Stephen Hicks offers this analysis (a few weeks back) of being wounded by racist talk. To be blunt, his argument strikes me as wildly off base. I’ve numbered each move in the argument for ease of reference.
(1) For someone’s opinion to hurt, you first have to value their opinion.
(2) Think of it this way: If you think someone is a moron, then you don’t value their opinion and their moronic views don’t hurt you. And racism is moronic. So why be hurt by a racist’s insults?
(3) If a baboon could talk and said you looked ugly, that would say more about the baboon than about your looks.
The entire argument turns on the truth of (1), but (1) strikes me as either misleadingly phrased or obviously false. In explaining why racist talk (or injustice generally) is wounding, the relevant issue is not the victim’s valuation of the beliefs of the perpetrator, but the expectations we all bring to human relations. As a basic background fact, when we deal with others, we expect them to show us a certain minimally decent degree of respect for our humanity. When they violate this expectation, they wound us, and we feel pain.
To explain: It’s painful for any expectation to be violated, whether the expectation is justified or not. The more minimal the expectation involved in the expectation, and the more egregious the violation, the greater the pain caused by violation of the expectation. If the expectation is justified, then the pain experienced will itself be justified; it will have been caused by a real wound. Putting this together: if I’m on the receiving end of an egregious violation of a relatively minimal but wholly justified moral expectation, I will justifiably feel pain at the violation of my expectation, because I will really have been wounded.
Given this, X’s racist talk, aimed at Y, can be expected to cause Y pain: it egregiously violates a relatively modest expectation of respect that X owes Y. And given the justifiability of Y’s expectations, it follows that Y’s pain is itself justified.
Now, X’s aiming the talk at Y is the paradigm case of injustice, but not the only one. If bystander Z overhears the exchange between X and Y, she too might feel pain at hearing it, not because it’s aimed at her (ex hypothesi, it isn’t), but because it so egregiously violates her expectations of how people should interact with each other that she becomes collateral damage of X’s injustice.
So Hicks’s argument not only doesn’t secure its conclusion, but is almost entirely beside the point. Claim (1) is beside the point partly because the claim is itself false, and partly because it focuses attention on the wrong issue (or, perhaps, focuses on the right issue in the wrong way). Claim (2) is beside the point because it presupposes (1), and because the rhetorical question posed at the end of it is not nearly as hard to answer as Hicks suggests it is (I’ve just answered it above). And claim (3) is irrelevant because we have moral expectations of persons, not of baboons. A thought-experiment based on what talking baboons would say is neither here nor there, unless we stipulate that the baboons are the moral equivalent of persons–in which case, making them baboons adds nothing of significance to the thought-experiment. (Baboons may strike us as ugly from a human perspective, but probably don’t strike one another as ugly from their own. And even if a demonstrably ugly baboon called you ugly, the hypocrisy involved would be irrelevant to the deeper injustice involved.)
I find Hicks’s argument frankly astonishing. The issue, after all, is broader than racist talk or even racism, but applies to injustice generally. Are we only emotionally wounded by injustice if we value the beliefs or character of the perpetrator? The claim seems preposterous–at least as preposterous as any claim one finds in the writings of those supposed avatars of absurdity, the post-Modernists. Think of how much injustice comes to us from strangers about whose beliefs and character we ex hypothesi have no beliefs. Are we not wounded by any of this?
Suppose that you go through life systematically being mistreated: wherever you go, people treat you with disrespect, and fail to give you what you deserve–through little or no fault of your own. Suppose, further, that these people are strangers at the time of the initial mistreatment, so that the issue of valuing their beliefs and character doesn’t apply (only becoming negative after the initial mistreatment).
Hicks’s view implies that you the victim should in no sense be wounded by this string of events. Here, I think, we confront an ambiguity in the word “wounded.” It’s probably true that you shouldn’t be wounded by injustice in the sense of letting others’ mistreatment of you adversely affect your self-estimate, self-respect, or self-esteem, but surely there are ways of being wounded by someone’s behavior that leave your self-estimate and the like intact but still cause pain.
What kind of pain? It seems to me that systematic mistreatment might, depending on circumstances, produce a sense of disappointment, resentment, anger, grief, righteous indignation, and even rage in its victims. It also seems plausible to think that every one of these emotions is, in its proper time and place, appropriate to the victims’ circumstances. (Stoics may disagree, but I disagree with Stoicism.) To belabor the obvious, each of the preceding emotions is painful to experience. What’s painful to experience is experienced as a wound because there’s a sense in which it is one: one feels pain because one has been wounded. To belabor the obvious once again: injustice wounds the victim, even when it involves no physical violence or force. Emotional wounds are, under appropriate circumstances, both real and justifiably felt.
Consider an example from a somewhat different sphere of life. A female friend of mine told me the following story from her childhood: When she was maybe eight or nine, her school celebrated Valentine’s Day by having the children in her class exchange “secret surprises,” i.e., gifts exchanged where the recipient would not know the identity of the giver. When it became my friend’s turn to open her gift, she did so with eager, breathless excitement, only to discover that someone had, as a terribly ill-conceived joke, given her dog biscuits–the implication being that she was as ugly as a dog. She burst into tears, and wouldn’t stop crying. Eventually, her mother had to be called to take her home.
The point is not simply that she burst out in tears at the age of eight or nine, but that she felt pain at the incident when she told me about it decades later, as I did on her behalf. Nor is the relevant issue whether she agreed (however subconsciously) with the pranksters’ estimate of her looks, whether at age nine or decades later. She didn’t. Nor would it be helpful to tell her to regard the pranksters, counterfactually, as gift-giving baboons. They weren’t. The issue is that when one expects better of other moral agents, it is painful to receive much less from them than one had expected (to put it mildly), especially when what one expected was not so difficult to give. And when one deserves better, the pain one feels at receiving much less is a moralized form of rationally justified resentment–not “Nietzschean ressentiment,” as is often off-handedly asserted, but the righteous indignation that makes for survival, resistance, and the will to fight injustice in a hostile world.
Hicks’s view has no way of explaining the preceding, childish case of garden-variety injustice. At best, his view entails that my friend should have treated the pranksters as baboons, and dismissed the whole matter as a mere irrelevance, to be forgotten as soon as it happened. But they weren’t baboons. They were people, and when people commit injustice, it’s entirely natural and justifiable to feel pain at the sight or thought of it. Nor is moral amnesia in the face of injustice the self-evidently obvious course of action that Hicks takes it to be. Only those who remember injustice when they experience it, and make it real, fully grasp its nature over time, and retain a commitment to fight it in a counterfactually stable way, across decades, against the vicissitudes of fortune. To miss these facts is to operate with a moral psychology and phenomenology too impoverished to be rolled out into the real world. My own advice to Hicks and the entire anti-cancel-culture industry he’s spearheaded would be to stop the roll out, and re-think the nature of justice and injustice from scratch.