The Myths We Tell Ourselves: Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges

In invalidating same-sex marriage bans nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protected marriage as a fundamental liberty, regardless of the sex of the spouses.  Specifically, it noted that

The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State….

….The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.

To this, Justice Clarence Thomas offered a dissent (in which he was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia), taking on the definition of liberty:

Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits….[and the petitioners] have in no way been deprived [of liberty]. They have been able to travel freely around the country, making their homes where they please. Far from being incarcerated or physically restrained, petitioners have been left alone to order their lives as they see fit.

This in itself is troubling enough.  And rather typical of the right-leaning, libertarian-esque, social conservatives who tend to give the most ungrounded and facile readings of “liberty”  —  unless the flavor of said liberty is taxation or other kinds of property control.

But then things take an interesting, and, I would suggest, more worrying turn:  Not only have the petitioners not been deprived of their liberty, Justice Thomas argues, but their human dignity itself is also not subject to governmental influence or control (and, indeed, “has long been understood in this country to be innate”).  Here are Thomas’ thoughts:

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

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John Oliver on Transgender Rights

He’s rejected the claim to being the conscience of America (because, really, who would accept that burden?); nevertheless, I’d say that he’s doing quite a passable job in this capacity and–perhaps most impressively–all the while remaining completely hilarious and all-around entertaining.

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In Celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage

The Paris Gay Pride parade was held on Saturday, June 27, and its route went right in front of my apartment on the Boulevard Saint Michel. Please enjoy these photos in celebration of the narrow victory for sexual justice in Obergefell v. Hodges on Friday, June 26. I’m not the greatest photographer, but I can assure you that a good time was had by all.

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What Re-Makes a Woman?

This guest post by Jamie Lindemann Nelson (Michigan State) originally appeared at Impact Ethics.

Elinor Burkett’s June 7th New York Times editorial, “What Makes a Woman?” has generated a good share of attention—not surprising, perhaps, given how hot transgender is just now and how perennially prominent the Times is as a publication venue. I think, though, the treatment as well as the topic accounts for a good bit of the buzz.

Burkett’s opening move is rhetorically striking. She notes how then-Harvard President Lawrence Sumner was pilloried for suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences may have something to do with how their brains work, and contrasts that with the sympathetic reception Caitlyn Jenner got for her neuroanatomical take on her own gender identity. With this contrast, Burkett succeeds in issuing an almost irresistible invitation to puzzle out analogies and disanalogies, and a powerful prompt to read on.

Reading on as prompted, what struck me hardest was the internal tension in Burkett’s essay. On the one hand, Burkett rejects neurologically based essentialism about gender—any nontrivial differences as there may be between how the brains of male and female human beings are structured don’t explain differences in how people subjectively and socially experience themselves as gendered. The explanation goes in the other direction—the subjective and the neuroanatomical are structured by the social. On the other hand, despite the prominent place she assigns to socially structured experiences as providing the distinctive content of gender identity, she seemingly clings as hard to physical essentialism as the most enthusiastic proponent of gendered brains—only for Burkett, it’s genitals, not neurons, that do the work. She’s decidedly affronted by transpeople who question the centrality of her vagina to her sense of who she is as a woman.  Continue reading

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Critical Reflections on “Huntgate”

The Nobel prize-winning Cambridge biochemist Tim Hunt caused uproar this week, with some comments — which he later said were intended self-deprecatingly and humorously — to an audience of scientists, many of them women, on the topic of women in laboratories. The full content of his comments, and his apology, can be found here.

As a result, he brought down a shitload of opprobrium on himself. He has since been required to resign from his honorary (that is, unpaid) position at University College London and, it appears, from a number of other committees too.

There are a number of things I’d like to say about this: for want of time (the northern hemisphere academics amongst us know that this is marking and exam board season), I’m not going to discuss them in detail, but just put them out there. I’ll be interested in any thoughts and responses.

  1. Tim Hunts’s comments, if they were intended to be funny, were undoubtedly really, really poorly judged. His later apology (which sounded a bit like “Damn, I shouldn’t have said it in front of journalists”) was not much better.
  1. I had very distant contact with him as a PhD student. He struck me then as socially awkward and of a very different generation, but no more so than many of the other guy scientists around (my own supervisor was an exception).
  1. I’m no longer a working scientist myself (though as we say, you can take the girl out of the control group…), but several women scientists whose views I respect have noted that Hunt’s words don’t reflect his actual behaviour over the years, which has been to encourage women scientists informally, as a mentor, and on formal committees.
  1. As Athene Donald noted in her blog, this kind of easy target sexism might be just that: an easy target that distracts us from harder ones.

At the end of the week of Huntgate, I found myself writing the following to the Times Higher Educational Supplement, the UK’s foremost academic trade mag:

If a Nobel Prize-winning scientist can be brought down by his poorly judged remarks about women working in the laboratory, why does the Higher Education Academy think it can get away with a recruitment advertisement.[*] in which every one of the 13 academics and students depicted (with the possible exception of an unidentifiable right arm) is male? At least Tim Hunt acknowledged that there *are* women in science.


[*] Published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement.


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Who is your doctor?
The value of primary care in reducing health costs and unnecessary medical interventions

I had the pleasure of seeing Atul Gawande speak at the National Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa) a few weeks ago. He noted that in America, many people do not know who their doctor is. This made me chuckle. It reminded me of the many differences between the way health services are set up in American and New Zealand. I got pregnant with my first child in 2008, when I was at Yale as a visiting scholar. I had half my maternity care in America and half in New Zealand. The difference was striking. Yale was flash, high-tech, and at each appointment I had lots of tests and exams. My weight for example was diligently tracked. I was told gently that I had gaining far too much weight in the first trimester, and if I continued in this manner I would be at higher risk of complications in the third trimester.

I did a double-take when I first saw my mid-wife’s office in New Zealand. It had a small desk, two old office chairs, a bed, and a machine for measuring blood pressure – that was it. It was so simple, run down even, and I don’t think my weight was ever recorded, for that or any of my subsequent pregnancies. (For the record, I never had any pregnancy complications, weight-related or otherwise.) What I did have was my mid-wife’s direct cell phone number and permission to call her anytime. In New Zealand I have always known who my doctor is. Growing up I had one doctor until I was 21 years old (I still see her occasionally when my GP is not available). Since moving back in 2008, my husband and I, and now our three children, all have one doctor (who we seem to see weekly!).

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Les mots

I was recently giving a paper on Franco-Anglo Feminisms in Canada at panel on Canadian Feminisms at the Hypatia/CSW conference, Exploring Collaborative Contestations and Diversifying Philosophy, at Villanova. A subject that seems little discussed outside Québec and Franco-Canada is the place and the impact of francophone writings. As it sometimes happens, the planets lined up nicely, and the week of my presentation an article appeared in the New Yorker on the impact, or lack of, French Canadian literature. Is this also the case for feminist theories? As a Franco-Ontarian born, but Québec-raised feminist philosopher, who attends feminist conferences mostly in English, I have wondered about the lack of attention to Québec-Franco writings. If English is becoming universal, it has the potential to serve as a common language. This comes at cost, and I worry, especially now that I teach in both languages, that we are losing the richness of minority languages; and French is a minority language in North America. The situation of francophones in North America is complex: we stand as past (and present) colonizers but also as colonized and under threat of extinction. It makes for difficult politics and the role of languages in preserving identity is lived very intensely by Canadian and Québécois French speakers. I believe in cross-linguistic enrichment and my goal here is to plead for increased translation. Of course there is a danger: to translate could have as a consequence less engagement with the original language. For a careful treatment of the perils of translation see Elissa Marder’s article ‘Force and Translation; Or, The Polymorphous Body of Language,’ PhiloSOPHIA, Vol. 3(1), 2013. However, I hope translation will create a curiosity and encourage students to seek the original.

When I teach, I always endeavor to expose students to writings of authors from different traditions. This has meant, for example, that my students in my Éthiques féministes class got to read, in French, articles by Eva Kittay, Annette Baier, Marilyn Friedman as well as Susan Moller Okin. For this I am most grateful to the work of Sandra Laugier, Patricia Paperman, and Pascale Molinière, who got behind the translation of Joan Tronto’s work, which in turn created interest for Anglo-American feminist writings. However, I am at a loss when I teach Feminist Ethics to introduce my students to the writings of Diane Lamoureux, for example. It is not only that writers from different cultures or languages bring a different perspective; it is also that they have a different philosophical background that they draw upon. Continue reading

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The Effects of Poverty on Children’s Brain Development

A recent article by Madeline Ostrander in the New Yorker describes research that examines “what poverty does to the young brain.” One major focus of her article is a recent study that found a link between socioeconomic factors and brain structure in a group of individuals between 3 and 20 years old. Specifically, the study found that in children from low income families, small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in brain surface area (particularly in areas supporting higher cognitive skills). In children from higher income families, the link between small income differences and brain surface size were weaker, suggesting that, as Ostrander puts it, “wealth can’t necessarily buy a better brain, but deprivation can result in a weakened one.”

Crucially, the study also had participants complete a variety of cognitive tasks; these were also correlated with cortical surface area, and therefore with the socioeconomic factors (though the study did not look directly at brain function during the performance of these tasks). In interpreting their results, the study authors point out that their results are correlation, so “it is unclear what is driving the links between SES and brain structure. Such associations could stem from ongoing disparities in postnatal experience or exposures, such as family stress, cognitive stimulation, environmental toxins or nutrition, or from corresponding differences in the prenatal environment” (Nobel et al., p. 777).

The authors also note that, regardless of the cause of these differences, policies that target low-income families may be the most effective way to affect both brain and cognitive development. It would be nice if this research spurred policy changes aimed at reducing childhood poverty (though it would be nicer if we didn’t need evidence suggesting that poverty affects the brain to motivate us). Ostrander’s article says that the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has been working with policymakers to develop ways to intervene in the cycle by which “poverty perpetuates poverty, generation after generation, by acting on the brain” – these include prenatal and pediatric care, as well as improved access to preschool education.

A particularly nice aspect of Ostrander’s article is that she emphasizes that these are problems that must be handled at a social, rather than an individual level: “The story that science is now telling rearranges the morality of parenting and poverty, making it harder to blame problem children on problem parents. Building a healthy brain, it seems, is an act of barn raising.” Similarly, Nobel and her colleagues stress the importance of policies that aim to reduce family poverty, and describe the ultimate goal of studies like theirs as identifying more precise targets for intervention, “with the ultimate goal of reducing socioeconomic disparities in development and achievement.” This emphasis on the social is in contrast with a tendency in media discussions of epigenetic research (which also addresses the possible effects of stress during pregnancy) to “blame the mothers.”

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A Copernican Revolution in Nutrition?

Recently, Truthout published an article by Jeff Ritterman, M.D., about the impact of misdirected nutritional advice on our nation’s health. According to Ritterman, U.S. dietary guidelines formulated in the late 70’s that directed Americans to limit intake of fats, and especially saturated fats, set the stage for our current epidemic of type-two diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease and hypertension. To compensate for the lack of flavor in low-fat foods, manufacturers increased their sugar content. Ritterman, a cardiologist, points to new evidence that liver fat produced from this excess sugar in our diets results in insulin resistance, the root cause of diabetes, and the production and circulation of healthy fats in our blood, the root cause of heart attacks and strokes.

Ritterman describes this shift as a Copernican revolution in nutrition: rather than revolving around fats, our conception of the nutritional causes of these conditions should focus on the role of excess sugar consumption. This applies not only to our individual dietary choices (Ritterman makes a few recommendations), but also to our public health policies. He highlights the national soda tax in Mexico as an example to follow of how to reduce public sugar consumption (in February of this year, the Federal Dietary Guidelines Committee recommended that we implement such a tax in the U.S. as well).

One problem with Ritterman’s Copernican revolution is that it fails to take into account the historical changes in food production that have fundamentally altered how our fats, and especially animal fats, are produced. Feedlot animals fed with corn do not give the human body the kind of fats as animals who feed on grass. Similarly, oils processed at high temperatures do not have the same effect on the body as cold or expeller pressed oils. We ought also to think about storage and cooking, when we consider the nutritional inputs of various food stuffs.

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“How To Be A Good Patient”

Be good because if you’re not, you’ll find yourself labeled hysterical, depressed, bored, lonely, a drug-seeker, attention-seeker, perfectly healthy with a low threshold for discomfort. Bad behavior includes crying when talking about the time you pooped your pants in Trader Joe’s or expressing anything other than gratitude when you have to wait three months to see the magic specialist who might know what’s wrong.


When people ask what’s wrong with you, be cheeky. “I have Dead-On-The-Prairie Syndrome” or “I’ve got the vapors” or “My humours are out of balance.”

From Natalie Dougall at The Toast. Read on.

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Caitlyn Jenner: Transitioning in the Limelight

It’s been an exciting couple of years in the world of LGBT rights and visibility. Gays and lesbians especially have seen radical changes in the ways that their/our lives are legislated and represented. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is gone. Part one of DOMA is gone. The Supreme Court will rule on part two of DOMA in a matter of weeks. Numerous television shows include prominent gay and lesbian characters, and greater awareness of bullying, the “It Gets Better” project, and the public coming out of celebrities, from actress Jodie Foster to football player Michael Sam, have put gays and lesbians in the public eye and conversation.

Transgender persons and transgender rights have received less notice—though it seems that is also changing. Last year, transgender actress Laverne Cox notably graced the cover of TIME magazine next to the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Just this past Monday, June 1, in an arguably much splashier popular media coming out, former Olympian and former male person Bruce Jenner debuted his new female self Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. The debut takes place just weeks after Jenner appeared on television in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, where he (still his preferred pronoun at that time) discussed being transgender and what it has meant for his life.

On a personal level, I am happy to see that Caitlyn can finally be who she has always wished to be. As a trans ally, I am also pleased that trans issues are getting more attention in the media and that trans persons are being publicly accepted and celebrated—even if not by all.

What worries me, as a critic of media culture, especially someone concerned with issues of intersectionality, is how issues of money, race, and class, and beauty and gender, are being ignored or overlooked.

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“Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate Interviews Judith Butler”

One choice quotation:

What is much more important than any of these behaviorist or “moral” approaches are all the stories, poems, and testimonies, the theoretical and political works, that document the struggle to achieve embodied self-determination for individuals and for groups. What we need are poems that interrogate the world of pronouns, open up possibilities of language and life; forms of politics that support and encourage self-affirmation. And what we need is a political and joyous alternative to the behaviorist discourse, the Christian discourse on evil or sin, and the convergence of the two in forms of gender policing that tyrannical and destructive.

Find the full interview along with a short video clip at The TransAdvocate. Butler clarifies her conception of “gender perfomativity” and addresses other issues and criticisms of her work.

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