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Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Shortly after I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, I was chatting with the Chair, Esther Terry [now the Interim President of Bennett College] about the famous novel by James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  It is a novel about the phenomenon of passing, which is to say the practice of a very light-skinned Black man or woman passing for white, and transitioning into the White community.  "There are people on this campus who are passing," Esther said.  "We know who they are," she went on, meaning "we African-Americans."  But the rest of the UMass community, which included me of course, did not know that they were passing, and since neither Esther nor the other Black faculty and staff were going to say anything, we never found out who they were.

At roughly the same time, I went to New York to visit my younger son, Tobias, who had just graduated from college and was working as a paralegal at a big Manhattan law firm before beginning his legal education.  As we were taking a walk, he told me about an evening he had spent at a gay dance club with a friend [Tobias had by this time come out to me, and to the world.]  At the club, the two of them met a regular who was dressed quite strikingly in an outfit heavy on leather and chains.  When he had moved on, Tobias' friend said, "Do you know who that is?  He is the general counsel for" -- and then he named an extremely prominent large corporation with headquarters in the city.  "But, did they know that he is gay?" I asked -- this was at a time when that knowledge could easily get him fired.  "Oh no," Tobias said.  "Everyone in the gay community knows, of course.  He is totally out.  But no one in the straight community has any idea."

These two conversations, occurring at more or less the same time, started me thinking about some widely held and rarely challenged assumptions in the philosophical field of Epistemology.  A little background is called for to set the context for my reflections.  Back in the 40's and 50's and 60's, when I was a philosophy student and young philosophy professor, the subject of sense data and private languages was a hot topic in Epistemology.  A lot of ink was spilled over questions of the logical relationship between the immediate data of sense -- of sight, sound, tough, taste, and feeling -- and judgments about physical objects.  A number of writers speculated on the possibility of an individual forming and then using a private language, known only by him or her, to describe and think about these immediate data of sense, which, because of the hermetical nature of consciousness, could not then be communicated to anyone else save by a series of analogies or evidentiary leaps -- claims that what one person experienced as an object of direct awareness was identical with, or appropriately similar to, what another person experienced.  This became folded into the old debate, going back at least to Descartes' Meditations, about whether it was possible to prove the existence of the eternal world [external to subjective consciousness, that is.]

The problem had an extremely important correlate in the fields of ethics, political philosophy, and Welfare Economics, arising out of Jeremy Bentham's insistence, in his 1789 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, that each person's pleasures and pains were to be given equal weight in any social calculation of the desirability or undesirability of a proposed piece of legislation.  The manifest difficulty, not to say impossibility, of what came to be called "interpersonal comparisons of utility" forced mathematically inclined economists to restrict themselves to ordinal, rather cardinal, measures of utility and Pareto partial orderings of alternative social states, leading to some very fancy byplay with indifference curves and the like.

The epistemic relationship of the gay community to the entire sexual community and of African-Americans to the entire multi-racial community mirrors the epistemic structure of a tribe I read about some while ago in which the women spoke among themselves a language that the men did not speak.  The women, of course, also spoke the common language of the tribe, shared by men and women alike.  This created a striking cognitive situation, perfectly exhibiting the epistemic structure of ironic communication, in which one part of the group [the women] understood everything that was being said, by men and women alike, while another part of the group [the men] understood only what was said in the common language.

All of these thoughts, going back more than half a century, popped up in my mind as I read and watched on television the unfolding story of the appalling remarks by Missouri congressman and senate Republican candidate Todd Akin.  All of my American readers, I am sure, are aware of this kerfuffle, but my overseas readers may not be, so I will simply say, briefly, that Akin, an opponent of all abortion even in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, explained to a sympathetic interviewer that in the case of what he called "legitimate rape," by which he now says he meant "forcible rape," the woman's body secretes a substance that kills the sperm, so that she does not in fact get pregnant.  The clear implication was that any woman who got pregnant during a supposed rape was not really opposed to the sexual congress, but was, as they say in the neighborhoods that Akin frequents, "asking for it."

The initial response to Akin's remark was explosive, and within twenty-four hours every major Republican figure, including even the flaccid Romney, was calling for Akin to step aside and allow some less objectionable candidate to run for Claire McCaskill's easily winnable senate seat.  But as the commentariat began to focus its fickle attention on  the story, tape began to surface going back thirty years of many, many other anti-abortionists saying essentially the same thing.  Apparently, in anti-abortion circles, it is a commonplace that the woman's body has this ability ["God's little gift," as it is sometimes called] to produce a spermaticidal liquid when she is being forced to engage in sexual intercourse by someone other than her husband [marital rape is, in these circles, considered a contradiction in terms, like round circle of married bachelor.]

Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonably attentive and perceptive observer of the ;passing scene, but until Akin shot his mouth off on tape in the middle of a senate campaign, I had not the slightest inkling that sizable numbers of Americans -- perhaps scores of millions! -- believe this appalling nonsense about a sperm-killing fluid triggered by "legitimate rape."  It is not as though the people who believe this nonsense try to keep their beliefs to themselves, any more than the gay legal counsel concealed his sexual preference.  To one part of the American community, this bit of noxious folk wisdom is a commonplace.  To the rest of us, it was utterly unknown until Akin let the rat out of the bag.

I know that scores of millions of Americans believe that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old, and that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs at roughly the time the Odyssey was being composed.  I know, too, that a sizable fraction of these hordes expect the End Times and the Rapture very soon now, at which time they will be taken up to heaven sans clothes, sans crowns, inlays, and fillings, and sans hip replacements.  But not in my most fevered dreams could I have imagined this story about a decent woman's natural protection from unwanted pregnancy.


formerly a wage slave said...

The moral I draw from this sort of story is: It's not the in principle ignorance of our fellows (the sort of things professional philosophers talk about) as it the actual ignorance which is disturbing.

I have a favorite example of my own. I won't get the details right, and details matter, but I think you will get my point.

Many years ago Eleanor Rosch (then, I believe called E. Heider) published a paper in an anthropology journal about color terms among a community of non-English speakers. They have only two color terms.

I would need to check the details to explain exactly how the terms work --(e.g., do they refer to hue or brightness?) (Sorry, I read this a while ago...)

But, in Rosch's presence husbands and wives began to argue about which terms applied to which objects.

Of course, maybe the husbands and wives don't spend a lot of time together.

Nevertheless, I found this a surprising example. And, the lesson I drew from it is, I think, parallel to your own point.

You think you know what other people think, but often you don't. You can always ask them, but that's not always effective. And who has the time to construct psychological experiments for every individual we encounter?---or even for those we encounter on a regular basis? Well, daily contact often forces recognition of the weirdness of other people, or one's own weirdness.

But what I'm saying is that I think this thing I'm calling weirdness can be found anywhere you care to look.

It's just more noticeable to you when it is politics, but I think it is everywhere.

Don Schneier said...

Perhaps no one expected the Spanish Inquisition, but on the heels of centuries that have included rationalizations for the enslavement of an entire continent, and for genocide, I am not especially surprised by Akin's comments. By the way, note that both the 1st and 2nd Amendments guarantee his right to shoot off his mouth.

ZeroAltitude said...

God's little shield (not gift) -- or so Google tells me.

Anonymous said...

Besides the point somewhat (which is a very good one), but I've been linked to some evidence by the relevant crowd that pre-eclampsia is more likely if a women is impregnated by "unfamiliar sperm" (likelihood of conception is not affected).

So, God's little gift has the implication that: A good Christian girl who has sex for the first time when married and aiming to reproduce is just as likely to miscarry as a girl who is raped by a stranger on a drunken night out. Both would be more likely to miscarry than a woman who is raped by her husband or a women who has consensual sex with a long-term partner out of wedlock.

When you also take into account that the treatment for advancing pre-eclampsia is abortion, it seems to me that God gives his gifts with a very twisted sense of humour.

(the article I was linked to is here:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite correct, "God's little shield." Now why can't I keep these things straight?

formerly a wage slave said...

My post above should have read b a s i c color terms.....