Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Brief Post To Get Back Into It!

Oh, ye frequent readers: I apologize for the lack of posting over the last two months. A new apartment, a difficult quarter and other barriers reduced my posting. Let me simply note a few comments that came to mind from my various classes.

The first came when I was in my Multi-Cultural Societies class. Of course when discussing matters of race, racism, culture, ethnicity, etc., especially with undoubtedly one or two conservatives in the class, the possibility for a highly unproductive dialogue to emerge is quite profound. Yet the way most university classes, including this one, have resolved such difficulties is to resort to a, if I may, namby-pamby approach. You know the one: "Everyone has an opinion. You should all listen to each other and respect people from different backgrounds." Yada yada yada.

Now, far be it from me to undermine the importance of dialogue, particularly polite dialogue, or to rebut that people should be kind and non-judgmental to each other. Nonetheless, I am afraid that this tack does not engender critical dialogue. For one thing, it seems to put a Stop sign on actual substantive debate.

You see, in our society, we have created a dichotomy (false though it may be) between "argument" and "dialogue". In part this is a linguistic confusion: The word "argument", except for some logic folks and debaters, typically connotes a caustic 'discussion' filled with interruption, bile, anger and very little substance, listening or alteration of position. Clearly this must be avoided! But I think that there is also a deeper problem here that the linguistic problem covers up. Our society teaches people to accept particular dogmas (ironically, one of the dogmas is "Don't accept dogmas".) Instead of devoting the requisite time and intellectual energy to really gripping an issue, understanding things, resolving disputes (semantic or otherwise), and coming upon some kind of agreement or understanding, we prefer to sit in our hermetic containers and occasionally stick our head up, fearfully looking for crossfire. Unfortunately, America's political climate, filled with bile and rage and very little logic and thought, further propels this difficulty.

And so every University professor, come the start of a new quarter, will march out a string of platitudes and bromides about "discussion" and "respect" and "courtesy". But one should listen to someone not only for what might be quite right, but also what is quite wrong. And one should be listening carefully, without preconception or anger, not only because not doing so is not conducive to anything, but also because doing so is the prequisite to effective rebuttal.

Tim Wise once pointed out that, particularly in the context of classes like I'm attending, this statement that everyone will be safe and protected is in fact not directed at minorities in the classroom but really the majority, saying, "Don't worry, you won't have to step outside of your comfort zone here." Never mind that blacks, women, politically left and poor people have to step outside of their comfort zone practically every day if they wish to offer their political opinion. This point was eloquently and angrily made by someone in one of my discussion groups, who pointed out that there is a fundamental inequity (though this is not a justification for violating freedom of speech) in the situation where the neo-Nazi and the Black Panther discuss. Even in a liberal university, the neo-Nazi can go back home, secure and quiet in his racism and confident that he was the dissident voice of reason, while the supposedly "emotional" Black Panther will be bothered by a tack that says he should not exist, a script s/he has heard every day and often decidedly in decidedly unsafe environments. Even in the rare cases where the Black Panther is saying something akin to "Kill whitey", the white person will rarely feel actually scared, or be in any real danger, because of the innate power relation (magnified in dispro white college campuses).

Yes, if the choice is between an acrid and vicious debate and silence or people sheepishly offering their "opinions", the mature part of me will pick the latter, but that shouldn't be the choice. Administrators have a responsibility to allow the third, actually good alternative: Where people passionately defend positions, with appropriate logic and points being actually addressed and rebutted.

The second note is more for my own comfort. If you find it excessively fatuous, go ahead and skip to something else.

In a discussion about Aristotle and ethics/political philosophy, I proffered my solution to the classic dilemma of order versus freedom: Free people will obviously disagree on many things; ergo, in cases where a decision must be made, various sytems of redress, appeal, individual rights guaranteed by some kind of constitutional order, etc. must be available to allow compromise. In the normal give-and-take of any social unit, no matter how vital and really free, compromises will need to be made. Just think of any family. Few would dispense of it, yet within it people constantly fight and have disagreements. This isn't a problem regarding freedom if there's enough respect for each individual and no one tramples on each other legitimate rights. To which my Professor responded, in essence, "That is basically Aristotle". Aristotle, who believed Plato's pap about "philosopher kings" who, by dint of superior education, would be in a superior way moral and kind; who viewed the vast mass of people as inferior vulgates who need to be indoctrinated by force and order (what he called taxis and noos); and so on.

Though a broader treatment of my anarchist philosophy is still in the works, let me summarize my ethical opinion. In my view, ethics and freedom are not mortal enemies, as we often imagine, but in fact blood brothers. To be free is to have the possibility to act in an ethical, or rather unethical, manner. The only way someone can prove themselves as an ethical entity and acquire the maturity for freedom is precisely to have that freedom in the first place. I view any restriction upon private freedom as a limitation of someone's ability to be free. Unfortunately, a few restrictions to prevent rights conflicts and allow the fullest and freest expression of liberty are essential, but aside from these cases (i.e. legislation against murder and theft), societies should not restrict private behavior, even unethical behavior.

So what makes me different from Aristotle?

1) I believe the common woman has all the requisite intelligence to run their own affairs.
2) Even if they didn't, there is no justification for repealing the solemn rights of free people.
3) Unlike Aristotle, who implies that family and the state of nature is fundamentally a barbaric and brutish one, I view family as not only an economic entity that provides food/shelter/child-rearing, etc., but also a real, organic emotional support network. Everyone can call their mother or father if they feel bad and are likely to get a quite positive and supportive response. This denigration of familial nurturing is, of course, representative of Aristotle's position as a sexist male in a deeply stratified society. Further, I think that tribal and "primitive" forms have much to recommend them, though I don't view them as the best alternatives.
4) My notion of the compromise between the individual and the community includes:
a) Direct democratic participation
b) Guaranteed individual rights
c) The ability to secede
d) Substantial redress, appeal, etc. processes
e) Federation and multiple levels of loyalty


Anonymous Lee Ferrier said...

Unfortunetly, People also have an economic component. If I control access to your drinking water and I secede from your society. Then what? If Quebec seceds from Canada, and decides to cut off the 30% of North East US Electric power exactly how sancrecent is their ability to secede?

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Bernard L said...


A very warm welcome back.

Your post hit a few chords.

It reminded me that we can't reasonably expect to find a genuinely democratic discussion in current university classes. That's not what its for really.

I was reminded of my reading few years ago of Habermas's Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (he was good for a few things). He posited a climate of moral consciousness as the main pre-condition of democratic deliberation, invoking Mill that to engage in democratic debate one had first to be able and willing to render an opponent's argument accurately and faithfully. Secondly, that an essential requirement for any moral community is solidarity.

We can't expect that in current university classes.

Finally I was reminded by Chomsky's detailing of his position on the appropriate orientation of writers who are responsible- in the sense that "it is a moral imperative to find out and tell the truth as best as one can, about things that mattter, to the right audience. (Writers and Intellectual Responsibility, Perspectives on Power).

and moreover on the third aspect of the moral imperative, the right audience...

"To speak truth to power is not a very honourable vocation. One should seek an audience that matters --and further more (an another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking to but with. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well." (W&I.R.,Powers & Prospects,61)

in solidarity,


5:25 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...


Your concern is wholly warranted. This is why most advocates of secession put in the common sense limit that if a region takes disproportionate resources with it, particularly resources that the society as a whole helped build, those resources are redistributed or other mechanisms occur to prevent the unfair loss.

3:48 PM  

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