Tim Johnston

 

My name is Tim Johnston. I have always been interested in philosophical questions even before I knew what philosophy was as a discipline. So, my mom tells this story, I was about five years old, and she was trying to explain to me how every seven years, all the cells in your body have regenerated, and have been replaced by other cells just as you grow, and she says that i got really freaked out because I thought what she was saying was that on my seventh birthday my entire body was going to radically change , like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon or something but even after she explained that mistake to me I remember being kind of confused or worried about what would be the same about me even if my body was changing every seven years. So now i recognize that as a philosophical question. I did my undergraduate at Loyola university chicago where i studied philosophy and international studies and was incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Jacqueline Scott as my advisor freshman year and i did not know the difference between analytic or continental philosophy i just knew that there were some classes that i was extraordinarily good at and there were some classes where some classes where i felt like i was on the moon and everyone else was back on earth. And she figured out what was going on and helped me work with Patricia huntington and Que miller and the three of them really had a tremendous impact on me both as a thinker and I think also as a person, after being at Loyola I took a couple years off and went to Stony Brook University where i encountered a really incredible group of feminist, and there are still a lot of feminists at stony brook I was lucky to come in when there was a great group of older students who really became my friend and taught me a  lot about feminism both as a political stance but also as a professional academic interest so I really owe a great debt to the people in my cohort and other graduate students at Stony brook university.

 

What initially drew me to feminist theory is that i have always identified as feminist even from before I could understand what the word really meant. My mom is a pretty fierce feminist I remember her teaching me the word androcentric when i was 11 and certainly did not fully grasp the concept but my politics have been informed by it and that lead rather naturally into my philosophical interest as well.

 

So my interest in care ethics really started when I entered graduate school and I identified as a feminist was very interested in feminist theory and discovered that care ethics is the feminist brand of ethics so i began studying  with eva Catay primary at Stony brook University and there are a lot of things that i really love about care ethics. I think that it most accurately captures how we are as people, that we are relational beings who are always making decisions embedded in a certain context. I also really like the methodology behind care ethics. I'm not particularly argumentative person so i really like theory that is not necessarily built on conscience but is about the relationship between the people who are constructing ideas together i find that to be very appealing. My interest in queer Theory came about for a really personal reasons, i identify as a gay man and i remember reading gender trouble: kind of not understanding what i was getting into , this was in the years between my undergraduate and graduate degrees and i remember seeing a lot of my own experience in the book and also being freaked out by it and kind of  how powerful those ideas where, so that led to my initial  interest in queer theory and today i am politically very queer and that i am very much informed in my politics. I have a less comfortable relationship with the theory and as much as i find it really, really engaging but sometimes that butts up against my desire for really clear philosophical ABC 123 style argumentation so i find myself  struggling a little bit sometimes with that tension but it can be productive and very interesting as well.

 

So my article is broadly about the phenomenon of bullying, both why it is that people, bully the specific harms it can cause and also solutions to the problem of bullying. the main theoretical idea and the article is affirmation, Affirmation is what i wrote my dissertation on and by affirmation i mean anything that reflects back to you an aspect of yourself and that can be an object, it can be a person and an interaction a memory, really anything that accomplishes this so the example that i use in the paper is coming out. When you first come out you often are literally asking people to affirm your identity as an openly gay person, as a transgender person et cetera and once people affirm that identity it strengthens it for you but this doesn’t just happen intrapersonally but also the way you dress can affirm your identity back to you most obviously in the case of a transgender person whose switching their gender, markers like their clothing and personal style the images that you surround yourself with so pitures of a partner that you’ve kept hidden but now can have on you have on your desk, that will affirm that identity that the phenomenon that i’m looking at. So in the article what i do is i take affirmation and use it to define bullying  and specifically i define bullying as the intentional destruction of what i call affirmative feedback loops or affirming negative things about someone. So for example if you are bullying someone so severely that they become really socially isolated, they lose the ability to create these affirming narratives about their identity and that does damage to their identity and to their person hood because i ground affirmation in care ethics so relational narrative version of person hood,affirmation is also content neutral so the word has a positive connotation but you can affirm something really negative about someone so we think that bullying is usually about the physical characteristic or about someone’s sexual orientation, anything that singles them out as being different so let's  say that you know someone thinks that you have a big nose yet they affirm that about constantly and they tease you and the call you john with the big nose that  becomes the most salient part of your personality within your peer group and that can really do damage to your ability to be seen as a whole person and help construct these narratives about who your are, so after defining bullying in that way it allows me to explain why ecological approaches are preferable to treating bullying and why they work better than zero tolerance policies. So a zero tolerance policies if you do anything bad if you do anything violent anything that breaks our code of conduct you get suspended these policies don’t work there too heavy-handed and they are also disproportionately punishing students of color and other minority groups so ecological approaches which take into account the context in which the bullying is happening the broader culture, parents, friend groups and much more effective i make the case that this is because we are beings by our very nature need affirmation to feel whole and to feel like we’re part of the community and bullying needs to be treated like a form of affirmation so when your looking at bullying behavior the question to ask is why has the bully turned to bullying as a form of auto affirmation to see their own self worth in this harmful interaction and what we can do to create more positive affirming relationships for both the bully and the victim to help stop the problem.

So the difference between bullying and something like teasing or being sassy or roughhousing is that there are three criteria that people talk about for something to be bullying. The first is that there is a real or imagined imbalance of power between the bully and the victim so maybe the bully has a greater social status or is stronger or larger or richer, or whatever that imbalance of power is. The second is that bullying is intentional so an accidental harm that you cause someone can't really be called bullying and the third is that bullying happens across time and there is a threat of future harms so what that means is that someone lashing out at someone can be very hurtful but it is not really bullying because there might not be an imbalance of power and there’s really no threat of future harm and if you think about something like teasing or being sassy i actually consider that a form of affirming a relationship because to actually teasing someone in a light hearted or friendly way because you have to know what will bother them, you have to be familiar and intimate enough with them to know what you can say to kind of ruffle their feathers if you will but not actually cause harm to the relationship so that kind of relationship from the outside might look a little like bullying but the people who are taking part in it understand to be a form of intimacy in communication.

 

So as I said before affirmation  means anything that reflects back to you in aspect of your self either positive or negative and affirmative feedback loops are things that do that consistently, so one example that i talk about is Alcoholics Anonymous and how it helps people to be sober so for example when you have made the decision to become sober you need to change the affirmative feedback loops that hold you and your identity and you need to change those loops from a self that is not sober to a new self that is supported in that sobriety so that why you make amends so that you don’t have lingering interactions that could come back to remind your about your old self, meeting are a place where you receive affirmation for the sober self, changing friend group are all really important ways to create a new and stable identity that you have chosen the sober identity. What i like about affirmation in the context of bullying or other forms of abuse is that it helps us understand the degree to which we are being who live through time, so when someone is being really consistently bullies the effects that it has is it freezes them in a given moment in their identity they become trapped in whatever identity or self the bully keeps reminding them of and they don’t have the ability to create a new self or explore a new identity and move forward with that identity and that's what i think is particularly necessary to think in terms of LGBT and queer youth because everyone is confused by everything when our an adolescent but i think if you’re exploring sexuality if your exploring gender, gender presentation you need to be in a space where you can try something new, have it affirmed back to you and see if it feels right, see if it feels authentic until you figure out how to really be comfortable in your own skin, and that is obviously something that applied to race, religion, ability, any number of things. But when we talk about the harm that is done by bullying especially among adolescents i think it is important to realize how it kind of disrupts the flow of time in their lives and freezes someone in a moment while they see their peers moving forward in a more coherent way into their adult identities.

 

So ecological perspectives on bullying are very comprehensive in their scope so they involve things like bullying education and teaching kids how to identify with bullying versus what playing or teasing it involves making disciplinary measures very fair and very transparent and improving reporting techniques so that kids feel they can report bullying without there being fear of retaliation and it also involves taking a good hard look at the culture of the environment where the bullying is taking place whether it be a school, a place of work, or what have you. The reason why i think is really important to pare the ecological perspective to care ethics both rely on this view of a narrative social self and a narrative view on identity. What i hope to accomplish  by bringing affirmation into the pictures is give people a tool to begin to implement ecological thinking so when you go into a school and you say “well listen everything causes bullying” culture, parents, students, it feels really overwhelming people don’t know where to start which is why i think affirmation can be both a good tool of analysis you can look and say what are the affirmative feedback loops are happening in this environment how can they be changed but you can also use it as a kind of an ethical guide so if you're not sure how to intervene you can think well what is the aspect of this person’s identity that is being under affirmed and how we change our interactions to give that person a feeling that they are being seen for who they are. So a common wat to do this is to give people a sense of ownership over their community so instead of feeling detached or put upon for needing to go to school, you can make activities or clubs where people feel like their actions are actively contributing to the environment this is a really effective way to help bullies that get reintegrated into more healthy social interactions something like sports or a club can help them make friends where they’re working on building something constructive whether team or activity or artwork so that they begin to be affirmed by that interaction rather than being affirmed by the power imbalance between them and their victim.

 

The one thing i'm very concerned about doing in the article is applying a critical feminist length to a lot of the research that’s happening bullying so i want to be very clear that i think it is completely appropriate and worthwhile to do scientific and biological investigations into bullying and into the causes of bullying so i’m not trying to criticize the research that is happening  my concern is how that research gets translated into popular media and to our common understanding of what bullying is so specifically some researchers are now starting to look at the effects of bullying on hormone levels, cortisol levels in children and i think that really important to identify the physical, biological ramification of bullying however  it really risks edifying or kind of cementing this notion that testosterone makes you aggressive for example and reinforces kind of boys will be boys adage so my concern is that when we look at bullying from biological perspective or evolutionary psychology or these other kind of naturalized narratives that we will think well it is just something there is nothing we can do about it and we’ll take a phenomenon that i think is fundamentally a moral one and a fundamentally a social and political problem and kind of put it into a realm where we feel powerless or we just try to medicate the problem away. I also think  it doesn't say very much about our self conception if we think that people are incapable of acting well and acting decently towards one another and I think if you have someone who is maybe struggling with impulse control or struggling with behaving appropriately is a good time to teach them about moral accountability and the effects of their actions rather than to say well you know his body is just full of testosterone and that’s why he's acting in that way. So i think it’s really important to have a feminist lens on this to see the kind of gender dynamics that are at work and a lot of this literature and to keep the problem firmly rooted in political solutions and in the realm of moral accountability and consideration.

 

The most important thing that i hope people take away from this article is to look at the role of affirmation in your own life, look at the things around you that are edifying your sense of self and look at the things that happen around you that affirm negative things about yourself are your identity of your place and also to then be more sensitive when you might be communicating to the people around you so i think that affirmation for me obviously i’m committed to the concept because i wrote about it ,I think it is right but it is a very nice kind of simple lens through which you can look at what is otherwise a very confusing or complex social or intimate relationship so i don’t mean to reduce everything to affirmation but by the same token i think it can make complicated interactions a little clearer and make it feel a little more manageable and like there’s something we can do to solve some of these problems,

 

So my advice for current or recent graduate students who are doing feminist philosophy is to make sure that your entire identity is not completely tied up with your academic identity and i think this is particularly difficult for feminists because you can’t not look at the world as a feminist is an incredibly important part of how we understand ourselves and our relationship politics and when you start doing feminist theory in a professional way all those different interactions can become very blurred and kind of confused and graduate school is a system that in a lot of ways makes you very competitive to receive affirmations, you don’t make very much money at all the process is competitive, it can be difficult to get any kind of positive sense if your work is positive criticisms and what i see happening to people around me and what has happened to me at certain times is your own sense of self-worth becomes very tied to support a difficult system so i think it’s really important to understand yourself as more than a student and as more than a thinker and make sure you have a community that affirms a lot of different things about your identity so that when you have a tremendous academic success you can celebrate that with the wider group of people but when you run into some other challenges that we all ran into the academy you have other places where you can go to feel safe and affirmed and worthwhile.

 

Transcribed by Luke Kilby.