A Rationalist's Account of Objectification?

by lukeprog 4 min read19th Mar 2011327 comments


I'm seeking some feminist consciousness-raising, and I'm hoping some LWers (Alicorn?) can help.

Specifically, I've never understood why "objectification" is wrong.

I'm a tall white American male, so sometimes it takes a bit of work for me to understand what it's like to be a member of a suppressed group. I still need regular training in avoiding sexist language, etc.

First: my background. When I was 10ish I encountered the word "feminism" for the first time. I asked my mom what the word meant.

She said, "It's the idea that women should have the same rights and privileges as men do."

And I thought, "They have a word for that?" It seemed too obvious to deserve its own word. It felt like having a special word for the idea that left-handers and right-handers should have the same rights and privileges.

So I've always thought of myself as a feminist.

Of course, some activists (the word has positive connotations to me, BTW) pushed too far, as is the case in all large movements. At some times and places (1980s academia, I think), it was common to assert that there are almost no (average) significant differences between men and women that aren't caused by enculturation, except for genitalia. That is of course false. Hormones matter, especially during development.

Such overreaches made it psychologically easier for some non-feminists to dismiss legitimate feminist demands and resist thousands of much-needed feminist advances (which are still ongoing).

Now, on this matter of objectification. I've never understood it. I've tried to get people to explain it to me before, but they were (apparently) not well-trained in rationality. I'm hoping a rationalist can explain it to me.

Here's my confusion about objectification. Depending on what you mean by "objectification," it seems to be either something that (1) is very often perfectly acceptable, or that (2) means something very narrow and is usually not being exemplified when there is an accusation of it being exemplified.

Let me explain.

Earlier, when I tried to figure out what "objectification" was and why it was wrong, the leading article on the topic seemed to be one by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. She lays out the goal of her paper like this:

I shall argue that there are at least seven distinct ways of behaving introduced by the term, none of which implies any of the others, though there are many complex connections among them. Under some specifications, objectification… is always morally problematic. Under other specifications, objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending on the overall context… Some features of objectification… may in fact in some circumstances… be either necessary or even wonderful features of sexual life.

Using examples, she then outlines seven ways to treat a person as a thing. Rae Langton added three more in 2009, bringing the total count to 10 ways to treat a person as a thing:

  1. Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility. The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability. The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership. The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity. The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
  8. Reduction to body: treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts.
  9. Reduction to appearance: treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look.
  10. Silencing: the treatment of a person as if they lack the capacity to speak.

Consider a classic example of objectification from Playboy magazine: a photo of a female tennis player bending over, revealing her butt, above the caption "Why We Love Tennis."

The Playboy image exhibits at least eight features of objectification: instrumentalization, denial of autonomy, fungibility, denial of subjectivity, reduction to body, reduction to appearance, and silencing!

But, let's consider another example of objectification, what I'll call the Muddy People photo:

To us, these people are nothing but objects of our entertainment and pleasure. We have instrumentalized them. Moreover, they are fungible. It does not matter to us which people are covered in mud and looking silly. And just as with the Playboy example, this photo involves a denial of autonomy. Indeed, it is doubtful the permission to publish their photos was obtained. Moreover, we are not much interested in the feelings of these people but only their role in entertaining us as we gaze upon their mud-caked bodies – a denial of subjectivity. Often, nothing of these mud-covered people can be seen or known except their bodies – in many cases, only body parts, sticking every which way. This is the reduction to body. There is also clearly a reduction to appearance. Their mud-covered appearance is their only interest to us. In many cases, the emotions they might be having are totally obscured by the mud covering their faces. They are also, of course, silent to us.

So all the features of objectification found in the Playboy example, which we might feel is wrong somehow, are also shared by the Muddy People photo, which we probably feel is acceptable. Perhaps this suggests that our feelings are poor guides to moral truth. Or maybe what is wrong with the Playboy photo is something other than objectification.

Of course, there are disanalogies to be found. The Playboy example (especially with the caption) involved sexuality, and the Muddy People photo does not particularly do so. But if this is the line of thought that leads us to condemn Playboy but not the Muddy People photo, then we are bringing in another concept besides objectification.

For example, perhaps we want to say that Playboy‘s objectifications harm women by contributing to a culture of sexual prejudice, but the Muddy People objectifications do not cause any such harm. But then we are not appealing to this Kantian notion of "objectification." Rather, we are appealing to utilitarian principles. (Feminist philosopher Lina Papadaki makes similar objections to the notion of objectification.)

We all use each other as means to an end, or as objects of one kind or another, all the time. And we can do so while respecting their autonomy. I enjoy looking at the shapes and textures in the Muddy People photo while also respecting that the people whose bodies make up those shapes and textures are autonomous individuals of great value. But their value as individuals is not the point of the photo. The point of the photo, in this case, is that it's an interesting picture to look at. And that's okay, I think.

Good romantic partners use each other as a means to their own gratification while also respecting each others' autonomy. We use each other as sex objects, as emotion objects, as conversation objects, as knowledge objects, as carpool objects, and as other objects, all the time - while also respecting each others' autonomy and value. It's not clear to me what's wrong with that.

So if something like Nussbaum's analysis of "objectification" is what is meant by the term, then I don't see what's wrong with it. But if it means something much more narrow (what? I don't know), then I doubt it is exemplified nearly as often as people are accused of exemplifying it.

I reject Kant's epistemology, logic, and metaphysics - as I think any scientifically-informed person should. But even if you do accept all three, I still don't see what's intrinsically wrong with objectification as Nussbaum defines it.

Maybe I'm being dense. That has happened before. I'm not posting this with much confidence that objectification is a mostly useless concept. I'm posting this in pursuit of some consciousness-raising.

Understanding the problem is the first step toward fixing it. And right now I don't understand the problem. So if you have the time, please teach me.



Update: below, I'll keep an updated list of the most useful articles I've found so far.