The Virtues of Resilience: Virtue Ethics for Strangers in America

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After enjoying New Year’s holidays in New York in 2011, I took a flight heading to Atlanta. I sat on an aisle seat near a window; a middle-aged white woman sat on another aisle seat next to me and a Hispanic young woman, holding her baby, sat next to the white woman. Fastening my seat belt, I found that the Hispanic woman tried to say something to the white woman. But, it seemed the white woman barely understood what she said. Again, she tried to say something, and then the white woman abruptly said with a jarring voice, “what? I can’t understand your English!” Since I sat next to the white woman, I could see her face, and it seemed she was annoyed and disturbed. Then, the Hispanic woman burst into tears in silence. The white woman seemed embarrassed, and said to her, “I am sorry.” But, she kept crying and did not make any sound at all; hanging   her head (in shame), she just cried silently. Her baby was at her bosom and tried to wipe out her tears, and in silence too.

Even though almost five years have passed since I witnessed this story of the Hispanic woman, still I vividly remember the tears rolling down her face. What broke my heart was her crying in silence: hanging her head, she was biting her lips while crying and trying not to let her voice heard. Given my own experiences in my daily life as a Stranger (formerly known as a foreigner) in America, this woman’s story is not just about an individual’s bad luck, but represents the everyday experience of strangers in America: specifically, foreigners in America whose English is not their first language and different from the so-called “American Native English.” Due to what Americans calls “poor or broken English,” we1 are often vulnerable to the micro-level of aggressions such as facial expressions or small-talks. Social psychologists name these aggressions “racial microaggressions”: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults that potentially have harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group.”2 These microaggressions are “so pervasive and automatic in daily interactions,” so this invisible and permeated nature makes the strangers more vulnerable to this menacing phenomenon.3

Given this everyday experience of microaggressions, I ask myself how we, the strangers, envision a healthy moral philosophy for us. G. E. M. Anscombe calls for doing moral philosophy based on “an adequate philosophy of psychology” which might provide an account of “human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing.’”4 In other words, she claims that moral philosophy should begin with a descriptive project on the humanity rather than a normative assertion of obligation and duty.

Following her methodology for moral philosophy, in this paper, for the reconstruction of moral philosophy, I begin with a descriptive project on what are good for the strangers: an adequate account of the strangers’ flourishing. However, I argue that we cannot fully describe what are good for us, unless we have an adequate description of our suffering that often impedes our flourishing. Therefore, in order to explore an account of flourishing for the strangers, I begin with a phenomenological description of strangers’ suffering in America by drawing on Simone Weil’s thick-descriptive account of affliction.

In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil presents us an adequate account and a thick description of the bitter experience of human suffering through the concept of affliction. According to Weil, affliction incorporates a dimension of physical suffering, but it is not just bodily pain or suffering; it is “an uprooting of life.”5 Affliction entails social and psychological dimensions as well as a physical dimension. As an attack on the social dimension, affliction involves “social degradation and the fear of it.”6 For example, a person might be regarded as unclean or Other. This attack on the social dimension influences the psychological dimension. Affliction forces us to internalize social degradation into our very soul: “like a red hot iron, it stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust, and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement.7 Weil’s concept of affliction involving destructive attacks on all three dimensions of human life, indeed, offers us a thick description of human suffering, which seems an unavoidable phenomenon in human life and a stumbling block for human flourishing.

Going back to the story of the Hispanic woman representing strangers’ daily suffering from the microaggressions, we might not able to find a source of attack in the physical dimension. Nevertheless, the Hispanic’s experience may be analyzed through the concept of affliction. The indispensable part of affliction is social degradation. Like a sharp spear, the white women’s saying penetrated her soul; for her, “I can’t understand your English,” was translated into “I can’t accept you.” In other words, she was embarrassed and ashamed, and at the heart of her shame, a bitter sense of rejection and denial lies. Indeed, she was denied and rejected as Other or a Stranger given her “poor or broken English.” More tragically, this experience of social degradation seems to be internalized into her psychological dimension. Like a red hot iron, the white woman’s facial expression stamped her very soul with a sense of contempt, scorn, and even self-hatred and possibly guilt. Again, what broke my heart was her crying in silence: biting her lips, she intentionally tried not to make any sound. She might hate to let others to hear her English and her voice again; or she might hate her English and voice itself.

The description of the Hispanic woman’s affliction reveals strangers’ everyday suffering in America: we are extremely vulnerable to social degradation (denial or rejection as Others or Strangers) and the internalization of the social degradation into our very soul (the sense of contempt, self-hatred, and even guilt; blaming for our “poor or broken English”). As a result of the internalized social degradation, we lost our voices. We are living as somewhat disabled persons: specifically, disabled in communication.8 We remain in painful silence, which forcefully drives us to the more marginalized social-cultural position in America. We are deprived of our ability and/or imagination to build a thick moral life with others, including Americans. Through this descriptive account of strangers’ suffering, we may construe, at least partially, an account of what are good for us (or the strangers’ flourishing): (1) resistance to the internalization of social degradation (the sense of contempt, self-hatred, and guilty) and (2) restoration of thick moral life as equal human beings whose differently-abledness is fully acknowledged and ability to weave meaningful moral relationships with others is restored. The resistance to the internalization would be achieved by breaking strangers’ silence; after this, we would regain our authentic voices given our differently-abledness cultivated in our particular traditions and restore our social ability and imagination as full participants in the moral life in America.

Given the description of the stranger’s flourishing, for the reconstruction of moral philosophy, now we need to ask this question: how can we achieve our flourishing? Based on the Aristotelian framework that understands virtues are constitutive of human flourishing, Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the virtues would suggest an answer to my question9:

[T]hose dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions      which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good.

Following MacIntyre, we call for the virtues which sustain practices for achieving our internal goods—resisting the internalization of social ostracism and restoration our ability/imagination in reconstructing our thick moral life—by empowering ourselves to overcome the daily exposure to racial microaggressions. In a nutshell, for him, the virtues are necessary traits in the quest for human flourishing. In his Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre developed the more sophisticated account of virtues based on his careful reflection on vulnerability, dependence, and animality of the humanity and suggests the importance of (intellectual and moral) virtues in cultivating specific goods: “the ability to stand back from our [immediate] desire” and “the ability to imagine realistically alternative possible futures.10

Given the importance of virtues for achieving human flourishing, including the transcendence of human vulnerability, in MacIntyre’s works, I originally expected that his account of virtues might offer us helpful guidance for what kinds of virtues we need to cultivate for achieving our flourishing. Drawing on Aquinas, he suggested the virtue of misericordia as “grief or sorrow over someone else’s distress…just insofar as one understands the other’s distress as one’s own.”11 This virtue is not just a passion, but the informed virtue by “the appropriate rational judgment [practical reason],” and it extends “one’s communal relationships so as to include those others [the strangers] within those relationships.”12 Even though I certainly acknowledge that the strangers need the virtue of misericordia, I was somewhat disappointed by his concept of this virtue: I had to raise a question of whose virtue? Though we might exercise this virtue, the primary agents of this virtue are not the strangers, since we have been vulnerable to be placed in the asymmetrical power relations. Indeed, the virtue of misericordia primarily belongs to a certain community which already has powers and recourses to extend its own boundary and include the strangers.

After finding this limitation of Macintyre’s account of virtues, the lack of acknowledgement of the asymmetrical power relations in our society, I changed the direction of this paper: exploring what the stranger can exercise (or practice) rather than just receive. Aligning with this direction, in this paper, I envision the virtues of resilience—an orchestration of three virtues of anger, courage and racial hope—and this account of the virtues for the strangers draws on the works of scholars who present us their critical reflections on the human vulnerability/suffering and resilient imagination for the virtues responding to that issue: (1) Audre Lorde critically reflects on her own experiences of racism and responds to racism with anger; (2) Jonathan Lear highlights Plenty Coups’ virtues of courage and radical hope in the face of cultural devastation of the Crow tribe. Although these authors’ accounts of the virtues are shaped by different particular social contexts, there is a common thread running through experiences of the strangers, colored lesbian woman, and Plenty Coups: “it is a vulnerability that we all share simply in virtue of being human.”13

The first virtue of resilience is anger. Reflecting on my experiences, when we are offended by microaggressions due to our English, we lock ourselves in the prison of shame, self-hatred and/or guilt and pile on the wall of silence. Given the inseparable relation between the internalized social degradation and our silence, we need to tear down the wall of silence and calls for what Lorde calls “the transformation of silence into language and action.”14 In other words, in order to resist the internalization of social degradation constituting the strangers’ flourishing, we have to fight against “the tyrannies of silence.”15 As Lorde boldly declares, “My response to racism is anger,”16 we can initiate our struggle to transform our silence into expressed performance by exercising the virtue of anger. This virtue is not just a mere feeling, but it is “loaded with information and energy17: (1) it is a source of information to make us uncover the hidden “exclusion,” “unquestioned privilege”, “radical distortions,” “ill-use,” “stereotyping,” “defensiveness,” “misnaming,” “betrayal,” and “co-optation” which underlie our daily interactions in America18; (2) it is a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change” in our struggle against (internalized) social degradation.19 In a nutshell, anger is the initiating virtue which equips us with reflexive information and powerful energy and motivates us to engage the long journey of resilience to our flourishing.

However, the virtue of anger alone is not enough for the prolonged journey to the strangers’ flourishing. As we already explored, our vulnerability to (internalized) social degradation through microaggressions is so pervasive and permeated into our daily lives, so we call for the sustaining virtue which encourages us to endure the prolonged struggle. I argue that this sustaining virtue is courage. Following Aristotle’s virtue as an “intermediate state of the soul,” the virtue of courage lies in a “mean between cowardice, which is a deficiency, and rash boldness, which is an excess”20: given the strangers’ conditions, the cowardice might be a submission to the fear of internalized social oppression and the rash boldness might be a verbal or physical attack (or violence) against others, specifically Americans. In addition to Aristotle’s account of courage, the virtue of courage (1) properly orients us toward “what is shameful and what is fearful” and (2) sustains us to face the real challenge that might involve “the risk of serious loss and of enduring certain pains.”21 Breaking our silence and raising our voices aloud (specifically, speaking in English with our own particular accents) is not an easy task. Rather, it often involves the heavy psychological stress and the risk of shame: our “poor English” would be slighted or ridiculed in various subtle ways; our “broken English” would puzzle everybody in the class discussion; we have to continuously get out of traumatic remarks and/or images (i.e. someone’s puzzled or annoyed face) while communicating in English with others. Following the virtue of courage developed here, a courageous stranger keeps engaging such a stressful and risky journey to the resistance to the internalization of social degradation.

The virtues of resilience begin with anger and are sustained by courage. And one of the characteristics of courage provides us a call for the ultimate virtue of radical hope: “Courage aims toward what is fine.22 As the word resilience itself connotes something more than a mere survival and/or resistance, the virtues of resilience are completed by the desire for the ultimate telos: in the strangers’ situation, this telos is the restoration of social ability and imagination as full participants in the moral life in America. Given the pervasive and destructive nature of microaggressions in daily interactions, strangers have been deprived of our imagination for what MacIntyre calls “realistically alternative possible futures”23: we have been caught within the devastated present and past. This is why the strangers need the virtue of radical hope: “what makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.”24 Through the virtue of radical hope, strangers would restore our deprived imagination and desire for a better future that we will regain our authentic voices given our differently-abledness cultivated in our particular traditions and become fully equal participants in weaving meaningful moral relationships with others, including Americans. Even though we do not possess enough conceptual infrastructures for this alternative future, we resiliently long for this future flourishing, as infants are “reaching out for sustenance from a source of goodness” in the lack of concepts for what they are reaching out.25 This desire for the future flourishing in the face of devastated imagination and concepts is the virtue of radical hope, which is the final virtue of resilience.

Throughout this paper, I tried to reconstruct moral philosophy for the strangers in America. I began with the phenomenological description of strangers’ suffering and vulnerability and then construed, at least partially, the descriptive account of what are goods for the strangers (our own flourishing). Following the Aristotelian understanding of the virtues and human flourishing, I suggested the virtues of resilience for achieving the strangers’ flourishing: the harmonious orchestration of the virtues of anger, courage and radical hope. I would imagine that Lisa Tessman might name these virtues what she calls “burdened virtues”: political resisters exercise the morally praiseworthy virtues, such as anger, courage, or loyalty, for pursuing an end to oppression (eventual flourishing), but these virtues are burdened in that the virtues “are unlinked from their own flourishing.26 Tessman would acknowledge the virtues of resilience as genuine virtues which are “judged to be the best trait to cultivate in the circumstances” of the strangers and tend to enable their bearers to “perform actions with the aim of eventually making flourishing lives more possible overall.”27 Nevertheless, she would points out that these virtues are yet burdened since their “connection to a flourishing or good life is extremely unreliable” given the pervasive and destructive nature of microaggressions in daily interactions.28

I certainly appreciate Tessman’s account of the burdened virtues which tries to challenge the conventional Aristotelian eudaimonism that does not present the concepts of virtues in systemic injustice and social/political oppression. I also acknowledge that the virtues of resilience are somewhat burdened: breaking silence, resisting the internalization of social degradation, and reweaving moral relationships with others are likely to involve the burden of psychological stress, danger of another aggression, and/or hopelessness given the seemingly unattainable nature of those goals. However, this burden cannot totally rule out these virtues’ connections to the strangers’ flourishing. What she misses in her project on virtue ethics for liberatory struggles is the importance and presence of community in the prolonged journey to flourishing. Yes, it seems that the virtues of resilience are burdened with their risk of the detachment from a good life. However, if the community around the strangers would share the burden, I believe that we can discover a genuinely joyous moment, which is conducive to both present and eventual flourishing, in our perpetual struggle and resistance. Reflecting on my own experiences as one of the strangers who has struggled for my own flourishing, I will conclude this paper with quoting my posting on the Facebook when I was about to start the first semester of my doctoral program, which captures how the community shares the burden in the quest for the strangers’ flourishing:

Living as a “Gentile” [Stranger] in America sometimes puts me an unexpected and difficult situation, but I found again that there are sweet people around me [my communities] who take care of me, which makes me feel grateful and secured.

Again, the burden can be shared by the community: this is the final piece to complete the moral philosophy (or virtue ethics) for the strangers in this paper.

 

Won Chul Shin, PhD Candidate

Emory University

 


  1. As I stated, I myself belong to this community of strangers. Hence, I intentionally use “we” or “our” rather than “they” or “their.” 
  2. Emphasis added. See Derald Wing Sue, Jennifer Bucceri, Annie I. Lin, Kevin L. Nadal, and Gina C. Torino, “Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience.” Asian American Journal of Psychology 8.1 (2009): 88. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. G. E. M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” In Virtue Ethics, ed. by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 26, 44. 
  5. Simone Weil. Waiting for God, trans. Emma Graufurd (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 68. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Emphasis added. Ibid., 70. 
  8. When I first came to America, I often felt that my ability of communication (specifically, speaking and listening) is somewhat disabled. This sense of disability was reinforced by frustration in that I cannot verbally express my thoughts and emotions in English or fully converse with others beyond a superficial level of communication. MacIntyre would hear my point, since he argues: “there is a scale of disability on which we all find ourselves.” See Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 73. 
  9. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 219. 
  10. Emphasis added. See MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 83. 
  11. Ibid., 125. 
  12. Ibid., 123, 125. 
  13. Emphasis added. See Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 8. 
  14. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkely: Crossing Press, 2007), 40. 
  15. Ibid., 41. 
  16. Ibid., 124. 
  17. Emphasis added. Ibid., 127. 
  18. Ibid., 124. 
  19. Ibid., 127. 
  20. Lear, Radical Hope, 109. 
  21. Ibid., 109-111. 
  22. Emphasis added. Ibid., 110. 
  23. MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 83. 
  24. Emphasis added. See Lear, Radical Hope, 103. 
  25. Ibid., 122. 
  26. Emphasis added. See LisaTessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 107-108. 
  27. Ibid., 165. 
  28. Ibid. 


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