Charlotte Knowles (University of Groningen), "Beyond Adaptive Preferences: Rethinking Women's Complicity in their own Subordination'"
European Journal of Philosophy, 2022
Picture Petronella. She is an upper middle-class woman. She has had a privileged upbringing. She attended an elite private school before going on to Oxford to read history. Petronella’s parents are well connected, she has always mixed with intelligent and influential people. We can imagine her being surrounded by books growing up, attending cultural events, and being well versed in politics, literature, art and culture. Petronella leaves university and starts working as a journalist at a top national newspaper in London, she continues to be exposed to a vast range of views and people through her work. She is confident, outspoken, and known for her ‘playful’ interview style. She bears a striking resemblance to the British journalist Petronella Wyatt. But it’s definitely not her. This Petronella has an invisible third ‘l’ in her name.
In 2017 when the #MeToo movement makes a break through on social media, Petronella uses her public position to say what nonsense this all is, a fuss over nothing. She goes on a British TV news show to relay the important information that she’s seen female researchers in Parliament “running around in micro-miniskirts getting paralytically drunk”. Asked why this is relevant to a world-wide scandal about the harassment of women, she replies: “Because what kind of signal do you think that sends out?!” Petronella says that whenever she wears a micromini skirt it’s to “show off her figure”. She knows what these ‘temptresses’ are doing and so do they, she claims. How can men resist ‘copping a feel’ when so much drunken flesh is on display?
Petronella suggests that women have brought on this situation of consistent and persistent harassment themselves. She says that "women want to have their cake and eat it, women like to say that they're the same as men... yet if a man in the workplace touches their knee they're suddenly a quivering mess." She doubles down on the anti-feminist equality argument, stating that “women have waived their right to gallantry by saying we're the same as men”. Asked about her own experiences, she tells a national British radio news programme that “There were a couple of men that were a bit gropey [when she was working in parliament in the 1990s]. But do you know what? I was flattered.” Ironically, she claims that the women who have spoken up as part of the #MeToo movement are just “seeking publicity”.
So, what can we say about Petronella? She is a woman who has experienced sexual harassment and yet rather than grasp this national moment to speak out against her sexist treatment, she toes the patriarchal line and defends the men who grope and harass women, suggesting it’s just a bit of fun, a natural part of courtship, boys will be boys! Petronella is complicit in upholding, reinforcing and perpetuating her own subordination. She contributes to a situation where she is turned into a sex object and subjected to unwanted interference. Even if she found some of the groping ‘flattering’, who’s to say that this will be her experience next time? Indeed, not all of Petronella’s encounters with ‘handsy men’ have been positive. She also recounts cases where men made unwanted advances and even engaged her in sex she was ‘too drunk’ to refuse. The interesting and perplexing question is then, why, given the opportunity to do otherwise, to speak out, does Petronella continue to defend a culture and a way of life that disadvantages her as a woman? Why is Petronella complicit in her own subordination?
The dominant line in the contemporary feminist literature is to appeal to adaptive preferences. This explanation holds that because of the deprived and oppressive social context in which they find themselves, women develop preferences which reflect this deprivation and oppression, and so end up reinforcing rather than resisting their own subordination. Adaptive preferences come in many different shapes and sizes. But, as I argue in my paper ‘Beyond Adaptive Preferences: Rethinking Women’s Complicity in their own Subordination’ (European Journal of Philosophy, 2022), there are two claims that are common to all accounts of adaptive preference as explanations of complicity: (1) the imposition criterion: that complicity in one’s own subordination is imposed on the agent (although the means by which it is imposed and what constitutes impositions differ) and (2) the natural trajectory claim: that in the absence of such impositions – however conceptualised – the agent would gravitate towards basic human flourishing and ultimately cease to be complicit in their own subordination. What we might call ‘external flourishing inconsistent impositions’, or for the sake of brevity what I refer to simply as ‘impositions’, are the central explanatory mechanism of the adaptive preference theorist, and the ultimate explanation the adaptive preference theorist offers for women’s complicity in their own subordination. But the notion of imposition is not particularly helpful in explaining the complicity of privileged women like Petronella.
In the adaptive preference literature, there are three primary ways in which impositions are characterised: in terms of deprivation, interference and trade-offs. Deprivation suggests that the agent lacks alternative options, or is unaware of alternatives. Is this Petronella? She is highly educated, economically, socially and materially privileged. She is well versed in the feminist debate and there are many other options open to her, most obviously the option not to go on national television and defend sexual harassment. The alternatives to her view and the current situation are presented to her clearly and often, so deprivation of options or alternatives as an explanation of her behaviour doesn’t seem to fly.
So, what about interference? This suggests the agent has been manipulated in some way, for example, her self-worth and self-confidence has been undermined by her oppressive situation. But again, this is not Petronella. She is a confident, self-assured and outspoken woman who vociferously and confidently defends her position, even in the face of much criticism. This is not to say that there might not be more subtle forms of interference at play, even women in privileged situations are still subject to the demands and expectations of patriarchy. One might argue she has internalised sexist norms so entirely that she no longer recognises the tension between these internalised norms and her ‘natural trajectory’ towards less subordinating forms of life. However, this move risks ignoring and denying her agency, by failing to take her testimony seriously. We should believe women when they tell us they are flattered by unsolicited groping, even if such acceptance need not mark a stopping point for our analysis.
Finally, the adaptive preference theorist might argue that Petronella is engaging knowingly as a kind of trade-off in order to become ‘one of the lads’ and thus to achieve acceptance and reach high ranking office. Such a move would not disregard her agency, but it still appears to mischaracterise Petronella’s situation. She is already successful, she has reached the height of her profession. Her comments on the #MeToo movement were a risky move, not a career making one. The issue in cases such as Petronella’s, then, is not about what it is rational for agents to do in unjust situations, as the trade-off analysis assumes. Rather, the issue is why relatively privileged women continue to uphold sexist norms, practices and narratives even when there are other equally viable and more ‘flourishing consistent’ options open to them.
The difficulty adaptive preference theorists have in explaining cases like Petronella’s, or other examples I discuss in the paper such as the ‘female chauvinist pig’ or the ‘right wing woman’, is that their subordination does not seem to be straightforwardly imposed upon them. Petronella is an economically, socially and educationally privileged woman with other equally viable options open to her, and yet she still participates in her own sexual objectification, the sexual objectification of other women, and in sexist norms that mark women – and thus herself as a woman – as inferior. What is required in order to explain her complicity, then, is an account that does not rely solely on the notion of impositions. Here is where insights from the phenomenological tradition can help us make a useful intervention.
Work in the phenomenological tradition begins with a different picture of the human agent to the one we find in accounts of adaptive preference and those in the tradition of liberal political philosophy more generally. Whereas the background assumption of the adaptive preference theorist means that the attitude with which they approach cases of complicity is one of explaining an anomalous data point: why there are agents who deviate from the natural human trajectory away from subordination and towards basic human flourishing, phenomenologists do not take the natural trajectory claim as given.
Many phenomenological thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Simon de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Hannah Ardent, argue that although human agents are fundamentally free and undetermined at a fundamental or ‘ontological’ level; in our everyday lives, our freedom is something we attempt to conceal from ourselves. Rather than gravitating towards situations and opportunities which reflect our fundamental freedom and indeterminacy, human agents often tend to seek out and occupy situations and ways of life in a way that constrains them and limits their options, because of the way in which we are attuned to our freedom and the ‘uncertainty’ of human existence. To view Petronella’s complicity through this lens is to suggest that it is not something that is entirely explained by her external oppressive situation and the way it imposes certain preferences on her, but additionally to recognise the role that she herself plays in turning away from freer and less subordinating ways of life.
Developing these phenomenological insights in the context of complicity, I argue that we can distinguish two forms of self-subordination: global and local. Global self-subordination is what the phenomenologists draw our attention to: the way in which people often relate stubbornly and unquestioningly to social scripts, norms, narratives and roles, in a way that alienates them from their own freedom and contributes to their subordination. Global self-subordination is a common occurrence and something of which we are all at risk of falling foul, because destabilising norms, ideas, social dynamics and roles that have become central to our self-understanding and to grasping our position in the world and our relation to others, can be a very unnerving thing to do. It is thus something that people understandably resist, regardless of the content of the norms, roles and scripts to which they have bound themselves. However harmful it may be, the world in which women are prey and men are predators, in which women are valued as sex objects, and rewarded for their ability to ‘let things slide’ and ‘have a laugh’, is a world that is familiar. Disrupting this can be a very difficult thing to do.
Whereas global self-subordination is primarily a self-relation, characterised by a stubborn attitude to social norms, scripts, narratives and roles, local self-subordination, as I define it, focuses on the specific oppressive context of the agent, and highlights the role oppression – as something structural and imposed on social groups – can play in explanations of complicity. In drawing attention to particular oppressive impositions on the agent to explain their complicity, we can say that adaptive preference theorists offer an account of complicity in terms of local self-subordination. However, in ‘Beyond Adaptive Preferences’, I argue that although global and local self-subordination can function separately, in most cases of gendered complicity they function together. Such complicity is thus only fully explicable as a ‘double subordination’, both local and global.
To apply this analysis to Petronella means observing that, for example, at the local level, her oppressive social context is one in which female sexual objectification is commonplace and women who protest are ‘frumps’. In this respect, impositions explain one aspect of her complicity and may additionally manifest in terms of the normative pressures to comply and the potential benefits of so doing. But in addition to this, my phenomenological approach to her complicity also highlights the role of global self-subordination, observing the active role Petronella plays in binding herself to the (oppressive) social roles, norms and narratives made available to her, and how this can further cement her subordination and alienate her from her own freedom. Which is to say, Petronella not only has self-objectification and sexist scripts presented to her as viable and available ways to be in the world, she also plays an active role qua global self-subordination in stubbornly taking up and binding herself to these sexist tropes, scripts, narratives and attitudes, which perpetuate her own subordination and the subordination of other women. What is crucial from a phenomenological point of view is that the tendency towards complicity and subordination in a global sense is not something that is externally caused or imposed.
In ‘Beyond Adaptive Preferences’, I argue that taking seriously these phenomenological insights as a starting point for thinking about what it is to be complicit in one’s own subordination, transforms the way we think about complicity. Whereas the approach from adaptive preference assumes that what really needs to be explained is what and how external factors can impose things on us in such a way that we turn away from our own flourishing and become complicit in our own subordination. A phenomenological approach rejects the natural trajectory claim and takes complicity as a baseline. In this respect, complicity is not a response or reaction to external circumstances, as it is for the adaptive preference theorist. It is not primarily imposed, nor is complicity some kind of defect.
In a final section of the paper I draw out some of the imposition independent factors that can play a crucial role in explaining complicity qua global self-subordination, developing phenomenological notions of freedom, responsibility, anxiety and ambiguity in the context of the foregoing discussion of gendered complicity, whilst making connections with analytic and psychological work on freedom and responsibility. By expanding the analysis of complicity to recognise the role of global self-subordination, I argue that we increase our analytic resources, enabling us to highlight the context independent mechanisms that can play a role in complicity across a range of cases, thereby putting us in a better position to identify and combat complicity in all its forms.
The phenomenological approach to complicity I develop, encourages us to theorise complicity as a commonplace phenomenon, and something of which we may all be at risk of falling foul. This orientation expands the scope of the analysis, drawing our attention to cases such as Petronella’s, as well as the right-wing woman and the Female Chauvinist Pig, and enabling us to see how they may go unaccounted for or be misdiagnosed if complicity is only viewed through the lens of adaptive preference. A phenomenological approach to complicity, I argue, puts us in a better position to identify, and ultimately overcome, subordination in all its forms, by highlighting the different ways in which complicity can manifest itself and the different levels on which it may continue to function.
For a full account of the argument, see my paper ‘Beyond Adaptive Preferences: Rethinking Women’s Complicity in their own Subordination’, published in the European Journal of Philosophy, 2022: Vol 30, no 4. 1317-1334.
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One way to engage such reflections is to address the particular issues raised in an article. This is typically what an author will prefer, because the particular issues addressed in an article are there because they are top of mind for the author.
Another way to address the concerns being explored by an author is to "go up a level" and examine the larger context in which the author's concerns reside. Such an approach can be more efficient than getting bogged down in the details of particular situations. As example...
I'm currently working on an article series built upon the claim that the marriage between violent men and the knowledge explosion is unsustainable, and thus we must achieve world peace by creating a world without men. The argument goes on for pages, but this is it's simplest form.
In a world without men, many or most of the concerns of "me too" activists, feminists, and decent people in general are swept off the table. There's no longer a need to spend the next couple of decades or centuries engaged in the endless details of gender wars. The source of the problem has been removed, and all the related controversies are resolved. Of course this assumes that we want all such gender controversies to be resolved, which is perhaps a dubious proposition.
Another larger point. The behaviors of men which rightly cause us such concern are hundreds of millions of years in the making. The source of such problematic behaviors go back to long before we were even human.
This is not to excuse such behaviors, but to instead point to the futility of trying to "fix men" with social constructs like religion, philosophy, morality, social pressures etc, which are only thousands of years old. All moralizing is likely to accomplish is to make decent men a little more decent. No society in history has figured out how to fix violent men, and today's woke culture warriors are being naive if they think they will be the ones to accomplish this.