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.