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In Defense of Beauty

(Note that while I marked this (thinking mainly about the first topic) with the Feminism tag, that is because it is relevant to feminism; I hold that it is perfectly compatible with (but not inspired) second-wave feminism but not compatible with third-wave feminism)

Three topics, starting with beauty:First:Beauty is an attribute we judge in people and things around us. Aesthetics, as the regularities between our judgements of beauty, is partly innate and partly developed. The development of a person's aesthetic sense is significantly cultural, and we have evidence of a wide variety of aesthetic content over the span of years and cultures in known history. On the biological side, aesthetics in the human form probably came from selective pressure; highly asymmetric features or signs of poor health were not signs of genetic or actual fitness. As adults, we deal with our aesthetics as a mostly-monolithic whole; to whatever extent our notion of the beauty of women comes from having seen Highlander (I confess to finding Sean Connery very attractive) or a succession of disney princesses during our youth, it is difficult-to-impossible to imagine what we might be had we been raised differently; we both lack access to whatever an uninculturated aesthetics would be and lack bridges to easily understand very different inculturations (I believe it is possible to do so, but it takes considerable effort).

I identify in third-wave feminism a tendency to deconstruct beauty, in the name of anti-ableism, anti-transism, anti-obesity-phobism, and a number of other things. I largely reject this element in third-wave feminism.

  • First, I hold that it is not mandatory or desirable to validate everyone in society
  • Second, some of these traits are legitimately problematic. We all have plenty of traits, some of them are pretty broken. Having a deformed body is not something to be proud of, but people can get past it, knowing that they're being evaluated on many fronts. Someone who is blind does have a defective body, and that's unfortunate, but they are still human, and still capable of most things other humans are. Excluding them from society is to waste their potential.
  • Third, it is unacceptable to mandate aesthetics of individuals. Stifling the aesthetic sense, and attaching to it corrective pressures is unacceptably stifling to human happiness.
Instead, I suggest reasonable empathy and politeness towards everyone in society, regardless of their traits along these lines. We can still celebrate beauty and health, but we can also celebrate other traits too. We admire Hawking, despite his illness and deformity. We admire Lincoln for his political savvy and what he was able to accomplish (and often wrongly for his stances) despite his terrible ugliness. We cannot deny that some people are broken or ugly in some ways without losing the ability to admire people being exceptional, and we can't lose the latter without giving up part of what makes us human, but we can also remember that people have more than one attribute; someone with a stupid haircut is still a person, a person with Asperger's has the kind of rich mental life that the rest of us have, and while some aspects of how we are can't be changed in adult life, there are always many ways to excel and many talents and traits worth picking up. By contrast, the notion of "it's all the same to me" and a denigration of aesthetics when it does not let everyone be over average is a perspective best considered ill.

Note that one task for feminism that's related to this is destroying the double standard for beauty; there should be no higher obligation for women to be attractive than for men. While as individuals we might legitimately decide to pay more attention to the attractiveness of people of our preferred gender(s), we should aim to form a society that on average does not do that, and one which in areas where attractievness is not strictly important it's not used as a strong factor in how successful people are. We don't have to want to date people who strike us as ugly, but we should not judge them unfairly in non-aesthetic judgements based on that either; we waste their potential that way.

Next:A commentary on 「Check your privilege」, a phrase commonly used (and linked to the above) in third-wave feminist discourse. I reject and condemn this phrase, even if some of the sentiment behind it is reasonable. I recognise the notion of privilege; some people have invisible things that make their life easier, and they may not be accustomed to the difficulties of those of us off the beaten path in our perspectives, orientations, and lifestyles. It is sometimes reasonable to inform/remind them of that privilege. Unfortunately, 「Check your privilege」 is about the worst way to do that. For those completely unaccustomed to the idea of privilege, it is a capital-t term that's a very unwelcoming introduction to this style of thought, and for those who are already accustomed to it but missing an angle, it adds nothing to what should be that kind of broadening discussion. Instead, it feels like a disqualification argument, particularly (but not only) if not paired with perspective-broadening discourse. It is simply not worth saying, and should be met with scorn.

Commentary on smaller parts of the linked document:

  • Learning to listen rather than speak - Much conversation is best done as dialogue. In general conversations, we should be just as willing to challenge their ideas and learn from them as we would in any other intellectual discussion. As for minority spaces for griping and the like, we should reject them if they have intellectual misbehaviour, and be reluctant to enter them at all if they have that kind of dedicated-soapboxing going on. The deference in any conversation with minorities the author suggests is unacceptable.
  • I disagree on the sympathy-versus-empathy point; I believe that with sufficient work in understanding their positions and life, one can have real empathy for others. This can be a work-in-progress kind of thing, but it can also be real.
  • On a language of respect and equality, I think we need to be very careful. Revising language can be a worthwhile effort to change public discourse, but such revision should be heartfelt and based on careful consideration, not based on deference. Resisting pressure to use someone else's world-of-terms is potentially a very positive thing; a self-respecting philosophical person chooses the terms that make up their worldview carefully. Deferring just because someone wants you to, or to make that person comfortable, is a terrible habit
  • I particularly disagree with "Intent isn't an excuse". Intent is critical to language choice, and often people might unreasonably prefer that others talk like they do. It is for them to convince us, or for us to convince ourselves, to change our language. Without ill-intent, there is no foul, just consequences. We don't have to learn the lingo, and don't have to recognise minority spaces as such. All spaces are philosophical spaces, and we should push good patterns of philosophical discourse.
I do heartily recommend pretty much every point the author makes under "Treat us like humans".

Finally:As an application of the general principle that people may define themselves as they choose but others are not obligated to recognise them the same way, I think the current discussion on whether Mitt Romney (and mormons in general) is a Christian is an entirely fair one. The differential-definitions of Christianity have long been a point-of-contention, even with attempts like the Nicene Creed to define it more solidly. A reasonable person might have many different clouds of what it means to be Christian in their head (just as we might reasonably find it tricky to judge whether the Bahai are Muslim, even with the Five Pillars as definitional for many). I am bothered by the context of the question, in that I don't think it's important whether Romney's faith is Christian or something else (I in fact would strongly prefer nonreligious people leading nations), but it's at its core a valid question, and it cannot be obligatory for people to accept a professed identity from others as the foundation for their categories.

From the last point in that (long) cut, I want to point out some term usage (as I use them):

  • Category-membership is an external classification based on someone's attributes. Not everyone's world-of-terms will agree as to how people-or-things should be categorised; everyone makes their own categories into which they put other people, and category systems neither do nor should agree on everything.
  • Identity is a decision to make a self-categorisation part of a public statement as to what the flavour of one's person is. It often implies loyalty or accompanying cultural membership. Identification is self-built.
Applied, I can say that I am categorised as being bisexual, but I only mildly identify as such; my bisexuality is an almost insignificant part of what I think knowing me is about. I also only mildly identify as male. I am categorised as having brown hair, but it is not at all an important part of me. I do strongly identify as being liberal, but others who categorise things differently than I do might decide not to categorise me as such. Applying this to that last point, Romney identifies as Christian, but it is legitimate for varying people not to categorise him as such.


on beauty, excellent points. this puts into words something that's been lying around in my head off and on for a while that i'd never quite come to terms with.

when i fought the worst instances of my depression several years ago, a big part of keeping it at bay was installing a defence mechanism that made me see everything as good. along with that somehow came the supposition that i ought to find everybody attractive, which is oppressive and patently ridiculous. i am learning slowly to let myself be more discriminating.

there is enough in each person that's worthwhile that we should not be specifically insecure about their appearance for them.
Also, there's enough variation in people's aethetic senses that even someone who is generally considered ugly will probably not be ugly by everyone's senses.
Without ill-intent, there is no foul, just consequences.

yet if we allow arbitrary consequences, we make a huge mess. it is the responsibility of the speaker to seek for their language to match their intent, and it is the responsibility of the criticizer to not jump to conclusions when intent is masked.

to say "intent is not an excuse" discredits both of these responsibilities, and creates a wall between speaker and criticiser. it is not appropriate, but it is also not wrong.

Edited at 2011-10-10 02:36 pm (UTC)
Allowing arbitrary consequences is important; there is no globally coherent solution for all of our interests or positions. If we are to have theoretical commitments to more than one thing, we need to get used to the idea of not being maximally whatever-ist for any given thing.

In general, I think it's a bad habit to keep switching our language and behaviour around lightly to match whatever we're paying attention to at the time. If, after careful consideration, we decide to do so, that's great, but "without ill-intent, there is no foul" is a much better immediate metric.
interesting. i think you are much more accepting of disagreement than i am. i will have to let this bounce around for a while.
Philosophy is such a divergent field, and philosophers are so traditionally independent, that it's hard for me to imagine arguments for "very strong convergence" in philosophical matters being effective (or tolerable).