Hey, guys: everyone has a word. You might know yours, but most likely you don’t, unless someone has pointed it out to you. I’m not talking about if you say “penultimate” or “apropos” all the time, or how I can’t stop saying “like” when a microphone is in front of my face. I’m talking about that one word that’s the avatar for just about every argument you make, the rock solid foundation of all your opinions. For some people, it’s “feminist.” For others, it’s “empathy.” Yours might be “utilitarian.”
Mine is “agency.”
Anyone that has had either the temerity (or lack of interesting things to do) that compells them to listen to me talk about anything more than Jaws or delicious sandwiches, has heard me use the word a ton. It’s a term that gets hucked around in philosophy and sociology textbooks quite a bit, which makes it even funnier when I use it all the time, as I spent most of my brief time in college actively avoiding reading. Which is doubly funny, as that didn’t prevent our friends at Columbia University from putting my book in their library.
Now, I’m sure most of you guys are sharp, hip, way-more-educated-than-I’ll-ever-be ladies and gents about town, and are perfectly familiar with agency in this context. But for the couple of you who may not be super-familiar with it:
“An agent performs activity that is directed at a goal, and commonly it is a goal the agent has adopted on the basis of an overall practical assessment of his [or her] options and opportunities. Moreover, it is immediately available to the agent’s awareness both that he is performing the activity in question and that the activity is aimed by him at such-and-such a chosen end.”
That’s from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Feel free to read the whole thing, but it’s full of “classic examples,” which are super-wordy and circuitous explanations of really simple concepts. Basically, for the purposes of our discussion, an agent is a being who is able to act in their own best interest; outside of just things included in basic survival (eating, sleeping) in a manner that falls within the bounds of normal society. You, me, and most of the people you know fall into this kind of rational agency. Specifically: we can enter into contracts, whether they’re financial or societal (marriage, friendship, parenthood,) which generally excludes children, the profoundly mentally handicapped, and persons suffering from dementia or severe mental illness.
So, what’re we driving towards? Here’s where we left off last time:
“Sometimes anti-rape campaigns refer to rape as “having your humanity stolen.” This phrase insinuates that those who’ve experienced rape are not human. It inadvertently dehumanizes us.”
In case you missed the last article, that was a pull from everydayfeminism.com. We’re not going to talk much more about sexual assault, as I think we covered it enough last week. The reason I wanted to pull that quote specifically, is that it highlights exactly what we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks, in this series. Of course these campaigns mean well when they say things like this. They’re trying to get across just how horrific these crimes are. But when you tell someone that “their humanity has been stolen,” or, “it’s a fate worse than death,” then what are you saying about that person? Maybe that person doesn’t feel like less of a person (as they definitely should not) because they were the victim of a crime. Even worse, suggesting that it’s a victims obligation to report a crime is pretty awful for a lot of reasons; thoughtfully outlined in Julie Zeilinger’s article “We have to stop telling survivors it’s their duty-to report sexual assault.” Again though, for our discussion, it goes all the way back to what we started with talking about trigger warnings.
It’s about taking away someone’s agency.
We do it all the time. We don’t mean to. Most of the time, we’re only trying to help. “Hey, don’t eat that. It’s got such-and-such in it. I read an article in–” or “You need to march right into your boss’ office and tell them that–” or “you don’t have the right to say ______, you’ve never______.” When you think about it, it’s pretty astounding how often we do that. In most cases, it’s just sort of annoying or sanctimonious. In the worst cases, shit like this and this happens.
Whether we do it because we feel compelled to protect people (even people who don’t want our protection,) to use those people as a tool to further our causes (no matter the moral alignment of said cause,) or for something far more sinister; interfering with or flat-out taking someone’s agency can really fuck them up. I’m not suggesting that we don’t try to help people, far from it. What I’m suggesting, rather, is that we do a better job of enabling people to make their own decisions. Let people decide for themselves if they’re offended by something. Let them come to their own realizations about their diet, or their relationship, or what they believe or don’t believe. Let them decide when it’s right for them to speak up for themselves. Sometimes just staying out of the way is the best help you can give. Don’t spend all of your time trying to be “the voice of the voiceless.” Help people find their own voice. And every once in a while, even though it seems nutty, given the way we generally operate: try minding your own fucking business.
This cat put it better than me:
“Kant argued that rational beings can never be treated merely as a means to an ends; they must always also be treated as an ends themselves, requiring that their own reasoned motives must be equally respected. This derives from Kant’s claim that reason motivates morality: it demands that we respect reason as a motive in all beings, including other people. A rational being cannot rationally consent to being used merely as a means to an end, so they must always be treated as an end. Kant justified this by arguing that moral obligation is a rational necessity: that which is rationally willed is morally right. Because all rational agents rationally will themselves to be an end and never merely a means, it is morally obligatory that they are treated as such. This does not mean that we can never treat a human as a means to an end, but that when we do, we also treat him as an end in himself.
I promise I’ll never reference Kant again. From here on out, it’ll just be Rocky and Futurama.
Til next time, baby.