Updated: Oct 3
Interview with Arianne Shahvisi
Sophia: Arianne, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today for Race & Health Quarterly. Congratulations on your new book, Arguing for a Better World: How To Talk About The Issues That Divide Us. The book focuses on dismantling the arguments that are commonly used against social justice issues and teaches the reader how oppression and racism persist in our everyday thinking and language. It’s a very insightful read and exceptionally well written, with thorough evidence to support each point, well done!
Sophia: To begin, please could you tell our readers about yourself and your work?
Arianne: Hi Sophia, thank you for speaking with me. I'm a philosopher who studies gender, race, and migration and the ways in which they interact with one another to produce injustices. I started out as a scientist and then a philosopher of science, but found myself increasingly drawn to social and political questions, and wondered whether I could put my philosophy skills to work more directly. This is how I started working on gender, race, and migration, which I see as being critical to understanding power and its distribution.
I’ve been teaching at Brighton and Sussex Medical School for the past eight years, working within a small team of philosophers. Medical students don't necessarily get time to think about these issues within the core curriculum yet they’re about to become doctors who will occupy very influential roles in the world i.e., will be powerful relative to many other members of society and potentially have louder voices. Teaching them to think carefully about moral and political issues feels like an urgent task, and is a very enjoyable one too.
Sophia: Could you tell us a bit about your book and what inspired you to write it?
Arianne: My book is about how philosophy can be used to help us argue in favour of various social justice positions. A few years ago, I started to notice that a great many people with whom I share a political outlook don’t necessarily have the arguments needed to convince people of the moral aptness of these positions. I wanted to fill in some of those gaps. I think a politics like mine—which calls for the decommodification of food, housing, and other essential ingredients for a dignified life, as well as calling for people to be listened to and to not be derogated or subjugated by others—is morally very easy to defend, but it seems to me that the defence is rarely attempted in direct terms. We just sort of assume and accept political difference, rather than carefully explaining why we think this way. The book discusses race, gender, and structural injustice more generally, with a specific focus on the language and concepts that make those injustices possible, and offers some ways to go about challenging those scaffolds of oppression. The idea was to give readers some options and ideas in terms of arguments that they might make.
Sophia: You make an important point early in the book about the additive oppression that Black people face. Please could you explain what this means to our readers, with some examples?
Arianne: About half of those who are affected by racism are also affected by sexism. Often there’s this idea that we can talk about these things separately, and in doing so can perhaps be more focused in our efforts. But if you focus on gender and try to keep race out of it, you neglect the fact that many of those who are affected by gender oppression are people of colour who experience racism too. And the experience of being affected by racism and sexism at the same time is often complicated, and deserving of very careful study and very particular attention. An example is Islamophobia, which affects Muslim men and women in very different ways. Muslim men are seen as being inherently aggressive and dangerous. Muslim women are seen as being inherently submissive and passive, and as being subjected to violence and control from the men in their lives to a greater degree than non-Muslim women. This stereotype means that Muslim women might be overlooked for promotions at work and affects how their clothing gets policed by Western states, while Muslim men are strictly and violently policed by the state. This shows how gender can make for quite different experiences of racism. If we want to address racism or sexism, we're going to have to recognise that they come in these very different varieties, and design our challenges accordingly.
Sophia: Yes, so intersectionality is important here, isn't it?
Arianne: Yes, absolutely. But the word “intersectionality” gets thrown around a lot and I think we've got to be clear on what we mean and what the practical implications are - how is it going to affect how you respond to Islamophobia in the workforce, for example?
Sophia: Absolutely. So you explain how racism is both explicit and implicit in the huge quantity of information that we consume, and particularly within political narratives. Explicit forms of racism are usually obvious, but please could you tell our readers about some implicit forms of racism in language, such as the use of ‘dog whistles’ and ‘fig leaves’?
Arianne: Explicit racism is easier to deal with because it's easy to spot. Implicit racism is more common because it can pass under the radar. “Dog whistles” and “fig leaves” are common forms of implicit racism. The phrase “dog whistle” comes from the physical object - a whistle that sounds at high frequencies, which dogs can hear, but humans cannot. In language, a dog whistle is an utterance that means one thing at face value, but that also rings out in another register, delivering a coded message too. Not everybody will hear the coded meaning, and others might only note it subconsciously, and so dog whistles can also operate on people who don't even know they've heard a dog whistle. An example of this might be to talk about the term urban or inner city to refer to poorer people of colour. Politicians can refer to crime within “inner city communities”, and they conjure a specific mental image without needing to say what they mean. So, it’s an easy way of putting across a racist message without needing to be overtly racist.
Fig leaves were used to cover up Adam and Eve's genitals, and fig leaves in a conversational context do just this - they cover up a racist comment. A common form is the friendship assertion fig leaf, where someone says something racist but excuses it by reminding listeners that they have Black friends. (Of course, racist people can have friends from the very group to which they’re racist. Indeed, people of colour can be racist to others from the same racial group: race and racism operate in complex ways.) An ultimate fig leaf is the way in which the UK’s hostility towards migrants is so often articulated by politicians of colour. I’m thinking of Suella Braverman, among others. This helps the government, because most people don't feel that they can accuse a person of colour of racism.
Sophia: You explain why the phrase “all lives matter” is problematic when used as a response to the Black Lives Matter Movement. I found your inclusion of Judith Butler particularly compelling, who wrote: ‘If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, “all lives matter”, then we miss the fact that Black people have not yet been included in the idea of “all lives”.’ Please could you expand on the problems associated with the phrase “all lives matter”?
Arianne: I shouldn’t have had to write this chapter, but an enormous amount of nefarious work has been done to create confusion around the Black Lives Matter movement. The chapter addresses this misinformation and thinks about the hierarchies of human suffering. Clearly on some level all lives matter, but the distinction I make is between descriptive and normative statements. Normative statements tell us about what the world should be like. As a normative statement, “all lives matter” means “all lives should matter”. Descriptive ones tell us what the world is like. As a descriptive statement ‘all lives matter’ means “all lives do matter”, but that's clearly not true. There is a hierarchy of mattering, and this is precisely what Butler means.
Sophia: You discuss the topic of mansplaining and its cognate forms: whitesplaining and cissplaining. Could you explain what the term whitesplaining means, and why it is so damaging to people of colour?
Arianne: I tried to pull these together under the term ‘splaining’, which I define as offering an unnecessary and unwanted explanation when you are not an expert in that area to people who have greater expertise, but whose knowledge you’ve downgraded because they belong to a marginalised social group. It’s very important to be precise when accusing someone of mansplaining or whitesplaining. It is perfectly possible for a White person to be an excellent scholar of race and for a man to be a very competent gynaecologist. Whitesplaining is when White people who are not experts in race explain aspects of racism, or diminish or dismiss experiences of racism, to people who have lived experience of racism and have worked hard, often for reasons of self-preservation, to understand the operation of race. It’s incredibly damaging because we live in a society where people who get to do the explaining are most often powerful, White men. This leaves marginalised groups in situations where their knowledge is unheard or downgraded. This has big implications for our collective understanding of racism and our ability to challenge it. If we don't have good knowledge, we're not going to be able to respond effectively.
Sophia: Your final chapter invites a discussion about how we, as individuals, should respond to structural injustices, whether that be racism, poverty, or environmental destruction. Please could you share your thoughts with our readers?
Arianne: Structural injustices are large-scale issues like racism and environmental destruction to which we all contribute through our individual actions, but those actions are strongly influenced by the ways in which our societies are organised, and the sorts of behaviours that are incentivised by financial or cultural considerations. It’s often the case that one person changing their actions will scarcely affect the overall issue. To address structural injustices, there are many different approaches we can take. In the case of issues like meat consumption or the environmentally destructive effects of fast fashion, I think governments should step in. I don’t buy new clothes because it makes me feel bad, but I acknowledge that my refusal makes no difference whatsoever: bigger, more decisive change is needed. Clearly there is a need for organized protest action to persuade governments to do better. I support whatever tactics are needed to get these issues on the agenda while we still have time. On the individual level you've got to have people who see the importance of the change and who are going to fight for, and then support, government plans to make changes. We need to be ready for the kind of world that we want. So that means some individual changes in terms of how we interact with the world, as well as the larger scale stuff that will get the cogs of change turning.
Sophia: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
Arianne: While the book is written for a very wide audience, I wrote it with my students and those I share a political worldview with in mind. I would like readers to recognise the importance of thinking about their politics and what it’s based on and what they want from it. It's dangerous when people don’t know how why they think a particular way. It can lead to movements that can't defend themselves against criticism and to unhealthy engagement with one another. I think we should also be ready to change our minds in certain scenarios rather than dig in our heels or agree to disagree. I have been wrong about many things, and I expect I’ll come to disavow some of what I now think is right. That said, I doubt I’ll change my mind about the headline issues that motivated this book. I do believe in right and wrong, justice and injustice. But within what is broadly “right”, there are many different views that are morally acceptable, and we can learn lots from those differences, and can hopefully find ways to work together to tackle what we know is wrong.