Thursday, May 24, 2012

Care, Identity and (mis)Recognition 2

3.  Recognition, Identity and Care


Dublin Zoo, May 15, 2012
          It practically goes without saying that identity and recognition are, as it were, two sides of the one coin.  One simply cannot forge or create one’s identity as a separate and unique self without being recognised by another as worthy of respect.     Charles Taylor is arguably one of the most important contemporary philosophers of modern identity, and he offers us an interesting analysis of modern identity in his various books.[1] Other people, he argues (Taylor, 1994), act as a mirror of our selfhood and reflect back to us a positive or negative image of ourselves.  He gives his reader the example of the negative recognition (or misrecognition) of Black Southerns by their White Southern counterparts in pre-Civil Rights days in the United States.  We Irish could allude to the misrecognition of the Irish Gaelic peasantry over hundreds of years by its colonial masters.  The one time professor of history at U.C.G., Professor P.L. Henry (1978, 21) argued some years back that the constantly diminishing number of native speakers of the Irish language learned from 1795 onwards that “they and all they represented were inferior, unfashionable and gross; moreover, they were impoverished.”[2] Taylor (1994, 23 ff.) argues that the people around the Black Southerns, or indeed, we may argue, those around the Irish Gaelic peasantry just mentioned, mirrored back to these groups respectively what he terms “a confining or demeaning or contemptible” picture of themselves.  Such negative recognition or misrecognition, or even non-recognition, can and does inflict great harm on a person or on a group of people. 

          One need not travel too far to meet contemporary examples of such misrecognition.  Indeed, we might have personally experienced such in our own lives.  How many teachers over the years have intentionally, or unintentionally, or in sheer desperation, called any of the pupils in their care “stupid” or “foolish”?  One can only be at one with Taylor where he argues cogently and passionately that due recognition is never a courtesy, but always a human right, indeed a basic human need.  Those that do not acknowledge this right or need, diminish not alone others but also themselves.

Taylor (1994, 26 ff.) argues that a politics of equal recognition was ushered in with the growth of democracy from the eighteenth century onwards.  Gradually individuals realised that they had a unique or “individualised identity”, particular to themselves alone.  This unique identity particular to the individual is his/her authenticity.  He goes on to stress that each individual’s unique identity is “inwardly generated” rather than “socially derived.”  Any identity defined by the latter is the result of misrecognition because it is based on the framework of patriarchal values inherent in all traditional hierarchical societies, societies which recognise one’s dignity in virtue alone of the role one is assigned by society at large.

We have seen above that identity and recognition are two sides of the one coin.  I now intend to examine how identity and recognition interact with the presence or absence of care in any individual’s life.  Building on the work of Kathleen Lynch (2007) – whose three concentric circles of care relations are discussed below [3] - Feeley (2008, 2011) proposes a model of what she terms “literacy learning care.”  She found in her study of 28 adults engaged in a literacy programme (a group of these respondents were survivors of industrial schools) that learning has a strong “emancipatory potential” when it takes place in a caring environment, but that when it occurs in an uncaring or even hostile and frightening one, it has the opposite effect of being oppressive and disempowering.  Feeley coined a powerful term, building on Lynch’s research, viz., “learning care.”  Indeed, she proposed and analysed three aspects of such learning care, viz., primary, secondary, and solidary, again basing her research on the findings of the same scholar.  Feeley argues convincingly that affective dimensions of equality are pivotal in establishing more just literacy outcomes.  She found from her research that these literacy outcomes mirrored the levels of care in the lives of her respondents. 

Feeley’s work is good solid research which supports the anecdotal contentions of some teachers of long standing known to this present author, views that argue that when a teacher cares for his/her students only then can real learning take place.  Further, using the framework offered us by Taylor we may say that once the teacher recognises the student in his/her uniqueness, authenticity and, indeed in his/her fragility and vulnerability, s/he will grow in positive self-esteem and identity as a learner.  In so doing the teacher is engaging in true care for his/her pupil.  This also ties in nicely with Carol Gilligan’s (1982) psychology of care as relational and as connecting with the other.  Likewise this study confirms in practice the philosophies of education offered by two major twentieth century writers on education, namely Martin Buber and Paulo Friere.[4]

4.  Who are we in terms of our relationships and care?

          We are relational beings.  We find our identity somewhere in the nexus of our relationships with others, which began with our early interactions with the significant others in our lives, especially mother and father and other close family members.  Indeed, we literally learnt to care at our mother’s knee.  Psychologically, I may say that my identity relates to my self-image (my personal mental model or image of myself), my self-esteem and indeed my individuality.  An important element of my psychological identity is my gender, as this dictates to a significant degree how I view myself both as a person in my own right and how I relate that personhood to other people.

Taylor (1989) focuses on the first-person, subjective and affirmed identity (one affirmed by self and others) of the human person. He is not describing a social identity or any identity limited by category.  In fact, he is talking about the existential subject.  That is the subject who asks such questions as ‘Who am I?’  ‘What matters to me?’ ‘Why am I suffering mental or physical pain?’ or ‘What is my goal in life?’ or ‘What is it all about?’ These are far from being category questions. We are here asking deep existential questions about our desires, our ideals and the very meaning of life.  What does answer these questions for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. Where do I stand on the question of how my father or mother or son or daughter is cared for or treated in hospital or nursing home or at school? Where do I stand on issues of justice in my everyday life?  These moral questions are encountered practically on a daily basis.  In a similar vein the great contemporary Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (1980, 7), who experienced at first hand the Nazi occupation of his country and the evils of communism, opines that “we learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.”

Bronson (2004), in a remarkable work of social significance, undertook some hundred or more interviews with people from all walks of life on the biggest question any of us has to face in our lives namely, “what should I do with my life?”  I hasten to add here that while this is a work by a journalist rather than by a professional sociologist or social psychologist, his findings are nonetheless revealing as they allow us to read the stories of real people in real situations.  He reports that his interviewees spoke of fulfilment rather than happiness.  Also, and Taylor would agree here as we outline below when we describe what he means by the “moral imperative,” [5] Bronson’s respondents found fulfilment in living up to their moral responsibility in society, that is when they found that they were of help to others, or at least when they felt they were genuinely connecting with others.   In other words, our identity is deeply linked in with our capacity to care and with our mutual recognition of one another in such caring situations.

Phillips (2004, 171), in commenting on the thoughts of writer Primo Levi, the great Italian concentration camp survivor, points out that the latter believed fervently, after his horrific experiences, that “the characteristic nature of any set of ordinary virtues is permeated by the dynamics of human acknowledgement.”  In short, this is another way of understanding what Charles Taylor means by recognition and Gilligan by “a relational psychology” and “connecting” with others.

Speaking in general about normal human relationships even, sometimes we can become enmeshed or fused with another person to the point that it is difficult to maintain a separate identity.  Such encounters, needless to say, are unhealthy relationships as one person is totally dependent on the other.  Now bring such a fused or enmeshed relationship into the carer/cared-for context and one gets trouble of equal proportions. If we base our identity on our partner, there is danger because it limits the extent to which we can authentically experience life.  A lot of women, argues Bubeck (1995), have fused their identity with the act of caring to such an extent that caring becomes their sole way of being in the world.  There is a singular lack of congruence or authenticity or real self-knowledge in such a rigid and narrow identification.   





[1] In Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, Taylor attempts ‘to articulate and write a history of the modern identity’ (Taylor, 1989: ix).  Interestingly, Alison Weir argues that Michel Foucault and Taylor are two of the most important contemporary philosophers of modern identity, and says that they offer us two very different descriptions and analyses of modern identities. See Weir (2009, 534)




[2] See “Anglo-Irish And Its Irish Background” in The English Language in Ireland, (Mercier, 1978), edited by D.Ó Muirithe, for an extensive account of the fortunes of the Irish language and how its decline led to a sort of “inferiority complex” on the part of Gaelic speakers.  It could equally be argued that the Irish in general have a sort of national inferiority complex due to hundreds of years of occupation by an outside power.  Kiberd (1995, 6) argues similarly that colonialism took various forms in Ireland over the centuries, forms that were accompanied by a “psychology of self-doubt and dependency among the Irish, linked to the loss of economic and political power but also to the decline of the native language and culture.”




[3] See pages 17 and following of this essay under the subheading “Who are the Carers?”



[4]Buber's focus on dialogue and community would mark him out as an important thinker for educators. But when this is added to his fundamental concern with encounter and how we are with each other (and the world) his contribution is unique and yet often unrecognized. For him the teacher encounters the pupil in an I-thou reciprocal relationship which is a real recognition of unique identity. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire, reprising the oppressors-oppressed distinction, differentiates between the two positions in an unjust society, the oppressor and the oppressed. He makes no direct reference to his most direct influence for the distinction, which stems back at least as far as Hegel’s master and slave dichotomy.



[5] See page 19 below of the present essay.

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