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Cecilea Mun

Hi Devonya, Shelley, and Readers,

Thank you for this interview. It's always nice to learn about another philosopher with whom one shares some of the same interests.

Devonya, like many feminist philosophers, I am also concerned with questions about the structural injustices at work, especially in places like the United States, and I've been thinking about the question of what might be the most healthy, reasonable, and effective approach to dismantling or transforming those social structures that have given rise to all the injustices that occur in our country.

Structural inequalities, unlike the more particular (person-to-person, at the level of the individual) inequalities seem to be such that they necessarily require one to consider the potential chaos (that would effect large populations of people or groups) when such problematic structures are overturned. So the question of how these problematic structures ought to be overturned becomes tricky, especially if someone (e.g., the president of the United States) is responsible for maintaining a balance of peace, safety, and equality within a society. For example, I believe President Obama did a great job during his presidency, but I think his policies as a whole, along with some Supreme Court rulings, were too much and too quick for our society as a whole to handle; President Trump being president now, as I see it, serves as evidence for this in terms of representing a right-winged, conservative backlash against some of President Obama's policies.

Do you have any suggestions or ideas on how such structural changes ought to occur so that progress towards equality can occur without the United States (or similar countries) having to go through what the United States is, unfortunately, currently going through?

Devonya N. Havis

Cecilea, thank you for your questions. In responding, I would like to "trouble" the presumption that dismantling or simply transforming social structures will necessarily end injustices. And, that transformation can come without or with minimal discomfort. This is not to say that desiring dismantling or transforming is misplaced. Rather, my inquiry is about the points of leverage for change.

Foucault warns that "we have to conceive power without the king." I take this to mean that we have to consider that overthrowing structures does not necessarily attend to the ways that our practices have already been conditioned by those very structures. This means that even when certain structures are gone or transformed, our practices are still haunted by the seemingly absent structures. For example, the way Michelle Alexander describes structures of incarceration as the New Jim Crow.

Jim Crow as a formal system has seemingly been eliminated through the Civil Rights Movement and yet, we have "normalized" race and criminality in ways that effectively reproduce Jim Crow. In general, most people in the U.S. until very recently did not question the "fairness" of the criminal justice system even though for decades groups like Amnesty International have criticized the system and noted it as a human rights violation.

So, what I understand you to have described as particular, person-to-person inequalities depend upon framing made possible by larger structures. Meanwhile, those same person-to-person inequalities simultaneously reinforce and reproduce structural inequalities. My point here is that everyday practices and social structures are interdependent. They are therefore not necessarily linear but at least bidirectional. So, the ability of the criminal justice system to function as a form of Jim Crow without public outrage relies upon an everyday uncritical acceptance of certain kinds of presumptions -- about who commits crime, that there is a direct relationship between crime and punishment, that existing structures keep everyone safe, etc. These presumptions are also reinforced in everyday person-to-person practices.

This suggests that our very presumptions about reasonableness, chaos, peace, and safety have already been inflected by the structures we say we want to dismantle. Coming to critical awareness of our everyday complicity -- even with structures we seek to dismantle -- is an important and often untended aspect of opposing injustice. I think this is among the important leverage points for change and resistance. What do our visceral aversions really tell us about the positions that we are really living out, not our professed commitments?

This means that structural changes also depend upon keenly understanding historical and contemporary material conditions. An example, for many, Obama's presidency did not bring the kind of extensive shelter that some believe was recently blown away by Trump's election. While the recent election granted permission for gendered, raced, classed, ableist rhetoric to be embraced publically, it did not mean that those things had previously been absent. From this perspective, Obama did not move all that quickly and was largely blocked with respect to many hoped for structural changes -- among them maintaining voter protections from the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

So, we have to realize that our sense of what constitutes well being, safety, or peace may not be the same for others who must contend with different historical material conditions. It is important to engage those "voices" that constructively disturb our prevailing points of view. "Voices" that make us continually think differently. And, to the extent possible, use classrooms as places to actually engage.

Models like the Black Lives Matter platform ( offer possibilities for enacting structural change but such change is always something from my perspective that must be collectively chiseled out.


Disability is not inability

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