The Globe and Mail had a nice review of The Winter We Danced.
The Globe and Mail had a nice review of The Winter We Danced.
2014. “Mandates of the State: Canadian Sovereignty, Democracy and Indigenous Claims” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 27, 1: 225-238.
Revised: March 2, 2015
I have been asked many times to write about what it means to be an ‘ally’ or work in solidarity with marginalized groups. I am not fond of the term ‘ally’, nor do I think a ‘rule-book’ for aligning oneself with marginalized groups is a good idea. And so I have always declined and referred to what has already been written on the topic by those who have more relevant insight and experience. I won’t rehearse what these activists and writers have already brought to light. There are many common themes running through the various accounts, but where the prescriptions appear to be in tension with each other I have nothing to add other than my commitment to critically engage with them.
This is one of the biggest responsibilities of someone who wishes to do anti-oppression work: to think critically about the diversity and disagreement that naturally occurs within and between groups, and to make judgements about how to proceed given the inevitability of those disagreements. It is inevitable that someone in a group with whom you work in solidarity will ask you to be silent. It is also inevitable that others will ask you to speak up. The worst thing one can do is let a diversity of perspectives paralyze you intellectually or physically, rendering you unable to do the work. Many simply walk away from the role because they assume disagreement within a marginalized group signals some kind of unreadiness. I think this is a complete mischaracterization of diversity, as I shall explain further. But for now, let us turn to perhaps the most common strategy that allies employ in the face of diversity: uncritical deference.
I participated in TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paiken, ostensibly on the topic of alternatives to the Indian Act. Unfortunately, Skype is a terrible medium for remote participation. Worse, the conversation devolved into hearsay regarding Chief Spence.
The philosopher David Hume famously proclaimed that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Hume was working through the classic dichotomy and philosophical opposition between reason and passion, ideas and emotions. He concluded that belief by itself was insufficient to motivate action; some affective attachment was required in addition to the idea in order to motivate the subject to act. What we call the ‘will’ is merely the experience of this confluence between belief and action.
I happen to think that Hume is on the right track in his portrayal of abstract thought, or what he calls ‘demonstrative’ reasoning, reasoning about relations between ideas. Without some affective attachment to the nature or consequences of information and ideas, our conclusions take the form of idle data and inert propositions. Hume describes another form of reason, probabilistic, which plays a role in action insofar as it determines whether courses of action will result in pain or pleasure. Still, for Hume, it is the aversion to pain and the attraction to pleasure which ultimately motivate us to act on the determinations of probabilistic reasoning.
My dissertation on democracy, language, and colonialism will likely be prefaced by the following quote:
We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct? Moreover, it is not only the case that the established media of civilization – the universities, the arts, the book world – failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality; they often rose to welcome it and gave it ceremony and apologia. Why?
George Steiner, Language and Silence.
Charles Taylor’s well-known essay “To Follow a Rule” offers social scientists and theorists an indispensable but still neglected perspective on human agency and norm governed life. The arguments have much in common with those made by James Tully in “Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy”. Like Tully, Taylor’s main resource is the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which he deploys in order to deconstruct a number of persistent intellectualist fallacies. The gist of the argument is that one’s understanding of a norm or rule, as well as deviation from the rule, is in the first instance a bodily understanding of appropriate ways to move and act in relation to others. There is no intellectual formulation – no representation of a practice – that is required for our practical understanding. What follows is a summary of the article. I conclude with a minor point that in addition to bodily know-how being the grounds of following a rule, it is also the grounds of contesting a rule.
Taylor argues that for any principle or justification we do end up articulating in order to explain a rule to someone there are an “indefinite number of points at which, for a given explanation of a rule and a given run of cases, someone could nevertheless misunderstand” (166). Misunderstanding the character of a practice occurs when our interlocutor does not share the appropriate background: “Understanding is always against a background of what is taken for granted, just relied on. Someone can always come along who lacks this background, and so the plainest things can be misunderstood” (167).
What is the nature of this background? Taylor quickly dismisses the notion of an infinite catalogue of resolutions that qualify every possible instance of rule conformity and deviation. No one possesses such a mental compendium. For after all the inevitable exceptions and qualifications that we admit during an interrogation of the principle we’ve mustered to explain or justify, we eventually hit a point where we are unable to provide any further account. In such cases, as Wittgenstein observes, my justifications “have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned” (167). At this point I can only offer that “this is simply what I do” and continue on acting, as it were, “without reasons” (167). Taylor concurs, observing that “reason giving has a limit, and in the end must repose in another kind of understanding” (179).
When Audre Lorde agreed to participate in a feminist conference at NYU in 1984, she was dismayed to find an almost complete absence of black and lesbian participants other than herself. In Lorde’s now famous rebuke to her audience of white heterosexual feminists she demanded that feminism begin acknowledging the practical and experiential differences that exist between different groups of women. A failure to do so condemns feminism to reinscribe patterns of exclusion and domination. For in this failure to recognize, nurture, and benefit from the diversity of female experiences, she charged that white feminists were deploying the very racist and patriarchal ‘tools’ of exclusion they sought to challenge:
What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.
In excluding the experiences of black and lesbian women, academic feminists were subverting their own goals of democratic inclusion. Lorde issued her now well-known caution, arguing that systems of oppression cannot be challenged by woman’s participation in those same systems:
the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
Paul Nadasdy, an anthropologist, published a book in 2003 titled Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. The book presents an analysis of the ways in which the Canadian state and its bureaucratic structures impose a transformative context on negotiations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, a context that distorts and displaces the meaning of aboriginal accounts. Using his experiences living with and aiding the Kluane First Nation, settler-born Nadasdy explores the subtle power of the state to structure the terms of dialogue such that the demand for a public accounting of traditional practices and ways of knowing leads to these forms of life being excluded or disfigured in translation.
Nadasdy employs the work of a number of theorists to illustrate just how ‘contexts’ delimit what it is possible to say, do, or even think. Referring to the work on ‘symbolic power’ developed by Pierre Bourdieu, he argues that speech acts are situated within certain “linguistic fields” that may or may not be amenable to the particular ‘linguistic habitus’ of an individual. In certain contexts, particular modes of speaking may be discredited or excluded while others are recognized as ‘official’ or ‘formal’. Likewise through the work of Michel Foucault we see that knowledge is always imbricated in relations of power that do not rely on coercive force but nevertheless shape discourse, what Eric Wolf has referred to as a ‘structural power’ that defines the basic conditions of admissibility and intelligibility (10).
What this means in practice is that we cannot simply depend on dialogue to forge mutual understandings, if for no other reason than the meaning of words is derived from and supported within certain forms of life that may be absent from the context of the negotiation. Nadasdy offers the word “respect”, upheld as a guiding principle of traditional life, as an example. He writes that it is not enough to simply agree with aboriginal peoples on the importance of respect because we’re probably not talking about the same thing.
We cannot simply assume that the English word “respect” stands for a distinct and coherent set of First Nations beliefs and practices; rather, we can only hope to understand what First Nations peoples mean by the term if we examine it “in action.” In other words, we must observe its use within specific social contexts. (80)
Seyla Benhabib has made some observations about radical difference that I continue to wrestle with despite my many disagreements with how it fits into her general argument. If we wish to claim that a culture or way of being is radically different from our own, how is it that we understand it as a culture at all?
Radical incommensurability and radical untranslatability are incoherent notions, for in order to be able to identify a pattern of thought, a language – and, we may add, a culture – as the complex meaningful human systems of action and signification that they are, we must first at least have recognized that concepts, words, rituals, and symbols in these other systems have a meaning and reference that we can select and describe in a manner intelligible to us – as being concepts at all, for example, rather than mere exclamations. If radical untranslatability were true, we could not even recognize the other set of utterances as part of a language, as, that is, a practice that is more or less rule-governed and shared in fairly predictable ways.
Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture, p. 30.