Tuesday 28 June 2022

Italian Heroes: the role of gender specific images in the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic

Today's post is by Veronica Valle, philosopher of perception and of the cognitive sciences, who recently completed a doctoral project at the University of Macau. Here she discusses some of her work on the Moral Roots of Quarantine project.

Veronica Valle

The war metaphor has been largely dominating the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemics worldwide, with many voices having highlighted the potential and factual negative effects of such a rhetoric. Our paper focuses on one aspect that has been overlooked: the interplay between deeply rooted gender stereotypes and the use of the war metaphor.

We carried out an investigation of the embedded use of gender-specific images in the war narrative that characterized the anti-pandemic public discourse in Italy during the first wave. By employing textual semiotics and theories in pragmatics, we analyze a relevant selection of texts (e.g., social advertising ads, newspaper articles, statements made by politicians, etc.). The results of the analysis suggest that the war metaphor and gender-specific images have been jointly employed to reflect the gender biases still permeating the Italian society and culture.

The rhetoric of war is found to be closely linked to a representation of leadership characterized by the stereotypical traits of hegemonic masculinity (e.g., strength, firmness, and bravery). In effect, leading roles in the Italian management of the health crisis were associated with male actors, and the rational and unemotional communication of governmental decisions was entrusted to male politicians, scientists, and doctors. In contrast to the predominantly stereotypically masculine narrative of the leadership, the representation of the ‘heroes’ has been largely symbolic and has widely relied on the employment of feminine images. 

During the first wave, the two pictures symbolizing the health-workers’ heroism depict two women: Elena Pagliarini, a nurse fallen asleep on her desk still wearing PPE, and a fictional female health-worker (drawn by Franco Rivolli) with angel wings, affectionately looking down at the Italian country, which she holds in her arms as a baby. An analysis of these two iconic female images reveals their place – hinged on stereotypical femininity – within the rhetorical narrative of the pandemic as a war. Although female nurses and, less often, doctors have been associated with the word “hero”, they were depicted as fragile and vulnerable, yet resilient, motherly, and always young and beautiful.

Expanding our analysis to a larger set of images, we argue that not only masculine and feminine images are structurally different, but they are also associated to different communicative tones and intentions. Feminine images are associated to strongly emotionally charged textual contents, having the perlocutionary function of triggering emotions (in particular empathy, protectiveness, and gratitude). On the other hand, masculine images are associated to appeals to strength and calm, with the (intended) perlocutionary effect of triggering action.

In the Italian context, the war narrative is embedded in a patriarchal framework where roles are assigned based on gender, complying with the masculine vs feminine patriarchal stereotype. In this context the use of the war metaphor and the employment of stereotypical female images jointly deliver and reiterate a specific hierarchical model and the patriarchal value system that still characterizes the Italian society, leading to – and working as a ready-at-hand justification of – the exclusion of women from the corridors of power.

Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Moral Roots of Quarantine: Interview with Nevia Dolcini

In today's post, I interview Nevia Dolcini, philosopher of mind based at the University of Macau, on the project The Moral Roots of Quarantine.

Nevia Dolcini

Lisa Bortolotti: What did you set out to investigate in the project The Moral Roots of Quarantine?

Nevia Dolcini: The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic prompted a series of unprecedented events worldwide. As an Italian living in Macau, I first witnessed the effects of the Wuhan outbreak, and I later experienced the first wave and consequent lockdown in Italy. I was bewildered by my observations of the wide-ranging public reactions to the same emergency.

For instance, while masks in Macau were accepted since the first day into the pandemic, in Italy their efficacy was questioned at length. Interestingly, the pandemic discourses across East and West were highly ‘moralized’. These observations inspired the project “The Moral Roots of Quarantine”, funded by the Macau S.A.R. Government Higher Education Fund, which sets out to carry on a comparative investigation of the measures taken by legislators in different countries and the moral justifications provided in their support, as well as the role of shared moral beliefs in shaping the public responses.

LB: So, one of the objectives of the project was to compare various aspects of the quarantine measures imposed during the pandemic in different countries. Can you offer an example of the differences you observed?

ND: In the first phase, while in Europe the compliance with the mandated anti-pandemic measures was monitored in traditional ways (e.g., roadblocks and checkpoints), China combined more traditional with innovative measures, such as contact-tracing apps. A stark difference was noticeable in terms of the community response: the call to download contact tracing apps was coldly received in many Western countries under the concern of potential threats to personal privacy, yet they were more positively accepted in China, where these apps were regarded as a tool for protecting families and the community.

LB: What were the main findings of the project?

ND: We found that the global status of an emergency might not be sufficient to justify a homogeneous response to it. The effectiveness of a measure depends on multiple factors, including the socio-cultural context in which it is implemented as well as the communicative strategies employed. The latter aspect has been given special attention in our work: the effectiveness of the anti-pandemic public discourse depends greatly on the capacity of the public communication to leverage on the community-wide accepted ‘moral outlook’ (e.g., the case of the contact-tracing apps).

Interestingly, we also found that the communication of extraordinarily restrictive measures has often exploited stereotypes and common views that are potentially hurtful to specific groups of the population, in particular women, health-workers, and immigrants.

LB: What impact do you expect the project to have on current and future responses to health threats such as COVID-19?

ND: While it is beyond the scope of this project to assess the scientific value and efficacy of the responses to the pandemic, our aim is to highlight the contribution that the humanities and the social sciences can bring to the table in times of crisis. With this aim in mind, in December 2021, we held an interdisciplinary conference participated by researchers from various countries.

One thing that has emerged is that, for instance, the same preventive measure, e.g., lockdowns as the extreme form of social distancing, while generally backed up by scientific research, have had different outcomes depending on the social, geo-demographic, and cultural context in which they have been enforced. As argued by Alex Broadbent, while lockdowns may be effective in rich countries, they have shown to offer no protection to people living in circumstances in which the risk posed by COVID 19 is lower than other threats to life, so that lockdowns have in fact increased those other risks. This is only one of the many examples of the contribution that non-medical disciplines could bring to the table. 

LB: As part of the project, you created an interdisciplinary network of researchers worldwide. What were the disciplines involved and why was this range of expertise needed?

ND: Beside various branches of philosophy, other disciplines include anthropology, the cognitive sciences, economics, political theory, communication studies, and history. While the study of general cognitive tendencies is a fundamental tool to understand (and possibly predict) the public reaction to given measures, a more comprehensive study of a population – contextualized in its socio-cultural background – may help to shape the public discourse more effectively, and therefore to enhance the chances for a successful intervention.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Expert Shopping: What is it? Why should we worry about it?

This post is by Gabriele Contessa. Gabriele is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research interests lie at the intersection of social epistemology, philosophy of science, and political philosophy. He is currently working on a book in which he develops and defends a social approach to public trust in science.

Gabriele Contessa

When it comes to specialized knowledge, most of us depend on experts. If we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with our car, we take it to a mechanic, when we are sick, we go to a doctor, and, when it’s time to file our taxes, we hire a tax accountant. But how can we choose which experts to trust without either becoming experts ourselves or falling prey to quacks, shams, or other pseudo-experts? The standard answer is that, when selecting experts, we should carefully consider the evidence for and against their trustworthiness. This might include examining the expert’s credentials, inquiring about their reputation, checking their track record, and, when in doubt, getting a second opinion.

This standard answer, however, makes two crucial assumptions. The first is that we typically choose our own experts; the second is that, when we do, we typically try to choose the most credible ones. However, it is unclear how often both assumptions hold in real-world situations. A particularly interesting set of cases in which one of these assumptions does not hold is when we engage in expert shopping. In general, expert shopping occurs whenever we select a supposed expert because they tell us what we want to hear irrespectively of any evidence that bears on their credibility or on the correctness of their opinions. 

The most familiar kind of expert shopping is what elsewhere I have called cynical expert shopping. A standard example of cynical expert shopping is the defense lawyer who selects an expert witness not because he has reason to believe that her testimony will be true but because he believes her testimony might contribute to instil doubt in the mind of the jurors.

However, while cynical expert shoppers show no interest in the correctness of the expert’s opinion, not all expert shoppers display a comparable disregard for the truth. Unlike cynical expert shoppers, wishful expert shoppers are typically not disinterested in the correctness of expert’s opinion, but they are still willing to disregard the evidence that bears on the expert’s credibility or the correctness of their opinions. A standard case of wishful expert shopping is that of the cancer patients who forgo mainstream medical treatment on the advice of a quack who claims to be able to treat cancer without side effects.

While it might be tempting to dismiss wishful expert shopping as a marginal phenomenon due to individual gullibility, I believe that this assessment underestimates both the extent and the seriousness of problem. I suspect that, in fact, we all engage in wishful expert shopping more often than we would like to admit. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to controversial policy matters, when each side of the debate tends to rely on its “own” experts and tends to regard the experts on the other side as quacks or shills. 

This situation is made even worse by the fact that we often do not even shop for experts ourselves, but, instead, we rely on what elsewhere I have called assisted expert shopping. That is, we let people or organizations we trust (including news organizations, think tanks, politicians, or political parties) engage in expert shopping on our behalf.

Citizens of liberal democracies must rely on experts to form warranted opinions on many policy-relevant issues and to assess the effectiveness of the policy proposals of political candidates and parties. If, as I suggested, expert shopping is a widespread phenomenon in the political arena, then this undermines the possibility of the sort of healthy public debate about policy on which the proper functioning of liberal democracies depends. Far from being a marginal phenomenon caused by individual gullibility, expert shopping, thus, has the potential to undermine the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Tuesday 7 June 2022

AAPP Annual Conference 2022 report

This post is by Eleanor Harris. Eleanor Harris is a Philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research explores Delusions, Epistemic Injustice, and Epistemic Vigilance. Here, she provides a report on The Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry's (AAPP) annual conference.


AAPP conference poster 2022

The Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry (AAPP) held their 33rd annual conference on 21st-22nd May 2022 at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike previous years’ conferences that had a set theme which was narrower in focus, the theme for this year’s annual conference was open to all topics that address either philosophical issues that are relevant to psychiatry, or psychiatric issues with relevance to philosophy. Over two days there were a total of 19 talks, on a wide range of topics such as psychiatric euthanasia, policing and the production of the mental health crisis, and issues with defining and taxonomizing mental illness. I give a brief summary of four of the talks below.

On the first day of the conference, I gave a talk entitled ‘Delusions: Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Vigilance’. I argued that speakers with delusions are vulnerable to epistemic injustice due to the existence of negative stereotypes. I also argued that Sperber and colleagues’ (2010) notion of epistemic vigilance – evolved mechanisms for guarding ourselves against misinformation – could explain why we are epistemically on our guard when evaluating claims issuing from speakers with delusions. 

I suggested that we face a prima facie epistemic-ethical dilemma between preserving the epistemic benefits of epistemic vigilance and avoiding epistemic injustice and its ethical costs. I aimed to dissolve the dilemma by picking out some of the distinctly epistemic costs of epistemic injustice, such as discounting informative testimony, and therefore concluded that epistemic injustice leaves us epistemically, as well as ethically, worse off.

Eleanor Harris

The Edward Wallace Lecture keynote speech was given by ┼×erife Tekin from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Tekin talked about ‘Ethics of Distributing Psychotherapy Chatbots to Refugees: Stuff WEIRD People Do’. Tekin applied Heinrich’s (2020) exploration of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) people to raise concerns about recent attempts to meet the need for mental health care during refugee crises by using chatbot apps. Tekin argued that distributing AI psychotherapy chatbots to refugees is problematic because such chatbots assume that WEIRD characteristics are universal across cultures, and therefore impose WEIRD standards to understanding and treating mental illness. 

For example, the psychotherapy chatbots Tekin investigated assumed that its users would be analytical (the chatbots suggest users should reason better to help their mental health) and control-oriented (users should “take charge” of their thoughts and feelings). Tekin suggested that characteristics such as analytical and control-oriented are not universal but are instead particular characteristics of WEIRD people. Thus, AI psychotherapy chatbots problematically impose WEIRD standards on treating refugees with mental illness, and there is no conclusive data that using these bots helps refugees. Moreover, Tekin argued that using chatbots rather than actual therapists to treat refugees contributes to dehumanisation.

On the second day of the conference, Kathryn Petrozzo from the University of Utah gave a talk entitled ‘Less Than Whole: Implications of Reduced Agency of Individuals with Psychiatric Disorders’. Petrozzo opened her talk by appealing to the intuition that if someone is less than fully agential, then they are less responsible (and less blameworthy) for their actions. Therefore, if individuals with mental illnesses have reduced agency, then they should be held less accountable for their crimes. However, Petrozzo argued that the suggestion that those with mental illness have reduced agency can actually have negative real-world consequences because of how mental illness is perceived as dangerous. 

For example, Petrozzo cited Hall and colleagues (2019), who found that individuals with a prior diagnosis of a mental illness face 50% longer prison sentences than those without a diagnosis of mental illness. Therefore, Petrozzo argued that we face a “dual-use dilemma” for reduced agency: the notion of reduced agency of individuals with psychiatric disorders was put forward to promote good, however labelling those with mental illness as less than fully agential also has the potential to cause harm.

Justin Garson, from City University of New York, gave the talk ‘Madness and Idiocy: Rethinking the Problem of Defining Mental Illness’. Garson suggested that although we usually define madness via negativa, in opposition to sanity, Late Modern theorists of madness (19th century) distinguished madness from sanity and idiocy. Garson argued that these three concepts (madness, sanity and idiocy) were distinguished in relation to the functioning of the reasoning capacity: sanity involves proper functioning, idiocy involves diminished or even abolished functioning, and madness involves perverse functioning. 

Therefore, madness could not be defined via negativa as a lack of reason, as madness contains reason. Garson presented various Late Modern attempts to solve the following problem: how can madness contain reason, and yet a mad person not be reasonable? For example, Arthur Wigan (1844) suggested that rather one brain with two hemispheres, we have two brains. Madness occurs when one brain is healthy and the other is sick, and therefore madness necessarily involves a clash between reason (the healthy brain) and unreason (the sick brain). Garson concluded that recasting the problem of defining madness as Late Modern theorists did – contrasting madness with sanity and idiocy, rather than sanity alone – encourages us to seek a positive definition of madness, rather than defining madness merely as an absence of reason.

Many thanks to the conference organisers Peter Zachar (Auburn University Montgomery), John Tsou (Iowa State University) and John Z Sadler (UT Southwestern), and everyone at AAPP.