Music Therapy: The Art of Psychological Treatment

by Sanjana Sankaran, December 20, 2021

Nearly 800,000 people die from suicide every year (Suicide Data). Approximately seventy percent of the American youth that struggle with depression requires treatment (The State). People with depression have a daily battle with themselves to prevent those feelings of despair and loneliness from taking over. Those living with mental health disorders may develop effective coping mechanisms to deal with their issues. Music therapy, a method of therapy and a de-stress technique for which the positive effects are not yet highly known, involves “the professional use of music and its elements as an intervention in medical, educational, and everyday environments with individuals” (Wang and Agius 595). Music therapy not only involves listening to music but also consists of thinking, analyzing, and playing it. Many people view music as a means of amusement and frivolity for those involved. Both mental health issues and the fine arts are often stigmatized in our society. In regards to mental health, several people feel the need to downplay their problems since many illnesses do not manifest with obvious physical symptoms. Hence, society issues out old cliches, suggesting that people need to learn how to ‘deal with their problems.’ In actuality, mental health can affect not only one’s mind but also one’s body and, if left untreated, can severely affect one’s quality of life. Over recent years, many have come to view the fine arts as an impractical endeavor since several jobs in this field may not lead to a stable job or income. Historically, humans have always turned to the arts to express their feelings, through music, visual arts, or the written word. Music can have a profound effect on the biochemical as well as the physiological aspects of the brain. More and more researchers today find that psychotherapeutic drugs are not as effective in treating mental health patients as they used to be, partly due to  drug tolerance. As a society, we must alter  our mindset away from  treating psychological problems exclusively through psychotherapy and drugs and must instead leverage the nontraditional method of music therapy for those  who experience daily stressors and mental health disorders.

The standard practices of mental health treatment today involve two significant methods –  psychotherapeutic drugs and psychotherapy –  both of which, given the statistics of how the rate of mental health diagnosis is accelerating, are not enough. People with mental health disorders nowadays have a lot more options as to how to treat themselves: psychotherapy, medication, case management, hospitalization, therapy groups, alternative medicine, electroconvulsive therapy, and peer support (Mental Health Treatments). In the early- to mid-1900s, methods of curing mental health ailments involved lobotomies and shock therapy. Even with all of the progress made today, a recent study shows that approximately 10 million adults in America have suicidal thoughts,  have not been able to seek treatment or have experienced both. In the past six years alone, the population of youth (ages 12-17) with depression has gone up by 4.35%, and two million kids now have major depressive episodes and need to seek treatment (The State). A team of neuroscientists from Naples, Italy found that antidepressant drug treatments are mostly ineffective for major depressive disorders. (Fornaro e. al. 494). Inefficacy can be attributed to tolerance, an anomaly that occurs when depressive symptoms reappear after previous treatment with antidepressants” with the return of depressive symptoms of MDD occurring in 9–33% of patients across published trials” (Fornaro et al. 494). Drug tolerance can build over time as the body requires higher doses of the drug  in order to have the same effect as the initial dose once did, ultimately resulting in other biological side effects. Many antidepressant drug trials tend to last shorter than 52 weeks, contributing to the  lack of understanding as to how effective these drugs will be long-term. The National Institute of Mental Health stated that 25% of 103 patients had depressive episodes. Further these patients were found to have 43 out of 171 following depressive episodes and experienced drug tolerance after a 20 year follow up (Fornaro et al. 496).   

In the book, Music Therapy in Mental Health for Illness Management and Recovery, written by Michael J. Silverman, the director of the music therapy program at the University of Minnesota, he states that “ even when medications are effective in alleviating the symptoms of mental illness, they do not necessarily facilitate psychiatric recovery as pharmacological treatments do not contribute to the development of knowledge and skills necessary for a successful transition back to the community” (Silverman 55). The state of mental health is worsening – therapies previously used for decades are now proving to be not enough in curbing  the rampant increase in prevalence of depression and other  mental health disorders. Psychiatric treatment needs to implement  a new type of therapy, like music therapy, that includes psychological interventions to analyze how people’s behavioral and thought processes have improved over  time. By seeking new methods of treatments, specifically music therapy, society will move closer towards respecting rather than ostracizing mental health patients. 

Music therapy was developed post World War I and II as a way to ease the minds of many soldiers with PTSD (Craig). Since then, this field has led to a wide range of studies, all seeking to answer the questions of how music therapy works and its purpose. If we have many different types of psychotherapy, why are neuroscientists and psychologists seeking more holistic treatments for their patients that are not guaranteed to work? Let us start with what precisely music therapy is and the basis behind it. Music therapy includes two main facets: psychoacoustics and the appreciation and hearing of music. Psychoacoustics refers to how someone perceives and comprehends music. In contrast, the brain’s mechanisms of appreciation and hearing of music is something that is developed across an entire lifespan and is influenced by many environmental factors (Craig, para. 19-20). 

There are two main methods of music therapy: listening and active playing. When  listening to music, therapists will put on music for the patient, recommended by medical experts who know about the patient’s specific case (Craig, para. 41-42). Some therapists will go down the more analytical route of listening to music. Therapists may ask questions that evoke personal thought analysis and insight. Some may also follow the Bonny method of guided imagery and music. Bonny methods consist of a patient listening to a song and seeing an image. This leads to the therapist asking specific guided questions that lead to the patient talking about their thoughts and emotions (Craig, para. 43-44). Music therapy can change a person’s attention, emotion, memory processing, behavior, and communication. A combination of all of these changes can result in  changes in neural processing that can  effectively change the biochemical state of depressed minds and improve their lives 

  Many studies prove that music therapy has been effective in treating people with mental disorders. In a  study done by Sergio Castillo-Pérez MD and his team, he states that “depression remains a major health problem and, despite using pharmaceutical agents, patients continue to report high levels of unrelieved depression” (Castillo-Perez et al. 390). This group of researchers decided to study a group of low to medium depressed people receiving  psychotherapy treatment compared to music therapy. A group of 79 patients between the ages of 25 to 60 years old were split into the two groups of therapy. The subjects chosen have never taken any psychotherapeutic drugs or have any other neurophysiological problems.  All subjects were asked to self-report their level of depression with a well-known survey known as  the Zung depression scale (Castillo-Perez et al. 387). The subjects self-reported how they were feeling age week for eight weeks. The music therapy itself involved a 50-minute self-administered music session, and once a week the participants would have a group session with doctors and other patients to provide a comfortable environment. The study controlled for stressful environmental variables that may occur such as sudden noises, changes in temperature, any environmental change or trigger (Castillo-Perez et al. 389). 

The psychotherapy administered in this study was standard conductive-behavioral therapy (CBT). At the end of the tests, the researchers quantitatively analyzed the patients’ progress with the Hamilton scale (another type of depression scale) based on their behaviors  and their self-reported scores of the Zung scale. The people with significant improvement meant they had to have a Hamilton scale of 0 to 7. The Hamilton scale was used after the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th weeks. After only three weeks, within the music therapy group,  one person improved; however, none improved within the psychotherapy group.. By the end of the study, 29 subjects improved with music therapy, and only four did not. For psychotherapy, only 12 subjects improved with 16 people showing little to no improvement. These data from the Zung and Hamilton tests were also cross-referenced with the Friedman test, and showed to be statistically significant with a p-value as little as 0.0356 (Castillo-Perez et al. 389).  

As we can see, psychologists and neuroscientists today are doing more and more research regarding music therapy. Castillo-Perez’s study is just one of many examples in which music therapy has proven to improve the quality of life for people with depression more than psychotherapy. The three main methods of treatment for depression today are psychotherapy, antidepressants, and electroconvulsive therapy for severe cases. However, Perez and the rest of his team say, “Pharmaceutical treatments […] make no difference in the odds ratio of suicide attempts” (Castillo-Perez et al. 387). That is what needs to fundamentally change in how we treat and understand therapy for depressed patients. Pharmaceutical drugs will not influence the likelihood of someone committing suicide because there can be many sudden environmental circumstances and triggers. Musical therapy, on the other hand, aims to help depressed patients by trying to invoke the mesolimbic system, which correlates to positive and rewarding thoughts. As people living in  the 21st century, we can understand that there is something special about listening to new music by our favorite artists, or dancing and singing to a high energy song that can affect our minds positively. Songs can reflect how we feel and can heighten our current emotions, and this is something that medicine and therapy at a certain point cannot do as effectively as initially administered. 

As with many people who learn music from an early age, I found that playing a music instrument helped me relax and de-stress, especially after a long day of school and tests. After my piano lessons on Sundays and six-hour days at high school, I would hop on that leather bench and play Emile Pandolfi and feel my heartbeat slow down and my cheek muscles tense from all the grinning. Playing the theme from Harry Potter on the piano was my mode of artistic expression and relaxation. It is easily accessible, then, to imagine how music can help those who have severe emotional or mental disorders. To the parents of kids with mental health disorders, understand that music can be an outlet for kids to release their emotions and can have a tremendous effect on their functioning and behavior; to the kids who never seemed interested in playing music, that is okay. Part of music therapy merely involves passively listening to music in a relaxing setting. Society needs to alter its perspective on music from being misconstrued as a way of wasting time to a way of elevating one’s moods and taking a mental break.  

To truly get an insight on a student’s perspective of music and its effects on mental health, I interviewed a bandmate of mine from high school who has been playing trumpet since the fifth grade. Her lifelong appreciation of music started when she began taking piano lessons in the second grade. She then began taking trumpet lessons and joined the band in the 5th grade and has continued primarily with trumpet since then. When I asked her about her mental health, she said, “As someone who has depression and anxiety, a part of me is always anxious, and the daily fight is not letting it become a 100% of me, and using coping mechanisms to get out of it.” She had to move 350 miles for college and said that it was a difficult transition due to the workload and having to meet new people, making it difficult  to find time to relax. Being a part of the wind ensemble at her college allowed her to ease into the transition of a college student.  When asked how music has helped her with her mental state and journey, she stated, “playing music was definitely a double-edged sword. Although I had stress and anxiety from the responsibilities that came with being on the band e-board, the intrinsic joy I got from getting together with people I cared about and playing amazing music was amazing” (Anonymous). She found that listening to music gave her a sense of solace and tranquility. It allowed her mind to focus on just the music,  and in the process,  she forgot all of her anxieties and elevated her mood. The lyrics, instrumentation, and many other aspects of music therapy can reflect the emotions we feel and can elevate how we feel. Music can alter the state of chemical neurotransmitters in our minds and change our emotions – this is something drugs and psychotherapy cannot do as effectively.  

Due to social media today, music has become much more prevalent in students’ lives and has influenced the way college students handle stressful situations.A significant reason explaining  music therapy’s lack of usage is because there are many misconceptions about the way music therapy works. Music therapy Director of University Minnesota Dr. Silverman, discusses the ill-conceived notions of music therapy, stating that “a common misperception of music therapy is that it is used exclusively to treat musicians” ( 55). Silverman emphasizes that music therapy was always used to help treat people with a broad range of neurological and psychological issues among a variety of adults, children, and seniors. Another common misconception is  that music therapy is not as effective because it is merely the act of passive listening to pre-recorded music. However, music therapy is not just listening to music. Director Silverman says that in a study done comparing two groups of depressed patients who underwent passive music therapy and active music therapy, the active music therapy patients stayed throughout the sessions. Active music therapy involved lyric analysis, recreation music playing, and percussional music therapy (Silverman 55). All of this active participation served as psychological interventions that helped alter the person’s mood, behavior, and mindset.   

In a survey I administered to fellow Stony Brook Students and my fellow high school alumni who have taken part in music since a young age, I discovered their opinions on the use of music in a therapeutic way.  Of the 57 people who responded, 79% played an instrument, 22% of people said they listen to jazz or a variety of orchestral or classical music while studying, 80% of people listen to music when stressed out, and 73% of people found music to be therapeutic overall (“Music As Therapy”). 28% percent of the people I surveyed have mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Even though the  majority of people surveyed did not have disorders, 80% of the people who deal with everyday environmental stressors choose to listen to music to cope. When asked on a scale of one to five (five being complete improvement in mood and one being mood unchanged), 31 people said they felt better after listening to music when they felt anxious, sad, depressed, or other negative emotions. 12 people say their mood completely changed for the better (“Music As Therapy”). Although these results are biased because many of these people have played an instrument, they show that a majority of students understand that music has therapeutic qualities and utilize it as a coping mechanism or a tool when experiencing stress, anxiety, or depressive thoughts. Music is a type of escapism that allows people to avoid focusing  on their current troubles and gives them the ability to focus all of their energy on one thing only – music.  

Having said all of the above, why do people still believe that conventional treatment methods are effective and do not want to change? Discussions of new treatment methods lack because people only know what is largely acknowledged in society. Mental health was and still is stigmatized because it affects one’s  mind and does not often manifest with physical symptoms like cancer. Only in the past few years has the topic of mental health been brought to the forefront. If many Americans do not wish to discuss their mental health problems, then how can new and more productive methods of treatment be used? Therein lies the existing problem that needs to change. Currently, in the time of self-quarantine, anxiety can run high even with people who have not been diagnosed with a  mental health disorder because we live in a time of uncertainty. In a time when the fear of virus spread is high and ‘stay at home’ orders are strict, quarantine serves as an obstacle for people who need weekly in-person therapy sessions. People need to utilize resources at home that are easily accessible to cope with their anxiety, like  music resources. If people are privileged enough to have access to the internet, there are a plethora of resources that can be used for music therapy, such as YouTube, Spotify, or an instrument if one has it. 

Society needs to acknowledge that music therapy is a method that has proven to be successful amongst a wide range of people with varying disorders and varying levels of depression. Well known music therapist Dr. Dany Bouchard eloquently describes how to handle anxiety during the time of COVID: “Music has a connection with memory, brings us emotions, all kinds of stuff. It is how you use it now in order to make it a music prescription” (Rowat, para. 15). Music can help with COVID-related anxiety by serving as a focusing tool that allows our mind to target what is going on now rather than worrying about an uncertain future (Rowat, para. 18). Being open to trying new modes of therapy can  be much more effective for anyone. As time goes on, some people with mental health disorders may have to increase their drug dosage due to drug tolerance that inevitably develops. At times, people who go to therapy may feel that it is not working, and can  revert to unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms. Mental health overall is something that affects people every day through their actions and their emotions. Treatment of mental health disorders is an important aspect of healthcare that needs to be improved;  it is a series of actions and behaviors one takes in order to see an actual result. Music can alter the state of someone’s mood and change someone’s behavior after prolonged daily music sessions. Additionally, the collaborative nature of music therapy allows people with mental disorders to have a massive support system on their path to recovery. Music therapy moves away from the idea persisting in mental health recovery that it is up to the person to improve themselves, and it is a solitary journey. Take 10 or maybe even 20 minutes per day to actively take part in something that involves music, whether it’s through such as playing, writing, singing, or listening.  People with mental health problems are in a daily battle  with their minds to prevent feelings of depression and anxiety from overcoming their thoughts. While psychotherapeutic drugs and therapy are helpful to an extent, music therapy can provide long term positive effects.

Works Cited

Anonymous. Personal interview. 15 April, 2020.

Castillo-Perez, Sergio, et al. “Effects of Music Therapy on Depression Compared with Psychotherapy.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 37, no. 5, Nov. 2010, pp. 387-90. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.aip.2010.07.001. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Craig, Heather. “What Is Music Therapy and How Does It Work?” Positive Psychology, 18 Mar. 2020: par 1-101, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Fornaro, Michele, et al. “The Emergence of Loss of Efficacy during Antidepressant Drug Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder: An Integrative Review of Evidence, Mechanisms, and Clinical Implications.” Pharmacological Research, vol. 139, Jan. 2019, pp. 494-502. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2018.10.025. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

“Mental Health Treatments.” Mental Health America National, Mental Health America: par 1-10, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Rowat, Robert. “We Asked a Music Therapist How to Relieve Anxiety Caused by Social Distancing.” CBC Music, 20 Mar. 2020, p. 1. CBC: par 1-23, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Sankaran, Sanjana. “Music As Therapy.” Survey. 15 April. 2020.

Silverman, Michael J. “An Overview of Music Therapy as a Psychosocial Intervention for Psychiatric Consumers.” Music Therapy in Mental Health for Illness Management and Recovery, Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 60-67. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198735366.001.0001.

“The State of Mental Health in America.” Mental Health America National, Mental Health America, 2017, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

“Suicide Data.” World Health Organization, 27 Sept. 2019, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

Wang, Shentong, and Mark Agius. “The Use of Music Therapy in the Treatment of Mental Illness and the Enhancement of Societal Wellbeing.” Psychiatria Danubina, vol. 30, 30 Nov. 2018, pp. 595-600, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.

An Analysis of Ambiguity in Humans

by Sanjana Sankaran, November 12, 2021

The existentialist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir explained in her book titled, The Ethics of Ambiguity, why humans are ambiguous creatures. Beauvoir first proclaims that humans have felt the ambiguity of the states of life and death for a long time. However, even if people recognize the ambiguity of life and understand that as humans we will all die, they eliminate ambiguity by proclaiming religious immortality, and by saying one should become pure internally and externally (Beauvoir 7). As an advocate for women’s rights and human rights, she believed that in order for people to achieve a sense of freedom they must recognize and appreciate the ambiguity. I will further analyze the importance of ambiguity of life and why Beauvoir’s assessment of the human condition as fundamentally ambiguous is correct. 

After recognizing the concept of ambiguity, Beauvoir then differentiates between the two main types: fundamental ambiguity and the simpler ambiguity.  The fundamental ambiguity of the human experience has two parts: the first being that humans are free, we have the ability to think about the world (consciousness), and we can decide how we wish to act and have a private life (internal) (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). This knowledge gives us strength and power to act (Beauvoir 8). The second part contradicts the first by stating that we are not free because humans cannot escape death in any way. Humans, in many ways, are objects by which external forces can act, so we therefore also have an external existence that cannot be controlled. The simpler ambiguity also has two parts: one is factual and deals with our bodily existence, while the other is free and deals without conscious existence (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). Again, philosophers have been dishonest about the ambiguity of life in two ways; they either deny its existence or they disparage it and deem it as negligible to understand and recognize. So, in this process, their style of ethics try to assert one of the ideas of this dualism of life, complete freedom, and determinism, where all your actions have already been determined and you have no control (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). 

Ambiguity is extremely important to Beauvoir’s style of ethics because she argues that the concept of ethics itself only makes sense within the context of ambiguous creatures like humans. She states that ethics is brought about by the tension of what is and what ought to be. ‘What is’ is the reality of a situation, such as “there is social injustice.” ‘What ought’ is how things should be –  our opinion –  such as “there should not be social injustice”. She argues therefore that ethics becomes valid when we recognize the ambiguity between what we are and what we could and should be (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). Beauvoir’s ethics is the ethics of freedom for humanity, which she claims is the source and goal of all ethics. Freedom is what lets humans express meaning and value about certain things and thus must be willed because humans are ambiguous. To will freedom, humans must first recognize the ambiguity instead of denying it to open up their future and keep the ability to act in multiple ways (Lecture Notes 11/11/2020). 

The human condition is fundamentally ambiguous for three main reasons: we cannot escape death,  there is freedom in the uncertain or ambiguous and, lastly, humans live in constant doubt. Humans cannot escape death; philosophers and other thinkers have tried to escape death by arguing that it does not matter what we do in life as long as we end up pure enough to be in heaven. The same goes for religions that discuss reincarnation; however, we live it does not matter because we will be reincarnated. However, as Beauvoir states, the ends do not always justify the means, nor should one be focused on the means and forget about the end. In the first case, when people ignore the means to achieve their goal, they will commit atrocities to get there (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the case of the serious man, they find a single value the absolute and will become a slave to this value, and find everything else as unimportant. This ultimately results in a fascist regime, cult followers, and other heinous crimes against humanity. The serious man fails to recognize the ambiguity in human existence and that humans are free to set up their own values and not blindly follow the values of others (Lecture Notes 11/16/2020). Nietzsche, one of the fundamental philosophers of the existentialist movement, explains the avoidance of death as an end to asceticism – humans will endure severe self-discipline, abstinence, or a denial of our own enjoyments in favor of the spiritual world, a kingdom of God. He argues that humans have used this to endure suffering under the pretense that it can give life meaning. However, Nietzsche wonders how to avoid ascetic ideals without falling into the trap of nihilism (Lecture Notes 11/2/2020). “The ascetic ideal has an aim – this goal is, putting it generally, that all the other interests of human life should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 23). Asceticism allows for ethics of certainty, not ambiguity; in doing so traps them, and restricts their future. The ascetic ideals, when taken advantage of by cult leaders and tyrants, are often used as a method of oppression. The goal of human life is freedom, not the ascetic ideal. As Beauvoir states, this is achieved by humans having to create their own values, constantly living in doubt, and in the process, gaining genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is something humans have to produce on their  own; we must will it ourselves (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). As Nietzsche states, “Man, the bravest animal and the one most inured to suffering, does not repudiate suffering in itself: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 28). Ambiguity states that life has the ability to be meaningful; however, humans must make life meaningful. Humans have made life meaningful by choosing to stand up for the oppressed and not just assuming an existing value system; they have made it meaningful by protesting injustice and changing unjust laws. They may suffer while standing up for the oppressed as Nietzsche states, but there is a greater purpose for it, and that is freedom. 

Life is uncertain, and acknowledging this uncertainty opens up our future and allows us to be free. When humans follow ethics of certainty instead of uncertainty, they leave themselves in an echo chamber where they may become narcissistic, brainwashed, and tyrannical. If humans choose freedom they must live in this ambiguity, as many of us do. Humans live in a constant state of doubt, questioning what is right and wrong, seeking advice from others, and learning from different resources (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). This doubt is  why humans read books – to learn more about the world they live in. Ethics can therefore not tell us exactly what to do, for this would be ethics of certainty; one must determine right from wrong while making decisions as they question value systems already in place. Those who reject the fundamental ambiguity are those who do not reject the previous value systems. According to Nietzsche, the value systems in place are the aristocratic value system and the slave value system. The aristocratic system is one where good is associated with characteristics of nobility, and bad is associated with characteristics of common people, or the minority. The slave value system was developed from the original system as ressentiment or resentment, causing an inversion of values; good is only derived by comparison to the aristocrats and evil is a term of vilification where it represents narcissism, racism, and so on (Lecture Notes 10/19/2020). Nietzsche states that both the aristocratic value system ‘good and bad’ and the slave value system ‘good and evil’  have existed in our society since the aristocratic times; however, humans must question the values already present (Lecture Notes 10/21/2020). Beauvoir goes on to state that, “an ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all” (Beauvoir 18). In other words, the ethics of ambiguity can only exist when people acknowledge the separation that exists between humans, especially of different minority groups. By acknowledging the imbalance that exists, all humans of separate groups have the ability to develop a new value system where there is freedom for all.   

We do not live in the future, and we cannot wait for it; the future is created. In the present, we make choices as we live in a state of doubt that builds a better future for others. This is shown in politics all the time (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the state of this pandemic, people in the present should stay at home and make the decision in the present to protect themselves and others, in order to build a future where COVID is no longer a major concern. Over the summer as people increasingly doubted the structure of our governmental system, people intervened and criticized the justice system, standing up for black lives. This doubt of the certainty that existed allows for freedom in the future. Beauvoir elaborates, “one must attempt to judge the chances of success that are involved in a certain sacrifice; but at the beginning, this judgment will always be doubtful […]” (Beauvoir 148). Choices in the present must be made by doubting the chances of success in the beginning. When people assume the world to go a certain way, this leads to events of destruction and oppression with Nazi Germany being a key example.  Hitler, in this case, is a serious man, who took a value that already existed, did not doubt it, and oppressed many. Those who questioned his assumptions are those who accepted the concept of ambiguity. 

In conclusion, Beauvoir was correct, humans are fundamentally ambiguous creatures because death is inescapable, even through religious means. Life will end at any time, and we live in this uncertainty and create a sense of meaning on our own. Humans live in constant doubt making dynamic choices in the situation that they are currently in while deciding how to create a better future. This is how humans live life to the fullest and by recognizing this we are free, but not from circumstances out of our control.

References/Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity: Pour Une Morale De L’ambiguïté. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Open Road Integrated Media, 2018.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 9 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 11 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 16 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 2 Dec. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 19 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 2 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 21 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. “On the Genealogy of Morals (A Modernized Translation with a New Introduction and Biography).” Edited by Bill Chapko. Translated by Horace B. Samuel, 2010.

An analysis of racial paradigms and ethnic projects in America

by Sanjana Sankaran, April 14, 2021 

Vilna Bashi-Treitler, The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions

Bashi-Treitler begins chapter three by answering the question, “How are ethnic groups racialized in the United States?” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 44). She begins by discussing the three major racial paradigms that came about, starting in Europe and later in North America. The first racial paradigm started in England with the Irish. The first English colonization occurred in Ireland. The English despised their pastoral culture, viewed them as heathens, and instilled several discriminatory laws such as marriage bans, and enslavement. This racialized thinking was built on preexisting ideas of hierarchy and classism based on the feudal system of medieval times (Bashi-Treitler 2013). After the English began settlements in America, the second racial paradigm was developed: Native Americans. The odious views of the Irish were then reflected onto Native Americans. What started as Native Americans helping English settlers survive eventually led to the ill-treatment of indigenous people, stealing of lands, and genocide by the English due to racialized thinking. After the development of colonies, African Americans became the third racial paradigm (Bashi-Treitler 2013). 

Up until this point, race was a mere social experiment, but it was only when American colonists brought African American slaves to the New World did this experiment transform into a reality. African Americans now became the new basis, and still are to this day, of the racial hierarchy. Bashi-Trietler states that slaves were not slaves because they were black, but rather they became black after they became slaves. Elite white colonizers used racialized thinking to rationalize their desire for land, riches, and cheap labor. In the late 1600s to 1700s elite whites colonizers, in an attempt to subdue claims to power and land from Native Americans, ethnic whites such as Italians and Irish were now considered white in the racial hierarchy. With their status changed, the Irish and Italians would no longer try to protest against British colonizers with natives. While these groups may have still been discriminated against, in the context of the racial hierarchy, being closer to the top is always better than being on the bottom.  In the past, religious conversions could move ethnic people up in the hierarchy, but this could no longer be used to stop racial inequality and the mechanisms of racial politiculture (Bashi-Treitler 2013). From now on, one was either born white or was considered not white at all. Bashi-Treitlet then states that “When ‘white’ is fully formed as the category at the hierarchy’s topmost position, race is systematic, paradigmatic, and unmistakably North American” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 52). 

At this point, Bashi-Treitler has established that Race and the rules that come with this construct are completely fictional, but they are still able to persist. She states the reason for this is due to the “systematic and societal support for the structure (or paradigm) of racial/racist thought” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 59). One of the roots for the persistence of racism was internalized shame for those who accepted their higher status and shame associated with those who went against this racial thinking. There were not enough white allies who chose to stand up against this racial hegemony. As other ethnic groups began to assimilate into white culture, they still faced racial slurs and racial bias. She ends by saying that systemic racism persists not only because of the white group, but also due to the competition amongst all groups in this racial hierarchy. Any BIPOC group aims to stay away from the bottom of the racial hierarchy and be higher than other groups. In order to do this, groups that are not literally white have to find methods to assimilate such as ignoring key cultural aspects of their lives and adopting aspects of white culture, thus acknowledging white dominance. Bashi-Treitler states that all ethnic groups have feelings of superiority, differences from other groups, privilege, and fear of loss of their position in the hierarchy (Bashi-Treitler 2013). If this is recognized amongst all groups the problems of systemic racism can begin to get addressed.   

Many parts of this reading stood out to me, for instance, when Bashi-Treitler states that blackness was developed as a result of slavery. In my history classes, I have always been taught that that Americans and Western Europeans brought African Americans as slaves due to their black skin. However, we had never discussed the true motivations for slavery and how that brand of slavery evolved into anti-black rhetoric. At first, I found it a bit confusing due to my preexisting knowledge of slavery, but now I agree with Bashi-Treitler and understand that blackness was an idea that was created for labor and land. The racialized thinking of how we view blacks now came from the idea that we view them as the bottom of the hierarchy, expendable, and unworthy. 

Another aspect that I found interesting is when Bashi-Treitler states that all groups take part in the racialized hierarchy and each group vyes to be at the top. Before taking Racism and Ethnic Relations, I had naively believed that only white people can be racist and that the problems of systemic racism are rooted in the racialized mindset of white lawmakers. I now see that it is much larger than that. Not only can anyone have racist thinking, but anyone can feel this way to avoid the severe discrimination and societal disapproval that people at the bottom of the hierarchy face. When thinking about my own life, I know several Indians who are pro-Trump and anti-BLM because they feel that the social standing of black people is black people’s fault, In the process, Indians fall prey to the ideas of racial hegemony to avoid discrimination. However, what they do not realize is that Bashi-Treitler was right when she said that “Whiteness is a club you cannot marry into or join through naturalization; whiteness can only be bestowed. In the racialized United States of America, whiteness is the only attribute that really counts” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 54). 

When trying to understand the racist ideologies of white supremacists and those of other cultures, I can now understand what Bashi-Treitler meant when she stated that whiteness is kept up because of shame. Whenever we hear the arguments of Trump supporters, for instance, they always say that society has become too politically correct. These people grew up believing that associating with BIPOC people and believing in ideas of equality brought about shame to them and their community. They may have also felt internalized shame because a majority of the population are not white supremacists. When Trump rose to power, this man, normalized open acts of racism, exposing the racialized mindset that was already present. 

Cover Page (Bashi-Treitler 2013)


Bashi, Treitler, Vilna. The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Now and Then: An Analysis of Forced Sterilizations in the U.S.

by Sanjana Sankaran, October 18, 2020

In early September, news broke out about a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, who alleged ‘medical neglect’ of ICE detainees and shined a light on the occurrence of unwanted mass hysterectomies. Wooten was a nurse who worked at one of the detention centers in Georgia.  She claimed that the care received was improper and unsafe which likely caused the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the news reports and her statements, approximately seventeen to twenty women have confirmed that they were forcibly sterilized—that is, either their uterus or fallopian tubes were removed.  Wooten called this doctor, who was later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, a “uterus collector” (Miroff). Dr. Amin is a member of the Irwin County Hospital and has a private clinic close to the detention center.  Since the allegations have come out, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) wrote a letter that was signed by one hundred and seventy-three other representatives to launch an investigation into the medical practitioners employed by ICE, with a focus on Dr. Amin specifically (Miroff).

While the investigation is still ongoing, we know one thing for certain: we’ve been here before.  The U.S. has a historical precedence of conducting mass unwarranted and unwanted hysterectomies, causing many to worry that these allegations are true.

The development of the gynecological sciences itself is rooted in a history of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse toward Black, Latinx, and indigenous women.  In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is now considered the father of modern gynecology, forcefully performed a number of experiments on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia.  Despite his strategically inhumane testing, Dr. Sims has been lauded for his discoveries and has statues erected in his honor across the country (Lennard). 

We don’t have to look that far in the past to see neglect and abuse in our healthcare system.  In the last century alone, thousands of women were forcibly sterilized across the nation.  At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement started gaining more traction.  Perverting Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” many eugenicists believed it was natural and justified to facilitate the death of those with “unfavorable” genes.  This became shorthand for BIPOC lives, specifically the poor and the disabled.  This widespread scientific belief had shocking sociological implications. In the late 20th century, thirty-two states in the U.S. had federally funded eugenics programs involving sterilizing women who possessed “undesirable” genes (Lennard).   In the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Service, which is the federal healthcare service provider for indigenous peoples, conducted hysterectomies at such a wide scale that the impact is still being felt now even generations later.  Around one in four women, and in some communities, as many as one in two women, were forcibly sterilized (Blakemore).

Figure 1 below provides a timeline of reproductive rights (Chuen).

Figure 1. A History of Racism, Sterilization Abuse, and Reproductive Rights (1919 – 1977).

To better understand the role ICE plays in perpetuating medical neglect and abuse, we must acknowledge the history of malicious activities within this organization.  The immigrant detention centers have been linked with racism and medical malpractice. In 1914, the United States Public Health Service partnered with the eugenics movement and worked together to prevent further immigration. They specifically targeted BIPOC’s, poor people, and the disabled implying they were the ones most likely to be criminals. This false view that BIPOC, especially those who are low income and living with disabilities, are more likely to commit crime than well-off able-bodied white people, still shapes our society today, most notably reforming our criminal justice policy (Ordaz).  Prior to President Trump’s election to office in 2016, ICE had an imperative to detain immigrants with criminal records.  Given the negative stereotyping and implicit bias that police officers have against BIPOC, this was already an unfair policy.  The current administration has since expanded this policy to apply to all immigrants who enter the country without documentation, removing the requirement of criminality.  Many federal investigations conducted over the past four years that have raised serious concerns about the state of ICE detention centers.  Specifically, the centers provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions for detainees. When Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower, spoke out on the conditions of the ICE camps she stated, “I began to ask questions about why the detainees not be tested — symptomatic or non-symptomatic” (Alvarez).  Operationally, the centers already violate standard protocol and indicate clear negligence and devolution of human life (United States, Dept of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General).

During the Trump era beliefs of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny have only increased. His beliefs that all Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” emboldened the racist’s in the U.S. further dividing an already divided world. It is astounding that the administration that is so clearly pro-life, allows sterilization to take place, it is an oxymoron. This lack of action is because this administration is not pro-life. If the administration were actually pro-life, they would have had a national mask mandate, done shelter in place in February, stop denying the virus’s fatality rate, and keep the Affordable Care Act, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. 

The allegations of mass hysterectomies in ICE right now must be met with the utmost seriousness.  The doctors who have participated in these events or were bystanders should be met with some kind of consequence. The mass hysterectomies are a direct attack against women and are the result of a long upheld belief that not only do BIPOC women not have value but that women should not be in control of their own bodies. Whether it was one or twenty or a thousand, forced hysterectomies are acts of absolute moral malfeasance. 

Below are other resources to learn more about the history of forced sterilization.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Priscilla. “Whistleblower Alleges High Rate of Hysterectomies and Medical Neglect at ICE Facility.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 Sept. 2020, 

Blakemore, Erin. “The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women.” Daily JSTOR, JSTOR, 25 Aug. 2016, 

Chuen, Lorraine. “A Visualized History of Racism and Reproductive Rights in America.” Intersectional Analyst, Intersectional Analyst, 5 Feb. 2016,

Lennard, Natasha. “The Long, Disgraceful History of American Attacks on Brown and Black Women’s Reproductive Systems.” The Intercept, 17 Sept. 2020,

Miroff, Nick. “Hospital Where Activists Say ICE Detainees Were Subjected to Hysterectomies Says Just Two Were Performed There.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Sept. 2020,

Minna, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” The Conversation, 5 Oct. 2020, 

Ordaz, Jessica. “Perspective | Migrant Detention Centers Have a Long History of Medical Neglect and Abuse.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 2020,

United States, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities.” Washington: DHS, 2019. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.