, thanks’ and don’t feel unwelcome.

In contrast, suppose I’ve read a great deal about how ballroom dance clubs are horribly elitist, populated by rich snobs who think they are better than the rest of us and read detailed accounts by a guy who was treated badly by a ballroom dance club including the way in which they used the fact that he lacked the same 1000 dollar shoes they had to exclude and belittle him. Now, when I get up the courage to go to the club I’m full of trepidation, constantly on the look out for the expected insults based on my middle class background. Normal human communication is filled with little quirkys, misunderstandings, accidental offenses which I would have just passed over in the normal course but now I obsess over them and examine them for evidence I’m unwelcome. Now when I hear the perfectly friendly suggestion that I need shoes with a different kind of soul I don’t just think they are being helpful but instead assume that its a jab at me for not having super expensive shoes.

Note that, even if the salience/likelihood of being unwelcome doesn’t itself incline me to unwarrantedly assume friendly comments are really unwelcoming the mere fact that I’m aware of the way in which certain comments could be a microaggression makes me interpret them as such. After all, I will think (falsely assuming other people share my cultural context and knowledge of microaggressions) that given the charged nature of comments about shoes in the ballroom scene the mere fact that a club member brought my shoes up without showing great sensitivity to its aggressive nature is itself a slight against me. After all, if this group really cared about having people like me as members they would exercise much more care to avoid comments that so obviously risk offense.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not trying to minimize the real suffering that this kind of sense of being unwelcome can create. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that it matters which makes it so important we don’t accidentally increase the incidence of people feeling unwelcome in such a way.

Speculation About Social Justice Acrimony

So far everything I said is relatively obvious. Of course there are reasonable disagreements about the benefits offered by such sharing (which I barely touched on) as well as the risk of these harmful effects. However, I don’t think it should be particularly controversial that there is at least some such risk. What follows is much more speculative and while I think it is true but I could well be wrong (which hopefully someone will point out to me if I am). Also I think it is important to emphasize that I certainly am not trying to lay any blame or make any claims about who is in the right as not only do I not believe in blame/guilt as moral concepts but I think concern with such notions is a substantial contributor to much of the worlds suffering. Thus, the following account should not be understood as an attempt to say anything about whose behavior is or isn’t reasonable but just to hypothesize about what’s happening (which will hopefully guide us in finding ways we can make things better).

I think the kind of dynamic I describe above explains some of (but not all) the multiplying accusations of racism, insensitivity etc.. including in contexts that previously were genuinely not seen as racially/gender/etc.. charged by either side1 as well as the the increasingly militant and angry anti-privilege rhetoric and the equally angry and bitter snowflake accusations from the other side. The cultural bubble that individuals on the progressive left (including those members of underprivileged groups that high socioeconomic status people tend to encounter2) carry with them, especially online, includes extensive focus on emotionally charged stories about slights experienced by members of underprivileged groups at the hands of visible members of privileged groups. Just like nationwide news reporting about crimes creates a false sense of both the danger crime presents and the likelihood that minorities are criminals the continual focus on outrageous treatment of members of underprivileged groups gives rise to an inflated sense of how common such behavior is within the relatively elite social content of these college educated liberals. Continued interaction with a community in which the discriminatory/aggressive nature of certain phrases/subjects/etc.. is taken for granted encourages people to assume that its hurtful/offensive nature is obvious to anyone who considers it. This attitude is reinforced whenever the community comforts members who feel unwelcome at some event by assuring them they are in the right and its those awful men/whites/straights/TERFs who are subjecting you to aggressive attacks. By copying a trick from religion and adopting the explicit view that expressing doubt/skepticism itself betrays the community and allies one with the enemy the brakes that might otherwise keep attitudes from drifting too far from the mainstream are disabled3.

When members of such a community go out into the world they implicitly assume (just as they correctly criticize privileged people for doing) that their experience is representative-ish, i.e., they know its not representative but underestimate the extent to which other people’s experiences vary. As a result of the mechanisms discussed above these individuals genuinely feel unwelcome and see behaviors non-initiates don’t think anything of as a constant stream of aggressions or at least deliberate intolerance but when they do so they aren’t being particularly sensitive or demanding special treatment. They are acting no differently than blacks who justifiably view anyone using the n-word as engaging in racist speech no matter how much they insist they have no animus against blacks. Culture determines that certain behaviors, regardless of intent or motivation, are unacceptable attacks and members of the community in question are simply applying the same rule. Unfortunately, the cultural gap between those with social justice sympathies and unallied white men who they then interact with is far larger than either side intuitively appreciates. Lacking the same culture background those without social justice sympathies don’t even suspect that the phrases/arguments/subjects which get them in trouble are even unusual or controversial. Unfortunately, the resulting interaction only serves to further reinforce the views on both sides. Members of the underprivileged community feel hurt and attacked confirming the narrative they hear from their community while the members of the ‘privileged’ group unsurprisingly are upset when what they see as perfectly friendly behavior is met with anger and accusations of micro-aggressions. Making the same mistake about the representativeness of their experiences as members of the underprivileged community made they infer that all these people whining about microaggressions, privilege etc.. etc.. are either just absurdly sensitive ‘snowflakes’ or deceitful manipulative jerks. Everyone feels extremely justified, righteous and is absolutely certain they are the wronged party.

If this hypothesis is valid and we want to make things better, its absolutely critical that we do something to fix this dynamic. Social media self-selection makes it worse but facebook isn’t going away. Ideally, more contact and interaction between individuals from different backgrounds would be enable mutual understanding and let each side can see where the other is coming from. However, a variety of memetic defenses have made such progress particularly difficult. Social justice allies on the left explicitly reject the idea that they have any responsibility to educate/teach those they see as privileged and morally culpable4 and viewing any attempt to even convey the situation from the perspective of members of ‘privileged’ groups as itself an attack on the legitimacy of their complaints. Similarly, those on the right (or who are pushed that way by this dynamic) see any attempt to convey the situation from the perspective of underprivileged groups as an attempt to use guilt and emotional pressure to silence them and regard the race/gender based terminology that permeates social justice discussions as crossing a line into overt racism and moving beyond the realm of legitimate discourse. Sadly, bad behavior in the past by both sides means that these suspicions aren’t unreasonable and can’t be easily pushed past.

Obviously, the right answer probably isn’t to deny people who are honestly suffering from rejection (especially on account of their race/religion/etc..) a sympathetic hearing but I do suspect there may be things we can do to break apart the useful and beneficial aspects of shared community and support through shared experiences and the outrage feedback loop. In particular, I think we ought to strongly advise people (for their own good and societies) looking for such support and sympathy to find it somewhere other than social media or groups with an over social justice or partisan agenda. Indeed, I strongly suspect the best solution would be if those in need of sympathy/support as a result of micro/macroaggressions were encouraged to receive it from others who share their ethnicity/orientation/race/etc.. but aren’t specifically organized as a social justice cause. The alternate purpose prevents the unfortunate feedback created by focusing on slights and aggression while also providing an audience who can be both appropriately sympathetic and skeptical in turn. Moreover, by encouraging this to happen in groups with some other focus it would hopefully ensure cultural diffusion of the experiences presented, e.g., if women who have been assaulted or treated badly share their experiences with their basketball team or the women in their dorm then those accounts reach both those sympathetic and unsympathetic to social justice concerns rather than creating the two disjoint worlds that cause the problems above. The question is just how to make this happen.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m exaggerating the role that first hand accounts play in this whole process and it is really driven primarily by media accounts of bad behavior. If so then the only recourse is probably to work hard at convincing people that, for all the reasons that normalizing racism/sexism/etc.. is bad and others, by spreading such accounts and further reinforcing fears of mistreatment one is actually perpetuating the very harms one is so upset about. I realize this is a hard sell, no one wants to snub someone standing up and advocating for them, but that’s the best idea I’ve got at the moment.

Another Factor

One reason I’m hopeful that moving such commiseration and bonding away from groups with an explicit liberal or social justice agenda would solve the problem is that I suspect there is another important factor in this whole affair.

Ironically, I think (and I’m sure I’m not the first) much of the dynamic on the left is driven by privileged white liberals who, far all their verbal obeisance to the less privileged, have become both the face and the voice of a movement which is supposedly not about them often by wielding the norms barring skepticism into claims of oppression as a weapon to prevent any inquiry into whether or not lesbian academics with high status jobs and international speaking gigs really should count as underprivileged. Exactly as their own theory predicts, they use institutional power to delegitimize any attempt by those who, despite no belonging to a recognized underprivileged group, nevertheless suffer under socioeconomic conditions far worse than many of the white academics pushing the ideology that cis-hetero-men always count as privileged regardless of personal circumstances. Despite what many on the left assume, most (but certainly not all) people, even those who identify as strongly conservative are quite willing to listen to credible accounts from minorities about what it feels like to grow up poor and black and be marginalized on account of your skin color. They just aren’t willing to be lectured about their privilege or be told that, on account of their race/gender/orientation, their opinion is illegitimate by someone dripping with social status, institutional power and (relative) wealth.

I’m not going to argue at length for this position here but I will make two quick points. First, at least in my anecdotal experience, those social justice advocates which, while quite possibly the victims of some unfairness, haven’t (on the basis of group membership) experienced true need, oppressive violence or threat of imprisionment are the quickest to make accusations, call people names and disengage from well meaning skeptics. In contrast, those who have experienced more serious oppression don’t feel the same need to protect their position by calling attention to their zeal nor find the standard criticisms of the focus on group properties so threatening. After all, it isn’t their status that is threatened if everyone has to stand on their own rather than laying claim to the mistreatment of others who share a property with you. Second, notice that this theory explains the puzzling behavior of social justice advocates in prioritizing ideological purity over good will (if you are genuinely worried about oppression, e.g., a Jew in 1930s Germany, any friend/ally is desirable even if they use words that are disrespectful or are strong critics of your movement) and in antagonizing individuals disagree or criticize but express a genuine willingness to listen to their facts and arguments. It also explains why words like mansplain or whitesplain aren’t, as one might expect, get applied against men or whites who spend the most time discussing matters of social justice, i.e., community members who talk the talk, because they are ultimately a means to block challenges to the power/legitimacy of relatively privileged members of the social justice community not a true concern over whether or not whites or men speak on the subject.

This theory, if true, is a compelling illustration of why it is so bad to roll back legal and traditional rules that protect unpopular groups from prosecution and other penalties despite all the noise about them protecting oppressors. Humans are social creatures with intensely strong drives to gain power, influence and status which can be easily used to subvert groups and institutions supposedly dedicated to helping the worst off and instead using them to maintain their own power.

Note that, I’m not suggesting that those relatively privileged individuals in social justice communities are particularly morally blameworthy. While they may be aware of the danger here in a theoretical sense they honestly believe they are doing good not harm. Moreover, they are merely behaving in the same way that we all do unless we work very hard to catch ourselves doing it and change our behavior: adapting seamlessly to function in the culture you find oneself in and unconsciously learning what it takes to draw praise and guard against criticism. AS someone filled with an passion for social justice, excitement about what you and likeminded compatriots can do and anger at the unfairness of the system it is very hard to notice that by acting in the ways that draw praise and congratulations from your fellows you are merely promoting yourself and your compatriots at the expense of your cause. Indeed, if I could only say one thing about this whole issue it would be that righteous conviction, outrage and even empathy directed at particular narratives/accounts are all dangerous temptations leading to unintended consequences and that only careful studied consideration can be counted on to improve the situation.


  1. Yes, of course, there is always the (almost universally counterproductive) charge that unless you are a member of an underprivileged group your skepticism merely reveals your privilege. Now for those who have chugged the kool-aid and are ready to totally upend our usual epistemic framework (or even the idea of mind-independent, scientifically discernible reality) in service to the idea that whatever (the relatively privileged representatives of) underprivileged groups assert about what is or isn’t discriminatory/aggressive/etc.. then you might as well just skip to leaving angry comments on this post or holding me up for ridicule. But everyone who isn’t an extremist should accept the fact that personal experience is neither necessary to believe a claim nor a particularly reliable way to get at the truth generally. Thus, lacking personal experience in now way prevents one from talking to those who do have it, evaluating their credibility and degree of bias and looking at what people said and did in the past. Of course, I could be wrong and it could be that bias and kneejerk defense of my privilege blinds me to the truth. But this kind of deeply skeptical worry is a problem for everyone and ultimately we can only act based on our best guess about the truth despite whatever biases and shortcomings we may have. 
  2. My misspent youth spent in sketchy parts of Oakland hanging out with various IV drug users left me with an intense awareness of just how much the concerns and focus of rich white liberals on college campuses and the educated, relatively privileged members of ‘underprivileged groups’ they associate with differ from what matters for people in actual poverty and those minorities who are more likely to be the victims of police violence than rant in outrage on facebook about it. Spending time being outraged, particularly about merely verbal slights or behaviors, is a privilege that requires comfort and free time. While poor minorities are intently aware of discrimination and often very angry about unfair treatment their anger is directed at policies that directly make their life worse and overt animus against them. Indeed, coming from a rich well-educated world I was constantly shocked by willingness of poor whites to unselfconsciously make claims about race that would draw condemnation even from conservatives on campus in front of black friends. I was even more surprised by the willingness of poor blacks to not only laugh or agree but even encourage such conversations though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. When life is tough and you face real animus and discrimination you don’t have the luxury of caring if people comply with the norms rich white liberals have adopted. What matters is who will stick up for you when shit goes down and who won’t and it makes all the concern over propriety seem viscerally absurd and even immoral insofar as it takes concern away from the poorest neighborhoods that are really suffering one group of rich white people (and a few minorities) who claim to care about the underprivileged can poor all their energy into alienating another group of white people (further discouraging them from helping) rather than actually making a difference on the ground. Sadly, humans are tribal creatures and it is far more motivating to get out and attack the other side’s outrageous behavior than it is to simply focus on making the daily reality of life for the worst off slightly better or try and work out how to reform the system and stop the kind of horrible abuse by bad cops, prison guards etc.. that everyone will admit are problems. Conservatives are no less guilty. Indeed, I’m arguably engaging in exactly the practice I criticize here right now though I do think there is real value in trying to work out a way to lesson animosity and redirect energies to fixing problems. 
  3. Of course, these are human flaws not liberal flaws and a similar process explains how groups on the right made up of otherwise pleasant, friendly and morally conscientious people can urge each other own to every more impressive heights of cruelty directed at those who are unable to defend themselves. The people on the right who end up sending women rape threats just for expressing their concern about gender equality or similarly charged issue (whether or not they are right) aren’t subhumans. They are caught up in the same spiral of reinforcing stories representing the other side as the enemy, discouraging doubt and moderation and prioritizing standing up for the moral righteousness of the community over kindness and compassion. However, as a liberal apostate rather than a conservative I’m more interested in convincing/arguing with people who identify as liberal simply because those are the people I tend to associate with and not because I in any way believe they are doing more harm. Indeed, just the opposite. 
  4. I find this attitude particularly absurd given the supposed goal of social justice advocates is to enable peaceful change eliminates structures of privilege. Given that, by hypothesis, its members of privileged groups who have the power and influence what the hell do they think they are doing if their job isn’t educating/persuading those with privileged? Are they really saying that for all their posturing when push comes to shove their visceral dislike of engaging with those they see as unsympathetic privileged assholes is more important than actually improving the lot of the less privileged? Yes, I realize there are perfectly defensible versions of this belief which simply amount to the attitude that individuals, particularly less privileged individuals, have a personal obligation to explain/persuade at any one time in the same way that a random Catholic you stop on the street doesn’t have a personal obligation to explain or defend Catholic beliefs to you. However, to extend the metaphor, they do (on the assumption their beliefs are correct) have an obligation to do their part in the communal effort to save souls by politely responding to anyone expressing a genuine desire to know about the faith and avoiding alienating them (even if they have a very skeptical attitude) while directing them to resources/people who are better equipped to persuade them of Catholic doctrine. Of course, sufficiently deep disagreement can’t always be bridged but if you aren’t even going to try how do you hope to prevail? 

The Cancerous Concept of Cultural Appropriation

I’ve always been critical of the concept of cultural appropriation. The prima facia case for encouraging unfettered cultural remixing was so strong that I simply dismissed cultural appropriation as just another canard social justice extremists used to feel superior. The simple fact that each person in the borrowing culture now enjoys the benefits of that knowledge or other cultural practice (without taking that benefit away from the source culture) means that there is a huge utility upside to cultural sharing. Thus, not only must cultural appropriation be harmful to be a valid criticism it must cause more harm than the benefits borrowing provides. While those who condemn cultural appropriation would point out that not all borrowing is appropriation distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable borrowing (at least by the dominant culture) is sufficiently vexed that if people internalized a norm against cultural appropriation as desired it would deter them from borrowing even in many cases that wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. If people who want to build off something they see in another culture, e.g., incorporate aboriginal rhythms into their music, have to check with the source culture or a panel of experts before experimenting with it they won’t bother to do so.

Moreover, the fact that cultures don’t have sharp boundaries (or well-defined views on what is acceptable) makes the whole concept suspect. For example, a cultural practice could spread from India to England while every person in the chain of transmission only adopts practices from what they see as their own culture. However, the facts about the chain of transmission don’t seem to plausibly affect whether the practice is harmful as usually most people won’t even be aware of the chain of transmission.

However, when I saw an article claiming to explain why cultural appropriation is harmful I figured I should give the arguments against cultural appropriation a fair shake. Not only were they incredibly unconvincing they actually persuaded me that the concept/criticism of cultural appropriation actually works to exploit the very least privileged for the sake of the slightly more privileged. I tried to find other articles but they weren’t any more persuasive (at least unless you read the last article as redefining cultural appropriation to simply mean borrowing without citing that culture as an influence). I accept that the defenses of cultural appropriation I consider here may not be the best ones available so if you know of better arguments please inform me. However, given that these seem to be the best arguments generally available to the public I think it’s fair to say that, should they prove unconvincing, the public should repudiate the idea of cultural appropriation until a more convincing justification can be found.

The TL;DR version of this article is simply: feelings of frustration/resentment because the proceeds from borrowing aren’t distributed in the most fair way don’t actually identify any harm. You might think it would be better if we compensated cultures we borrowed from or if past injustices were rectified but, given that isn’t pragmatically possible, it doesn’t mean that we are better off not borrowing these practices at all. Moreover, many of these intuitions about compensation seem to flow from a pernicious modern attitude regarding intellectual property naively applied to cultures as if they were individuals. Ultimately, pursuing these feelings of aggrievement doesn’t actually right the wrongs of past oppression but does make things worse for those who are alive today, especially the least privileged members of the least privileged groups. For a more in depth refutation I will go through the arguments in the first (most complete) article point by point.

Definitions and Limitations

Helpfully, this article offers the following definition of cultural appropriation:

cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

There are several serious problems with this definition. First and foremost is that it describes an overall state of affairs that people would universally agree is bad (oppression is almost by definition morally bad) but it is invoked to criticize only one aspect of that behavior. To give an example of how this can be misleading consider the following definition:

Homicidal Familial Appropriation
Homicidal familial appropriation occurs when one man (or those acting on his behalf) murders another and then appropriates the dead man’s family (marrying the widow, raising the children as his own etc..).

I think we can all agree that Homicidal Familial Appropriation is a bad thing and ought not to occur. However, the moral harm stems from the murder and, while it might strike us as distasteful, its not clear that stepping into the dead man’s shoes is a further harm. Indeed, in times past where the widow and orphans might face serious hardship or even starvation in the absence of a male protector/provider it might even be morally unacceptable not to marry and care for the widow after the fact.

To make this point more clearly imagine that you and another man (sorry but if you identify as female you’ll have to come up with your own murderous hypothetical) are romantic rivals for the same woman but she marries him and bears his child. You’ve accepted your loss with dignity but when your rich, powerful father hears of the situation he has your rival assassinated without your consent. Now that would surely be a tragic situation but the harm has already been effected and it would simply compound the tragedy to refuse to marry the widow and raise your rivals child. Indeed, even your rival himself would (if he weren’t dead) no doubt prefer that outcome in such a situation. The point is that merely because the definition describes a situation in which one person/group unacceptably benefits from a wrong done to another person/group its not appropriate to infer that choosing not to eschew the benefit would have made the situation better.

However, apart from attempting to tie together the use of cultural material with past oppression it is noteworthy how little this definition does to either pin down what activity is objectionable or what makes it objectionable. Indeed, if anything it creates further confusion about why cultural appropriation might be wrong. After all, from an intuitive point of view, it is hard to imagine that somehow Americans adopting yoga is bad in a way that Japanese adoption of yoga in a similar fashion wouldn’t be despite the lack of any past Japanese oppression of the Indians. Indeed, this definition would seem to suggest that even if a false historical account had convinced every living person that the Japanese and not the British had been responsible for oppressing the Indian people it would still be wrong for British derived cultures to adopt yoga but not the Japanese despite the fact that the effects would be indistinguishable from those in a world in which it really had been the Japanese doing the oppression.

While it is not, in itself, an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation I think defining a concept to ensure it only applies to the group you feel warrants criticism is a red flag. If your goal in using the term cultural appropriation was to pick out some natural class of behaviors that are wrong in the same way such a restriction would be unnecessary and invite the kind of criticism I gave above applying the concept in counterfactual situations. It might turn out that cultural appropriation happened (almost) exclusively in such circumstances because that’s the only time all the preconditions for the supposed harms are present1. However, baking such a criteria into the definition itself suggests a recognition that the speaker will not be able to describe the practice they object to in a way that others will agree only applies to those practices they wish to condemn and is attempting to sneakily avoid tough questions about what morally distinguishes the apparently similar behavior of non-dominant cultures. Again, this isn’t an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation but it does suggest a degree of skepticism may be appropriate.

Allegations of Moral Harm

So setting aside the issue of a precise definition of cultural appropriation for the moment what arguments does this piece offer to show cultural appropriation is morally wrong?

  • “It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression”

So here’s what’s at stake for the Native people: The term “redsk*n” comes from the time when the colonial and state governments and companies paid white people to kill Native Americans and used their scalps or even genitalia (to prove their sex), aka “red skins,” as proof of their “Indian kill.”

Yes, its wrong to offend native Americans by trivializing the long history of oppression and poor treatment at the hands of other (mostly white) Americans. But what this shows is only that its wrong to offensively trivialize violent historical oppression.

To the extent this is your concern it would be more effective to simply drop talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ entirely and simply tell people not to be dicks. Lots of people, like myself, who are strident opponents of the idea of cultural appropriation think that its offensive and unacceptable (morally not legally) to call an NFL team the redskins. The only reason to bring up the label ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context is to borrow the reprobation we rightly feel for offensive/insensitive behaviors and apply it to instances of cultural borrowing that we don’t feel are justifiably viewed as offensive nor think trivialize historical oppression. Thus we are still in search of any reason to view cultural appropriation in general as morally wrong.

  • “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, I witness people taking what they like without wanting to associate with where it came from all the time. Here, recent transplants to the area write Yelp reviews in search of “authentic Mexican food” without the “sketchy neighborhoods” – which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.

This isn’t so much a moral argument as an expression of frustration/disgust. Of course seeing people openly enjoying the fruits of mexican culture while remaining prejudiced against Mexicans might be infuriating but that doesn’t show it is wrong. It’s not like those newcomers would be less prejudiced or Mexican-Americans any better off if white Americans didn’t eat burritos. Just the opposite in fact.

A major factor underlying many people’s fear/distrust of minorities is a lack of any positive setting in which they interact with minorities. If your only experience with mexicans is seeing videos of them running from the border patrol on fox news and seeing the mexicans lingering on the streets around 14th and mission to sell drugs2 of course you will be inclined to be scared of them. Indeed, a serious problem in policing is the fact that while on the job police tend to encounter people up to no good and if that is there only contact with minorities it can instill powerful biases. But every person who sits down at a mexican restaurant and has a pleasant interaction with a mexican waiter or owner of the restaurant is a little less likely to be racist and the owner and employees of that restaurant are a bit better off.

One might try and suggest this might justify enjoying mexican food purchased from mexican owned establishments but doesn’t defend the sale of burritos by non-mexican establishments. However, I need not prove that this actively benefits minority interests only note that it doesn’t contribute to racism or prejudice. Indeed, taken seriously, this complaint would be a reason to abandon language itself for that is the ultimate reason it is possible to express appreciation for a culture while being prejudiced against its people. However, I would argue that even eating burritos sold by whites makes some contribution to reducing racism (if nothing else it makes individuals who might never otherwise have considered going to a mexican owned restaurant do so).

More broadly, I would point out that if the public ever internalized the notion of cultural appropriation as the advocates desire it would eliminate many of these benefits. The mere uncertainty about whether something qualified as cultural appropriation would discourage them from eating at mexican restaurants regardless of who owned them. Even in the implausible case in which people aren’t too lazy to throughly check who owns the restaurant they plan to eat at insisting on mexican ownership of a restaurant serving burritos would substantially reduce the resale vale of mexican restaurants and make it that much harder for Mexicans to get loans to start them. In short, while the actual cultural appropriation doesn’t further any of the harms raised in the argument accepting cultural appropriation as a genuine harm does.

  • “It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color”

For example, standards of professionalism hold back all kinds of people who aren’t white men. As a Black woman, there are many jobs that would bar me if I wore cornrows, dreadlocks, or an afro – some of the most natural ways to keep up my hair. So for me, wearing my hair naturally is a meaningful declaration that I believe in my natural beauty. It’s risky to make this declaration in a society that says I must aspire to whiteness have value.

Again we see the harm (behaviors/appearances identified with minority groups are viewed as unacceptable/unclassy) conflated with a behavior which merely makes that harm salient (white people borrowing it). Indeed, the most plausible way we will get to a society which accepts these minority behaviors/appearances as mainstream is by allowing whites to adopt them. That is unfortunate but what’s morally relevant is the results. Ultimately, which is the better world: one in which white people don’t adopt minority styles/behaviors and that difference continues to be used to oppress them or one in which white people borrow those styles/behaviors and they are no longer used to oppress? Furthermore, given the choice between sending the message to black girls that “the way you look is ugly and inappropriate” or that “the way you look is so good that white women are trying to adopt it” I’d choose the later.

Again, the choice isn’t between the world as it is and the magical world without discrimination where afros, dreadlocks etc.. on blacks are seen as appropriate professional dress but between the world as it is and the world where whites never borrowed these fashions and they never gained acceptability. While the message that mainstream acceptance depends on convincing whites to adopt your style isn’t great its a hell of a lot better than the message that mainstream acceptance is impossible. Indeed, given the social and professional roles occupied by whites insisting that they not adopt black derived fashions/behaviors would be to doom many important black cultural figures to niche influence not to mention impeding the slow steps toward less racial animosity.

  • “It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor”
  • “It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For”

I take this to be the core of the complaint. It feels wrong when you see some white woman benefiting from selling some crap based on native american spirituality while native americans languish in poverty and suffer from discrimination. However, this doesn’t in any way show that the cultural appropriation itself makes anyone worse off.

It is often the misfits and oddballs who come up with the most important ideas. History is littered with stories of misunderstood genuis and people who were treated abominably during their lives only for their great cultural contributions to be recognized latter. Surely we don’t believe that the world would be better if we eschewed their contributions because they were treated poorly. So why would the situation be any different when the creator is a member of a racial/ethnic group that is oppressed rather than someone who merely happens to socially marginalized? More generally, I would simply dispute the very idea that whoever comes up with new ideas somehow deserves or is owed the profit on those ideas. It is a good way to incentivize innovation but doesn’t seem to have much going for it as a morally mandate.

Of course, we can all agree that one should give appropriate credit, e.g., if you’ve borrowed your musical style from black performers say so. However, that doesn’t in any way imply that it would be better not to borrow that style at all.

Lets consider for a moment what the world would be like if white musicians had never borrowed from black music culture or if white studio executives refused to profit from distributing black music. It would be a world even more divided than our world today. The many black artists who profited and have been idolized by teens of all races would never have gotten their chance. Rock music would have been relegated to a racial ghetto and used as further justification for racism rather than bringing folks together.

Yet again while cultural appropriation may make the unfairness of past oppression and continuing injustices salient if anything it works to ameliorate these harms not enhance them.

  • “It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures”

For instance, if you think about the real story of Pocahontas, having your daughter pretend to be her on Halloween is pretty disturbing. The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith, by the way), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21.

Ok, don’t spread misinformation about marginalized cultures. Got it. Now what does this have to do with cultural appropriation. When it is/isn’t ok to sugarcoat history is an important issue but it isn’t cultural appropriation.

  • “It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes”

As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”

Umm, no. In virtually all cases of so called cultural appropriation no one is pretending to be a different race. But yah, if you see someone perpetuating a racist stereotype call them out on it but this has nothing to do with the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, the example cited in the article of Katy Perry dressing up as a submissive asian woman in her performance isn’t even a case of cultural borrowing at all.

Having a half-asian wife I’m well aware of the issues surrounding the fetishization of oriental women. It’s a complex topic that I won’t address here because its not relevant to the issue of cultural appropriation.

  • “White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing”

Again, this explains why members of marginalized groups might get upset about cultural appropriation but doesn’t explain what makes it bad. The whole hope of a less racist, less bigoted future rests on abandoning a race based us versus them attitude and this complain stinks of race based score keeping. We should all be glad that we live in a better time now and no one is punished for the practice anymore. Of course its easy for me to say that and I don’t begrudge those whose cultures were oppressed their feelings but it doesn’t make the argument against cultural appropriation any more valid.

Indeed, I think the article itself nicely illustrates why cultural appropriation is a net benefit.

A touching moment in this discussion with South Asian yoga teachers from South Asian Art & Perspectives on Yoga and America (SAAPYA) shows one woman’s tearful explanation of how the elders in her community don’t have access to the yoga studios dominating the industry of a practice so important to them. As Susanna Barkataki writes, dividing yoga from its true roots and purpose, and from the people who had to fought to keep it alive, means “eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India.”

Step back and think rationally for a moment. In which scenario do you think there is more money, space and interest devoted to keeping traditional yogic practices alive: the one in which California is covered with yoga studios and the Beatles travel to India to consult spiritual gurus or the one in which yoga remains some weird stuff smelly Indian beggars do? I think the answer is obvious. Indeed, the widespread enthusiasm for yoga around the world is generally viewed as providing India with considerable soft power. Unsurprisingly, members of oppressed groups have discovered the same thing that Americans did when they exported American entertainment: having your cultural products consumed by people in other countries grants you considerable power and influence.

  • “It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People”

claiming that the dominant culture has a right to take freely from disempowered groups sounds a lot like the lie of the “white man’s burden” from the past. Colonizers used this concept to claim they had a “duty” to take land, resources, and identity from Indigenous people – trying to justify everything from slavery to genocide.

No, that isn’t what emphasizing the importance of feeling free to make use of whatever ideas/concepts/fashions are available communicates to me. Indeed, I don’t think white people consuming/producing rap, doing yoga or engaging in bullshit native-american spirituality generally sends any of the soul-crushing messages that those arguing against cultural appropriation take them to send. However, to the extent such messages/impressions are harmful then it seems convincing others that this is the message being sent whenever whites engage in cultural borrowing would be manifesting the very harm which advocates claim to be trying to alleviate.

More generally, this point simply can’t provide initial justification for the moral harm of cultural appropriation. Absent an initial showing of harm to marginalized people one can’t claim that accepting cultural borrowing is prioritizing anything over justice for marginalized people.

Practical Pronouncements

Ultimately, what would the effect of taking claims of cultural appropriation seriously. I’ve argued above that if we literally followed out the logic of their complaints we would live in a world with a great deal more racial suspicion missing many of the things which make modern life so good. Moreover, its not merely members of the dominant racial/cultural group who would suffer. Blacks would equally well be denied the fitness benefits of yoga if there weren’t yoga studies all over the US (the fact blacks currently make less use of yoga than whites doesn’t change the fact that they still benefit) and native-american teens would be just as lacking in rock-n-roll as white teens. More generally, the overall increase in societal wealth as a result of the non-linear interplay of freely borrowed ideas benefits everyone, those at the bottom often the most.

However, thats not really the world which those who raise complaints about cultural appropriation would bring about. Practically speaking whats at issue isn’t really when its ok to borrow from another culture but who gets to decide. Looking at the behavior of those who take cultural appropriation seriously (and who haven’t defined the concept not to apply to them) its not that they borrow any less from other cultures but rather that they give veto power to eminent members of the culture who accept the notion of cultural appropriation.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but most ironically because it fails to consider the interests of the least powerful members of marginalized groups. Simply dividing the world into privileged and non-privileged cultures and ignoring the power structures within marginalized cultures is an exceptionally privileged and narcissistic way to understand the complexity of human culture. As a practical matter adopting the vocabulary of cultural appropriation hands power over the use of cultural inheritance to the members of that culture who have already gained a substantial degree of power/acceptance by mainstream society, e.g., the native-american academic or the black activist, while yanking it away from those who could benefit from it the most. The unrecognized black rapper who can’t support his music by selling CDs to white teens and the impoverished native-american who can’t send their daughter to college on money earned from cheap Indian trinkets sold to tourists are equally entitled to the fruits of their culture but the narrative of cultural appropriation denies this to them.


  1. For instance, one might imagine a definition of cultural appropriation that identified the harm as stemming from a sense of loss of cultural dignity or self-direction/control. On such a definition it would be very difficult for a dominant culture to ever be subject to such a harm (though one might imagine some sci-fi scenario in which it happens) but that fact would flow naturally from the definition rather than being baked into the definition. 
  2. No, I’m not making baseless assumptions here about what they were doing. Based on personal experience I can attest that the majority of people who you see lounging about in that area are involved in some way in the illegal drug trade and many of them are mexican. As a past customer I can hardly hold that against them but it is understandable why people would view drug dealing gangmembers as scary.