Saturday, May 26, 2012

Care, Identity and (mis)Recognition 5


10.  Universalism and the Politics of Difference

Deer, Phoenix Park, March 2012
In theology, universalism refers to the doctrines (e.g., redemption and salvation to name but two) that include all of humanity within their ambit, while in philosophy it refers to the belief that universal facts can be discovered about reality, and it is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe. When used in the context of ethics, the meaning of universal refers to that which is true for all similarly situated individuals.

For instance, we may say that the concept of human rights as defined and enumerated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which were promulgated in 1948 in the wake of the murder of millions in the attempted genocide of the Jews as well as others by the Nazis) is a good example of universalism.  It is worth noting that this concept takes its origin from the declaration of rights, summarized in the motto of France (in the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau) “Liberté, Fraternité et Égalité,” at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. This declaration, of course, was heavily influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its conception of a human nature that could be considered as universal.

As we can easily see in the unequal distribution of the world’s resources the ideal of universalism is a very fragile project.  We see it startlingly in the unequal distribution of wealth between the northern and the southern hemispheres of planet earth.  We experience it daily in Europe in the fight to save the ideal of the overall European project itself, let alone its ailing currency.  While universalism is a fragile project, it is in no way over yet because deep down we desire a union of horizons, even though the petty individualism and even petty nationalism of individuals and states respectively may rear their ugly heads from time to time.

Unlike pre-Enlightenment times we constantly hear such catch-cries as “the equality of all,” “equal rights” and “freedom for all.”  People all over the world in the last 300 years or so have struggled for liberty and political equality against such dark forces as those of irrational prejudice, and indeed against the crumbling powers of both patriarchal Church and State.  In those years the struggles for liberty and equality have managed to a great extent to put an end to slavery, racial prejudice and to some extent prejudice against women.  The rights of children have, lamentably all too recently and not before time, also been recognised on an international footing.  However, much remains to be done in all these areas by way of critical consciousness or conscientization.  This latter concept is a popular education and social concept developed by the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire and is grounded in Marxist critical theory. Critical consciousness focuses on an in-depth analysis of the world, thereby aiming at the exposure of perceived social and political contradictions. It also includes taking action against the oppressive elements in one's life that are illuminated by that new understanding of matters.

There are many current phrases in the public forum at any particular time and all of them reflect the concerns of citizens of planet earth. We talk these days about “identity politics” and “the politics of difference.”  These phrases are often laden with the deeply felt needs and concerns of one group or another – mostly minority groups, though obviously there are cases of larger groups, who find it hard to get their voices heard. “Identity politics,” then, has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice by members of certain social groups. They form themselves into political identity formations and typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger social setting.  Such minority groupings would be travellers, Roma gypsies, other traditional indigenous groups, LGTB persons or immigrants to name several. 

Taylor (1994) refers to the rise of multiculturalism.  Indeed, all societies, including Ireland, are becoming increasingly multicultural and more open to migration from many different ethnic backgrounds.   Therefore, one problem encountered by modern societies is that of an imposition of some cultures on others (the latter being in the minority).  In this respect we can have the situation where some minority cultures are in danger of vanishing.

In short, Taylor argues that there ensues a conflict between “the politics of universal dignity” and “the politics of difference.”  Within the first of these categories viz., that of universal dignity, non-discrimination through being difference-blind obtains or at least is the ideal.  Here everyone gets equal recognition.  With regards the politics of difference, non-discrimination through acknowledging difference and making it the basis for differential treatment obtains.  Here the value of any different identity/culture is equal. Therefore, different identities/cultures deserve equal recognition, but not necessarily equal treatment.  A politics of difference implies recognition of distinctness and particularities and eschews assimilation.

Some years back, the founder of the English and indeed the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Dr Kadar Asmal argued that in Ireland we had our own apartheid and rather than discussing the situation in far away Africa we should discuss our treatment of the travelling people.  His point was that we can very easily ignore our very own prejudices, especially to minorities literally right under our noses while criticizing others far away for their mistreatment of others.  It is only when we recognise the other as a truly unique and authentic human being that we in turn are recognised in a similar fashion.  In the reality of mutual encounter, mutual recognition and the building of identity occur.   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. 

11.  Towards a Vision of Care, Authenticity and a Fusion of Horizons

The great twentieth century psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked that our vision for our life’s project will become clear only when we look into our heart. Who looks outside, he said, dreams while who looks inside, awakens. The same is true on a larger scale for cultures and nations.  However, true discernment of vision is a difficult task for any individual or any nation.  It could be said that the vision of a free and Gaelic speaking Ireland that was the dream of the leaders of the 1916 Rising was a noble and Romantic one not fully realisable in its totality.  It was a vision of a society where religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities were to be guaranteed to all its citizens, where all the children of the nation were to be cherished equally “and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”  That that vision would require sacrifice was readily acknowledged in that very proclamation of the dream of freedom: that “the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.” [1]  In short, its signatories and authors knew well the price they would have to pay for their dream or their vision of freedom.  Likewise on a smaller scale, the individual has a price to pay for his/her dream or vision for their life.  Only in this way will their life’s project be authentic, worthy and true.

Once again we must ask ourselves as a modern nation have the principles outlined in that universalist dream of equality been realised in actuality.  Do we cherish all our children equally?  Does every minority within the modern Irish State get its due recognition and are they able consequently to declare openly and sincerely their true identity by virtue of that recognition?  If recognition is withheld from any group, then, with Taylor, we can justly argue that this group is oppressed.  As I have argued above, discernment or soul-searching is crucial to recognition of the other and to one’s own authenticity.  How do we as a nation or a local community recognise the value within another smaller group – say the travelling community or the small Roma Gypsy community?  Do we really prefer to ghettoize them rather than suffer the indignity, hassle and shame of having members of such minorities live next door?  These are hard questions and discernment is a difficult process where we learn harsh truths about our own deep prejudices.  True questioning of ourselves and of our motives is always hard and will act as a Socratic gadfly to our comfortable smugness.

Real education is about liberation, because it raises the awareness of the oppressed to the reality of their oppression and to the injustices not alone perpetrated on them by others but to the injustices that are inherent in the very structures of society itself.  Hence, we need to ask big questions about how care is valued within our society?  How are women identified or even over-identified with care? If their identities are so fused with caring for others, how can they grow in authentic self-knowledge? How are men identified or under-identified with care? How many women from minority groups are represented among those carers? Why has there been no national study done on care and how such care work has been distributed between men and women in Ireland?  Why is child-care seen only as love but not as love-care or love-labour? Where is the care in an educational system geared mainly to the achievement of points in one terminal examination at second level? These questions and others are all worth asking?

 We ask these questions in search of nothing short of our own authenticity.  Lionel Trilling (1970, 1) in the very first line of a book based on a series of lectures he had given at Harvard writes "Now and then, it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself." In this influential book he describes the process by which the enterprise of sincerity, of being true to one's self, came to occupy a place of supreme importance in the moral life of humanity and how that notion of sincerity was transformed into the somewhat darker and still more strenuous and challenging modern ideal of authenticity. [2]  Charles Taylor was among many scholars much influenced by this pivotal book.

Taylor (1989, 25) argues convincingly that it is against such challenges as outlined in the questions listed in the second last paragraph above that we each need “to draw up our own unique life plans.”  In so doing we will be engaged in forming a framework against which we can define ourselves.  Oftentimes such a framework will be implicit, but for the thinking person it will become more formulated and explicit.[3]  Doing without such frameworks can never be optional because they literally ground us or root us in the soil of our very being. Being uprooted or alienated, then, is the polar opposite of being grounded in a framework where we have “the ontological solidity” of our very being.  Such a framework and such an ontological grounding anchors us or gives us an identity against which we make our decisions and opt for our individual choices in life.  Another way of putting this would be that we orient our moral compasses against a framework and within a moral horizon which draws us onward and orients us to the Good.  Within a framework and an orienting horizon I can be at home and find my bearings.  Without such a framework or horizon I am simply lost on a sea of confusion – the ultimate in identity crisis or alienation from the true and authentic self.

That there must follow an encounter between alternative horizons is inevitable in a world of differing religions and cultures.  That the culture of the West must encounter that of Islam goes without saying, given the on-going terrorist threat of the latter to the West. That the rights of women within Islam and versions of it must also be tackled is also inevitable.  That these encounters require no little sacrifice and challenge is hardly deniable.  While frameworks have to be strong to carry us they can never become so firmly set in stone that they cannot be transformed by the encounter with another culture.  The metaphor of “horizon” lends itself more readily to encountering the other and to transforming itself and the other in mutual acceptance and recognition.

12.  Conclusion

          Hollway (2006) argues that the real meaning of care is about subjectivity and intersubjectivity.  Care and the mutual recognition of identity must be at the heart of such intersubjectivity.  But practical, and ipso facto, ethical questions always come to the fore as we are relational beings.  How do we learn to care for less-intimate others, even those we have never met? If differentiating oneself from others is requisite for care, and morality means treating others ethically, how do we maintain our sense of difference without the derogatory meanings often attached to the so-called “other”?

In short, often we must be able to live with what John Keats perspicaciously calls “negative capability,” that is when “a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,”[4] or the ability to bear with current obstacles and work to overcome them without abandoning ship as it were.  Often sociologists and political scientists can be over-rationalistic with respect to care and do not take account of these contradictions or of the fact that people actually do bear with such incongruities in the actual situation.[5] 

          This essay has argued that care and identity are core considerations of a just and enlightened society and has defined and explicated both phenomena against the background of frameworks offered by both the philosopher Charles Taylor and the feminist scholars Gilligan, Bubeck, Kittay, Feeley, Lynch and others.  It has, moreover, explored the frameworks offered by these various scholars, frameworks which essentially give shape and meaning to the human enterprise of authentic living.  It also contextualised this quest for meaning within the dynamic of the human thrust to recognise the other as other, and in turn be recognised by the other as truly unique.  In so doing it has essentially argued the case that care and identity are the core considerations of a just and enlightened society.


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[1] In the short Gaelic poem, Fornocht do chonac thú, written in 1912, four years before the Rising, Pádraig Mac Piarais wrote of this vision of freedom which would require nothing short of the sacrifice of his life: “Do thugas mo ghnúis// ar an ród so romham,// ar an ngníomh do-chim,// 's ar an mbás do gheobhad”

[2] As a literary critic, Trilling starts with the notion of sincerity as it is adumbrated in the works of Shakespeare, most notably in that of Hamlet where Polonius speeds his son on his way with his famous advice “This above all: to thine own self be true, //And it must follow, as the night the day, // Thou canst not then be false to any man. // Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!” (Act 1, Scene, 3, 82-85, Hamlet) 

[3] I am reminded here of Paul Tillich’s (1957) Dynamics of Faith where he describes faith as an act of personality, and examines how faith participates in the dynamics of the personality. The book also examines the conflict between faith and doubt. Tillich defines and explores faith as ultimate concern. Faith is a centred act of being ultimately concerned. Tillich’s definition of faith may be interpreted to mean that faith is a concern with ultimate reality.

[4] See Gittings (1987, 158).  This phrase occurs in a letter to his brother George and Georgiana Keats, dated sequentially 14, 16, 21, 24, 31 October, 1818.  George and his wife had emigrated to America that same year.

[5] Taylor’s understanding of rationality (and naturalism) is a far wider one than that advanced by the likes of modern atheistic science writers like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who believe in what Taylor calls “naturalist reduction.”  These scientists are the receivers of the negative strand of rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment.  However, there is also another strand of rationalism stemming from the Romantic Movement as is evidenced in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and S.T. Coleridge.  John Henry Cardinal Newman was influenced by this strand of rationalism.  He argued, like Taylor does, against the rationalist and reductionist thinking of 19th century scientists like Thomas Huxley who, he said, saw reason as solely “a conclusion from premises.”  For Newman, reason was a much wider phenomenon insofar as when an individual made any reasonable decisions in life “the whole man moved,” not just his logical apparatus.  In like manner Taylor would see, I believe, that a broader rationalism would embrace the human being’s expressive nature where s/he would draw up their own unique life plans against a framework or background of meaning culturally derived and personally assimilated.  In other words, for Taylor, naturalism also has deep spiritual roots. Reason is never disengaged but is always in relation to our embodied engagement with the world, because it has to do with our perceptions of that same world. This links in well with Lynch’s schema or framework as outlined above where care involves essentially four interlocking elements: (i) cognitive work, (ii) emotional engagement, (iii) commitment and responsibility and (iv) a moral imperative.  In this framework reason is “engaged” and enriched by a greater horizon.


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