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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Subtlety (and Gender-Neutrality) of Objectification

"I once said cynically of a politician, 'He'll doublecross that bridge when he comes to it.'" - Oscar Levant

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More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification

"Taking off a sweater – or otherwise revealing flesh – can significantly change the way a mind is perceived...

Philosophers, psychologists and feminist theorists have all debated whether focusing on someone's body can influence how his or her mind is perceived. Centuries ago, Immanuel Kant (1780) argued that “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry”... The crux of objectification is that the perceiving someone in a sexual context – such as in pornography – leads people to focus on physical characteristics at the expense of their mental and moral status...

The research and theorizing so far on the nature of objectification presupposes that mind perception can be understood in terms of a single underlying continuum where an entity falls somewhere between no mind (like an inanimate object) and full mind (like a normal human being)...

Recent research indicates, however, that minds are perceived along two dimensions, not one... Agency and Experience. Agency is the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control, while Experience is the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions... This two-dimensional structure of mind perception suggests that past work on objectification is incomplete, as this research has focused almost exclusively on Agency related traits such as competence, intelligence and ambition...

Rather than a conflict between a physical object and an immaterial soul, dualism may be a conflict between rational agency (“mind”) and the seething passions of experience (“body”). People may thus have a tendency to view someone as capable of either agency or experience, as either someone capable of thinking, or as someone capable of feeling...

People seen as bodies are not seen as mindless objects but instead as experiencers – someone more capable of pain, pleasure, desire, sensation and emotion, but lacking in agency. In other words, focusing on the body does not lead to de-mentalization but to a redistribution of mind...

Ascriptions of moral responsibility are linked to perceptions of agency... the more an entity was perceived as capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear and desire, the more it deserved to be protected from harm... Objectification, then, may not be objectification at all. Seeing someone as a body may simply lead to ascriptions of a different kind of mind, with different moral status...

Using sexually suggestive stimuli did not eliminate redistribution of mind, but instead increased it (Experiment 4). The increased perceptions of experience stemming from a body focus led ‘objectified’ others to be seen as relatively reduced moral agents (less morally responsible) (Experiment 5) but relatively greater moral patients (more sensitive to harm) (Experiments 5 and 6)...

This experiment tested that hypothesis by having participants ostensibly administer electric shocks to a confederate who was either depicted as more or less of a body. Specifically, male confederates were pictured with either more or less skin showing, and it was predicted that confederates showing more skin would be shocked fewer times... people who are seen as more of a body are harmed less than people who are seen as more of a mind. This contradicts one idea of objectification, whereby a body focus leads solely to harm...

People fully conceived as only a body, such as those in persistent vegetative states, are seen to have less agency and experience than even the dead...

We found a redistribution of mind regardless of the gender of targets and perceivers. Objectification is often discussed in terms of men objectifying women (e.g., Gervais et al., 2011; Nussbaum, 1995), but we found that both men and women strip agency and confer experience to both men and women when a bodily-focus is induced...
[Ed: One must consider that self-objectification is also a very important aspect to consider]

It is inaccurate to describe the body focus as inducing ‘objectification.’ People who seem especially embodied are not treated as mere physical objects, but instead like non-human animals, as beings who are less capable of thinking or reasoning but who may be even more capable of desires, sensations, emotions and passions. This is consistent with the ideas of Haslam and colleagues, who suggests that we can dehumanize people either by likening them to robots, involving a loss of experience, or likening them to animals, involving a loss of agency...

In work or academic contexts, where people are primarily evaluated on their capacity to plan and act, a body focus clearly has negative effects. Seeing someone as a body strips him or her of agency and competence, potentially impacting job evaluations. Even more than robbing someone of agency, the increased experience that may accompany body perceptions may lead those who are characterized in terms of their bodies to be seen as more reactive and emotional – traits that may also serve to work against career advancement...
[Ed: In light of this, fishnet stockings are worn at one's peril, especially as "I've always found a brief flash of fishnets under a skirt suit a very effective method of tribunal advocacy"]

There may be cases, however, where it is genuinely beneficial to perceive someone as a body. Consider making love to someone. To the extent that the perceived pleasure of a lover is pleasureable to oneself, conceiving as one’s lover as a body could increase the enjoyment of this physical act. Likewise, in medical procedures where the management of pain is important, focusing on the bodies of patients may help doctors cause less pain. Of course, conceiving as lovers and patients as bodies all the time may be harmful, but it could be that selectively using a body focus can be beneficial.
[Ed: i.e. objectification is not always bad]"
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