Maggie O’Brien – ‘Easy for You to Say,’

Because it is ‘easy for you to say,’ are you any more or less justified to speak on specific topics? In her thoughtful and well-written paper, ‘Easy for You to Say,’ Edinburgh’s Maggie O’Brien explores this curious issue. She does so first by looking at the case of Zadie Smith, an apparently beautiful and accomplished author, who has recently been criticized for her comments regarding the disparate time spent between her son and daughter preparing their appearance. Her daughter, much to Smiths’ chagrin, had been taking more and more time preparing her appearance. Her son had not. This was for Smith concerning and indicative both of the broader pressure placed on young women to fit a specific beauty standard and the effect this had on her daughter. Smith then purportedly criticized the beauty industry and the effect of make-up on women more broadly.

For her comments, Smith was criticized: ‘Easy for you to say’ or ‘You don’t get to say that’ were the themes of her criticisms. Smith was, after all, beautiful and had no need for makeup to meet conventional beauty standards. Nor could she be aware of the various effects make-up and its industry have on women that do not fir conventional beauty standard. Smith simply couldn’t understand what it’s like to need make up, her criticizer levied; it was ‘easy for her to say,’ so she shouldn’t say it.

Maggie interprets accusations of ‘easy for you to say’ as being possibly concerns of 1) epistemology or 2) standing. On the epistemic account, Maggie explores that levies of ‘easy for you to say’ are directed at the speaker’s capacity to make accurate calculations about what is going on: ‘you’re beautiful, Smith, so you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to rely on make-up.’ Maggie dismisses this account, though, because it is clear that accusations of ‘easy’ are directed not at the content of what is being said, but to the speaker; it is, after all ‘easy for you to say,’ not ‘what you say is wrong.’ This leads Maggie to embrace an interpretation of the ‘easy’ accusation as being directed at standing. Maggie asks: ‘if something is easy for you to say, do you thereby lose the standing to say it?’ and if so, ‘why?’ She then frames the discussion around two accounts of standing: 1) the right or entitlement account wherein a speaker is not entitled to blame for specific reasons and 2) the speech act account wherein a speaker fails to blame in a similar way an officiate fails to marry when declaring ‘I now pronounce you married.’

Maggie then explores four possible ways in which an individual can lose standing: 1) one’s blame would be hypocritical, 2) one is involved in the person’s wrongdoing, 3) one is not warranted in believing that the persons is in fact blameworthy for the wrongdoing, and 4) the person’s wrongdoing is none of one’s business. Maggie tries the Smith case against all of these and concludes that Smith, and indeed anyone of relative privilege, should speak out despite (or perhaps because) they are in the position to do so.


The Discussion

The discussion that ensued coalesced around three topics: 1) the two accounts of ‘standing’ that frame the discussion (entitlement vs. speech act). 2) The relationship between epistemic status and standing as denoted in Maggie’s paper. On this point, some questions were raised: Does epistemic status have any bearing on standing? What account of epistemology is employed? The ‘standpoint’ epistemology? Are there degrees of standing that might be informed by epistemic positionally? Or is it all or nothing? Finally, 3) the relationship between epistemic positionally and the content of speech. Does one’s social position effect the truth-content of her speech?