paul bloom’s against empathy is a right-wing trojan horse

Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. is a great case study in the normalization of racism and other right-wing ideas. It’s an ideological Trojan Horse.

The Kavanaugh drama is making it plain how much the world is run by my middle school bullies. Bullies take advantage of the fact that other people want to believe they’re good kids, that they’d never do such things. Part of the torment is the fact that they know the authority figures will take their side over the kid they’re bullying.

Conservative discourse works the same in adulthood: conservatives get huge mileage out of the presumption that they’re arguing in good faith, that they’re decent people. This presumption is what allows conservative intellectuals like Paul Bloom to flourish.

I loved this book because it illustrates how racism is actually propagated when white people talk amongst themselves. I’m half white, and I talk white, so I have the common mixed-race experience of people forgetting I’m black and letting their guard down, thinking they’re in a safe space for their racism. Laughing at racist jokes together is a bonding ritual for white people.

In the book, Bloom says something very important:

If you want people to stop doing something, don’t tell them that everyone does it.

Writing about how “we” do and think racist things is a way of saying that everybody does it.

The book is about empathy in a narrow sense:

Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.

It’s a critique of basing moral decisions on “emotional empathy” rather than “cognitive empathy.” It even cites Buddhist theology to make the reasonable and indisputably true point:

In his book on Buddhist moral philosophy, Charles Goodman notes that Buddhist texts distinguish between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to what we would call empathy, and “great compassion”, which is what we would simply call “compassion.” The first is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” It’s the second that is worth pursuing. Great compassion is more distanced and reserved, and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction between empathy and compassion is criticl for the argument I’ve been making throughout this book. And it is supported by neuroscience research. In a review article, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe how they make sense of this distinction: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other; rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

That’s it. What I’m going to show is that the book’s examples are systematically chosen to validate the (white, male) reader’s prejudices and make it seem ok to be an asshole. I’m going to be looking at where the book fits into public discourse.

Fundamental theoretical errors are invariably characterological. The book is very revealing about Paul Bloom, the person. Who is he, anyway?

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His previous books include Just Babies and How Pleasure Works, and he has written for Science, Nature, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

What do the marketing blurbs say?

An invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of…one of our culture’s most ubiquitous sacred cows. — New York Times

The reader is supposed to laugh along with Paul Bloom. As we’ll see, that can be fucked up.

Brilliant, powerful, and provocative…Sure to be one of the most controversial books of our time. — Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.

Or this:

Will legitimately change how you think about the world and your own sense of morality. — New York Magazine

Note that the book is from 2016:

Provocative…In a time of post-truth politics, his book offers a much-needed call for facts. — The Economist

So Paul Bloom is the definition of mainstream respectability. The reader is supposed to enjoy changing how they think about morality, i.e., good things are supposed to become bad and naughty things are supposed to become good. How fun!

This is, in fact, a fun review to write:

As Fredrik deBoer once put it, “Your haters are your closest readers.”

This is a key admission:

I really do want to be fair, honest, and objective. But I’m only human, so it’s probably true that this book contains weak arguments, cherry-picked data, sneaky rhetorical moves, and unfair representations of those I disagree with. Fortunately, there are many who are in favor of empathy, and they’ll be highly motivated to poke holes in my arguments, point out counterevidence, and so on. Then I’ll respond, and they’ll respond back, and, out of all this, progress will be made.

For anyone who’s new to this blog, I’m autistic, and this caught my eye:

My brother is severely autistic, and when I was growing up I heard it said that such children are a blessing from God–they teach us to be empathic to those who are different from us.

There’s very little discussion of autism in the book. This passage doesn’t seem like the blessing worked on him:

One decisive test of the low-empathy-makes-bad-people theory would be to study a grop of people with low empathy but without the other problems associated with psychopathy. Such individuals might exist. People with Asperger’s syndrome and autism typically have low cognitive empathy–they struggle to understand the minds of others–and have been argued to have low emotional empathy as well, though here, as with psychopaths, there is some controversy as to whether they are incapable of empathy or choose not to deploy it.

Are they monsters? They are not. Baron-Cohen points out that they show no propensity for exploitation and violence. Indeed, they often have strong moral codes. They are more often the victims of cruelty than its perpetrators.

Paul Bloom says I’m not a monster! Thank God!

In this review, I also hope to demonstrate what’s meant when people say “reason” and “rationality” are arrogant white man stuff. No, it doesn’t mean that the women and minorities are too sensitive and emotional. It doesn’t mean women and minorities can’t make rational arguments. Here’s how he handles the criticism:

In a similar vein, a sociology professor once wrote to me and gently told me that my emphasis on reason expressed a particularly Western white male viewpoint. He didn’t use the phrase, but the gist of his polite letter was that I really should check my privilege.

This sort of response really puzzles me…

But it’s hard for me to take seriously the claim that public policy should be made in an unfair and subjective manner (so that, say, it’s right for white politicians to create laws that favor whites over blacks). As for the sociology professor, the idea that rationality is an especially white male Western pursuit is where the extremes of postmodern ideology circle around to meet with the most retrograde views of a barroom bigot. In fact, there is no reason to believe that those who are not male and not white have any special problems with reason. And with regard to the Western part, I would refer the professor to an earlier discussion of how Buddhist theology provides some exceptionally clear insights into why empathy is overrated.

First, the rhetorical cheap shot of saying, well, if it’s not fair and objective, it must be unfair and subjective!

Notice how strong the condemnation gets. LOL “retrograde views of a barroom biot.” Those are supposed to be fighting words. What he’s really saying is that we’re the real racists, with white men as victims. And we’re saying black people are stupid, to boot.

No. This is about how invoking reason works as a rhetorical move. It’s the reason Libertarians have Reason magazine and objectivists call themselves that. If you speak for Reason itself, you speak with unquestionable authority. It’s a power move. The rest of this review will show how right the sociology professor was about Paul Bloom in particular.

PROLOGUE

The book builds initial rapport with the reader by talking about the Sandy Hook shootings. The use of insidious “we” language starts early, soft at first:

We can appreciate that favoring one’s own ethnic group or race, however natural and intuitive it feels, can be unfair and immoral. And we can act to enforce impartiality–for instance, by creating policies that establish certain principles of impartial justice.

He can’t scare the liberals off right at the beginning. We’re all Good Persons here.

CHAPTER 1: OTHER PEOPLE’S SHOES

About 20 pages later, the nudges toward accepting torture start. You can see the relish in the way he writes about it:

Now, not everyone is a consequentialist. Some people adopt the view that we should think about how to act in terms of certain principles, without reference to consequences. Immanual Kant famously argued, for instance, that lying is wrong regardless of the results. Some would say the same about torture–regardless of what sort of ticking bomb scenario one might think of, regardless of how many lives one might save by sticking needles under the fingernails of some prisoner, still, tortre is wrong, and we should never do it…Maybe we should think about “do not torture” in the same way: Even if there are cases in which torture would be justified, we are all better off with an absolute prohibition.

He’s saying we should think about “don’t torture” the same way we always stop at red lights. Most people jaywalk or have run a red light at some point. Not torturing people is like obeying traffic signs…

Here he starts to pick up the pace. A few paragraphs later he uses another technique: describe a situation and leave out something obvious.

I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormentors, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize–I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied–so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

It’d odd that he doesn’t characterize the sadism, boredom, and desire to dominate and be popular as empathizing with the tormentors. But he’s directly admitting that he’s a bully.

Two paragraphs later again:

Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgment in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

All lives matter, right? Remember what HE said about telling people that everyone does something.

It gets more racist on the next page:

Part of the answer is that Sandy Hook was a single event. The murders in Chicago are more of a steady background noise. We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses.

But it’s also in large part because it’s easy for people like me to empathize with the children and teachers and parents of Newtown: They’re so much like those I know and love. Teenage black kids in Chicago, not so much…

There was a dark comedy here, with people from far poorer communities sending their money to much richer people, guided by the persistent itch of empathic concern.

He’s not admitting that he’s been socialized that way and doing something to work on himself and unlearn it, using rational compassion. He’s showing off the privilege he thinks it’s a joke to ask him to check.

Poor people care about us! Dumb niggers! Hahaha!

I’m really not cherry-picking this stuff. It’s pervasive throughout the book.

Consider racism. It’s easy to think of cases where the worst racist biases are exploited for a good end [!]. Such biases can motivate concern for someone who really does deserve concern, can push one to vote for a politician who really is better than the alternative, can motivate enthusiasm for a war when going to war is the just decision, and so on. But that’s not a sufficient argument for racism. One has to show that the good that racism does outweighs the bad and that we are better off using racism to motivate good actions rather than alternatives such as compassion and a sense of fairness and justice.

He doesn’t list examples of good racism. It’s supposed to be self-evident.

Remember that a bunch of high-brow publications called this stuff interesting and provocative and funny and invigorating and brilliant and powerful. It’s supposed to change your mind about morality.

I…lean toward the view that we should aspire to a world in which a politician appealing to someone’s empathy would be seen in the same way as one appealing to people’s racist bias.

Own the libs.

CHAPTER 2: THE ANATOMY OF EMPATHY

The second chapter is about neuroscience-y stuff. He writes about it with the dismissiveness of a humanities major. Granted, there’s a lot of stupid stuff that happens with fMRI and pseudo-neuroscience.

Nowadays, many people only seriously consider claims about our mental lives if you can show them pretty pictures from a brain scanner. Even among psychologists who should know better, images derived from PET or fMRI scans are seen as reflecting something more scientific–more real–than anything else a psychologist could discover. There is a particular obsession with localization, as if knowing where something is in the brain is the key to explaining it.

I see this when I give popular talks. The question I dread most is “Where does it happen in the brain?” Often, whoever asks this question knows nothing about neuroscience. I could make up a funny-sounding brain part–“It’s in the flurbus murbus”–and my questioner would be satisfied. What’s really wanted is some reassurance that there is true science going on and that the phenomenon I’m discussing actually exists.

A few pages later:

After many years and many millions of dollars, it turns out that there are three major findings from the neuroscience of empathy research. None of these are exactly new–they reinforce ideas from philosophers hundreds of years ago–but they add to our knowledge in valuable ways.

The three are:

1. Empathy involves the same brain regions as having the experience yourself.

2. Empathy is modified by beliefs, expectations, motivations, judgments.

3. “Feeling” and “understanding” are distinct.

Alright, maybe not profound. He goes out of his way to quote Adam Smith wherever possible. But again the pattern of normalizing dickishness.

Or consider the response to those who repel us. Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske got subjects to view pictures of drug addicts and homeless people.

He writes disingenuously about that, too:

People often cross the street to avoid encountering suffering people who are begging for money. It’s not that they don’t care (if they didn’t care, they would just walk by), it’s that they are bothered by the suffering and would rather not encounter it.

He leaves out the obvious factor of guilt driving this. There’s a telling anecdote where he read Peter Singer’s argument that it’s morally grotesque for people with money to spend it on silly shit instead of helping people. Someone calls him out for hypocrisy, asking how much he donates. None, it turns out. So he contacts a charity, who sends him some material about an individual kid to sponsor, and he’s moved. See? Empathy can motivate good behavior!

In that account, he writes about it like virtue signaling and looking like a hypocrite had nothing to do with it.

CHAPTER 3:  DOING GOOD

He provides a lot more examples of himself proudly not giving a shit.

Actually, and this is a hard thing to write, I usually get more upset if my internet connection becomes slow and uncertain than when I read about some tragedy in a country I haven’t heard of.

I don’t see anything wrong with that, except the dismissive wording. Emotions evolved for doing things. Of course getting frustrated while performing a task is more emotional than information you can’t act on in any way.

Stories about the horrific conditions inside American prisons rarely capture people’s interest because, although they touch the lives of millions, most people don’t care about those millions. Many see prison rape, for instance, as either a joke or a satisfying proof that what goes around, comes around.

Surely he must know that prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders, the mentally ill, etc? Raping us is hilarious and we deserve it. Of course.

After dismissing neuroscience research in the previous chapter, he goes out of his way to ignore modern (and ancient) research on the importance of touch, connection, social support, etc. for physical health. He was talking to a pastor, and…

I tentatively raised the concern, which I had recently read about, that giving to these beggars makes things worse, causing more suffering, and suggested we should stop doing it; we should use our money in better ways.

Her response surprised me. She didn’t challenge me on the facts; what she said was that she liked giving to beggars. She said that handing over food or money to a child, seeing the child’s satisfaction, made her feel good. It’s an important human contact, she told me, not the sort of thing you can ever get by typing your credit card number into oxfam.org…

…If a child is starving, it doesn’t really matter whether the food is delivered by a smiling aid worker who hands it over and then gives the kid a hug, or dropped from the sky by a buzzing drone. The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives.

It’s simply not credible that, as Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University, Paul Bloom hasn’t heard of the Harlow studies from the late 1950s. Can you get an undergrad degree in psychology without hearing about the Harlow studies more than once? This is why people like Bloom can’t be given the benefit of the doubt that they’re writing honestly in good faith. The imagery of buzzing drones feeding the starving children is a form of macho posturing. Lacking empathy is a masculine virtue.

It’s this kind of dishonesty:

A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job.

The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks “What do two plus two equal?” The mathematician replies “Four.” The interviewer asks “Four, exactly?” The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says “Yes, four, exactly.”

Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question “What do two plus two equal?” The accountant says “On average, four – give or take ten percent, but on average, four.”

Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question “What do two plus two equal?” The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, “What do you want it to equal”?

Bloom closes the chapter praising economists to the sky.

I am going to say something nice about economists. This doesn’t come easy to me. As a professor, I can tell you that they are hardly the most popular individuals in a university, with their ridiculous salaries, fine suits, and repeated failures to warn us when the economy is about to go belly up. But their application of cold economic reasoning sometimes put them on the side of the angels, as they work to b professionally immune to the sorts of prejudices and biases that most people are subject to.

For instance, most economists believe in the merits of free trade, and this is in large part becuse, unlike politicians and many citizens, they refuse to see any principled difference between the lives of people in our country and the lives of people in others.

Yes, moving operations to poor countries without labor protections is all about equality.

Bloom points out that economics was first called the “dismal science” because some economists opposed slavery. This is like saying Trump is my friend because Lincoln freed the slaves.

INTERLUDE: THE POLITICS OF EMPATHY

Another dishonest disavowal:

In any case, if it’s true that liberal policies are rooted in empathy and if I’m right that empathy is a poor moral guide, then what you are looking at in this book is an attack on the left. This would certainly be an interesting position to take.

But it is not my argument.

No, the book is definitely supposed to undermine the left.

He talks about Hillary Clinton and superpredators…separately.

In the wake of the choke hold death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officers, Hillary Clinton called for changing police tactics, and then said: “The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes…To imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams.”

In a later chapter on violence and cruelty, he talks about Hannibal Lecter:

It’s a discussion for another day why so many of us find such a character interesting to watch; what sort of pure evil is entertaining and what isn’t.

Hannibal is presented as a creature different from the rest of us. There are many names given to such creatures. They are monsters, animals, or superpredators–the last a term that became popular in the 1990s to refer to certain violent teenagers.

Certain ones, huh?

He wrote this in 2016:

Conservatives also tend to have a certain skepticism about the extent of human kindness, particularly toward those who are not family and friends, and they worry as well about the unreliability and corruptibility of state institutions.

Two years later, nobody could say with a straight face that conservatives give a fuck about corruption. The meanness, lack of principles, shamelessness, etc. are all proudly on display. Today was the Kavanaugh hearings. They’ve been tremendous assholes all along, but look at the kind of drivel Bloom wrote about them. He tones down the dickishness enough to stay respectable, easing the reader into identifying with it.

He quotes Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito talking about their great empathy in their confirmation hearings. Ridiculous.

Then he treat Dick Cheney’s manipulative non sequitur in favor of torture as a legitimate point:

Or take concerns about the use of torture by the CIA and the American military. It might seem that empathy can favor only one side of the debate there–concerns about the suffering of those who are tortured. But this is too simple. After the publication of the torture reports in late 2014, ex-vice-president Dick Cheney was asked to defend the United States’ record on torture. Now you might imagine that his argument would involve abstract appeals to security and safety. And yet when asked to define torture, Cheney gave this example: “an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.” This is an empathic argument, defending torture by talking about the suffering of a single individual.

In 2016, he was still pushing global warming denial talking points:

We’ve seen how conservatives can rely on empathy just as much as liberals. More than that, certain perspectives associated with liberal philosophies aren’t that empathic at all [burn!].

The best example of this is climate change, something that progressives care more about than conservatives. Here, empathy favors doing nothing. If you do act, many identifiable victims–real people who we can feel empathy for–will be harmed by increased gas prices, business closures, increased taxes, and so on. The millions or billions of people who at some unspecified future data will suffer the consequences of our current inaction are, by contrast, pale statistical abstractions.

Puerto Rico and North Carolina would like to have a word with you about future unspecified dates for global warming to start affecting people.

CHAPTER 4: INTIMACY

His argument depends on a firm distinction between empathy and compassion, but it doesn’t feel right to me on a phenomenological level.

There is a world of difference, after all, between understanding the misery of the person who is talking to you because you have felt misery in the past, even though now you are calm, and understanding the misery of the person who is talking to you because you are mirroring them and feeling their misery right now. The first, which doesn’t involve empathy in any sense, just understanding, has all the advantages of the second and none of its costs.

Similar in concept to mirror neurons, activating a memory of something involves some of the same brain processes as the original experience. So when someone retrieves a memory of the feeling of misery, despite an overall calm state, they’re still feeling misery. You can feel more than one thing at a time. Feelings you’re contemplating abstractly are just muted in intensity.

Bloom loves to quote Adam Smith, because of course he does. I think this passage illustrates why Bloom really does need to work on his compassion, empathy, whatever.

Consider finally our dealings with a friend who is sad. We are capable of exercising empathy here, but there are reasons why we might choose not to.

One is that you might think he or she is sad for a silly reason. As mentioned earlier, Smith gives the example of someone who tells you how annoyed he is that “his brother hummed a tune all the time he himself was telling a story.” So he’s upset, but you’re not, because you find this ridiculous. You might actually find this pretty entertaining–a reaction that Smith calls “a malice in mankind.”

Smith is right. It is malice. I don’t have any problem imagining why it’s a rage-inducing bummer for someone to refuse to give you their full attention, even pointedly ignoring you, mocking you. This is people skills 101 kind of stuff. You listen quiet. You don’t half-listen and hum. It hurts people’s feelings.

The difference is that Bloom reads the scenario and identifies with the brother who keeps humming, seeing what a great way to frustrate someone that would be.

That inner bully is the essence of conservatism. All the ideological problems boil down to a decision about whether to be a dick like Paul Bloom or not.

I resonate to Dickens’s mockery. I could never take seriously people who refuse to take long flights to see those they love because of worries about contributing to climate change. Or even those who put their children into a public school that they know to be terrible even though they can easily afford a private school [!], just out of a broader principle of common good.

If I take one flight, I’m basically canceling out any benefit to the climate that comes from being vegan for that entire year. If you understand what causes climate change, and you feel a responsibility not to contribute more than necessary, surely abstaining from air travel is rational. If you understand how bad the consequences of global warming really are, everyday decisions can start to take on a certain moral heaviness.

CHAPTER 5: VIOLENCE AND CRUELTY

He cites Tage Rai to say that sadism is rare and moralization is the root of violence. Follow the link for a critique of Tage Rai’s arguments.

Another example of being willfully obtuse in describing a situation:

Morality is motivating. I read a story earlier today, from many years ago, about a man who went with his wife and children to the beach in Dubai. His older daughter, a twenty-year-old, went out for a swim and started to struggle in the water and scream for help. The father was strong enough to keep two lifeguards from rescuing her. According to a police officer, “He told them that he prefers his daughter being dead than being touched by a strange man.” She drowned.

Now you’d be seriously missing the point if you saw the father’s action as the product of sadism, indifference, or psychopathy. It was the product of moral commitment, no different in the father’s mind than if he were struggling to prevent his daughter from being raped.

Alright, how about misogyny as a contributor to the situation? Really start to add up how many shitty things Bloom has tried to get the reader to empathize and sympathize with by this point. When I said that it’s pervasive, it wasn’t hyperbole.

He’s still not done. Next, he validates the fear racists have of nigger rapists and even quotes Ann Coulter. He writes about it like sexualized racist fears are feared in good faith. Nothing about how things like projection play a role.

Remember that this book has mainstream approval.

When scholars think about atrocities, such as the lynchings of blacks in the American South, or the Holocaust in Europe, they typically think of hatred and racial ideology and dehumanization, and they are right to do so. But empathy also plays a role. Not empathy for those who are lynched or put into the gas chambers, of course, but empathy that is sparked by stories told about innocent victims of these hated grous, about white women raped by black men or German children preyed upon by Jewish pedophiles.

Or think about contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric. When Donald Trump campaigned in 2015, he liked to talk about Kate–he didn’t use her full name, Kate Steinle, just Kate. She was murdered in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant, and Trump wanted to make her real to his audience, to make vivid his talk of Mexican killers. Similarly, Ann Coulter’s recent book, Adios, America, is rich with detailed descriptions of immigrant crimes, particularly rape and child rape, with chapter titles like “Why Do Hispanic Valedictorians Make the News, But Child Rapists Don’t?” and headings like “Lost a friend to drugs? Thank a Mexican.” Trump and Coulter use these stories to stoke our feelings for innocent victims and motivate support for policies against the immigrants who are said to prey upon these innocents.

By the end of the book, Trump and Coulter are “our” leaders. This passage from Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism is the type of analysis he wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole:

Fanon argues that this conflation of the black man with his penis is one of the main qualities of Negrophobia, which manifests as sexual panic that takes the form of fear and desire. The myth of the large black penis only serves to emasculate the black man.

The Negro’s impotence is further signaled by his inability to actually substitute for the punishing father of Freud’s narrative. Though the menacing black penis offers the possibility of physical pain, the Negro does not serve as a superego for the woman. The woman’s punishment for her desire to be raped occurs, not at the hands of the Negro, but within the realm of the white psyche. The fantasy is formed in anticipation of harsh societal judgment against her desires, which represent the persistent paranoid fear of white femininity being violated by black men. The woman voices what Fanon imagines to be the deepest fear/desire of white patriarchy. The woman will not actually be punished for this fantasy, but its effects are especially real to the black man, resulting in the social castration of black men. As Diana Fuss writes, “Fanon’s deconstruction of this fantasy takes place in an historical context when fabricated charges of rape were used as powerful colonial instruments of fear and intimidation.”

Paul Bloom is literally the modern day version of that, in this discussion of feminism and objectification:

It is not literally true that these women are depicted as inanimate and interchangeable objects, as lacking agency and subjective experience. Rather, the women in pornography are depicted as purely sexual beings, just lacking certain intellectual and emotional properties we normally associate with people. The real moral issue that concerns us (or should concern us) about the depiction of women in pornography isn’t that they are seen as objects, but that they are depicted as lesser individuals, as similar to stupid and submissive slaves.

That passage works by taking “objectification” in the most simple-minded, literal way possible. Come on. Andrea Dworkin wrote about object relations in psychoanalysis in her discussion of the topic, among other things. Here’s an example of her writing about it: Pornography Happens to Women:

It happens to women, in real life. Women’s lives are made two-dimensional and dead. We are flattened on the page or on the screen. Our vaginal lips are painted purple for the consumer to clue him in as to where to focus his attention such as it is. Our rectums are highlighted so that he knows where to push. Our mouths are used and our throats are used for deep penetration.

I am describing a process of dehumanization, a concrete means of changing someone into something. We are not talking about violence yet; we are nowhere near violence.

Dehumanization is real. It happens in real life; it happens to stigmatized people. It has happened to us, to women. We say that women are objectified. We hope that people will think that we are very smart when we use a long word. But being turned into an object is a real event; and the pornographic object is a particular kind of object. It is a target. You are turned into a target. And red or purple marks the spot where he’s supposed to get you.

This object wants it. She is the only object with a will that says, hurt me. A car does not say, bang me up. But she, this nonhuman thing, says hurt me–and the more you hurt me, the more I will like it.

When we look at her, that purple painted thing, when we look at her vagina, when we look at her rectum, when we look at her mouth, when we look at her throat, those of us who know her and those of us who have been her still can barely remember that she is a human being.

In pornography we literally see the will of women as men want to experience it. This will is expressed through concrete scenarios, the ways in which women’s bodies are positioned and used. We see, for instance, that the object wants to be penetrated; and so there is a motif in pornography of self-penetration. A woman takes some thing and she sticks it up herself. There is pornography in which pregnant women for some reason take hoses and stick the hoses up themselves. This is not a human being. One cannot look at such a photograph and say, There is a human being, she has rights, she has freedom, she has dignity, she is someone. One cannot. That is what pornography does to women.

Paul Bloom sure refuted that by distinguishing “object” from “lesser individual” and saying the same thing she said and calling that a refutation. Even in the original formulation, the term never implied that the women were, like, dead. Remember what he said at the beginning about mischaracterizing opponents’ arguments?

He wonders:

If you don’t think of them as initially possessing dignity, where’s the pleasure in degrading them

CHAPTER 6: AGE OF REASON

The psychologist says:

Most of the time we are not influenced by factors out of our control.

That’s actually how economists think about the subject. If the market works for baseball cards, who cares about racism?

As an example of this, take a study in which psychologists put baseball cards on sale on eBay with photographs, depicting them held either by a dark-skinned hand or a light-skinned hand. People were willing to pay about 20 percent less if they were held by dark hands. This provides, as the authors note, a sharp demonstration of how effects of racial bias show up in a real-world marketplace–an interesting and socially significant finding. But nobody bothers to do a study looking at whether the scarcity of the card or its quality influence how much it sells for, because it’s obvious that people would take into account these perfectly reasonable considerations. Findings of racial bias shouldn’t lead us to forget that more rational processes exist as well, and are deeply important.

Only a few pages left after that, but I’ve made my point.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We can see that the book has a surface meaning. A thoughtful, careful analysis of how to do right in the world, brave enough to follow Reason to counter-intuitive conclusions. But the book functions as a device for nudging people on their way to being conservative trolls. Repetition is key. The book doesn’t do all the work by itself. It’s just part of creating an overall atmosphere in society, where “we” are obviously afraid of Mexican rapists and laugh at shit Ann Coulter says.

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