Welcome to our highly anticipated discussion of Sukaina Hirji‘s “Oppressive Double Binds,” published in the most recent issue of Ethics. You can find the paper here. Elizabeth Barnes‘s critical précis is immediately below. Please join the discussion!

Elizabeth Barnes writes:

In Sukaina Hirji’s remarkable paper ‘Oppressive Double Binds’, she gives an account of a distinctive type of forced imperfect choice that oppressed groups frequently encounter. These choices are distinctive, Hirji argues, not only because they present a kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ structure, but also because they create scenarios in which what is good for an agent is invariably tied to things which are, ultimately, bad for her (and others like her).

To illustrate Hirji’s model of double binds, I’ll start with a story that one of my students told when we read this paper in class. She is at the checkout at CVS when a man she vaguely knows approaches her. He sees that she is buying condoms and – loudly, in front of the rest of the checkout line – makes an inappropriate joke. The joke strikes her as creepy, both because it’s far too familiar given how little they know each other, and because it’s not-so subtly shaming her for buying condoms. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, she fake-laughs at the joke, smiles, and exits as quickly as she can. Later, though, she’s angry with herself. Didn’t she, by going along and laughing at the joke, just encourage this man to treat other women the same way? Didn’t she communicate to him that she was okay with being treated that way?

My student found herself if a classic double-bind. She can ‘go along to get along’ – she can smile and laugh at the joke. Or she can tell this creep off in the checkout line at CVS. Neither option feels like a good option. If she smiles, her own immediate comfort is preserved, and she can go about her day, conserving her energy for things that matter to her more than this weird guy at CVS. But in doing this, she reinforces his creepy behavior. Alternatively, she can adopt a range of negative reactions – from stony silence to a frank explanation of why she’s not okay with the joke – in order to stand her ground and communicate to this man that he is being a creep. But if she does this, she’s likely to land herself in a much more uncomfortable situation, one in which this man might react very negatively to her.

A common way of understanding such double-binds has been as a choice between what is prudentially good and what is morally good. In conditions of oppression, the thought goes, people targeted by oppression often face choices between resisting and co-operating with oppressive norms and structures. If they co-operate, they get prudential goods for themselves, but at the cost of being complicit in their own oppression, and helping to uphold the oppressive patterns that will continue to harm others. If they resist, they’ll be doing what’s morally best, but the negative prudential consequences will fall directly on them.

Hirji, however, thinks this model is too simplistic. Consider my student’s options. Neither the choice to confront nor the choice to smile are fit neatly into the mold of prudential motivated or morally motivated: they’re a mix of both. If she confronts, she communicates that the joke was inappropriate, but she worries what else she will communicate. Her mind immediately flashes to herself, a young Latina woman speaking accented English, getting in a fight about condoms with a strange man in the checkout of a CVS, and she immediately worries that this scenario does more harm than good. Confronting him, or refusing to smile, could also just reinforce stereotypes about ‘joyless feminists’ and woke kids who have to make such a big deal out of everything. Given the limited pragmatic rewards of confronting it’s unlikely this man will suddenly see the error of his ways – she’s just not sure it would be worth it. And, above all that, there’s the issue of her physical safety – which is itself a moral good as well as a prudential one. She’s young and pretty and alone and it’s getting late – the last thing she wants to do is draw further public attention to the fact that she’s buying a box of condoms.

Likewise, if she smiles and goes along with the joke, she’s giving this creep, who has made an unwanted intrusion into her day, the minimum amount of her time and energy. She can then save that energy to do things that are important to her, and that stand to make more of a difference to the things she care about that fighting about jokes and condoms with a creepy man at CVS. So there is moral value to her in going along as well as in confronting.

The net result, though, is that she feels frustrated and unsatisfied no matter what she does. And this, Hirji argues, is the essence of oppressive double-binds. They are cases in which, because of the ubiquity of oppressive norms, individuals from oppressed groups are faced with a distinctive type of imperfect choice. Their own prudential good, in the moment, is tied to co-operating with an oppressive norm that, in the longterm, is bad for them. And so, in my student’s case, the norm is something like: women should tolerate overly familiar behavior from men. If my student resists that norm, things might not go well for her. But if she co-operates in the moment – if she smiles and nods – she’s in a way helping to perpetuate the very norm that is making her so uncomfortable, and creating this forced choice.

There is a rich amount of detail that I am skimming over in giving this summary, and if there’s one thing I can communicate it’s that you should read Hirji’s beautiful paper in its entirety and not rely on my low-rent overview. But in reading the paper – which I find both incredibly insightful and hard to disagree with – I found myself left with two main questions, which I’ll present here in hopes of starting off some good discussion.

(i) How explanatory is Hirji’s model? – Aristotle says that virtue is the mean between two vices. A common complaint is that this might well be true, but only because of the plentitude of vices. For most any virtue, we can come up with some vices that the virtue is a middle ground between, simply because there are so many vices, and so many ways we can gerrymander our understanding of them to fit our purposes. So it might be true that virtue is the mean between two vices, and yet not actually tell us all that much about the nature of virtue. I have a similar question about Hirji’s model of double-binds, simply because of the plentiful supply of oppressive norms. In response to a case of an oppressive double-bind that doesn’t, prima facie, fit her model – a woman caught between being labeled a prude and being labeled a slut – Hirji responds that in fact the model does apply, so long as ‘we are careful in specifying the oppressive norm’ (p. 656). In this case, Hirji argues that the norm in question should be that women lack sexual autonomy. And she’s right that if we pick this as the oppressive norm, we can understand the prude/slut case according to her terms. And yet, the prude/slut case does feel somewhat different in character to the smile-and-nod/confront case. And so I began to wonder whether, precisely because there are so many norms and so many ways of specifying norms in order to fit our purposes, if the very flexibility of Hirji’s account might ultimately undermine its explanatory power.

(ii) Do self-undermining choices really disrupt agency? – Hirji argues that the distinctive harm of double-binds is that they inhibit the full agency of the people trapped in them (p. 665-666). Because of the nature of these imperfect choices, the agent cannot pursue her own goals in a way that isn’t invariably self-undermining. And this, Hirji argues, prevents her from developing her own agency. But I found myself wondering why we should accept that such imperfect choices undermine agency. Here is an example. I volunteer with a dog rescue that regularly faces the choice of whether to take in dogs from overcrowded breeding/hoarding situations. These ‘breeders’ often end up with dogs that are under-socialized or have medical problems, and unless rescues take them in they’re likely to be euthanized. Taking in dogs that are likely to be euthanized and finding them good homes is our reason for being, as a rescue. But the more we take in dogs from these breeders, the more the breeders are encouraged to keep doing what they’re doing – after all they can just dump the unwanted dogs in rescues. So if we respond to the immediate need of the dogs in front of us, we risk perpetuating the very practices that will cause more longterm harm. But if we focus on the longterm harm, we ignore the suffering that’s immediately in front of us. This is not a matter of our oppression, or of any particular norm we’re resisting, or etc. But it is, I suggest, a very common experience when trying to make a good choice in a bad world. And I’m not convinced that our agency is undermined in these choices (unless your agency is undermined when you start flirting with utilitarian reasoning). We’re just experiencing what it’s like to exercise (full) agency over a set of non-ideal options.


23 Replies to “Sukaina Hirji: “Oppressive Double Binds”. Précis by Elizabeth Barnes

  1. Ok, first all, thanks to anyone who read/skimmed the paper, thanks to the PEA Soup team for putting together this discussion, and especially many thanks to Elizabeth for her thoughtful comments both while I was writing the paper, and now again in this précis. I should say off the bat, I think of this paper as pretty exploratory. I think the central question — what distinguishes oppressive double binds from other bad choice situations we all face all the time — is really interesting. I’m not confident what I say in answer to this question is right. So, I welcome any and all comments — what you liked, what you didn’t like, what you think I should have said, what you think I should now say in response to Elizabeth’s very real and incisive worries… Just seriously honored to have anyone read the paper at all!

    So in response to Elizabeth’s comments: first of all, I love this example! I really wanted the paper to resonate with people’s actual, lived experience of these kinds of choices. As angry as I am on behalf of your student, I am also heartened to hear that discussing the paper gave her space to think about why being in that kind of choice situation is so distinctively shitty. What I want to say about double binds is that they aren’t *just* a choice between two bad options, or simply a choice between what is prudentially best and what is morally best. Instead, they are choice situations that exist in virtue of oppression where, because of the way your own prudential good is bound up with your ability to resist oppression, every option available to you forces you, to some degree, to cooperate with, or be complicit in, your own oppression. So, if your student says something, she ends up risking harm or punishment, and expends a lot of emotional energy when she is likely already stretched pretty thin. In doing so, she incurs costs to her own prudential good, but her success/thriving is what will allow her to resist oppression in the future, and is itself a kind of resistance to oppression. On the other hand, if she doesn’t say anything, she cooperates in a different way; she doesn’t suffer the same kind of prudential cost, but she allows things to carry on roughly as they are, and communicates through her silence that the man’s behavior is appropriate. Both of these options suck, but the way they suck is partly because they force her to be a kind of tool or mechanism of her own oppression; her agency is coopted by the oppressive structure.

    Ok, so this gets me to Elizabeth’s two worries. In general, I operate on the assumption that Elizabeth is right about everything, so I’m really inclined to just concede here. But let me try to say some things that are helpful, and maybe if anyone else has thoughts, they can also help me out.

    Re (1): that the flexibility of the account undermines its explanatory power. I appreciate Elizabeth’s attempt to distract me by throwing subtle shade at Aristotle, but I refuse to take the bait! I think Aristotle’s characterization of virtue as a mean does have explanatory power, and isn’t meant to be a definition — but ok, that’s a conversation for another time. As far as the worry here about my account of double binds, I do really feel the force of that worry. It isn’t hard to find oppressive norms at work in many of the choice situations we are faced with, and so it isn’t hard to find double binds out there if we look hard enough. I guess part of me is inclined to bite the bullet here. I think probably there are just very many oppressive norms at work, all the time, structuring our choices, and very many double binds we encounter. I think you see something analogous with adaptive preferences. We might think there are very many preferences we have that are shaped by oppression in autonomy-depriving ways. Some of these adaptive preferences are very bad for us (choosing to stay with an abusive partner), and some of them are pretty trivial (preferring to shave one’s legs) and don’t really make a big difference to the quality of our lives. I’m happy to say with double binds too, some are very bad for us, and some are pretty trivial, but double binds as such are ubiquitous under oppression.

    Ok, so suppose double binds are kind of everywhere. Is this a problem for the explanatory power of the account? I guess it depends in part what the account is trying to explain. I want to be able to say that, serious or trivial, these kinds of choice situations are different in kind from other kinds of choices where we’re stuck between bad options that don’t have anything to do with oppression. I think the account can still do that explanatory work — say something about why there is a meaningful difference between these kinds of choices under oppression and other sorts of bad choices — even if very many of the choices we face under oppression turn out to be double binds. This gets me to the second worry…

    Re (2): what is the difference between the way double binds disrupt/undermine our agency, and the ways that other kinds of bad choices in a bad world might disrupt/undermine our agency. I love this question. I’m just generally very interested in these sorts of messy choices. The kind of case you’re describing is the sort of case I think Aristotle talks about as “mixed action” cases. And he does seem to think (or so I argue!) that these kinds of choices prevent us from fully expressing our virtue. We’re doing the best thing available to us, but because of the way the world is, these choices don’t fully realize or express our good character, because doing so involves being able to bring about certain good results in the world. But, ok, I said I would leave Aristotle out of this. Does the dog breeder case really undermine our agency? And if not, then how are double binds different?

    I’m not sure if this will be satisfying, but what seems distinctive to me about double binds is, again, how oppression coopts our agency to force us to cooperate in our own oppression no matter what we do. The dog breeder case is one where we decide to be complicit in a bad system — where we are weighing the benefits vs. the harms of this complicity — and deciding what we think is overall best. But our own prudential good isn’t wrapped up with this choice in the same way; we’re just making a hard/messy moral choice. In oppressive double binds, we don’t get to separate out the prudential stuff from the moral stuff in the same way– there is a moral cost to us choosing to incur some prudential harm (by doing the morally best thing), and there is a prudential cost to us cooperating in an oppressive norm (in order to avoid a prudentially worse outcome). We don’t get to choose whether or not to be complicit, or to cooperate; we can’t opt out in the same way.

    Ok, I have more thoughts but I’ll stop there for now, since this is already very long!

  2. “I appreciate Elizabeth’s attempt to distract me by throwing subtle shade at Aristotle”

    I feel so seen.

  3. Thanks so much for your paper, Sukaina, and for these really helpful questions, Elizabeth! I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to contribute to this discussion because Sukaina’s paper just seems so right to me… but your first question helped me see more clearly something I’ve been wondering about, so here goes!

    Elizabeth writes that “the prude/slut case does feel somewhat different in character to the smile-and-nod/confront case.” Sukaina, I’d love to hear more about what your take on that *felt* difference is! Even after reading your paper, it’s very easy for me to feel like what’s wrong with the prude/slut double bind is just that there’s no way for a young woman considering sexual activity to act that doesn’t open her up to social censure. I really like your discussion of the specific choice situation of the young woman choosing whether or not to have sex with her boyfriend in the paper, but that feels to me like the articulation of a distinct harm she experiences, rather than a new way of unpacking what had originally struck me as wrong with the prude/slut double bind. But if that’s right, why not just think that there are two distinct phenomena – the phenomenon of a double bind that leaves us with no good options (like the prude/slut double bind), and the more specific phenomenon you’re articulating where we’re forced to participate in our own oppression – and that they’ll often ‘go together’ not because they have anything deep to do with one another, but just because there are so many oppressive norms around that you’ll always be able to find one in the vicinity of any double-bind-that-leaves-us-with-no-good-options?

    This might just be Elizabeth’s first question again, now that I’ve typed it out, but I’d still love to hear what you think!

  4. I love the paper, the comments, and the questions so far! This is a follow-up to Sukaina’s response to Elizabeth’s second question. So is the thing that is distinctive about the agency-reducing harm of the double binds you discuss is that they’re self-undermining wrt being complicit in our own oppression? If so, is there also something going on like: there are ways of undermining goals (like the goal of reducing/eliminating bad lives for dogs), and there are ways of undermining your own existence in an oppressive system (like smiling at the comment), and it’s the double binds that lead to the latter that are agency undermining? Maybe this is a misguided distinction because there can also be goals around anti-oppression, but I was thinking there are also ways that Elizabeth’s example (or one in the vicinity) could involve a prudential/moral trade-off, so I’m wondering if other things are at play too!

  5. Ah, thanks for this question Katy, this is a good place to be pushing me! I definitely share some of the discomfort you’re expressing. The prude/slut case is supposed to be a central case of a double bind for Marilyn Frye, and I take myself to be trying to articulate/work out what Frye thinks is distinctive about double binds. So, it does feel a bit weird to me that the case doesn’t really fit neatly into the framework I end up offering. That being said, I do think it will end up being true of any of these prude/slut cases that the woman in question does end up cooperating to some degree with her own oppression, and so what I take to be the distinctive feature of double binds will be true of these cases. For that reason, I don’t yet see a reason to think there are two distinct phenomena that are co-travelling. Part of my worry about your proposal is that the fact the woman faces social censure no matter what she does doesn’t seem to really capture what is distinctive about double binds vs. other kinds of choice situations where there are just a range of bad options — and that is the central question I’m interested in, and also what I take Frye to be interested. I think we’re often in situations where we’ll be criticized no matter what we do, or face social censure no matter what we do, but I’m not sure I want to say any situation like this is a double bind in the way that the prude/slut case is. My sense is that the prude/slut case is more like the other double binds I consider than it is like, say, a political choosing how to allocate scarce resources in imperfect ways. But I’m curious if you find this response at all convincing!

  6. Sam, that is really helpful! I mean, here again, I kind of don’t know exactly what to say, so I love your constructive suggestions! I agree that what is distinctively agency-undermining about double binds isn’t just that your choices undermine your own goals — that seems too general. And I agree that there will be prudential/moral trade offs in the dog breeder case too. But I wonder if there is the same kind of trade off. In double binds, your own prudential good is *part of* resisting oppression, both instrumentally but also in itself — your survival or success is itself a kind of resistance. So, I’m thinking there is a kind of deeper connection between the moral and prudential stuff than you’ll see in other cases. Which is why I think you’re right that the way double binds undermine one’s “existence”, and not just any goal, is at the heart of why double binds are agency-undermining in some distinctive way. To say more, I would probably need to invoke some substantive account of agency, which I try to avoid doing in the paper since, let’s be real, I don’t have a view about this. But I would be very curious if anyone thinking about agency has more to say about this!

  7. Love the discussion so far. Sukaina, I’m wondering about whether ‘participating in oppression’ always dovetails with ‘participating in your own oppression’. Take the shaving legs example. I take it that you want to say that this is a minor way of participating in your own oppression. But someone else might look at some cases of people shaving their legs as ones in which the agent is participating in an oppressive structure/set of gender norms, but not necessarily participating in their own oppression. Say they love shaving their legs and get approval from other people for doing so and wouldn’t have it any other way. Or perhaps an even better case might be that of someone who is torn between participating in an oppressive practice to which they are not themselves directly subject and one in which they are so subject. If there is such a disconnect (and I take this to be a big if since many people would resist this point), then it seems like there will be cases in which the conflict is between participating in your own oppression and participating in oppression more generally. Another less indirect way of asking my question is: some people want to say that by participating in oppressive practices you are thereby oppressing yourself somewhat irrespective of whether the oppression directly harms you, do you buy that? Or is there going to be some work that you’ll need to do to figure out when someone counts as participating in their own oppression vs. participating in oppressive practices more generally?

  8. This is such a great discussion! Thanks, Sukaina for being willing to do this.

    I want to jump into the discussion of the explanatory power of Sukaina’s account, but first, something of a side note. Like Sukaina, I don’t understand the doctrine of the mean as proposing anything like a way of determining, or sorting virtues from vices, or a criterion of virtue. I read it as rather, or at least in the first instance, an elucidation of the context within which it makes any sense to make judgments of virtue and vice in the first place. First and foremost that context includes the fact that we are the kinds of creatures who are susceptible to certain affects and desires– like, for instance, fear and confidence. And that *does* to my mind tell us something about the nature of the virtues– viz. a creature that was susceptible to neither fear nor confidence might have many (in some sense) admirable qualities, but is not a creature of whom it would be apt to say that they are cowardly, rash or courageous. [Think Spock, but like only if he weren’t half-human]

    Although a side note, that I think makes the analogy to Sukaina’s account of double-binds not quite apt in one way. In another way, however (and this is why I mentioned it) it might be helpful: it shows us that we don’t have to think of the doctrine of the mean as sorting vices and virtues or even having the potential to do so in order to think that it has explanatory power.

    I think Sukaina’s account has enormous explanatory power, though reading through her own remarks, I wonder if I’m thinking of it as having explanatory power along a dimension she didn’t intend (?) [You speak, Sukaina, of your account as allowing us to “say something about why there is a meaningful difference between these kinds of choices under oppression and other sorts of bad choices”- I don’t take what follows to be disagreeing with you about that]

    Like Jen Morton, I’m not entirely sure that acting in accordance with the demand of an oppressive norm that applies to one always reifies one’s *own* oppression (and so is imprudent in that light] Take, for instance, the sexist norm “women shouldn’t work and should stay home have babies raise them and care for them and the man to whom they are married”. Suppose that’s what a woman wants to do and does. [It doesn’t matter for this purpose whether it’s an adaptive preference] I think it’s true that every woman who does that reifies the norm (to some degree; I think there are ways of fighting against that reification even when one makes choices in accordance with oppressive norms, but that’s a whole other discussion) What is less clear to me is that the ways in which she thereby reifies a sexist norm (necessarily? always? usually?) contribute to her own oppression. Does she, for instance, thereby constrain her future choices? [Suppose she’s got great inherited wealth…]. I’m just not sure (not be facetious!]

    But here’s what does seem clear to me. Not all oppressive social norms in all contexts are going to be like the prude/slut example in the sense that any of one’s choices will lead to social disapprobation. Here’s one sexist norm: women should marry men. [and not women, and not stay single] There are plenty of contexts in which that would lead to exactly no social disapprobation for the woman (and much social approbation). [My earlier example of the sexist norm that women should not work, stay home, have babies and care for them and the guy to whom they are married is–in many communities– another such]

    Here’s why I think this is worth noticing. To me, one of the great explanatory powers of Sukaina’s account isn’t in sorting oppressive norms (or choice situations more generally) into ‘oppressive double-binds’ and ‘not oppressive double binds’, but in elucidating one/several of the dimensions of the immorality and injustice of oppressive social norms, a dimension that is very different from that which is involved in the doling out of social disapprobation for morally innocent or laudable choices, or the injustice/immorality involved in lack of access to equal opportunity, or any of the myriad of particular ways in which particular oppressive norms are immoral.

    Let me offer my own example as a way of trying to illustrate. Many years ago, someone advised me that I should stay closeted until after tenure. [That cat was well out of the bag and down the street doing her own thing by then, but let’s pretend it wasn’t for sake of the example] The choice-situation which this person presented to me (or we might better say, the choice situation antecedent in already existing social norms which this person took themselves to be highlighting) was a classic oppressive double-bind in Hirji’s sense. And it was, thereby, morally troubling and unjust in all the ways she highlights. But it was also immoral in ways that are tied specifically to the *content* of that particular oppressive social norm. [There are, among many other things, distinct kinds of psychological damage it does to a person to pretend to be something they are not, especially when that ‘something’ is an otherwise significant aspect of how one moves about the social world] And there are particular ways in which a choice to remain closeted in the situation my interlocutor imagined me in would have contributed pretty directly to a bad situation for other queer folk in that institution (by, for instance, making it falsely appear that there were none of us in the institutional position I then occupied)

    Or, to put it incredibly briefly if crudely– Hirji’s account strikes me as having enormous explanatory power in allowing us to see certain dimensions of the injustice and immorality of oppressive social norms, dimensions we capture in everyday language by using the thick ethical phrase “double-bind”

  9. So to be clear, Sukaina, your answer to Elizabeth’s dog breeder rescue case is that it isn’t an oppressive double bind. You’re not participating in your own oppression and so it’s okay that your agency isn’t undermined. It’s just a messy choice in an imperfect world where we try to balance the rightness and wrongness of individual acts (rescue the dogs!) against the long term consequences (don’t encourage the breeders!). That’s a bind but not a double bind. Lots of life is like this and ethics is really messy.

  10. Anyway, great paper. I loved reading it and thinking about it and I wish I were teaching next semester so I could talk about it with students. One thing I’ve been wondering is how it is that choosing to resist the oppressive norm reinforces it. Pick a simple case like a woman’s choice not to wear make up. That choice comes with a cost, societal disapproval, people asking all the time if you’re tired, maybe even lower scores on teaching evals, but I am not sure how that choice reinforces the norm. In fact, maybe it even chips away at the norm a little bit. You write, “no matter what an agent does, they end up reinforcing the oppressive structure that limits their options.” I guess I’m just not sure that’s right or I need to hear more about the way that works. I think of my own gender norm resisting choices as costing me but also gradually, slowly wearing away the norm. Is that mistaken? Maybe what it shows is that this isn’t a double bind but then I started to wonder how narrow the concept is.

  11. Finally, for now!, I’ve been thinking about the double binds associated with femininity and aging. As a Dean and a full professor, surely I can stop caring about the few bits of normative femininity that apply even to university faculty? I might even have a differential obligation, compared to younger women/junior faculty, to resist looking/acting/talking a certain way. And yet…when older women resist feminine gender norms we’re not cool, rebellious gender resistors, instead we’re seen as giving up. The cost is still there in social terms even if there isn’t the same career impact. Apologies for the here and there thoughts between meetings but such is the life of someone in academic administration.

  12. Hm, Jen, love this question, and I’m not sure what I think about this! I was thinking that participating in oppression was going to dovetail with participating in your own oppression, because the oppressive norm at issue is one that you are subject to in virtue of your identity. I’m not sure what I think about the shaving legs example; this gets to questions of adaptive preferences. I mean, I do like having my legs shaved, and it also makes my life go easier in the world as it is to have them shaved. This norm doesn’t really bother me – I don’t feel seriously harmed by it — but I’m not sure about the “wouldn’t have it any other way”. Would women really have this preference if certain expectations around femininity weren’t in place? I’m not sure how to think about my preferences here in abstraction from patriarchy. That inclines me to think that even if I don’t feel particularly oppressed by this norm – even if I’m pretty happy to shave my legs – there is still something oppressive about it *for me*, it has shaped by preferences in ways that align with broader norms around femininity that are oppressive. The expectation that I shave my legs is part of a broader set of expectations that I look smooth and polished and child-like, and I do think that broader set of norms is oppressive for me, and that I am participating in my own oppression by cooperating with them (even if it doesn’t actually bother me to participate because my preferences have been so deeply shaped by them). I’d be curious what you think about this, and whether you think there are cases where I can participate in oppression but not participate in my own oppression.

  13. Katy, thanks for all this! Obviously love the Aristotle point. And really appreciate what you say about how my account is explanatory. I have been here emphasizing the power of the account to tell us when bad choices are bad in a distinctly oppressive way. But I absolutely agree that part of the explanatory power of the account is meant to be explaining why these kinds of choices – that present themselves to us as free and uncoerced – are actually harmful, and harmful in a specifically agency-undermining way. I take these two things as related: what makes double binds distinct from other kinds of non-oppressive bad choices is the particular way they coopt our agency. So yes, I totally agree with what you say at the end in the case you give from your own life: the badness of the double bind isn’t exhausted by the ways it is a product of unjust/unequal circumstances. It is bad in part by forcing us to “freely” make a particular kind of choice, especially one that involves incurring the kind of psychological damage and harm to others that you describe.

    I like the woman staying at home case as another example, along Jen’s lines, of someone who might be participating in an oppressive norm that isn’t oppressive for her. Are you thinking she’s in some kind of double bind in choosing to stay at home instead of working, even though it is what she wants to do? This maybe gets to Elizabeth’s first worry, about the account overgeneralizing: are we in a double bind any time we are acting in line with some oppressive norm? That does seem like an awful lot of double binds all the time! My first instinct is to say something along the lines of what I said to Jen above: that she is participating in a set of norms/expectations about what women should do that is tied up with patriarchy, and so is bad for her in some respect, even if it is also what she wants. It still might be what she most wants to do, and the best thing for her, but it is also reinforcing a system that is structured to limit her power and freedom. I think a lot of double binds will have this structure. But again, not sure this is fully satisfying.

  14. Samantha, thanks for all these comments!! Yes, that is exactly my response to the dog breeder case. It is some kind of a bind/morally messy choice, but not a double bind in the sense I have in mind. And it doesn’t undermine our agency in the same way.

    On the make-up case: I definitely agree that resisting the norm chips away at the norm. I don’t want to say that resisting oppressive norms is useless, or counter-productive. That would be an even more depressing result than the one I arrive at. What I want to say is that even when we are performing actions that really do chip away at oppressive norms, we are also *to some degree* cooperating in our own oppression. But, to be clear, I don’t think we have to be cooperating in our own oppression by reinforcing the norm we are resisting. We might just be cooperating in our own oppression by incurring harm/prudential costs that then undermine our ability to resist oppression. If you get societal disapproval/lower test scores/less esteem, you are less well-placed to resist the oppressive norms that you are trying to resist. Of course, the alternative is even worse for resisting those norms. So, with a view to resisting the norm that women should wear make-up, you should keep not wearing make-up. But part of what sucks about double binds is that, even as you are actually successfully resisting the oppressive norm, you are also, at the same time, having your agency coopted and being forced to cooperate to some degree in your own oppression. Does that help?

    I am super fascinated by the aging case! I know a few older women who have described the experience of aging as gradually becoming invisible. And they describe the experience as mixed: on the one hand it is a relief to not feel held to the same gendered norms and expectations, but on the other hand, it is partly because they aren’t seen as women or as feminine in the same way. I’d be curious what your experience of this is, and whether it feels similar. One thing that might be going on is that the oppressive norms that older women are held to are different: you don’t *get* to be seen as sexual or attractive or feminine. And so resisting that norm might actually look different than resisting the norms that younger women are held to, where you’re always supposed to look sexual/attractive/feminine. I’m really not sure how to think about this case. I mean, just fwiw I look at women like you and think “Damn! So badass!”; I’m just grateful to have you (and literally all the women on this thread) as models for what being a woman in academia can look like.

  15. @Sukaina I think untangling whether there are such examples does involve getting clearer on what oppression is and how it functions to harm individuals and groups and whether it must harm all individuals in the group by its very nature. Maybe a better case is to follow up on the makeup example from Samantha’s comment. I don’t wear makeup. I have just never liked it. People don’t seem to notice that I don’t wear makeup because of my coloring (I think) or, in any case, I have rarely heard people notice or comment on it. I’ve never really felt like I’m participating in my own oppression by not wearing makeup, if anything I save tons of $$. And I’m not sure I’d be participating in my own oppression if I did wear makeup because the norm doesn’t seem particularly oppressive to me personally though I agree it is oppressive to many women. Now, if we specify the relevant norms very broadly as patriarchy norms then I guess I would be participating in my own oppression by wearing makeup or by not wearing it, but I’m not sure we want to specify the oppressive norms so broadly. Then it seems like I’m just participating in my own oppression by being a woman doing pretty much anything and that seems way too broad.

  16. One of the central ways that philosophers, including feminist philosophers, have traditionally carved out the domain of ethics is by naturalizing the apparatus of disability. Analytic philosophers (including analytic feminist philosophers) have fine-tuned this learned and constitutive operation through their use of distinctions in particular, that is, by distinguishing what is prediscursive (natural, biologically determined, etc.) and hence not morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, on the one side, from what is contingent, the product of social relations and situations and hence phenomena for which one may be responsible, culpable, victimized, on the other. Traditionally, philosophers have subsumed the phenomena of (the apparatus of) disability under the rubric of the former. The naturalization of disability through the aforementioned sort of distinctions that philosophers make can be overt or subtle, structural to an argument or employed in seemingly harmless ways to exemplify or illustrate features of an argument. Regardless, this sort of naturalization of disability in philosophy should be identified and addressed.

    This article naturalizes the apparatus of disability in both structural and more modest ways. The apparatus of disability is first naturalized in this article at the outset of section II in order to define what a double bind is and, in particular, what an ”oppressive” double bind is, what constitutes or counts as an oppressive in situations of dilemma with respect to choice. To make a long story short, the psychiatric diagnosis of “schizophrenia” is taken as a politically neutral category and thus so-called “schizophrenic symptoms” are not regarded as relevant to “oppressive double binds.” But this distinction obscures the growing body of work in philosophy of disability, Mad studies, disability theory, and Discrit studies that challenges the psychiatric designation of “schizophrenia” and psychiatric classifications more generally, identifying them as medicalizing, essentializing, and oppressive, especially with respect to disabled, racialized, trans, incarcerated, and poor populations (which are by no means mutually exclusive groups). The apparatus of disability is again naturalized in this way through a distinction on p. 659 when “forms of pathological behavior” are distinguished from other phenomena that feminist philosophers (among others) readily identify with forms of social power relations, namely, coercion and manipulation.

    I want to encourage Sukaina Hirji to think more critically about how the apparatus of disability operates within the context of their arguments.

  17. Jen, I’m with you on the general point, that we probably just need a more-filled out substantive account of oppression to settle this question. And I agree with your worry that once we start specifying the norm too broadly, well, we’re back to Elizabeth’s worry that the account is *too* explanatory; everything turns out to be a double bind, and an instance of me participating in my own oppression. That all being said, I’m not sure about the characterization of the make up point. I have the same experience — I rarely wear make up, and I don’t think anyone really notices. And my guess is that it is to do with my skin color — bronzer/contouring/foundation isn’t really going to do much for me given my skin tone. But I don’t think that the oppressive norm around make-up is “women should wear make-up”. I think it is actually something more like “women should look polished/flawless”, and make-up is a way to give the illusion of being naturally polished and flawless. I don’t think women are punished for not wearing make-up; they are punished for not “looking good”. If anything, they seem to be criticized if they have to wear a lot of make-up to achieve the desired look, or if it is too apparent that they are wearing a lot of make-up to achieve that look (I’m thinking of men who say they want a woman who doesn’t wear a lot of make-up, or who is “natural”, where what they often mean is that they don’t want to know how much money/time/energy it takes to achieve a certain polished and flawless look). So, I guess I do want to say, there is some specific norm at work here that is broader than “women should wear make-up” but less broad than “patriarchy”.

  18. Just a quick follow up on the Sam-Sukaina exchange: I didn’t intend the dog breeder case as an example of an oppressive double bind (it seems exactly right that it’s not). Rather, I intended it as a case that’s just an ordinary, everyday messy choice, in which agents have to exercise their agency across crappy options. Sukaina argues that the distinctive *harm* of oppressive double binds is that they diminish agency, because people can’t act in ways that don’t ultimately undermine their own goals and the things they value. And what I’m suggesting with the dog breeder case is that there are lots of ordinary crappy choices – which precisely *aren’t* oppressive double binds – in which you can’t make a choice that doesn’t in some way undermine what you care about, and yet it doesn’t seem right to say that these choices undermine our agency – they’re just what it’s like to exercise our full agential capacity across crappy options. So the dog breeder case isn’t intended as an example of a double bind, it’s a request for more information about what it is about double binds that should make us think they undermine agency, given that many choices for which there’s no good option and no option that doesn’t undermine our aims and goals are consistent with full agency.

    Sukaina’s reply – if I’m understanding correctly – is that the distinctive thing that leads to undermining agency in oppressive double binds is the way in which our own prudential good is wrapped up in these choices. But I guess I’m still just wondering – like a petulant toddler – why this is. Go back to the dog case. In some sense, my prudential good is wrapped up in this. I care a lot. The plight of dogs in shelters upsets me a lot. I pour a lot of my spare time into rescue. So it’s not like my prudential good is entirely separable from the wellbeing of the dogs. And I agree that this is not the same as the classic double binds Sukaina is presenting! But I am having a hard time seeing a substantial enough difference to motivate impaired agency in the latter case but not the former. That is, I’m not yet seeing what it is about oppressive double binds specifically (as opposed to other crappy choices that can harm our own wellbeing and be incompatible with the things we most value) that would distinctively impact our agential capacity. My not yet seeing this could, I want to be clear, absolutely just be my fault!

  19. Elizabeth/Sukaina– Here are two ways to go that occur to me.
    (1) what if you (Sukaina)/we just bit the bullet (different one than you were proposing biting yesterday 😉 ) and said it’s only an oppressive double-bind in the relevant sense when the prudential damage involved in acting so as to reify the oppressive norm can be specified without reference to whether or not that norm conflicts with the agent’s values. So, for instance, the fact that women are in the ‘smile and be seen as unserious; don’t smile and be seen as unlikeable’ double-bind damages any woman’s employment prospects, no matter what she thinks about the norm itself. Whereas in Elizabeth’s case, the prudential harm is–as you (Elizabeth) yourself note above–derivative of the fact that you care very much about the dogs.
    (2) OR/& I don’t see why there can’t be more or less paradigmatic cases of double binds, and you might say about some of the examples –my case of the wealthy housewife, Samantha/Jen’s example about makeup are just less paradigmatic cases.

  20. Thanks for these comments Shelley! I don’t have much to say in response, but I will keep these thoughts in mind for the future, and will aim to be cognizant of the ways my language might communicate this naturalization of disability.

  21. @Elizabeth, lol this is definitely a “it’s not you, it’s me” situation. I agree that in the dog breeder case, your wellbeing is substantially tied up with the wellbeing of the dogs, so there is this close connection between your good and the moral good you’re seeking to promote. I do think there are some disanalogies though. For one, your wellbeing isn’t itself part of the moral good you’re aiming to promote. You being ok is instrumentally useful for you to protect the dogs, but your own success or wellbeing isn’t itself a kind of resistance to the system, because the system isn’t at its core about trying to limit or reduce your success/wellbeing. So, the idea is, even when you’re effectively resisting oppression, you are also, at the same time, playing into oppression’s hands, because there isn’t an option available that lets you not do this. I guess I’m not sure the same is true in the dog breeder case. I mean, if you ignore the suffering of the dogs, that is bad for the dogs, but it is also sort of bad, or at least neutral, for the breeder. You aren’t “playing into the hands” of their evil ends by not taking the dogs in. And if you do take the dogs in, you are facilitating their evil ends, but those ends have nothing to do with you or your wellbeing. So any way that your wellbeing is compromised isn’t *itself* part of the dog breeder succeeding at accomplishing its evil ends.

    A second disanalogy is the way that your own identity is bound up with the identity of the other people subject to the same oppressive norm you are either cooperating in or resisting. So, when you are resisting oppression, it is on behalf of yourself and other people like you. And when you are cooperating, you are cooperating in a system that harms other people like you. This is part of why the prudential and moral stuff are so closely connected: if you cooperate in order to get some prudential benefits, that comes at the cost of other people like you, but if you incur some harm through your resistance, that is also costly to other people like you. So, it isn’t just, as in the dog breeder case, that there isn’t any unqualifiedly good or pure moral option. It is that whatever you do is going to, to some degree, benefit the very thing you’re trying to resist.

    Ok, so how does this help with the question of whether double binds undermine agency in some deeper way? Look, just being real (I’m hoping no one else has read this far) I’m not sure. I don’t have some substantive view of agency that I’m operating with, so I have been sort of hoping someone would chime in with something smart to say on my behalf. I just have the intuition that there is something different in kind from this sort of double bind case as compared to the dog breeder case, namely, that you can’t opt out, and every option available to you ends up playing into oppression’s goals. And that happens because of this really tight connection between the prudential stuff and moral stuff, where your own success/wellbeing is part of the relevant moral good. Uh, does this help at all??

  22. Katy, absolutely love you providing constructive solutions on my behalf. I have to say I am SO grateful for everyone on this thread for what an enjoyable, smart and constructive discussion this has been (also, a propos nothing, very struck by the gender representation on this thread!).

    As far as these solutions, yeah this is super interesting, and I think I want to think more about each of them. Re 1, I definitely agree that whether something is a double bind shouldn’t be determined by whether it conflicts with one’s values. But I’m not sure that is going to fully address Elizabeth’s worry in the dog breeder case since, again, she isn’t suggesting that the dog breeder case should count as a double bind case. She is suggesting that it has many of the same structural features but doesn’t seem to be agency-undermining in the same way, and it isn’t obvious why.

    Re 2, yeah I mean, I’d be so curious what makes something a more or less paradigmatic instance of a double bind! I guess I’m not sure what about my account is going to help make sense of when something is a paradigm case, but I’d love to know how you’re thinking about this.

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