The Birth of Misogyny in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ is a marvelous movie. It entices the audience to lose themselves in bouquet of visual delight, but conceals piercing thematic thorns for those who would succumb to its bubblegum allure. I’d be shocked if anyone made it through the film without at both a chuckle and a tear, at the least. Pain and pleasure are the sweeter for their juxtaposition. ‘Barbie’ could easily be a kid’s movie. Like any good children’s story, there are messages and themes waiting to be unraveled by an increasingly sophisticated viewer. In this post, I will examine one of those themes, the birth of misogyny.  

Plenty has been posted by writers far more qualified than I about the feminist message of the film. Any effort to extol these virtues would be superfluous, and I will make no such effort here. This is not to suggest that there is not a strong feminist thread to the movie, or that feminism is not the central theme. It is. While there are powerful, clear take-home lessons and instances of much-needed authentic representation, these stand side-by-side with subtler nods and oblique suggestions. It is these less-obvious moments that pique my interest.

“My aim is therapeutic; my hope is that by discussing and understanding the root of misogynistic behavior, people who want to avoid it can do so.”

Misogyny has nearly as many faces as there are people. At one point in the film, Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) suggests that hating women is the one thing both men and women can agree on. Hopefully this is just angsty hyperbole.

Modern social theory sees no distinction between actions and character states. According to Critical Race Theory, for example, people think, say and do racist things because they (at least, all white people) are in fact racist. I disagree with this analysis. Of course some people are racist. Of course many people think, say and do racist things. However, the racist person thinks, says and does the racist thing because it is racist. They take considerations of race and racial prejudice to sufficiently justify or motivate some thoughts, words and actions. At the same time, there are people who do not take considerations of race to be sufficient to justify or motivate those same thoughts, words and actions. One internal signal that you are not racist is a genuine feeling of regret following some racist thought, word or action. Only you yourself are in a position to know if that regret is present. One external signal is effort to identify and correct racist thoughts, word and actions. The genuinely racist person feels no such regret and makes no such efforts.

In plain speaking we might say that the group who tries not to, but fails, does racist things “against their will.” In moral psychology we call actions of this kind ‘akratic’.[1]To be fair, there is considerable academic debate about how akrasia is best understood. Akrasia is one of my areas of expertise but many people disagree with the picture I paint here. See … Continue reading At least in my opinion—if not in fact—not everyone who does something racist or homophobic or misogynistic or whatever does it because they themselves are racist, homophobic, misogynistic or whatever. Many people do things that are ‘out-of-character’. Not everyone who does something wrong is a bad person, though surely some are.

I am going to be discussing misogyny, and specifically misogynistic thoughts, words and actions. I do not mean to suggest that anyone who does or has done these things is a monster. In fact, my aim is therapeutic; my hope is that by discussing and understanding the root of misogynistic behavior, people who want to avoid it can do so. If you’re worried about your soul, it means you still have one. My goal is to help you be your own savior.

It is the pain of knowing that in both fantasy and the real world women’s happiness does not turn on men’s favor that is often the root of misogyny.

In the opening scenes of ‘Barbie’ we are introduced to Barbieland, an idealized world in which women are everything; not just presidents and noble prize winners, but happy and safe. Importantly, this physical and emotional security exists irrespective of the Kens. Barbie has a great day every day, Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.

Interestingly, even in this idealized world, Ken is tormented by his lack of positive relation to Barbie. Comedically, he attempts to remedy this lack by risking, and ultimately hurting, himself. Like a petulant child, Ken does get some attention for acting out, but not the kind he wants. In our world, men are equally tormented by their lack of positive relation to women. Unlike Barbieland, men in our world attempt to remedy the pain of this lack by hurting women. It is the pain of knowing that in both fantasy and the real world women’s happiness does not turn on men’s favor that is often the root of misogyny. 

Lately, a popular attitude is “do you and f*ck what people think.” This sounds nice but it is psychologically unviable. People have basic needs. Food and water unobjectionably fits this criteria. Contemporary research[2]specifically the empirical findings of Self-Determination Theory or ‘SDT’. See to learn more. suggests that, across cultures, ages, races, genders, economic classes and every other conceivable division of people, all people have basic psychological needs. Where these needs are not met, people will suffer. This suffering is manifested in a withdrawal from basic human actives. Where these need are met, people will flourish. One of these needs is positive relatedness.[3]The others are autonomy and competence.  People need to be, or at least feel that they are, positively related to others. 

Just Ken liking himself is not, despite the pithy slogan, kenough.

Some consider people’s need for positive relatedness to be a bug, rather than a feature.[4]One of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, probably falls into this camp, as does novelist Ayn Rand, economist Friedrich Hayek, and most classically liberal and libertarian-minded people. If one understands humans as fundamentally individual, the need for positive relatedness is confusing, and maladaptive. However, if we understand humans as fundamentally communal animals—meaning that we do better together than we do alone—then the desire and drive to positively relate is plainly adaptive.

This is not to suggest that anyone owes anyone else positive relations. I am not saying that women should positively relate to men, or that Barbie should love Ken. Far from it. I am suggesting that Ken’s desire to be liked is a good thing. Ideally it motivates him to be the kind of person that people generally like; kind, honest, caring, helpful, or at the very least, funny. I am also suggesting that just Ken liking himself is not, despite the pithy slogan, kenough. 

Like many psychological drives, the drive to positively relate to others has healthy and unhealthy expression. Healthy expression involves identifying a group with which one would like to positively relate, and developing oneself into the kind of person with which that group will positively relate.[5] There is an interesting question of ‘notional community’. Possibly, it is enough to positively relate to an imagined community when one cannot positively relate to their actual community. … Continue reading Unhealthy expression involves getting angry that a given group does not accept you, or feeling negatively about yourself because a given group doesn’t like you.    

Of course, healthy expression of any drive is easier said than done. One can probably convince themselves to think, say, and do things that would win the approval of nebbish incels. Despite meeting the need for positive relatedness, I doubt such approval is a good thing. 

This is typically how men respond to the pain of rejection—by attempting to inflict it on others.

In the film, Ken experiences positive relatedness when a woman in the real world asks him for the time. He feels, for the first time, respected. He then attempts to rebuild the elements of the real world that convey that (undeserved) respect—patriarchy—in Barbieland. The results are disastrous; Despite his efforts, Ken only manages to alienate Barbie even further. 

Here, the story gets a little odd. In the film, Ken attempts to make Barbie feel the same pain of rejection that she “made” him feel. (Again, I am not suggesting that Barbie is criticizable for her role in Ken’s feeling this way, but I do insist that she played a role.) There isn’t much explanation given as to why Ken would attempt to hurt Barbie, rather than woo her. Perhaps his mink coat and gold watches are supposed to do just that, but clearly Barbie feels a greater affinity for people who do admirable things, like the other Barbies, than mere material goods. Maybe Ken isn’t smart enough the figure that out. Maybe he should’ve grabbed How to Win Friends and Influence People instead of Horses

Most likely no explanation is needed because this is typically how men respond to the pain of rejection—by attempting to inflict it on others. It’s just so ubiquitous that it would actually be weird to portray it any other way.

Any woman with a fitness-oriented social media account has first hand experience of the following phenomena: “Reply guy” replies to story, or sends a DM. When the content creator doesn’t respond, or doesn’t respond in the way he wants, he calls her vile names.

The phenomena is not not limited to the chronically online. I once worked with a man who was so incensed that a female co-worker was not romantically interested in him after a few dates that he refused to even speak to her for a while. When he finally did, it was with enough vitriol and disrespect that he got himself fired. Bear in mind, the woman he held in such contempt was one he previously saw as a fitting object of romantic interest! Of course, she didn’t change in the intervening period. He did. This is a prime example of unhealthy expression of the frustrated desire to be liked.[6]Most likely, continuing to send replies and messages, even if they aren’t vitriolic, is not much better.  

Life isn’t always about feeling good. 

When I was a child my mother told me, “some people just aren’t going to like you no matter what you do.” This was a hard lesson, and in no way comforting, but it was still true and it’s being true made it useful. So take it from momma, fellas: Sometimes, no matter what you do, a woman, or even all women, aren’t going to like you. And it’s going to hurt. That’s just how life is sometimes, painful. Being a good man, and indeed a good person, means dealing with that pain and letting it stop with you. Being a bad man, and indeed a bad person, means multiplying that pain and pushing it onto others. All the hate and violence you can muster will not make you feel better. And that’s because life isn’t always about feeling good. 

One thing that is helpful when dealing with pain, whether physical or emotional, is to express it. Even if it’s just to yourself, it is ok to say, “I feel hurt that I am not loved by this person.” Probably, assuming she’s a complete stranger, just saying it out loud might help you understand how ridiculous it is to even feel that way. I am not saying you are ridiculous for feeling that way. You are normal and human for feeling that way. But it’s still silly. Feeling silly things is not one of the glories of being human. If you’re up for it, tell one of your bros. They might make fun of you, but I guarantee they know exactly what you’re feeling. If you don’t have a bro to tell, you can tell me. I get it.   

Another good anathema to pain is distraction. If you’re feeling the pain of rejection, go do something. Go outside. Go to the gym. Write an essay like this one. Learn to ride a horse. Let a guy on YouTube teach you how to rebuild an engine. Memorize the first 50 Roman Emperors in order, and a fun fact about each. Listen to early 2000s pop-punk. Write an early 2000s pop-punk song. Listen to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Write a symphony. Watch a Scorsese movie. Start a podcast about Scorsese movies. Do literally anything besides take that pain out on someone else. You will be shocked how much motivation and production you can squeeze out of a little bit of negative emotion, if you try.

While I see value in acknowledging and discussing that pain, I see no value in pathologizing it.

Some will observe that “go to therapy” is notably absent from my list of suggestions. This is deliberate. One of my main points is that the pain of feeling undesired is totally normal and in fact adaptive, even when directed towards an unreasonable target, like a stranger on the internet. While I see value in acknowledging and discussing that pain, I see no value in pathologizing it. I expect to receive some flak from the ‘therapism’ crowd. So be it.

Like ‘Barbie’ I don’t have a happy, feel-good, fairytale ending for the Kens of the world. I don’t have a foolproof method for getting people to like you, especially women, and I don’t have any salve for the the pain of rejection. All I can say is, I feel it too. We all do. All we can do is be the best possible versions of ourselves, and hope that some day, someone notices. If not, we can crawl into our graves knowing that we have done nothing less than our absolute best, and no one and nothing can take that from you. Hey, at least you didn’t devote your life to developing a super weapon that murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians. If you want to feel better about yourself, go watch that movie. Could be worse.


1 To be fair, there is considerable academic debate about how akrasia is best understood. Akrasia is one of my areas of expertise but many people disagree with the picture I paint here. See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first philosophical treatment of the phenomena, and Donald Davidson, “How Is Weakness-of-will possible” (1970) for the a common, contemporary interpretation.
2 specifically the empirical findings of Self-Determination Theory or ‘SDT’. See to learn more.
3 The others are autonomy and competence. 
4 One of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, probably falls into this camp, as does novelist Ayn Rand, economist Friedrich Hayek, and most classically liberal and libertarian-minded people.
5  There is an interesting question of ‘notional community’. Possibly, it is enough to positively relate to an imagined community when one cannot positively relate to their actual community. This seems especially relevant to marginalized communities. One might develop themselves into the kind of person that fictional characters like Aragorn or Hermione Granger would like. Or, one might develop themselves into the kind of person historical characters like Aristotle or Boudicca might like. Further, one might develop themselves into the kind of person that a celebrity, say, Alok Vaid-Menon would like. More research needs to be done on the difference actually being liked by actual people makes, compared to imaging one is liked by theoretical [or for that matter, actual] people.
6 Most likely, continuing to send replies and messages, even if they aren’t vitriolic, is not much better.

Being a Philosopher Means Never Having to Say “I’m Sorry” – Part 2

Last week[1]ok, like two months ago. I talked about when an apology was necessary and appropriate. Leaning heavily on Dr. Pamela Hieronymi’s “Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness,” I argued that the action or behavior must be (i) a serious moral wrong, (ii) by a legitimate moral agent, (iii) directed at another who ought not be wronged. I gave some examples of actions that might seem like they warrant an apology that actually don’t. This week, I’ll argue that anything that wants to call itself an apology must preserve the three conditions listed above. I’ll call out some common types of apologies that fail to be “genuine” (fail to meet the conditions) and finally talk about what a good, genuine apology looks like.

Oftentimes when people attempt to apologize, what they are actually saying is that the situation in question doesn’t meet the three criteria, that it isn’t something that warrants an apology.

The most common false apology, at least in my experience, attempts to reject (i) by way of explanation. “The reason why I did x was because…” What this false apology is attempting to do is establish that the action had a sufficient and reasonable basis such that the “offense” is totally understandable. 

“I’m sorry I screamed at you,” the false apologist might say, “I had just stubbed my toe.” The problem with this type of apology is it assumes the permissibility of an action is individual, rather than communal. Put another way, while the screamer might think screaming at an innocent bystander is ok because he’s in physical anguish, the bystander might (and probably will) disagree. Indeed, we generally say that lashing out at someone is bad. It’s only when we ourselves are doing the lashing that we find a way to justify otherwise reprehensible behavior.

A popular term for this kind of apology is “gaslighting.” If you pay attention, most apologies you give and receive will follow this structure. Someone does something wrong, they realize it is wrong, and then they give the reasons why they (possibly only allegedly) thought it was right. In my opinion this is not only a false apology, but the opposite of an apology. It admits of no wrong. It cares little for the wronged. 

Another common type of “apology” is one that rejects (ii), arguing that the agent is not sufficiently responsible. “I’m sorry I ate the last piece of wedding cake from the freezer,” this type of apologist might say, “I was so drunk last night.” Or, in another variation, “you shouldn’t be mad at him for not showing up,” a well-intentioned friend may insist, “he’s such a flake, he does this all the time.” This type of apology (or appeal for forgiveness) is equally callous towards the wrong and the wronged as the explanation type above. Even if we were to excuse the behaviors of a drunk on the basis that they are intoxicated, does being drunk make the fact that the last keepsake of a beautiful memory was consumed less painful? I argue that it does not. 

Furthermore, as I argued last week, appeals for forgiveness of this type deny the humanity of the individual, which is a fundamental moral error.[2]I could say much more about the moral imperative of honoring humanity. For me it’s something like the a priori grounding for morality, similar to Kant’s categorical imperative or one of … Continue reading As I discussed in my last post, to reduce someone to below the status of a moral agent is convenient and effective, but it does not constitute forgiveness. Recalling the proverbial scorpion and the frog, that it’s in the scorpion’s nature to sting doesn’t negate the harm caused by stinging. Additionally, we are not scorpions. We are people. We contain multitudes, including a wide range of possible behaviors and attitudes, many of which are at our discretion. 

Another type of apology which I find entirely loathsome is the meta-apology. “Please pretend this never happened,” or “Please treat me the same as before I did the thing,” or even “Please feel bad for me because of how bad I feel.” In this construction (iii) is denied, as the wrongdoer attempts to subordinate the harm caused to their own suffering. Imagine a friend betraying a deep trust by telling a secret. One might, in response, stop telling that friend secrets. “Please don’t ice me out,” the untrustworthy friend might beg, “it would crush me to think you don’t trust me anymore.” Moral harm is not a zero sum game. That the untrustworthy friend might feel bad about the consequences of their own actions doesn’t excuse or supersede the harm they caused. 

One increasingly common feature of our current social construction is the race to the bottom or “oppression olympics.” Yes, someone’s life might be hard, but at least they aren’t a minority. Or they might be a minority but at least they aren’t a minority living in Syria. The implication seems to be that because someone else has it worse, the bad in your life doesn’t matter. However, if I have a loved one die, the fact that you had two loved ones die doesn’t replace my loss, make my grieving easier, or alleviate my pain. Apologies of the kind that beg not be appropriately responded to are similar to this line of thinking.

Another flaw with this kind of apology, as alluded to above, is that it confuses response, the equal and opposite reaction to an action, with punishment. If I lie to someone, and they decide not to trust me, that’s not a punishment, it is merely a (totally appropriate) response. For something to be a punishment it must necessarily be extraneous, above and beyond the appropriate reaction. In the case of the liar, telling other people not to trust the liar might be a punishment. Or, in the same case, deciding to exclude the liar from an event would be properly understood as punishment. While telling others about the lair and excluding them from events might be prudent, these actions are certainly not equal nor opposite reactions.

Having established the kinds of “apologies” which fail to be apologies at all, we are left to ask what a good apology actually looks like, and what we must do to genuinely forgive someone.

First, a good apology admits that wrong was done. It doesn’t attempt to minimize or negate the harm done, but acknowledges that the harmed party is legitimately, genuinely hurt.  Sometimes, this acknowledgment alone is enough to soothe the one wronged. Second, a good apology takes responsibility for that harm. It doesn’t try to explain away or distance oneself from the harm, but rather takes ownership. Finally, a good apology doesn’t attempt to undo the harm caused. It doesn’t ask that if the wrongdoer say some words or does some action that the harm be forgotten. It acknowledges that there is nothing the wrongdoer can do to unstrike the bell, that the one harmed is paying, and will continue to pay, the “price” for the wrong done. 

A good apology sounds something like, “I understand why what I did was hurtful. I understand that I hurt you, and I understand that I cannot unhurt you. I wish I had done differently, because my actions caused you harm.” A good apology does not, you will notice, ask for forgiveness. Instead it creates the conditions whereby the harmed individual can have a good reason to forgive.[3]More can be said about good versus bad reasons for forgiving someone, but I think this post has run long enough.

Understanding that a good apology does these three things, the wronged party has a good reason to forgive: because the person is genuinely sorry. Where resentment is the appropriate response to a false apology (the resenter insists that they were wronged, even if no one else acknowledges this fact), true apologies make room for forgiveness. Whether or not one chooses to forgive is another thing altogether.

By examining the different flaws in typical attempts to apologize I have hopefully achieved two things. One, I’ve shown the way to genuinely, powerfully apologize. I’ve shown that an apology is not a request for forgiveness, nor an excuse, nor a shirking of responsibility. It is an embracing of harm and being harmful. Second, I’ve shown when and why we have a good reasons to expect more from a pseudo-apologist, and when and why we should forgive. 

When we forgive someone for bad reasons, meaning forgive someone who isn’t actually sorry in the ways I’ve adumbrated here, we deny our own moral standing. We deny that we ought not be wronged. While this betrayal of self is convenient, it tells both the self and the other that it is acceptable to harm. By knowing when and why to forgive we can create a space that respects our individual agency while also making room for others to respect us in the same way. Apologizing sincerely and forgiving authentically allow us to live together peacefully and enrichingly. It is this mutually beneficial cohabitation towards which we should all strive.

Hasten the day.


1 ok, like two months ago.
2 I could say much more about the moral imperative of honoring humanity. For me it’s something like the a priori grounding for morality, similar to Kant’s categorical imperative or one of Korsgaard’s sources of normativity. However, this is not the place to make those arguments.
3 More can be said about good versus bad reasons for forgiving someone, but I think this post has run long enough.

Being a Philosopher Means Never Having to Say “I’m Sorry.” – Part 1

Apologies have always been a struggle for me. Not only do I rarely feel the need to apologize, but I have a hard time accepting apologies from other people. My typical response when someone apologizes to me is, “what do you mean?” In the next two posts I will attempt to answer that question. First, I will identify the features of an offense that make it warrant an apology, compared to the times when an apology is unnecessary or inappropriate. Then, I will examine the different things (that aren’t apologies) that can be meant by “I’m sorry,” including “please pretend this never happened,” “please feel bad for me,” and (the one I loathe the most) “the reason why I did the thing was…”. I will argue that none of these statements are actual apologies because they attempt to reject the features that make an offense warrant an apology in the first place. Hopefully, by looking at when apologies are necessary, and what can be—versus what should be—meant by “I’m sorry,” I will make it both easier to genuinely apologize and easier to accept a genuine apology.

I will lean heavily on the work of Dr. Pamela Hieronymi, specifically her “Articulating An Uncompromising Forgiveness” (2001). Those of you who check my citations know I am a huge fan of Dr. Hieronymi. Those of you who watch The Good Place are familiar with her work; she was the ethics consultant for the show. This particular essay is, in my opinion, far less technical and easier to read than some of her more recent work.[1]e.g. “The Wrong Kind of Reason” (2005), “Controlling Attitudes” (2006), or “Reflection and Responsibility” (2014). All can be found for free on her website  For those interested, you can access the final version of the paper with a free (or paid) Jstor account, or access the pre-print version without any signup or fee here.

Stanley gets it.

When is an apology warranted? According to Hieronymi, a situation warrants an apology when three conditions are met: 

  • (i) the act in question was wrong; it was a serious offense, worthy of moral attention.
  • (ii) the wrongdoer is a legitimate member of the moral community who can be expected not to do such things. As such, she is someone to be held responsible and she is someone worth being upset by.
  • (iii) You, as the one wronged, ought not to be wronged. This sort of treatment stands as an offense to your person.

To further clarify, let’s look at examples where one (or more) of these conditions are not met, i.e. situations where an apology is unnecessary or inappropriate.

First, times when the act in question was not wrong. Unlike me, some people seem to have no trouble apologizing. One of my friends often apologizes simply for taking up space. Whether it’s in her own home, in shared spaces like the gym, or public spaces like the sidewalk, if she feels like someone else might want to occupy the same space she is, however briefly, she will apologize. When I say to her “stop saying ‘I’m sorry’” I not only mean “you are worthy of space,” but also “taking up space isn’t wrong.” I mean, setting the psychological aspects aside, that condition (i) is not met. The same can be said for trifles like leaving the side door open, forgetting to put gas in the car, or missing a lift. In those latter cases, what I think people mean by “I’m sorry” is something like, “I acknowledge my mistake,” or “my bad.” Of course, taking up space isn’t a mistake, as much as some might feel like it is. In that case, the appropriate thing to say would be nothing at all.

Sometimes, though the wrong is grievous, the wrongdoer is not an appropriate moral agent. Imagine a child calling you a particularly heinous slur. While we might want the child to both feel they should, and understand why they should, apologize (because it is in the process of learning to become a legitimate member of the moral community) it would be odd to get mad at the child for not apologizing. Or, imagine a barking dog. While the barking might be annoying, inconvenient, even embarrassing, it would be odd to get mad at the animal and expect it to feel  (or display) some sort of regret. That’s just what dogs do, they bark. In either case, condition (ii) is not met.

Captain Jack will excuse your morally abhorrent behavior tonight.

I have a bad habit of reducing peoples moral standing as a coping mechanism. For example, if someone lies to me, I reduce them in my mind to the status of Liar. Liar, in this case, doesn’t mean someone who could tell the truth and doesn’t, but rather someone who can’t tell the truth at all, maybe even to themselves. Once I’ve reduced someone in this way, I assume that whatever they’re telling me probably isn’t true. This way, I am typically able to avoid the harmful affects that could come from trusting them. Additionally, I avoid being incensed by the very fact that they’re lying to me because, of course they are. Dogs bark, liars lie.

Practically, this approach is useful and reliable. Philosophically, it denies the personhood of the liar; denies the multiplicity of their character, and denies their potential for growth and change. Interestingly, there are some people who, despite the fact that they lie all the time, I still expect to tell the truth, get upset when they don’t, and get into trouble as a result of taking them at their word. I don’t know why it’s easier to dismiss some people more than others, but my intuition is that this behavior is categorically wrong. Perhaps certain psychological conditions can excuse an individual from moral agency, but the distinction between a clinically pathological liar and typical liar are blurry for me.

Finally, my favorite, condition (iii). One example of this condition failing to be met is when you deserve it. If I call someone a bastard, and they spit in my face, I don’t have a realistic claim to an apology from them. I totally deserved it. Or, if they were in fact being a bastard, they can’t correctly expect me to apologize for saying so.

I said before that I rarely apologize… and I don’t apologize for saying it! Most of the time I don’t apologize because either conditions (i) or (iii) are not met. (I do not think it’s possible for someone like myself to coherently reject condition (ii).) As posts like these probably make obvious, I spend plenty of time thinking about what I say, what I do, and what I feel. When I identify a bad reason or a harmful effect, I do my best to change. I spend so much time considering if something is wrong, and why, that I rarely do something wrong, even by other people’s standards. On those infrequent occasions that I do, I can typically point to a way in which the person deserved it. I’m not the nicest or most congenial person, but I am certainly not mean or cruel. Thus, I either don’t do something that is actually a moral wrong (condition (i)) or the person totally deserved it (condition (iii)). Yes, I am the worst.

For something to be unlike these examples—for something to warrant an apology—all three conditions must be met. While the latter two seem pretty straightforward, and I’ve given examples of when the first one doesn’t apply, there is a looming question; when is something a serious moral offense? Especially given the current popularity of relativism, it can be hard to give a definitive answer. 

Last year a student expressed some discontent during my weightlifting class. The specific complaint was that I mentioned a professional lifter’s marital status, and never (or rarely) played videos of female lifters, both of which amounted to sexism.

On the first charge, I played a video of Jenny Arthur and introduced her as national champion, American record holder, five-time world team member, two time world medalist, 2016 Olympian, and wife of Norik Vardanian, son of Yurik Vardanian. The late Yurik was (and is) known for his technical mastery. He coached his son, Norik, who is also widely regarded as a beautifully technical lifter. Norik coaches Jenny and that heritage is reflected in Jenny’s increasingly dazzling technique, though her lifting style is very much her own. This was not intended to demean or detract from any of her accomplishments, merely to gesture towards the concept of coaching lineage and some observable similarities between lifters from different countries, weight classes, and genders. However, I am not insensitive to the detrimental effect of couching the achievements of a woman in the history of a man.

To the second charge, it may well be the case that while I often played female lifters for my 7AM class, I rarely, if ever played them for my 7PM class. Instead of thanking the student for the correction and observation, or even just responding neutrally, I objected. I insisted what I said and did was not sexist. I then relayed the story to a friend who I knew would reassure me I was in the right. If you’ve read White Fragility, what I did was line for line exactly what DiAngelo describes as the “fragile” response. On that note, I don’t tell this story to elicit comments like, “you’ve always been very fair and non-sexist in my experience.” While that’s very nice of you to say (and hopefully true), the point if the story is to beg the question: Should I, in this case, have apologized?

Is it weird that all of these images are men?

Ultimately, I did. As is probably obvious, I still don’t think mentioning that one lifter is married to another is a moral wrong. It’s trivia, it’s cute, and it’s instructive. If my “apology” had just been that explanation, it wouldn’t have been much an apology at all. I would be denying condition (i). If I were a bit more callous, I could’ve denied condition (iii), saying something like “it’s my class and I’ll say, and play, whatever I want.” Thankfully, though sometimes painfully, that’s simply not the kind of person I am. So where is the genuine wrong? 

One of the things that people come to me to work on, and which I endeavor to teach, is courage. It must have taken a tremendous amount of courage for that student to push back against an extremely popular person in a position of authority. It was wrong of me, as an alleged leader, not to affirm that good behavior. Indeed, I should’ve thanked them for their bravery.

Additionally, it was wrong, or at least foolish, to insist that I did in fact play videos of female lifters all the time. When class is going I am mostly watching the physically present lifters. If one tells me they want to see more female representation on the screen, it would be prudent of me to take them at their word. They are likely paying much closer attention to the screen than I am, and I suffer no harm or loss as a result of playing W64 instead of M81. After a period of reflection, I rightly acknowledged that speaking up was brave, thanked them for making the observation and apologized for not responding in this way initially.

All of this is to say, the rightness or wrongness of my behavior was not obvious to me alone. It was only when viewed through the lens of another person that I could see where and why I was in the wrong. The lifter, who was much more temperate than I, graciously accepted my apology, for which I am grateful.

As this story demonstrates, when looking for for instances of moral wrong, it’s often insufficient to only use one’s own sense. Taking the viewpoint of the Other is instrumental. Much, much more can be said about the nature of morality generally. Some things might be wrong no matter what the opinions of the victim or villain are. Some things might not actually be wrong that the Other feels actually are. Committing to always honoring the feelings of the Other might tether one to a kind of political correctness that is, frankly, exhausting. However, in general, I believe that being sensitive to the claims of others are going to lead you to fewer judgmental errors than assuming you are always in the right; when it comes to moral harm, a false positive typically has a more desirable outcome than a false negative.

If the original question was “How do you know when something is morally wrong?” one answer is, “When the other person tells you it’s wrong.” This is not foolproof. After all, we can easily imagine a situation where there is a dire moral wrong and no one says anything about it. But, in general, if someone tells you you’ve done some kind of wrong, the action or attitude probably warrants some consideration.

This is not to say that every time someone expresses discontent with an action, that action falls under the moral scope. Again quoting Hieronymi (though this time a later work), moral demands are “the demands placed on us by our need to live peacefully with others.” Necessarily, for an action or attitude to fall under the moral purview, it must involve two or more “people” (some, like me, would say this includes animals) and there must be a conflict that aims at resolution. Merely establishing different points of view is not the kind of thing that can be considered a moral concern. I’ve now opened up a serious can of worms, so I’m going to slam the lid shut and save untangling this horrifying, writhing mass for another day.

Next week, I’ll talk about the different things people mean when they say I’m sorry, and why most of them aren’t actually an apology. I’ll also identify the necessary features of a genuine apology, and what we need to do to genuinely forgive someone. Hasten the day!


1 e.g. “The Wrong Kind of Reason” (2005), “Controlling Attitudes” (2006), or “Reflection and Responsibility” (2014). All can be found for free on her website

Why Jordan Peterson Can’t Stand Up to Feminism

Last week I addressed the shortcomings of one common argument in favor of expanding voting access. However, I failed to examine the appropriate use of that argument.[1]Thank you to reader Roy Lefkowtiz for pointing out this oversight. This week, I’d like to quickly address that gap in my analysis, and then do something similar for an equally nonsensical argument against the (alleged) reality of a male-dominated society.

In my previous critique of the arguments in favor of expanding voting access, I observed that the fact that voter fraud is so uncommon as to be statistically insignificant is inappropriately applied. If anything, I argued, the fact that instances of fraud are rare speak to the efficacy of the current laws. Therefore, the rarity of the offense is a good argument for the preservation of the law, rather than a reason for the laws to be repealed or relaxed. However, I did not explain how the fact—that instances of fraud are rare—can be (and has been) used appropriately.

The appropriate deployment of the fact that instances of voter fraud are rare is in response to a preposition like, “the United States ought to have tighter regulations on voting eligibility and access.” The argument usually goes that if (or, more typically, since) voter fraud is a problem, we should legislate against it. Empirically, voter fraud is a statistical non-issue, so the argument that we need to legislate against it is unsound. Even if you agree with the conditional statement “If voter fraud is a problem we ought to legislate against it” the fact that the hypothesis “voter fraud is a problem” is false, means there’s no action-oriented commitment to the conclusion, “we ought to legislate against it.”

Another way of thinking about the application of voter fraud statisticsis that they are an appropriate defensive argument against the proposition “the United States ought to have tighter regulations on voting.” It is a response to an allegation. However, the same fact is an inappropriate offensive argument for the proposition “the United States ought to relax its existing regulations on voting.” It is not a reason for action. Just because an argument is properly employed defensively does not mean it is equally properly employed offensively.

In an alleged “destruction” of feminism by Dr. Jordan Peterson, the psychologist refuted British journalist Helen Lewis’ claim that society is male dominated by pointing to the typical role of men in (North American? Western? Global?) society. According to Peterson, society cannot be male dominated because “most people in prison are men, most people who live on the street are men, most victims of violent crime are men, most people who commit suicide are men, most people who die in wars are men and people who do worse in school are men.” So, according to Peterson, “it’s like, where’s the dominance here, precisely?” These points, while factually accurate, constitute a similarly flawed reason as in the voter fraud case.

Here, Peterson seems to be confusing the results of the policies issued by a governing body and the makeup of the body itself. We could, for example, imagine a society that is ruled by a king who is fantastically wealthy compared to his subjects. We could then imagine that king making a decree whereby everyone earning more than 10x the income of the lowest earning wage laborer in that society shall pay a higher tax (presumably they’re some kind of enlightened despot). Despite the fact that the king themself would be the target of that decree, we would’t say that he is not in charge, or isn’t, to use Lewis’ phrase, dominant. Similarly, just because many men suffer as the result of government policy and social values generally, does not mean that those policies and values cannot come from men directly. Indeed, it doesn’t even need to be the case that those policies and values come from men solely; If we imagine the ing replaced by a council of 4 men and 1 woman, where the 4 men always agree and the one woman always dissents, we could still say that society is male dominated, meaning the values  and policies of that society have their genesis in men.

Not only is Peterson’s rebuttal flawed logically, it clashes with his own philosophy generally. I’ll temper this statement by saying I might misunderstand his philosophy, but, based on my understanding of his work, Peterson believes that women and men play, and have played, fundamentally different roles in society. Under Peterson’s psycho-social framework, females have selected from among the most fit (the top of the hierarchy), and males have decided the criteria of that hierarchy, i.e. what places someone at the top, versus the bottom. Evolution, for Peterson, is not merely a natural process, or a process that happens independent of the machinations of the beings evolved, especially conscious beings. So while he might disagree that society is male dominated, I think he would agree with Lewis’ implied proposition, that males, determine the hierarchical structures that guide our society and most (if not all) societies historically. Therefor, I read Lewis’ assertion as saying that any structural, systemic shortcomings of our society (and perhaps societies generally) can be directly attributed to not just men but The Male generally. Peterson’s rejoinder is thereby reduced to the observation that individual men (and even men as a group) also suffer as a result of the hierarchical structures created by The Male. As one gazes long into the void, the void gazes long into them, sort of thing.

Determined not to make the same argumentative oversight as last time, I will now attempt to explain what Peterson might have meant, or how his statement has some appropriate application. Perhaps Peterson is arguing that “men” is not the most appropriate categorization of the individuals who dominate our society. Though he didn’t make this point, perhaps old, rich, or white might be  a better description. If we agree that the criteria Peterson offers for establishing dominance (which I’ve already demonstrated are actually irrelevant) do in fact appropriately categorize ‘the dominant,’ I believe that old, rich and white fit the bill. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “in 2018 black males accounted for 34% of the total male prison population,” while “white males [account for] 29%.”[2] The age group most represented in prison populations is 31-41, with that group representing about 78,000 people in federal prisons, compared to about 9,000 imprisoned people over the age of 60.[3] Additionally, “in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.”[4] The average age range of a victim of violent crime is 18-24 (individuals under 18 represent roughly 68% of reported violent crimes, versus the 22% represented by individuals 50 and up)[5], and the ethnic demographic with the highest rates of suicide are Native Americans and Native Alaskans, at 21.8 per 100,000 people, compared to 19 per 100,000 for whites. Rather than continue to bombard you with more incredibly depressing statistics, I’ll leave it to your discretion (and that oft maligned practice, your own research) to determine if my hypothesis, that Old, Rich and White fail to describe the average unhomed person, victim of violent crime, individual who commits suicide, individual who dies in combat, and individuals who do worse in school, is in fact correct.[6]“White” is actually going to fail to meet these criteria in several cases, especially if one looks at total number versus percent of the population. There are simply more whites than non-whites … Continue reading If I’m wrong, please point me towards a source.   

Peterson’s point is not a trivial one. All parties, even those who share some features with those in power, suffer as a result of a system which privileges capital over humanity and age over ability. At the same time, all parties, even those who share no features with those in power (besides being a human) benefit as a result of the same system. All of our lives are far, far easier than that of our ancestors. Both those of us living today and those of us who have come before us have a reason to be grateful for our existence and reasons to find beauty in even the most wretched of circumstances. My favorite kind of people have always been those who do just that. I am, and would recommend being, wary of anyone who wants to paint a purely pessimistic picture, and anyone who would want to categorize those worthy of praise or blame with the broad strokes found in the socially constructed concepts of race and gender.


1 Thank you to reader Roy Lefkowtiz for pointing out this oversight.
2, 5
6 “White” is actually going to fail to meet these criteria in several cases, especially if one looks at total number versus percent of the population. There are simply more whites than non-whites in the US. Additionally, remember, Peterson’s criteria for dominance is nonsense so it doesn’t really matter.

Why Your Arguments Against Voter Suppression are Nonsensical

In this post I am going to highlight the dire shortcomings of one line of argumentation used in support of expanding voting access. I am not, however, going to give my opinion on whether or not voting access should be expanded. If you are a proponent of expanded voting access, this should be a welcome critique; by highlighting some areas needing improvement in the popular argument, I hope to create an opportunity to make a better, stronger argument. For the opponent of expanded voting access, I hope to provide some ammunition to help shoot down this frustratingly common and painfully sophomoric line of reasoning. For the agnostic, undecided or uninformed, I hope to provide an alternative analysis to the issue of voting rights. All of this is to say, whichever side of the argument you prefer, you’re welcome 🙂

Before I begin, I will acknowledge that there are other, better arguments in favor of expanding voting access than the one which I am going to critique. I am specifically, deliberately, examining only one argument, and the weakest one at that. Nothing I say should be taken to settle (or even attempt to the settle) the question of whether or not to expand voting access. If the reader finds the concept of critiquing an argument without necessarily rejecting a proposition incoherent, they would probably be more comfortable consuming a processed, artificial and easily-digestible argument like, “your team bad, my team good.” Social and corporate media have no shortage of these kinds of positions, so simply close this tab and open twitter and the world should start to make sense again.

“If the reader finds the concept of critiquing an argument without necessarily rejecting the proposition incoherent, they would probably be more comfortable consuming a processed, artificial and easily-digestible argument like, “your team bad, my team good.”

Assuming the above was sufficiently brusque to drive away those with flimsy philosophical sensibilities, I will now examine the argument in defense of expanding voting access on the grounds that voter fraud is relatively uncommon.

That voter fraud is uncommon is a typical response to claims about “rigged” elections. In a study by Dr. Lorraine C. Minnite of Columbia University, it was concluded that voter fraud claims are typically false, typically made “by the loser of a close race,” and typically the result of “mischief and administrative or voter error.”[1] The Brennan Center’s seminal “Truth About Voter Fraud” report found incident rates “between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.”[2] Given the low rate of incident, the argument goes, we needn’t guard against the occurrence, or, more specifically, we should feel comfortable relaxing the requirements intended to prevent it from occurring. Hopefully the mere articulation of the logical steps makes the flaw in the argument obvious. If not, consider an analogy.

In the UK, private ownership of handguns has been prohibited by law since the 1996 Dunblane Massacre, where over 30 people, mostly children, were killed or injured. By way of comparison, we’ve had about 8 school shootings with more than 20 casualties in the US since 1996, to say nothing of mass shootings that took place outside of schools, or schools shooting where less than 20 children were murdered or injured (there are dozens of these). Presumably, the far lower rates of gun violence in the UK versus the US[3] are a result of their more restrictive policies. You simply cannot shoot someone if you don’t have a gun. 

However, If we apply the logic of the voting rights advocate to this case, we would end up with something like, “because a lot of people don’t shoot each other under the status quo, we should feel comfortable repealing the gun ownership laws we have.” This assumes that because something is the case (very few people shoot each other) it will continue to be the case, even if circumstances change. [4]For a wonderful account of how circumstances and situation determine behavior, especially moral behavior, I recommend John Doris’ Lack fo Character available here. Instead, the opponent of expanded voter access should argue that, rather than existing in spite of the current laws, the dearth of voter fraud is actually the result of the current voting laws. Therefore, an argument that uses the positive consequences of a given law as evidence that the law should be repealed or relaxed is nonsensical. While many good arguments in favor of expanding access can be made, the fact that voter fraud is currently rare is not one of them.[5]The ironic inversion of positions here, regarding the necessity of federal authority, is not lost on me. I am currently working on a paper examining the role, (or lack thereof) of logical consistency … Continue reading  

“The opponent of expanded voter access should argue that, rather than existing in spite of the current laws, the dearth of voter fraud is actually the result of the current voting laws.”

As one counter, the proponent of expanding voting rights access might argue that the law is not the fundamental detriment to illegal action. Rather, they might assert, individuals are socialized to follow the rules of society. The social permissibility of an action is the primary (de)motivator in moral situations, such as the general impermissibility lying and cheating, both of which undergird intentional voter fraud. British people are not choosing not to shoot each other because they don’t have access to firearms, or because murder is illegal, the argument could go, but simply because they’re good, solid Brits. This is actually an assertion to which I am sensitive, and with which I tend to agree. However, even the least cynical among us would have to admit that if you have a gun in your home your chances of accidentally shooting someone are infinitely higher than if one is never present. Whether one feels this represents an unacceptable cost given the benefit, the need for personal responsibility or the justification for government intervention will roughly divide the individual into the relevant camps, with regard to gun control.

Stepping away from the central thesis somewhat, I also see the argument for expanded voter access as missing the point. Even under current voter access, we typically see around half[6] of the eligible electorate declining to cast their vote. Naturally, those who make their living engaging with the electoral process (politicians, campaign operatives, news networks) will tell you that this is some kind of failing on the part of the voter, that non-voters are lazy, selfish or immoral. Instead, I would like to offer the possibility that low voter turnout reflects a failing on the part of the politicians and political system. One of the truisms of campaign work (and here I am speaking from 5 years of professional electoral and issue campaign management experience) is that “not-the-other-guy” fails to motivate the majority of the time. As much as people may hate the opponent, if they don’t love something about their candidate they aren’t going to get up and vote on election day. If we assume this is true, what does our dismal voter turnout tell us about our candidates? To me it says there’s nothing about them worth liking.

“What does our dismal voter turnout tell us about our candidates? To me it says there’s nothing about them worth liking.”

In the 2020 election the United States saw record high eligible voter turnout, with nearly twenty million more people (representing about a 8% increase) casting their votes than in the previous presidential election.[7]Ibid In an interesting correlation, President Biden began his term with an approval rate of 57%[8] One year later, he has dropped to 40%,[9] not even two full basis points higher than former-President Trump, who holds the dubious distinction of the all-time lowest year one approval rating.[10]Ibid If we assume that people voted in such volume because they approved of Biden’s campaign promises, it is not unreasonable to assume that, seeing him fail to fulfill these promises, many people might wish they hadn’t voted for him, or even voted at all. Indeed, the roughly 40% of Americans who chose not to vote might point to Biden’s actual performance, rather than his campaign promises, and say “this is why.”

Incidentally, just as I do not see not wanting to vote for a poor candidate as a personal failing on the part of the voter, I do not see the failure to do a good (or even passably acceptable) job leading the country as a failing of the particular individual who gains power. (See, I told you I had a rosy view of humanity.) Rather, I see this as systemic failing. It is not possible, under our current system, to be both the kind of person who can win an election and the kind of person who will be a good ruler. However, that is a topic for another post. 

“Saying you want more people to play, while knowing the game is rigged, might only signal virtue, rather than actually be virtuous.”

Assuming that my tangent is actually relevant and somewhat convincing, what ultimate good will expanding voter access accomplish? Is merely allowing more people the opportunity to participate in a farcical election really of value? Saying you want more people to play, while knowing the game is rigged, might only signal virtue, rather than actually be virtuous. Would not the greater, more significant value be to make the elections actually mean something, or to make the elected beholden first (or, ideally, exclusively) to the electorate? In cases like this, I try to remind myself of Volatire’s aphorism; the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Regardless of how much faith one places in the types of individuals who seek political power, it should be irrefutable that evidence of the lack of voter fraud is not a sound argument for repealing existing voter fraud prevention measures. Those who wish to make a convincing argument for expanded voter access would do well to abandon this line in favor of a stronger argument. I, for one, look forward to hearing it.

Here’s to the day.


4 For a wonderful account of how circumstances and situation determine behavior, especially moral behavior, I recommend John Doris’ Lack fo Character available here.
5 The ironic inversion of positions here, regarding the necessity of federal authority, is not lost on me. I am currently working on a paper examining the role, (or lack thereof) of logical consistency in political positions. I find the lack maddening, but believe I am close to a sensible explanation.
7, 10 Ibid

Why Considering Someone Else’s Point Of View Is Helpful, and How to Practice

What do you look like? In the age of forward facing cameras we can answer this question pretty easily and often instantaneously. While the answer the selfie gives us is often less comforting than the image we’d like to see, any adequately kind friend will tell you the double chinned low-angle isn’t what you really look like. 

The mirror can give another answer, but only from a certain, head-on point of view, and only if we stand directly in front of it. If we took away these tools we could get a rough idea by feeling the contours of our countenance and then try to represent those fleshy undulations mentally, but the picture is probably going to be dismally inaccurate. 

This person is sad because they have no idea what they are actually like.

Interestingly, that our conception was inaccurate probably wouldn’t stop us from being pretty confident that we had it right. This is the typical state of things. With no help from the outside we become entombed in, and by, our own opinions. Forge the chains of our own bondage, sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, because I have a thoughtful and intelligent following (yes, that means you) I received a variety of responses detailing what I saw as essentially three different schools of thought. I wrote about how different people can have different ideas of the same thing in a blog post here.

More recently, I wrote about the concept of common ground, the part of the Venn diagram where different opinions and beliefs overlap. This week I’d like to offer one more argument for the value of different points of view: a selfish justification of the value of the opinions of others, and how we can interact with them in a way that enriches us.[1]Frankly, I find the egocentrism of this argument distasteful. However, I understand how it can be persuasive to a certain kind of person, so here it is.

In 1996, American philosopher Christine Korsgaard published her Sources of Normativity. While I remain skeptical of Kantian conceptions of morality, I found her presentation of reflective endorsement ( as well as like, everything else in the book) compelling. 

Essentially, Korsgaard argues that because the reasons, beliefs and opinions of other people are the same type of thing as our own reasons, beliefs and opinions, we should give them the same status that we give our own. 

While we tend to value or prioritize our own beliefs, and denigrate the beliefs of others (especially when the two conflict), solely on the basis that the one belief is ours and the other belief is not, Korsgaard points out that this is badly mistaken. The belief held by the Other and the belief held by the Self are the same thing, just a belief. Whatever value a belief has is found equally in both.

I take the argument a step further. Not only do I see the perspectives of others as equal to my own, I see them as enriching my perspective in a way that would be impossible in isolation. The perspective of the other person allows us to see ourselves in a way that we can’t otherwise, and without that added point of view, we are prone to error in the way we understand ourselves.

Beliefs often tell us more about the believer than they do facts about the world.

Consider an analogy. In the 1500s, the official state-sanctioned stance was that the earth was the center of the universe. While the faults in this viewpoint have been variously attributed to hubris, egocentrism or ignorance, I see it as a lack of perspective.  People of the day were not ignorant to mathematical concepts or the physics of heavenly bodies, but their point of view made it difficult to see how these concepts were properly applied. Quite literally from the viewpoint of the common earthling it looked like everything was moving around the earth. 

In the introduction I spoke of the challenge of literally seeing yourself, and that’s just the body at rest. To conceive of our body in motion is even more challenging, to say nothing of the self.

As any dancer, gymnast or weightlifter can attest, when you look in the mirror while you move, you will be shocked by how different what you feel like you’re doing is from what you’re actually doing. 

The “Self” in motion is even more tenebrous. As one of my favorite gurus, G.I Gurdjieff famously said, “it is easy to decide to change, sitting alone in your room, but as soon as you meet someone, the horse kicks!”[2]Views from the Real World, 1973 Once that horse starts kicking, we are so caught up in its movements (I’m talking about flashes of anger and impatience, the spacey glee that comes from being complimented or praised, the psychic pain of seeing another being suffering) that we can’t really tell what’s going on. We are just “along for the ride,” emotionally speaking.

This is how I feel after someone tells me I look handsome.

If you aren’t much concerned with self-improvement, or you think you’re just perfect the way you are, the fact that you don’t have a great perspective on yourself (and that other people can help with that perspective) probably isn’t something you’ll care about. In that case, I’m almost, but not quite, jealous.

Assuming you are interested in getting some idea of what you are “actually” like, other people are a great stand-in for mirrors and cameras. Equally you provide a valuable, prescient perspective to the Other. This is why humans are social animals. If we want to improve ourselves, we can do it best together. If the other wants to improve themselves, they can do it best with us. That idea that individuation is a solitary processes is a misconception of the term.

Like the people who have come to rely on the vague translations of an alternative sense, continued reliance on just one perspective will make you quite certain of the opinions you have on your motivations, faults, and virtues. Of course, that you are sure something is right does not mean it is actually right; Beliefs often tell us more about the believer than they do facts about the world.

One of my (probably many) personality flaws is that I can be kind of a dick. I usually justify this behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” When I justify my behavior I eliminate the possibility of changing it. Instead of acknowledging that I am doing something, I instead insist I’m doing something else, in this case being honest instead of being a dick. I am, essentially, denying that I have a problem. 

Of course, I would not want to stop telling the truth just because it’s hard to hear, but if my goal is to bring some value into the world by telling the truth it would be worthwhile to consider how and when I present that information.

When someone says to me, “you’re being a dick” I need to force myself to reconcile the fact that I am telling the truth and being a dick.  The I can ask myself if the two are mutually exclusive, or if the former necessitates the later. When I can accept both as true I can work to eliminate the one that I don’t like. Even if I’m not interested in change, I can have a clearer and more comprehensive picture of who and what I am in the world: Nicholas Novak – Truth Sayer and Real Jerk.

If we want to improve ourselves, we can do it best together.

In a way, none of us can be faulted for justifying our actions. That is just what human brains do. They come up with explanations and insist whatever explanation they have is right, so that they can move on to the next thing. To stop and ask yourself if you do in fact have it right is unnatural and sometimes counterproductive. And this is the trap. The more you listen to just the voice in your head the more sure of yourself you will be, and the less likely you will be to identify appropriate areas for improvement and instances of bad behavior.

In fact, I did not first notice that justifying prevents changing from observing myself, but by observing other people. I noticed that when people gave reasons for why they were doing something, they weren’t saying “and I shouldn’t,” they were rationalizing what they did. Once they rationalized it, they were pretty much guaranteed to do it again. While most therapists would probably disagree with me, why you do something “bad” isn’t really important, just that you stop doing it. If understanding the “why” helps you stop, it has a tertiary value. If understanding “why” helps you accept, it is without value and even harmful.

So, how can we do this work?

My personal practice when receiving criticism is to say it back, out loud. If someone says to me, “You’re being a dick,” I will say back “I am being a dick.” If someone writes to me, “Your writing is at once insipid and pedantic,” I will say to myself “my writing is at once insipid and pedantic.” It’s not that I take everything said to me to be true, but by saying it out loud I force myself to at least consider the possibility that it is true. If I am not able to consider that there might be truth to it, I will never be able to make use of the criticism I receive.

“Maybe it would do me some good to have some *questions* from time to time, you know? “Am I an asshole? Are my kids a mess?” I mean, those are questions, right?
-Billy Costigan, the Departed.

Hopefully the previous points already gestures towards this, but I am not arguing that every perspective from every one is equally useful, or even of use at all. Having spent roughly the same number of years in the metropolitan northeast as the rural south, one of my favorite ways to describe the difference between the two, in a thick Carolina drawl, is that “it’s not better, it’s just different.” The same can be said of the opinions of others. They are not “better” (because they’re exactly the same type of thing as your opinion) they’re just a different opinion.

If you are the kind of person who folds like a fourth grade love note anytime someone says something remotely critical to you this practice might also be a good anti-fragility practice.

Considering the opinions of others is not an easy thing to do. Much of the socialization that shaped the personality of Millennials and Gen-X’ers has taught us to reject alternative opinions and react poorly to criticisms. However, with a little bit of effort I believe we can all make practical use of the criticisms that are going to be leveled against us no matter how arduously we struggle to cocoon ourselves in ideological homogeny.

I don’t ask you to take something as true just because I’ve said it. Instead, I ask you to try it yourself and tell me if you find it to be true. Next time someone criticizes you, allow yourself to consider the criticism. If you find some value in it, let me know. If you find yourself more resilient in the face of criticism, all the better. Here’s to the day.


1 Frankly, I find the egocentrism of this argument distasteful. However, I understand how it can be persuasive to a certain kind of person, so here it is.
2 Views from the Real World, 1973

A Plurality of Values: History of Liberal Society and the Search for Common Ground

It is, thank god, not a presidential election year. We can all, with reasonable safety, go to family thanksgivings and expect them to not end in frayed patience, bruised egos and shattered bonds. While one approach is to enjoy it while we can and plan to fight in ’24, this week I want to talk about common ground.

What is it? Why is it important? How have we tried to find it historically? Did it work? Based on what didn’t work, how can we try to find it now?

If you have the general sense that working together is a good thing, I’ll give some reasons why. If you have the general sense that America is under a lot of tension right now, this post will explain how we got from John Locke to Plymouth Rock to today, and why things are so hard right now. Next week, I’ll make more arguments for why we should work together and (hopefully, finally) say something about the concrete, practical ways we can be the change we wish to see[1]Assuming, that is, that you share my vision. in the world.

What is Common Ground?

To answer this question, I’m going to first talk about my favorite subject, ethics, and then my second favorite, history. 

My understanding of ethics is “the means by which we can live peacefully with one another.” A robust ethical theory, in my opinion, takes this a step further: it provides the means by which we can enrich each other’s lives. 

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles (which ended the 1st World War) is a good example of bad ethics. While this agreement ended hostilities (allowing people to live together peacefully) it did sot on terms that were so untenable to the losing powers that another war was inevitable. While the treaty created peace, it didn’t create any good reason to maintain that peace. One side bled the other dry until eventually this lopsided agreement started the cycle all over again. A better treaty would have not just attempted to dominate the losing side, but given the losing side some motivation not to start war again in the first place. 

You guys did a terrible job.

The deeply interconnected nature of our current global economy represents one sort of mutually enriching deterrent to war. This is common ground. The space in which we share occupancy, where life is better than it would be if we lived somewhere else, alone.

Why is it Important?

Reading media of any stripe or mode these days might be enough to convince someone we are on the brink of an ideological civil war. The division of opinions is not just stark, it is passionate. All sides believe that they are uniquely right, and our current modes of discourse have proven to only entrench people in their views. 

In this way, social media is essentially conservative; Facebook discussion tend to encourage people to preserve and intensify their existing viewpoints,[2] rather than modify or even change. Instagram posts tend to erase the nuance from popular positions, increasing the position’s marketability and saliency, but resultantly giving one the sense that everyone believes the same set of opinions, without variation. 

Troublingly, our political system equally discourages finding common ground. The winner-take-all permutation of democracy we use says, whoever wins 51% of the vote makes the rules. The other 49% can go screw until next election. Moreover, most of most of our elections are won on such margins.[3] (For example, the average margin of victory for all the presidential elections I’ve been eligible to vote for is less than 2%.)

Depending on the office in contest, the other 49% are then expected to wait a quadrennial, nourishing their resentments until they have an opportunity to express them again. Anecdotally, I think most of us are aware that this approach is both interpersonally divisive and politically ineffective: It’s not like the “winning” side is ever getting their way, anyway.

A chunk of the Mexico border “wall.” I doubt any Republican will say this is what winning looks like.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not a novel analysis of our political system. Even in the earliest days of our republic, people like George Washington worried that a two party arrangement would fail to make progress and prey on the governed.[4] … Continue reading Additionally, even framers like James Madison worried that this two-party flaw would only be exacerbated  by dire flaws with the electoral college, and the winner-take-ll system.[5]

However, as I think should be plain, if we do intend to live peacefully with others, and we want it to be more than an equally dissatisfying agreement, we need to find the motivation to work together. Even I am not so naive as to assume communal need is enough to motivate an individual. We must all benefit individually if we expect to do the work necessary to succeed collectively. Common ground represents this intersection of need and benefit.

How Have We Tried to Find It, Historically?

Classical liberalism’s central message is, You can do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t impede my ability to do whatever I want. The initial success of this (over-simplified) philosophy was that “whatever you or I want” was a pretty homogenous set of activities because “You and I” was a pretty homogenous set of individuals.

Originally, the set defined by “You and I” included just white, landowning males. Additionally, the set of behaviors defined by “what you or I want” was, typical of the landowning class generally, to make more money (and not much else).

I depart from most analyses that begin along similar lines by saying, I don’t see the desire to make money as the fundamental flaw with this approach. Instead, I see the insensitivity of this value system to the entire rest of the world as the problem. If you want to exploit my labor for profit, you have to give me some reason to work. Of course, these early liberals didn’t make any such adjustment, they doubled down on their definitions of “You and I” and enslaved anyone who didn’t fit the bill.

I might catch flak for this but yes, that applies to non-landowning whites as well. While this group was not put into literal bondage, the quality of life of non-landowning whites from 1690-1814 (and honestly, far beyond), compared to the quality of life typical for landowners, was pretty dismal. Instead, this impoverished class was forced into ideological servitude. Without wanting to go too far off on a tangent, one can trace lines between the propaganda campaigns of reactionary monarchists and the Catholic church aimed at landless peasants in the 1790s, the legal codification of “white” as a class of people in 1790,[6]—Haney-Lopez–abridged-version?bidId= and the manifestation of these influences in the attitudes and behaviors of the “petit blancs”[7] during Haiti’s formative years, just as one example.

Settling these crimes against humanity aside, early liberals were able to find common ground in homogeny. For this reason, I argue one should not separate the idea of classical liberalism from the idea of polite society. Polite society says something like, we all say good morning and how do you do, but keep it just that superficial. If we never talk about what matters, we never find grounds to disagree, and we can go on assuming we all want the same things, which is mostly to make as much money as possible.

However, as social pressures forced the segment of population represented by “You” and “I” to broaden to include non-landowners, and then women, and then minority groups, the “whatever” that people wanted to do broadened in turn.

In the US, November is National Indigenous History Month. As some instagram posts will remind you, there are indigenous people who see the purpose of human life as simply to exist, the way a tree or a dog’s purpose is simply to exist. Then again, there are people who see the tree’s existence as productive, providing wood, oxygen, fruit, etc. and the dog as providing protection, comfort and companionship. I’m not willing to say either perspectives are objectively right or wrong. In fact, I am insistent that both are right subjectively, that is, to themselves.

Did it Work?

The previous generation attempted to address this clash of values by assimilation. We were taught this approach through metaphor, The Melting Pot. The basic idea was to sell everyone on the American Dream (house, family, upward mobility) and focus on just that value system. Then, though externally different, we would all be the same in that we would all want the same things. This has failed in a spectacular fashion. 

Dive on in kiddies, the water is prohibitively expensive.

As wages have stagnated and wealth has accumulated at the top “earning” echelon of society, the affordability of both housing and families has waned. Where one job was once enough to provide for 3-5 people, today 3-5 jobs are barely enough to provide for one person. While some argue for economic reform that would make the American Dream attainable (in the way that it once was and is decidedly not, now), I believe a better, different future is possible.

Here, I would like to cut off one potential critique of what I’ve said so far. Some will say, “the American dream is still possible! I bought a house, got married and made a kid, and make more money than my parents! If I can do it so can you!” I will respond by pointing to two things. 

1.) Survivor bias. People who survive ordeals (and what better way to describe being a functioning adult in new millennia than bare survival) tend to think of the ordeal as survivable, even if they are a statistical anomaly in surviving.[8]

If you’ve ever read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, he gives an excellent, accidental example of this type of thinking. Frankl believes he survived the concentration camps and the holocaust just by believing in a better tomorrow, and that those that didn’t simply “lost the faith.”

In a similar way, those blessed few who have managed to eek out a pleasant existence in the modern hellscape (and I gratefully include myself here) might be tempted to think the structure of our society is not so bad. I would encourage these people to take a walk down any street in Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco. Do you really think the thousands living in tents and packing materials are only the lazy and the inept? And even if so, point number two:

 2.) The range of people who can conceivably “make it” (those who happen to be born in the “right” circumstances, who are also hard working, capable and extremely lucky) is as narrow a range as that of the early puritan and Dutch colonizers. Society simply will not stand for so few to thrive. Or is it, while so few thrive?

Based on what didn’t work, how can we try to find common ground now?

More recently, liberalism has attempted to make room for plurality of values not by assimilating, but accommodating. If the old generation’s melting pot was full of emulsified cheese, the new generations instant potTM contains more of a stew.

The idea is by creating “safe space” for everyone to be their own, unique individual selves we can all occupy the same space without much friction. This approach is relatively new, so I shouldn’t say outright that it won’t work, and, indeed, some part of me is hopeful that it might. However, I cannot shake the feeling that once again there is no incentive to live together. Living together is just one possible option, among several, and one that takes a lot of work without appearing to give back much reward.

The struggle of identity politics is just this struggle: not to assimilate but to accommodate a broad and deep pantheon of values. If we can find some type of successful framework, it is possible that we could have the basis for something like a global administration, which could potentially make addressing global issues (e.g. climate change, poverty and supply chains) much easier.

From my point of view, things like ranked voting and jungle primaries have the potential to adequately address this lack in the current winner-take-all system, but they are complicated by what I see as a fundamental systematic flaw, campaign finance. That is a topic for another time. While I am not creative enough to imagine what a fully accommodating society looks like, politically or culturally, I am creative enough to imagine what that looks like personally.

Next week, I’ll take another stab at convincing you to care about what other people think, this time for selfish reasons. Assuming I’ve done a good job, I’ll talk about specific, actionable behaviors that can manifest this understanding. By thanksgiving you’ll be ready to spread the Good Word. Here’s to the day.


1 Assuming, that is, that you share my vision.

Whom Do You Serve: Conceptions of the Law

What’s Going On?

Earlier this week a drunk driver struck another car while (allegedly) traveling at speeds in excess of 150mph in a residential zone.[1] (edit: this was later corrected to a speed of 127mph at time of collision). The collision started a fire that killed the other driver and her dog. Some eyewitness accounts claim to have heard the recently deceased screaming as she and her pet burned alive. [2] The driver, an NFL player, was released on bail.

Yesterday I put up a story expressing my confusion surrounding one aspect of the legal system, bail, and venting some frustrations about what I see as flaws in this system. The responses I received, which I did ask for, ranged from passionately sympathetic to passionately defensive. Across all responses, the passion was the common feature, which is to be expected. After all, who is going to bother responding to something like that unless they have an opinion they think is worth sharing? One follower even told me she was currently in labor while explaining her stance to me (congratulations, Allison, on baby Vivienne).

Why is it relevant?

This passionate interest is, in my opinion, not just the normal response to a maddeningly tragic situation. Recently, there’s been a fair amount of discussion around drunk driving as an analogy to support vaccine mandates. Don’t worry, I’m not going to mention anything C-word related for the rest of the post. I only say it to say, drunk driving is something that has been on people’s minds. Additionally, the perpetrator is somewhat of a celebrity, and there’s certainly been a recent rise in criticism of celebrities and wealthier people generally, especially the uneven application of social responsibility and written law to the “rich and famous.”

Less abstractly, New York State (where most of my followers are from), recently reformed (and then amended) its policies surrounding bail. I take this as evidence that the concept is somewhat up for debate. Currently, for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, judges are “required to release people with the least restrictive conditions necessary to reasonably assure the person will come back to court. For these crimes, cash bail is still prohibited.” [3]

In this post I’d like make some observations about the responses I received, some analysis about why they are important, and point to some (much more scholarly) work that is being done to address what some see as dire flaw in the system.

What’s my take?

I take a few things away from the variety and volume of responses that I received.

A.) Regular people (meaning not lawyers or legal scholars) have opinions on the law, and should. While I see expertise as important, especially when considering codifying something vague like common sense, I ultimately see the law, under democracy, as an extension of the will of the governed. What that will is, takes up most of the rest of this section. (If you’re only interested in proposed and actual solutions, you can skip the remainder of this section.)

B.) There are, even among non-lawyers, differing conceptions of what the law is for. I definitely fall into one of these camps, but I don’t think any of them are objectively right or objectively better than the others. There is one that I absolutely agree with more, but I understand that other people have other good reasons for believing in the ones they believe in. (This will be the subject of my post next week). Obviously, most people are not hard into one camp or the other, and instead hold a blended position. Additionally, I don’t take the handful of responses from my relatively homogeneous following to represent all positions regarding the law. However, if you’re reading this, I assume you’re a follower of mine, probably one who cared enough to respond, so it’s likely you do fall into one or several of these camps. So what are they?

Conceptions of the Law:

1.) Instrumentalism[4]I made all these names up. There is probably a commonly accepted set of definitions for these positions but I’m really just trying to get this thing out the door. If it gets significant traction … Continue reading – The Law Aims at Some Greater Good.  I start with this one because it’s the most common response I received. Under this conception, the law is an instrument by which we try to obtain Common Good or Justice or Harmony or some other more abstract ideal. What I like about this position is that is doesn’t enshrine the law overly much. It sees the law as necessarily and appropriately revisable when and where it fails to achieve whatever end. The instrumentalist position is generally, it’s not good that Ruggs is walking the streets. Because I am a nerd and love D&D, I will make the analogy that this stance can be understood as a Chaotic Good stance. Aiming to do Good, within the Law if possible, but outside the Law if not. (I’ve made these types of analogies before. They’re imperfect but fun).

2.) Contractualism –  The Law is a Contract that Protects.  This one takes a more pessimistic view of human nature. For contractualists, the law gives people some recourse when crimes or wrongful harm occur, so that they don’t have to resort to vigilanteism. This way, society can keep humming along. Accordingly, the law doesn’t just protect me form you and you from me, it protects me from me, in the sense that it creates an appropriate, productive outlet for the anger and resentment I might feel at being wronged. What I like about this one is it acknowledges and accounts for the, let’s say, less ideal aspects of human nature, which I have to admit certainly seem to exist. If you’ve ever read any of the Iceland Sagas you can understand why vigilante justice is incompatible with society. The contractualist’s position is generally, it’s important that people like Ruggs have the possibility of walking the streets, though this instance might not be the best example of such an important feature. In D&D terms I will call this one Lawful Evil, not because I think its bad, but because this position sees people as inherently bad and the law as the best means to manage that inherent evil.

3.) Proceduralism – The Law Is the Best Guide. This one is similar to contractualism in the sense that it sees the law as giving some procedure or guidance, and sees that procedure as valuable. The biggest difference, as I see it, is that proceduralists aren’t committed to seeing people as violent creatures needing to be managed, but rather as emotional creatures that sometimes make hasty judgements. In this way, it is a little more sympathetic. Proceduralism provides us a dispassionate lens through which to view crime or wrongful harm, giving us guidance that helps us review each case as a kind, rather than a unique instance. Not only does this save time, but it (allegedly) makes it more likely that the law will be fair and evenly applied. We can imagine the law, for proceduralists, as a type of guru or virtue agent who understands our best attempts as ultimately doomed to fail due to our own flawed nature. Rather than worry about the best possible thing to do, the law concerns itself with the best that we can do today. The proceduralist stance is something like the contractualist stance, the best we can do today is let Ruggs walk free, but tomorrow maybe we can find a way to do better. In D&D terms, I call this stance Lawful Good, aiming to do Good, but only within the confines of the Law.

4.) In-Itself – The Law is The Law. I know I said all these stances were were good but I actually hate this one. Using the D&D analogy, we would call this stance Lawful Neutral. This stance is something like, the law says he should be free on bail, and it  should be upheld because it is the law. The circularity of argumentation drives me insane. There’s no real greater value here, the law is seen as sufficiently valuable in itself. Unlike the other stances, this one is pretty resistant to reform because it doesn’t have a good basis for reform. Where the instrumentalist or the contractualist can justify reforming the law as in service of some greater good (Care or Procedure), this type of person can make no such justification. It’s not important what the law is, just that there is a law of some kind. In ethics we call a stance like this “moral fetishism.” While I wouldn’t normally, I am going to kink-shame in this instance. Legal Fetishism is a Classically Conservative viewpoint, not in the sense of Republican but in the sense of resistant to change, wants to keep things as they are. I do not see it as having any real value, but there is an interesting discussion to be had around who benefits from this (and every) kind of stance versus who actually holds/supports each kind of stance. That is a topic for another time 🙂

Regardless of which school or schools you fall into (except the last one), observation of flaws in the system warrant consideration for revision. Depending on your stance, you might see this flaw as more or less dire. Either way, bail is certainly flawed. As I said before, I take the recent revisions to the bail system in New York State as evidence that these laws are flawed to at least some degree, so they are apt for revision. Troublingly, I see the revisions that have been made as (frustratingly, typically) aimed at short term political approval instead of any of the broader conceptions listed above. However, this isn’t supposed to be yet another post about why I hate politicians, so we’ll set that aside for now.

So, What’s the Solution?

If you’re interested in how the current law could be revised to account for this flaw, I recently really enjoyed Alex Guererro’s Law and Violence. He makes an argument that we currently differentiate crimes on the basis of violent or non-violent. According to his argument, many “violent” crimes don’t risk or cause that much harm (for example, two drunks fist-fighting outside a bar), whereas many “non-violent” crimes (like a single drunk driving 150mph through a neighborhood) do risk a significant amount of harm. Guerrero argues that we already make the “wrongful harm risked” distinction in sentencing and assessing penalties, so it wouldn’t take much work to introduce this distinction earlier in the legal processes. Potentially, an approach like this could provide legal basis to keep someone like Ruggs off the street while we assess how to handle his case, while still protecting less harmful criminals from the (potentially) predatory nature of the legal system generally.

It’s also worth noting that we do currently qualify some people as ineligible for bail, on a state by state basis. In New York State, minor, nonviolent crimes are ineligible for bail in the sense that you don’t have to post bail, you can just go and wait for your court date. Additionally, some heinously violent crimes are ineligible for bail in the sense that you aren’t walking free no matter how much money you have. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) is a good example of this kind of case. Interestingly, murder 1—premeditated, intentional killings (like stalking someone before murdering them)—does qualify for bail in New York State. While that’s an uncomfortable thought, I do think there’s some basis for it (something like innocent until proven guilty).

Finally, it’s not exactly accurate to characterize someone who has posted bail as “free” to commit the same wrongful harm, or free to engage in the same level of recklessness that led to the grave, wrongful harm. In Ruggs’ case, he’s on house arrest. This seems like a good compromise between the concerns about holding some people for the (seemingly indefinite) amount of time between committing the crime and the actual hearing (which can be months or years depending on the tactics employed by the lawyers on either side) and letting someone go free for an equally indefinite amount of time.

So What, Who Cares?

It is important to have guiding principles. Ethics are supposed to make our life easier, in the sense of less decision intensive. We create some framework of right and wrong, and categorize actions accordingly. I believe this why humans developed ethics in the first place, so that we could make distinctions between right and wrong, and know what we should do, without having to spend hours per day pondering every qualm that comes our way. Of course, some, like me, are going to do that anyway. And some, like the Church and the State, are going to try to co-opt ethics to control people, to get them to behave in a certain way, regardless of what is actually right or wrong.[5]you’ll have a hard time convincing me, for example, that masturbation has any ethical basis for being considered wrong, though the Catholics insist it does. If you have some time, it might be worthwhile to articulate your stance to yourself. The more clearly articulated, the more accurately you can advocate for your position, which is legitimate and worthy, by political means. Next week I hope to write more about that precise subject: your opinion, my opinion, why both are worthy, and how government represents (or, struggles to represent) these equally valid opinions.

Thanks for reading, don’t drink and drive.


4 I made all these names up. There is probably a commonly accepted set of definitions for these positions but I’m really just trying to get this thing out the door. If it gets significant traction I’ll come return, research and revise.
5 you’ll have a hard time convincing me, for example, that masturbation has any ethical basis for being considered wrong, though the Catholics insist it does.

Beyond the The Last Duel – Articulating a New Masculine Response

Spoiler Warning: Major Plot Spoilers[1]While it hasn’t been sufficiently long since the release of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel for me to justify the forthcoming plot spoilers in an attempt to analyze the film, I wrote most of this … Continue reading

Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence

Ridley Scott’s treatment of hegemonic masculinity in The Last Duel brilliantly illuminates the shortcomings of stereotypical male responses to sexual violence; outrage, indignation, bravado, and more violence. Through portrayal of these attitudes and actions, the male audience comes to understand that these responses are not only inadequate, but often exacerbating. What, I argue, the film fails to demonstrate, is the alternative. If we want to grow, we need to know.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Scott’s critique of masculinity, as the apparently intended target of that critique, I found myself lost and wanting. Where Damon’s performance shows me what not to do, and why not to do it, the film doesn’t clearly tell me what to do instead. I was left with the understanding that the feelings and actions I’ve been socialized to endorse are problematic (at best), but without a guide as to where to go from there. While there is certainly value to establishing our conditioned, reflexive responses as insufficient, in my experience, failing to offer a solution or alternative often entrenches the misunderstanding that films like this attempt to resolve. The voices that tell men to act outrageously, indignantly and violently are not subtle. They are loud, articulate and oppressive. My argument is that a vocalization of the alternative, if it hopes to produce individual or social change, needs to be equally audible and coherent. 

If we want to grow, we need to know.

Without providing a practical solution, many social-justice oriented messages leave people like me, cishet males, with the impression that everything we think and do is wrong or evil and there’s no hope for a better future. I do not believe this need be the case. I believe a better future is possible, even for people like us 😉 . This post is my attempt at articulating such a path forward.

By way of self-preservation, I’d like to make a few clarifications before I begin. 


First of all, I understand and acknowledge that there is more to the film than a message for men. Realistically, one can see the film as unconcerned with what a man takes away from it, prioritizing instead the untold story of Marguerite de Carrouges and (the many, many) women like her. This perspective is valuable in itself, without needing to serve male understanding. As I have often been reminded during my personal conversations around sexual assault, “it’s not about you.” However, I do think there is a valuable, useful message for men, even if it is tertiary. It is my belief that by clearly understanding such a message we can improve our selves and our world. As a man, speaking mostly to other men, I intend to excavate what lessons there are. This is not an attempt to diminish the other good messages of the film, but I do not see myself as appropriately positioned to speak to them.

Secondly, I’d like to acknowledge my own inadequacy. It is entirely possible that the message of “where to go from here” is clear in the film, or becomes clear to the average viewer with a little bit of cognitive effort. It is equally possible that Scott was deliberate in not plainly articulating this message, that he wanted the viewer to wrestle with the ideas somewhat and arrive at the conclusion on their own. (I have to imagine Socrates would agree with this approach, and tell me that what follows is useless at best and counterproductive at worst.) It is possible, I am admitting, that what I perceive as a lack in the film is actually a lack in myself, in my appraisal and understanding. Nevertheless, I persist.

Realistically, one can see the film as unconcerned with what a man takes away from it, prioritizing instead the untold story of Marguerite de Carrouges and (the many, many) women like her. This perspective is valuable in itself, without needing to serve male understanding.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge my potential for getting this whole thing horribly wrong. Later in this post I am going to say what I understand to be what someone like Damon’s Jean de Carrouges should do, according to the women with whom I’ve discussed these types of situations. It’s possible that, despite all of their best efforts, I’m too dull or too deeply socialized to hear and understand them. To any women bothering to read this self-serving blog post, thank you, and please, if you want to, let me know how I’m getting it wrong. I do genuinely believe many men want to get it right. Speaking only for myself, I can assure you I am doing my best, though I realize that may not be very good.

Before talking about the solution as I understand it, I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about what the film does well. If you’re already sick of my blathering (why are you here?) you can jump down to the Path Forward.

What the Film Does Well

If we take the film to be representing a historically silenced voice, the voice of women, it does pass the test of minimum competency, the Bechdel test.[2] I owe my own awareness of this test to my friend, Dr. Hayden-William Courtland. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel test is named after political cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and provides a simple, embarrassingly acute, analysis of the portrayal of women in film. Essentially, the test requires that a work portray a conversation between two women (bonus points if they’re named) that does not concern a male character. While that criteria may sound laughable, I’ll encourage you to look out for it next time you watch a movie or show. As far as I can recall, there is only one conversation that meets this standard, and it’s a surreal one, centered around roquefort cheese. (It is possible I missed other qualifying conversations, and I do intend to watch the movie again and revise this writing.)

This is what smashing the patriarchy looks like.

If we take the movie as further attempting to say something about the male psyche, the portrayal of the events of the film as from that character’s perspective are especially important.

Starting with de Carrouges, we see a discrepancy in the behaviors of Marguerite in his version compared to hers. Specifically, in Sir Jean’s version, Marguerite asks him to do something, to make it right, to render justice. However, in her recounting, she makes no such request. This is the first point. Oftentimes when a friend or a lover expresses some concern or hardship, the instinctive response is to attempt to solve the problem. However, as the litany of self-care and relationship advice accounts on instagram will attest, it is often the case that the person just wants to “vent,” to simply speak and be heard. I am not saying that if someone comes to you to talk about a sexual assault they don’t want you to do anything, but I am saying there is a difference between telling your friend about something and reporting an event to an authority/justice figure.[3]If you don’t know which situation you’re in, just ask.

This analysis of de Carrouges’ inability to tell what is from what he wants it to be is bolstered by both his own self-aggrandizing reports (such as his powerful words on the field of battle and again during a diplomatic moment) and his misperception of Le Gris as a close, indebted friend. de Carrouges, as he represents most of us, sees what he wants to see, hears what he wants to hear. His fault is not that he is a liar per se, but that he lies to himself. His error is rarely stopping to ask, “what do you want, what can I do?” and when he does, refusing to hear the answer. I am reminded of a favorite line from another Damon film, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: “We deal in deception here. What we do not deal with is self-deception.”[4]Like many Scorsese films, The Departed utterly fails the Bechdel test. I don’t think we ever even see two female characters in the same scene, never mind having a conversation. Does de Carrouges want to be a good husband, or does he want to appear to be a good husband. For that matter, which do we want?

There is a difference between telling your friend about something and reporting an event to an authority/justice figure.

Turning next to Le Gris we see a male archetype that I find more sympathetic than de Carrouges. This individual is truly the individual of privilege, the quintessential chauvinist. Borrowing from UCLA professor Dr. Pamela Hieronymi, Le Gris is portrayed “in a context in which…chauvinism is widely accepted and in which he has not had his own attitudes remarked upon or questioned.”[5]see her Reflection and Responsibility in Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 no. 1 (2014): page 30 Furthermore, not only is Le Gris never confronted with the possibility that his behavior is problematic, he is in fact rewarded for it by authority figures (specifically the Count Pierre d’Alençon, portrayed by Ben Affleck)! After this (almost) lifetime of uncorrected, positively reinforced bad behavior (what we would today call socialization), Le Gris is confronted in the most dire of circumstances: in court, with his life literally in the balance. What I find sympathetic in this character is the irremediable nature of his situation.

Heinous criminality aside, Le Gris is a useful and productive member of his society. He is able to apply his knowledge and skill not only to the battlefield but equally to the actuary tables. While an argument can be made for the inherently predatory and extortionary nature of feudalism, and thus an appropriate condemnation issued on the “true” value of what skills Le Gris does posses, I make a broader argument. I submit that human life has value, independent of (though potentially enriched by) its productive application. Assuming this is true, we can best honor this value by educating people like Le Gris in such a way that they avoid becoming a chauvinist in the first place. It is in defense of this belief that I write this entire piece. On the stand is not a place where education and reformation can take place. Instead Le Gris (I argue, understandably) defaults to that most insidious of behaviors, justification.

Justifying your actions while trying to improve yourself is like wearing full plate while learning to swim.

Justification is the surest guarantee against self-improvement. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has made ubiquitous, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Where de Carrouges’ error is that he never stops to ask, Le Gris’ is that when he is confronted with his own bad behavior he explains it away. He never denies what he did. Instead, he makes excuses and creates reasons for why it isn’t bad. Personally, I can empathize with this behavior. Admitting that I am wrong is one of the more challenging things I have to do in this world. As someone who prides themselves in thinking carefully about my actions, in only doing the “right” thing, I am often blinded to the negative consequences of my actions by my own justifications of why I did it. In the philosophy of science there is a dictum, if something can’t be proven wrong then it can’t be right. In the science of self-improvement this is no less true. As long as we engage in justificatory behaviors like Le Gris, though we may avoid his more dire transgressions, we will remain guilty of the same developmental self-sabotage.  

The Film As Critical Analysis

While I know that the racial branch of the Frankfurt school’s critical method is under popular attack with certain sections of the population,[6]and even recently some academic criticism, as in Espen Hammer’s “Critical Theory and the Challenge of Relativism.” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. Edited by Martin Kusch. … Continue reading especially the aforementioned cishet (white) male audience this post is aimed at, I’ve always found it to be an intriguing and useful method. In its most basic form Critical Analysis asks, what is your aim? Having established that goal it then asks, does your aim obtain via your methods? 

In the film, Damon’s de Carrouges’ aim is, ostensibly, to demonstrate that he loves his wife. Speaking again only for myself in similar situations, while I have felt obligations to abstract concepts like Justice,[7]A typically male morality, as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg,  “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16”. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago. 1958 sober self-reflection has established Care as the higher value.[8]I owe this evolution in my moral understanding to Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (1982) In situations where I’ve known someone who was sexually assaulted, my initial reaction is almost always anger. Anger, as we know, is the appropriate response to perceived injustice; Anger helps to motivate us to action where and when action is necessary. However, below that anger (oftentimes less perceptibly) is frustration and sadness that someone I care about is suffering, and has been made to suffer. In my younger, less sophisticated years I have been known to make the argument that while I don’t think capital punishment has an ethical basis, upon learning that some person raped someone I love, it is ethically permitted, and possibly even compulsory for me to murder the rapist. Something like both-your-eyes-for-an-eye, a response extreme enough as to make the next person rethink how much they want that eye in the first place.[9]I owe this idea to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. 

Critical Analysis asks, what is your aim? Having established that goal it then asks, does your aim obtain via your methods?

However, this approach does little in the way of practical justice. Does it undo the harm caused by the assault? It does not. Does it comfort or console the victim—Does it insulate them against further harm? Twice no. Does it make me feel better? Yes. And this is the important point. If our goal is to demonstrate through our actions that we care for the victim, if our goal is to in some way make their situation better, the typical responses of violence and legalism fail to achieve our end but, insidiously, allow us to feel better about our failure.

In the film the inherent harm of the legal approach is made tangible. If de Carrouges fails in his trial by combat, if, it is assumed, God judges Marguerite’s claims to be false, she will be burned alive until dead. In a portrayal of characteristically female valuation,[10]Again I drawn on Gilligan for this characterization. Lest I (or she) be charged with trans-exclusionary theorizing, it should be noted that Gilligan’s account is based on developmental psychology … Continue reading Marguerite’s concern is not with her own bodily harm, but the future of her child, who will be left with neither father nor mother in a world she knows to be nasty, brutish and short.

In “real-life” instances, the danger of the legal approach is less tangible. However, considering the cases of Brock Turner and Chanel Miller, or Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, it should be apparent that where the villain is granted clemency, compassion and understanding, the victim carries stigma and shame, even in the face of so-called justice. At one point during her trial, one of Marguerite’s jurors attempts to excuse the actions of her rapist citing that pregnancy cannot happen if the women doesn’t enjoy the intercourse, paralleling the ignorant and shameful comments of former Missouri senator Todd Akin. An unfortunate number of us need not try too hard to imagine the horrors of sexual assault. If we acknowledge that the legal approach adds to that horror the humiliation of being called a liar, or being told we don’t know our own experience, it is clear to see that this is not the way.

Hopefully I needn’t say much about the inefficacy of violence in response to violence. The entirety of the film should make that point. Killing someone, or beating them, or whatever, is not going to make the victim feel better or improve their situation at all. While it may make you feel better, that self-serving approach only contributes to the alienation of the victim. While an appeal can be made to Justice, this comes at the expense of, again, the victim. If we truly want to help, truly want to care, what should we do instead? Finally, I offer an answer.

The Path Forward

In instances of sexual assault, we, men who care, should do whatever the victim wants.

“What do you want me to do?” This is the question I was fortunate enough to think to ask once. The answer that was given to me was plain, but I have to say I didn’t much care for it. Instead of listening, I turned to google, and then other individuals who had lived through similar situations, both as the victim and the would-be helper (hero seems woefully inappropriate here). The answer I received never changed. Out of respect for the delicacy of the situation I won’t go into specifics regarding anyone I talked to or what the situations were. I will say only the answer: In instances of sexual assault, we, men who care, should do whatever the victim wants. Not, my Carrougesian friends, what we think they want! What they say that they want. 

In my experience, what the victim wants is never that satisfying, sanguinary thing: revenge. It’s oftentimes nothing, or the small thing of listening, believing and supporting. Possibly it’s the ungratifying nature of this response that makes it so loving. In this I am reminded of another medieval jousting film, Brian Hegeland’s A Knight’s Tale.[11]A Knight’s Tale also fails the Bechdel test. When Heath Ledger’s Ulrich von Lichtenstein pledges to win a tournament for Shannyn Sossamon’s Jocelyn, she replies that he wins only for himself and his own glory. If he really loved her, she argues, he would lose for her. I would not be coarse enough to suggest that any victim would play such a game, but the point remains. Oftentimes, true expressions of love are the opposite of what we want to do, given the choice. To truly express love and care, especially in the terrible situations treated in this post, we must do what we are asked, not what we want.

Name two women, Heath, I’ll wait.

Having said that, the question remains: Does the film convey this answer? If so, I’ve written a lot of words for no good reason. Thankfully, I believe I can demonstrate that it does not. 

If we assume that de Carrouges knew Marguerite would get burned at the stake if her testimony was “proven” false, and his greatest concern was demonstrating love for his wife (over abstract notions of Justice), it seems he should not press the issue legally. Furthermore, if it is the case that Marguerite did not specifically request that de Carrouges do something, the argument against his seeking revenge or restitution or even recognition is plain. He should instead listen, believe and support.

If there is a character that advocates such an approach, it is Nicole de Buchard, mother of de Carrouges. However, on my viewing of her character, she represents a disconnected, outdated, and fatalist point of view. In none of the perspectives presented in the film is de Buchard characterized as sympathetic, sagacious or trustworthy. It is possible that Scott is making an argument for the wisdom of the more experienced generation, but her do-nothing stance seems to stem from an acceptance and endorsement of the status quo over a compassionate understanding of the right course of action. If the film is seen as social commentary, as well as historical drama, the usefulness of de Buchard’s approach, and as a result the film itself, is minimal. If de Buchard is articulating the path forward, she does it from such a point of recalcitrant callousness as to leave her message unintelligible.

Despite this lack of clarity, I do see the inherent value in critiquing the traditional, male responses to sexual assault. However, I look forward to portrayals that offer a positive role model, that show us what is to be done. I believe it is through the visual medium, maybe Ryan Gosling smoldering while holding a softly sobbing Anna Taylor-Joy, that the next generation of men will be educated and inspired. I believe it is through this instantiation, much more than my present articulation, that we, my brothers, will find a path forward. Here’s to the day.


1 While it hasn’t been sufficiently long since the release of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel for me to justify the forthcoming plot spoilers in an attempt to analyze the film, I wrote most of this post in a frenzy as soon as I got home from the theater. Such was the power of the movie in my view, and that should constitute the heartiest of endorsements. There have been a few occasions where I’ve neglected to post something topical so the issue could simmer down enough for people to think dispassionately about it and ended up not posting it all because the moment passed. I’m determined not to make that mistake again.
2  I owe my own awareness of this test to my friend, Dr. Hayden-William Courtland.
3 If you don’t know which situation you’re in, just ask.
4 Like many Scorsese films, The Departed utterly fails the Bechdel test. I don’t think we ever even see two female characters in the same scene, never mind having a conversation.
5 see her Reflection and Responsibility in Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 no. 1 (2014): page 30
6 and even recently some academic criticism, as in Espen Hammer’s “Critical Theory and the Challenge of Relativism.” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism. Edited by Martin Kusch. New York: Routledge, 2020
7 A typically male morality, as defined by Lawrence Kohlberg,  “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16”. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago. 1958
8 I owe this evolution in my moral understanding to Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (1982)
9 I owe this idea to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.
10 Again I drawn on Gilligan for this characterization. Lest I (or she) be charged with trans-exclusionary theorizing, it should be noted that Gilligan’s account is based on developmental psychology and socialization. Specifically, she argues that the divergence in moral understanding between men and women can be traced back to their initial individuation process. Because men are typically (though not exclusively) raised by women, whether that’s parent, nanny or teacher, their process of individuation starts earlier; Males form an understanding of themselves as different than the others around them, especially (mostly female) authority figures. Conversely, at the same age, women see themselves as the same as (mostly female) others, especially figures of authority. As a result, individuation typically happens at a later age and starts from a different point of reference. Socialization is equally sex-biased, with certain values being pushed on certain apparent genders. This isn’t to say a male can’t intuitively value Care or a female can’t be taught to value Justice. If we assume Gilligan is “on to something” (and I would encourage anyone to read her book before making that evaluation) more research could be done on individuation and socialization of transgendered children. I could conceive of how the procedural complications to identifying such a subset may prove insurmountable, scientifically, but I’ll leave that to the experimental psychologists.
11 A Knight’s Tale also fails the Bechdel test.

The Convenient Fiction of One-of-the-Good-Ones

Since the murder of Sarah Everard I have been a mess. My pain is not comparable to the pain and fear she must’ve known. It is not the dull, constant dread that every woman must feel walking, sitting, eating, being. But it is my pain, and it is real, and today I hope to transmute it into something useful.

“I hate men. Men are the worst.” If I counted the number of times I’ve heard this I would be in tears before I had recounted half. These words have come to me from people I love and people who say they love me. Of course these words are quickly and inevitably followed with, “I don’t mean you, you’re not like that.” And this is supposed to be a badge of honor, that women feel comfortable enough around me to share their very real and very legitimate frustrations and fears. 

My father told me that in the old days when a Marine was promoted and their new chevrons pinned to their uniform they would not use the pins’ backing. They would drive the tiny metal spikes through the cloth, into the flesh. The pain was comparatively small, the wound would bleed only a little, and the freshly-minted sergeant would have a very tangible reminder of the hardship they had endured to achieve their new rank. I wore my badge of honor, One-of-the-Good-Ones, like this. It is indeed an honor and it only hurts a little. 

Being One-of-the-Good-Ones is not a mistake or a happenstance. I have worked hard to develop a personal comportment, a bearing, that makes women feel at ease. I never discuss sex or sexuality with women or around women, to the point that I have been accused of being a “prude.” I almost never touch a woman, and when I do I ask permission first.* Even when I’ve known them for years, even when the last ten times I’ve asked the answer has been an eye-roll and an “Of course,” I still ask. A few times I’ve been answered “No” and I do my best to pivot away from both the question and the answer, face hot, head swimming with embarrassment. No one has done anything wrong in this instance. In fact saying “No,” when social norms would say to say “Yes,” takes a tremendous amount of bravery and I am always impressed by the woman’s resolve. But also I am ashamed. The other person doesn’t want me to touch them, and it’s not because of who I am, but what I am. A man. What Thomas Hobbes called “violent… nasty, brutish.” And they are not wrong.

I’ve got some ideas…

Only an alcoholic needs to make rules governing their drinking. “I won’t drink liquor while the sun is up” is not a rule that a well-adjusted, casual drinker needs to make. Only those who have drunk the cup of sorrow to its dregs need to make a rule like this. The purpose of the rule is to protect them from themselves.

I am a pacifist. I have sworn off violence as a means of conflict resolution. I have decided violence is an unacceptable means of interacting with my world and the people in it. Many have pointed out that sometimes violence is necessary, that I may need to break this vow some day. I acknowledge this possibility and hope I never need to raise a hand to protect someone I love. I did not make this rule, this commitment, instinctively. I have raised my hands in anger many times. Even today I feel anger and an inclination towards violence. Like the alcoholic, I make the pact of pacifism to protect myself from myself. The truth is I am a violent man. I am an angry man. I am a lustful man. I live with these impulses every day. I cannot, or have not as of yet been able to, get rid of them. But I have decided I will not serve them. Non Serviam.  When a woman expresses that no, she does not feel comfortable with me touching her, I feel shame because I know the truth. That I, like all men, am a violent creature. That try as we might— through reading, discussion, mediation, practice— we are dangerous beings at heart. That even if we don’t act on it we all have within us great capacity for harm.

The murder of Sarah Everard is a sharp reminder of the darkness inside my brothers and me. Every time I’ve read a woman’s account of her fear of men it cuts me not because “Not All Men” but indeed because “All Men.” It hurts because it’s true. Reading encouragement to walk on the other side of a street when I see a woman at night offends me not because I feel persecuted but because I feel seen. And I do not like what I see.

When I heard the news Saturday night, that the murderer was a cop, relief washed over me in an awesome wave. Of course it was a cop. Thank god it was a cop. It has already been statistically demonstrated that men who become cops are ten times more likely to physically abuse their partners and children. These types of men are those who have decided to embrace their violent natures. They are not like me, and this gives me hope. Perhaps expressions of my violent nature are not an inevitability. Perhaps, through attention and choice I can remain One-of-the-Good-Ones.

This is a convenient fiction. My brothers and I, we are all the problem. Not a single one of us is without blame in the pandemic of sexism and sexual harassment. Though I may be known by many as One-of-the-Good-Ones, I am known by some as a Jerk. A Bad Guy. It shames me to say it but it is no less true. I have made an inappropriate comment. I have laughed at a sexist joke. I have touched a shoulder without permission. I challenge that there is not one among us who has not. The outrage I feel at being told to walk on the other side of the street is rooted in this shame. In knowing that I am guilty, that I SHOULD cross the street. This is not behavior I set out to engage in. But I will not deny my culpability. I believe that only through acknowledging and owning our shortcomings can we find the inspiration to be better. The first step is admitting we have a problem.

To be clear, I am not saying every man is a rapist or a murderer. I am saying every man is complicit to varying degrees. Listen to the stories. The emotional response will rise. Allow it to fade, continue to listen, and you will agree that what I say, what women are telling us, is true.

Vision gets it.

Sisters, what can I say but I am sorry. None of us asked to be born like this, violent and angry. Truly I do not believe all the love in the world can unfetter us from our beastial natures. While some of us will choose to work against these impulses many will not. Your fear and anger is true and justified. Be careful and I sincerely hope you find the safety you deserve.

Brothers, if you hear news about Sarah Everard, if you read reactions to it and feel outrage, offense and shame, I am with you. I feel the same way. And now we both have a choice. Knowing that the fears women have of us are well founded, what will we do? Will we allow ourselves to be ruled our base natures, or will we, like the men we wish to be, say, “I Will Not Serve.” We have all made mistakes. We will all make mistakes again. Only one mistake will be the last one we ever make. Until then we must give the best we have to give today. We must own our failings and let our mistakes remind us of the work still to be done.

Sexism is a problem. The solution to this problem is simple. You are the solution. I am the solution. Let’s be the men that our mothers, sisters, lovers and friends deserve us to be. Let’s be the men that we wish to be. Let us say together, “Sexism Stops with Me.”