Philosophy is for Everyone: A Conversation with Arianne Shahvisi
The Author of Arguing for a Better World Talks to Mira Ptacin About the Intersection of Philosophy and Social Justice
In her 1993 Nobel Lecture, Toni Morrison spoke of the dangers of oppressive language: that it does more than represent violence; it is violence. That it does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Twenty years later, Kurdish-British author Arianne Shahvisi, philosopher, professor, and ethics consultant for Doctors Without Borders, has written a lengthy new book, Arguing for a Better World, that explores the idea of unexamined assumptions, the importance of scrutinizing one’s reasoning, and the relevance of philosophy in our everyday lives.
With chapters like “Can You Be Racist to a White Person?” “Do All Lives Matter?” “Is it Sexist to Say that ‘Men Are Trash’?” and “Where Does a Mansplainer Get His Water?”, readers are challenged to go beyond posts and re-posts of their social media debates and relearn how to communicate effectively—for the good of this planet and the sake of humanity. Recently, I spoke to Arianne Shavisi over email about her book, social activism, and her philosophy on philosophy.
Mira Ptacin: Can you tell me about the genesis of this book?
Arianne Shahvisi: I moved to Brighton eight years ago to take up my current academic job, and wanted to find a volunteer opportunity so I could do something useful with my evenings. I heard about a local initiative inspired by the Occupy movement, called the Free University Brighton, which provides free, accessible evening classes to local residents irrespective of educational background. I offered a course on the philosophy of gender and race, and have done so every year since, and it’s within those classes that my thoughts for the book started to take shape.
The students come from all walks of life, and there’s a tremendous range of ages, professions, social classes, and levels of education in the room. Most of those who’ve taken the class have been older than I am, and they’ve seen enough of the world to be a bit skeptical of this angry young woman. I’ve been required to earn my place as teacher, and have been challenged to make better arguments and provide more evidence. On many occasions, I’ve changed my mind because of their questions and comments. I wrote the book because those classes have reminded me of two things: that philosophy can be enormously useful in thinking through everyday political issues, and that it’s a lot of fun to share philosophy with others. I hope the book is useful and also conveys some of that fun.
MP: Philosophy is often considered a niche and intimidating genre for readers. How do you make it more inviting and accessible?
AS: It’s interesting that philosophy is considered intimidating, because its methods are actually very intuitive. And while some philosophy is quite abstract, most of it involves applying those intuitive methods to questions and topics that matter to all of us. When I teach introductory philosophy classes, I explain the specialist terminology at the outset and then keep it to a minimum, and I also do my best to avoid name-dropping philosophers and their schools of thought, as this always puts me off when I’m exploring a new subject. In Arguing for a Better World, I’ve tried to stick to these guidelines and make sure the real-world examples showcase the philosophy, rather than the other way around.Philosophers undoubtedly have more to learn from activists than the other way around.
MP: What role does philosophy play in social activism?
AS: Bringing about social change requires us to understand what is wrong with the way things are in the current system, and to have some vision for how alternative futures might work. The methods of philosophy can be very helpful in identifying problems and conceiving of other paths. They require you to carefully examine some aspect of the world and uncover the assumptions that make that reality hold, and then discard any assumptions that don’t seem defensible, and imagine how things look under different assumptions. That kind of process is critical to seeing through the many ruses of the unjust social world we live in.
That isn’t to say that philosophy is always used in this liberatory manner, or that non-philosophers aren’t able to undertake this kind of deconstruction. Philosophy can be a very stuffy, establishment sort of discipline, and philosophers undoubtedly have more to learn from activists than the other way around.
MP: Why is it strategic, and beneficial, for groups with power to complicate and fan the flames of a social argument?
AS: Pretty much everyone would lead a better life under a more just global economic system; the number of people who benefit from the current system is negligibly small. One of the most important tools of those in power is to distract us from realizing that sense of unity. That means dividing us from one another, largely through the entrenchment of categories and hierarchies, but also by encouraging infighting and making basic moral problems seem more complicated than they are.I’ve been required to earn my place as teacher, and have been challenged to make better arguments and provide more evidence.
MP: Your book highlights that a growing number of leftists are becoming elitist and punitive in their quest to be “right” or correct in their causes. How has the fear of cancel culture created this tendency for social and political activists?
AS: Those of us on the left are often very concerned about being seen to be “good” people, which makes us especially vulnerable in the public eye, because any evidence that we’ve fallen short shatters this image. It’s a really silly way to operate because obviously no one is perfect and mistakes are often important moments for learning—but social media corporations feed on this kind of manufactured drama, and people quite understandably start to worry about their individual reputations rather than focusing their efforts on the issues.
I think one answer is that we should do more of our political organizing in person, which helps us remember that we’re dealing with complex, flawed human beings with a common cause. But I think we also need to reject this cultural trend of presenting ourselves as individual “brands” whose reputations need careful maintenance, and instead see ourselves as belonging to communities within which we help each other to learn and work towards shared projects.
MP: What is a “low-quality argument” and why are communities fighting for social justice often limited by them?
AS: There are lots of ways in which an argument can be low-quality. In the book, I’m most concerned with those occasions where no one is really making an argument—people are simply trading received views on a given topic and getting nowhere. I think many of us on the left have a tendency to criticize the views of those we disagree with (wherever they are on the political spectrum) without outlining our reasons, which can make it difficult for others to follow our reasoning. Obviously in most cases we don’t need to explain why something is racist, or sexist, or otherwise cruel and dehumanizing. But there are lots of cases where things are a little more complicated, and we’d be more likely to bring people along with us, and build stronger movements, if we were to explain why we think the way we do.I think it’s important to try to find some reason to be optimistic, because it’s enormously motivating, and we need to feel motivated to bring about change.
For example, I argue in the book that “mansplaining” is a real and worrying phenomenon, but I also show that [the phrase] can be misused. Similarly, I explore the very serious harm of systematically failing to believe people from marginalized groups, but I also show that this is a much more complex matter than it first appears. Being clear and making good arguments goes against the “gotcha” trend of much of social media—where people are often out to show how clever they are and how stupid their opponents are, and to demonstrate that they belong within a particular online tribe—but it really is a more honest and productive way to engage with one another on important issues. If you care about something, why wouldn’t you want others to care too? That means respecting their need to have good reasons to change their mind, and trying to provide them.
MP: What is it that you want readers to walk away with after finishing your book? And what keeps you hopeful?
AS: I hope some readers change their minds on a few things! And I hope that others are even more committed to being thoughtful in their use of language, and critical in their engagement with the very many ruses that are used to uphold the existing distribution of power and material resources.
As I say at the end of the book, I don’t feel optimistic. That’s just how I feel, if I’m being honest; it certainly isn’t a recommendation to others! In fact, I strongly recommend the opposite: I think it’s important to try to find some reason to be optimistic, because it’s enormously motivating, and we need to feel motivated to bring about change. My pessimism is partly temperamental. I tend to be motivated less by the vision of something better, and more by rage at how unjust things are. That’s what gets me going; it’s what makes me want to learn and write and fight.
Whether people feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future, it’s important to remember that regardless of what the decades and centuries ahead might hold, there are serious problems that need our attention right now. We need to focus our efforts on the present, and demand change in our lifetimes, because our lives should really be better than this.