Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Harrassment, Racism, & “Harmless Torturers”

October 30th, 2014 · 41 Comments

One of the more useful thought experiments I’ve encountered in philosophy, because it seems to apply to so many situations, is Derek Parfit’s “Harmless Torturers,” from his celebrated book Reasons and Persons:

The Harmless Torturers. In the Bad Old Days, each torturer inflicted severe pain on one victim. Things have now changed. Each of the thousand torturers presses a button, thereby turning the switch once on each of the thousand instruments. The victims suffer the same severe pain. But none of the torturers makes any victim’s pain perceptibly worse.

Parfit asks us to imagine two scenarios.  In the first, a thousand victims are strapped to a thousand electrical torture devices, and each of a thousand torturers turns a switch on the device, inflicting extreme agony on the individual victim strapped to that machine.  In the second scenario, each torturer’s dial increases the current flowing through all thousand torture machines by a tiny increment, so small as to be imperceptible to any individual victim, but collectively inflicting the same amount of pain.  Parfit’s point is that we should regard the torturers in the second scenario as acting no less wrongly than those in the first scenario, even though there is a sense in which each individual’s action is “harmless.”  It is not enough, Parfit argues, to ask whether one’s actions cause harm when considered in isolation; rather, we should also consider whether our actions are part of a system or pattern of similar conduct that in the aggregate causes harm, even if no individual’s action makes a perceptible difference to the outcome. We don’t need to read Parfit (or Kant) to recognize the principle of course: The typical answer to a child wondering why he must follow some rule that seems to be violable without obvious harm is “but imagine if everyone did that.”  The slightly subtler corollary to this point is that often an action can be wrong, not because of its intrinsic effects or qualities, but because of what other people are doing.  Many confused and indignant objections to people pointing out racism or sexism seem to me to be rooted in a failure to properly appreciate and apply this idea.

A viral video capturing the staggering quantity of  harassment experienced by a woman walking the streets of New York provides probably the clearest example.  Plenty of what the filmmakers captured involves conduct that would be crass or menacing even taken purely in isolation: following the woman, making lewd comments about parts of her body, and so on.  But some viewers—mostly male, but a few women as well—object that the video unfairly lumps these together with “friendly greetings” or innocuous compliments: “How are you, miss?” or “You’re looking lovely today.”  And in a very narrow sense, they have a point: When a stranger says something nice about my appearance, as happens maybe once a month, that brightens my day a bit, because I’m not constantly inundated by a stream of comments ranging from innocuous to menacing. The mistake the “friendly” men make is failing to imagine how the context of a hundred other “friendly” (and some markedly less friendly) remarks  may make their own far less welcome than it would be in isolation.

Or consider Anita Sarkeesian’s popular “Tropes vs. Women” series, which notoriously drives some young male gamers to mouth-foaming apoplexy.  One of the less unhinged objections you sometimes see is that some of Sarkeesian’s examples of sexist portrayals of women in games may be individually defensible as narratively or contextually appropriate: Isn’t it only natural or “realistic” for a game about mob enforcers or  Old West gunslingers to feature scantily clad women as part of a strip club or bordello backdrop?  Sarkeesian’s point, of course, isn’t that such depictions shouldn’t exist  at all, but that an ugly cultural message is conveyed when these are the dominant representation of women—when it’s the primary way they’re depicted in one blockbuster game after another.

Finally, consider a much-mocked image recently making the rounds of a  young white girl made up in blackface for a Nicki Minaj Halloween costume, coupled with her  inevitable objection “for the record” that she’s “not racist” for wearing it.  Now, if we want to be very charitable, we can grant that it’s possible she’s merely strikingly obtuse—ignorant of the cultural context and the history of minstrelsy that makes wearing black makeup to dress as Nicki radically different from donning a blonde wig to dress as Marilyn Monroe—rather than “racist” in the sense of being motivated by a subjective intent to mock or demean black people.  Some readers may recall “Tokyo Breakfast,” an early viral video that played this sort of cultural confusion for laughs by presenting an ersatz sitcom in which an upbeat Japanese family infatuated with hip-hop culture gleefully toss around the N-word, seemingly innocent of how offensive what they’re saying is.

Here, George Carlin’s famous “Only Words” routine got it half right: Carlin says that “offensive” words, such as ethnic slurs, are harmless in themselves; it’s “context” and “intention” that make them offensive. He’s right about context: A string of letters or phonemes becomes a “slur” only by dint of a cultural and historical context in which it is frequently used pejoratively.  But he’s wrong about “intent,” because language is a collective enterprise.  If I were to make a personal decision to use the phrase “fuck you” to mean “thank you ever so much,” I should not be surprised when people nevertheless take offense despite my subjective intention, and I would at the very least be culpably obtuse in failing to anticipate the predictable reaction of my listeners.

One reason public discourse about racism and sexism tends to be so acrimonious—though certainly not the only one—may be that we don’t explicitly enough distinguish “harmless torturers” cases from the “bad old days” variety.  Sophisticated critics, of course, routinely stress that misogyny and racism are fundamentally structural problems that can be perpetuated by actions that don’t necessarily require the individuals perpetuating them to harbor any malicious intentions or vulgar attitudes.  But that’s still what we most automatically associate with the claim that something is “racist” or “sexist”—leading people to take umbrage (often in bad faith, but presumably at least sometimes sincerely) when a particular utterance or action is called out.

More precisely, there are two distinctions we may want to make.  One is between intention and effect, the other between individual and collective or aggregate harms.  These are, unsurprisingly, related: It’s hard to plausibly claim you didn’t mean any harm by punching someone in the face, because that action is so obviously harmful regardless of what anyone else does. (To paraphrase Kant, when the consequences of an action are clearly foreseeable, we regard them as “intended” even if they’re not part of the actor’s core aim.)  It’s much easier to say you didn’t mean your “friendly” compliment to harass or intimidate someone when the harassment or intimidation are a cumulative effect that depends on a dozen other remarks you didn’t observe.

Any pairing of intended/unintended and individual/aggregate is logically possible, but unintended/aggregate harms are the trickiest ones to address, because they require people to recognize as culpable conduct that not only wasn’t meant to cause harm, but often wouldn’t be harmful taken in isolation. What’s especially thorny here is that we consider conduct blameworthy only when an actor knows or reasonably ought to know that it is causing harm, either individually or in the aggregate.  A foreign visitor who, like the “Tokyo Breakfast” family, uses an offensive term without realizing that it is offensive is not necessarily a bad person—but is blameworthy if he keeps using it after being told.  When a harm is less obvious, because cumulative or systematic, people may resist changing their conduct because they think it means accepting a negative judgment of their character based on what they did in ignorance.

Changing people’s conduct, in these cases, is rendered more difficult because it may require us to thread a tricky rhetorical needle: On the one hand, we want people to regard certain behavior as blameworthy if they keep doing it once they understand its aggregate effects, which may not have been obvious to them. On the other hand, we risk provoking unnecessary psychological resistance if people think that acknowledging those effects requires them to accept a kind of retroactive indictment of their character based on how they behaved when they didn’t know better.  (One thinks of the old joke about the missionary bringing the gospel to an isolated tribe: Were my ancestors damned for not accepting Jesus when they had never heard of him? No, they wouldn’t be damned if they didn’t know. THEN WHY DID YOU TELL ME?)

The tricky balancing act, then, is getting people to see how their conduct may be harmful, or rather, part of a pattern of conduct that is harmful in the aggregate—without requiring them to condemn themselves for not having acknowledged the harm sooner, since that will often make them resist acknowledging it. Unsurprisingly, those who’ve seen the harm tend to get tired of this kind of emotional coddling of people who seem to be in denial about what’s all too apparent to those on the receiving end—especially when addressing groups comprising a mix of those who don’t know any better and straight-up assholes who know but don’t care.  It would take more chutzpah than I can muster to counsel infinite patience, but addressing the Harmless Torturers as a distinct group may be the best way to help prevent them from joining the ranks of the assholes.

Tags: Art & Culture · Language and Literature · Sexual Politics · Sociology



41 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nicholas Weininger // Oct 30, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I think this is incomplete without considering least-cost avoidance and multiplicity of communities. Language is a collective enterprise but that collective is heterogeneous, and this means that there are times when A’s expression may legitimately offend B, but A is not blameworthy for continuing it anyway. Think of a Jewish tourist who visits a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and is distressed by all the swastikas. The right answer to that distress, genuinely and deeply felt though it may be, is almost certainly for the tourist to leave the monastery, not for the monastery to stop using its long-established religious symbols in order to be more inclusive.

    And I think it’s fairly common for people, when told, “hey, that offends me,” to claim to be in that situation: to tell the offended person “well, that’s your problem, go somewhere else then; don’t make me change my perfectly innocent behavior on account of your thin skin.” This is especially true of your gamer example, where one can say “if you find offensive, fine, don’t play it, nobody’s making you; but we like it, and why shouldn’t we play whatever we want?”

    Now most of these people are just being jerks. But you can’t persuade them to stop by saying that that sort of response is *always* jerkish or unjustified, because it isn’t. You need an ethical theory of when people are justified in asking that community or sub-community norms be changed for their comfort, and this is not an easy or obvious thing even for people of great good will.

  • 2 Vox Sentences: What we know about Burkina Faso’s coup // Oct 30, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    […] [Julian Sanchez ] […]

  • 3 전세계의 최신 영어뉴스 듣기 - 보이스뉴스 잉글리쉬 // Oct 30, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    […] [Julian Sanchez] […]

  • 4 Tony Lilich // Oct 31, 2014 at 1:11 am

    This can be sumed up,like this.It all started with a few involved. But,why not put this and this and this,in with this.From what I have noticed,from the beginning. That we have the big bad organizations.Trying to make the little guy.To do what we say.Just because we’re bigger.And,we said so.Plus,what’s even sadder?I have been reading.From the big bad bully.The ones who claim to respect everyone. I have personally been told “to go f… yourself”.I have personally been told “I was a f…ing moron”.I know for a fact . Reading the other #stop…….. That if they don’t know for a fact?They have actually made up stuff.As long as you don’t use exact person’s name . It’s ok.Why even johnnathon blow has even made fun of other human beings.Some thinks it’s ok to be a certain way. Because everybody else is doing it . He’s right.The thing that has made me ashamed?Is nobody wins.That was the question I asked.How do you win?Even youtuber boogie2988.Made a video.Saying he used to be that mean gamer.So,he said it’s not right.Then I saw he was trying to give #stopgamergate,something to use,against #gamegate.Let tell for a fact.That #femfreq has use this,for their cause.If something bad happens . It’s always #gamergate.With not a single piece of evidence. I do not belong to either group. Some from #stopgamergate.Have said I was coward.For not choosing. I told them.It takes a lot of nerve to stand by yourself. Anybody can join a club.The most funnist of it all?Is phil fish is backing the #stop…….It was not that long,ago.He called every gamer a as thief. He also said that all gamers should die.The world thought all gamers were 30yrs old.Live with they’re parents house.And,all gamers should get a real hobby.They thought all gamers are whiney and immature.Maybe ther are right?

  • 5 Alex Welk // Oct 31, 2014 at 9:52 am

    A very cool topic and an interesting one to contemplate in a world of priveledge checking, subtle racism, and cognitive biases. My only concern would be in making sure that there is a causal link from behavior to the imperceptably small harm. In the example it is very clear but in the world it is not so clear, and it is why I am skeptical of most claims of privilege and structural violence being used to try to police the behavior of individuals who have not been proven to be a cause of those problems (even as small a part as one of those thousand torturers).

    I look forward to your next post!

  • 6 Emile // Oct 31, 2014 at 11:36 am

    A great short vlog entry addressing some of this by Jay Smooth is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

    His solution; try to focus on “that thing you did is racist/sexist/etc. because…” rather than on “you are racists/sexists/etc. because you did…”

  • 7 Simon // Nov 1, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    While I think Sanchez is right, I don’t think he realizes his argument is a double-edged sword. The “gamer gate” people probably shouldn’t be offended by legitimate criticism of misogyny, in the same way the woman in the video shouldn’t feel threatened by the few innocent remarks mixed in. They are, though, and for the same kind of reason; they see it mixed in with the incorrect and overtly hostile claims made by people outside their subculture. You can see the same thing with some men (usually conservative men, I think) complaining about “feminazis” or black people not being terribly fond of white people criticizing black culture.
    So I guess I see Sanchez as actually making the problem worse here. Coming up with justifications for your own ‘tribe’ to feel self-righteous in attacking people in other ‘tribes’ isn’t going to help, it’s just going to make people more defensive and hostile to each other.
    I think a better approach would be to encourage people to interpret each other charitably. Not everyone who disagrees with you is automatically a ‘torturer’ who’s a cog in a machine that’s out to get you.

  • 8 AQ // Nov 2, 2014 at 6:25 am

    It seems to follow from this line of reasoning that it’s just never okay for a man to say hello to any remotely attractive woman in public. Random greetings or acts of friendly flirtation contribute to an aggregate of “harassment”. Probably even smiling at a woman or making eye contact would qualify one as a “harmless torturer”. There’s a cute girl at the library you’re actually considering working up the nerve to ask out? Definitely forget about that. That goes beyond “harmless”. Now you’re putting out unmistakable romantic vibes.

    The more decent men who conscientiously hold back, out of respect, from approach and talking to women in public, the more uniformly negative women’s experience of men in public is going to be.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Nov 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

    “It seems to follow from this line of reasoning that it’s just never okay for a man to say hello to any remotely attractive woman in public.”

    There are obviously lots of contextual nuances here, but that’s actually an excellent rule of thumb, yeah.

  • 10 Pithlord // Nov 4, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Julian, could you justify your comment in #9? Surely, there are costs as well as benefits for this rule of thumb. Wouldn’t it be better to say that men should try to get better h at reading vibes and context, as opposed to some total anti-flirtation diktat? I seriously doubt that genderless social contractors in the original position would pick this rule.

  • 11 Don’t Outlaw Catcalling Street harassment is a problem worth addressing, but making it a criminal offense is worse than doing nothing at all. | // Nov 6, 2014 at 1:24 am

    […] who spread awareness of this problem are doing a public service. As the cumulative effect of individual comments becomes more widely understood, some men will stop catcalling, newly aware that the behavior […]

  • 12 UserGoogol // Nov 6, 2014 at 6:36 am

    Pithlord: Why not? Even more generally, it just seems like a generally good idea to leave people alone.

    Even setting aside the issues of gender, people have wildly different comfort levels with social interaction. Being talked to by a stranger can be uncomfortable even without any broader social baggage if you’re just really introverted. (btw: I am really introverted.) So it would seem like the path to maximizing freedom is to allow people to control what sort of social situations they’ll be in. You need some sort of baseline level of social interaction so society doesn’t collapse, but chatting up strangers isn’t really a part of that. Obviously there’s a cost at the other end of people losing out on social interactions they might enjoy, but I’d say the ideal would be to encourage people to find other ways to meet people that don’t involve talking to people who are just trying to read.

  • 13 Christopher Ritchie // Nov 6, 2014 at 10:30 am

    There is a specific problem I notice in these sorts of discussions where people retreat from the actual, historical thing that is happening into generalities because the actual events as they happen are uncomfortable.

    In this instance, it’s all great and gravy that yeah, perhaps in some instance, at some point, you might miss out on the love of your life if you don’t relentless tell random women on the street to smile, but it misses the actual context of the majority of women’s lives. The question I often ask when discussing these matters is this; When say watching a video on street harassment, how do you feel if the women involved is your 13 year old daughter. Suddenly the emotional calculus shifts. That women should be able to walk down city streets, about their business, without the constant intrusion into their lives of men commenting on their appearance is not a radical suggestion.

    More-so, people seem to have trouble recognizing that their own behavior acts within an environment and history. If not responding to a ‘Hey Beautiful, Smile’ resulted in a ‘Hey Bitch, you too good for me?’ or some other yelling insult, how many times does that have to happen before a general hostile reaction to all such comments is warranted?

    Or in the most simple of terms; If somebody tells you to stop doing something because it hurts them, unless doing so hurts you in some obvious way, why wouldn’t you just do it?

  • 14 How climate change is like street harassment | Grist // Nov 6, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    […] Sanchez wrote a great post last week using Parfit’s thought experiment as a lens through which to view current debates […]

  • 15 전세계의 최신 영어뉴스 듣기 - 보이스뉴스 잉글리쉬 // Nov 7, 2014 at 12:28 am

    […] Sanchez wrote a great post last week using Parfit’s thought experiment as a lens through which to view current debates […]

  • 16 KUTIL KELAMIN // Nov 11, 2014 at 12:08 am

    Terimakasih Atas informasinya, sedikit share dari kami…..

  • 17 Bary // Dec 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    AQ // Nov 2, 2014 at 6:25 am

    “It seems to follow from this line of reasoning that it’s just never okay for a man to say hello to any remotely attractive woman in public.”

    A friend and I once met a guy named ‘Thurston Howell’ (you youngsters can TiwGoogaGram it).

    I made a ‘Gilligan’s Island’ joke.

    My friend looked at me and said ‘like he’s never heard that before’.

  • 18 Bary // Dec 11, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    ” Wouldn’t it be better to say that men should try to get better h at reading vibes and context, as opposed to some total anti-flirtation diktat? ”

    I have a feeling that that would reduce the number of ‘interactions’ considerably. 90%?

  • 19 AQ // Dec 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    “There are obviously lots of contextual nuances here, but that’s actually an excellent rule of thumb, yeah.”

    Those who are aware of contextual nuances don’t need a dumb blanket rule of thumb. Contextual awareness does ALL the work.

  • 20 MH // Jan 9, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    “Those who are aware of contextual nuances don’t need a dumb blanket rule of thumb. Contextual awareness does all the work.”

    Those who *think* they are aware of contextual nuances are probably suffering from some degree of hubris and inadvertently playing the role of Harmless Torturers. Women who want to be approached by men will place themselves in an appropriate social environment (ie one that is safe) where a polite introduction is appropriate .

  • 21 MASSIVE Occasional Link Roundup // Jan 10, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    […] 6. Julian Sanchez writes about harassment and “harmless torturers”: […]

  • 22 Eggo // Jan 30, 2015 at 2:39 am

    Do you just really enjoy being attacked by the people you’re trying to help? Are you a masochist of some kind?

    Also, your framing metaphor assumes a constant marginal harm caused by pain at any level. Think about that for a second.
    I’ve stubbed my toe hundreds of times in my life, so that basically adds up to being shot, right?

  • 23 Don't Outlaw Catcalling - Racist Not Racist // May 25, 2015 at 3:37 am

    […] who spread awareness of this problem are doing a public service. As the cumulative effect of individual comments becomes more widely understood, some men will stop catcalling, newly aware that the behavior […]

  • 24 Voting is Rational and Good | squarely rooted // Jun 29, 2015 at 9:33 am

    […] and also correct, answer, is “yes” and this is a very potent argument in the context of many cultural problems as well as climate change. It is similarly potent here as well; so long as we accept that […]

  • 25 漢土漢方 // Nov 30, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    NEW勃動力三體牛鞭 は従来の「勃動力三體牛鞭」に比べると、効果がさらに50%UP、体への負担も感じさせないように、黄牛鞭を主原料として、高麗人参、鹿茸等、貴重な漢方薬材も用いて伝統漢方医学原理に基づき、現代技術と製造法により生産された新製品です。

  • 26 Chaussures Supra Skytop // Mar 18, 2016 at 7:44 am

    your framing metaphor assumes a constant marginal harm caused by pain at any level.

  • 27 forum lendir // Apr 26, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Thank you for some other informative blog. The place
    else may I get that kind of information written in such
    a perfect approach? I’ve a undertaking that I’m simply now
    operating on, and I’ve been on the look out for such information. http://forumnakal.com

  • 28 forum dewasa // May 8, 2016 at 3:36 pm


  • 29 Web Design Company // May 17, 2016 at 7:14 am

    Harassment, the person who involved must be Hanged, hope next never anyone try to do this.

  • 30 Open Thread and Link Farm, Empty Chairs At Empty Theaters Edition | Alas, a Blog // Jul 28, 2016 at 8:20 am

    […] Harrassment, Racism, & “Harmless Torturers” Also really interesting to think about in light of “what does it matter if I vote?” arguments. […]

  • 31 永久漢方 // Aug 17, 2016 at 10:47 pm


  • 32 精力剤 // Aug 17, 2016 at 10:48 pm


  • 33 精力剤 // Oct 24, 2016 at 2:39 am


  • 34 Bulls Snapback Caps // Nov 13, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    There’s a cute girl at the library you’re actually considering working up the nerve to ask out? Definitely forget about that. That goes beyond “harmless”. Now you’re putting out unmistakable romantic vibes.

  • 35 Casquette Fox // Jan 17, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    your framing metaphor assumes a constant marginal harm caused by pain at any level.

  • 36 paket umroh desember // May 18, 2017 at 6:18 am

    ingin umroh yang murah dan amanah silahkan klik dinsini

  • 37 Alhijaz Tour // May 30, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    artikel yang sangat bagus dan bermanfaat..thanks

  • 38 Forum Bokep // Sep 26, 2017 at 12:11 am

    good article, nice post

  • 39 forum dewasa // Oct 26, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    terima kasih untuk infonya

  • 40 シアリス 100mg // Dec 12, 2017 at 10:04 pm

    Cialis シアリス 100mgはバイアグラに代わってED治療の最新商品。

  • 41 Dealer Honda Cilacap // Jan 23, 2018 at 12:04 am

    terimakasih banyak infonya

Leave a Comment