Lauren O’Neill-Butler
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On my mind: 

A selection from “Adrian Piper Speaks! (for Herself),” The New York Times, July 5, 2018:

L.O.B.: You also demonstrate how philosophical controversies that lit up the 18th century are still burning strong today—as so many protest movements are also showing us, including Black Lives Matter. What strategies, if any, could that movement take away from your writings?

A.P.: My work in philosophy does not presume to tell anyone what to do. It addresses the foundations of ethics—metaethics—rather than normative ethics. So it does not prescribe any particular strategies for action to anyone. These can be meaningfully formulated only by those who are directly involved in and therefore maximally well informed about the circumstances under which action is required.

However, perhaps my work can offer a way of understanding what is at stake in the Black Lives Matter movement that may be of use. The basic argument of “Rationality and the Structure of the Self is organized around the distinction between egocentric and transpersonal rationality. Transpersonal rationality consists in hard-wired cognitive dispositions that define us as human beings: to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection and self-control. Egocentric rationality consists in placing these dispositions in the service of satisfying our personal desires and advancing our self-interest.

It is easy to conceive the Black Lives Matter movement as merely advancing the self-interest of African-Americans in surviving and flourishing within a society whose self-interest is systemically opposed to this. This reduces the impetus for protest to a conflict of interests between those who join or support this movement and those who resist it—as though all that were at stake were whether or not police are justified in being so terrified of an African-American teenager that shooting him in the back is a defensible preventive measure. To conceive the issue merely in these terms turns it into a contest as to whose interests are to prevail—those who see trigger-happy police as protecting their interests or those who see them as sabotaging theirs. This view of the situation lends itself to the conclusion that the United States is still fighting the same race war it was in 1860.

There is a lot of truth to this view. But it ignores the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is not fighting merely to protect and advance the interests of African-Americans. It is fighting to cultivate a fundamental level of humanity in all Americans. The transpersonally rational dispositions I’ve listed constitute the ancient foundation of the historically recent idea of a universal human right that extends basic freedoms, responsibilities, rights and resources to every human being, regardless of their interests—not merely to those whom the police are personally inclined to protect. That African-Americans have survived and flourished for 400 years by resisting an environment devoted to dehumanizing them demonstrates quite conclusively how highly their capacities for transpersonal rationality are developed. The statement that Black Lives Matter is a reminder to those whose perpetuation of that environment has effectively dehumanized them to develop those capacities just as highly; i.e. that their own humanity also matters.
Coming soon:

A catalogue essay on Maria Lassnig.

“Out of Sheer Rage: How Art and Film Can Become Forms of Protest,” Aperture, Summer 2020.

A book of collected interviews with women on art and culture, published by KARMA.