Logos, Drinks and Justice

Evelyn Femier, Robert Dittleby and Kelly Theosyn sit in a crowded pub near the Liberal Arts college they attend. They share a few pitchers of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, much to the chagrin of Robert who is upset that Sierra Nevada is three dollars more than the pale ale that is made by the owner of this pub, which in his opinion is at least as good.

After having finished a pint Evelyn asserts “the entire concept of a distinction between higher and lower ways of life is but an excuse for the privileged to oppress those who are below them, by labeling them as somehow lower whether in character, culture or moral purity.”

“If and when we achieve true justice we would have no need for a concept that some modes of life are higher and some are lower, as long as all are equally able to pursue their own way of life there is no reason to even speak of better and worse modes of life. The concept of the better and worse way of life is just a tool used to shame and marginalize the disadvantaged!”

Robert’s cheeks become red from a combination of righteous indignation, the beer and the additional Jager bomb that he had just had. He takes a second to collect himself for fear of coming across as unreasonable and begins “this is typical Social Justice Warrior claptrap; the fact that some people think and say that certain modes of life are better than others does not oppress anyone. These opinions are just projections of the fact that certain people are attracted to certain ways of life, and do not like other modes of life. People need to be less sensitive and realize that the terms higher and lower just signal that the person saying them has a preference for the item they attach the signifier “better” to. To try to prevent people from using these terms would be to prevent from stating their preferences, which is in itself a direct rejection of the right of individuals to express themselves.”

Evelyn responds “that is a strawman. I never said the fact that people have such opinions about ways of life constitutes oppression, but that typically these opinions are used to perpetuate oppression, and that if we are all truly equal these opinions would be unnecessary. These opinions about the superiority of certain ways of life would not be necessary as all would just do what they wanted and leave others to themselves.”

Kelly rolls his eyes and sits there looking at his beer and his glass of Tullamore Dew with a look that at once signals boredom and mild annoyance. He says “can we just talk about something else? Why do you two always have to bicker over this sort of thing. I came here to relax and have a good conversation, not to try to definitely determine the requirements of social justice.”

Kelly then finishes his Tullamore Dew and the rest of his pint and looks off towards the other side of room.

Robert replies “that is a pretty terrible argument Kelly. Are you suggesting that discussing the requirements of social justice is not important?”

“That is not it at all. Discussion of that topic is certainly important, it is just that you two never have an interest in actually talking to each other. You just continue to assert your position unthinkingly as if by mere repetition you would knock down the other.”

With a confused look on her face, in response, Evelyn says “but how would we avoid talking past each other when we fundamentally disagree about the requirements of social justice? Certainly it is because of this disagreement that we cannot argue in a calm fashion and we end up in a situation of stalemate. Which just proves my point that rational argument cannot overcome this stalemate, as it is only when we all have identical interests and thus no reason to have opposing views that these kind of stalemates will be overcome. And when we have achieved this we will have justice and all will have no need to argue because we will all be able to equally pursue our interests.”

“Yeah. I cannot believe I am saying this, but Evelyn is right. Rational argument between those who disagree will always remain in a state of stalemate and when these disagreements are resolved it is not because of linguistic reason, but because of some other aspect of the situation changes such as demographics or technology. This is why the market and majority vote are the best way of adjudicating claims because the market simply gives the object to the highest bidder, and the majority vote just requires us to count up how many support a particular position. Either way we avoid the need to get into messy, intractable arguments.,” Robert adds.

Kelly sighs and says “you two miss the point again. It is true that argument between those who disagree, even when done in good faith, tends to continue in stalemate. But this tendency does not mean that argument cannot establish agreement between those who formerly disagree, which is what both of you have asserted. Haven’t we all had a point in our life where we realized that we were wrong about something after another has corrected us and shown us to be holding a position that we ourselves could not accept?”

The waiter comes over and interrupts “another pitcher, another Jager bomb for you, and another Tullamore Dew for you?”

“Yes, sure” the trio reply, and immediately after the waiter walks way

“Based on what I was saying before I was interrupted doesn’t it seem possible for speech to allow us to come to agreement even where we deeply disagree?”

“I guess so, but it is rare, so it might not be the most reliable method to adjudicate conflict” says Robert.

“That certainly may be the case, but that just means that reasoned speech may not be the most reliable method to build social institutions on and that other mechanisms will likely be necessary, not that reasoned speech somehow cannot resolve such conflict,” Kelly notes.

Evelyn adds “the point you made about reasoned speech may be true, but we can confidently say that actually existing reasoned speech is constitutive of existing relations of power. Therefore we never encounter a situation of reasoned speech between equals in the absence of power relations, but between oppressors and oppressed. In which case reasoned speech is just a mere weapon to either fight the oppressed or continue oppression, rather than a mechanism used to come an agreement about the nature of something. “

Kelly notes “I appreciate your candor Evelyn and your position certainly has a certain consistency to it, but do you really believe this? Let us return to the concept of higher and lower ways of life that began this discussion. Surely as someone who rejects discourse that invokes concepts of higher and lower ways of life. You do not use these concepts.”

“Well, that is not entirely accurate I am willing to use them strategically to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes,’ replies Evelyn.

Kelly looks down again at the table and says “but Evelyn when you utter these arguments to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes, these statements are presented to the one to whom you are speaking as sincere arguments no? You don’t go around qualifying that your argument is just a rhetorical weapon for fighting injustice?”

“No, that would be stupid,” replies Evelyn. “In order for a strategic argument to be effective it must be presented as a sincere argument rather than just an instrument for change.”

“So, you agree that when this argument is presented to the other it needs to take on the appearance of sincerity and thus in the space of appearance of a given conversation the argument must present itself as an argument sincerely saying certain ways of life are better than others. But if this is so than the power of this argument can only be adjudicated based on its insight. The only way this argument will in effect convince people is if it reveals an insight to them, and whether this is insight is contrived for political effect or sincere is really irrelevant.”

“What are you getting at?” Evelyn questions.

Kelly stops drinking from his beer and replies “when you make an argument on any topic including the nature of which ways of life are better and which are worse once the words in the argument have left your lips they do not bear any necessary connection to your intention. The fact that an argument is insincere and just intended to win, does not mean that the argument will not reveal something important to the audience to whom it is presented. And in, and through this revealing while the argument may have been attempted as mere casuistry it actually becomes a revealer of the truth and thus something that can allow those who disagree to come to agreement.”

Evelyn further inquires “sure, but why does this matter?”

Kelly then looked straight at Evelyn and says “It matters because if you admit this than you admit that reasoned speech can lead to the truth even when the reasoned speech is attempted as a mere political vehicle for change. This shows that while there is an aspect of reasoned speech that is vulnerable to being made subordinate to oppression and power, even when someone tries to subordinate reasoned speech to political ends, speech has the capacity to reveal truth. This shows that reasoned speech cannot be reduced to a mere object under the control of human beings, but is rather something that we interact with and which allows us to come to a better understanding even when our desire for certain ends pushes to make disingenuous arguments. If this is the case then even when reasoned speech is involved in existing relations of power and oppression, it contains within it the capacity to subvert the very oppressors that using it to dominate the vulnerable. In which case reasoned speech is not just an instrument of a power, but also a revealer of truths and insight.”

Evelyn glares at Kelly and angrily replies “this is the kind of nonsense metaphysics that merely serves to prevent the oppressed from being liberated. We should not be focusing on who is right, but how to make people’s lives better.”

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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.

On Ranking Music

Rob and Alice sit at a café, in a trendy section of downtown Ottawa, enjoying biscotti with their coffee.

Rob: After we finish having our coffee did you want to go to “Make Mine Vinyl” and pick up some records?

Alice: I would be down with that, but I don’t know if I will get anything while we are there.

Rob: Why is that? There are always interesting records to check out. If you don’t have money on you, I can front for you.

Alice: No. That is not necessary. The issue is not that I don’t have money on me, or even that I don’t want to buy a new record. I just find myself overwhelmed by the amount of music I already have; I can’t find the time to truly listen to all of it.

Rob: I guess that makes sense. I have run into this problem myself in the past, but I have a found a way to deal with it.

Alice: How do you deal with it?

Rob: I make sure to set aside a certain amount of time per week to listen to new records, and rate them on Rate Your Music. This way I don’t get behind schedule and find myself in a situation where I have not heard all of the new releases that I want to listen to.

Alice: You rate the records right after listening to them? How many times do you listen to them before you put in your rating?

Rob: I usually listen to them once or twice before ranking them to be fair, and I typically put in the ranking right after I complete my listening. It is kind of part of the process.

Alice: That seems like an efficient approach. How many records have you ranked since starting this?

Rob: I have 1500 records logged on Rate Your Music. How many do you have?

Alice: I don’t use Rate Your Music, but I keep track of my thoughts on each record and have ranked about 300 or so.

Rob: Only 300 or so? I know you have listened to far more than 300 records. Why have you only ranked 300 or so? Do you feel like you have no time for that as well?

Alice: To some degree I feel like I don’t have time, but I also struggle with ranking every record that I have listened to. It feels somehow artificial to put in a ranking for a record just because I have listened to it a couple of times.

Rob: I don’t understand. What feels artificial about it? If you have listened to the record you would most certainly have a judgment on it. Wouldn’t you?

Alice: If am going to rank a record I want to make sure I really understand it, and have given it the opportunity to present itself to me. This will sometimes happen after the first listen, but in other cases the record will seem opaque and I feel I have not really understood what this record is. In these cases, I could just ascribe a ranking to it based on some arbitrary criteria, but that would seem to devalue the record. If I am going to make a pronouncement on a record I want to feel as though I have really figured it out.

Rob: That is interesting, but isn’t any form of ranking of records just selecting a numeric value for the record based on some arbitrary criteria? Some people might attribute more of their rating to their sheer enjoyment of the record, while others might look at originality, musical innovation, lyrical profundity or cohesiveness in order to make their ranking. But in the end, isn’t all of it arbitrary?

Alice: You’re right that people typically rank records in this fashion, but isn’t there something troubling about this? If we rank records just because we can pronounce judgment on them, doesn’t this mean we are ranking records for the sake of ranking records?

Rob: I don’t think so. What do you mean by ranking records for their own sake?

Alice: I mean isn’t music supposed to be something that speaks to us? If our main goal in listening to records is to rank them then aren’t we treating records as objects to be organized into a hierarchy, rather than looking at them and trying to grasp if and how they speak to us? Are records a plaything for our creative amusement in organization and categorization? Or are they unique pieces that call out to be fully grasped and understood?

Rob: I don’t see why records can’t be both. When I sit down to listen to a record and rank it, I do so with an open mind.

Alice: It may be true that you so do with an open mind, but if you are using the method you described earlier and ranking a record after one or two listens what happens when a record does not speak to you after those one or two listens?

Rob: It means that the record deserves a low or mediocre ranking. My view could change if I listen to it again and realize that the record does something well that I had not noticed during my initial listens.

Alice: But how often do you go back to listen to records that did not speak to you upon the initial ranking? If you have to keep up with listening and ranking a bunch of new records where do you find the time?

Rob: It is hard to find time, but I think it is very unlikely that a record would not speak to me on my first couple listens and then somehow speak to me later, so I tend not to go back and listen to them. But I am comfortable with that.

I think the issue is that you don’t like the idea of ranking all of your records because then it might leave you open to ridicule for your rankings and you would have to commit to your rankings.

Alice: Or maybe I am interested in grasping and understanding records, rather than viewing the fact that I listen to them as a badge of my status as a music scholar?

You recognize that you do not go back to records if they do not grab you after one or two listens. Isn’t this precisely viewing music as something not to be grasped and understood, but just to be ranked, organized into a hierarchy and thrown away?

Rob: I am not like that at all! Just because I rank every album I listen to and post it to a website does not mean that I am doing so for the sake of establishing some kind of status as a musical authority, or that I don’t try grasp the record. I just happen to really like to rank records and it is good way to keep occupied when I am not at work, or with friends.

Alice: You know yourself better than me, but I still think my general point holds and that there may be better ways to keep occupied than keeping up with, and ranking, new releases.