I research the ethics of conversation. While I am the first to name this area of study, other theorists within feminist philosophy, critical race, and philosophy of disability have paved the way for thinking about the negative and positive impacts of how we talk to and about each other. Conversation shapes our autonomous capacities, and our conversational duties include both avoiding coercion and providing support. Beyond platitudes like “be polite,” I argue that we should disrupt a conversational status quo that privileges the voices and perspectives of the powerful by silencing those of the oppressed.
In my published work, I explore the spectrum of conversational aggression—focusing on the most covert type of aggression, microaggressions. In “Theorizing a Spectrum of Aggression: Microaggressions, Creepiness, and Sexual Assault” (2019), I connect gender microaggressions like “Smile, beautiful” to Bonnie Mann’s theory of creepiness. Like the creeper, the microaggressor may not intend to subordinate their target, but they nevertheless make use of the same dominating narratives that are employed by sexual harassers and rapists. I pursue a similar project in “Escalating Linguistic Violence: From Microaggressions to Hate Speech” (2020), where I specify the similarities and differences between racial microaggressions and racist hate speech by building upon the work of legal critical race theorists Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda. I argue that these earlier discussions of hate speech can guide microaggression researchers as we answer the skeptical challenges: what’s aggressive—and what’s micro—about microaggression? Finally in my Philosophy Compass article co-authored with Regina Rini, “Microaggression: Conceptual and Scientific Issues” (2020), we provide a much-needed accessible introduction to the microaggression research of both philosophers and psychologists. We identify metaphysical and epistemological disagreements and suggest fruitful directions for future research.
My next four publications will be drawn from the remaining unpublished chapters of my dissertation. You can read about them in my dissertation abstract.) Outside of my work on microaggressions, I have four other projects I plan to pursue, all of which fall broadly within the ethics of conversation:
The first project is already in progress. One of the major questions that my dissertation (and the extant microaggression literature) leaves unanswered is: what makes some members of marginalized groups able to brush off microaggressions while others are deeply affected by them? In “Microaffirmations, Privilege, and a Duty to Redistribute,” I propose that psychologists and philosophers should devote more attention to the unequal distribution of microaffirmations. Microaffirmations are the mirror of microaggressions—seemingly small supports that accumulate into large positive impacts. Privileged people constantly receive the benefit of the doubt and charitable interpretations. When marginalized people are given similar supports, they are protected from the harmful effects of microaggressions. Thus, we have an imperfect moral duty to redistribute microaffirmations by supporting marginalized people and challenging privileged people’s assumed superiority. (I’ve presented an early version of this project while I was a Doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto Centre for Ethics; recording available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV36McLzesY)
In the second project, tentatively titled “When Punching Down Looks Like Punching Up,” I turn to online conversations and internet ethics. Kate Norlock, Kate Manne, and Regina Rini have recently published on online shaming and mobbing. I’m interested in exploring the tangled ethical nuances of a particular subset of so-called “cancel culture”: the critiques of marginalized individuals who have engaged in behavior that harmed other, differently marginalized individuals. At some level, these critiques are often apt: Chimamanda Adichie (a Black ciswomen from the Global South) made transphobic comments; Hillary Clinton (a white, rich woman) demonstrated hawkish tendencies that threatened the well-being of (mostly POC) citizens of developing nations; Ihlan Omar (a Muslim woman of color and naturalized US citizen) made antisemitic remarks. But these critiques can also easily degenerate into misogyny or other oppression—by calling for punishment out of proportion with the offense, by uniquely singling out prominent women while letting equally guilty men escape critique, or by demonstrating stereotypical assumptions about women’s “natural” empathy or virtue. These misogynistic tendencies are particularly likely to be masked during online pile-ons that begin with legitimate critique and righteous anger, especially when privileged people can pose themselves as heroic defenders of the marginalized.
My third area of interest was inspired by my recent Fibromyalgia diagnosis. Very little philosophy has been written on chronic pain, and almost nothing from a feminist perspective. But my recent experiences have shown me that we need intersectional theorizing about chronic pain, especially as patients shift from diagnosis to symptom management. During the years-long diagnostic process, women must resist gaslighting denials of our pain in order to receive the tests and referrals we need to understand our chronic pain conditions. Yet if we do manage to achieve an official diagnosis, many pain management techniques recommend ignoring our pain and reframing it as an emotional reaction that can and should be overcome. The key problem here is that since the majority of chronic pain sufferers are women, these supposedly value-neutral pain management techniques risk triggering internalized stereotypes of hysteria and hypochondria—especially if the patient has previously experienced medical gaslighting. In addition to diagnosing this problem, I hope to find ways to ameliorate it, and to share those recommendations with bioethicists, medical professionals, and the general public.
My final project developed out of the Prisons and Policing reading group that I started this summer. After reading Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, I’ve become convinced that certain crimes, which I’ll call “crimes of precarity,” result primarily from social forces rather than individual choices, and so we should shift our focus from punishment to prevention: invest in schools and communities, divest (and ultimately abolish) the prison-industrial complex. However, I argue that another category of crimes, which I’ll call “crimes of power,” are more aptly attributed to individual choices. Domestic violence and white collar financial crimes are fundamentally unlike crimes of precarity, in that these crimes of power are based on a sense of entitlement—a feeling of being above the law—that need not be present in crimes motivated by material need. Furthermore, I’ll show that drawing this distinction between the two types of crime will enable us to adjudicate the fraught disagreement between domestic violence survivors and prison abolitionists. These two groups have traditionally been placed in opposition, but I’ll show that even if survivors accept Davis’ argument for abolishing prison for crimes of precarity, we can continue to demand greater punishment for crimes of power.
Discovering the ethics of conversation is a life-long, communal project. I look forward to refining these ideas and developing new directions through conversations with colleagues—in person and in print.
Escalating Linguistic Violence: From Microaggressions to Hate Speech (final draft)
in Microaggressions and Philosophy, eds. Lauren Freeman and Jeanine Weekes Schroer, 121-145.
New York: Routledge 2020.
At first glance, hate speech and microaggressions seem to have little overlap beyond being communicated verbally or in written form. Hate speech seems clearly macro-aggressive: an intentional, obviously harmful act lacking the ambiguity (and plausible deniability) of microaggressions. If we look back at historical discussions of hate speech, however, many of these assumed differences turn out to be points of similarity. The harmfulness of hate speech only became widely acknowledged after a concerted effort by critical race theorists, feminists, and other activists. Before the 1990s, slurs were widely considered socially acceptable behavior: mere jokes that weren’t intended to be harmful. Authors like Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence pushed back against this dismissal. In this chapter, I show that their arguments for the serious harmfulness of hate speech prefigure and provide support for current debates about the serious harmfulness of microaggressions. Exploring resonances with the 1980s hate speech debate will allow us to explain why microaggressions fall below the cutoff for legal liability but remain apt targets for moral blame.
"Microaggression: Conceptual and Scientific Issues," co-authored with Regina Rini (final darft)
Philosophy Compass 15.4: 1-11 (2020)
Scientists, philosophers, and policymakers disagree about how to define microaggression. Here we offer a taxonomy of existing definitions, clustering around (a) the psychological motives of perpetrators, (b) the experience of victims, and (c) the functional role of microaggression in oppressive social structures. We consider conceptual and epistemic challenges to each and suggest that progress may come from developing novel hybrid accounts of microaggression, combining empirically tractable features with sensitivity to the testimony of victims.
"Theorizing a Spectrum of Aggression: Microaggressions, Creepiness, and Sexual Assault" (Final Draft)
The Pluralist 14.1: 91-101 (Spring 2019)
Microaggressions are seemingly negligible slights that can cause significant damage to frequently targeted members of marginalized groups. Recently, Scott O. Lilienfeld challenged a key platform of the microaggression research project: what’s aggressive about microaggressions? To answer this challenge, Derald Wing Sue (the psychologist who has spearheaded the research on microaggressions) needs to theorize a spectrum of aggression that ranges from intentional assault to unintentional microaggressions. I suggest turning to Bonnie Mann’s “Creepers, Flirts, Heroes and Allies” for inspiration. Building from Mann’s richer theoretical framework will allow Sue to answer Lilienfeld’s objection and defend the legitimacy of the concept, ‘microaggression’.
"Do Your Exercises: Reader Participation in Wittgenstein’s Investigations" (Final Draft)
in Pedagogical Investigations: A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education, edited by Michael A. Peters and Jeff Stickney, 147-159. Singapore: Springer, 2017.
Many theorists have focused on Wittgenstein’s use of examples, but I argue that examples form only half of his method. Rather than continuing the disjointed style of his Cambridge lectures, Wittgenstein returns to the techniques he employed while teaching elementary school. Philosophical Investigations trains the reader as a math class trains a student—‘by means of examples and by exercises’ (§208). Its numbered passages, carefully arranged, provide a series of demonstrations and practice problems. I guide the reader through one such series, demonstrating how the exercises build upon one another and give us ample opportunity to hone our problem-solving skills. Through careful practice, we learn to pass the test Wittgenstein poses when he claims that something is ‘easy to imagine’ (§19). Whereas other critics have viewed the Investigations as merely a diagnosis of our philosophical delusions, I claim that Wittgenstein also writes a prescription for our disease: Do your exercises.
Talks within Current Research Project ( denotes link to handout):
"Countering Bullying, Harassment, and Microaggressions"
MAP Panel at APA Eastern (January 2021)
"Are Microaggressions a Collective Harm Problem?"
Canadian Philosophical Association, June 2020 *Cancelled due to COVID-19
"Microaffirmations, Privilege, and a Duty to Redistribute"
University of Toronto Centre for Ethics, October 2019 (invited)
Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, October 2019
Society for Philosophy and Psychology, July 2019 (poster)
"Microaggressions, Torts and the Right to Apology"
Main Program Colloquium Session at APA Pacific, April 2019
Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, September 2018
"From Hate Speech to Microaggressions: A Spectrum of Dominating Speech Acts"
Society for Analytical Feminism Group Session at APA Pacific, April 2019
"What's Aggressive About Microaggressions?"
Main Program Colloquium Session at APA Pacific, April 2018
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, March 2018 (winner of the Douglas Greenlee Prize for best paper presented by an early career scholar)
South-Western Ontario Feminism and Philosophy Workshop, September 2017 (invited)
"Microaggressions as Collective Harms but Individual Wrongs"
Halbert Fellowship Workshop, February 2018 (invited)
"A Duty to Avoid Committing Microaggressions"
Canadian Philosophical Association, May 2017
Center for Values and Social Philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder, April 2017 (invited)
"Building Philosophical Reading and Writing Skills” (co-authored with Alex Koo)
American Association of Philosophy Teachers Workshop-Conference, July 2020 (*postponed)
"Frankenstein's Monster as Manipulative Gaslighter"
Health Humanities Consortium Poster Session, April 2018
"In My Thoughts and in My Words: The Morality of William James and Iris Murdoch"
William James Society Group Session at the APA Pacific, April 2017
"Beyond the 'Will to Believe': A Historical Solution to the Wrong Kinds of Reasons Debate"
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, March 2016
"How Best to Use the IAT: The Moral to Draw from the Moral Responsibility Debate"
MAP@Leeds Conference on Implicit Bias, October 2015
"Benevolence and Its Effects in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature”"
Main Program Symposium Presentation at APA Pacific, April 2015
Talks Outside Current Research Project: