For Part I, (meditations on the utter futility of politics of identity and difference) go here.
This post is occasioned by a recent thought-provoking post by Leigh M. Johnson at my old blog. Needless to say, I think that Johnson is largely mistaken (any reader of Ms. Manners knows that we need more civility and not less of it), but I'm not going to argue for that here. Rather, I want to focus on what seems to me to be the weirdest thing about the post, Johnson's presupposition that the cardinal problem with norms of civility was how enforcing them might lead to silencing oppressed groups. This surely has some relevance with respect to the unequal way such norms are enforced with respect to racial minorities and women,* but taking the point to have automatic resonance with every other class of oppressed people seems wrong to me. Moreover, it's wrong in a way that speaks to problems with the conceit itself.
Disabled people are the fourth group of systematically oppressed people that Johnson gets to (after women, not-white people, non-tenured people, and before queer people, people with unorthodox, unpopular, and contentious views, and (redundantly) people who "belong to one of the groups noted in 1-5 above and also advocate a dissenting view." She writes:
You are disabled. I don't like the term "disabled," which even I can see is as ableist as the term "non-White" is racist, but (alas!) this is unfortunately what our as-yet-unrefined language permits at the moment. I was rightfully called out on my own inattentiveness to the use of ableist language (here) recently, which gave me pause to re-read many of my own posts with a new sensitivity and also to make a conscientious effort to write with a new sensitivity, so I am much more aware of the sorts of default prejudices that many of us operate with when it comes to pointing out the many and varied ableist nuances of our everyday language. No wonder that critics of ableist speech would be worried about being viewed as incivil or uncollegial.
This is really quite remarkable. So, a few things first:
- Note the weird bit about refining language. You don't have to be (though it helps) a Wittgensteinian to find this frightening. Who gets to do the refining? Why is it O.K. to tell everyone how to speak but not support social institutions that encourage us to follow Ms. Manners' (for whom politeness is really just being genuinely concerned about the well-being of others and manifesting this in social interactions) sensible advice? This makes absolutely no sense. When it comes to policing other's behavior, it seems that while all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.
- Note how the brouhaha over my post and subsequent removal from newapps has produced a 180 degrees turn. Part of the reason my post made so little sense to readers at the time is because Johnson initially removed the latest bit of hectoring from Shelley Tremaine (God bless her for the important academic and political work she does), which is back up now with the mea culpa. This incidentally shows the complete vacuity of the common blogospheric pretense that one can be rude to the powerful but not the non-powerful. Peope often express the thought that it's especially wrong to say Y about X because X doesn't have tenure. But the corresponding acceptability of ad hominems against the tenured sends a clear message that the non-tenured had better get in line. It's neat to see this occur in real time.
- What about "critics of ableist speech" who don't consider themselves disabled?
- Doesn't an uncivil critic of oppression do more harm than help, by alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic? Why should we trust Johnson over Martin Luther King on this point?
- Finally, really, just how common is it for disabled people to be silenced via policing of civility norms? Does that really have much to do at all with the main forms of economic, social, and political oppression facing disabled people? It should be obvious that to the extent that civility norms are relevant, what's right about the critique of ableist speech is that it is part of a systematic form of incivility imposed on the disabled, in the standard way that acceptale incivility towards particular groups is part of normalizing their oppression.
My main interest here is point five, not just with respect to the disabled, but with respect to Johnson's other six or seven (mod the redundancy) categories of relatively disempowerd people. Moreover, I don't want to focus here on the way that (pace Johnson) in actual human life incivility is overwhelmingly a tool of oppression and expectations of basic civility overwhelmingly liberating. Rather, I want to focus on the broader issue raised by point 4. How should we think about exclusion and silencing that often goes with oppression?
Let me first note that it is very easy for philosophers to view political issues through distorting lenses of our own making. To the extent that we ourselves are not in Habermasian ideal speech communities, or in Badiouian post-event states that differentiate us, or out of the Derridean margins, etc. etc. etc. etc.** our own attempted contributions to the dialectic are stillborn. Since the overwhelming majority of us face cognitive dissonance due to the facts that writing is inherently social and that our books or articles will never be read, much less cited, much at all, we tend to see the root cause of other people's suffering as the fact that nobody is paying attention to them, and focus on structural reasons that this might be the case. Because of this (especially when added to the post-Hegelian fixation on identity and difference), academics easily fall prey to seeing issues of injustice and oppression largely in terms of groups of people being systematically prevented from speaking. I submit that this is the root of the weirdness in many attempts by academics to be politically relevant in the blogosphere.
To be fair, the focus on exclusion and silencing isn't always all too human academic narcissism. One can argue that many systematic forms of oppression only work because the oppression is kept out of sight and out of mind. This realization was part of Martin Luther King's strategy for opposing apartheid in the United States. However, if his strategy only had involved getting victims of apartheid heard, it would not have succeeded. His gamble was that the moral conscience of white America could not stand to witness the unjust violence that sustained apartheid.
And clearly the academic's conceit has purchase with respect to people, animals, and ecosystems who cannot enter into philosophical dialogue on their own behalf. Surely, people need to speak for them. But with King, this means nothing without the majority's empathy being engaged (also note in the cases of mute people, animals, and ecosystems that the silencing is not because of politics, but rather (as Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche following him, realized) cruel mother nature). And, moreover, abrogating to oneself the position of spokesperson for the subaltern is at best ludicrous, at worst harmful to everyone concerned. Ever since the French Revolution, it is clear that people who take themselves to be the spokesperson for the speechless are capable of rationalizing horrors beyond what the rest of us might imagine. Academic philosophers are not immune.
Most important though, the conceit makes us comprehensively misunderstand political reality. Consider the case of civil rights, where a focus on exclusion and speech entails a misunderstanding of the problem that in turn leads to the neo-liberal neutralization of any chance at improving things. In the United States, the 1890s through the 1960s were the height of organized violence against black people in the American South. During this period there was a lynching on average every four days, punctuated by horrific acts of collective punishment. Violence and collective punishment are the only ways apartheid and colonization can work to the benefit of the ruling minority of the ruling minority (the poor of the ruling ethnicity have to satisfy themselves with the "psychic wage" of apartheid or colonialism, feeling better than others; but this mostly makes them complicit in their own immiseration).
But here's the thing: economic, political, and social exploitation is not primarily a problem of being excluded or silenced. At best, being silenced is a symptom of the exploitative machinery. Note that the de facto exclusion of African Americans from white society was actually much greater in the North during the heyday of American Apartheid, while the economic, political, and social exploitation of African Americans was vastly greater in the American South. The terrorism from the 1890s onwards solely served to take voting rights away from Southern African Americans and to reinstate the plantation economy. But in this same society upper and middle class white families were overwhelmingly more likely to have black maids, upper class white men were far more likely to have black mistresses and support their families, and white people were far more likely to have black employees. The main problem wasn't segregation, but rather political disenfranchisement, economic oppression, and the overwhelming violence necessary for instituting and continuing these.
Note that disenfranchisement (mostly through war on drugs incarceration and removal of voting rights, but increasingly through old style apartheid schemes of disenfranchisement) and economic oppression (every bit of right wing economics in the American South is racially coded in ways to get poor whites to vote for their own oppression) continue to be the problems in the American South (and since the 80s increasingly everywhere else) long after the dismantlement of de jure segregation.
Finally, consider how little political difference has been made by the complete free speech on the internet. This is as close as we are going to get to a Habermasian/Badiouan/Derridean paradise, and it doesn't change anything. Go listen to some Leonard Cohen if you doubt this. Again, if we present our blogosopheric rambling as if that puts us as part of some new vanguard party, the best we can hope for is achieving a ludicrous state of non-self awareness. With respect to Johnson's post, it should be clear that the silencing of the disempowered is at best an epiphenomena of structural forms of oppression that can continue just fine when the disempowered are given a voice. It's extraordinarily misleading to pretend otherwise.***
*The problem isn't that their shouldn't be socially enforced norms of civility, but rather that all such norms should apply equally. This seems so obvious to me that my plans for doing a post on it are probably chimerical. How could one argue for something so morally basic? Aren't such examples of fairness the kind of intuitions by which we test moral theories? There's surely more to be said on how I'm framing this (google "reflective equilibrium ethics"), but I can't see much more to be said for the centrality of the intuition itself.
**Let me be clear. I'm pretty sure the charge sticks with respect to the actual writings of Badiou,**** pretty sure that it does not stick with respect to Derrida's writings, and not so sure about Habermas.
***I probably shouldn't have to say this, but here goes. I am not trying to prohibit political philosophy or engagement in political activity by philosophers. But we must respect that these are separate activities and, moreover, that political philosophy is not first philosophy.
Politics as first philosophy should not be confused with the claim that ethics is first philosophy. A very good Hegelian/Schopenhaurian/Heideggerian/Sellarsian argument can be made to the conclusion that we deontic and alethic modalities are fundamental. I don't know the extent to which this view of the fundamentalilty (in Heideggerese, "originariness") of deontic modals ties up with more recent Levinasian claims about the primacy of ethics. I'm pretty sure that there's an interesting connection. The goofy view of the primacy of the political happens when people try to simultaneously hang on to the view that ethics is fundamental while being positivists about ethics. That's at the root of too much late Richard Rorty and too much of what passes for political interventions in the philosophical blogosphere.
****A massively underrated philosopher, mostly because so few people know enough core continental philosophy, analytic philosophy, and logic to make sense of him. The discussion and critique in Paul Livingston's The Politics of Logic is first rate, and pretty accessible.]