Clare Chambers interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Clare Chamberschews over the core philosophical issues of sex, culture and justice for liberal feminists, brooding on practices of physical modification, social construction's role in negotiating claims of universalism and tolerance, Foucault and the panopticon, Bourdieu and habitus, Mackinnon's critique of liberal feminism, taking violence against women seriously, Benhabib's discourse ethics, how not to be a relativist, of what kind of universality is worth defending and of the state of academic philosophy and feminism. This is a voice from a war zone. Listen up!

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Clare Chambers:I came to philosophy via politics, and discovered my love of political philosophy very early on. I took Government and Politics A Level largely because I loved political debate, and chose the political theory option within that. I soon realized, with the help of an inspiring teacher, that the ideas behind political debate motivated me more than the outcome: I wasn’t interested so much in whether or how a political party wins but in whether the winning party is right. I went on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, strengthening my love of philosophical argument in general but particularly the situated urgency of political philosophy. A year as a civil servant in the Cabinet Office convinced me that my calling is in the meaningful, concise precision of philosophical thought, something that is really only possible in any sustained way within academia.

3:AM: In Sex, Culture, and Justiceone of the big issues you’re confronting is how liberal feminists can negotiate the commitment to universal values on the one hand and sensitivity to different cultures on the other. Your book is full of vivid examples of the issues your philosophical work engages with. So perhaps it’s a good idea to start with you telling us about some of the examples that motivate your thinking in this area.

CC: Feminism has always seemed obviously right to me as a political movement. And it provides such rich pickings for philosophical analysis, for so much of our gendered behaviour is difficult to understand without such analysis. I’m particularly interested in practices of physical modification: the ways in which we feel that our natural bodies are somehow wrong, and the ways in which we can be motivated to modify or alter (in many cases I would say damage or injure) those bodies despite the physical, mental and financial costs of doing so. It’s familiar for Western liberals to critically assess the body modification practices of “other” cultures: practices like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are fairly widely dismissed as abhorrent by most contemporary liberals, even those sympathetic to multiculturalism. I offer an assessment of this practice in Sex, Culture, and Justice. But I’m also interested in practices of body modification in Western cultures, practices which Western liberals don’t tend to submit to scrutiny. So I trace the genealogy of routine secular male circumcision, and argue that while the practice is less physically extreme than FGM it has shared many of the same justifications over its recent history and can usefully be understood in the same light. Another example that recurs throughout the book is that of female appearance or “beauty” norms, something that feminists have long analysed and criticized. But in recent years cosmetic surgery has become a huge growth industry, one in which the vast majority of patients are women. I want to offer a philosophical explanation of how it is that women and men can choose to submit to practices that are harmful to them, without relying on concepts such as irrationality or false consciousness.

3:AM:A key idea that you draw on and develop to negotiate claims of universalism and tolerance of difference is the idea of social construction. Can you say a little about you mean by this before discussing how it helps the liberal feminist?

CC:The idea of social construction helps us to understand why people choose to harm themselves without relying on claims about irrationality or false consciousness. Social construction is the process by which social norms and social influence shapes our behaviour. I understand social consciousness as occurring in two main ways. First, social norms shape our options. The structure and norms of the particular society in which an individual lives affect both which options are available to her (you can’t be an opera singer in a society that doesn’t have opera) and which options are appropriate for her (in the UK the vast majority of childcare workers are female and the vast majority of plumbers are male). Second, social norms shape our preferences. Most people want to conform to the everyday norms that apply in their societies. In most Western cultures, for example, there is a strong social norm that men should wear trousers and not skirts or dresses. While some men experience this norm as the constraint that it truly is, most do not. Most men do not even consider wearing a dress in the morning, and if you asked them “would you like to wear a dress today?” most will answer, truthfully, “no”. But of course this preference to wear trousers and not dresses is not innate, or rational in some objective meaning of the word, just as women’s willingness to wear dresses is neither innate nor irrational. The gendered preference makes sense only in the context of a society that emphasizes, even insists on, it.

This idea of social construction helps the liberal feminist because it enables her to maintain a critical, feminist line on the inequalities of gendered behaviour without dismissing women and men who follow gendered norms as irrational. That is to say, it enables us to see why women’s and men’s choices may not be in their interests, and why the fact that an individual has chosen to follow some practice does not in itself mean that the practice is just. After all, if our choices are strongly shaped by our social context, we cannot use the fact of choice to legitimate that social context or its parts.

3:AM:Foucault is one of the key players for you isn’t he in developing this notion? What is important about Foucault’s approach?

CC:Foucault is one of the key theorists of social construction. In particular his idea of society as being like a Panopticon has been extremely useful to feminist analysis. The Panopticon is a prison, designed by Jeremy Bentham, which is designed in such as way that the prisoners can never be sure when they are being watched by the prison guards. The result is that the prisoners become self-policing. They become habitual rule-followers: at first out of active fear of being watched, but after a while merely as a result of habit and unconscious compliance. Foucault argues that society is like the Panopticon, in that we comply with social norms for the most part without those norms having to be actively or coercively enforced. Foucault doesn’t apply his analysis to gender in any great detail but many feminists have, particular Sandra Lee Bartky, who memorably writes: “a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other."

3:AM:Pierre Bourdieu is another key figure in your analysis. What does he bring to the party?

CC:Much of Bourdieu’s analysis echoes Foucault, in that it also emphasizes the significance of social construction and the way that social norms imprint themselves on the body. Bourdieu uses the concept of the habitus to explain how it is that our very physical existence is conditioned by habitual adherence to the rules and expectations of our social context. Unlike Foucault, though, Bourdieu offers a sustained analysis of gender, in an account that owes a lot to radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, and he uses terms like “symbolic violence” that invite normative critique of the process of social construction. Bourdieualso explicitly theorises the possibility of change, predominantly through the disjunction between habitus and social context (“field”, in his terms) that can occur as the result of social mobility. Nonetheless, there are crucial elements missing from his account, such as the recognition of the transformative potential of consciousness-raising and a deep engagement with normative analysis.

3:AM:Catharine MacKinnoncalls out liberalism on its inability to notice the humanity of women in the first place. You’re sympathetic to this challenge aren’t you – how do you see this problem? Why has liberal theory been so slow on this issue? I think you see the liberal’s fundamental relationship with ‘choice’ as being at the heart of the problem don’t you?

CC:An uncontroversial way to define liberalism is as a commitment to the twin values of equality and liberty. As such most liberals will happily endorse gender equality and decry all forms of discrimination against women. From that perspective, feminism does not challenge liberalism conceptually, it merely highlights important areas in which the liberal commitment to equality has not yet been realized in practice. MacKinnon is skeptical. As she puts it, we should ask “why liberalism as a whole, long ruling ideology, needed feminism to notice the humanity of women in the first place, and why it has yet to face either the facts or the implications of women’s material inequality as a group, has not controlled male violence societywide, and has not equalized the status of women relative to men. If liberalism “inherently” can meet feminism’s challenges, having had the chance for some time, why hasn’t it?”

What MacKinnonhighlights here is that liberalism has happily coexisted with women’s oppression for centuries. When the liberal Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independencethat “all men are created equal” they really did mean all men and not women (or, for that matter, black people of either sex). While contemporary liberal societies are formally committed to gender equality they contain significant gendered inequalities in wealth, job prospects, political influence, and susceptibility to violence. A recurring theme of MacKinnon’swork is that it is extremely difficult to get violence against women taken seriously. MacKinnon’s fundamental claim is that the violence and abuse routinely inflicted on women by men is not treated with the same seriousness accorded to a human rights violation, or torture, or terrorism, or a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or an atrocity. So she asks, for example, why atrocities against women ‘‘do not count as war crimes unless a war among men is going on at the same time’’ and why, when approximately 3,000 women are killed by men in the United States each year, we refer to that state of affairs as ‘‘peacetime’’.

Liberalism’s enduring complacency on these issues is hard to account for, and many factors must play a part in any explanation. But one part of the picture is a deep-seated conviction among liberals that formal, legal equality and freedom are the proper focus of liberal justice. Once this formal framework is in place, liberals want to protect individuals’ freedom to choose, even if they end up choosing things that harm them or render them inferior. That is to say, they ignore the power of social construction that we’ve been discussing so far.

Now this focus on choice doesn’t explain liberal unwillingness to engage deeply in the enduring nature of sex inequality, because of course women don’t choose to be the victims of violence and low pay. But I think liberals see these matters as mere imperfections of the real world, without recognising that the continuing oppression of women demonstrates a profound inability of traditional liberal analysis to theorise or rectify injustice. Feminists have been much more successful at this, in part because feminists understand that how women fare in the world is intimately connected to how women and men are portrayed, represented and constructed in that world. Legal freedoms and formal equality, though important, are just not enough.

3:AM:You are sympathetic to Benhabib’s principles of strong universalism combined with sensitivity to cultural difference but criticize her discourse ethics as a way of achieving this. Can you explain the argument here, and how do you propose we move forward?

CC:Benhabib’sdiscourse ethics are part of a general movement towards deliberative democracy as a means of protecting freedom and equality while at the same time respecting cultural differences. The idea is that a suitable process of deliberation or discourse can result in an outcome that is acceptable to all but that goes beyond mere prejudice, self-interest, or unexamined opinion. By engaging in discourse individuals come to understand each other’s views more closely, and also develop and modify their own views. The problem with discourse ethics and other versions of deliberative democracy is that, if it really is to transcend direct or representative democracy and become more than mere preference aggregation, the deliberation must take place within normative constraints. These typically include fairly substantive equality requirements, requirements which may go beyond the conception of equality held by those participating in the deliberation. And so my argument is that those equality requirements must constrain the outcome as well as the process of deliberation, which is to say that we can do a great deal of theorizing from that substantive commitment to equality just on its own.

3:AM:There are problems in reconciling liberal values with social constructivism that run through any position advocating universalism and social constructivism aren’t there? For one, if all social forms constrain people, how can the liberal desire to liberate everyone from such constraints be deemed appropriate or even desirable? Is autonomy ruled out?

CC:Liberals and anyone else are fighting a losing battle if they hope to liberate people from the constraints of social construction. That’s partly why I use the term “social construction” rather than “social constraint”. As Foucault reminds us, power is creative and not merely repressive, and there is no autonomous subject if by that is meant “a person immune from social influence”. Autonomy is not ruled out on this analysis, but it is reconceptualised. We are autonomous insofar as we exist in a social context that affirms our equality and that provides us with significant choices from a baseline of equality.

Where liberalism comes into its own is in its insistence that we can and must normatively evaluate different societies, states and policies: that we can distinguish between justice and injustice. This liberal commitment to normativity demonstrates that the task is not (can never be) to liberate people from social construction; instead, the task is to distinguish just and unjust norms and work to promote the former and eliminate the latter.

3:AM:And the obvious one is the one that ends with a relativist position: if normative values are socially constructed, how can we criticize values? Isn’t universalism as dreamed up by the liberal feminist just a dead duck in the spit-roast of relativism?

CC:My response to this question includes the idea that, while liberalism may be particular in origin, it is universal in application. That’s to say, while it is true that a commitment to liberalism is a culturally and historically situated commitment, liberal values themselves do not make sense if they are not applied universally. Non-universal equality is inequality. Non-universal freedom is constraint. Whether one holds liberal values may be culturally contingent. But it doesn’t follow that, once one holds those values, one ought to view their application as also culturally contingent. Quite the opposite.

3:AM:And how on earth do we deal with the desirability of difference from a liberal perspective? By insisting on universality aren’t we in danger of throwing out something that is just as valuable as universality?

CC:It depends what it is we are committed to by insisting on universality. Of course a commitment to cultural homogeneity will be inhospitable to difference. But that’s not the sort of universality I defend. I defend a universality of fundamental equality and autonomy. It’s actually pretty hard to argue against that from the point of view of difference in a coherent way, because any such arguments usually invoke the rights of those who are non-liberals to live in an illiberal way. But what reason could we have to respect other people’s lives other than a commitment to their equal worth and autonomy? If equality and autonomy were not important what would be wrong with a liberal state forcibly quashing other cultures? On the other hand, if difference should be respected out of a commitment to the equality and autonomy of non-liberals, it follows that those non-liberals must themselves respect their own members’ equality and autonomy.

3:AM:Will Kymlickahas the idea that a cultural framework is the required context for personal autonomy . You don’t fully endorse this idea do you? What do you think he gets wrong?

Kymlicka’swork is valuable in that it combines a commitment to liberal autonomy with a recognition of the value and impact of community – a version of social construction. One problem with his work is that the distinction he wishes to draw between internal restrictions - restrictions that a culture might impose on its members and which Kymlickaargues are impermissible - and external protections – legal measures and exemptions that a culture needs for its own survival - is not clear-cut. Another problem is that Kymlicka’saccount is somewhat ambiguous about the level of liberalization required of a culture if it is to be worthy of the multicultural protections he endorses.

3:AM:Perhaps a good test case for you to show how your theory might be applied is academic philosophy departments in universities. How do you analyse the problem and how might you speak to a solution?

CC:There’s been a lot of attention focused recently on the status of women in philosophy, with sites like “What is it like to be a woman in Philosophy?” and “Feminist Philosophers” drawing attention to the sexism that is endemic in many academic departments. Jennifer Saulin particular has worked on the importance of implicit bias and stereotype threat. Both are often unconsciously experienced and perpetuated. Implicit biases are those prejudices that even committed egalitarians hold, often unwittingly, against minority or oppressed groups. Stereotype threat is what happens when members of stigmatized groups perform worse than they otherwise would because they are “unconsciously preoccupied by fears of confirming the stereotypes about their group”. Implicit bias and stereotype threat are specific examples of social construction. Implicit bias is a form of the social construction of options, and stereotype threat is a form of social construction of preferences and behaviour. Together they show that much of the activities of academic departments, whether it be hiring decisions, teaching practices, research culture or staff attitudes, must be scrutinized with a view to eliminating unjust inequality.

3:AM:Some recent feminist thought has been critical of a ‘white feminist’ discourse and argues that minorities feminism would need to take a different stand. Is there merit in this position?

CC:Absolutely. There’s always merit with engaging with alternative perspectives and considering whether (or perhaps that should be how) dominant discourse conceals assumptions and prejudice that only make sense from, and serve to reify, a majority standpoint.

3:AM:And why stick with liberal feminism? Why not abandon liberalism and go for a Marxist or Pragmatist position, for example, where the antagonism between universalism and celebration of difference is not so pressing?

CC:My aim in Sex, Culture, and Justiceis primarily to talk to liberals. Liberalism is the dominant approach within contemporary Anglo-American analytical political philosophy. I want to show liberals that they need to pay attention to social construction, and that there is more to being a feminist liberal than simply paying lip-service to gender equality. Real conceptual change is required.

3:AM:And for those of us wanting to follow you into this philosophical world, can you recommend five books we should be reading?

CC:The obvious answer is my book and the works discussed there! Apart from that, I would start with anything by Andrea Dworkinand anything by Catharine MacKinnon, two profoundly important philosophers who are rarely read with the seriousness and attention to detail they deserve. If I had to pick just one introductory book by each it would be Dworkin’s Letters from a War Zoneand MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justiceis a book of two halves: while some chapters defend the sort of liberalism that I critique, others powerfully describe the problem of social construction, so it offers a perfect example of the problems with liberalism as well as some of the solutions. Joan Williams’ Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About Itis an excellent piece of applied normative political philosophy that embodies just the sort of awareness we need. And Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Genderbanishes any suspicion that nature might be the explanation for gender difference.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.