It is one thing to hold to an ideology that is antithetical to recognizing and acting within a relational frame of being in the world and to simply excusing poor choices as acting within the status quo. I bring this up for a few different reasons.
The first stems from a conversation i recently had with an old friend who works for one of the more insidious and dreadful corporations in the U.S. I don’t want to name it or the work the person does because this is not a personal attack on anyone or their chosen profession; however, i realized that my dread and rather unkind reaction to this person’s reasoning fro the work they are doing ruffled me terribly. Over cocktails with another friend, we began to grapple with the difference between having an ideology or belief system that we do not agree with (in her instance, it was a friend who has recently become Catholic who believes that gay people should not have sex – they can get married, she insists, civilly, at least, but that they simply shouldn’t be engaging in intercourse – this line of reasoning has its own flaws and problematics, but i want to push this conversation beyond the particulars of a certain way of thinking and into a discussion of material effects) and another to simply act in a way through which the material outcomes have real and detrimental impacts on people’s lives.
The issue with particular ideologies or belief systems is not the holding of those beliefs, rather it is with the material aspects that stem from them. There is a major difference between holding judgmental or precarious beliefs and actually acting upon them in ways that have material consequences that impact on or engage in oppressive functions in society. There is a far cries difference between holding beliefs and enacting them in ways that coalesce in real forms.
Tariq Ramadan states:
Nobody is saying that we don’t have the right to offend. The question is: is it wise, and is it the way forward for us in our societies? It is wise when we are in a pluralistic society to say ‘I have the right to do it, but I have the civic sense of responsibility not to do it.’ It’s not censorship that we want. You know, the difference between censorship and respect is that censorship is the removal of a right, while respect is asking you to use that right in a reasonable way
I would like to move his comment out of the discursive and into the material. Nobody is saying that you don’t have the right to make money in a way that is oppressive to others, the question is: is it wise, and is it the way forward for us in our societies? Judith Butler asks us to consider:
…[grief] furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility. If my fate is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the ‘we’ is traversed by a relationality that we cannot easily argue against; or, rather, we can argue against it, but we would be denying something fundamental about the social conditions of our very formations (2004: 22-23)
What does it mean to say that we exist only within our relational frame? to acknowledge and act upon the very core notion that none of us are acting individually or out of concert with each other? What does it do to our actions when we realize that we are none of us acting as an island, but within a realm of inter-connectedness? This is not to elide difference, so much as it is to recognize that even in our difference, we are fundamentally inter-related – responsible for our actions not just for ourselves, but in relation to others and the impact that our material production has on each other – even if those we are impacting are invisible or silent within our respective spheres.
What does this re-imagining do to our responsibility?
Wendy Brown reminds us that “neoliberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life” (2005: 42) and that “neoliberalism entails the erosion of oppositional political, moral, or subjective claims located outside capitalist rationality yet inside liberal democratic society, that is, the erosion of institutions, venues, and values organized by nonmarket rationalities” (2005: 45). Thus it is that neoliberal rationality works to force us to think of ourselves as independent rational economic actors whose only end goal is to participate in society as homo oeconimus, devoid of a relational sense of self that is held responsible to or for something outside ourselves, and that our morality is tied to our ability to act within that rational construct, not as independent thinking, feeling individuals with a sense of being in the world.
Once we can imagine that our only responsibility is to ourselves, that we are free floating subjects within a soup of individuality who can only (and should only) depend on ourselves, then it become much easier to lose our understanding of the impacts of our material processes and productions on others. What, then, does it mean, to have a “conscience” in this world? Is there room for true compassion in a system that denies the imperative of thinking through our actions beyond our own gains?
This returns me to an earlier post, one in which i questioned the geography of compassion, the possibility of distance acting as a buffer against which we can have compassion for others. For many of my friends, there is a sincere desire to “do good” in the world – whether through compassion (of the very Buddhist kind) or through other means. But the threshold of that compassion is so often impinged upon by the impact it has on personal material gain. How is it that we have come to disconnect high ideals from the very act of living our daily lives – as we move through this space-time conundrum called living to make money, buy goods, and do the things that are most important to us?
I suppose this is where Colin Cremin comes in. In Capitalism’s New Clothes (2011), he states in the introduction that “[t]his … is about an ideology woven by the enterprise of those concerned about the ethics of capitalism and at the same time embarrassed by the enjoyments the system has afforded them” (1-2). What i grapple with is the discursive way in which people espouse an ethical or compassionate view of the world that belies their actual material practices. To “feel badly” for something is not the same as “doing something” about these same things. And “doing something” does not mean spending a few extra cents on coffee, or buying carbon footprint offsets, or buying RED products, or even purchasing “humanely slaughtered” cattle. These particular processes are mere band-aids that cover the personal guilt that people feel for their own ethical missteps. They help the consumer feel less badly, even as though they might be doing something about what they know, inherently, is detrimental.
But Ananya Roy reminds us, in Poverty Capital, of “Spivak’s (1994) injuction that ‘responsibility’…cannot suffice. It is necessary to also consider the ethics of ‘accountability’” (2010: 40). The question then arises, Accountable to whom? While Roy was speaking specifically about accountability in development, i think it is important to ask that question of ourselves in our daily practices. To whom do we hold ourselves accountable?While the state holds us accountable to our actions within legal frameworks, and the economic system holds us accountable to our ability to act as a properly economically viable actor-citizens, it is only ourselves, our individual selves that can, right now, hold ourselves accountable to others.
But what does it mean to hold ourselves accountable? In a world that is calculated against cost-effectiveness and accountability to economic gain, it is difficult to begin to imagine what a new accountability, without rubrics and institutions to formulate them, without experts and their hard-earned expertise to back them up. What does a personal accountability look like when tempered through a lens of relationality?
My second reason for bringing this up is that my students and i had a very satisfying conversation last week about contradictions. Two of my students were problematizing the reading we did of a chapter by Martin Luther King. They were commenting on the contradictions of him being so for peace through a lens of religion even as he was a well-known philanderer. One of the young women pointed out that he also used only masculine pronouns (he, him, etc) throughout his writing. A third student chimed in, “I think you’re reading too much into it. I mean, “he” is just the dominant way that people speak about people.” He was right, really, but what it opened up was a conversation about what it means to find contradictions.
Our jobs, i posit, is to begin there – at those very obvious entry points to contradiction – as a practice to learn to discern contradiction in the most mundane and obvious ways so that we, as individuals, can learn to find the subtle contradictions in the world around us, in the ideologies, and ultimately, in ourselves. This is not an exercise in culpability, rather, that as we begin to unravel contradictions, we can begin to recognize the ones within ourselves so that we can address them and so that we can move through the world with consciousness. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to be in the world, or to think about the world, rather, there is only our own ability to and willingness to move through the world with a clear understanding of how we choose to be in it – to face our own contradictions and address them – or to not – in full and clear recognition of our choices.
And that is where i land – recognizing that we are none of us perfect, but that we do, in all reality, have a responsibility to acknowledge those things that we do that are in contradiction to what we say or in contradiction to what we believe, and to do something about it. Whether it is simply acknowledging and being truthful about it or it is making the changes necessary to address them – we do have a responsibility to excavate and address. But beyond that, there is an absolute imperative to recognize those contradictory beliefs we hold about our relationality. It is not enough to simply state that we “care” – if that caring is real, it requires real and material shifts in our very existence. And sometimes those shifts are uncomfortable.
And no, it doesn’t mean simply spending a few more of those hard-earned pennies – it means actually making life choices that disrupt the very processes of neoliberal capitalist accumulation.