Ella Whiteley (LSE): “Harmful Salience Structures”

Physical and psychological violence, to false beliefs and credibility deficits, have already been identified as potentially harming an individual or group, but facts about salience have not seemed particularly relevant to harm. In this talk, I argue that certain salience structures can indeed be harmful. One can harm an individual or group simply by making salient the wrong feature about them in one’s attention. I motivate this proposal by considering statements from those who have experienced rape. Drawing out a recurring theme from these statements, I suggest that many of these individuals do not want their experience of rape to become the most salient thing about them—the thing that others attend to the most. This can be explained, I argue, by recognising that attending to people in the wrong way can constitute a minimalist way of disrespecting their personhood. After defending the significance of this minimalist form of harm, I sketch some ways in which harmful salience structures might be implicated in a different context: racism. Systematically attending to certain individuals such that their skin colour, for example, is their most salient feature, plausibly constitutes a particularly subtle and insidious form of racism.

Ella Whitely is an LSE Fellow in Philosophy.