Mari Mikkola identifies three primary forms of social injustice—oppression, domination, and discrimination—and asks what makes them wrong. She argues that feminist philosophy has thus far focused heavily on gender as a lens or anchor through which to understand and respond to injustice. In Mikkola’s view, this orientation around gender (and what she terms “the gender controversy”) is limiting feminist philosophers’ theoretical engagement with the roots of injustice. To remedy this problem, she builds a case for moving toward a more broadly humanist conception of injustice. The humanist feminism that she puts forth centers dehumanization as a way to theorize injustice; dehumanization, for Mikkola, is the very foundation of injustice.
Following an introductory chapter that frames Mikkola’s approach and argument, the book is divided into two parts. The first part of the book is dedicated to articulating Mikkola’s argument for moving beyond the “gender controversy” in feminist philosophy. She explains that the perspectives debated in the gender controversy produce two kinds of puzzles: one semantic, the other ontological. The semantic puzzle asks: “Given that ordinary language users tend not to distinguish sex and gender (treating ‘woman’ largely as a sex term, or a mixture of social and biological features), what precisely are feminists talking about when they talk about ‘women’? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions that the concept woman encodes, if any such conditions exist to begin with?” (28). The ontological puzzle, by contrast, is concerned with: “How should we understand the category of women that is meant to undergird feminist political solidarity, if there are no necessary and sufficient conceptual conditions underlying our gender talk? Do women make up a genuine kind? […] What kinds of entities are gender and sex anyway?” (28).
Chapter 2 reviews aspects of how gender has been and is currently debated by feminist scholars. Mikkola articulates foundational feminist theorizations of the sex/gender distinction, the problem of biological determinism in thinking about sex and gender, and the social construction of gender. Core to this chapter’s exploration of the sex/gender debate is the problem that defining sex and/or gender relies on women sharing some common features that identify them as women and define their objectification as women. This poses a problem because not all women are equitably incorporated into this category; other vectors of perceived difference (like race, ethnicity, class) shape how women experience and define what it means to be “woman.” Thus, she reviews how a thicker and more inclusive definition of womanhood has been advocated through an intersectional approach to feminist politics and theory.
In chapters 3 and 4, Mikkola details nominalist and realist responses to what she terms the semantic and ontological puzzles of the gender controversy. Chapter 3 explains the gender nominalist position that “denies that there is some normatively and ethically significant feature that women qua women share; still, it holds that there is something that unifies women’s social kind, which is normatively significant” (46). In Mikkola’s view, nominalism lacks enough boundaries of what defines woman to effectively enact a feminist politics, while still maintaining woman as a category that likely will, in fact, slip into defining particular features of womanhood. Gender realism is explained in chapter 4 as perspectives that “hold that there is something women as women share, and this ‘something’ unifies their social kind” (71). The problems Mikkola identifies in both the gender realist and nominalist perspectives are that ideas about gender are far from unified (i.e., a single conception of what it means to be woman is impossible to achieve), they tend to be exclusionary (i.e., including only certain people in the category of womanhood), and there is limited potential for political transformation in these formulations.
Chapter 5 argues that semantic and ontological issues in understanding gender “are not as pressing as feminists make them out to be;” indeed, Mikkola writes: “I contend that we need not know ‘what it is to be a woman’ or to define woman in order to identify and explain gendered social inequalities or in order to say why patriarchy damages women” (105). Semantically, she argues that the way ordinary language users deploy the term woman is sufficient for identifying ‘women’s type’ (110). Ontologically, Mikkola suggests abandoning the sex/gender distinction to interrogate the foundational ontology on which this distinction rests. She advocates instead for an approach that frames the conversation through attention to “descriptive traits (traits of which there are ‘facts of the matter’) and evaluative norms (normative reactions to descriptive traits)” (117).
In moving beyond a preoccupation with the category woman and the gender controversy, it is not that Mikkola believes that women or gendered forms of discrimination, oppression, and domination are no longer important sites of social justice politics and theory; rather, she argues that sexism and gendered forms of injustice can be more effectively ameliorated not through an interrogation of the concept woman, but through the lens of dehumanization (what she argues is a more inclusive, humanist perspective). Thus, the second part of the book envisions what humanist feminism, organized around the concept of dehumanization, can do for feminist philosophy dedicated to a liberatory politics of responding to social injustice.
In chapter 6, Mikkola defines dehumanization in the following terms: “an act or a treatment is dehumanizing if and only if it is an indefensible setback to some of our legitimate human interests, where this setback constitutes a moral injury” (145). She then explores the case study of rape and how other philosophers have understood it to argue that rape is a dehumanizing act. She makes this argument based on the fact that rape violates fundamental interests for the well-being of human beings, and she lays out what, for her, are universal human interests, extending from the biological definition of human beings. In short, this chapter is about what makes certain injustices wrongful.
Chapter 7 explains three different forms of injustice—discrimination, domination, and oppression—and what constitutes each. Discrimination is about unjust “differential treatment” (192), domination is about unjust (and for Mikkola, dehumanizing) exercise of power over others (199), and oppression is a more complex process that, at its core, “has to do with unjust constraints” (204). Whereas chapter 7 focuses on the different forms injustice takes, chapter 8 explores the contours of social injustice. Mikkola identifies how injustice functions at the individual (attitudes and beliefs) and the institutional (social structures) levels (224). These contours of injustice involve understanding the effects of racism, sexism, trans*phobia, etc. and how they operate through the individual and structural levels.
In the final chapter, Mikkola points out that it would seem that logical responses to the three forms of injustice that she has identified would involve freedom, human flourishing, and equality. She articulates why freedom and human flourishing are not sufficient to uphold her conception of social justice, arguing for a conception of overcoming dehumanization that responds to the distinct features of social injustice (discrimination, domination, and oppression). In proposing a path forward for a humanist feminist approach to social justice, she posits that: “Equality of opportunity is the condition at the heart of nondehumanization” (239). In so doing, she offers up a framework on which further theorizing on normative ideas of social justice might be based.
There are two areas of the book that I felt could be enriched. The first is in Mikkola’s conception of the human. Shifting the focus away from woman to the human, Mikkola argues, “will avoid the current theoretical pitfalls” of a focus on woman as a category (149). But the human is no less fraught a category than woman and, I would argue, perhaps an even more troubling and difficult term to define and contain. In order to sidestep this complexity, she argues that, rather than trying to understand what constitutes the human or humanity through an approach that identifies certain capabilities or qualities or social processes, the human should be defined in strictly biological terms. “Members of such a kind,” she writes, “are of the homo sapiens sapiens species (anatomically modern humans); they are typically ‘featherless bipeds’ with certain dispositional cognitive capacities (like language and reasoning skills), which develop given the appropriate environmental conditions” (147).
Dehumanization, though, is a socio-political process, and put into action in the context of the human defined as the biological homo sapiens, there is a disjuncture in what these offer together. Dehumanization does not routinely strip a body of its biological taxonomy, so what is lost in dehumanizing acts is much more complicated, much more social. Mikkola’s interest in reducing the definition of human to a biological kind does not attend to the socially and politically contested notions of the human. I was left wanting a much more robust discussion of the human (since this is the category on which both humanism and dehumanization rely), and this enrichment could come from an engagement with postcolonial and Black feminist theories of the human (such as those articulated by Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Alexander Weheliye, Hortense Spillers, or Katherine McKittrick). Coming out of these literatures are complex understandings of the human as a deeply contested category whose boundaries have been drawn and redrawn through not just gendered logics, but deeply racialized ones; and these contestations extend to the racialized histories of taxonomic ordering and the biological sciences. Thus, I found that Mikkola’s conception of the human as homo sapiens flattens these histories and the fraught ways in which the human is and has been defined.
The second area of the book that left me troubled was in its entrenched humanism that precludes any inclusion of other-than-human life. Mikkola, in fact, anticipates this critique and includes one footnote (168-169) that explains her exclusion of nonhuman life by saying that other-than-human life does not warrant inclusion in “our moral communities.” As a feminist scholar dedicated to researching human and animal relations and thinking about the consequences of dehumanization in a multispecies context, I found Mikkola’s call for a renewed humanism—and her stark definition of human as homo sapiens—to be limited in what it can offer broader notions of injustice or how injustice works in profound and deleterious ways beyond the bodily confines of homo sapiens. Dehumanization, as a framework, necessarily maintains hierarchical categories of being: the human, subhuman, and nonhuman. To dehumanize is to strip a body of the things that make it count as human; to make it other; to render it less-than-human, subhuman, nonhuman. And this act of dehumanization relies on the maintenance of these hierarchical orderings; in order to dehumanize, there must be a ‘less than’ or ‘sub’ category in which to drive humans who are the subjects of violent acts. Maneesha Deckha (2010) argues that, in fact, it is the subhuman and the maintenance of these categories that enables violence and Othering to occur against certain lives; for her (and for me), it is imperative to challenge these very hierarchies. Thus, while I am interested in the interrogation and use of dehumanization as a frame for understanding and responding to injustice, I worry over what (or who) it entrenches, reaffirms, and excludes.
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Deckha, Maneesha. 2010. “The Subhuman as a Cultural Agent of Violence.” The Journal for Critical Animal Studies 8 (3): 28-51.