Unsung Hero: Alexis Shotwell

Alexis Shotwell, Professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, where she is cross-appointed with the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Philosophy.

Alexis Shotwell argues that in a world where every decision we make ties us to complex networks of suffering (extreme climate change, wealth inequality, exploitation, racism, etc), we attempt to purify ourselves from our moral responsibility. We buy secondhand clothes to avoid supporting sweatshops and environmental costs, we go vegan to avoid being responsible for factory farming, we donate money to important causes. But, this attempt to purify ourselves from our role in the problems of the world is not only impossible (because it relies on a conception of responsibility that ignores the interdependence of human relations) but politically reprehensible because it de-mobilizes collective action. It allows us to try to resolve the traumas of colonialism by giving individual monetary reparations (like in Canada) and focusing on the individual’s responsibility for mental and physical wellbeing, such that things like obesity, addiction, and disease become an individual instead of social moral failing. She argues that we should instead start from the fact that we are inevitably situated and complicit in complex webs of suffering and will never be pure. She applies this analysis to the way that we should understand settler colonialism and global warming.

Suggested reading:

Against Purity, living ethically in compromised times*

*This book has a lot of has a lot of environment materials in it and would be good for the upcoming topic.


“Being against purity means that there is no primordial state we might wish to get back to, no Eden we have desecrated, no pre-toxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and kombucha. There is not a pre-racial state we could access, erasing histories of slavery, forced labor on railroads, colonialism, genocide, and their concomitant responsibilities and requirements. There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering. So, what happens if we start from there?”

(Shotwell 4-5)

Thank you Katherine Fennell for this wonderful suggestion and comprehensive post!

Jayanne Forrest