Social Justice Warriors, Misrecognition and Homogeneity

Over the past few years there has been a lot of chatter, on the internet and social media in particular, about the rise of so-called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors and Political Correctness within particular intellectual and social communities. SJWs are decried by many people for being illiberal and opposed to freedom of expression, while many others see them as people working towards a better society. However, it seems to me that the phenomenon of the so-called SJW is neither merely something that is illiberal, nor something that is simply working towards a better society. Rather, instead the SJW responds to a real problem in our shared world, but offers a solution that lacks humility and for this reason prevents the fullest development of individuals and communities.

While many would think it would be good to be a Social Justice Warrior, the term is used as a derogatory term to refer to people concerned with the marginalization of vulnerable social minorities who display particular attitudes and make use of particular tactics. In particular, SJWs are concerned with the presentation and visibility of social minorities in popular media and positions of authority, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microagressions. In this, sense the SJW differs quite a bit from the traditional activist/critic of capitalist liberal democracy. Rather than being focused on issues of social class inequality and the exploitation of workers by capital, their focus tends to be on identity groups, whether, racial, sexual, cultural or otherwise, and the way in which society disadvantages them through misrecognition of their particular identities. The contemporary SJW as a social agent tends to be more outraged by “white-washing” in cinema and TV than global inequality of wealth. For them, respect for the unique identity of each person is the basis of justice, rather than some notion of equality of opportunity, equality of resources or impartial fairness.

It should be noted that when I use the term SJW for the remainder of this piece I do not mean anyone who supports identity politics, but the specific phenomena described above.

This notion of justice as respect for identity seems to require not only respect for a person as an abstract human subject deserving of the same rights and liberties as others, but esteem for their particular identity. This is why while the political right is often vocal in its critique of SJWs, many on the liberal left, like myself are ill at ease with them, as they not only demand that we respect the right of each to be respected as a free and equal human being and citizen, but to be valued by others in their particular identity whether they are a pious Christian or trans man of colour. The difference between being respected, as a human being and citizen, and this more particularized form of respect can be understood if we look at the difference between tolerance and recognition.

The old ideal of tolerance merely demands that we respect each other as free and equal, even if we find another’s beliefs, way of life or sexuality contemptible. I may find the twisted way in which people pursue career ambition contemptible, but in so far as they are not breaking any laws or acting unjustly I need to tolerate them as free and equal members of society, and cannot use the force of the state to prevent them from living as they please. The old adage of live and let live is an adage of tolerance.

Recognition on the other hand demands more. To recognize someone is to re-cognize someone. That is to see them in a certain way. Consequently, to re-cognize a gay person is not simply to tolerate their sexuality even if you find it disordered, but to respect their particularity as a gay person. This implies some sense in which we see their sexuality as a valuable form of individual expression, rather than something that someone might respect them in spite of.

Once we bring in this more particularistic form of recognition there becomes a possibility for misrecognition. Misrecognition occurs when an individual is bombarded with demeaning or degrading images of a part of their own identity. For example, in a culture where homosexuality is legal, but in which the public images of homosexuality are of degrading stereotypes, homosexual people will internalize these images. This internalization in turn damages their self-respect and self-esteem as Charles Taylor points out in his landmark essay “The Politics of Recognition.” The popular sentiments around an aspect of identity then can be damaging to the ability of individuals whose identity is viewed as less than, shameful or barbaric. In this sense, the danger to the full development of individuals is not merely present in overt legal discrimination, but also in much looser elements of culture and mores. I call the phenomena in which a particular identity is broadly demeaned misrecognition because the culture broadly sees a group in a light that is either overtly negative or out of line with how this group sees themselves.

Now, many people are convinced by this account of the damage of misrecognition, but there are also those who are unconvinced by it. We have all heard that people today are too sensitive today, and need to toughen up so that they are not damaged by non-physical affronts to their dignity. We might see this type of view as the adult version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A defender of this position could say that part of the full development of person’s character involves learning to value yourself rather than being dependent on the impression that the world at large or particular others have of aspects of your identity that you deem central to who you are.

This is a valid point in that it is surely indicative of a more developed person that they are not entirely dependent for their self-esteem on being valued by others. But this misses the point that an individual’s self-esteem has at its starting point the broader values and norms in which the individual is immersed, so an individual’s self-esteem cannot be independent of their social context. Our image of what is admirable and contemptuous begins with the broad mores of the society we develop in and it is only from this starting point that we can reflect on these mores, and work out the contradictions or tensions within them to develop our own understanding of what is worthwhile. In this sense to imagine a being with no dependency for its self-worth on social norms is to imagine an omnipotent god, rather than a human being, as an omnipotent god is self-sufficient and has no society. So the risk of misrecognition cannot be simply be dismissed by telling people to toughen up and have a thicker skin.

An example of the way in which misrecognition constitutes itself can be seen if we consider an example where I am a person of aboriginal ancestry and I grow up within a society in which the standard image of an aboriginal person is a negative one in which the aboriginal is a drunk and a mooch. As a result of these images and mores my perception of what is means to be an aboriginal will carry with it the idea that my aboriginalness is merely a burden and something I need to overcome, rather than something that could be a mark of pride. Frantz Fanon made this point quite rightly when he pointed out how colonized groups internalize the norms of their colonizers and begin to see traits associated with their group as lesser, and traits associated with the colonizer as positive and admirable. This damages the self-esteem of members of colonized groups in that a core aspect of their identity becomes a source of shame. This is a clear example of the phenomena of misrecognition that was discussed earlier, and we can see how this would threaten the full development of persons. Seeing a core aspect of your identity as a source of shame is paralyzing and makes projects of self development seem even more difficult and less worth doing. If I am just a worthless X than why should I try to develop myself, as I will always just be a worthless X.

The challenge is that law is not the most effective or appropriate mechanism to deal with the threat of misrecognition. Certainly, overt forms of discrimination against particular identity groups contribute to misrecognition of these groups, but even if discrimination on the basis of a particular identity is made illegal, there is still a possibility that misrecognition of particular groups will constitute itself. This is evidently the case as misrecognition does not simply constitute itself via individual acts of discrimination, but wider norms and values that are constituted by the rhetoric, arts and images of the society. In Canada, for example, First Nations do have legal equality, but the rhetoric, norms and artistic representations that relate to First Nations typically paint them in a demeaning light. Being First Nations in Canada carries with it the certainty of being broadly seen in a particular way which will inevitably put at risk your capacity for individual development. But to try to use the force of law to prevent the rhetoric and artistic representations around this group from reinforcing misrecognition seems somewhat authoritarian, as this would involve the government dictating what people’s views need to be. While Canadian law allows for government acts to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech that put others at risk of violence, it cannot simply dictate the values and artistic images presented because of the rights of freedom of expression that each Canadian possess. An example of a form of speech that may reinforce misrecognition, but at the same time does not put groups at risk of disproportionate rates of violence would be a citizen writing an editorial about the fact that the way of life of a particular First Nations group was less civilized and less fully developed than an industrial or post-industrial one. This obviously implies that a specific First Nations’ culture may be less than modern occidental culture and so reinforces the view of the aboriginal as less than the colonizing European, but it would be quite a stretch to say this is an infringement on the dignity or rights of First Nations’ peoples.

The reason I say this is a stretch is that every society and person possesses a sense of what is more admirable and valuable and less admirable or valuable; this sense is basic to the way that the individual or society experiences reality. When I see someone so wrapped up in career ambition that they do not make time for their family or friends I do not experience them first as a person who puts a lot of value on their career, and then separately judge them as being shallow or ignorant in some respect. My experience of them as a person who will sacrifice their family or friends for career prospects is itself deeply normative, and reflects my authentic view of how people ought to live.

As a result of the proceeding as long as individuals and societies disagree about what is most admirable, there is a risk that groups will experience misrecognition. To explain, misrecognition constitutes itself through demeaning, or negative images, and other representations of particular groups. Furthermore, these images and representations develop as a result of the association of particular traits or values with a particular minority group; for example the idea that women are emotional, or gay men are effeminate. For example, if I happen to live in a society where religious faith is viewed as a symptom of disorder of the mind and I am a faithful Christian I am at risk of being misrecognized as my identity as a faithful believer will likely be broadly seen as a lower form of human development than more avowedly non-religious or secular identities because of the negative view the society holds about faith. Consequently, all that is required for minorities to be at risk of misrecognition is that society at large has a negative view about some value or belief that a minority group holds, and the society associates with a particular group. As a result as long as there is genuine diversity about the proper way to live is, there will be a risk of misrecognition. As a result, only a society that is utterly homogeneous with regard to the question of how it is best to live will be free from the risk of misrecognition be possible. And while misrecognition is certainly an evil, it is quite simply absurd to try to wish for this diversity to be eliminated as much of the richness of life emerges from the fact that we live among people whose understanding of what is most valuable is very different from ours.

Now that we have elaborated the concept of misrecognition itself, and the conditions of possibility of its existence and elimination, we can return to the our initial discussion of SJWs. SJWs in their desire for a more just, egalitarian society take action to eliminate or cast shame on worldviews they view as toxic because of the way in which these views put marginalized groups at risk of misrecognition. For example, trying to eliminate the view of men as unable to constrain their sexual desire, and women as mere agency-less objects of desire for the male gaze. In this sense, the SJW is responding to a genuine evil and should not be criticized for being critical of a particular worldview.

However, the problem occurs with the tendency among the SJW community to fail to engage with those who disagree with them. SJWs have formed concepts like safe spaces, and trigger warnings to explain their opposition to the expression of particular kind of views or topics in particular contexts. While these concepts differ, they, and the phenomena of the SJW share the common feature that they do not want particular worldviews to be discussed or engaged with. In this sense, the perspective of the SJW is a reified ideology that is used to bludgeon their opponents into silence, rather than as a critical perspective on what they see as a dangerous, problematic perspective. The view that monogamy may be more worthwhile than polyamory for the SJW is not a belief about the best way to live, but just a tactic to shame those who are not meant for monogamy that needs to be eliminated. We do not need to engage with this perspective; it is clearly just a form of oppression of the marginalized.

But, what is wrong with this bludgeoning? SJWs generally do not encourage the use of state power to enforce a particular culture, but rely on legal acts of expression within the public sphere. Isn’t this the same kind of action that any activist would take to get their point across?

It is true that SJWs merely act in the way that other activists do by using legal acts of free expression to support their goals. However, the problem with that, and forms of activism that follow the same model is that they display a lack of humility, which does not allow us to fully develop ourselves as individuals and a community. The lack of humility exists in that they are so confident that they have something figured out that they refuse to engage the other side, as it is impossible that someone who disagrees with them on this issue, could have any insight that they have missed.

Furthermore, this lack of humility harms the political community as we are strongest when we are willing and open to learn from others. When we are willing to fully engage with those we disagree with and hear them out, the community as a whole and the individuals who make it up are able to develop themselves by integrating the insights of others they are engaging with into their own lives.

Relatedly, when people actually engage with the other side rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, it provides more of a genuine opportunity to change the minds of those you disagree with. If we disagree and I try to prevent your perspective from being given a hearing because it is linked to risks of misrecognition to vulnerable groups, all I am doing is preventing that other from speaking up. I do not attempt to change their mind or heart, and have done little to change the mind of those who contribute to the risk of misrecognition in this particular case. But if we engage with this other than we fully open ourselves to be changed by insights that the other has and we give ourselves fully to trying to convince the others of what we see as wrong with their perspective. This is superior as it opens us to improving our own perspective, and improving the perspective of the other.

As a result, SJWs represent an attempt to respond to the real social problem of misrecognition that is present in any society where the members disagree about how best to live. This attempt while noble in orientation is not the appropriate response to the presence of perspectives, values and images that threaten some with the risk of misrecognition. Instead, we must make the attempt to change the minds of the other and in turn open ourselves up to hearing what the other side has to say.

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Some thoughts on Perfectionist Politics

Perfectionism is the doctrine that the state legitimately can, and should use, coercion to improve the character and lives of the citizens and residents who are subject to it. For the Perfectionist it does not matter if an adult citizen or resident recognizes that a quality is valuable, and wants to develop it in themselves. Rather, it is the state’s duty to use coercion where necessary to ensure that people develop these valuable traits. So at its core we might say that the essence of Perfectionism is that statecraft is soulcraft, in that state policies do not just need to support liberty, equality or justice, but rather ensure that people become better human beings. There are many forms of Perfectionism, ranging from liberal varieties that see it as a fundamental objective of state policies to support the development of autonomy in their citizens, and more non-liberal or illiberal varieties that emphasize that the state should use state policies to encourage temperance, good judgment and aesthetic refinement among other things.

Now, as a firm supporter of egalitarian liberal principles of justice, I find Perfectionism to be a troubling doctrine. It very much makes sense to me say that a just state would use its coercive authority to ensure genuine equality of opportunity and that every citizen and resident has the resources to live a fulfilling life, including the resources required to contribute to the political, social, economic and cultural life of the society. However, it in itself it does not seem to me to be the duty or role of the state to use policy to ensure that its citizens and residents have certain character traits. It is often remarked that this hesitance is due to the fact that liberals are relativists and don’t believe that any way of life is better than any other. However this is quite clearly not the case as I certainly believe that certain ways of life that are not harmful to equality of opportunity and egalitarian liberal principles are superior to others. But nonetheless, the question of what ways of life are best is a separate question from the question of what reasons can be used to justify the use of state coercion to pursue a certain goal. An obvious example of this is that thinking that aesthetic appreciation is intrinsically valuable does not require that one think that state power should be used to ensure that people develop their abilities for aesthetic appreciation. So, this is clearly not an issue between relativism and skepticism and moral objectivism, but a question of what purposes a state can pursue through coercion and which it cannot. The Perfectionist says that a state can use coercion to make a person better while the non-Perfectionist says that this is illegitimate.

I will argue that while there seems to be a stark contrast between the Perfectionist, and the non-Perfectionist that non-Perfectionist policies tend to have to be justified in terms of Perfectionist beliefs. Thus the issue is not one of whether we should be Perfectionists or non-Perfectionists but instead what kind of laws or policies can be justified. I will argue that “Indirect Perfectionism” can be justified because it is requirement of justice, but “Direct Perfectionism” cannot be so justified.

It should be noted that for the sake of this entry I will only be talking about policy that pertains to adult citizens and residents. Policy concerning children, due to their vulnerability, and lack of ability for consent and fully reflective judgment necessarily must be dealt with in unapologetically Perfectionist terms; state policy regarding the health and education of children must ensure that coercion is used to ensure that children develop positive qualities and good health.

One example of a seeming non-Perfectionist policy is the requirement that all citizens and residents must have access to a certain set of monetary and non-monetary resources in order to live a decent life. This policy does not seem to mandate any particular way of life. In fact it is compatible with a diversity of modes of life. But if we ask the question why a certain set of standard resources is required for a citizen to live a decent life, we ultimately enter the territory of perfectionist values. The only way to say that a certain set of resources is required to live a decent life is if we have a sense of what a valuable life would be and are looking to ensure that all have equal access to living this sort of life. Thus, there are perfectionist beliefs here as we must take a stand about what kind of lives are decent, and what kind are indecent, and this requires us to think about what makes a life intrinsically worthwhile. We cannot thus avoid the question of what makes a life worthwhile when we are thinking about many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies as sometimes the only way to say that someone has a right to access a certain thing is to suppose that the thing that they have the right to access is so valuable that access to it must be provided for all. Same-sex marriage offers a case in point here. The move to support same-sex marriage has been generated largely based on the principle that because marriage is an intrinsically valuable part of life, and therefore same-sex couples should not be excluded from accessing this part of life. Consequently, many seemingly non-Perfectionist policies that support equal access to opportunities or forms of life are dependent for their justification on Perfectionist beliefs about what practises, and traits are intrinsically worthwhile.

Now, when access to an opportunity or form of life is justified based on the intrinsic value of that opportunity or form of life we are not dealing with a case of simple Perfectionist policy. Typical Perfectionist policies mandate that all citizens have a certain set of traits or engage in a certain set of rituals; for example societies that require all citizens to engage in practises that ensure their chastity would be directly perfectionist in this way. Thus, I refer to these typical Perfectionist policies as “Direct Perfectionism,” as the policies directly justify the use of coercion on the basis that the policy or law will ensure that people have certain traits or live certain kinds of lives. Contrastingly, a policy or law that justifies equal access for all to an intrinsically valuable opportunity or form of life can be referred to as “Indirect Perfectionism”, as these policies are not justified on the basis that the implementation of the policy will ensure that fact that citizens live a certain kind of life or have a certain character, and thus the policies do not directly ensure Perfectionist ends. But yet the policy itself could not be justified if we did not already have Perfectionist beliefs about what makes a life worth living, and thus they are still Perfectionist albeit in a much weaker sense.

Nothing I have said thus far shows why “Direct Perfectionism” would be less justifiable than “Indirect Perfectionism” as I have only laid out the difference between these two phenomena. But yet, it seems to me that “Indirect Perfectionism” is far more justifiable because these types of policies better accord with our intuitions about what justice requires than “Direct Perfectionism” does. Now let us take a hypothetical example where a certain class of citizens and residents do not have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic development, or general non-vocational educational development as the market does not provide these goods at a price where they are accessible to all. In this case I want to say that this situation is socially unjust as a sector of the population are being denied access to certain valuable opportunities and resources that are important to a well-lived life because of their socio-economic status. The injustice exists because all do not have equal access to the resources and opportunities required to live a well lived life, and thus the individuals who are denied access to these opportunities are not given their due. And as a citizen or resident justice requires that each has access to a set of opportunities that allows them to live a well-lived, valuable life. Consequently, “Indirect Perfectionism” is a requirement of justice, as coercive laws and policy must be created to rectify this injustice and ensure that all citizens and resident have access to the goods mentioned above.

Now suppose that as a result of the preceding injustice, policy and laws are developed to ensure that all citizens and residents have access to resources for aesthetic appreciation, athletic develop and general non-vocational educational development. But nonetheless very few additional people are using these resources, despite the fact that all have access now. It seems to me to be odd to say that such a situation is unjust as all have equal access to the relevant opportunities. We might say that the citizens and residents are living worse lives as a result of not taking up these opportunities, but the fact that citizens and residents make this decision is not enough to generate injustice, as no one is deprived of their equal claim to significant opportunities. Consequently, in this situation I don’t think that pursuing a “Directly Perfectionist” policy of ensuring people use these resources would be justifiable as no injustice is being done. We might not like that people are spending their money buying access to cable packages so they can watch more reality shows, rather than spending it on other more noble pursuits, but the fact that this is occurring is not enough to justify forcing people to engage in these noble pursuits. Part of the meaning of freedom requires that we positively allow all to pursue a valuable life, but we do not force them to live a life that others might deem valuable, and this is why “Direct Perfectionism” seems deeply questionable.

Freedom of Contract, Poverty and Democratic Citizenship

It is typical in advanced capitalist nations for employers to make employment conditional on employees agreeing that they will not do anything to damage the reputation of the organization they work for, including publicly criticizing that organization. Of course, most companies have whistleblower policies that provide employees with a process and channel to report about breach of existing policy or regulation through internal mechanisms. However, while these mechanisms offer a means to raise grievances about coworkers or the company as a whole breaching their existing policy or the letter of the law, they are not designed to deal with more generalized criticism of the organization on ethical grounds.

In light of the fact that existing whistleblower protections do not provide a channel for more generalized ethical critique of an organization’s operations I want to turn to the question of whether it is legitimate for employment to be made conditional on an employee not engaging in public ethical criticism of the company they work for. To limit the scope of this question I will look at Canada, in particular, rather than advanced capitalist nations as a whole. In particular, I will argue that under the existing political economy Canada this kind of employment clause is not legitimate as it undermines democratic citizenship, but that under more egalitarian economic conditions these clauses could be legitimate.

The general defense for the legitimacy of making this kind of non-criticism clause a condition of employment is that according to the notion of freedom of contract citizens should be able to agree to contracts with other citizens or organizations as far as possible. The key to this view is that the freedom to make agreements and engage in contracts is integral to the freedom of a society. Consequently, citizens should not be prevented from engaging in contracts as this would be paternalistic and not respect the right of citizens to make their own decisions.

Futhermore, another point that supports the legitimacy of employment contracts that include a non-criticism clause is that even if this non-criticism clause imposes a significant burden on persons, someone always has the right to leave their job. Thus, while they may give up their right to critique an organization or set of organizations publicly, they do not give up this right indefinitely as they can always leave the company if they choose to engage in this criticism.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this defense of freedom of contract based on considerations of fairness and equity that are codified in Canada’s laws. For example, citizens are not able to sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, as this would alienate one’s most basic freedoms. Furthermore, one cannot agree to a contract that pays below the minimum wage even if you are so desperate that agreeing to this wage seems desirable, as it is postulated that all people who work should not be paid below a certain level. However, while there are quite a few exceptions the case remains that the notion of freedom of contract dominates the social imaginary of Canada.

Under the current conditions in Canada while there are some social protections for the vulnerable the state typically does not ensure that all of its citizens are guaranteed an income that can support a decent life. While minimum wage laws and social assistance ensure that all are provided with some level of income, relying on these sources of income is not enough to avoid poverty or support a decent way of life. For example, about 1 in 7 Canadians lives in poverty which goes to show that there are still many Canadians who are not being provided with adequate resources and opportunities (material, educational or otherwise) to secure a decent life.

While poverty does not equally affect all groups in Canada, as aboriginals, the mentally and physically disabled are at greater risk, the statistic provided above shows that poverty is a significant risk for all Canadians. No matter what your race, sexual orientation, gender and physical and mental capabilities are in Canada you are at risk of being in poverty because if you do not have either a income sufficient to avoid poverty, or someone to support you financially, there is no guarantee that you will have enough to live a decent life, and it is most likely that you will not have enough to live reasonably well.

This is the context in which Canadians live and under which non-criticism clauses are made conditions of employment. Consequently, I think it is deeply problematic, in this context, to legitimize non-criticism clauses as this forces citizens to have to choose between economic security and their ability to publicly critique their organization for engaging in legal practises that they and others may find deeply problematic.

Now, it should be noted that some public criticisms of an organization by an employee may be reasonable grounds for dismissal. For example, going on Facebook and calling your boss a “fucking douchebag prick” because he would not let you take Monday off seems to me to be reasonable grounds for dismissal. However, if I work for a construction company and publicly write on my blog that the company that I work for needs to stop taking advantage of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) because this is having a pernicious effect on Canada, and our specific community, I hardly see this as reasonable grounds of dismissal. And yet under the current regime of non-criticism employment clauses this would be reasonable ground for dismissal because if my blog had gone viral and lead to a boycott by other companies, or by criticisms from NGOs, this would negatively affect the ability of the company to make profit. Consequently, as an employee I would have done something to damage the companies reputation and cause it to lose profits. In which case I have violated the terms of employment and am subject to firing by taking actions as a citizen to protect the public interest.

Consequently, what is wrong these non-criticism clauses in the current economic context of Canada is that they are too vague, and require citizens to not only engage professionally with their employer, but also to be a loyal ambassador for their company in public life, if they are to maintain employment. It may be legitimate to require that employees do not engage in personal criticism of other staff, or slander against the company, but it is not legitimate to require that employees do not engage in public ethical criticism of your company’s practises as this undermines democratic citizenship. It undermines democratic citizenship because in an economic context where being unemployed puts one in danger of poverty asking people to choose between economic security and freedom to critique will likely encourage people to choose economic security. While the freedom to speak out is deeply important, it is a far less pressing need than those immediate basic needs that economic security takes care of, and so far fewer people will be willing to risk unemployment and speak out against what they see as legal, yet unethical practises. Inevitably, most people will choose to remain silent on these kind of things if they feel that they risk not being able to provide a decent live for themselves and their families. By using these non-criticism clauses we thus insulate organizations from public criticism of questionable practises and thus weaken the ability of the citizenry to question and debate the validity of these practises as far fewer people will speak out. This undermines democratic citizenship as it weakens the ability of the body politic to effectively understand existing questionable practises in organizations and discuss how to deal with them.

This negative effect on democratic citizenship is further reinforced, as there are very few employment options that do not require an employee to agree to a non-criticism clause. Some very small businesses do not have these kinds of clauses due to their general informality, and being self-employed also would avoid this, but these options are not significant enough to create a significantly unburdened option apart from risking unemployment and not engaging in public criticism of one’s employer.

Therefore, while, in the current Canadian context banning the kind of non-criticism clauses that prevent employees from publicly speaking out about legal, but potentially unethical practises, that the organization they work for engages in, would go along way to strengthening democratic citizenship, it is still not an ideal solution. While democratic citizenship is important, so too is the prevention of poverty. And banning these aforementioned legal clauses will not necessarily help combat poverty. As a result I think it would be better to change the existing political economy so that the risk of poverty was so negligible that citizens were not forced to choose between economic security and the freedom to critique legal, yet ethically questionable practises. Under these conditions there would be less of a need to ban these clauses as they would not undermine democratic citizenship, as citizens would not have to risk poverty if they were to speak out against the organization they work for. But I suspect that this change in political economy will not occur anytime soon given that we currently inhabit a political moment dominated by an ideology of privatization and efficiency, so perhaps loosening the ability of employers to silence employees in this area is a good step in the right direction.


Works Cited

“Just the Facts.” Canada Without Poverty RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

We typically hear that cultural appropriation is deeply problematic, and that we should refrain from it because it causes real damage to the oppressed and perpetuates the dominance of male, white, heterosexual culture. Typically the critics of cultural appropriation point out that when someone takes the object of a subaltern culture and use it against that culture or in a way that disrespects the meaning of the object inherent in that culture. One of the most common examples of cultural appropriation that is brought up is when whites in North America wear aboriginal feathered headdresses to music festivals or other festivities. This disrespects aboriginals because the headdress has a very specific meaning within the aboriginal cultures that make use of them, and this meaning is not honoured when it is worn at a music festival or while tailgating before a football game. Furthermore, wearing these headdresses in a relatively trivial context can be plausibly seen to harm the cause of aboriginal rights, by trivializing sacred elements of their culture. While I sympathize with this critique I find the concept of cultural appropriation deeply problematic as it misunderstands what makes culture valuable, and in so doing is demeaning of the very cultures that it seeks to defend.

It should be noted that critics of cultural appropriation do not think that members of a dominant culture should not make any use of objects from other cultures. For example, I have never heard someone say that members of the dominant white culture should not cook or eat dishes from other cultures. Their critique is rooted in the power relations between members of the dominant and the subordinate culture. It is not that they object to members of one culture making use of objects from an oppressed culture. What they object to is when members of a dominant culture see the objects or symbols of another culture as mere commodities that can be used without any understanding or respect for their original meaning. In this respect, I agree with the critic of cultural appropriation in that there is something quite problematic about seeing a culture as a virtual shopping mall where I can pick up objects and use them however I see fit.

While we may agree in seeing the objects of culture as something not to be used in any way whatsoever, my disagreement with the critics of cultural appropriation seems to be grounded in our understanding of what it means to respect a culture. For the critic of cultural appropriation any use of the objects of an oppressed culture that is out of step with the meaning of that object within that culture is to be avoided. We can see this as the speech of the critics of cultural appropriation tends to be more interested in telling people to stop engaging in and supporting cultural appropriation than anything else. The critique of cultural appropriation is purely negative, and amounts to the commandment “thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”

In contrast to this I think that members of a dominant culture can make use of the objects of an oppressed culture in a way that is out of step with the meaning the object has in the oppressed culture if the members of the dominant culture engage in a particular way. For example, say that I research about the object of a particular oppressed culture and speak with members of the culture about its meaning, and through so doing I grow to appreciate this object. While this object speaks to me and seems to reveal something true about the world, it speaks to me in a very different way than it speaks to an indigenous member of the culture, as our background understandings of the world are different, and the meaning of a single cultural object does not inhere in the object, but in the relation to the other meanings and objects to which it relates. The meaning of the cross in Christianity for example cannot be understood without the figure of Jesus or Abraham or Adam and Eve for that matter. Consequently, this object takes on a distinct yet valuable meaning that reveals something important to me. As a result of this I then make use of this cultural object in my own life in a way that while related to the meaning held by the culture that originated the object is distinct from it. This example shows the way in which we can relate to subordinate cultures that allows us to use their objects in a way that is distinct from their original meaning, and yet still shows respect for them and their culture. Thus, from my perspective, respecting a subordinate culture concerns how we relate to its objects and does not prohibit all uses of it by a member of a dominant culture. If the approach that I have laid out still constitutes cultural appropriation then I would say that cultural appropriation isn’t always bad, as this mode of relating to the other best fits with a proper understanding of what culture is and what makes it valuable.

It seems to me that what makes culture valuable is not that it belong to my culture, your culture, a dominant culture or an oppressed culture, but that cultures constitute different ways of understanding the world that have developed over time and held power over peoples. Cultures thus can be plausibly construed as containing the received wisdom of particular ages and peoples. Consequently, what makes a culture valuable is that it is a source outside of ourselves that can serve as a resource of wisdom that can better teach us how to live through revealing truths we would have never thought of on our own.

If culture is valuable because it is a resource of wisdom from various ages and peoples, what is the nature of culture? I think we can understand what culture is if we think about how we relate to cultures and how they develop. For example, I, as a member of my culture, find myself in dialogue not only with the beliefs of my culture and members of my own culture, but those of other cultures as well. Charles Taylor refers to this as always finding ourselves in webs of articulation, and my account is very influenced by Taylor here. It is only through this dialogue between historical and contemporary viewpoints within a particular culture, and other cultures, that this particular culture renews its meaning, and rearticulate its sense of value. This suggests that cultures are not some static set of beliefs, rites and objects, but that cultures are always already evolving through their relation to both internal and external factors. The culture of a people is not just the views that the leaders of that culture hold at this point, but rather it is an ongoing conversation between present, past, and the very cultures that this culture defines itself in contrast to.

As a result of the preceding it does violence to what culture is and what makes it valuable to speak of it as if it belonged strictly to the members of that culture. But this is just what the critics of cultural appropriation do when they suggest that it is always problematic to make use of a cultural object in a way that is out of step with the meaning of that object within the originating culture. The only way to make sense of the view that only members of a culture can reinterpret the meaning of a cultural object is to suggest that the culture somehow owns the object and thus only they have a right to alter its meaning. Ironically, while most critics of cultural appropriation are of the progressive left, their conception of justice relies on a concept of property that is distinctly capitalist. Consequently, the critics of cultural appropriation demean culture, by not seeing it as a source of wisdom that anyone could learn something from, but as the possession of a specific group of people.

Furthermore, they demean the specific cultures they seek to defend because if the oppressed culture is not valuable because of the wisdom or insight it contains, but because it is the possession of a particular group of people, the culture itself has no intrinsic value, but is just a historical accident that a certain group of people happen to be attached to. In which case this raises the question of why the oppressed group should remain attached to their culture? Surely, if we are to remain attached to a culture we should be so for more of a reason than the fact that it is ours, and our ancestors practised it. As a result there is something deeply problematic about the contemporary critique of cultural appropriation as it fails to take proper account of the fact that culture is primarily valuable because of the wisdom it contains and its capacity to reveal truths to anyone who confronts it.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Despotism, Totalitarianism and Freedom of Choice

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals one particular evil of totalitarianism that is too often overlooked within liberal democratic societies. Members of post-industrial liberal democracies too often associate the evil of totalitarianism with the state inhibiting people’s choices, and while the aforementioned inhibition of choice is problematic, the particular evil of totalitarianism that The Handmaid’s Tale reveals is the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of subjects to trust others and consequently prevents subjects from forming and sustaining deep relationships with others. This evil is deeply related to the inherent structure of despotism and its modern relative, totalitarianism. Similarly, for the same reasons that totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships, totalitarianism gives rise to another evil as it destroys the capacity of agents to engage in cooperative action as equals. Furthermore, once we understand these evils of totalitarianism, we will begin to see the ways in which this second evil can assert itself in a liberal democratic society that does not seem to inhibit people’s choices and seems to champion freedom of the individual.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a fictional totalitarian regime within the North East United States. This regime arose violently as birth rates decreased due to environmental pollution. Offred, the protagonist, of this work is a handmaid; prior to the rise of Gilead she was an educated married woman. She is coerced into becoming a handmaid after Gilead is formed through a violent coup. The role of the handmaid in Gileadean society is to copulate with married commanders (the social elite) so that children can be produced. Each handmaid is assigned to a household of a given commander, and there is a scheduled ceremony in which sexual intercourse takes place with the wife of the commander sitting behind the handmaid.

One thing that seems most prominent in Offred’s reflections on her situation is her desire for intimacy and deep human relationships. She has no friendships in her life and while there may be others in her household who are friendlier to her than most, they are not friends and there is no significant bond between them. She is completely isolated and strongly desires any semblance of normal human relationships. The difficulty that the totalitarianism of Gilead poses is that in order to form a deep relationship with another one must feel comfortable revealing intimate details about oneself to another, but revealing these intimate details can often poses a danger for Offred, because the secret police everywhere within Gileadean society and the details that Offred might reveal could include disapproval of the regime. So Offred cannot really feel safe is she reveals details about herself to anyone because anyone could be a member of the secret police and if she reveals certain details about herself to a member of the secret police,or an informant for the secret police, her own life would be in danger, as those who disapprove of the regime, or fail to conform to the rules of the regime are dealt with harshly. It is true we always face dangers if we reveal details about ourselves as others may disapprove, but the dangers are not ones that endanger our survival, whereas within Gilead the dangers that Offred faces threaten her continued existence. Therefore, while the evil of the Gileadean regime partially lies in its limitation of freedom of choice, a large element of its evil is distinct from this and lies in the way that it makes people incapable of bonding with one another and forming deep relationships.

Before going on to an analysis of the evil I have been discussing in relation to totalitarianism I would like to give a basic explanation of totalitarianism and its relationship to despotism. According to Montesquieu each form of government has a principle. The principle of a government is not its particular structure, but what “sets it in motion.” For Montesquieu the principle of despotism is fear. What Montesquieu means by this is that despotism is sustained through using fear to combat people’s ambitions, goals, and attachments. The ideal subject for a despot, is not a reflective human being or an ambitious glory seeking warrior for that matter, but someone who will simply do what they are told because they fear punishment at the hands of despot himself, or someone he has entrusted with power. While despotism is distinct from totalitarianism, as totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon while despotism is not, the two are both exemplified by a situation in which the social fabric and the medium of rule are dominated by fear. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union were dominated by the fact that everyone was afraid of the regime, and doing something that might lead to punishment by the regime, and likewise afraid that their neighbour, friends or family members might be spies for the regime. The difference between despotism and totalitarianism is at least partially constituted by the fact that technological advances have allowed fear to become an even more dominant part of the social fabric. Consequently, it seems that the principle, in the Montesquieuian sense of the word, of totalitarianism is fear.

The consequence of living under a totalitarianism regime in which fear is the dominant mode of social control is a situation like Offred’s in which one is incapable of forming deep human relationships. This results because trust is essential to forming deep relationships with others, and fear destroys trust. If people are fearful that others may be connected to the secret police they will begin to distrust all others and become isolated from all others, and consequently not pursue the development of deep relationships. Consequently, it seems that The Handmaid’s Tale perceptively reveals one often overlooked evil of totalitarian regimes, and that is the way in which totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships. Also, once we understand the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of people to form and sustain deep relationships we will be able to better understand what is so horrifying about this form of government. Certainly, any member of a liberal democracy abhors authoritarianism for its inhibition on individual freedom, but totalitarianism is even more disturbing in that it not only destroys our autonomy, it also destroys our even more basic capacity for friendship and long-lasting romantic love.

Similarly, one other evil which is peripheral to The Handmaid’s Tale yet is essential to totalitarianism is the inability for people to engage in collective action as equals. The regime’s use of fear isolates people such that they are paralyzed and feel disconnected from all others, and this means that people will no longer come together to pursue common purposes as equals. The human ability to come together as equals to pursue common purposes, whether through creating an organization, creating a book club or protesting the state are valuable forms of activity that are destroyed when fear is used as a dominant mode of social control, and people become isolated from one another, and distrustful of one another.

These two aforementioned evils may seem very distant from post-industrial liberal democratic regimes, but nonetheless the second evil can assert itself within regimes that avowedly stand for freedom of the individual. Tocqueville notes that American democracy in the 19th century had a tendency towards individualism, and what he meant by individualism was very different from the way we use the term. What Tocqueville meant was that people would become isolated from the broader society and withdraw to a small circle of friends and family. The reason why people would feel so disconnected and isolated and withdraw from the broader society, is that the equality of democracy makes us feel powerless, as no one individual seems to be able to do great things on his own. When we feel powerless in this way, we tend to stop worrying about doing great things, and focus on merely leading quietly pleasant lives. Clearly, individualism in this sense can lead to an assertion of the second evil I spoke of as people withdraw from the public sphere and become so disconnected from the broader society as to see themselves as unable to act in concert with others to do great things. There is a difference in this case as certain kinds of common action among equals are still possible where individualism dominates, but common action among equals regarding broad societal issues, rather than private issues is disabled by Tocquevillian individualism. Furthermore, Tocquevillian individualism is not a particular problem of American democracy; it is a problem for all liberal democracies, as the focus on commerce that is essential to liberal democracy tends to focus people on their own jobs, their own families and friends, as against the broader society, which would only exacerbate the problem of Tocquevillian individualism. So despite the fact that liberal democracies do not inhibit the freedom of the individual they seem to be prey to one of the same evils that defines totalitarianism.

Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.

Some Thoughts on Secularism and the Public Sphere

Recently, it came to the fore that the Parti Quebecois were planning to try to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or religious headgear through the planned implementation of a “Charter of Quebec Values.” Much of the analysis of this Charter has focused on the fact that the PQ seems to be trying to capitalize on the xenophobia present in Rural Quebec.  However, this Charter forces us once again to reconsider the meaning of secularism and what interpretation of secularism is best, as defenders of the Charter of Quebec Values” have noted that this Charter is not an attack on any particular religious group, but rather a means of uniting Quebec much in the same way that Bill 101 helped to unite Quebec and this is very tied to the interpretation of secularism known as `Laicite`. `Laicite` is the idea that the private sphere is the sphere where religion should play its role, while in the public sphere all citizens should appear as equals devoid of any visible religious or cultural affiliation. In this way, `Laicite` privatizes difference in order to ensure that the state is free from religious influence. Since the Quiet Revolution in the 60’s in Quebec, it has been the dominant interpretation of what secularism means in Quebec.

It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this bill was not an attempt to marginalize particular religious groups from working in the public sphere, but rather that even if the Charter is being used in this way, there is a still an interpretation at its foundation that is worth considering,.

While `Laicite` has been a dominant model of Secularism in Europe and North America, it is not the dominant model, and in the Anglo- American world the more dominant model of secularism has been the idea that secularism does not require the privatizing of difference, but rather the diversifying of public space. Let’s call this the “Anglo- American Model.” On this interpretation, instead of preventing all public employees from bearing religious symbols we would allow them to wear any religious articles that they wanted to provided that these do not endanger other’s rights. The idea is that rather than banning all religious symbols from the public sphere, we should admit all religious symbols into the public sphere. This is still an interpretation of secularism as it stands in opposition to the formation of a State Religion.

Both models of secularism have difficulties, and I would like to take a moment to clarify them before making an argument in favour of either. On one hand, Laicite is problematic because by banning religious symbols we will certainly alienate many religious people whose political beliefs are intertwined with their religious beliefs. Now if a significant minority of people are religious and are alienated from the public sphere they will be less active in formal politics and this will likely mean their beliefs and interests will not be adequately taken into account in the formation of the public interest.  Somewhat ironically, while `Laicite` tries to create solidarity, it can have the negative effect of actually pitting certain groups against the public sphere and failing to be properly inclusive.  On the other hand, the “Anglo-American Model” is certainly inclusive enough, but it is problematic in that it seems difficult to figure out what the public interest is when all citizens come in bearing marks of distinct religions and cultures.  When there are conflicts between the values of the majority culture, and a religious minority whose value ought to take precedence? The “Anglo-American Model” of secularism on its own provides us with no answer to this question. In this way `Laicite` give us substantive values of citizen equality and solidarity, but fails to be inclusive, while the Anglo-American model is extremely inclusive, but makes it difficult to adjudicate what the common interest is, by bringing all of the fractious differences into the public sphere.  

It seems to me, that with a qualification, the Anglo – American model is superior to the `Laicite` model. The qualification is that it is understood that we do not value diversity in itself, but rather respect all equal citizen’s right to bear religious symbols and clothing in the public sphere. In this way the foundation of including religious symbols in the public sphere is not because diversity is inherently positive but respect for the equality of all citizens. This also gives the state and its citizens a barometer to adjudicate what is in the common interest and what is not, and what values ought to take precedence when conflicts occur. This solution certainly has its own problems, but it provides a substantial barometer as to what is in the common interest, and embodies an inclusive spirit that encourages all to see themselves as full citizens.