Sara Protasi

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Sara Protasi recently completed her Ph.D. in Philospohy at Yale University. She is an assistant professor at University of Puget Sound. Her website is http://saraprotasi.weebly.com/ .

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"Embrace Sculpture" by Eric Kilby is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

The past few weeks have been hard for those who are fervently anti-Trump. On the weekend after the election, I was playing with my baby daughter, and made a comment about how empathetic I am.

My partner, who was lying on the couch next to me, muttered sarcastically: “Why don’t you go empathize with the white working class.”

My reaction was immediate, unreflective, and dramatic: I started shouting at him. That comment was uncalled for, utterly gratuitous! I was on the same side as his! I in no way thought that white men were more deserving of empathy than others, as I took him to imply. Finally, I started using expletives, and told him to f*ck off.

Yes, I told my beloved partner, a man of color who has been grieving the electoral result and has found it hard to get out of bed since then, that he could f*ck off.

Image modified from the original photograph: "Rodin--The Thinker" by Edward Steichen, 1902 (Public Domain)

Much has been written about the appalling, depressing and infuriating case concerning Brock Turner and his unnamed victim. I won’t rehearse the case, nor the dialectic it has sparked between those sympathetic to the victim and those outraged that sympathy can ever be extended to crime perpetrators, especially when such perpetrators are member of a hyper-privileged class such as that to which Turner belongs.

"The Elephant and the Rider" by Xavier Vergés is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared on October 27, 2015.

Like most human beings, I grew up imbibing racist stereotypes. Since I am Italian, those stereotypes were to some extent different from the kind of stereotypes I would have acquired had I grown up in the United States. For instance, I thought all people “of color” were exotic and more beautiful than “Whites”. This positive, and yet still damaging, stereotype included Black women and men, and Asian men, who in the American dating market are known to be greatly disadvantaged.

My personal attitude was to some extent reflective of Italian culture. The fascination with women of color, for instance, is fairly widespread among Italian men, as you would expect given Italy’s colonial past and its relatively racially homogenous present.

When I started visiting the US academically more ten years ago, I grew accustomed to a much more sophisticated discussion about race, and went through an awkward and often painful process of realization of how implicitly racist I was. I learned that asking “Where are you really from?” to a Seattle native of Korean descent was racist, or at the very least racially insensitive. I realized the tricky undertones of many expressions that I deemed simply descriptive, such as “Black music”. And I found out, much to my surprise, that even my aesthetic appreciation for non-Caucasian people was highly suspicious.

I also discovered that Black women are supposed to be bossy, angry, and dependent on welfare, and that Black men are supposed to be criminals and absent fathers; that East-Asian men are supposed to be unattractive and effeminate, and all Asian women submissive; that Asians in general are good at science… Some of these stereotypes were somewhat in line with my own culture’s, if not necessarily my own, but some were a complete surprise, and that surprise, that sense of “I would never think that” gave me an unwarranted sense of reassurance. When taking the IAT, I even compared positively to White Americans with regard to implicit bias toward Native Americans. So I thought: now that I know all this stuff about race, and given that I am a committed anti-racist, I’ll get rid of all the bad stuff, and I’ll stop being racist!

But, in fact, it didn’t go quite like that… When walking in segregated New Haven, seeing hooded Black men walking behind me made me nervous. I was very aware and ashamed of my own nervousness, but I was nervous nonetheless. Later on, when living in the United Kingdom, I found myself mistaking Black men for store employees. These are only two of the most unnerving instances of my implicit racism surfacing to my uncomfortable consciousness.

And it doesn’t even stop at race: I have become aware of many other forms of discrimination, over the years, and that has greatly increased my capacity at catching myself being implicitly homophobic or transphobic, fattist, ableist, and so forth. But, in fact, it seems to have only increased my awareness, not my ability to be less biased.

Philosopher Robin Zheng, whose research is on moral responsibility and implicit bias, has reassured me that I am not alone. Empirical research confirms that fighting implicit bias require a lot more than just informing people about the reality of discrimination.

This research wouldn’t be surprising to those familiar with more general work on implicit reasoning. For those who are not, I find useful an ancient metaphor from the Buddhist tradition popularized by Jonathan Haidt in his acclaimed pop-psychology book The Happiness Hypothesis. The metaphor describes the human mind as composed by an elephant and its rider. According to Haidt, the elephant roughly corresponds to what has been called System I in dual-processing accounts of reasoning: a system that is old in evolutionary terms, and shared with other animals. This system is comprised of a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-specific knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism. System I is fast, automatic and operates under the level of consciousness. The rider roughly corresponds to System II: a system that is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human. System II permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, and is slower, controlled and conscious. “The rider evolved to serve the elephant,” says Haidt, and while it may sometimes override it, trick it into obedience, “it cannot order the elephant around against its will” (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 17).

This tension between the rider and the elephant has many different manifestations, but one that is particularly relevant to the discussion of the implicit biases is the case of mental intrusions. If we are explicitly asked to not think about a white bear, all we can think of is, you guessed it, a white bear. This ironic process of mental control is the consequence of automatic and controlled processes firing at each other: the request of not thinking a certain thought activates System II, which attempts to suppress the thought. System I activates automatic monitoring of one’s progress, which in this case means continuously checking whether one is not thinking about a white bear. That move turns out to be obviously counterproductive, since it reintroduces the thought that one is supposed to ban. But “because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears” (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 20). Dan Wegner, who first studied ironic process in a lab setting, has shown that it affects also people who try to repress unendorsed stereotypes.

While there is interesting research addressing more productive and effective ways of fighting implicit bias and stereotyping, I want to conclude with a remark about the implications of this empirical literature for microaggressions, a topic that has gained much attention recently.

I largely disagree with Haidt’s criticisms of trigger and content warnings in academic settings, for reasons well-articulated by Regina Rini and Kate Manne. But I do share his attention to underlying psychological mechanisms, and I worry that they are sometimes neglected in the political commentary.

Committed anti-racists are unlikely to engage in overtly prejudiced behavior. However, they may still find themselves inadvertently engaging in microaggressions such as those I described at the beginning of the post: inappropriate jokes or questions, or bona fide mistakes stemming from deeply-ingrained stereotypes. The elephant acts against the rider’s wishes, or even awareness: when something that has been internalized as a threat (such as a hooded Black man) appears in view, the elephant doesn’t hesitate, and kicks the rider in the shins, making it jump. The rider will take one or two seconds to realize that there is in fact no threat, and that will be too late: the jump was visible, the offense taken, the harm done. Not fully understanding how powerful these unconscious mechanisms are affects not only our moral assessment of the perpetrators (which can be also self-assessment). It also produces condemnatory reactions that, while appropriate in theory, are not necessarily fertile in practice, such as a certain relatively widespread paralyzing White guilt of well-intentioned liberals, who go around admitting their White privilege without knowing exactly what to do about it. Realizing that some of the mechanisms motivating our behavior are outside of our direct control allows us to focus on indirect ways to modify our behavior, and to shift from a sterile admission of White privilege to a more proactive commitment to changing the institutional injustice that gives rise to it. You can’t order the elephant at will, but you can change the environment it is raised in.

emulative envy
"Ballerina" by Gerald Pereira is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared on December 4, 2014.

When I was 8, I started ballet. I was a disciplined kid who took everything seriously, and dance quickly became a great passion of mine. But for many years I wasn’t that good; I felt I lacked the natural physical abilities that bless talented ballerinas.

One day something changed. I was observing the course immediately after mine. In the center of the studio, Laura, the first in her class, was performing a step in which one leg is elevated above 90 degrees. She was very similar to me in many respects, rich in determination but lacking in natural talent, her legs and feet modeled only by hours of obstinate exercise. Her leg was so much higher than mine had ever been! She looked fierce and strong, and I wished I could be like that. But beneath her smiling face, I could see the strain: she was sweating a lot, and her leg was shaking slightly. I felt a complex, painful emotion. I was ashamed both of my inferiority and of minding it so intensely. At the same time, I was inspired and determined to work harder: if she could do that, so could I! I kept dancing, with renewed enthusiasm, and by the time I graduated from my dance school I, too, was the best in my class.

I believe that what I felt that day toward my peer was what we can call emulative envy. It is a kind of non-malicious envy that has two fundamental characteristics. First, it is more focused on the lacked good, rather than on the fact that the envied has it. In my case, I was more bothered by my lack of excellence than by the fact that Laura was excellent. Therefore, this kind of envy has an inspirational quality, rather than an adversarial one. The envied appears to the envier more like a model to reach, or a target to aim to, than a rival to beat, or a target at which to shoot. When the envier is, vice versa, more bothered by the fact that the envied is better than them, than by the lack of the good, the envied is looked at with hostility and malice, and the envier is inclined to take the good away from them.

Second, emulative envy is hopeful: it involves the perception that the envier can close the gap with the envied. When this optimism about one’s chances is lacking, being focused on the good is insufficient to feel emulative envy, because we don’t believe in our capability to emulate the envier. Thus, we may fall prey of what I call inert envy, an unproductive version of emulative envy in which the agent is stuck in desiring something she can’t have, a dangerous state that can lead to develop more malicious forms of envy. In Dorothy Sayers’s vivid metaphor: “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down” (Sayers 1999).

There are two possible ways of leveling down: in what I call aggressive envy, the envier is confident that she can “steal” the good. Think about a ballerina who secures another dancer’s role not by her own merit but via other means, such as spreading a rumor about that dancer’s lack of confidence on stage. But this kind of “leveling down” is not always possible, or at any rate does not appear possible to the envier. In such a case, the envier is likely to feel spiteful envy, as it may have been in Iago’s case: he could not take away the good fortune Othello had, but he was certainly able to spoil all of it.

Spiteful, aggressive and inert envy are all bad in one way or another, but emulative envy seems void of any badness. Here I cannot detail the ways in which it is different from the other three, but I’d like to conclude this post with one very interesting feature it possesses. Empirical evidence (van de Ven et al 2011) shows that emulative envy spurs one to self-improve more efficiently than its more respectable cousin: admiration. This result is less surprising once we think that admiration is a pleasant state of contentment, and thus is unlikely to move the agent to do much at all. As Kierkegaard aptly put it: “Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion” (Kierkegaard 1941).

References
Kierkegaard, S. 1941, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition For Upbuilding And Awakening (1849), New York: Oxford University Press.
Sayers, D. 1999, Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe), Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.
van de Ven N., Zeelenberg M., Pieters R. 2011, “Why Envy Outperforms Admiration,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6): 784–795.

envy
"Envy" by ac.Zadam is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared on November 18, 2014

Imagine you check your email and find a congratulatory message from your boss announcing that your colleague has just been promoted. This colleague joined the company at approximately the same time as you did, and works in your sector. You were in line for the same promotion and were anxiously waiting for the outcome. How do you feel?

It’s reasonable to suppose that you might feel a burning, intense, painful bout of an emotion hard to confess even to yourself: envy. It doesn’t matter that you like this person, that she works hard, that she is brilliant and competent, and that she fully deserves this honor. If anything, being fully aware of her merits is likely to make you feel worse. Even if you acknowledge that it is an objectively just outcome, you can’t help but ask “Why not me?!”

Let me assure you that you are in good company: envy can be found in all ages, with all genders, and in all strata of the society. According to anthropologists (Foster 1972, Lindholm 2008), it is panhuman phenomenon, whose disquieting traces can be found everywhere in human history and culture. The Bible, the sacred text for Jews and Christians, is filled with stories of envy, most notably Cain and Abel. The fall of Adam and Eve, Satan’s rebellion against God, and Christ’s crucifixion have all been interpreted as caused by envy (Acquaro 2004, Schimmel 2008). All main human religions condemn envy, and most peasant and tribal societies share the superstition of the evil eye, a destructive power emanating—usually involuntarily—from the look of an envious person. Many publicized crimes and intergroup conflicts have been attributed to envy (Schoeck 1969, Beck 1999). Young children are warned about the evils of envy when hearing the fables of Cinderella, Snow White, and many others. There are countless literary tales of envy and the misdeeds it provokes, but we do not need to look into fictions to see what envy looks like. As advertisers, economists, and psychoanalysts all know, envy populates our daily interactions. (Beck 2008, Vidaillet 2008, Zizzo 2008).

Notwithstanding its ubiquitousness, envy may be the only “deadly sin” that is still considered unforgivable and difficult to confess openly and straightforwardly. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld vividly put it: “We can often be vain of our passions, even the guiltiest ones; but envy is so sneaking and shameful that we never dare confess it.” (Maxims) Even though it may be not framed in moral terms for everybody, feeling and expressing envy is still stigmatized and seen as a social taboo. And yet, feeling and acting on envy is as widespread as ever, as the popularity of novels, self-help books, and editorials that deal with the topic shows. This is unsurprising: class inequality has not only not disappeared, but it has possibly increased in some affluent societies, like the United States. Furthermore, there will always be scarcity of some goods, such as honor and “coolness,” and hence competition for them, and envy for those who succeed in securing them.

Envy thus has an important positive signaling value: it reveals to us what we care about, what we feel we lack, and what we are prepared to do to get it. But is it otherwise always bad? In my work I argue that while envy undoubtedly shows a dark side of human nature—our tendency to covet the possessions and talents of our neighbors, cast an evil eye on them, and rejoice of their misfortune—it also presents a more luminous one: our tendency to work hard in order to reach and surpass those neighbors, and strive for excellence.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that envy necessarily involves hostility and aggression toward the envied. Social psychologists and philosophers are divided about whether a non-malicious emotion can be appropriately categorized as envy. I defend the view that what I call “emulative envy”, while being a kind of envy proper, is neither morally nor prudentially bad. In my next post I am going to describe what this emotion looks like. In the mean time, what do you think about this: is envy always malicious? Have you ever felt a “benign” kind of envy?

Citations
Aquaro, G. R.A. 2004, Death by envy: The evil eye and envy in the Christian tradition, Lincoln, NB: Universe.
Beck, A. 1999, Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence, New York: HarperCollins.
Belk, R. W. 2008, “Marketing and Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 211–226. Foster, G. M. 1972, “The anatomy of envy: A study in symbolic behavior,” Current Anthropology, 13: 165–202.
Lindholm, C. 2008, “Culture and Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 227–244.
Schimmel, S. 1997, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schimmel, S. 2008, “Envy in Jewish Though and Literature,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 16–38.
Schoeck, H. 1969, Envy: A theory of social behaviour, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Smith, R. H. (ed.) 2008, Envy: Theory and Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vidaillet, B. 2008, “Psychoanalytic Contributions to Understanding Envy: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 267–289.
Zizzo, D. J. 2008, “The Cognitive and Behavioral Economics of Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 190–210.

 sötétben by Zoltán Horlik CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A while ago I was about to embark in a long air travel and wanted something to read. I was in a town with one of those increasingly rare old-fashioned independent bookstores. So I felt a certain thrill when I decided to go in and buy a physical book, like in the good old days. I saw Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, skimmed briefly the plot summary, and on an impulse I bought it.

I felt a little nervous, because it seemed to be a melancholic book, possibly an uneasy read. For the past decade, I have been avoiding watching, reading, or hearing about unsettling stories. I used to love books and movies that made me burst into tears, but as I have grown older I have become incapable of enduring those emotional storms. I feel that life is hard enough, and the real world is horrific enough, that I don’t need extra-doses of suffering in my spare time.

But recently I have come to reconsider the wisdom of this self-protection policy. First, because there is only so much I can do to protect myself from pain of various kinds: as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, human goods are fragile and human happiness is inherently delicate. Developing a thick skin seems a wiser long-term strategy than the one I have been adopting. But, second, because there might actually be value in suffering. Emotions such as grief and jealousy, and sensations like pain are instrumentally valuable, since they play essential roles in our physical and psychological well-being, preventing injury, making us aversive to losing, and protective of, those with whom we share genes, and so forth.

Psychologist Randolph Nesse has coined the term “diagonal psychology” to designate the field that studies the benefits of negative emotions and the downside of positive ones. An example of such approach can be found in the work of June Gruber, a psychology professor at University of Colorado Boulder. In her TEDx talk The Dark Side of Happiness, she argues that too much positive affect can lead to decrease of creativity and to risky, harmful behaviors; that those who do not feel emotions such as grief and anger when it is appropriate are less emotionally adjusted; and that the pursuit of happiness itself can become a self-defeating objective. In the words of J. S. Mill: “Those only are happy… who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

In philosophy, a lot of attention has been traditionally and historically paid to the importance and nature of happiness. Recently, however, some philosophers have started thinking more about the value and role of pain. Some of these philosophers can be found in the interdisciplinary team that is behind the Value of Suffering Project. The aim of the project is to investigate the nature and role of suffering and affective experience in general. They even have a blog you might want to check out!

Earlier attempts at re-evaluating the importance of suffering can be found in the work some philosophers (such as Martha Nussbaum) have done on the importance from an ethical perspective of imaginatively engaging with fictions: when we see the world through the lens of a member of an oppressed minority, for instance, and we empathize with their pain, we might be able to see moral truths that were unavailable to us before.

Thinking about the experience of suffering in fictional engagement also suggests that suffering might have not only an instrumental value (as it plays an adaptive function at both the physical and psychological level), but also a non-instrumental one, in particular an epistemic one. Suffering is an unavoidable component of the human experience. If there is intrinsic value in knowing reality, independently from the use that we can do of that knowledge, then eschewing knowledge of a central aspect of reality is not a habit that a person should cultivate.

I might be ready for The Kite Runner.

Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre, Gong, November 1, 2013 by Kent G Becker (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When I was 8, I started ballet. I was a disciplined kid who took everything seriously, and dance quickly became a great passion of  mine. But for many years I wasn’t that good; I felt I lacked the natural physical abilities that bless talented ballerinas.

One day something changed. I was observing the course immediately after mine. In the center of the studio, Laura, the first in her class, was performing a step in which one leg is elevated above 90 degrees. She was very similar to me in many respects, rich in determination but lacking in natural talent, her legs and feet modeled only by hours of obstinate exercise. Her leg was so much higher than mine had ever been! She looked fierce and strong, and I wished I could be like that. But beneath her smiling face, I could see the strain: she was sweating a lot, and her leg was shaking slightly. I felt a complex, painful emotion. I was ashamed both of my inferiority and of minding it so intensely. At the same time, I was inspired and determined to work harder: if she could do that, so could I! I kept dancing, with renewed enthusiasm, and by the time I graduated from my dance school I, too, was the best in my class.

I believe that what I felt that day toward my peer was what we can call emulative envy. It is a kind of non-malicious envy that has two fundamental characteristics. First, it is more focused on the lacked good, rather than on the fact that the envied has it. In my case, I was more bothered by my lack of excellence than by the fact that Laura was excellent. Therefore, this kind of envy has an inspirational quality, rather than an adversarial one. The envied appears to the envier more like a model to reach, or a target to aim to, than a rival to beat, or a target at which to shoot. When the envier is, vice versa, more bothered by the fact that the envied is better than them, than by the lack of the good, the envied is looked at with hostility and malice, and the envier is inclined to take the good away from them.

Second, emulative envy is hopeful: it involves the perception that the envier can close the gap with the envied. When this optimism about one’s chances is lacking, being focused on the good is insufficient to feel emulative envy, because we don’t believe in our capability to emulate the envier. Thus, we may fall prey of what I call inert envy, an unproductive version of emulative envy in which the agent is stuck in desiring something she can’t have, a dangerous state that can lead to develop more malicious forms of envy. In Dorothy Sayers’s vivid metaphor: “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down” (Sayers 1999).

There are two possible ways of leveling down: in what I call aggressive envy, the envier is confident that she can “steal” the good. Think about a ballerina who secures another dancer’s role not by her own merit but via other means, such as spreading a rumor about that dancer’s lack of confidence on stage. But this kind of “leveling down” is not always possible, or at any rate does not appear possible to the envier. In such a case, the envier is likely to feel spiteful envy, as it may have been in Iago’s case: he could not take away the good fortune Othello had, but he was certainly able to spoil all of it.

Spiteful, aggressive and inert envy are all bad in one way or another, but emulative envy seems void of any badness. Here I cannot detail the ways in which it is different from the other three, but I’d like to conclude this post with one very interesting feature it possesses. Empirical evidence (van de Ven et al 2011) shows that emulative envy spurs one to self-improve more efficiently than its more respectable cousin: admiration. This result is less surprising once we think that admiration is a pleasant state of contentment, and thus is unlikely to move the agent to do much at all. As Kierkegaard aptly put it: “Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion” (Kierkegaard 1941).

References
Kierkegaard, S. 1941, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition For Upbuilding And Awakening (1849), New York: Oxford University Press.
Sayers, D. 1999, Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe), Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.
van de Ven N., Zeelenberg M., Pieters R. 2011, “Why Envy Outperforms Admiration,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6): 784–795.

Colorful Eyes by M Yashna (via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Imagine you check your email and find a congratulatory message from your boss announcing that your colleague has just been promoted. This colleague joined the company at approximately the same time as you did, and works in your sector. You were in line for the same promotion and were anxiously waiting for the outcome. How do you feel?