About Me

My photo
Brutal Antipathy is a pseudonym for a blogger and forum debate enthusiast whose views often rest well outside of social baseline. A self confirmed atheist, misanthropist, and sadist, his commentary ranges from parched textbook facts to satire and sarcasm. He is a proponent of free speech and individual liberty even when these are taken to excess. His political views shift between lower case libertarian and enlightened despotism depending on the level of contempt he is feeling for his fellow humans at any given moment. His reading interests include history, general science, archaeology, comparative religion, psychology, & sociology. Other interests and hobbies include practicing various crafts, torturing his slave, blogging, playing with his dogs, collecting antiques, role playing & tactical simulation games, renaissance fairs, and cheerfully making other people miserable by holding up a mirror of their shortcomings and repeatedly bashing them in the face with it. L is the owned slave of BA. She basically has the same interests and views as her owner except in music.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Objection To Objectification Theory

Originally posted on my blog SkepTex on 11/20/12

Objectification theory, hitherto referred to as OT, is another linchpin of feminist theory.  Like Patriarchy theory, it is poorly defined by way of its supposed effect, thought the effect is assumed to be a social construct and undesirable.  The most comprehensive explanation of OT I have found is the article Feminist Perspectives of Objectification from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  That author wishes it be known that the link above is an archived fixed edition, and that a Winter 2012  archived edition is scheduled to be available on December 21.  I will explore the most current available edition for the purposes of this paper.

The rough definition of OT is that Objectification is seeing or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object.  There are 10 features of objectification, and it is unclear if more than one feature is needed to demonstrate an example of objectification. It is implied weakly in the article that only 1 of the features need be present, but this application renders the theory  hopelessly vague, easily subject to interpretation and opinion.  If  OT proponents wish to use a single feature to proclaim objectification of an individual, it would be fair to state that their argument falls short of conjecture and enters the realm of ideological opinion.  I would also like to posit that the features which I will list may have explanations other than objectification.

Features of Objectification:

1. instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purpose.

We do not under normal circumstances use another person as a hammer or wrench.  At times we do utilize other individuals as levers or lifting devices, though in those contexts we remain aware of their humanity and individuality.   There is no indication that we actually consider the person to be such a tool.  There is no demonstration of cognitive steps being taken to reduce a friend helping to move furniture to the status of a tool.

2. denial of autonomy:  the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

Where and when do we treat people as lacking in autonomy and self-determination?  Criminals and the severely mentally ill are good examples of this.  We do not do this in order to reduce the person to the state of an object, but rather to protect them or others.  These people may be treated as lacking autonomy and self-determination, but for very good reason.  There is nothing to indicate then that denial of autonomy is linked to objectification. 

3. inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

The second half of the definition seems redundant, as it seems to refer to agency as it is used in philosophy and sociology.  By merging those two meanings, it appears that here agency reflects the ability to take action and make choices.  A rock is inert, a human much less so.  Is it often that we shove an employee in a closet and forget about them after work?  Is it often that we have conversations with coffee cups?  If we decide that a relationship with a person is no longer in our best interest, do we toss that person into the garbage?  We do not treat people as inert objects for any length of time, nor do we rationalize that they are no longer human even when we do treat them briefly as objects.

4. fungibilitythe treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects.

If this proposal is to be believed, we must accept that human beings are routinely used as replacements for fuel injection systems in vehicles, microchips in computers, hammers in carpentry, and  bricks in masonry.  This is patently absurd.  As people, we often replace people with other people,and objects with other objects.  If an employee is fired on a construction site, the manager seeks to replace that vacated slot with another person instead of a cinder block.  If an I-beam is bent, the foreman will replace it with another object; another I-beam.  The foreman will not replace the I-beam with Sarah from accounting or Joe from the labor crew.  We do not treat people as interchangeable with other objects.

5.  violabilitythe treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity.

Boundary issues are a matter of personal comfort zones.  As individuals, we each have differing comfort zones.  Further, there are individuals such as those with Autism spectrum disorders that seem unable to grasp the concept of personal boundaries.  We cannot therefore use personal space as an indication of objectification.  

We may then try to reduce the term boundary to mean only physical contact in order to state that touching a person without or regardless of their consent is a form of objectification.  This has an emotional appeal as it applies directly to the crime of sexual assault.  But there are many instances of physical touch boundary invasion that no one would consider to be objectifying.  Grandmothers are notorious for forcing hugs and cheek pinches upon children.  Quite often those touches are performed without consent from the child, and even upon the child's protest.  Is the kindly and affectionate grandmother reducing the grandchild to the role of an object because she believes the child lacks boundaries?  If an acquaintance or co-worker pats you on the shoulder, it is rare that they request consent, and people with boundary issues will sometimes cringe or even state explicitly that they do not like to be touched.  Protest aside, these friendly, congratulatory, or comforting touches are gestures of empathy, compassion, and approval, and are seen by society in general as such.  In this, boundary issues are a matter of personal taste, are contextual, and are not an indication of objectification.

Integrity is an opinion which is based on observation of the actions of the person being evaluated.  When we judge someone to be lacking in integrity, we are not judging them to be a rock or inflatable doll.  We are judging them to  possess standards which the individual doing the judging find to be sub-par. 

6. ownershipthe treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold).

This concept roughly analogues that of slavery, and as such we can roughly compare the circumstances of slavery to objectification via ownership.  It is presumable that ownership can also be applied to some forms of prostitution, especially in the case of coerced prostitution.

Persons have been bought and sold, and this practice, while illegal, is still practiced today.  Livestock is also bought and sold on a regular and legal basis.  In neither of those two examples are the living creatures, humans or cattle, treated in the same manner in which bales of hay or television sets are treated.  Human's have at times justified slavery by claiming the enslaved to be of lesser or sub-human stock, but this has been used to justify the act of slavery, not to justify the slave's status as nothing more than a brick or piece of wood.  Their basic human needs of food, water, and shelter were acknowledged even though they were enslaved, trafficked  and sold.   This form of slavery is only one of many forms throughout history.  Other examples of slaves acknowledged basic human rights including right to own property even while the slave was able to be sold at the whim of the slave owner.  Human's as commodities are an example of an exertion of control over another person, it is not an example of treating or regarding the person as a non living, non thinking commodity.  

Likewise is the institution of coerced prostitution an example of exertion of control.  The pimp forces the person into a state of prostitution though application of coercion for financial gain.  Nowhere does it imply that the pimp assumes the prostitute to be an inanimate object.  Rather the opposite is observed as drugs are often a tool used to aid in coercion,  The pimp is exploiting the humanity of the prostitute in order to achieve his or her goal, not denying their humanity.  As contemptible as these actions may be, they do not provide evidence of objectification. 

7. denial of subjectivitythe treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Aside from sociopaths, human beings feel empathy for other human beings.  Most people extend this empathy to some degree toward non human animals as well.  Empathy does have limitations, and those limitations often include proximity and degree of acquaintance as well as the emotional status of the person to be emphasized with. A positive or even neutral emotional stance toward the subject will normally produce more empathy than will a negative emotional stance. We have empathy because we are able to project our own feelings into the target of our empathy's position.  We could not do this were we to feel that the person had no feelings, or if we felt their feelings did not matter.  It is also necessary to point out that our degree of empathy varies from individual to individual. and is not a matter of ethical or moral grounds.  We cannot then use such a wildly fluctuating variable to give credence to the idea that failure to acknowledge the feelings of another is a form of objectification.  We clearly do not know every variable of every individual, and are therefore unable to even remotely establish a standard range of empathy by which to assess this feature.

While feelings are subjective, it is also notable that empathy and lack thereof are also subjective.  Without knowing the full background of any individual instance of denial of subjectivity, we are unable to make any generalizations about what the denial of subjectivity might imply.  One may treat another as though their feelings are irrelevant because they are a sociopath, or because they are angry, or because the person does not occupy a position near enough to the other's emotional consideration, or because the person has committed a crime or transgression that the other finds to override their empathy.  There are far too many factors to proclaim that denial of subjectivity is indication of objectification.

8. reduction to bodythe treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts.

Aside from exclaimed observations made by usually younger people; comments such as "Look at the ass on that one!", this factor has little real world application.  Even when we take the above comment into consideration, we should examine the follow through.  Supposing the commentator proceeds to not make direct contact with the person commented on, the commentator has not reduced the individual to just a derriere.  The commentator has only failed to make an acquaintance with the observed person.  It cannot be assumed that the commentator only regards the observed as their noticeable feature.  The opposite is actually indicated in the instance the the commentator approaches the observed person and engages in conversation. One of the first things that will occur will be an exchange of names.  The commentator acknowledges the observed as a person even though it was a specific feature of the observed which first drew attention to them.  Sexual selection is an aspect of biology, and observation of body parts is an extension of sexual selection.  It is therefore more likely that when a person focuses on a physical feature of another person it  is a direct result of biological sexual selection.  This is not a reduction or objectification, it is a biological drive, and despite that drive it is still normal practice to move past that initial draw to learn more about the person.  It is unlikely that a person would even reduce another person to only a body part. 

9.  reduction to appearance the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the sense.

This is essentially the same factor as #8  above, and the argument is virtually identical.  Appearance is a major determining factor in sexual selection, and it overlaps into other social considerations as well.  The visual signals which would inform a sexually active individual of the desirability of a person also informs us of the persons utility in a given society.  Those same visual cues that aid in selecting a sexual partner make us suspect that the individual is not a good social potential.  

While this is an unfortunate and often erroneous assumption, it nevertheless makes perfect sense from a purely biological perspective.  The opposite sex perceives the individual as unfit for breeding due to physical cues, therefore we as animals assume that the individual will be less useful within the community due to those same characteristics.  It is circular reasoning, but it is a biological, not logical, form of reasoning.  This same form of reasoning has served our species well for hundreds of thousands of years as a general rule of thumb.  In this, it does not equate the individual to an object, it suggests that the individual might not be the best choice to include in the clan or tribe.  

This feature is becoming more difficult to accurately track as we become more adjusted to civilization.  Fifty thousand years ago the visual cues would rely entirely on physical features.  As our biology is becoming accustomed to other visual cues, we are more inclined to notice a pair of expensive shoes or sports car before turning our attention to physical details.  We are learning that success can be measured in ways other than spotless complexion or attractiveness.  Again, this is not objectification, but a survival strategy, as these cues help to inform the observer that the observed can provide for a mate and offspring.  That the person is judged based on perceived utility does not mean that the person is perceived as only a utility. 

10. silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

I am hard pressed to think of instances of this occurring.  I do not doubt that it does happen in some instances, but I can see no evidence of objectification from this.  There are after all people who are incapable of speaking, but we do not claim that they are objectified because biology, injury, or illness rendered them incapable of speech.  Why then would it be suggested that treating another as if they were silent was an indication of objectification?  If we are to accept this feature it must be demonstrated that mute's are indeed objectified. 

Further Considerations:

Before we go any further, I should make you aware of  deception on my part.  While I have argued against objectification, if we use the strictest definition, people are objects.  People are material beings, and in that sense objects.  A rock is also material, therefore an object.  The difference between a person and a rock would be defined (using object as a defining factor) as a person being an animate object while the rock is inanimate.  A comatose person may be immobile, but they are not inanimate.  Their heart is still beating, their lungs are still rising and falling; they remain animate.  We must then ask what is meant by objectification when all material things are objects.

In regard to my deception, I argued against inanimate versus animate objects, and I did this intentionally as it was within the framework which the theory is presented.  As I think you will see from the above features used to demonstrate objectification, the theory places objectification in the realm of inanimate objects.  This is a strange position, as the objective of feminist argument is to equate objectification to a highly specific form of sexual objectification.  Why then would women's studies use inanimate objectification features for a theorem which seeks to demonstrate an entirely different form of objectification?

As we are given features which argue for inanimate objectification over sexual objectification, we are then obliged to argue against the articles presented rather than the sexual objectification which is implied in feminist theory.  As it stands, OT points to purported instances of inanimate objectification, and use this to claim a demonstration of sexual objectification.  If the theory will be used to attempt to explain a certain phenomena  it  must reflect the outcome of that specific phenomena , not an unrelated phenomena.  If anyone should  find this to be unacceptable, it is the duty of those formulating the theory to formulate it in such a way that it reflects their arguments.  In a nutshell, the present formulation of OT would not be useful as a supporting theory of Patriarchy even if each of the 10 features were proven true, as they relate only to inanimate objectification, not sexual.

It is possible of course to argue against specific features of sexual objectification, and it is in fact easier to argue against that position than the one of inanimate objectification.  However, until sexual objectification is specifically included in OT, It is unnecessary to spend any effort arguing against a theorem that is yet to be formulated.  As Patriarchy theory is discounted in my previous entry, and as OT is used to demonstrate an example of patriarchy, it is the equivalent of using fairies to demonstrate the existence of unicorns.

It is also noteworthy that women's studies have devised tests on the predictive value of OT, and have seen results that were directly opposite of what OT predicts.  A Test of Objectification Theory in Adolescent Girls by Amy Slater and Marika Tiggemann was published in the journal Sex Roles, (Vol. 46, May 2002) that tested the OT prediction that adolescent ballerinas self objectify more often than non-ballerina adolescent girls because of increased concern over body image and appearance.  The results of their test were diametrically opposed to the prediction; the ballerinas were less inclined to self-objectify than were the non-dancing group.  If the researchers had any concern about the validity of OT in the face of contradictory experiment, they gave no indication.  Instead they arrived at the deduction that self objectification in adolescent girls was far more widespread than they had previously considered.  In other words, instead of following the scientific method and looking for errors in the theory, the researchers ignored the data and reinterpreted it to reinforce their belief in the theory.

This alone should be enough to discount OT, but to further demonstrate that OT is unnecessary, there are other explanations for what is often confused as objectification, specifically in the sense of sexual objectification which feminist theory seeks to demonstrate by way of an irrelevant theory of inanimate objectification.

More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification, a compilation of six studies made by researchers from Yale University, University of Maryland, Northeastern University, and Harvard Medical School offers evidence for something other than objectification going on.  They observe what they describe as a redistribution, a duality of mind, and this phenomenon surfaces regardless of the gender of the perceivers or the perceived.  This duality is not therefore a male on female outlook.  Interestingly enough, the more the person was perceived in relation to their body, the more the viewer saw them as emotional.  This is a far cry from dehumanization or viewing the person as an object.  It tells us that the more we think about another in terms of sexuality, the more we view them as people whose feelings and emotions matter.  To the best of my knowledge, women's studies departments are treating this study as though it doesn't exist, just as they are ignoring their own studies which bring OT into question.


OT is useless in describing social interactions in its current form.  Each factor is either irrelevant, easily contestable, or both.  Women's studies are doing an injustice to their department by demonstrating an inability to modify their theory when experiments produce data suggesting the falsity of the theory.  This dogmatic adherence to political ideology increases women's struggles for recognition and makes it difficult to take women's studies seriously.   Women's studies must bring the same level of integrity to the table that is seen in other fields if their work is to be of benefit to society.  With that integrity must come the humility of accepting that their theory might well be wrong.  To do any less is to not do research.  Rejection of conflicting data and refusal to address alternate theories only serves to provide ammunition for critics, and any benefits gained by such methods will be short lived at best.  Out of respect for the noble accomplishments of women and men in the fields of hard and soft sciences, women's studies owes it to themselves and the people who can benefit from them the same degree of professionalism found in other fields.

No comments:

Post a Comment