Jennifer Saul

Professor Jennifer Saul is a philosopher and trans ally who writes about how language works, for example when used to explain, obfuscate or oppress. She expresses concepts clearly and accessibly.

She argues that we should not call people TERFs, because many of them are not radical feminists. Radical feminists oppose sexist ideas about what men or women are like and how they relate to each other, and not all anti-trans campaigners do. Nor is the term “gender critical” useful- all feminists are gender critical. “No feminist thinks gender is just fine as it is,” even if feminists disagree about what to do about it. There is a battle over the rights of trans people, and whether our opponents allege falsely that “predators” could use our rights, or that our rights should be curtailed, they are “anti-trans campaigners” and that is the word that should be used.

I generally use the term “anti-trans campaigner”. I loved the lucidity of her argument, and went in search of other articles. In The Independent she analysed what Donald Trump was doing when he said Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Why that last bit about “good people”? She says it’s a figleaf, so that Trump’s supporters can doubt that he is racist. A racist would not say that, they say. I don’t doubt Trump is racist, and neither does she. The figleaf “serves to just barely cover what one isn’t supposed to show in public”. It’s different from a dog-whistle, such as talk of “inner-city crime”, which does not explicitly state that the criminals are Black, though racist hearers will assume that. The fig leaf makes it easier to be explicitly racist: when Trump talked of “shithole countries” he used no figleaf.

On Medium, she discusses how people say things whose meaning is clear even if not explicit. “It would be a terrible shame if something were to happen to your family” is clearly a threat, as in context sending someone a photograph of their children can be. So when Trump said to poor dupe Michael Cohen “there’s no business in Russia,” which both knew to be false, Trump was telling Cohen the party line he should insist on. Most of Prof. Saul’s Medium posts are about the shocking scheme to cut down half of Sheffield’s trees, showing the heavy-handed way the city council responds to protests and activism. They might interest anyone whose activism ventures beyond our computer screens. She also established a blog where women in philosophy could anonymously state their experience of sexism.

My interest took me to an academic paper, “(How) should we tell implicit bias stories?” A google search led directly to a pdf download. She writes, Implicit racial biases are largely unconscious and largely automatic racial attitudes, which have been shown to influence behaviour toward members of racial groups… these may be at odds with genuine deeply-felt egalitarian commitments. This makes implicit biases especially puzzling and uniquely disturbing to the self-conception of anti-racist whites like me. I might pick something up about internalised transphobia. The paper is written for a different audience.

Racist, sexist and transphobic results can arise from explicit bias, where a person is happy to be racist etc; from implicit bias, where they want to be anti-racist but act on unconscious beliefs imbibed from the wider society, and from structural injustice.

Prof. Saul quotes Sally Haslanger: Critical Social Theory begins with a commitment to a political movement and its questions; its concepts and theories are adequate only if they contribute to that movement. Fascinating. We have a purpose- to subvert the Kyriarchy. We judge understanding on whether it furthers that purpose.

One might reject stories blaming implicit bias for racist outcomes if the stories make people less likely to take action to avoid those outcomes, either action on themselves or against structural injustice. The stories might, unless the hearers are already committed to seeking social justice: it might reassure them that everyone was like that, so there was no need to change, or reduce their belief that improvement was possible. So our stories should motivate action towards social justice, and offer a road map for such action. They should show that implicit bias arises from and perpetuates structural injustice- such as the “institutional racism” the Macpherson report describes- and that both need combatted.

All comments welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.