Welcome to our newest PEA Soup Blog Ethics discussion! This time we are discussing Ella Whiteley ‘s ‘A Woman First and a Philosopher Second’. The paper is accessible open access here. We are pleased to have Susanna Siegel kick off the discussion with a critical précis. Over to Susanna:
According to Whiteley, there’s a way of harming a person that consists in “a specific form of problematic attention…: attentional surplus on the wrong property”. Whiteley draws on a range of reports to argue that they are illustrations of this problem. The reports include:
• scientists who describe the burden of doing academic work around colleagues who view them as “women first, scientists second”.
• artists regularly described in public as “Black artists” or “Hispanic artists”,
as opposed to just “artists”. “Happy to be Black,” writes Zoe Kravitz, “Just don’t need it to be put in front of everything.”
• athlete Monica Korra, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, “has said she wants to be known as a runner not a rape victim”.
• Nathan Liu, a person who is blind, reports that his blindness is often more salient than practically anything else, in testimony echoed by other people with visible disabilities.
As these examples show, the status of being “the wrong property attended to” is not intrinsic to the properties of being: a woman, black, hispanic, blind, or a rape victim. Instead, Whiteley thinks the locus of wrongness is the distribution of attention. Just as earlier theorists Gurwitsch and Dicey-Jennings wrote about the structure of attention into background and foreground, Whiteley, following Watzl, thinks of attention as a way for the contents of a person’s mind to become prioritized, both relative to one another, and for the person. In the framework Whiteley shares with Watzl, more attention indicates higher priority.
Once we have vocabulary for talking about how a distribution of attention prioritizes one thing over another, we can ask whether the priorities in a given case are what they should be. Whiteley’s paper examines a way that attention’s prioritizing can go wrong.
According to Whiteley’s analysis, the bad-making feature of these cases has the form of a property getting more attention than it should. A full account of the bad-making feature would then elucidate what makes a property count as getting “too much attention” from a person, in a context.
One approach to what makes a property count as getting too much attention would focus on its role in creating an attentional deficit to a different property, and then explain in general terms what makes that other property merit more attention than it gets. The explanation of bad-making features would then bottom out in the account of attentional deficit, not attentional surplus.
Whiteley focuses on attentional surplus, though, for at least two reasons. First, the discussion is anchored by testimonies that foreground the property to which the testifiers do not want so much attention to be paid. Whiteley’s analysis takes at face value the idea that surplus, not deficit, is central. Second, Whiteley allows that in some cases, there is a surplus of attention to a property, with no accompanying attentional deficit to any other property (such as fixating on a visible disability).
Notice, though, that whether there’s an attentional deficit or not, on Whiteley’s analysis the locus of the wrongness is how much attention a property is paid. X’s prioritizing the wrong property of person Y, Whiteley holds, can constitute harming Y. (It can also be merely instrumentally harmful to Y, but there, the locus of harm is not attention itself).
But what could make it the case, on Whiteley’s view, that too much attention is paid to a property? Whiteley’s analysis needs an account of what could make a quantity of attention too much, such that paying that amount of attention to a property can constitute a harm, or be otherwise constitutively morally problematic.
I agree with Whitely that something is going badly in these cases. It’s worth trying to understand what exactly would need repair. One of many things I like about the paper is how Whiteley gathers a range of voices to identify a specific, repeatable, recognizable social phenomenon. I think Whiteley is right to group together cases where there’s a clear attentional deficit and cases where there isn’t, and to look for bad-making features common to both.
I also agree that the same bad-making features can cut across cases of interpersonal interaction, in which X selects “the wrong properties” of Y to pay attention to, and Y thereby experiences unwanted attention from X; and purely discursive cases, in which forms of words like “hispanic artist” or “female scientist” prompt readers (or listeners) to attend to the corresponding combinations of properties – even if no interpersonal interactions are involved, and even if different readers respond differently to the same prompt.
But I’m going to suggest that the proposal that attention to a property can constitute harm doesn’t capture the role of attention in what’s going wrong in these cases.
My main points are these: (i) the bad-making features are not located in attention to a property (or, therefore, in any quantity of such attention), and (ii) the role of attention in Whiteley’s cases is never constituting the bad thing. Instead, when holding fixed many factors that can vary with context even while attention to properties stays the same, attention to a property can predictably signal something bad. This context-dependent predictability explains why the testifiers articulate their objection in terms of unwanted attention. Attention is the means by which something problematic gets signaled, and it’s what objectors most immediately experience. They are understandably more focused on describing their experience, than they are on identifying what’s fundamentally going wrong in it.
Let’s start with the cases in which attention to properties is prompted by descriptors like “female scientist” or “black artist” that may appear in mass communication. These cases bring out the importance of discursive context in determining whether attention to a property becomes problematic.
Consider a pair of reviews of the same art exhibition, where the only differences are in the implied readers of the venue, and in the descriptors used to refer to the artist. Otherwise the reviews are the same. One review appears in a historically white newspaper, say it’s the LA Times, and refers to “a Black artist”. In the other review, the artist is referred to as “the artist”, and, let’s suppose, this review appears in the Bay State Banner, where the implied reader is likely to be black, and the stories often focus on black life. This review can direct attention to an artist’s property of being black, just by using the term “the artist” in that discursive context. So we have two reviews, both of which direct attention to the same two properties of the same person – being black and being an artist.
The LA Times review could easily illustrate the phenomenon Whiteley sets out to analyze, while the Bay State Banner review could just as easily not instantiate any such problem at all. What might make the difference?
Whiteley’s official answer is that there is too much attention to the artist’s blackness in the LA Times, whereas there’s the right amount in the Bay State Banner – even if by other measures, there’s in general a lot more attention directed to blackness in the Bay State Banner, given its mission to cover news about black life around Boston. This is a first clue that quantity of attention to a property is not the problem, and not what ultimately would need repair.
If we want to understand how there could be a difference between these cases, it seems we should look to the roles of attention to those two properties in the minds of readers – something highly sensitive to the outlooks of the individual readers (psychological context), their social position relative to the subject being described (the historical context), and the presumptions by the writers about implied readers (the discursive context).
If it’s easy to imagine a completely unproblematic art review in the Bay State Banner, perhaps that’s because we’re picturing readers for whom attention to blackness is diaphanous with respect to attention to the artist. It does not distract from anything, or implicate that the individual (by virtue of being black) is exceptional, remarkable, or out of place. In this contrast we see different lines of association a person’s mind could follow, upon attending to “black” and “artist” at the same time. Neither is essential to attending together to being black and being an artist, and the difference is not a function of how much attention is involved.
If the bad-making feature in problematic cases isn’t a quantity of attention, what might it be? Perhaps it is those aspects of a context that suggest that the reader is or should be ready to think of “black”, “hispanic”, or “female” as a potential anomaly with respect to “researcher”, “scientist”, or “artist”. Notice that the problematic thing seems to attach to presumptions, feelings, and other reactions to the relationship between these properties, not to the quantity of attention to any one of them. Such reactions vary, even when attention to the properties stays the same.
Turning to the interpersonal interactions, there, too, the bad-making features seem to lie in something only contingently signaled by the pattern of attention. If the physicist wants her colleagues to focus on the fact that she’s a scientist and not on the fact that she is female, that may be because the colleagues who see one another as “scientists first” will go on to interact in ways that correspond to that role, taking an interest in one another’s work, discussing lab arrangements, the replication crisis, and so on. Their problem is that the same thing isn’t true if they focus on the fact that one of their colleagues is female.
But just as “black” can be diaphanous with respect to “artist”, “female” could be diaphanous with respect to “scientist”. The colleagues’ problem is that for them, it isn’t. If we held constant that the colleagues have this problem, then we might identify the amount of their attention on “female” as a target of repair. But isn’t what’s ultimately in need of repair the colleagues’ point of view, in which “female” when placed next to “physicist” operates as a marker of anomaly? That’s what’s ultimately objectionable – their readiness to take on that point of view, treat it as normal, presume that others share it, and so on. When we don’t like the attention put on “female”, perhaps we don’t like it because we sense that it may be too close for comfort to this readiness.
What about the examples with no attention deficit? “It matters to us how we are seen,” writes Whiteley. It does, and perhaps that’s because it matters to us how others are ready to relate to us – readiness to relate in a certain way is already a kind of relationship. When X gawks at Y’s visible disability, they may signal to Y their uncertainty about which interactions are possible, or their reluctance to presume that the two of them can interact with ease and compassion. And what is a person objecting to, when a stranger pats their pregnant belly, or when a someone beguiled by Afros puts their fingers on the hair they find so fascinating? Perhaps they’re objecting to being seen as someone whose hair or belly is touchable by non-intimates. One may also object to the actual touching, but I take one of Whiteley’s insights to be that something objectionable would be going on even without actual touching, only a perception of touchability, made manifest by gawking.
In all these cases, attention is vehicle for indicating a readiness to relate in problematic ways. When recognizing such readiness to relate to us makes us uncomfortable, it’s natural to identify the culprit as too much attention. But the real culprit is the social readiness indicated by attention. Attention never does that all on its own, and that’s why it isn’t what fundamentally needs repair.